Epic Meter (Dactylic Hexameter)
"Evangeline"'s meter is epic, gang. No, we don't mean epic as in "That air guitar solo was epic, dude." We mean the other kind of epic, the literary kind of epic.
Now, to qualify for epic status as a poem, you need to meet a few criteria: you must be narrative (telling a story), that story must be big in scope (spanning years and-or great distances), it really helps to include some spiritual or mythical elements, and, finally, you should be written in a metrical form known as dactylic hexameter. Homer's Odyssey and Iliad are classic examples, as is Virgil's Aeneid. When he was putting "Evangeline" together, our man Longfellow wanted to make sure that he followed in those same epic footsteps. He told us a story (check), one that spanned years and involved a lot of spirituality (double check). And, for his meter, he chose that epic standard, dactylic hexameter (check… mate).
Now, don't let the fancy schmancy language intimidate you. Dactylic hexameter is a lot simpler than it sounds. Let's break it down: a dactyl is just a trio of syllables, where the first one is stressed and the last two aren't. So, a dactyl has this rhythmic effect: DUMdada. Say "everyone" out loud, and you'll hear a pretty good example of a dactyl in action.
So, now that we have "dactylic" spelled out for you, let's tackle just what the hex a hexameter is. It might first help to know that a hexagon is a shape with six sides (and you thought we only knew poetry). That name stems from the meaning of "hex-," or six. So, a dactylic hexameter is a rhythm that features—wait for it—six dactyls. In other words, it would have this kind of rhythm: DUMdada, DUMdada, DUMdada, DUMdada, DUMdada, DUMdada.
Let's take a look at a random example to see this meter working:
Bent, but not broken, by age was the form of the notary public; (269)
Do you hear those dactyls working through the line? If you said, "mostly," you're not just being difficult. Check out that last word: "public." It's not a dactyl at all, is it? Instead of a DUMdada, we end with a DUMDUM—two stressed syllables in a row. That, folks, is called a spondee and, confusingly enough, it is totally acceptable—even expected—in lines that use epic meter. Homer and his people were not absolute sticklers when it came to forcing their lines into the dactylic hexameter pattern. Spondees were allowed as well, which is why we get one in this line.
So, even when he's fudging a little, Longfellow is writing absolutely in the epic tradition. He was looking to elevate the story of this displaced Acadians, to lend Evangeline's experience that same kind of classic gloss that we associate with classic works about Odysseus and Aeneas. In other words, dude was thinking big when he put this poem together, and not just in terms of the line count.