Archive for ‘Longfellow’


“Before you were born, dude, when life was great…”

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring crawfish, bearded with moss…

“But Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “it’s been ages since you reaffirmed your obsession with literary and quasi-medieval statuary!” Indeed, the greatest truths are often the most lamentable. So look who reared his head (and a fragment of torso) today along the bayou in St. Martinville, Louisiana: None other than “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow, author of Evangeline, the epic poem that made Cajun history hip.

In St. Martinville, Longfellow keeps watchs over the “Evangeline Oak,” which offers ample shade just down the road from the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site and a few paces from the lovely Acadian Memorial and Museum.

A block away, in the cemetery of the “mother church” of the Cajuns, is Evangeline herself, looking more sanguine than I’d be after decades of roaming North America in the name of deathless love. As bestsellers go, the poem that bears Evangeline’s name was the Twilight of yesteryear, but these days she gets fewer visitors.

St. Martinville boasts a population of 6,989, but half of those residents appear to be statues. In front of the church stands A.M. Jan, the 19th-century pastor, on a pedestal that tells his story in Latin.

Also honored in the town square is this dapper Attakapa Indian. He’s been here since 1961.

The interior of the church—”it is just the same as when it was built,” a plaque insists, “having been repaired but not changed”—is naturally full of old statues, too many to name.

But let’s not overlook two “Quid Plura?” favorites:

Noah’s wife…

…and our old pal from New Orleans, St. Roch.

Mais où est le patron?

Aha! Here’s St. Martin of Tours, inventing the word “chapel” in front of the old presbytère.

Alas, my camera fizzled before I could get a picture of St. Martinville’s one truly unmissable statue, which depicts Charlemagne engaged in mortal combat with a giant crawfish. I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it, but trust me, dear reader: It was awesome.

“Little lines, in the ice, splitting, splitting sound…”

So yesterday, Washington got snowed on; tonight, freezing rain has encrusted the city in ice, which, while all sparkly and picturesque, is sufficiently treacherous to prevent a muddle-headed, flu-fighting medievalist from hitting the streets at 2 a.m. in search of his remedy of choice: an assortment of donuts from 7-Eleven.

And so, donut-deprived, frosting-forlorn, bereft of blueberry filling, I can only squint pensively at the snow from my window and be glad I’m not Charlemagne, who likewise tries to settle his brain with a bit of twilight snow-gazing in Longfellow’s “Eginhard and Emma”:

That night the Emperor, sleepless with the cares
And troubles that attend on state affairs,
Had risen before the dawn, and musing gazed
Into the silent night, as one amazed
To see the calm that reigned o’er all supreme,
When his own reign was but a troubled dream.
The moon lit up the gables capped with snow,
And the white roofs, and half the court below,
And he beheld a form, that seemed to cower
Beneath a burden, come from Emma’s tower…

You’ll have to read the whole thing to find out what Charlemagne spied with his imperial eye. (Hint: it wasn’t a donut.)

The story of Eginhard and Emma was popular during the 19th century: It was retold in corny books about Rhineland legends, Strindberg turned it into a short story, and Schubert made it part of his opera Fierrabras. How the actual fling between Charlemagne’s daughter Berta and his adviser Angilbert got transformed into a romance between Charlemagne’s biographer and a wholly fictional daughter is a mystery to me, but it’s a ready-made thesis for a dissertation, or at least the starting point for an ambitious novelist with a penchant for romantic fantasy.

To his credit, Longfellow kept his version both eloquent and concise, giving us lots of memorable couplets and a lovely description of Alcuin. It’s no donut—but really, what is?