I have never come across anything that better explains in clear, short form the consistency of an epic poem than H.R. Coursen’s new adaptation of Longfellow’s “Evangeline.”

No PowerPoint, no arcane academic bafflegab, no diagrams — just a total re-imagining of 19th-century English to 21st-century English, keeping the story and contents. For the non-poet or poet who has never translated or attempted to re-work someone else’s writing, this is a revelation approaching brilliance. Longfellow’s opening stanza would have stopped my pen forever.

What an epic to choose. It was written in 1847 by Maine’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), mostly at the Verandah Hotel in East Deering, now marked only by the bay-side end of Verandah Street. The story began in the old French province of Acadia, which included half of Maine and much of the Canadian Maritimes.

“Evangeline” tells the saga of lovers, Evangeline Bellefontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse. Separated during the British-forced expulsion of the Acadians in 1775, the couple seeks to find one another. The whole French-speaking population was scattered to places as remote as France, Louisiana and all 13 English colonies.

Portland, which at the time was called Falmouth, was put in charge of a quota of Acadians (the 10-member LeBlanc family), and erected a “work-house” to care for them and other “unfortunates.” The poem “Evangeline,” although written by an Anglo-American a century after the event, became the written national epic for the Acadians, a rallying point. Recited in most public schools up to the 1950s across America, it became one of the best-known verses in the world:

“This is the forest primeval/ The murmuring pines and the hemlocks/ Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight.”

Those of my generation who were required to recite the opening stanzas in middle school never can quite erase them. Those who enjoyed the experience carried off more. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), up through old age, could summon whole stanzas in English, and reveled in the sound.

Coursen, a Brunswick resident, a former teacher at Southern New Hampshire University and one of Maine’s finest contemporary poets, has done nothing to “write down” to the reader. He has “freely translated” Longfellow into “Unrhymed iambic pentameter.”

Coursen’s avoidance of “epic similes” is welcome, and he explains that his iambic line often began with a stressed syllable: “The reason I did that — though it was a technique I was discovering as I wrote — was to make the story harsher, to erase some of the sentimentality, and to emphasize that this antique fable is something that still happens as time and tyranny beat at us today.”

Indeed, the Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, the Roma and various other displaced people in our contemporary world make “Evangeline” most timely. Younger ears make take quickly to Coursen’s modern “translation”: “The ancient trees, stripped of leaves by winds/ of November, hold moss against the trunks, like beards/ of patriarchs, listening to the mournful waves…”

The discerning reader will note that the trees are now cleaner and more generic, and the moss is like the beards of patriarchs not: “Druids of eld” or “harpers hoar.” (I think all school kids giggled at that).

Coursen gets the story moving cleaner and faster. It can be argued that is reason enough for the adaptation. Charles Calhoun, one of the leaders in the current nationwide Longfellow renaissance and author of “Longfellow Rediscover Life” (Deacon Press, 2004), has written a short, admirable preface that puts the versions in context.

Readers like me get to see the inner workings of a poem. Remember, Longfellow himself translated Dante’s “Divina Commedia” into a much-read English version. Longfellow was a tremendously popular writer (rarely a great one), but his ideas resonated, and sometimes the reasons for this are difficult to fathom.

The new version provides plenty of clues. This is a healthy and challenging read for the ear and the brain.

 

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored five books, including “Tate House: Crown of the Maine Mast Trade” and the novel “Pyrrhus Venture.” He lives in Portland.