Editor’s Note: Today, Canadians are observing a Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval, recognizing British atrocities in 1755, resulting in the expulsion of Acadians who refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Britain.
The Acadians, descendants of 17th and 18th century French settlers in the northeastern region of North America, were deported to the 13 American colonies, France and Britain. Thousands died during the expulsion. Acadian suffering was formally recognized by a 2003 Royal Proclamation. It declared July 28 as the Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval. Observances began with the 250th anniversary in 2005.
Dr. Raymond C. Comeau, a Haverhill native, takes time to recognize the commemoration taking place today in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. Comeau presents an analysis of John Greenleaf Whittier’s social justice side through his poem “Marguerite.”
Descended from Acadians himself, Comeau of Haverhill is a retired dean and current lecturer at Harvard University Extension School. He is also a trustee, emeritus, of the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace in Haverhill.
John Greenleaf Whittier’s Acadian Poem, “Marguerite”
Many would agree that John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was a fervent crusader for justice. His most sustained and acknowledged contribution in this area, encouraged by his friend from nearby Newburyport, William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), was the strong stance he took against slavery. Less known, yet just as relevant, was his support for the rights of women, workers, and indigenous peoples, and for other causes that justice did not serve. One of these was the plight of the Acadians, which he treated in the poem, “Marguerite,” a poignant portrayal of the death of a single Acadian immigrant in Haverhill, Massachusetts, his home town. The poem appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in March, 1871, when Whittier was 63 years old and a highly respected American personage and poet (Whittier 331-32).
When settlers from France in the early1600s began establishing themselves in the colony of Acadia (French: Acadie), consisting today of the Canadian maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, they were referred to as “Acadians” (French: Acadiens). Most were farmers faithful to their French and Catholic heritage. Their situation, however, was precarious because they found themselves continually buffeted by the New World skirmishes between France and Great Britain. The worst happened in 1713, when much of Acadia was ceded to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht (“Acadians” Wikipedia).
Many Acadians were unwilling subjects who refused to pledge their allegiance to the British crown. As the Seven Years’ War between France and Great Britain erupted in the middle 1700s, the Acadians were viewed as real and potential conspirators, and although some claimed to be “neutrals,” nearly all were forcefully deported, first to the American colonies, and then, after this failed because so many returned to Acadia, to France itself. This action was made all the more painful because the British separated families by placing them on different ships and sending them to different locations. The Acadians refer to this forced deportation as the “Le Grand Dérangement” (“The Great Expulsion”). It is estimated that between 1755 and 1764 about 11,300 Acadians were deported, as many as 2000 of whom were sent to Massachusetts (“Expulsion of the Acadians” Wikipedia).
Some readers may be interested to learn that the “Cajuns” of Louisiana are descendants of the Acadians (the word Cajun is a linguistic corruption of the French word Acadien). They were originally among the Acadians deported to France, who made their way from there to the territory of Louisiana, which was then in the possession of Catholic Spain (“Acadians” Wikipedia; “The Expulsion of the Acadians” Wikipedia).
The tragic story of the Acadians became part of American lore in 1847, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his long narrative poem, “Evangeline,” which focused on two lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, who were separated and deported just as they were about to be married. Evangeline never lost hope of finding Gabriel, and she looked for him throughout the West, finally finding him in Pennsylvania just as he was about to be overcome by the plague. Touchingly, they were buried side-by-side. “Evangeline” was an immediate success in the United States and abroad, and it was read by generations of American school children as part of the public school curriculum in the United States.
Whittier appreciated “Evangeline” and he wrote a positive review the same year it was published in the Washington, DC newspaper, National Era (25 November 1847), claiming it was “America’s’’ answer to British critics who carp that Americans couldn’t produce literature” (Gale 288). According to one of his earliest biographers, William Sloane Kennedy, Whittier recounted that he had taken an interest in the Acadians even before Longfellow:
Before “Evangeline” was written I had hunted up the history of the banishment of the Acadians, and had intended to write upon it myself, but I put it off, and Hawthorne got hold of the story and gave it to Longfellow. I am very glad he did, for he was just the one to write it. If I had attempted it, I should have spoiled the artistic effect of the poem by my indignation at the treatment of the exiles by the Colonial Government, who had a very hard lot after coming to this country. Families were separated and scattered about, only a few of them being permitted to remain in any given locality. The children were bound out to the localities in which they resided, and I wrote a poem upon finding the records of Haverhill the indenture that bound an Acadian girl as a servant in one of the families in the neighborhood. Gathering the story of her death, I wrote “Marguerite.” (Kennedy 362-63).
Following is Whittier’s Acadian poem, “Marguerite,” as it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in March, 1871:
Marguerite: Massachusetts Bay, 1760
Upwards of one thousand of the Acadian peasants forcibly taken from their homes on the Gaspereau and Basin of Minas were assigned to the several towns of the Massachusetts colony, the children being bound by the authorities to service or labor.
The robins sang in the orchard, the buds into blossoms grew;
Little of human sorrow the buds and the robins knew!
Sick, in an alien household, the poor French neutral lay;
Into her lonesome garret fell the light of the April day,
Through the dusty window, curtained by the spider’s warp and woof,
On the loose-laid floor of hemlock, on oaken ribs of roof,
The bed-quilt’s faded patchwork, the teacups on the stand,
The wheel with flaxen tangle, as it dropped from her sick hand!
What to her was the song of the robin, or warm morning light,
As she lay in the trance of the dying, heedless of sound or sight?
Done was the work of her hands, she had eaten her bitter bread;
The world of the alien people lay behind her dim and dead.
But her soul went back to its child-time; she saw the sun o’erflow
With gold the Basin of Minas, and set over Gaspereau;
The low, bare flats at ebb-tide, the rush of the sea at flood,
Through inlet and creek and river, from dike to upland wood;
The gulls in the red of morning, the fish-hawk’s rise and fall,
The drift of the fog in moonshine, over the dark coast-wall.
She saw the face of her mother, she heard the song she sang;
And far off, faintly, slowly, the bell for vespers rang!
By her bed the hard-faced mistress sat, smoothing the wrinkled sheet,
Peering into the face, so helpless, and feeling the ice-cold feet.
With a vague remorse atoning for her greed and long abuse,
By care no longer heeded and pity too late for use.
Up the stairs of the garret softly the son of the mistress stepped,
Leaned over the head-board, covering his face with his hands, and
Outspake the mother, who watched him sharply, with brow a-frown:
“What! love you the papist, the beggar, the charge of the town?”
“Be she papist or beggar who lies here, I know and God knows
I love her, and fain would go with her wherever she goes!
“O mother! that sweet face came pleading, for love so athirst.
You saw but the town-charge; I knew her God’s angel at first.”
Shaking her gray head, the mistress hushed down a bitter cry;
And awed by the silence and shadow of death drawing nigh,
She murmured a psalm of the Bible; but closer the young girl
With the last of her life in her fingers, the cross to her breast.
“My son, come away,” cried the mother, her voice cruel grown.
“She is joined to her idols, like Ephraim; let her alone!”
But he knelt with his hand on her forehead, his lips to her ear,
And he called back the soul that was passing: “Marguerite, do you
She paused on the threshold of Heaven; love, pity, surprise,
Wistful, tender, lit up for an instant the cloud of her eyes.
With his heart on his lips he kissed her, but never her cheek grew
And the words the living long for he spake in the ear of the dead.
And the robins sang in the orchard, where buds to blossoms grew;
Of the folded hands and the still face never the robins knew!
The poem demonstrates the art of Whittier through its simple language, easy rhythm and rhyme, clear images, and strong empathy for suffering. The reader is moved by the image of Marguerite as she lay dying in her humble garret (lines 1-12); by her graphic evocation of seaside life, her mother’s songs, and the sound of vespers as she thinks back to a distant and happier life along Minas Bay (lines 14-20); and by the scorn of the mistress of the house and the contrasting love of her son as they both keep vigil and watch Marguerite pass away (lines 22-end). Especially poignant are the son’s tender words, “Marguerite, do you hear?,” followed by her faint acknowledgment, and his parting kiss of love, which are representative of Whittier’s style and temperament. John Greenleaf Whittier had a large American audience because he was capable of writing sincere and moving poems that most readers could relate to. “Marguerite” is one of these.
Interestingly, the poem can be characterized also as an example of literature of engagement, in the sense that Whittier takes a public stance in opposition to the unjust Acadian situation as personified by Marguerite. Here we have the story of a girl who was a “neutral” in the conflict between France and Great Britain, yet separated from her family and placed involuntarily for the rest of her life as an indentured servant in a foreign household. Those who view Whittier mainly as a poet of nature and scenes of rural life might be surprised to see him considered under the banner of writers such as Milton, Voltaire, Zola, and Sartre, who used their writing for the improvement of society by shedding light on its wrongs. The poem “Marguerite” may be tender and moving, but it is also an indictment of the British for their cruel and unjust treatment of the Acadians.
“Acadians.” Wikipedia. Web. last edited 28 April 2022.
“Expulsion of the Acadians.” Wikipedia. Web. last edited 10 June 2022.
Robert L. Gale. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003. Print.
W. Sloane Kennedy. John Greenleaf Whittier: His Life, Genius, and Writings. D. Lothrop Company (1892): Project Gutenberg. Web. 24 August 2011.
John G. Whittier. “Marguerite.” The Atlantic Monthly March 1871: 331-32. Print.
© Raymond F. Comeau, June, 2022