Acadia vs. Arcadia

Et in Arcadia ego

Over on “George’s Other Blog” I recently wrote about a trip to Schoodic Peninsula on the coast of Maine, part of Acadia National Park. This leads to a question: what is the difference between “Acadia” and “Arcadia”?

The short answer is that the original word was Arcadia, in reference to ancient Greece, but the ‘r’ got dropped at a point in history.

From the Wikipedia entry for Arcadia:

Arcadia is one of the regional units of Greece. It is part of the administrative region of Peloponnese. It is situated in the central and eastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula. It takes its name from the mythological figure Arcas. In Greek mythology, it was the home of the god Pan. In European Renaissance arts, Arcadia was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness.

There is much more at the link, including a map of Arcadia in Greece.

In the early 1500s the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing on behalf of France in voyages of exploration to the New World, used the name “Arcadia” – with the ‘r’ as in the Greek name – for all of the North American coast north of Virginia because of the “unspoiled, harmonious wilderness.”

In the early 1600s Samuel de Champlain dropped the ‘r’ for unknown reasons and assigned the name “Acadia” (Acadie in French) to one of the five colonies in New France.

From the Wikipedia entry for Acadia:

Acadia was a colony of New France in northeastern North America that included parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and modern-day Maine to the Kennebec River…Today, the term Acadia is used to refer to regions of North America that are historically associated with the lands, descendants, and/or culture of the former French region. It particularly refers to regions of the Maritimes with French roots, language, and culture, primarily in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island, as well as in Maine. It can also be used to refer to the Acadian diaspora in southern Louisiana, a region also referred to as Acadiana. In the abstract, Acadia refers to the existence of a French culture in any of these regions.

There is much more at the link, including a map of Acadia in New France.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about the expulsion of the Acadians from the Maritime Provinces during the French and Indian War in his memorable 1847 epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie. England defeated France in the French and Indian War of 1754-63 (known as the Seven Years’ War in the rest of the world) and in the New World, New England survived while New France did not. But the word “Acadia” lived on.

Tom Stoppard used the older word – with the ‘r’ – as the title of his fascinating 1993 play: Arcadia. He considered naming the play “Et in Arcadia ego” after the famous painting in the Louvre by Nicolas Poussin, pictured above. The Latin phrase is commonly translated as “even in Arcadia, there am I [Death].” The painting shows shepherds around a tomb; it is a reminder of our mortality, even in what seems to be an earthly paradise.

The first Wikipedia quote above says: “In European Renaissance arts, Arcadia was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness.” That doesn’t quite capture the original meaning of “Arcadia.” The following quote, from the Wikipedia entry for the painting “Et in Arcadia ego,” gives a better sense of the word:

During Antiquity, many Greeks lived in cities close to the sea, and led an urban life. Only Arcadians, in the middle of the Peloponnese, lacked cities, were far from the sea, and led a shepherd life. Thus for urban Greeks, especially during the Hellenistic era, Arcadia symbolized pure, rural, idyllic life, far from the city.

As an aside, I have been writing in other blog posts here about the parallels between ancient Greece and modern New England, especially Vermont, in terms of democracy. Perhaps Vermont, the most rural state and the only New England state that does not touch the sea, is the true Arcadia in the New World.

If you ever have a chance to see a production of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, I highly recommend it. It is one of the wittiest, deepest, and most thought-provoking plays I have ever seen. Following is a small example of its wit, which can be appreciated once one knows about the painting discussed above. Thomasina is a precocious 13-year old. Lady Croom is her mother, and she does not like being corrected.

LADY CROOM: (speaking of the grounds and gardens of her estate) …in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, “Et in Arcadia ego!” “Here I am in Arcadia,” Thomasina.

THOMASINA: Yes, Mama, if you would have it so.

LADY CROOM: Is she correcting my taste or my translation?

THOMASINA: Neither are beyond correction, Mama, but it was your geography caused the doubt.

[The play is set in England, not Greece.]

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