A student of the University of Connecticut with a Ph.D in English, a teacher at Bowdoin College, Clemson University, Ohio University, and the University of Maine at Augusta, a fighter pilot during the 1950s and one of the original members of Maine Veterans for Peace, H.R. Coursen was a man of many talents. According to Nancy E Randolph, publisher with Just Write Books, wrote this in a front-page obituary for The Times Record, “Herbert Randolph (H.R.) Coursen- a talented, brilliant, witty and sometimes irascible man- was passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, sports, music and politics. They enlivened his conversation and defined his life.”
Robert Chute of Poland Springs, with whom H.R. Coursen shared numerous poetry readings, had this to say of his friend- “I knew Herb as a fellow U.S. Air Force veteran in Veterans for Peace — his war Korea, mine, World War II. I knew him as a fellow poet, exchanging, without offense or favor, suggestions, edits, corrections. He was an insightful scholar and a writer of astounding diversity. His life, as are all lives, was many things, but much of it was Literature, with a capital L.”
One of Herb’s particular talents was the recontextualization of works by writers of the past. He rewrote in modern verse the works of Ovid, Euripides, and Virgil, with works like The Iliad, The Aeneid and The Golden Fleece transformed by his pen. One that speaks to the strengths of his writing and his strengths as a person was Longfellow’s Evangeline: An Adaptation in Modern Verse.
Initially resistant to the idea of a modern recontextualization of Longfellow’s Evangeline, he wrote in his introduction to the work, “I remembered the narrative as a sentimental story that explained why Longfellow’s longer poems had faded into obscurity. The poem might appeal to Victorian sensibility, but the skeptical and epigrammatic Emily Dickinson seemed much more appealing to current tastes- or at least to mine.”
However, when convinced by publisher Nancy E Randolph to give Evangeline another try, he described how his opinion pivoted. “But when I reread Evangeline, I realized that, while the sentimentality was there- a cloying idealization and conventional piety- the story also captured something of the 20th century, and beyond. It is a story of loss, and of searching for people trampled in the shuffle of tyrannies and their wars, of the disruption of cultures, of the shattering of expectations, of the punishment of those who have done no wrong.” Seeing Evangeline in this new light, he took to his modern retelling, and in many ways, both the work itself and the story behind how he came to write it encapsulates the man of Herbert Randolph Coursen himself.