The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

The Courtship of

Miles Standish
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Type of Work:

Romantic narrative poem


Plymouth, Massachusetts; 1621

Principal Characters

Miles Standish, a soldier and protector
of the colony

John Alden, his younger, bookish friend

Priscilla, a young Puritan woman

Play Overveiw

On a spring afternoon in 1621, Captain

Miles Standish, a short, powerfully-built man of middle age and a recent
widower, stood in his house, surveying with pride his well-polished weapons
of war. "If you wish a thing to be well done, you must do it yourself,"
he preached to his young friend John Alden, who sat writing letters to
be sent back to England on the May Flower the next day. Since the death
of his wife, Rose, the Captain had invited John to share his home. Captain

Standish was a man of action. He treasured but three books: Bariffe's Artillery

Guide, the Commentaries of Caesar, and The Bible, all full enough with
rumblings of war to satisfy his soldier heart. Alden, on the other hand,
was a gentle student; humble, pious - as a Puritan should be - and able
in the art of words, not weapons. The letters John wrote were full of the
name "Priscilla." He had observed her quiet faith through the colony's
harsh first winter, as well as her courage at the loss of her beloved parents
and brother. All of John Alden's love and sympathy privately longed to
envelop and protect her. But now the Captain broke the silence to divulge
a secret that shocked his companion: He was much impressed with a girl
who went by the name of "Priscilla"; he thought she would be the best choice
to take the on place of his Rose. Stunned by this disclosure, Alden's heart
sank even more when Miles made a request: "I can march up to a fortress
and summon the place to surrender, But march up to a woman with such a
proposal, I dare not." Astonishingly, he was commissioning his young friend

John, the man of well-turned phrases, to propose marriage in his behalf.

John Alden was left aghast - "Trying to
smile and yet feeling his heart stand still in his bosom . . . " At last
he recovered enough to remind the Good Captain of his maxim: "If you would
have a thing well done..."

"Truly the maxim is good," Standish agreed,

"but we must use it discreetly, and not waste powder for nothing. Surely
you cannot refuse what I ask in the name of our friendship!"

Alas, "Friendship prevailed over love,
and Alden went on his errand." His Puritan training had won out

All is clear to me now,

This is the hand of the Lord,- it is laid
upon me in anger,

For I have followed too much the heart's
desires and devices,

This is the cross I must bear.

Perhaps it was the weight of that self-imposed
cross that made Alden botch his errand. For as he approached her cabin
door and heard Priscilla singing the Hundredth Psalm while she contentedly
spun her cloth, he was filled with woe. Priscilla smiled upon seeing John,
showing obvious delight in his visit. Then, as they spoke, she guiltily
confessed how homesick she felt. But John blurted out:

Stouter hearts than a woman's have quailed
in this terrible winter.

Yours is tender and trusting and needs
a stronger to lean on;

So I have come to you now, with an offer
an proffer of marriage

Made by a good man and true, Miles Standish,
the Captain of Plymouth!

Priscilla's surprise at this offer was
obvious; and Alden only made things worse as he warmed to Ns subject, extolling
the virtues of his friend. Finally, Priscilla beamed impishly and asked,

"Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" That question undid the poor
scholar and he fled to the seashore to berate himself for his clumsiness.

"Is it my fault that the maiden has chosen between us?" he cried to the
sky. Immediately an answer thundered within him: "It hath displeased the

Lord!" and John's sins now appeared as terrible to him as David's entanglement
with Bathsheba. Seeing the May Flower still at anchor in the harbor, he
resolved to return to England and take his guilty secret of love to the
grave. "Better be dead and forgotten," he concluded dramatically, "than
living in shame and dishonor!"

Having consigned himself to this course,

John returned to Captain Standish and recounted Priscilla's reply. When
he repeated her revealing question, "Up leaped the Captain of Plymouth,

Wildly he shouted, and loud:

John Alden ! You have betrayed me!

You, who have fed at my board, and drunk
at my cup, to whose keeping

I have intrusted my honor,