Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921
The Courtship of Miles Standish is another historical narrative poem; this time Longfellow turns to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation for his material, and he once more softens the harshness of his subject and makes it accessible to his audience. The meter he chose for the poem is dactylic hexameter, but it has none of the monotony of Evangeline; it is very loosely structured and at times seems on the edge of prose. It also has none of the heroic treatment of Evangeline or The Song of Hiawatha. It is really a romantic drama, not an imitation of Greek or Finnish epic.
The poem begins with a description of Miles Standish as “strongly built and athletic,/ Broad in the shoulders, deep-chested, with muscles and sinews of iron.” John Alden is not described in the same detail, but it is clear that he is the opposite of Miles Standish. Alden is no soldier but is called a scholar. Standish is a man of few words, while Alden is a closet poet hymning the name of Priscilla. The conflict of the tale is quickly brought out. Miles Standish has lost his wife and uses biblical authority rather than personal passion to justify his search for a new bride. She is to be Priscilla Mullins.
Standish does not have the words to woo a maiden, however, so he turns to Alden. Alden’s conflict is quickly resolved: “The name of friendship is sacred;/ What you demand in that name, I have not the power to deny you!” His divided feelings emerge, however, love contends with friendship, and he wonders if he must “relinquish” the joys of love. He resolves the dilemma by seeing his love as vanity; “I have worshipped too much the heart’s desire and devices.” Religious authority prevails.
Alden’s delivery of Standish’s proposal to Priscilla is surprisingly blunt. There is no poetic prologue or honeyed words, merely the facts of the case. “So I have come to you now, with an offer and proffer of marriage! Made by a good man and true, Miles Standish the Captain of Plymouth.” Priscilla replies directly: “Why does he not come himself, and take the trouble to woo me?” She is not the submissive Minnehaha or the dutiful Evangeline but an independent and witty woman. She takes the failure of Standish to woo her as a reason to reject him. She sees him as “old and rough” and one lacking in the basic elements of courtship: He will never win her.
Alden tries to make a case for Standish, but Priscilla is not interested in his virtues. Instead she give Alden hope and increases his conflict by uttering the famous words, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” Alden is filled with joy, yet downcast at his betrayal. He vows to depart from Plymouth and return to England on the Mayflower.
Standish is shocked and angered when he hears of Priscilla’s rejection of his proposal and her encouragement of Alden’s suit. More weighty matters demand his attention, however: How shall the Pilgrim settlers answer the Indians who have sent the “skin of a rattlesnake” as a challenge to war? The Elder of Plymouth counsels peace; Standish is adamant for war. “Truly the only tongue that is understood by a savage/ Must be the tongue of fire that speaks from the mouth of the cannon!” Standish consistently rejects language and translates words into military action. The next day, Alden’s conflict over whether to sail for England or stay and woo Priscilla continues. He decides to stay but not to woo. The pair’s relationship is redefined; he will be her friend. Priscilla defines the relationship with precision and candor. “Let us, then, be what we are, and speak what we think, and in all things/ Keep ourselves loyal to truth, and the sacred professions of friendship.”
Standish goes to war and answers the words of the Indian chief, Pecksuot, with action: He snatches Pecksuot’s knife from him and kills him. Priscilla is not pleased by this valor but repelled by it. The poem’s conflict is partially resolved when news comes that Standish has died in battle. Alden and Priscilla are free to marry, but the shadow of Standish still hovers over their relationship.
The denouement of the poem comes on the wedding day of Alden and Priscilla. After the service, the ghost of Standish appears to bless the marriage. “Mine is the same hot blood that leaped in the veins of Hugh Standish/ Sensitive, swift to resent, but as swift in atoning for error./ Never so much as now was Miles Standish the friend of John Alden!” Standish remains his old self, telling the people that he “had rather by far break into an Indian encampment,/ Than come again to a wedding to which he had not been invited.” With his presence removed, the familiar landscape of Plymouth is transfigured into the “Garden of Eden.”
The Courtship of Miles Standish is one of Longfellow’s most successful poems. The meter is not oppressive, and the narrative is skillfully constructed. The biblical language elevates the romance without overwhelming it. The characters are also well conceived. Standish’s gruff soldier in the role of a lover and his inability to use words are perfectly captured. Priscilla Mullins is a clever and imaginative creation, very different from the submissive female Longfellow usually portrays. Longfellow also removes some of the excessive solemnity of the Pilgrims and makes their world delightful and human.