Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173
In The Courtship of Miles Standish, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found inspiration in the American past. Longfellow and other writers of his time wanted to create a common American heritage to bind the nation together and express a uniquely American spirit, as Longfellow had done with Evangeline (1847) and The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Moreover, the story of John Alden and Priscilla had a special interest for Longfellow because he was one of their descendants. Originally called “Priscilla,” the poem reworks family history into American legend.
First and foremost, the tale is a love story, centered in the conflict of love and friendship. With the first scene, Longfellow highlights the contrast between Miles Standish, the tough soldier idolizing Julius Caesar and proud of his many battles and his distinguished ancestry, and the scholar Alden. Standish is short, middle-age, fiery, and decisive; Alden is quiet, young, eloquent, handsome, and shy. Ironically, neither man will openly court the woman they both love.
Between the two men is Priscilla, the poem’s calm but firm center, who sees into the hearts of both her wooers. She knows from the beginning what Standish learns only later, namely that romance between the two of them is hopeless, and she sees nobility in Alden, which he initially is not aware of. Outwardly the model of the home-loving Puritan maiden, Priscilla first appears in the poem sitting at the fireside and weaving and singing. Though quiet and demure, she is discerning and, unlike her suitors, willing to speak for herself as she advises Alden to do in the poem’s most famous line. She quietly and unobtrusively guides Alden into professing his love. Through her character, Longfellow shows Puritanism turning into the independent American character. Eventually, Alden will follow her example and so proposes, albeit only after he has come to believe that Standish is dead.
Longfellow envelops his love story in early American history. This is a romance among Puritans, who saw the world as a spiritual drama. Thus the conflict between love and friendship in Alden’s heart is heightened by his belief that God is testing him. Longfellow admires in the Puritans their courage, strength of character, and endurance. However, he finds more troubling their narrowness, dogmatism, and ferocity, so memorably depicted in the poem by the howitzer affixed to the roof of the colony’s church. Though one of the colony’s oldest members wants to treat the American Indians with Christian charity, he is drowned out by the louder and more persuasive actions of Standish, who returns the Indian’s rattlesnake skin, filled with Puritan gunpowder. The poem ends on a note of reconciliation when the text likens the newlyweds John and Priscilla Alden to the biblical couple Isaac and Rebecca. Both couples are famous lovers who also play a role as founders of a people. Priscilla and John’s marriage has become part of the growth of America.
Longfellow and his readers see this poem as a pastoral, but it is pastoral only in its broadest sense—a tender love story set in an uncultivated natural setting. Longfellow shrewdly avoids placing his works in the pastoral’s idyllic natural setting, thus avoiding the sentimentality that some critics have charged him with. His New England, though, is both delightful and frightening, a new promised land and a desert wilderness testing the souls of the righteous. It is a land of killing winters (the plot is initiated by the deaths of Standish’s wife and of Priscilla’s family during the colony’s first winter), disease, hostile Indians, and a soil that only constant labor can cultivate.
Part of this landscape is the American Indian, whose legends Longfellow uses earlier in The Song of Hiawatha. In The Courtship of Miles Standish
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