The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the colony at Massachusetts Bay, Miles Standish is a gruff captain of pilgrim soldiers whose wife had died after the landing of the Mayflower the previous fall. He shares a cabin with John Alden, a young scholar. One night, Standish drops his copy of Caesar’s Commentaries and turns to Alden, who is writing a letter in which he praises Priscilla, one of the young women of the colony. Standish speaks of his lonely, weary life and of Priscilla, too, living alone; her parents had died during the winter.

Because he is no scholar but only a blunt soldier, Standish asks Alden to convey his proposal of marriage to Priscilla. Taken aback by the request, Alden stammers that it would be wiser for Standish to plead his own case. When the captain asks the favor in the name of friendship, the young man can no longer refuse.

In her cabin, Priscilla is singing the Hundredth Psalm and industriously spinning when Alden arrives at her door. Filled with woe at what he must do, he nevertheless steps resolutely inside. Seizing what seemed an opportune moment, he blurts out the captain’s proposal. Priscilla flatly refuses, for she believes that Standish himself should come if she is worth the wooing. She further confuses the young man by asking him why he does not speak for himself. Caught between his own love for Priscilla and his respect for Standish, Alden decides to go back to England when the Mayflower sails the next day.

Standish is enraged when he hears the outcome of Alden’s wooing, but the captain’s tirade is interrupted...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Plymouth. First English settlement in North America. A village at the time in which this poem is set, Plymouth was built on the vacant townsite of the Pawtuxet Indians on the southeast coast of what became Massachusetts. Longfellow describes the village in such a way as to make the reader feel a part of it. The site’s earlier Pawtuxet occupants died from smallpox, which had apparently been contracted though contact with English fishermen in the area. The wooded areas mentioned indicate the widely scattered nature of the settlement, allowing room for gardens and growth, both of which were vital to the frontier setting.

Longfellow uses the region’s rugged coastline to establish a feeling of finality among Plymouth’s colonists. The rocks, especially famous Plymouth Rock, represent both stability and hope for John Alden.

Wheat field

Wheat field. Longfellow’s use of this field is a constant reminder of the danger posed by local Native Americans. In early 1621 the field was planted over the graves of settlers who had died during the winter, supposedly so that the Indians would not know how many English settlers had perished. This dead reportedly included Rose Standish, the wife of Miles Standish, and most of the family of Priscilla Mullins.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Arvin, Newton. Longfellow: His Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963. Sees The Courtship of Miles Standish as an unpretentious domestic comedy, presented with simple truthfulness, appropriate Puritan coloration, and biblical imagery.

Ferguson, Robert A. “Longfellow’s Political Fears: Civic Authority and the Role of the Artist in Hiawatha and Miles Standish.” American Literature 50 (May, 1978): 187-215. Interprets John Alden as representing both the helpless, authority-fearing artist and the personally conflicted Longfellow himself. Interprets Miles Standish’s admiration for Julius Caesar as intended to be an unpleasant characteristic.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: His Poetry and Prose. New York: Ungar, 1986. Praises The Courtship of Miles Standish for its faultless narrative flow, skillfully evoked atmosphere, unfaltering plot elements, and detailed, realistically presented, and developed characters. Asserts that the work neatly balances comedy and serious drama.

Williams, Alicia Crane. “John and Priscilla, We Hardly Knew Ye.” American History Illustrated 23 (December, 1988): 40-47. Explains that, although John Alden and Priscilla Mullins were elevated by Longfellow to legendary status, biographical information concerning the real pair is sketchy. John, a cooper who became a civil officer, and Priscilla, who inherited considerable money, married about 1623 and by 1650 had eleven children.

Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Twayne, 1964. Provides a detailed plot summary of The Courtship of Miles Standish that includes carefully chosen quotations. Extols the work as part of America’s cultural heritage and refers to Longfellow’s journals for details about the work’s composition.