The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

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.

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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 by news of approaching American Indians. In the colony’s council room, he finds an Indian bearing a snakeskin full of arrows—the challenge to battle. Pulling out the arrows, Standish fills the skin with bullets and powder and defiantly hands it back to the Indian. The warrior quickly disappears into the forest. The next morning before anyone else is awake, Standish, his eight men, and their Indian guide leave the village.

Alden does not sail away. Among the people on the beach he sees is Priscilla, who looks so dejected and appealing that he decides to stay and protect her. They walk back to the village together, and Alden describes Standish’s reaction to Priscilla’s question. He also confides that he had planned to leave the colony but is remaining to look after her.

Standish, marching northward along the coast, broods over his defeat in love but finally decides that he should confine himself to soldiering and forget wooing. When he returns to the village from his attack on the Indian camp, he brings with him the head of one of the Indians and hangs it on the roof of the fort. Priscilla is glad that she did not accept Standish’s proposal.

It is now autumn, and the village is at peace with the Indians. Captain Standish is out scouring the countryside. Alden builds his own house and often walks through the forest to see Priscilla. One afternoon, he sits holding a skein of thread as she winds it. As they sit talking, a messenger bursts in with the news that Standish has been killed by a poisoned arrow and that his men have been cut off in ambush.

At last, Alden feels free to make his own declaration. He and Priscilla are married in the village church before the entire congregation. The magistrate reads the service and the elder finishes the blessing when an unexpected guest appears at the door. It is Standish—recovered from his wound—and striding in like a ghost from the grave. Before everyone, the gruff soldier and the bridegroom make up their differences. Then, Standish tenderly wishes Alden and Priscilla joy, and the wedding procession sets off merrily through the forest to Priscilla’s new home.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208



(The entire section contains 1092 words.)

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