Context: Miles Standish, the Puritan captain, has asked young John Alden to woo the maiden Priscilla for him. Alden does his best and praises Standish highly. But Priscilla loves Alden rather than the elderly widower, and interrupts the wooing with the famous question, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" Torn between "desire" and "duty," John Alden then returns to Standish, who is waiting expectantly. When Alden tells Standish Priscilla's "tender and cruel" answer, the Captain threatens to kill the miserable young man, comparing him to Brutus: ". . . henceforward/ Let there be nothing between us save war, and implacable hatred!" But a messenger suddenly appears and announces "Rumors of danger and war and hostile incursions of Indians!" Standish fiercely grabs his sword and departs, and Alden prays. "The choleric Captain" strides to the council, which Longfellow describes:
Men in the middle of life, austere and grave in deportment,Only one of them old, the hill that was nearest to heaven,Covered with snow, but erect, the excellent Elder of Plymouth.God had sifted three kingdoms to find the wheat for this planting,Then had sifted the wheat, as the living seed of a nation;So say the chronicles old, and such is the faith of the people!