Part 1: The Courtship of Miles Standish

The Courtship of Miles Standish—Part 1

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I. MILES STANDISH [1]

  In the Old Colony days, in Plymouth the land of the Pilgrims,[2]
To and fro in a room of his simple and primitive dwelling,
Clad in doublet[3] and hose, and boots of Cordovan[4] leather,
Strode, with a martial air, Miles Standish the Puritan Captain.
Buried in thought he seemed, with his hands behind him, and pausing                     5
Ever and anon to behold his glittering weapons of warfare.
Hanging in shining array along the walls of the chamber,—
Cutlass and corselet[5] of steel, and his trusty sword of Damascus,[6]
Curved at the point and inscribed with its mystical[7] Arabic sentence,
While underneath, in a corner, were fowling-piece, musket, and matchlock.[8]     10
Short of stature he was, but strongly built and athletic,
Broad in the shoulders, deep-chested, with muscles and sinews of iron;
Brown as a nut was his face, but his russet beard was already,
Flaked with patches of snow, as hedges sometimes in November.
Near him was seated John Alden,[9] his friend and household companion,            15
Writing with diligent speed at a table of pine by the window;
Fair-haired, azure-eyed, with delicate Saxon complexion,
Having the dew of his youth, and the beauty thereof, as the captives
Whom Saint Gregory saw, and exclaimed, “Not Angles but Angels.”[10]
Youngest of all was he of the men who came in the Mayflower.                                  20

Miles Standish talks to his friend John Alden at the beginning of Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish.

Image from page 18 of
The Courtship of Miles Standish, illustrated by
Howard Chandler Christy

(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1903). From the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.com

Suddenly breaking the silence, the diligent scribe interrupting,
Spake, in the pride of his heart, Miles Standish the Captain of Plymouth.
“Look at these arms,” he said, “the warlike weapons that hang here
Burnished and bright and clean, as if for parade or inspection!
This is the sword of Damascus, I fought with in Flanders;[11] this breastplate,      25
Well I remember the day! once saved my life in a skirmish;
Here in front you can see the very dint of the bullet
Fired point-blank at my heart by a Spanish arcabucero.[12]
Had it not been of sheer steel, the forgotten bones of Miles Standish
Would at this moment be mould, in their grave in the Flemish morasses.”             30
Thereupon answered John Alden, but looked not up from his writing:
“Truly the breath of the Lord hath slackened the speed of the bullet;
He in his mercy preserved you, to be our shield and our weapon!”
Still the Captain continued, unheeding the words of the stripling:
“See, how bright they are burnished, as if in an arsenal hanging;                              35
That is because I have done it myself, and not left it to others.
Serve yourself, would you be well served, is an excellent adage;
So I take care of my arms, as you of your pens and your ink-horn.
Then, too, there are my soldiers, my great, invincible army,
Twelve men, all equipped, having each his rest and his matchlock,                          40
Eighteen shillings a month, together with diet and pillage,
And, like Caesar, I know the name of each of my soldiers!”
This he said with a smile, that danced in his eyes, as the sunbeams
Dance on the waves of the sea, and vanish again in a moment.
Alden laughed as he wrote, and still the Captain continued:                                       45
“Look! you can see from this window my brazen howitzer[13] planted
High on the roof of the church,[14] a preacher who speaks to the purpose,
Steady, straightforward, and strong, with irresistible logic,
Orthodox, flashing conviction right into the hearts of the heathen.
“Now we are ready, I think, for any assault of the Indians:                                          50
Let them come, if they like, and the sooner they try it the better,—
Let them come if they like, be it sagamore, sachem, or powwow,[15]
Aspinet, Samoset, Corbitant, Squanto, or Tokamahamon!”

  Long at the window he stood, and wistfully gazed on the landscape,
Washed with a cold gray mist, the vapory breath of the east wind.                            55
Forest and meadow and hill, and the steel-blue rim of the ocean,
Lying silent and sad, in the afternoon shadows and sunshine.
Over his countenance flitted a shadow like those on the landscape,
Gloom intermingled with light; and his voice was subdued with emotion,
Tenderness, pity, regret, as after a pause he proceeded:                                               60
“Yonder there, on the hill by the sea lies buried Rose Standish;
Beautiful rose of love, that bloomed for me by the wayside!
She was the first to die of all who came in the Mayflower!
Green above her is growing the field of wheat we have sown there,
Better to hide from the Indian scouts the graves of our people,                                  65
lest they should count them and see how many already have perished!”
Sadly his face he averted, and strode up and down and was thoughtful.

  Fixed to the opposite wall was a shelf of books, and among them
Prominent three, distinguished alike for bulk and for binding;
Barriffe’s Artillery Guide, and the Commentaries of Caesar,                                        70
Out of the Latin translated by Arthur Goldinge of London,[16]
And, as if guarded by these, between them was standing the Bible.
Musing a moment before them, Miles Standish paused, as if doubtful
Which of the three he should choose for his consolation and comfort,
Whether the wars of the Hebrews, the famous campaigns of the Romans,               75
Or the Artillery practice, designed for belligerent Christians.
Finally down from its shelf he dragged the ponderous Roman,
Seated himself at the window, and opened the book, and in silence
Turned o’er the well-worn leaves, where thumb-marks thick on the margin,
Like the trample of feet proclaimed the battle was hottest.                                          80
Nothing was heard in the room but the hurrying pen of the stripling,
Busily writing epistles important, to go by the Mayflower,[17]
Ready to sail on the morrow, or next day at latest, God willing!
Homeward bound with the tidings of all that terrible winter,
Letters written by Alden, and full of the name of Priscilla,[18]                                   85
Full of the name and the fame of the Puritan maiden Priscilla!

***Notes***

[1] Jump up ↑ Miles Standish was born about 1580, the son of a Lancashire gentleman of a large estate. He entered the army of Queen Elizabeth and served for some time in the Netherlands. There he met the congregation of English Puritans with their pastor, Robinson, and although he did not become a member of their Church, he sailed with them in the Mayflower in 1620. He was entrusted with the defence of the new colony, and held, besides, other offices of trust in the community. In 1630 he removed from Plymouth and settled in Duxbury, where he died in 1656.

[2] Jump up ↑ The Mayflower, in which the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America, reached Cape Cod in November, 1620. Some weeks were spent in exploring the coast, but finally, towards the end of December, the Mayflower anchored in Plymouth Harbour, and it was decided that they should make a landing and found a settlement there. The name of “Old Colony” was for a long time applied to the settlement about Plymouth.

[3] Jump up ↑ doublet: A close-fitting garment for men, covering the body from the neck to the waist.

[4] Jump up ↑Cordovan leather: A goatskin leather, prepared in Cordova, Spain.

[5] Jump up ↑Cutlass: A short curved sword used by sailors.

      corselet: Armour for the body; breastplate.

[6] Jump up ↑ Damascus: A city in Syria, famous for its steel blades.

[7] Jump up ↑ mystical: Obscure and mysterious in meaning.

[8] Jump up ↑ fowling-piece. A light gun used for shooting birds.
matchlock: An old-fashioned gun, fired by means of a match. This “match” was generally made of twisted cord which would hold the flame.

[9] Jump up ↑ John Alden had been taken aboard the vessel at Southampton, as a cooper. He was free to return to England on the Mayflower, but decided to share the fortunes of the Puritans.

[10] Jump up ↑ A monk named Gregory, in the sixth century, seeing some fair-haired youths in the slave market at Rome, enquired as to their nationality. He was told that they were Angles. “Non Angli, sed Angeli,” said Gregory. “They have the faces of Angels, not of Angles.”

[11] Jump up ↑ Flanders: part of the Netherlands, in Europe.

[12] Jump up ↑ arcabucero: Literally, archer; here, musketeer.

[13] Jump up ↑ howitzer: A small cannon.

[14] Jump up ↑ The following is from an account of Plymouth Colony in 1627: “Upon the hill they have a large square house with a flat roof stayed with oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannons, commanding the surrounding country. The lower part they use for their Church, where they preach on Sundays and the usual holidays. They assemble by beat of drum, each with his musket or firelock, in front of the Captain’s door; they have their cloaks on and place themselves in order three abreast, and are led by a sergeant without beat of drum. Behind comes the Governor in a long robe; beside him on the right hand comes the preacher, and on the left hand the Captain, and so they march in good order, and each sets his arms down near him. Thus they are constantly on their guard night and day.”

[15] Jump up ↑ sagamore: An Indian chief of the second rank; sachem: a chief of the first rank; pow-wow: a conjurer or medicine-man.

[16] Jump up ↑ Goldinge: A well-known translator of the Elizabethan age.

[17] Jump up ↑ The Mayflower set sail for England on April 5, 1621.

[18] Jump up ↑ Priscilla Mullins (or Molines) was the daughter of William Mullins, who died in the February following the landing of the Pilgrims.

This text comes from Narrative and Lyric Poems (first series) for use in the Lower School (Toronto: Copp, Clark Co., 1912), annotated by Dr. O. J. Stevenson, Professor of English, Ontario Agricultural College.

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Table of Contents | Part 2

More Longfellow resources

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When will you read Longfellow in Excellence in Literature?

E3.2 The Courtship of Miles Standish and other selected poetry (see the module for specific assignment)

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