Part 4: The Courtship of Miles Standish

The Courtship of Miles Standish—Part 4

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

John Alden paces in despair, torn by the conflicting demands of love and friendship, in Longfellow's poem The Courtship of Miles Standish.

Image from page 72 of The Courtship of Miles Standish, illustrated by
Howard Chandler Christy
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1903). From the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.com

IV. JOHN ALDEN.

  Into the open air John Alden, perplexed and bewildered,
Rushed like a man insane, and wandered alone by the sea-side,                              340
Paced up and down the sands, and bared his head to the east-wind,
Cooling his heated brow, and the fire and fever within him.
Slowly, as out of the heavens, with apocalyptical splendors,
Sank the City of God, in the vision of John the Apostle,[27]
So, with its cloudy walls of chrysolite, jasper, and sapphire,                                     345
Sank the broad red sun, and over its turrets uplifted
Glimmered the golden reed of the angel who measured the city.

  “Welcome, O wind of the East!” he exclaimed in his wild exultation,
“Welcome, O wind of the East, from the caves of the misty Atlantic!
Blowing o’er fields of dulse,[28] and measureless meadows of sea-grass,             350
Blowing o’er rocky wastes, and the grottos and gardens of ocean!
Lay thy cold, moist hand on my burning forehead, and wrap me
Close in thy garments of mist, to allay the fever within me!”

  Like an awakened conscience, the sea was moaning and tossing,
Beating remorseful and loud the mutable sands of the sea-shore,                           355
Fierce in his soul was the struggle and tumult of passions contending;
Love triumphant and crowned, and friendship wounded and bleeding,
Passionate cries of desire, and importunate pleadings of duty!
“Is it my fault,” he said, “that the maiden has chosen between us?
Is it my fault that he failed,—my fault that I am the victor?                                       360
Then within him there thundered a voice, like the voice of the Prophet:
“It hath displeased the Lord!”—and he thought of David’s transgression,[29]
Bathsheba’s beautiful face, and his friend in the front of the battle!
Shame and confusion of guilt, and abasement and self-condemnation,
Overwhelmed him at once; and he cried in the deepest contrition:                         365
“It hath displeased the Lord! It is the temptation of Satan!”

  Then, uplifting his head, he looked at the sea, and beheld there
Dimly the shadowy form of the Mayflower riding at anchor,
Rocked on the rising tide, and ready to sail on the morrow;
Heard the voices of men through the mist, the rattle of cordage                               370
Thrown on the deck, the shouts of the mate, and the sailors’ “Ay, ay, Sir!”
Clear and distinct, but not loud, in the dripping air of the twilight.
Still for a moment he stood, and listened, and stared at the vessel,
Then went hurriedly on, as one who, seeing a phantom,
Stops, then quickens his pace, and follows the beckoning, shadow.                         375
“Yes, it is plain, to me now,” he murmured; “the hand of the Lord is
Leading me out of the land of darkness, the bondage of error,
Through the sea, that shall lift the walls of its waters around me,
Hiding me, cutting me off, from the cruel thoughts that pursue me.
Back will I go o’er the ocean, this dreary land will abandon,                                      380
Her whom I may not love, and him whom my heart has offended.
Better to be in my grave in the green old churchyard in England,
Close by my mother’s side, and among the dust of my kindred;
Better be dead and forgotten, than living in shame and dishonor!
Sacred and safe and unseen, in the dark of the narrow chamber                               385
With me my secret shall lie, like a buried jewel that glimmers
Bright on the hand that is dust, in the chambers of silence and darkness,—
Yes, as the marriage ring of the great espousal hereafter!”

  Thus as he spake, he turned, in the strength of his strong resolution,
Leaving behind him the shore, and hurried along in the twilight,                             390
Through the congenial gloom of the forest silent and sombre,
Till he beheld the lights in the seven houses of Plymouth,
Shining like seven stars in the dusk and mist of the evening.
Soon he entered his door, and found the redoubtable Captain
Sitting alone, and absorbed in the martial pages of Caesar,                                        395
Fighting some great campaign in Hainault or Brabant or Flanders.[30]
“Long have you been on your errand,” he said with a cheery demeanor,
Even as one who is waiting an answer, and fears not the issue.
“Not far off is the house, although the woods are between us;
But you have lingered so long, that while you were going and coming                    400
I have fought ten battles and sacked and demolished a city.
Come, sit down, and in order relate to me all that has happened.”

  Then John Alden spake, and related the wondrous adventure
From beginning to end, minutely, just as it happened;
How he had seen Priscilla, and how he had sped in his courtship,                          405
Only smoothing a little, and softening down her refusal.
But when he came at length to the words Priscilla had spoken,
Words so tender and cruel, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
Up leaped the Captain of Plymouth, and stamped on the floor, till his armor
Clanged on the wall, where it hung, with a sound of sinister omen.                        410
All his pent-up wrath burst forth in a sudden explosion,
E’en as a hand-grenade,[31] that scatters destruction around it.
Wildly he shouted, and loud: “John Alden! you have betrayed me!
Me, Miles Standish, your friend! have supplanted, defrauded, betrayed me!
One of my ancestors ran his sword through the heart of Wat Tyler;[32]                415
Who shall prevent me from running my own through the heart of a traitor?
Yours is the greater treason, for yours is a treason to friendship!
You, who lived under my roof, whom I cherished and loved as a brother;
You, who have fed at my board, and drunk at my cup, to whose keeping
I have intrusted my honor, my thoughts the most sacred and secret,—                  420
You, too, Brutus! ah, woe to the name of friendship hereafter!
Brutus was Caesar’s friend, and you were mine, but hence-forward
Let there be nothing between us save war, and implacable hatred!”

  So spake the Captain of Plymouth, and strode about in the chamber,
Chafing and choking with rage, like cords were the veins on his temples.               425
But in the midst of his anger a man appeared at the doorway,
Bringing in uttermost haste a message of urgent importance,
Rumors of danger and war and hostile incursions of Indians!
Straightway the Captain paused, and, without further question or parley,
Took from the nail on the wall his sword with its scabbard of iron,                          430
Buckled the belt round his waist, and, frowning fiercely, departed.
Alden was left alone. He heard the clank of the scabbard
Growing fainter and fainter, and dying away in the distance.
Then he arose from his seat, and looked forth into the darkness,
Felt the cool air blow on his cheek, that was hot with the insult,                                435
Lifted his eyes to the heavens, and, folding his hands as in childhood,
Prayed in the silence of night to the Father who seeth in secret.
Meanwhile the choleric Captain strode wrathful away to the council,
Found it already assembled, impatiently waiting his coming;
Men in the middle of life, austere and grave in deportment,                                        440
Only one of them old, the hill that was nearest to heaven,
Covered with snow, but erect, the excellent Elder of Plymouth.[33]
God had sifted three kingdoms to find the wheat for this planning,
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!                                    445
Near them was standing an Indian, in attitude stern and defiant,
Naked down to the waist, and grim and ferocious in aspect;
While on the table before them was lying unopened a Bible,
Ponderous, bound in leather, brass-studded, printed in Holland,
And beside it outstretched the skin of a rattlesnake glittered,                                    450
Filled, like a quiver, with arrows: a signal and challenge of warfare,
Brought by the Indian, and speaking with arrowy tongues of defiance.
This Miles Standish beheld, as he entered, and heard them debating
What were an answer befitting the hostile message and menace,
Talking of tins and of that, contriving, suggesting, objecting;                                    455
One voice only for peace, and that the voice of the Elder,
Judging it wise and well that some at least were converted,
Rather than any were slain, for this was but Christian behavior!
Then out spake Miles Standish, the stalwart Captain of Plymouth,
Muttering deep in his throat, for his voice was husky with anger,                            460
“What! do you mean to make war with milk and the water of roses?
Is it to shoot red squirrels you have your howitzer planted
There on the roof of the church, or is it to shoot red devils?
Truly the only tongue that is understood by a savage
Must be the tongue of fire that speaks from the mouth of the cannon!”                 465
Thereupon answered and said the excellent Elder of Plymouth,
Somewhat amazed and alarmed at this irreverent language:
“Not so thought Saint Paul, nor yet the other Apostles;
Not from the cannon’s mouth were the tongues of fire they spake with!”[34]
But unheeded fell this mild rebuke on the Captain,                                                     470
Who had advanced to the table, and thus continued discoursing:
“Leave this matter to me, for to me by right it pertaineth.
War is a terrible trade; but in the cause that is righteous,
Sweet is the smell of powder, and thus I answer the challenge!”

  Then from the rattlesnake’s skin, with a sudden, contemptuous gesture,             475
Jerking the Indian arrows, he filled it with powder and bullets
Full to the very jaws, and handed it back to the savage,
Saying, in thundering tones; “Here, take it! this is your answer!”
Silently out of the room then glided the glistening savage,
Bearing the serpent’s skin, and seeming himself like a serpent,                               480
Winding his sinuous way in the dark to the depths of the forest.

***Notes***

[27] Jump up ↑ See Revelation, xxi and xxii. An apocalypse is a revelation, and the term is generally applied to the Book of Revelation.

[28] Jump up ↑ dulse. Coarse red seaweed, sometimes used as food.

[29] Jump up ↑ II Samuel, xii, 3.

[30] Jump up ↑ Districts of the Netherlands.

[31] Jump up ↑ hand-grenade. A ball or shell filled with explosives, and thrown by the hand.

[32] Jump up ↑ Wat Tyler. The leader of the peasant revolt in England in 1381.

[33] Jump up ↑Elder William Brewster.

[34] Jump up ↑See Acts ii, 1-4.

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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Part 3 | Table of Contents | Part 5

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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