Type of Work: Romantic narrative poem Setting Plymouth, Massachusetts; 1621.
Principal Characters Miles Standish, a soldier and protector of the colony John Alden, his younger, bookish friend Priscilla, a young Puritan woman.
On a spring afternoon in 1621, Captain Miles Standish, a short, powerfully-built man of middle age and a recent widower, stood in his house, surveying with pride his well-polished weapons of war. “If you wish a thing to be well done, you must do it yourself,” he preached to his young friend John Alden, who sat writing letters to be sent back to England on the May Flower the next day. Since the death of his wife, Rose, the Captain had invited John to share his home. Captain Standish was a man of action. He treasured but three books: Bariffe’s Artillery Guide, the Commentaries of Caesar, and The Bible, all full enough with rumblings of war to satisfy his soldier heart.
Alden, on the other hand, was a gentle student; humble, pious – as a Puritan should be – and able in the art of words, not weapons. The letters John wrote were full of the name “Priscilla.” He had observed her quiet faith through the colony’s harsh first winter, as well as her courage at the loss of her beloved parents and brother. All of John Alden’s love and sympathy privately longed to envelop and protect her.
But now the Captain broke the silence to divulge a secret that shocked his companion: He was much impressed with a girl who went by the name of “Priscilla”; he thought she would be the best choice to take the on place of his Rose. Stunned by this disclosure, Alden’s heart sank even more when Miles made a request: “I can march up to a fortress and summon the place to surrender, But march up to a woman with such a proposal, I dare not.” Astonishingly, he was commissioning his young friend John, the man of well-turned phrases, to propose marriage in his behalf.
John Alden was left aghast – “Trying to smile and yet feeling his heart stand still in his bosom . . . ” At last he recovered enough to remind the Good Captain of his maxim: “If you would have a thing well done..” “Truly the maxim is good,” Standish agreed, “but we must use it discreetly, and not waste powder for nothing. Surely you cannot refuse what I ask in the name of our friendship!” Alas, “Friendship prevailed over love, and Alden went on his errand.” His Puritan training had won out All is clear to me now, This is the hand of the Lord,- it is laid upon me in anger, For I have followed too much the heart’s desires and devices, This is the cross I must bear.
Perhaps it was the weight of that self-imposed cross that made Alden botch his errand. For as he approached her cabin door and heard Priscilla singing the Hundredth Psalm while she contentedly spun her cloth, he was filled with woe. Priscilla smiled upon seeing John, showing obvious delight in his visit. Then, as they spoke, she guiltily confessed how homesick she felt. But John blurted out: Stouter hearts than a woman’s have quailed in this terrible winter.
Yours is tender and trusting and needs a stronger to lean on; So I have come to you now, with an offer an proffer of marriage Made by a good man and true, Miles Standish, the Captain of Plymouth! Priscilla’s surprise at this offer was obvious; and Alden only made things worse as he warmed to Ns subject, extolling the virtues of his friend. Finally, Priscilla beamed impishly and asked, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” That question undid the poor scholar and he fled to the seashore to berate himself for his clumsiness. “Is it my fault that the maiden has chosen between us?” he cried to the sky. Immediately an answer thundered within him: “It hath displeased the Lord!” and John’s sins now appeared as terrible to him as David’s entanglement with Bathsheba. Seeing the May Flower still at anchor in the harbor, he resolved to return to England and take his guilty secret of love to the grave.
“Better be dead and forgotten,” he concluded dramatically, “than living in shame and dishonor!” Having consigned himself to this course, John returned to Captain Standish and recounted Priscilla’s reply. When he repeated her revealing question, “Up leaped the Captain of Plymouth, Wildly he shouted, and loud: John Alden ! You have betrayed me! 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 – Let there be nothing between us save war, and inplacable hatred!
The captain might have continued this tirade, but just then a soldier arrived, bringing “rumors of danger and war and hostile incursions of Indians.” Buckling on hi,, sword and frowning fiercely, Standish stalked out of the cabin, leaving the chagrined Alden praying for forgiveness. The choleric leader found the men of the colony debating on an answer to the symbolic message that had been brought by a defiant Indian brave: a rattlesnake skin filled with arrows. “Leave this matter to me,” the angry captain exploded, “for to me by right it pertaineth.” Then, jerking the arrows from the snakeskin, he filled it with powder and bullets and thrust it back at the Indian emissary, thundering, “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, Winding his sinuous way in the dark to the depths of the forest. Early the next morning, Standish and a few men marched northward “to quell the sudden revolt of the savage.” Giants they seemed in the mist, or the mighty men of King David; Giants in heart they were, who believed in God and the Bible, – Ay, who believed in the smiting of Midianites and Philistines.
That same day the May Flower sailed home to England, and the little colony all assembled to bid her God-speed. In spite of the dreadful winter they had endured, none chose to return – not even John Alden. To carry out his impassioned decision of the day before seemed more cowardly than honorable, viewed against the prospect of Indian attack; and he found that renouncing the idea of having Priscilla for his wife did not prevent him from wanting to stay and protect her as a friend. After the others had returned to their homes, Priscilla overtook John and they talked. Both had had time to think over their conversation of the previous day.
Priscilla made a confession: I have liked to be with you, to see you, to speak with you always. So I was hurt at your words, and a little affronted to hear you Urge me to marry your friend, though he were the Captain Miles Standish. For I must tell you the truth: much more to me is your friendship Than all the love he could give, were he twice the hero you think him. Meanwhile, the brooding captain was showing himself to be indeed a soldier of skill and insight.
After a three-day march, Standish’s party entered an Indian village, where two young braves taunted and threatened him. He killed them both so quickly and effortlessly that the rest of the tribe was subdued. When word of this feat, accompanied by the head of one of the braves, was carried back to Plymouth, all rejoiced; but Priscilla wondered silently if such a hero might expect to claim her upon his return. And so, “Month after month passed away..
All in the village was peace; but at times the rumor of warfare filled the air with alarm.” Captain Standish was still out scouring the countryside, defeating all who came against him. Anger was still in his heart, but at times the remorse and contrition Which in all noble natures succeed the passionate outbreak, Came like a rising tide .. During these months John Alden often walked through the forest to see Priscilla, “Led by .. pleasure disguised as duty, and love in the semblance of friendship.”
One afternoon as they visited, Priscilla teased John that he must not be so idle: If I am a pattern for housewives (as he’d told her she was), Show yourself equally worthy of being the model of husbands, Hold this skein on your hands while I wind it, ready for knitting. Onto this domestic scene burst a messenger with urgent news: Captain Standish had been killed in an ambush, and enemy Indians would likely try to burn the town and murder the people, Priscilla raised her hands in horror.
At the same time, John felt all the turmoil of the mixed emotions thundering within him – the sorrow and pain at the loss of a friend, clashing with the joy of freedom from the bondage of that friendship. Out of that conflict he reached for Priscilla and, “Pressing her close to his heart, as forever his own,” he exclaimed, , Those whom the Lord hath united, let no man put them asunder!” The couple’s wedding day dawned, and in spite of the imminent dangers, friends assembled in the village church to wish the young couple well. just as the brief ceremony had ended, “A form appeared on the threshold, clad in armor of steel, a somber and sorrowful figure.”
The bridegroom stared; the bride turned pale. Was it a phantom? “A bodiless, spectral illusion?” But as the figure strode into the room, all realized with amazement that Miles Standish had survived; survived not only an Indian ambush, but the harder battle of his own pride. He went straight to John Alden, grasped his hand and begged his forgiveness: “I have been cruel and hard, but now, thank God, it is ended.” Alden answered, “Let all be forgotten between us – All save the dear, old friendship, and that shall grow older and dearer!”
Gallantly, then, the captain advanced and tenderly bowed to Priscilla, “wishing her joy of her wedding, and loudly lauding her husband.” Then he said with a smile: “I should have remembered the adage, – If you would be well served, you must serve yourself.” Commentary Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was brought up as a New England aristocrat steeped in European culture.
His works, written in part as Americanized tributes to the works of Sir Walter Scott, were very popular during his lifetime, but an antagonistic attitude toward them later developed among critics with tastes of another age. Today they are enjoying a revival as early American epic myths. The plot of this simple, gracefully written poem is reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, but with twists of its own. Reunited friendship and requited young love told in the delicate detail of an old-English style, make Longfellow’s poem a classic.