Part 9: The Courtship of Miles Standish

The Courtship of Miles Standish—Part 9

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


  Forth from the curtain of clouds, from the tent of purple and scarlet,
Issued the sun, the great High-Priest,[54] in his garments resplendent,
Holiness unto the Lord, in letters of light, on his forehead,
Round the hem of his robe the golden bells and pomegranates.
Blessing the world he came, and the bars of vapor beneath him                                930
Gleamed like a grate of brass, and the sea at his feet was a laver![55]

Though disappointed that he did not win Priscilla's heart, Miles Standish returns and reconciles with her and her husband in Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish.

Cropped image from page 148 of
The Courtship of Miles Standish, illustrated by Howard Chandler Christy
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1903).
From the Internet Archive Book Images

  This was the wedding morn of Priscilla the Puritan maiden.
Friends were assembled together; the Elder and Magistrate also
Graced the scene with their presence, and stood like the Law and the Gospel,
One with the sanction of earth and one with the blessing of heaven.                         935
Simple and brief was the wedding as that of Ruth and of Boaz.[56]
Softly the youth and the maiden repeated the words of betrothal,
Taking each other for husband and wife in the Magistrate’s presence,
After the Puritan way, and the laudable custom of Holland,
Fervently then and devoutly, the excellent Elder of Plymouth                                     940
Prayed for the hearth and the home, that were founded that day in affection,
Speaking of life and of death and imploring Divine benedictions.

  Lo! when the service was ended, a form appeared on the threshold,
Clad in armor of steel, a sombre and sorrowful figure!
Why does the bridegroom start and stare at the strange apparition?                         945
Why does the bride turn pale, and hide her face on his shoulder?
Is it a phantom of air,—a bodiless, spectral illusion?
Is it a ghost from the grave, that has come to forbid the betrothal?
Long had it stood there unseen, a guest uninvited, unwelcomed;
Over its clouded eyes there had passed at times an expression                                  950
Softening the gloom and revealing the warm heart hidden beneath them,
As when across the sky the driving rack[57] of the rain cloud
Grows for a moment thin, and betrays the sun by its brightness.
Once it had lifted its hand, and moved its lips, but was silent,
As if an iron will had mastered the fleeting intention.                                                  955
But when were ended the troth and the prayer and the last benediction,
Into the room it strode, and the people beheld, with amazement
Bodily there in his armor, Miles Standish, the Captain of Plymouth!
Grasping the bridegroom’s hand, he said with emotion, “Forgive me!
I have been angry and hurt,—too long have I cherished the feeling;                         960
I have been cruel and hard, but now, thank God! it is ended.
Mine is the same hot blood that leaped in the veins of Hugh Standish,
Sensitive, swift to resent, but as swift in atoning for error.
Never so much as now was Miles Standish the friend of John Alden.”
Thereupon answered the bridegroom: “Let all be forgotten between us,—             965
All save the dear old friendship, and that shall grow older and dearer!”
Then the Captain advanced, and, bowing, saluted Priscilla,
Gravely, and after the manner of old-fashioned gentry in England,
Something of camp and of court, of town and of country, commingled,
Wishing her joy of her wedding, and loudly lauding her husband.                           970
Then he said with a smile: “I should have remembered the adage,—
If you would be well served, you must serve yourself; and moreover,
No man can gather cherries in Kent at the season of Christmas!”[58]
Great was the people’s amazement, and greater yet their rejoicing,
Thus to behold once more the sunburnt face of their Captain,                                  975
Whom they had mourned as dead, and they gathered and crowded about him,
Eager to see him, and hear him, forgetful of bride and of bridegroom,
Questioning, answering, laughing, and each interrupting the other,
Till the good Captain declared, being quite overpowered and bewildered,
He had rather by far break into an Indian encampment,                                           980
Than come again to a wedding to which he had not been invited.

  Meanwhile the bridegroom went forth and stood with the bride at the doorway,
Breathing the perfumed air of that warm and beautiful morning.
Touched with autumnal tints, but lonely and sad in the sunshine,
Lay extended before them the land of toil and privation;                                          985
There were the graves of the dead, and the barren waste of the sea-shore.
There the familiar fields, the groves of pine, and the meadows;
But to their eyes transfigured, it seemed as the Garden of Eden,
Filled with the presence of God, whose voice was the sound of the ocean.

  Soon was their vision disturbed by the noise and stir of departure,                     990
Friends coming forth from the house, and impatient of longer delaying,
Each with his plan for the day, and the work that was left uncompleted.
Then from a stall near at hand, amid exclamations of wonder,
Alden the thoughtful, the careful, so happy, so proud of Priscilla,
Brought out his snow-white bull, obeying the hand of its master.                         995
Led by a cord that was tied to an iron ring in its nostrils,
Covered with crimson cloth, and a cushion placed for a saddle.
She should not walk, he said, through the dust and heat of the noonday;
Nay, she should ride like a queen, not plod along like a peasant.
Somewhat alarmed at first, but reassured by the others,                                         1000
Placing her hand on the cushion, her foot in the hand of her husband,
Gayly, with joyous laugh, Priscilla mounted her palfrey.
“Nothing is wanting now,” he said with a smile, “but the distaff;
Then you would be in truth my queen, my beautiful Bertha!”

  Onward the bridal procession now moved to their new habitation,                     1005
Happy husband and wife, and friends conversing together.
Pleasantly murmured the brook, as they crossed the ford in the forest,
Pleased with the image that passed, like a dream of love through its bosom,
Tremulous, floating in air, o’er the depths of the azure abysses.
Down through the golden leaves the sun was pouring his splendors,                   1010
Gleaming on purple grapes, that, from branches above them suspended,
Mingled their odorous breath with the balm of the pine and the fir-tree.
Wild and sweet as the clusters that grew in the valley of Eshcol.[59]
Like a picture it seemed of the primitive, pastoral ages,
Fresh with the youth of the world, and recalling Rebecca and Isaac,[60]            1015
Old and yet ever new, and simple and beautiful always,
Love immortal and young in the endless succession of lovers.
So through the Plymouth woods passed onward the bridal procession.



[54] Jump up ↑ See Exodus xxviii, for the references in this description.

[55] Jump up ↑ laver: A brazen vessel in the court or a Jewish tabernacle, where the priests washed their hands and feet.

[56] Jump up ↑ Book of Ruth, chapter iv.

[57] Jump up ↑ rack: vapor.

[58] Jump up ↑ An English proverb.

[59] Jump up ↑ Eshcol: When Moses sent spies into the land of Canaan, “they came unto the brook of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two upon a staff.”

[60] Jump up ↑ See Genesis, xxiv.

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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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)