Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadworth Longfellow

Source of book: I own this


Longfellow occupies a strange position in American letters. One could say he was born at the wrong time, or that he tried to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, or that he failed to understand the future. Which, well, it happens to many of us. 


The thing is, Longfellow was a pretty good guy, progressive if not radical in his time. He was ardently in favor of the abolition of slavery, and gave a lot of his own money toward the cause. More than many writers of his generation, he saw Native Americans as fully human. 


So what went wrong for him? Why does his work feel so dated? 


Well, the problem stems, I think, from the way he approached his writing. The young nation of the United States of America had just had a fairly dizzying rise. The Civil War was still in the future, and many - Longfellow included - believed that there could be a peaceful abolition similar to that which had occurred in England. 


Longfellow set as his project to create the epic poetry of America, the grand mythology that would sing of its origins. I mean, every ancient country has this, from the Hebrew origin myths in the Bible, to the Homeric epics. It was natural that Longfellow would want to see similar works for his own native country. 


But how does one do that? I can’t find the quote now, but someone once said that every civilization was founded on a genocide. Which may or may not be true universally, but certainly was in the case of the European conquest of the Americas. Furthermore, our economy was built on the backs of the enslaved. Which was still happening at that time, for that matter. 


So what was Longfellow to do? How could he create epic paeans to the founding of America out of the messiness of the truth? He clearly had an impossible task, and despite his best efforts, he failed to create the truly timeless works he intended. 


Not that he did a shabby job. His poetry is still lyrical and reads well, and it is understandable why he was the best selling American poet of his time. 


I also want to point out again that he tried to rise above the prejudices of his time, which is admirable. He tried to humanize Native Americans. He worked to end enslavement of black Americans. While our modern ears find some of his lines to be some combination of patronizing and whitewashing, he was considered a dangerous radical by the racists of his day. 


With that preface, let’s look a bit at this longer narrative poem. I previously blogged about Evangeline, the story of the Acadians - French settlers expelled by the British from Nova Scotia, who were resettled in Louisiana and became the Cajuns. 


In this bit of mythology, Longfellow dramatizes a few of those who came over on the Mayflower, namely captain Miles Standish, his good friend John Alden, and the third member of the love triangle, Priscilla Mullins. 


Longfellow himself was, shall we say, interested in the story, because he was a descendent on his mother’s side from Alden and Mullins, and claimed that the poem related oral family history. 


There is some debate about whether this “family history” was based much in fact, other than the obvious one that Alden and Mullins married and had children, but it is pretty certain that Longfellow took plenty of poetic license even as he based the poem on real history. 


Like Evangeline, The Courtship of Miles Standish is written in dactylic hexameter - the same used by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and by Virgil in The Aeneid. Clearly, Longfellow was aiming for that epic vibe. 


The story itself is well enough known, so I assume there are no risks of spoilers. Miles Standish, brusque yet shy, has lost his first wife on the voyage, and wishes to court the beautiful young Priscilla. Who just happened to be the only unmarried woman of marriageable age left in Plymouth. Standish considers himself to be poor at courting, and asks his younger friend John to do the courting for him. 


John Alden is torn between his loyalty to his friend and his unspoken love for Priscilla. He mans up, and does the deed he feels he needs to do: he delivers Standish’s proposal as best he can. 


Priscilla is no fool, and thinks Standish is too much of a bloody soldier for her taste anyway. She rebuffs the secondhand proposal with one of the most famous lines in all of literature: 


“Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” 


Embarrassed by her refusal, Standish blows up on John, swears eternal enmity, and goes off to console himself by focusing on the ongoing war with the Native Americans. Things heat up fast, in no small part because of the hotheadedness of another soldier, and the facts get lost in the fog of battle. The rumor comes back that Standish has been killed. 


Later, the scene shifts to the wedding of John and Priscilla. At the height of the proceedings, a ghostly figure appears: Miles Standish. It turns out he is alive, and, rather than furious at John Alden, has forgiven all possible wrong, and comes to give him congratulations and the best of happiness. 


In addition to the most famous line, there are some others that I thought were fascinating. The first is when Standish, having lost his wife, looks at his shelf of books, trying to decide what is best to take his mind off his loss. 


Fixed to the opposite wall was a shelf of books, and among them

Prominent three, distinguished alike for bulk and for binding;

Bariffe’s Artillery Guide, and the Commentaries of Caesar

Out of the Latin translated by Arthur Goldinge of London,

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 consolation and comfort,

Whether the wars of the Hebrews, the famous campaigns of the Romans,

Or the Artillery practice, designed for belligerent Christians. 


He chooses the Roman book, in case you wondered. This proclivity toward martial pursuits is his reasoning for asking the more literary Alden to do the wooing. 


“Go to the damsel Priscilla, the loveliest maiden of Plymouth,

Say that a blunt old Captain, a man not of words but of actions,

Offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier.

Not in these words, you know, but this in short is my meaning;

I am a maker of war, and not a maker of phrases.

You, who are bred as a scholar, can say it in elegant language,

Such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers,

Such as you think best adapted to win the heart of a maiden.” 


It should surprise no one that Priscilla isn’t having it. At all. 


“If the great Captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me,

Why does he not come himself, and take the trouble to woo me?

If I am not worth the wooing, I surely am not worth the winning!”


Then, she gives poor John a sick burn to take back to his friend. 


“That is the way with you men; you don’t understand us, you cannot.

When you have made up your minds, after thinking of this one and that one, 

Choosing, selecting, rejecting, comparing one with another,

Then you make known your desire, with abrupt and sudden avowal,

And are offended and hurt, and indignant perhaps, that a woman

Does not respond at once to a love that she never suspected,

Does not attain at a bound the height to which you have been climbing.

This is not right nor just: for surely a woman’s affection

Is not a thing to be asked for, and had for only asking.

When one is truly in love, one not only says it but shows it.”


Ah, the bumbling of men who fail to think of women as fully human. No, marriage isn’t a favor a man offers a woman, that she would be foolish to refuse. No matter how rich or powerful the man is. You want her? Put in the work. And be willing to take no if she isn’t interested. 


Later, Standish ends up part of a council about the upcoming war. He is still furious at his rebuff, and says some pretty horrifying things about violence being the only way to deal with “savages.” A sole voice opposes him, the Elder of Plymouth (perhaps referring to William Bradford?) with what were probably the sentiments of Longfellow himself, who was categorically opposed to war. 


Thereupon answered and said the excellent Elder of Plymouth,

Somewhat amazed and alarmed at this irreverent language;

“Not so thought St. Paul, nor yet the other apostles;

Not from the cannon’s mouth were the tongues of fire they spake with!” 


While Standish is off botching the battle, John and Priscilla manage to talk things out. They both apologize for saying harsh things. John explains that he wasn’t angry with her, but with himself, for making a mess of his task from Standish. Priscilla’s response is interesting:


“No; you were angry with me, for speaking so frankly and freely.

It was wrong, I acknowledge; for it is the fate of a woman

Long to be patient and silent, to wait like a ghost that is speechless,

Till some questioning voice dissolves the spell of its silence. 

Hence is the inner life of so many suffering women

Sunless and silent and deep, like subterranean rivers

Running through caverns of darkness, unheard, unseen, and unfruitful,

Chafing their channels of stone, with endless and profitless murmurs.”




That is not an apology, is it? More like a bit of a shot across the bow. Longfellow, as I said, was pretty progressive. He understood the stultifying patriarchal culture that expects women to wait in silence, never expressing themselves directly. So, Priscilla, who actually likes John, wants to make clear that if he pursues her, she will not be the shy and silent maiden. As the conversation progresses, she deflects his flattery and insists that she wants his friendship - a friendship where they can both speak directly and openly and assertively. In other words, an egalitarian relationship. 

 Illustration of this scene, from 1903 - that's the one in my edition.

While John is a bit speechless, he is also clearly turned on, and eventually does pursue her the way she wants and needs to be pursued. 


Longfellow is just one of a number of men of his era who clearly understood that women were their equals. This idea that was force-fed in the subculture I grew up in - that the good old days were when men were men and women were subordinate doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There have always been egalitarian marriages. And they have always been the good marriages. (See: Anne Bradstreet) I myself prefer an outspoken and forthright woman - that’s why I married one. 


I have chosen to highlight the best parts of the poem. As I said, the violence toward Native Americans is pretty horrifying, if true to the history, and even if Longfellow clearly disapproves of it. And there are some assumptions that go unchallenged. But on balance, Longfellow is aiming in the right direction. This longer poem is worth reading. 




Just a thought on national epics: 


To the extent national epics are even possible anymore, in a nation like the United States, it would have to be told, not by any single voice, but by a multicultural, multiracial, and multigendered choir of voices. To be true of any of us, it must be true of all of us. Whether this will ever be written is an open question, but it can be imagined. 

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