Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

The Courtship of Miles Standish

Introductory Note

IT is possible that the unmistakable success of Hiawatha made Mr. Longfellow more ready to occupy himself with another subject of American life. At any rate, a few weeks after the publication of that poem one of his friends urged him to write a poem on the Puritans and Quakers. “A good subject for a tragedy,” he remarks, and began looking over books which would give him incidents. The first outcome was the beginning of The New England Tragedies. Then he appears to have begun as an alternative, lighter work a drama, The Courtship of Miles Standish. This was December 2, 1856. Exactly a year later he writes in his diary: “Soft as spring. I begin a new poem, Priscilla, to be a kind of Puritan pastoral; the subject, the courtship of Miles Standish. This, I think, will be a better treatment of the subject than the dramatic one I wrote some time ago;” and the next day: “My poem is in hexameters; an idyl of the Old Colony times. What it will turn out I do not know; but it gives me pleasure to write it; and that I count for something.”

He seems to have made a fresh start on the poem, January 29, 1858, and then to have carried it rapidly forward to completion, for the first draft was finished March 22d, although the book, which contained besides a collection of his recent short poems, was not published until September. When midway in the writing he changed the title to that which the poem now bears. The incident of Priscilla’s reply, on which the story turns, was a tradition, and John Alden was a maternal ancestor of the poet. For the rest, he drew his material from the easily accessible historical resources. Dr. Young had published his valuable Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, and Mr. Charles Wyllis Elliott his entertaining History of New England, in which he had attempted to reconstruct the interior, household life in greater detail than had other learned writers. Mr. Longfellow did not think it necessary to follow the early Plymouth history with scrupulous reference to chronology; it was sufficient for him to catch the broad features of the colonial life and to reproduce the spirit of the relations existing between Plymouth and the Indians. The hexameter verse differs in its general effect from that produced by the more stately form used in Evangeline, through its greater elasticity. A crispness of touch is gained by a more varying accent and a freer use of trochees.