Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  An Interview with Miles Standish

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX. 1876–79.

New England: Plymouth, Mass.

An Interview with Miles Standish

By James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)

I SAT one evening in my room,

In that sweet hour of twilight

When blended thoughts, half light, half gloom,

Throng through the spirit’s skylight;

The flames by fits curled round the bars,

Or up the chimney crinkled,

While embers dropped like falling stars,

And in the ashes tinkled.

I sat and mused; the fire burned low,

And, o’er my senses stealing,

Crept something of the ruddy glow

That bloomed on wall and ceiling;

My pictures (they are very few,

The heads of ancient wise men)

Smoothed down their knotted fronts, and grew

As rosy as excisemen.

My antique high-backed Spanish chair

Felt thrills through wood and leather,

That had been strangers since whilere,

Mid Andalusian heather,

The oak that made its sturdy frame

His happy arms stretched over

The ox whose fortunate hide became

The bottom’s polished cover.

It came out in that famous bark,

That brought our sires intrepid,

Capacious as another ark

For furniture decrepit;

For, as that saved of bird and beast

A pair for propagation,

So has the seed of these increased

And furnished half the nation.

Kings sit, they say, in slippery seats;

But those slant precipices

Of ice the northern voyager meets

Less slippery are than this is;

To cling therein would pass the wit

Of royal man or woman,

And whatsoe’er can stay in it

Is more or less than human.

I offer to all bores this perch,

Dear well-intentioned people

With heads as void as week-day church,

Tongues longer than the steeple;

To folks with missions, whose gaunt eyes

See golden ages rising,—

Salt of the earth! In what queer Guys

Thou ’rt fond of crystallizing!

My wonder, then, was not unmixed

With merciful suggestion,

When, as my roving eyes grew fixed

Upon the chair in question,

I saw its trembling arms enclose

A figure grim and rusty,

Whose doublet plain and plainer hose

Were something worn and dusty.

Now even such men as Nature forms

Merely to fill the street with,

Once turned to ghosts by hungry worms,

Are serious things to meet with;

Your penitent spirits are no jokes,

And, though I ’m not averse to

A quiet shade, even they are folks

One cares not to speak first to.

Who knows, thought I, but he has come,

By Charon kindly ferried,

To tell me of a mighty sum

Behind my wainscot buried?

There is a buccaneerish air

About that garb outlandish—

Just then the ghost drew up his chair

And said, “My name is Standish.

“I come from Plymouth, deadly bored

With toasts, and songs, and speeches,

As long and flat as my old sword,

As threadbare as my breeches:

They understand us Pilgrims! they,

Smooth men with rosy faces,

Strength’s knots and gnarls all pared away,

And varnish in their places!

“We had some toughness in our grain,

The eye to rightly see us is

Not just the one that lights the brain

Of drawing-room Tyrtæuses:

They talk about their Pilgrim blood,

Their birthright high and holy!

A mountain-stream that ends in mud

Methinks is melancholy.

“He had stiff knees, the Puritan,

That were not good at bending;

The homespun dignity of man

He thought was worth defending;

He did not, with his pinchbeck ore,

His country’s shame forgotten,

Gild Freedom’s coffin o’er and o’er,

When all within was rotten.

“These loud ancestral boasts of yours,

How can they else than vex us?

Where were your dinner orators

When slavery grasped at Texas?

Dumb on his knees was every one

That now is bold as Cæsar;

Mere pegs to hang an office on

Such stalwart men as these are.”

“Good sir,” I said, “you seem much stirred;

The sacred compromises—”

“Now God confound the dastard word!

My gall thereat arises:

Northward it hath this sense alone,

That you, your conscience blinding,

Shall bow your fool’s nose to the stone,

When slavery feels like grinding,

“’T is shame to see such painted sticks

In Vane’s and Winthrop’s places,

To see your spirit of Seventy-six

Drag humbly in the traces,

With slavery’s lash upon her back,

And herds of office-holders

To shout applause, as, with a crack,

It peels her patient shoulders.

“We forefathers to such a rout!—

No, by my faith in God’s word!”

Half rose the ghost, and half drew out

The ghost of his old broadsword,

Then thrust it slowly back again,

And said, with reverent gesture,

“No, Freedom, no! blood should not stain

The hem of thy white vesture.

“I feel the soul in me draw near

The mount of prophesying;

In this bleak wilderness I hear

A John the Baptist crying;

Far in the east I see upleap

The streaks of first forewarning,

And they who sowed the light shall reap

The golden sheaves of morning.

“Child of our travail and our woe,

Light in our day of sorrow,

Through my rapt spirit I foreknow

The glory of thy morrow;

I hear great steps, that through the shade

Draw nigher still and nigher,

And voices call like that which bade

The prophet come up higher.”

I looked, no form mine eyes could find,

I heard the red cock crowing,

And through my window-chinks the wind

A dismal tune was blowing;

Thought I, My neighbor Buckingham

Hath somewhat in him gritty,

Some Pilgrim-stuff that hates all sham,

And he will print my ditty.