The Courtship of Miles Standish

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A scene from The Courtship of Miles Standish, showing Standish looking upon Alden and Mullins during the bridal procession

The Courtship of Miles Standish is an 1858 narrative poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the early days of Plymouth Colony, the colonial settlement established in America by the Mayflower Pilgrims.


Priscilla Mullins, illustration from a 1903 printing

The Courtship of Miles Standish is set against the backdrop of a fierce Indian war and focuses on a love triangle among three Mayflower Pilgrims: Miles Standish, Priscilla Mullens, and John Alden. Longfellow claimed that the story was true, but the historical evidence is inconclusive. Nevertheless, the ballad was very popular in nineteenth-century America, immortalizing the Pilgrims.

The poem was a literary counterpoint to Longfellow's earlier Evangeline (1847), the tragic tale of a woman whose lover disappears during the deportation of the Acadian people in 1755. Together, Evangeline and The Courtship of Miles Standish captured the bittersweet quality of America's colonial era. However, the plot of The Courtship of Miles Standish deliberately varies in emotional tone, unlike the steady tragedy of Longfellow's Evangeline. The Pilgrims grimly battle against disease and Indians, but are also obsessed with an eccentric love triangle, creating a curious mix of drama and comedy. Bumbling, feuding roommates Miles Standish and John Alden vie for the affections of the beautiful Priscilla Mullins, who slyly tweaks the noses of her undiplomatic suitors. The independent-minded woman utters the famous retort, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" The saga has a surprise ending, one full of optimism for the American future.

This story takes place nearly 400 years ago (c. 1621) and led to a marital union that has produced numerous descendants in North America. Many Canadians and Americans living today are direct descendants of this love story.[1]


A debate persists as to whether the tale is fact or fiction. Main characters Miles Standish, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullins are based upon real Mayflower Pilgrims. Longfellow was a descendant of the Pilgrims through his mother Zilpah Wadsworth, including John Alden and Priscilla Mullins,[2] and he claimed that he was relating oral history. Skeptics dismiss his saga as a folktale, but no conclusive evidence exists either way.

At minimum, Longfellow used poetic license, condensing several years of events. Scholars have confirmed the cherished place of romantic love in Pilgrim culture,[3] and have documented the Indian war described by Longfellow.[4] Circumstantial evidence of the love triangle also exists. Miles Standish and John Alden were likely roommates;[5] Priscilla Mullins was the only single woman of marriageable age.[4] The families of the alleged lovers remained close for several generations and intermarried, moving together to Duxbury, Massachusetts in the late 1620s.[6] Descendants still retell the love triangle of their ancestors.

Composition and publication history[edit]

The first reference to the poem recorded in Longfellow's journal is dated December 29, 1857, where the project is referred to as "Priscilla". By March 1 the next year, it was renamed The Courtship of Miles Standish.[7]:88

It was published in book form on October 16, 1858,[7]:89 and it sold 25,000 copies after two months.[8] Reportedly, 10,000 copies were sold in London in a single day.[9]

Poetic Meter[edit]

Courtship of Miles Standish is written in dactylic hexameter, the same meter used in classical epic poetry such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil's Aeneid. Longfellow used the same meter in his poem Evangeline. He wrote this poem in the language of English.

See also[edit]

The Courtship of Miles Standish (1923 film)


  1. ^ Tour Alden House Museum
  2. ^ Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Portrait of an American Humanist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966: 3.
  3. ^ Daniels, Bruce C. (1995). Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Early New England. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0312125003.
  4. ^ a b Philbrick, Nathaniel (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Penguin. ISBN 0670037605.
  5. ^ Goodwin, John A. (1888). The Pilgrim Republic (1920 ed.). Houghton Mifflin.
  6. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006.
  7. ^ a b Williams, Cecil B. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1964.
  8. ^ Blake, David Haven. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006: 73. ISBN 0-300-11017-0
  9. ^ Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1952: 523.

External links[edit]