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I. HISTORICAL MATERIAL.
§ 1. An American Poem.
ELEVEN years after the appearance of "Evangeline," Longfellow again attempted a long narrative poem in the hexameter meter. The result was "The Courtship of Miles Standish," published in 1858. The background is still American, but the poet has passed from the ruined hamlets of French Acadia to the bustling village of Puritan Plymouth. In subject, the transition is from a romance of tragic pathos and gloom to a half-humorous story of love and friendship. "Evangeline" presents scenes of domestic happiness followed by disaster and heart-breaking separation; "The Courtship" pictures the stern struggle between two races, and crowns with gladness two devoted hearts.
In the later poem Longfellow has come nearer home for a subject, and written a lovely idyll based on the simple but strenuous life of his Puritan ancestors. He had previously composed a number of ballads and lyrics dealing with the legends of New England, and tales of the early pioneers possessed a peculiar charm for his imagination. These poems have touched the hearts of his readers as none of his foreign subjects have done, and caused him to be regarded as our most popular and representative poet.
The Courtship" has as its scene, or background, a real and famous chapter in history-the settlement of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth on the coast of Massachusetts. Now,
in order to study the poem thoroughly, we shall first have to make ourselves familiar with the time and place of its setting. We must also know a good deal about the customs, opinions, and character of those quaint old Pilgrims. All this is a matter of history, and the best plan will be to read some of the very same old journals and chronicles which Longfellow read before writing his poem. We may then compare the bare facts of the story with the finished masterpiece which his art has made out of those crude materials. This will be having a glimpse into the poet's workshop, for we may see something of the process by which he changed a rough backwoods story into a charming piece of literature.
One of the first things that we shall notice is that our author has taken a poet's license and made free use of his sources. He has cut out some of the facts and put in others of his own invention; and the parts which he has selected to use, he has changed and rearranged to suit his purpose. He has changed the time and relative position of certain events, developed the more important, and toned down harsh and disagreeable features. He has thus done what all great artists know so well how to do-idealized his subject.
2. The Pilgrims.
We must first know something about the people in the little community of which Priscilla and Alden and Captain Standish formed a part. Who were they, where did they come from, and how did they happen to be living in that little row of eleven log-cabins on the "high and rock-bound coast" of New England?
The Pilgrims came originally from England, where they formed part of the great body of Puritans, who were a plain, pious, industrious people. By the sixteenth century the Established Church of England, which had always been ritualistic, had also grown exceedingly worldly. It was an age of intolerance, and men persecuted one another for not hold
ing similar religious views. The Puritans, as the name implies, tried to purify the English Church from what Calvin called “Popish dregs," such as making the sign of the cross, using the ring in the marriage service, and wearing the surplice. They were strict in the observance of moral, social, and religious duties, and held that creeds, ritualistic modes of worship, and the lordly pomp of bishops were opposed to the simple and equal spirit of Christianity. They were consequently persecuted by the civil authorities for their nonconformity to the views of the State Church.
In 1580 a number of the Puritans, known as Separatists, who believed in free preaching and a simpler form of worship, separated themselves from the congregations and held services in private houses. William Brewster was their ruling elder, and John Robinson, who had been suspended by the bishop, was their pastor. King James, who came to the throne in 1603, took the view that dissent would lead to disloyalty, and persecuted this reformed church.
After being continually harassed by the ecclesiastical authorities, the Independents, with other dissenting churches, removed, in 1608, to Holland, where they found an asylum and religious toleration. They first settled in Amsterdam, and thence went to Leyden. "After residing several years in that city," says Holmes, "various causes influenced them to entertain serious thoughts of a removal to America. These causes were, the unhealthiness of the low country where they lived; the hard labors to which they were subjected; the dissipated manners of the Hollanders, especially their lax observance of the Lord's day; the apprehension of war at the conclusion of the truce between Spain and Holland, which was then near its close; the fear lest their young men would enter into the military and naval service; the tendency of their little community to become absorbed and lost in a foreign nation; the natural and pious desire of perpetuating a church, which they believed to be constituted after the simple and
pure model of the primitive church of Christ; and a commendable zeal to propagate the gospel in the regions of the New World.'
The problem of getting across the Atlantic was a difficult one for a whole community, many of whom were poor. The Pilgrims sent their agents to England to see what could be A joint stock company was formed with about seventy London merchants, who agreed to provide the transportation. Hard terms were imposed on the colonists, which their circumstances compelled them to accept. The king signed a patent incorporating "the adventurers to the northern colony of Virginia," by which they were authorized to establish a plantation somewhere about Hudson's river."
The Pilgrims came over from Leyden in July, 1620, to prepare for the dangerous voyage, and to take a last farewell of their native land. The parting scene at the beach in Holland is the subject of one of the great national paintings which hang in the Capitol at Washington. After a solemn service and many pathetic good-byes, they embarked from Southampton in two old-fashioned sailing ships, the "Mayflower," one hundred and eighty tons burden, and the "Speedwell," sixty tons. They were, unfortunately, obliged to return twice on account of the leakiness of the smaller vessel. At last, after many discouragements, on September 6, 1620, the 'Mayflower" sailed alone with one hundred and one passengers, among them being Miles Standish and his wife Rose, Elder Brewster, Stephen Hopkins, Richard Warren, Gilbert Winslow, Jones, captain of the ship, John Alden, and Priscilla Mullens or Molines, all of whom are mentioned in our poem. Carver, Bradford, and Edward Winslow were also on board, each of whom became governor of the colony. It was a remarkable company, all with stout hearts and godly char
1 Holmes's Annals of America, Part II., Period I., pp. 158, 159.
2 Capt. John Smith's General History of Virginia, ii., p. 251.
3 Hazard's State Papers, i., p. 340.
4 Bradford's and Winslow's Journal in Young's Chronicles, chap. ix.
acters, and worthy to be the founders of a new nation beyond the sea.
After a stormy voyage, in the course of which their ship became leaky and at times unmanageable, they joyfully discovered land off Cape Cod. This was far northward of their destination, but owing to the advanced season of the year and the unseaworthy condition of the "Mayflower," and especially to the treachery of the captain, they dropped anchor in the harbor of Plymouth. After prayer and thanksgiving, a compact was signed by which the Pilgrims organized themselves into a body politic with Carver as first governor. On November 13th, says Bradford, "Our people went on shore to refresh themselves, and our women to wash, as they had great need." On the 15th Captain Standish and others were sent out in the shallop to fetch wood and seek a suitable spot for a settlement. On this expedition they brought back ten bushels of Indian corn.
The feelings of these homeless wanderers are well expressed in the following letter, written by one of them from the cabin of the "Mayflower": "At last, praise be to God! we lie within sight of land, but what a land! Stern rocks with cruel waves forever dashing upon them, black forests sheltering who knows what fearful creatures and still more fearful savages; snow, ice, desolation, at every hand; no houses, no Christian people, no sign of the work of man. I had almost said no sign of the work of God. Such is our new home; and yet we have no choice but to accept it, for the captain says and swears that he will carry us no farther, and unless we settle where we will establish ourselves without more delay, he will put us ashore at the nearest point."
The final landing occurred on Thursday, December 21, 1620, on a high ground where some land had been cleared by the savages for planting corn, and a sweet brook ran under
1 Prince's Chronological History of New England, Part II.
2 Morton's New England's Memorial, pp. 37-39.