An Interview With Miles Standish

A poem by James Russell Lowell

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 Andaluslan heather,
The oak that built 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.

''Tis 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.

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