I love May! April may be the “crulest month of the year” (Thank you, Mr. Eliot), but May rocks. May is the month of outdoor festivals, corn dogs, funnel cake, and gin-and-tonics. I say good-bye to my students, turn in my grades, and go sit out on the porch of some bar. I love May! I start thinking again about planting herbs and tomatoes but never actually follow through with it. Living in Kansas, I am always hoping for a truly epic late afternoon thunderstorm. May is about grilling! Forget the hot dogs. I marinade meats for days in sauces that I looked up on epicurious.com. (Tuesday night’s dinner was pork kebabs in a molasses-serrano chile marinade.)
So diving back down into and swmming through all of my books in storage, I tried to find something that would speak to my May craze. I came across my copy of the Norton Anthony of English Literature: 16th Century and early 17th Century. So paging through it, I thought I’d dedicated this post to another May-enthusiast, Robert Herrick.
Most people remember him for his carpe diem poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” (Here’s the most famous reading of the poem from Dead Poets Society BTW, Keating gives a complete misreading of it.) Despite being an Anglican priest, he wrote about giving up drinking and then falling back off the wagon (“His Farewell to Sack,” “The Welcome to Sack”), gawking at a woman from behind (“Upon Julia’s Clothes”), and wet dreams (“The Vine”). However, his poem that is most on my mind right now is “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying.” What Herrick describes is not a group of children dancing around the Maypole.
Rather Herrick depicts a pagan fertility rite, so to speak. The poem opens with the speaker telling Corinna to wake less she miss the May Day festivities. Herrick goes on to recount a world in which the line between nature and civilization is blurred: Corinna should forget finding jewels for her gown or hair since the forest will deck her out in leaves (lines 17-20); the fields will turn into streets and streets into parks (line 30); and branches of trees will decorate every porch. Just as Corinna’s village appears to return to a more natural state, so do the inhabitants.
Many a green gown has been given,
Many a kiss, both odd and even;
Many a glance, too, has been sent
From out the eye, love’s firmament;
Many a jest told of the keys betraying
This night, and locks picked; yet we’re not a-Maying.
Corrina gets her green dress from rolling in grass amorously with a young lover. “Odds and evens” was a kissing game, kind of like blind man’s bluff or our modern equivalent of spin-the-bottle. The “keys betraying locks” suggest people sneaking into each other’s rooms at night. So when the speaker urges Corinna to come out and “go a-Maying,” he is really expressing his own impatience to join in this orgiastic festival.
Don’t think that the poem was simply just about a priest getting a young girl out for quicky to celebrate May. You have to understand that Herrick was living through an incredibly turbulent period in English history. He was a cavalier, a person who drank, had random sex, led a hedonistic life, and wrote poetry celebrating all of it.
However, being a cavalier was a political choice in a way. In the first few decades of the 16th century, the Puritans were gaining more power. Now, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Puritans wanted to purify the English Church, hence get rid of anything that was not strictly mentioned in the Bible. While they had their sights mostly on the institution of bishops, there were other parts of English culture they wanted to get rid of, particularly the May festivals. (The May Festivals had been a significant aspect of English village culture. In 1617, James I’s government issued the Declaration of Sports, that listed May games as the activities that were permitted on Holy Days. His son Charles I reissued it in 1633. Some saw it as a way for Charles to gain control over those Puritan preachers, who resisted his attempts to stress uniformity within the Anglican Church.)Parliament, mainly controlled by the Puritan factions, actually banned May festivals and Christmas in 1644. Yes, the Puritans cancelled Christmas!
(Their primary reasoning was two-fold: Christmas has the word “mass” in it [hence, Catholic] and it really is not in the Bible but is pagan at its roots, which it is.) Okay, back to Herrick. Well, in writing a poem celebrating a pagan fertility rite, especially what was endorsed by the Episcopal Church, Herrick was participating in a larger social, political, religious fight. Who knew that drinking and living a lascivious life could be so meaningful?