A Priest, a Maypole, and Paganism!


Image result for maypole renaissance

If you are looking for a poet who celebrates sexuality, none can really top Robert Herrick (1591-1674).

Image result for robert herrick

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 as innocent as a group of children dancing around the Maypole.

The poem centers on the rites surrounding the first day of May, opening with the call to Corinna to come out a join the festivities. The poem calls on Corinna to dress and take no care for putting on jewelry for the May will deck her in signs of spring.

Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree. (1-6)

The poem goes on to describe how Corinna’s village has been transformed by spring into a verdant forest. Nature almost seems to reclaim the town with “each street a park/Made green and trimmed with trees; see how/ Devotion gives each house a bough/ Or branch” (lns. 30-33) What is fascinating is how the poem is how glorifies this pagan festival spring and pushes aside Christianity. Corinna is actually told to “be brief in praying” (ln. 27). (Again, this is an Anglican priest writing this poem!)

The fourth stanza presents the sexuality associate with going a-Maying. Young lovers have already become engaged Corinna has gotten out of bed.

And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth (lns. 49-50)

As you textbook glosses, the “green gown” has become so after rolling in the grass in amorous embrace. the final two lines of the stanza glimpses young lovers sneaking into each other’s rooms late at night.

Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying. (lns. 55-56)

Think the spring festivities Herrick describes as the modern-day equivalent to Burning Man.

Don’t think that the poem was simply just about a priest getting a young girl out for a quickie to celebrate May. You have to understand that Herrick was living through an incredibly turbulent period in English history, a time of the English Civil Wars.

Image result for laughing cavalier

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!

Image result for grinch stole christmas

(Their primary reasoning was two-fold: Christmas has the word “mass” in it [hence, Catholic – a religion the Puritans rejected] and 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?



About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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