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May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the “uncertain glory” of April, Shakespeare’s May, with its “darling buds,” is always sweet, and ever the month for love.
Traditionally—before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot—May Days were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations.
It’s on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose “bouncing handsome womanliness” among the country girls “under whose bodices the life throbbed quick and warm” still reveals flashes of the child she recently was.
May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother’s Day to honor the death of her own mother.
The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in “The May Magnificat” Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that “May is Mary’s month,” and asks why. “All things rising,” he answers, “all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature’s motherhood.” May’s meanings can get to be too much, though.
When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse’s fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy of meaning: “month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida.”
The “may” in “May” had another meaning for Elizabeth Barrett, who wrote to Robert Browning from her invalid’s bed during the “implacable weather” of March that “April is coming. There will be both a May & a June if we live to see such things, & perhaps, after all, we may.”
She wasn’t only speaking of better weather coming: since they began to write each other in January they had spoken of meeting in person for the first time—he especially—but she, without refusing, had put him off, excusing herself as “a recluse, with nerves that have been all broken on the rack, & now hang loosely.”
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