Well, we have again reached May Day — May 1st, Bealtaine, Beltane — the ancient beginning of summer by the old agricultural calendar and the Hokku Calendar.
There is an interesting poem by Edith Nesbit. You remember Edith Nesbit, don’t you? She is the lady who wrote those delightful novels for children — among them The Railway Children, and of course The Enchanted Castle. When I was a boy in grade school — elementary school — I came across an old copy of The Enchanted Castle in our tiny country school library. I thought I had found an undiscovered treasure, with the very unusual and absorbing story and the quaint illustrations.
But on to the poem. Perhaps you remember the earlier discussion here of Housman’s poem “Oh See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” about a clever girl who escapes seduction. Well, this poem has much the same theme, only this time seen from the female perspective — the very “liberated” female perspective — of Edith Nesbit. It is in the form of a dialogue between a young man whose thoughts have turned to love — well, most likely to sex, given the interests of young men — and the object of his affections — the girl.
Will you go a-maying, a-maying, a-maying,
Come and be my Queen of May and pluck the may with me?
The fields are full of daisy buds and new lambs playing,
The bird is on the nest, dear, the blossom’s on the tree.’
The young fellow asks the girl if she will go out with him “a-maying” — ostensibly to celebrate May Day in one way or another — here he mentions only “plucking the may,” and of course from past discussions here, you will know that by “may” he means the white hawthorn blossoms, a symbol of May in Britain. But of course there is a subtext here, because to “go a-maying” also mean a romantic and often sexual encounter of young man and maid, out of the village and away from prying eyes.
‘If I go with you, if I go a-maying,
To be your Queen and wear my crown this May-day bright,
Hand in hand straying, it must be only playing,
And playtime ends at sunset, and then good-night.
The girl responds with the sensible comment that if she goes a-maying — if she is his Queen and wears her crown, and goes out to celebrate with the young man — she wants him to know it is only for playing — and that playtime ends at sunset — so no rolling on the ground with him in the twilight or night — no sex. She intends to make no commitment. Often in villages a Queen of the May was chosen for May Day festivities, and that is what the girl means when she speaks of being his Queen.
The girl explains her reasons:
‘For I have heard of maidens who laughed and went a-maying,
Went out queens and lost their crowns and came back slaves.
I will be no young man’s slave, submitting and obeying,
Bearing chains as those did, even to their graves.’
Well. She has very definite ideas, and has obviously heard the warnings about girls who were too free with young men, who lost their virginity (their “crown”) and ended up pregnant and in a forced marriage. Those were the days when brides were admonished to “love, honor, and obey,” and this girl has no intention of being seduced into pregnancy and marriage, and certainly no desire to spend the rest of her days “obeying” a male.
‘If you come a-maying, a-straying, a-playing,
We will pluck the little flowers, enough for you and me;
And when the day dies, end our one day’s playing,
Give a kiss and take a kiss and go home free.’
So that is the agreed outcome. If they are to go a-maying together, they can have their fun for the day — some delightful kisses perhaps, but nothing that turns into the smouldering desire that leads to sex. And when the day has ended, each can give a kiss, and take a kiss from the other — and then go home free. No bonds. No obligation. No pregnancy. No obeying.
As in Housman’s poem, this is a very clever girl who knows how to avoid trouble, and big trouble it was in those days to have an unwed pregnancy.
Of course behind all this is the ancient connection between spring and fertility and rites of sex among the young.