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Poem of the Month: May
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Christina Rossetti, “May”

I cannot tell you how it was,
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny day
When May was young; ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird foregone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was,
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and gray.

This poem is typically enigmatic for Christina Rossetti, a poet who liked riddles in her youth and, later, puns and word games. Here, “May” connotes a range of meanings: most obviously the name of the month as well as a girl’s name, but also the more conceptual meaning of possibility. The poem plays with all these implications as it mourns the transience of “all sweet things”.The transience even applies to meaning itself, for we never find out to what “it” in lines 1 and 2 refers. As W. David Shaw notes in Victorians and Mystery: Crises of Representation (Cornell University Press, 1990). Shaw argues that Rossetti often places pressure on apparently simple words like “it”: “Rossetti speaks more obliquely the more she has to say” (p. 251), influenced by Newman’s Tractarian doctrine of reserve that encourages the withholding of truth in matters of spiritual mystery. In this most oblique of poems, what is the religious meaning of its reserve? If the poem is read more as a dramatic monologue than as a lyric, has the speaker misinterpreted the passing of “all sweet things”? (I’m thinking about a relation between this poem and her more overtly religious one, “Passing away, saith the World, passing away”).

It seems to me that the other major issue with “May” is the verse form. At first glance, the shape of the poem on the page looks like a slightly truncated sonnet, a form that Rossetti was especially adept in, with its stanzaic division of 8 lines followed by 5 lines (is the eye first tricked into thinking that 5 lines is a sestet?). The rhyme scheme is, of course, nothing like a sonnet, with its couplets, triplet and half rhymes (was/pass, yet/mate). Perhaps, like so many Victorian poems, “May” thematises its own form. Like Spring, does the verse form of “May” fail to keep its apparent promise, leaving the reader guessing at the end?

One Response to Poem of the Month: May

  1. Mardi Stewart says:

    Lovely post on lovely poem. Thanks for this. I was wondering if this poem(1855) and others like ‘Winter: My Secret’ and ‘Promises are like Piecrusts’ written at roughly the same time while subscribibg to Tractarian reserve and also Rossetti’s love of pun and wordplay were also related to her personal problems at around this time. I seem to remember that she suffered a period of illness between her broken engagemant and the early 1850s. So, apart from her style, form and talent she was using her poetry in typically covert way to express her lack and loss. I may be way off the mark but I always feel that Rossetti uses her talent to express what she is afraid to expose.

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