Poem of the Month: May
Posted by Alison Chapman
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?
Poem of the Month: May by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.