1820
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

May-Day.

The Indicator (1820).

Leigh Hunt


Leigh Hunt laments the passing of the old superstitions in an essay celebrating the poetry of flowers in a collection of flowers of poesy. He quotes from Milton, Spenser, Drayton, Browne of Tavistock, Sannazzaro, Chaucer, and Dryden, whose version of Palemon and Arcite he describes as decidedly inferior to the original. The essay is an example both of how Spenserian verse was being disseminated through popular essays, and of the Cockney aesthetic at work in the writings of Hunt, Keats, Lamb, Proctor, and other admirers of the old poets. Brief allusions to Spenser are made throughout The Indicator.

Leigh Hunt to Percy and Mary Shelley: "I have now a new periodical work in hand, in addition to the Examiner. My prospectuses come out in a week or two, and the first number follows the week after. It is to be called the Indicator, after a bird of that name who shows people where to find wild honey; and will, in fact, be nothing but a collection of very short pieces of remark, biography, ancient fictions, &c; in short, of any subjects that come to hand, and of which I shall endeavour to extract the essence for the reader" 20 September 1819; in Correspondence (1862) 1:149.

Henry Crabb Robinson: "I was employed looking over law papers, all the forenoon; I then walked in the rain to Clapton, reading by the way the Indicator. There is a spirit of enjoyment in this little work which gives a charm to it. Leigh Hunt seems the very opposite of Hazlitt. He loves everything, he catches the sunny side of everything, and, excepting that he has a few polemical antipathies, finds everything beautiful" 1820 ca.; Reminiscences (1870) 1:450.

Literary Chronicle: "the Indicator, a light and agreeable weekly production, which was commences on the 13th of October, 1819, and terminated on the 21st of March, 1821, having extended to seventy-six numbers. The Indicator consists of a series of sprightly essays on a variety of subjects, embracing recollections of men of genius, and criticism on literature, the fine arts, &c. The whole now forms a goodly tome — an excellent lounge book, in which the lover of desultory reading may find ample gratification" 4 (6 July 1822) 426.

C. H. Timperley: "This was a weekly publication by Leigh Hunt, and was a professed attempt to revive the interest that had been taken more than a century before, in such periodical essays, recommended neither by party politics nor any other stimulus derived from the topics and passions of the day, but addressing themselves to our common humanity in its permanent tastes and affections. We fear the design was not crowned with any very large success. The circulation of the work was but limited; and the lot of the author was to find at most 'fit audience, though few.' In 1834 the papers were collected, and published in two volumes, crown 8vo., price 12s." Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:871.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "Of Leigh Hunt's repeated attempts to establish a periodical, which it would pay him to continue, The Indicator was the best. It was crowded with affectations, (or worse, else it would not have been Hunt's,) but there was a freshness running through it which was real. Hunt loved books and nature, and like to write on both subjects" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 1:366n.

Oliver Elton: "Hunt, as an essayist, derives from the Spectator, and is in form, or rather in want of finish, liker to Steele than to Addison. He seems to wager with himself that he will write pleasantly about anything, and that his subject chooses him, rather than he it. The Indicator has papers on angling, Lady Godiva, dolphins, shaking hands, Pulci, 'my books,' and 'military insects.' The result, it must be said, is an abundance of rigmarole, and with Hunt it is hit or miss" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:229.

Hunt treated this subject again in "New May-day and Old May-Day" New Monthly Magazine 13 (May 1825) 457-66.




May Day is a word, which used to awaken in the minds of our ancestors all the ideas of youth, and verdure, and blossoming, and love, and hilarity; in short, the union of the two best things in the world, the love of nature, and the love of each other. It was the day, on which the arrival of the year at maturity was kept, like that of a blooming heiress. They caught her eye as she was coming, and sent up hundreds of songs of joy.

Now the bright Morning-Star, Day's harbinger,
Comes dancing from the east, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip, and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire:
Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
Hill and dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

These songs were stopped by Milton's friends the Puritans, whom in his old age he differed with, most likely on these points among others. But till then, they appear to have been as old, all over Europe, as the existence of society. The Druids are said to have had festivals in honor of May. Our Teutonic ancestors had, undoubtedly; and in the countries which had constituted the Western Roman Empire, Flora still saw thanks paid for her flowers, though her worship had gone away.

The homage which was paid to the Month of Love and flowers, may be divided into two sorts, tho general and the individual. The first consisted in going with others to gather May, and in joining in sports and games afterwards. On the first of the month, "the juvenile part of both sexes," says Bourne, in his Popular Antiquities, "were wont to rise a little after midnight and walk to some neighboring wood, where they broke down branches from the trees, and adorned them with nosegays and crowns of flowers. When this was done, they returned with their booty about the rising of the sun, and made their doors and windows to triumph in the flowery spoil. The after part of the day was chiefly spent in dancing round a May-pole, which being placed in a convenient part of the village, stood there, as it were, consecrated to the Goddess of Flowers, without the least violation offered to it, in the whole circle of the year." Spenser, in his Shepherd's Calendar, has detailed the circumstances, in a style like a rustic dance.

Younge folke now flocken in — every where
To gather May-buskets — and swelling brere;
And home they hasten — the postes to dight,
And all the kirk-pilours — eare day-light,
With hawthorne buds — and sweet eglantine,
And girlonds of roses — and soppes in wine.
———*———*———*———*———
Sicker this morrowe, no longer agoe,
I saw a shole of shepherds outgoe
With singing, and shouting, and jolly chere;
Before them yode a lustie tabrere
That to the many a hornpipe played,
Whereto they dauncen eche one with his mayd.
To see these folks make such jovisaunce,
Made my heart after the pipe to daunce.
Tho to the greene wood they speeden hem all,
To fetchen home May with their musicall;
And home they bringen, in a royall throne,
Crowned as king; and his queen attone
Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend
A fayre flocke of faeries, and a fresh bend
Of lovely Nymphs. O that I were there
To helpen the ladies their May-bush beare.

The day was passed in sociality and manly sports, — in archery, and running, and pitching the bar, — in dancing, singing, playing music, acting Robin Hood and his company, and making a well-earned feast upon all the country dainties in season. It closed with an award of prizes.

As I have seen the Lady of the May,
Set in an arbor (on a holiday)
Built by the Maypole, where the jocund swains
Dance with the maidens to the bag-pipe's strains,
When envious night commands them to be gone,
Call for the merry youngsters one by one,
And for their well performance soon disposes,
To this a garland interwove with roses,
To that a carved hook, or well-wrought scrip,
Gracing another with her cherry lip;
To one her garter, to another then
A handkerchief cast o'er and o'er again;
And none returneth empty, that hath spent
His pains to fill their rural merriment.

Among the gentry and at court the spirit of the same enjoyments took place, modified according to the taste or rank of the entertainers. The most universal amusement, agreeably to the general current in the veins, and the common participation of flesh and blood (for rank knows no distinction of legs and knee-pans), was dancing. Contests of chivalry supplied the place of more rural gymnastics. But the most poetical and elaborate entertainment was the Mask. A certain flowery grace was sprinkled over all; and the finest spirits of the time thought they showed both their manliness and wisdom, in knowing how to raise the pleasures of the season to their height. Sir Philip Sydney, the idea of whom has come down to us as a personification of all the refinement of that age, is fondly recollected by Spenser in this character.

His sports were faire, his joyance innocent,
Sweet without soure, and honey without gall:
And he himself seemed made for merriment,
Merrily masking both in bowre and hall.
There was no pleasure nor delightfull play,
When Astrophel soever was away.

For he could pipe, and daunce, and caroll sweet,
Amongst the shepherds in their shearing feast;
As somer's larke that with her song doth greet
The dawning day forth comming from the East.
And layes of love he also could compose;
Thrice happie she, whom he to praise did choose.
Astrophel, St. 5.

Individual homage to the month of May consisted in paying respect to it though alone, and in plucking flowers and flowering boughs to adorn apartments with.

This maiden, in a morn betime,
Went forth when May was in the prime
To get sweet setywall,
The honey-suckle, the harlock,
The lily, and the lady-smock,
To deck her summer-hall.
Drayton's Pastorals, Eclog. 4.

But when morning pleasures are to be spoken of, the lovers of poetry who do not know Chaucer, are like those who do not know what it is to be up in the morning. He has left us two exquisite pictures of the solitary observance of May, in his Palamon and Arcite. They are the more curious, inasmuch as the actor in one is a lady, and in the other a knight. How far they owe any of their beauty to the original, the Theseide of Boccaccio, we cannot say; for we never had the happiness of meeting with that rare work. The Italians have so neglected it, that they have not only never given it a rifacimento or remodelling, as in the instance of Boiardo's poem, but are almost as much unacquainted with it, we believe, as foreign nations. Chaucer thought it worth his while to be both acquainted with it, and to make others so; and we may venture to say, that we know of no Italian after Boccaccio's age who was so likely to understand him to the core, as his English admirer, Ariosto not excepted. Still from what we have seen of Boccaccio's poetry, we can imagine the Theseide to have been too lax and long. If Chaucer's Palamon and Arcite be all that he thought proper to distil from it, it must have been greatly so; for it was an epic. But at all events the essence is an exquisite one. The tree must have been a fine old enormity, from which such honey could be drawn.

To begin, as in duty bound, with the lady. How she sparkles through the antiquity of the language, like a young beauty in an old hood!

Thus passeth yere by yere, and day by day,
Till it felle ones in a morowe of May,
That Emelie—

But we will alter the spelling where we can, as in a former instance, merely to let the reader see what a notion is in his way, if he suffers the look of Chaucer's words to prevent his enjoying him.

Thus passeth year by year; and day by day,
Till it fell once, in a morrow of May,
That Emily, that fairer was to seen
Than is the lily upon his stalk green,
And fresher than the May with flowers new
(For with the rosy color strove her hue;
I n'ot which was the finer of them two)
Ere it was day, as she was wont to do,
She was arisen and all ready dight,
For May will have no sluggardy a-night:
The season pricketh every gentle heart,
And maketh him out of his sleep to start And saith,
"Arise, and do thine observance."

This maketh Emily have remembrance
To do honor to May, and for to rise.
Yclothed was she, fresh for to devise:
Her yellow hair was braided in a tress,
Behind her back, a yarde long I guess:
And in the garden, at the sun uprist,
She walketh up and down where as her list;
She gathereth flowers, party white and red
To make a subtle garland for her head;
And as an angel, heavenly she sung.
The great tower, that was so thick and strong,
Which of the castle was the chief dongeon
(Where as these knightes weren in prison,
Of which I tolde you, and tellen shall),
Was even joinant to the garden wall,
There as this Emily had her playing.

Bright was the sun, and clear that morwening—


[How finely, to our ears at least, the second line of the couplet always rises up from this full stop at the first!]

Bright was the sun, and clear that morwening,
And Palamon, this woeful prisoner,
As was his wont, by leave of his jailer,
Was risen, and roamed in a chamber on high,
In which he all the noble city sight,
And eke the garden, full of branches green,
There as this fresh Emilia the sheen
Was in her walk, and roamed up and down.

Sir Walter Scott, in his edition of Dryden, says upon the passage before us, and Dryden's version of it, that "the modern must yield the palm to the ancient, in spite of the beauty of his versification." We quote from memory, but this is the substance of his words. For our parts, we agree with them, as to the consignment of the palm, but not as to the exception about the versification. With some allowance as to our present mode of accentuation, it appears to us to be touched with a finer sense of music even than Dryden's. It is more delicate, without any inferiority in strength, and still more various.

But to our other portrait. It is as sparkling with young manhood, as the former is with a gentler freshness. What a burst of radiant joy is in the second couplet; what a vital quickness in the comparison of the horse, "starting as the fire;" and what a native and happy ease in the conclusion!

The busy lark, the messenger of day,
Saleweth in her song the morrow grey;
And fiery Phoebus riseth up so bright,
That all the orient laugheth of the sight;
And with his stremes drieth in the greves
The silver droppes hanging in the leaves;
And Arcite, that is in the court real
With Theseus the squier principal,
Is risen, and looketh on the merry day;
And for to do his observance to May,
Rememb'ring on the point of his desire,
He on the courser, starting as the fire,
Is ridden to the fieldes him to play,
Out of the court, were it a mile or sway:
And to the grove, of which that I you told,
By aventure his way 'gan to hold,
To maken him a garland of the greves,
Were it of woodbind or of hawthorn leaves,
And loud he sung against the sunny sheen:
"O May, with all thy flowers and thy green,
Right welcome be thou, faire freshe May:
I hope that I some green here getten may."
And from his courser, with a lusty heart,
Into the grove full hastily he start,
And in the path he roamed up and down.

The versification of this is not so striking as the other, but Dryden again falls short in the freshness and feeling of the sentiment. His lines are beautiful; but they do not come home to us with so happy and cordial a face. Here they are. The word morning in the first line, as it is repeated in the second, we are bound to consider as a slip of the pen; perhaps for mounting.

The morning-lark, the messenger of day,
Saluteth in her song the morning grey;
And soon the sun arose with beams so bright,
That all the horizon laughed to see the joyous sight:
He with his tepid rays the rose renews,
And licks the drooping leaves and dries the dews;
When Arcite left his bed, resolv'd to pay
Observance to the month of merry May:
Forth on his fiery steed betimes be rode,
That scarcely prints the turf on which he trod:
At ease he seemed, and prancing o'er the plains,
Turned only to the grove his horse's reins,
The grove I named before; and, lighted there,
A woodbine garland sought to crown his hair;
Then turned his face against the rising day,
And raised his voice to welcome in the May:
"For thee, sweet month, the groves green liveries wear,
If not the first, the fairest of the year:
For thee the Graces lead the dancing Hours,
And Nature's ready pencil paints the flowers:
When thy short reign is past, the feverish Sun
The sultry tropic fears, and moves more slowly on.
So may thy tender blossoms fear no blight,
Nor goats with venom'd teeth thy tendrils bite,
As thou shalt guide my wandering steps to find
The fragrant greens I seek, my brows to bind,"
His vows address'd, within the grove he stray'd.

How poor is this to Arcite's leaping from his courser "with a lusty heart!" How inferior the common-place of the "fiery steed," which need not involve any actual notion in the writer's mind, to the courser "starting as the fire;" — how inferior the turning his face to "the rising day" and raising his voice to the singing "loud against the sunny sheen;" and lastly, the whole learned invocation and adjuration of May, about guiding his "wandering steps" and "so may thy tender blossoms," &c., to the call upon the "fair fresh May," ending with that simple, quick-hearted line, in which he hopes he shall get "some green here;" a touch in the happiest vivacity! Dryden's genius, for the most part, wanted faith in nature. It was too gross and soptisticate. There was as much difference between him and his original, as between a hot noon in perukes at St. James's, and one of Chaucer's lounges on the grass, of a May-morning.

All this worship of May is over now. There is no issuing forth, in glad companies, to gather boughs; no adorning of houses with "the flowery spoil;" no songs, no dances, no village sports and coronations, no courtly poetries, no sense and acknowledgment of the quiet presence of nature, in grove or glade.

O dolce primavera, o fior novelli,
O aure, o arboscelli, o fresche erbette,
O piagge benedette; o colli, o monti,
O valli, o fiumi, o fonti, o verdi rivi,
Palme lauri, ed olive, edere e mirti
O gloriosi spiriti de gli boschi;
O Eco, o antri foschi, o chiare linfe,
O faretrate ninfe, o agresti Pani,
O Satiri e Silvani, o Fauni e Driadi,
Naiadi ed Amadriadi, o Semidee,
Oreadi e Napee, — or siete sole —
Sannazzaro.

O thou delicious spring, O ye new flowers,
O airs, O youngling bowers; fresh thickening grass,
And plains beneath heaven's face, O hills and mountains,
Valleys, and streams, and fountains, banks of green,
Myrtles, and palms serene, ivies, and bays;
And ye who warmed old lays, spirits o' the woods,
Echoes, and solitudes, and lakes of light;
O quivered virgins bright, Pans rustical,
Satyres and Sylvans all, Dryads, and ye
That up the mountains be; and ye beneath
In meadow or flowery heath, — ye are alone.

Two hundred years ago, our ancestors used to delight in anticipating their May holidays. Bigotry came in, and frowned them away; then Debauchery, and identified all pleasures with the town; then Avarice, and we have ever since been mistaking the means for the end.

Fortunately, it does not follow that we shall continue to do so. Commerce, while it thinks it is only exchanging commodities, is helping to diffuse knowledge. All other gains, — all selfish and extravagant systems of acquisition, — tend to over-do themselves and to topple down by their own undiffused magnitude. The world, as it learns other things, may learn not to confound the means with the end, or at least (to speak more philosophically), a really poor means with a really richer. The veriest cricket-player on a green has as sufficient a quantity of excitement as a fundholder or a partisan; and health, and spirits, and manliness to boot. Knowledge may go on; must do so, from necessity; and should do so, for the ends we speak of; but knowledge, so far from being incompatible with simplicity of pleasures, is the quickest to perceive its wealth. Chaucer would lie for hours, looking at the daisies. Scipio and Laelius could amuse themselves with making ducks and drakes on the water. Epaminondas, the greatest of all the active spirits of Greece, was a flute-player and dancer. Alfred the Great could act the whole part of a minstrel. Epicurus taught the riches of temperance and intellectual pleasure in a garden. The other philosophers of his country walked between heaven and earth in the colloquial bowers of Academus; and "the wisest heart of Solomon," who found everything vain because he was a king, has left us panegyrics on the Spring and the "voice of the turtle," because he was a poet, a lover, and a wise man.


[(1845) 197-206]