The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/Songs for the Rite of May

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TNE of the first of living painters has pointed to the old English custom of carrying about flowers on May Day as a sign that, in the Middle Ages, artistic sensibility and a pleasure in natural beauty were not dead among the common people of England. Nothing can be truer than this way of judging the observance of the Rite of May, Whatever might be the foolishness that it led to here and there, its origin lay always in pure satisfaction at the returned glory of the earth; in the wish to establish a link that could be seen and felt—if only that of holding a green bough or of wearing a daffodil crown—between the children of men and the new and beautiful growth of nature. The sentiment is the same everywhere, but the manner of its expression varies. In warmer lands it finds a vent long before the coming of May. March, in fact, rather than May, seems to have been chosen as the typical spring month in ancient Greece and Rome; and when we see the almond-trees blooming down towards Ponte Molle in the earliest week in February, even March strikes us as a little late for the beginning of the spring festival. A few icicles next morning on the Trevi, act, however, as a corrective to our ideas. In a famous passage Ovid tells the reason why the Romans kept holiday on the first of March: "The ice being broken up, winter at last yields, and the snow melts away, conquered by the sun's gentle warmth; the leaves come back to the trees that were stripped by the cold, the sap-filled bud swells with the tender twig, and the fertile grass, that long lay unseen, finds hidden passages and uplifts itself in the air. Now is the field fruitful, now is the time of the birth of cattle, now the bird prepares its house and home in the bough." (Fastorum, lib. iii.)

March day is still kept in Greece by bands of youngsters who go from house to house in the hopes of getting little gifts of fruit or cheese. They take with them a wooden swallow which they spin round and round to the song:

The swallow speeds her flight
O'er the sea-foam white,
And then a-singing she doth slake her wing.
"March, march, my delight,
And February wan and wet.
For all thy snow and rain thou yet
Hast a perfume of the spring."

Or perhaps to the following variant, given by Mr. Lewis Sergeant in New Greece:

She is here, she is here,
The swallow that brings us the beautiful year;
Open wide the door.
We are children again, we are old no more.

These little swallow-songs are worth the attention of the Folk-Lore student, since they are of a greater antiquity than can be proved on written evidence in the case, so far as we know, of any other folk-song still current. More than two thousand years ago they existed in the form quoted from Theognis by Athenæus as "an excellent song sung by the children of Rhodes."

The swallow comes! She comes, she brings
Glad days and hours upon her wings.
See on her back
Her plumes are black.
But all below
As white as snow.
Then from your well-stored house with haste.
Bring sweet cakes of dainty taste,
Bring a flagon full of wine,
Wheaten meal bring, white and fine;
And a platter load with cheese,
Eggs and porridge add—for these
Will the swallow not decline.
Now shall we go, or gifts receive!
Give, or ne'er your house we leave,
Till we the door or lintel break,
Or your little wife we take;
She so light, small toil will make.
But whate'er ye bring us forth,
Let the gift be one of worth.
Ope, ope your door, to greet the swallow then,
For we are only boys, not bearded men.

In Ægina the children's prattle runs: "March is come, sing, ye hills and ye flowers and little birds! Say, say, little swallow, where hast thou passed? where hast thou halted?" And in Corfu: "Little swallow, my joyous one, joyous my swallow; thou that comest from the desert, what good things bringest thou? Health, joy, and red eggs." Yet another version of the swallow song deals in scant compliments to the month of March, which was welcomed so gladly at its first coming:—

From the Black Sea the swallow comes,
She o'er the waves has sped,
And she has built herself a nest
And resting there she said:
"Thou February cold and wet,
And snowy March and drear,
Soft April heralds its approach,
And soon it will be here.
The little birds begin to sing,
Trees don their green array,
Hens in the yard begin to cluck,
And store of eggs to lay.
The herds their winter shelter leave
For mountain-side and top;
The goats begin to sport and skip,
And early buds to crop;
Beasts, birds, and men all give themselves
To joy and merry heart.
And ice and snow and northern winds
Are melted and depart.
Foul February, snowy March,
Fair April will not tarry.
Hence, February! March, begone!
Away the winter carry!"

When they leave off singing the children cry "Pritz! Pritz!" imitating the sound of the rapid flight of a bird. Longfellow translated a curious Stork-carol sung in springtime by the Hungarian boys on the islands of the Danube:

Stork! Stork I Poor Stork!
Why is thy foot so bloody?
A Turkish boy hath torn it,
Hungarian boy will heal it,
With fiddle, fife, and drum.

In Croatia, on the Eve of St. George, the women go into the woods and gather flowers and grasses, which they throw into water taken from under a mill-wheel, and next morning they bathe in the water, imagining that thus the new strength of Nature enters into them. There is said to also exist a singular rain-custom in Croatia. When a drought threatens to injure the crops, a young girl, generally a gipsy, dresses herself entirely in flowers and grasses, in which primitive raiment she is conducted through the village by her companions, who sing to the skies for mercy. In Greece, too, there are many songs and ceremonies in connection with a desire for the rain, which never comes during the whole pitiless summer.

If there be a part of the world where spring plays the laggard it is certainly the upper valley of the Inn. Nevertheless the children of the Engadine trudge forth bravely over the snow, shaking their cowbells and singing lustily:

Chalanda Mars, chaland' Avrigl
Lasché las vachias our d'nuilg.

Were the cows to leave their stables as is here enjoined, they would not find a blade of grass to eat—but that does not matter. The children have probably sung that song ever since their forefathers came up to the mountains; came up in all likelihood from sunny Tuscany. The Engadine lads, after doing justice to their March-day fare, set out for the boundaries of their commune, where they are met by another band of boys, with whom they contend in various trials of strength which sometimes end in hand-to-hand fights. This may be analogous to the old English usage of beating the younger generation once a year at the village boundaries in order to impress on them a lasting idea of local geography. By the Lake of Poschiavo it is the custom to "call after the grass"—"chiamar l'erba"—on March-day.

In the end, as has been seen, March gets an ill-word from the Greek folk-singer, who is not more constant in his praise of April. It is the old fatality which makes the Better the Enemy of the Good.

May is coming, May is coming, comes the month so blithe and gay;
April truly has its flowers, but all roses bloom in May;
April, thou accurst one, vanish I Sweet May-month I long to see;
May fills all the world with flowers, May will give my love to me.

May is pre-eminently the bridal month in Greece; a strange contradiction to the prejudice against May marriages that prevails in most parts of Europe. "Marry in May, rue for aye." The Romans have been held responsible for this superstition. They kept their festival of the dead during May, and while it lasted other forms of worship were suspended. To contract marriage would have been to defy the fates. Traces of a spring feast of souls survive in France, where, on Palm Sunday, Pâques fleuries as it is called, it is customary to set the first fresh flowers of the year upon the graves. Nor is it by any means uninteresting to note that in one great empire far outside of the Roman world the fête des morts is assigned not to the quiet close of the year but to the delightful spring. The Chinese festival of Clear Weather which falls in April is the chosen time for worshipping at the family tombs.

Of English songs treating of that "observance" or "rite" of May to which Chaucer and Shakespeare bear witness, there are unfortunately few. The old nursery rhyme:

Here we go a piping,
First in spring and then in May,

tells the usual story of house-to-house visiting and expected largess. May-poles were prohibited by the Long Parliament of 1644, being denounced as a "heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness." A long while before, the Roman Floralia, the feast when people carried green boughs and wore fresh garlands, had been put down for somewhat the same reasons. With regard to may-poles we are not inclined to think too harshly of them. They died hard: an old Essex man told us on his death-bed of how when he was a lad the young folks danced regularly round the may -pole on May-day, and in his opinion it was a good time. It was a time, he went on to say, when the country was a different thing; twice a day the postillion's horn sounded down the village street, the Woolpack Inn was often full even to the attics in its pretty gabled roof, all sorts of persons of quality fell out of the clouds, or to speak exactly, emerged from the London coach. The life of the place seemed to be gone, said our friend, and yet "the place" is in the very highest state of modern prosperity. The parade of sweeps in bowers of greenery lingered on rather longer in England than may-poles, but it too appears to have come to an end. In the country west of Glasgow it is still remembered how once the houses were adorned with flowers and branches on the first of May, and in some parts of Ireland they still plant a may-tree or may -bush before the door of the farm-house, throwing it at sundown into a bonfire. The lighting of fires was not an uncommon feature of May-day observance, but it is a practice which seems to us to have strayed into that connection from its proper place in the great festival of the summer solstice on St. John's Eve. Among people of English speech May-day customs are little more than a cheerful memory. Herrick wrote:

Wash, dress, be brief in praying,
Few beads are best when once we go a-maying.

People neglect their "beads" or the equivalents now from other motives.

May night is the German Walpurgis-nacht. The witches ride up to the Brocken on magpies' tails, not a magpie can be seen for the next twenty-four hours—they are all gone and they have not had time to return. The witches dance on the Brocken till they have danced away the winter's snow. May-brides and May-kings are still to be heard of in Germany, and children run about on May-day with buttercups or with a twist of bread, a Bretzel, decked with ribbons, or holding imprisoned may-flies, which they let loose whilst they sing:

Maïkäferchen fliege,
Dein Vater ist in kriege,
Deine Mutter ist in Pommerland,
Pommerland ist abgebrannt,
Maïkäfercben fliege.

May chafer must fly away home, his father is at the wars, his mother is in Pomerania, Pomerania is all burnt. May chafer in short is the brother of our ladybird. Mr. Karl Blind recollects taking part as a boy in an extremely curious children's drama which is still played in some places in the open air. It is an allegory of the expulsion of winter, who is killed and burnt, and of the arrival of summer, who comes decked with flowers and garlands. The children repeat:

Now have we chased death away,
And we bring the summer weather;
Summer dear and eke the may,
And the flowers all together.
Bringing summer we are come,
Summertide and sunshine home.

German Mailieder are one very much like the other; they are full of the simple gladness of children who have been shut up in houses, and who now can run about in the sunny air. We came across the following in Switzerland:—

"Alles neu macht der Mai,
Macht die Seele frisch und frei.
Lasst das Haus!
Kommt hinaus!
Windet einen Strauss!

"Rings erglänzet Sonnenschein,
Dustend pranget Flur und Hain.
Lust'ger Klang
Tönt den Wald entlang."

In Lorraine girls dressed in white go from village to village stringing off couplets, in which the inhabitants are turned into somewhat unmerciful ridicule. The girls of this place enlighten the people of that as to their small failings, and so vice versâ. All the winter the village poets harvest the jokes made by one community at the expense of another, in order to shape them into a consecutive whole for recital on May Day. The girls are rewarded for their part in the business by small coin, cakes, and fruit. The May-songs of Lorraine are termed "Trimazos," from the fact that they are always sung to the refrain,

"Trimazot, ç'at lo Maye;
O mi-Maye!
Ç'at lo joli mois de Maye,
Ç'at lo Trimazot."

What Trimazo means it would be hard to say, unless, as someone has suggested, Tri stands for three, and mazo for maidens. The word is known outside Lorraine: at Islettes children say:

"Trimazot! en nous allant
Nous pormenés eddans les champs
Nous y ons trouvé les blés si grands
Les Aubépin' en fleurissant."

They beg for money to buy a taper for the Virgin's altar; for it must not be forgotten that the month of May is the month of Mary. The villagers add a little flour to their pious offering, so that the children may make cakes. Elsewhere in Champagne young girls collect the taper money; they cunningly appeal to the tenderness of the young mother by bringing to her mind the hour "when she takes her pretty child up in the morning and lays him to sleep at night." There was a day on which the girls of the neighbourhood of Remiremont used to waylay every youth they met on the road to the church of Dommartin and insist on sticking a sprig of rosemary or laurel in his cap, saying, "We have found a fine gentleman, God give him joy and health; Take the May, the pretty May!" The fine gentleman was requested to give "what he liked" for the dear Virgin's sake. In the department of the Jura there are May-brides, and in Bresse they have a May-queen who is attended by a youth, selected for the purpose, and by a little boy who carries a green bough ornamented with ribands. She heads the village girls and boys who walk as in a marriage procession, and who receive eggs, wine, or money. A song still sung in Burgundy recalls the præ-revolutionary era and the respect inspired by the seigneurial woods: —

"Le voilà venu le joli mois,
Laissez bourgeonner le bois;
Le voilà venu le joli mois,
Le joli bois bourgeonne.
II faut laisser bourgeonner le bois,
Le bois du gentilhomme."

The young peasants of Poitou betake themselves to the door of each homestead before the dawn of the May morning and summon the mistress of the house to waken her daughters:

"For we are come before hath come the day
To sing the coming of the month of May."

But they do not ask the damsels to stand there listening to compliments; "Go to the hen-roost," they say, "and get eighteen or still better twenty new-laid eggs." If the eggs cannot be had, they can bring money, only let them make haste, as day-break is near and the road is long. By way of acknowledgment the spokesman adds a sort of "And your petitioners will ever pray;" they will pray for the purse which held the money and for the hen that laid the eggs. If St. Nicholas only hears them that hen will eat the fox, instead of the fox eating the hen. The gift is seemly. Now the dwellers in the homestead may go back to their beds and bar doors and windows; "as for us, we go through all the night singing at the arrival of sweet spring."

The antiquary in search of May-songs will turn to the Motets and Pastorals of that six-hundred-year- old Comic Opera "Li gieus de Robin et de Marion." Its origin was not illiterate, but in Adam de la Halle's time and country poets who had some letters and poets who had none did not stand widely apart. The May-month, the summer sweetness, the lilies of the valley, the green meadows—these constituted pretty well the whole idea which the French rustic had formed to himself of what poetry was. It cannot be denied that he came to use these things occasionally as mere commonplaces, a tendency which increased as time wore on. But he has his better moods and some of his ditties are not wanting in elegance. Here is an old song preserved in Burgundy:

Voici venu le mois des fleurs
Des chansons et des senteurs;
Le mois qui tout enchante
Le mois de douce attente.
Le buisson reprend ses coleurs
Au bois I'oiseau chante.

II est venu sans mes amours
Que j'attends, hélas, toujours;
Tandis que l'oiseau chante
Et que le mai l' on plante
Seule en ces bois que je parcours
Seule je me lamente.

In the France of the sixteenth century, the planting of the May took a literary turn. At Lyons for instance the printers were in the habit of setting up what was called "Le Mai des Imprimeurs" before the door of some distinguished person. The members of the illustrious Lombard house of Trivulzi, who between them held the government of Lyons for more than twenty-five years, were on several occasions chosen as recipients of the May-day compliment. "Le Grand Trivulce," marshal of France, was a great patron of literature, and the encouragement of the liberal arts grew to be a tradition in the family. In 1529 Theodore de Trivulce had a May planted in his honour bearing a poetical address from the pen of Clement Marot, and Pompone de Trivulce received a like distinction in 1535, when Etienne Dolet wrote for the occasion an ode in the purest Latin.

Lorenzo de' Medici says in one of his ballads:

Se tu vuo' appiccare un maio,
A qualcuna che tu ami. . . . .

In his day "Singing the May" was almost a trade; the country-folk flocked into Florence with their May trees and rustic instruments and took toll of the citizens. The custom continues along the Ligurian coast. At Spezia we have seen the boys come round on May-day piping and singing, and led by one, taller than the rest, who carries an Italian flag covered with garlands. The name of the master of the house before which they halt is introduced into a song that begins:

Siam venuti a cantar maggio,
Al Signore ——
Come ogn' anno usar si suole,
Nella stagion di primavera.

Since Chaucer, who loved so dearly the "May Kalendes" and the "See of the day," no one has celebrated them with a more ingenuous charm than the country lads of the island of Sardinia, who sing "May, May, be thou welcome, with all Sun and Love; with the Flower, and with the Marguerite." A Tuscan and a Pisan Rispetto may be taken as representative of Italian May-song:

'Twas in the Calends of the month of May,
I went into the garden for a flower,
A wild bird there I saw upon a spray,
Singing of love with skilled melodious power.
O little bird, who dost from Florence speed
Teach me whence loving doth at first proceed?
Love has its birth in music and in song,
To end, alas 1 to tears and grief belongs.

Era di maggio, se ben mi ricordo
Quando c'incominciammo a ben volere
Eran fiorite le rose dell'orto,
E le ciliege diventavan nere;
Ciliege nere e pere moscatelle,
Siete il trionfo delle donne belle
Ciliege nere e pere moscatate.
Siete il trionfo delle innamorate
Ciliege nere e pere moscatine,
Siete il trionfo delle piu belline.

The child's or lover's play of words in this last baffles all attempt at translation: it is not sense but sweetness, not poetry but music. It is as much without rule or study or conventionality as the song of birds when in Italian phrase, fanno primavera.

Professor d'Ancona believes, that to the custom of keeping May by singing from house to house and collecting largess of eggs or fruit or cheese, may be traced the dramatic representations, which, under the name of Maggi, can still be witnessed in certain districts of the Tuscan Hills and of the plain of Pisa. These May-plays are performed any Sunday in Spring, just after Mass; the men, women, and children, hastening from the church-door to the roughly built theatre which has the sky for roof, the grey olives and purple hills for background. The verses of the play (it is always in verse) are sung to a sort of monotonous but elastic chant, in nearly every case unaccompanied by instruments. No one can do more than guess when that chant was composed; it may have been five hundred years ago and it may have been much more. Grief or joy, love and hate, all are expressed upon the same notes. It is possible that some such recitative was used in the Greek drama. A play that was not sung would not seem a play to the Tuscan contadino. The characters are acted by men or boys, the peasants not liking their wives and daughters to perform in public. A considerable number of Maggi exist in print or in MS. carefully copied for the convenience of the actors. The subjects range from King David to Count Ugolino, from the siege of Troy to the French Revolution. They seem for most part modern compositions, cast in a form which was probably invented before the age of Dante.