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The Merry Month of May by Arthur Machen


I have been reading about the customs of May Day; of the rising up early and going into the fields and to the borders of the woods, of the gathering of the white blossoming boughs and the bearing of them home again. And of the Maypole also; of the tall tree all bedecked and garlanded and gay; and the men and women dancing round it, in sheer lightness of heart, in sheer delight that the sun is warm once more, and that the earth once more has grown green. I wonder and admire and am quite sure that the age which performed all these happy observances was, so far, infinitely more civilized than ours, which, I believe, observes May Day, so far as it observes the feast at all, by holding demonstrations of a scarlet colour and holloing of Bolshevist anthems. Without going deeply into politics, one can say quite definitely that it is more civilized to bear branches of flowering thorn than to bear the Red Flag. But, having freely admitted this much, I would urge my strong objection to the attempted revival of May Day customs—or of any old customs for the matter of that. What is the use of tying grapes on thorns or figs on thistles? You may make a ghastly and unconvincing imitation of a vine, and a fig, but the fruits will rot and the thorn will remain a thorn, and the thistle a thistle. It is without the slightest enthusiasm that I read of the revival of Morris dancing and the teaching of it; it is as if one taught laughter in the Council Schools. Little pamphlets and magazine articles would be written showing how our old English literature is full of allusions to mirth and laughter, how once upon a time everybody laughed, how an old man had been found in an out-of-the-way hamlet who still laughed, how many eminent physiologists were inclined to think that laughter, in some mysterious manner, promoted digestion. You can imagine the scene: the schoolroom smelling of damp deal boards and inkpots, its walls hung round with maps and charts, the mistress—certificated in Laughter—at her desk.

'Now, children,' she begins, 'I have explained to you how once upon a time everybody laughed a great deal. We don't quite know why they did so. Some learned men think that laughter was an imitation of a thunderstorm, and that people laughed to bring the thunder and rain and do good to the crops, just as sailors used to whistle when they wanted the wind to blow and make their ship go through the water. You heard all about that the other day in Miss Skimpton's lecture on the Mimetic and Cultural Origin of the Arts. But, whatever the reason for people laughing, it is thought that it was good for them and that it would be good for us too.

'Now, children, imitate me—'

The Mistresssadly—'Ha, ha, ha!'

The Childrengloomily—'Ha, ha, ha!'

The Mistressmiserably—'He, he, he!'

The Childrendespairingly—'He, he, he!'

Well, it may come to that, if the world goes on as it goes now, and laughter may become a lost art. But it will be of no use to try to 'revive' it. It will be idle to put it into a syllabus and teach it in the schools. And so it is idle and useless to try to revive Morris dancing or May games or Maypoles or any of the ancient customs of our fathers. For these things are effects, symptoms; not causes. You cannot get scarlet fever by painting yourself with red spots; you cannot get a light and happy heart by dancing a Morris or dancing round the Maypole or bringing in the May. The German baron in the story was found jumping over his chairs and tables. He was asked what he meant by it, and he replied: 'Sh'apprens t'être fif—by which he intended to say: 'I am learning to be lively.' But it is quite certain that he remained as heavy as ever. And it is quite certain that we have lost that quality which lay behind all these old merry customs of the May, which was the cause and source of them all. I have called that quality light-heartedness, but I am not sure but that joy is not the real name. It is already becoming something of a mystery to us, as the origin and cause and meaning of laughter had become to our imaginary County Council mistress. It was not a thing that depended upon external good fortune or ill; people had hard times and bad luck in plenty in the Middle Ages, and bad luck of a very ill kind: we may be sure of that. But, as a race, we always had joy, and that in an eminent degree, as is expressed by the phrase, 'Merry England.' We must not confuse this sense of mirth or joy or light-heartedness—whatever it may be called—with the sense of humour. That, I think, we have in a superior degree; all of us, that is, who can relish Dickens and W. W. Jacobs. The mediæval notion of a joke was primitive and practical; there are certain tales in Chaucer which are assuredly funny, but in a rough and ready way, and without the subtler flavours which we have learned to relish and appreciate. But humour has nothing much to do with a light heart; its savour is not far removed from sadness. Humour, we may almost say, is a strange and beautiful and exquisite by-product of a world which is seen to be all wrong; a recognition that its incoherences and even its tragedies have something wildly funny about them. Let us review Mr. Micawber's career as it appeared to the eyes of the world and Mrs. Micawber's family; it was, seriously, rather shocking, disastrous, and not over honest. I don't think the Middle Ages would have seen anything funny in Micawber: they would probably have whippd him. But Dickens, by a happy and marvellous magic, distilled Micawber's shabby disgraces into an elixir of rare humour.

But that quality which we have been speaking of, that quality which made Morris dances and May mirth, which caused grave lawyers to dance solemnly round an imaginary fireplace in Middle Temple Hall as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century—that quality was due to a conviction that in spite of the Black Death and the Hangman and the King's Counsellors the times were on the whole in joint, and not out of joint. Dante wrote of horrors terrible enough, and many of them eternal horrors; yet, surveying the universe, he could call his book, the 'Divine Comedy.' He could afford to be light-hearted. Not only the end, but the whole purpose and scheme, as he saw it, were happy. I think that this joy, this mirth, had departed from the world, or were fast departing from it, when Shakespeare wrote. His outlook on the universe was, I believe, on the whole, a sad one. It was thus that he was able to create Falstaff, that supreme work of humour out of the villainies and cowardices and shameful shifts of one of the most disgraceful old rascals who ever breathed in imaginative literature. To Chaucer, Falstaff would have been merely a 'recreant knight' and 'foul caitiff': but Shakespeare saw him as a fountain bubbling with laughter.


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