A sense of ambiguity and uncertainty permeates the tone of Christina Rossetti's short piece, "May." The first line itself shows this uncertainty: "I cannot tell you how it was". The narrator already promises the reader an unfinished story. The use of the word ambiguous word "it" further mystifies the focus of the poem. The second line fools the reader for an instant. At first, the reader thinks that he/she will come upon a concrete piece of information when he/she reads "But this I know...". However, as the remainder of the line reveals, the ambiguous "it" comes to pass. Essentially, the narrator is certain of an idea or event that is uncertain to the reader.
Rossetti writes of this ambiguous "it" occuring at the beginning of the month of May. She vividly describes natural images associated with the springtime, including poppies, blades of corn, and birds' eggs. This clarity seems to contrast the indefiniteness. Yet, these lines also reflect uncertainty. "As yet the poppies were not born", the eggs "had not hatched as yet", and the bird had not "forgone its mate" each indicate events that had not actually occured at that certain point in the narration. There is an anticipation for the completion of these events. Again, the feeling of unfulfillment takes a hold of the poem.
The last stanza combines notions of certainty and uncertainty. Rossetti writes:
I cannot tell you what it was;
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
With all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and grey.
Again, the undefined "it" takes presence in these last lines, along with expressions of certainty and the affirmation of particular events that occured in the narrator's life.
1. What do you think the "it" is? Perhaps "it" cannot be summed up in one word, as the narrator was not able to do so. However, what could be some ideas or emotions about which the narrator talks? Does the repetition of the word "pass" provide any clues?
2. What feelings or emotions develop from the use of such indeterminate ideas? That is, do you feel incomplete after reading the poem, or do you feel satisfied with the ending of the poem? Is there a definite end to the poem despite the indefinite ideaology present? Is there any feeling of anticipation left upon the piece's conclusion?
3. The narrator specifically remembers the month in which "it" passed was May. What makes May such an appropriate time for this experience?
4. The author is certain of what one thing, besides the fact that "it did pass"? Specifically, which line does this affirmation occur? What is the message or theme of "May"?
Last modified 20 October 2003