Something significant occurred during the month of May in Christina Rossetti's "May," though what exactly transpired remains the first person narrator's secret. This narrator twice uses the phrase "I cannot tell you", referring first to "how it was" and later to "what it was." The speaker pulls the reader into the poem through a direct address yet at the same time holds him or her at a distance by vaguely alluding to "it" and by explicitly withholding information. Although crucial information seems to be withheld from the reader, whatever "it" was evidently left with the passing of the month and the narrator provides some context that may be helpful in guessing what happened in May.
I cannot tell you how it was;
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and breezy day
When May was young; ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last eggs had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird forgone its mate.
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.
"It" apparently happened on a clear day, and there is no evidence suggesting that anything about the situation was at all unclear to the narrator. If the narrator knows exactly what happened, why is he or she unable to tell the reader more about it? Was the event too ephemeral to be described? Was it too emotional or powerful to be spoken of? Does the narrator have some other reason for being equivocal with the reader? Is the speaker suggesting that when something good ends, as this did, one must not dwell on it? If so, this is somewhat parallel to the way the narrators of C. Rossetti's Song and Tennyson's In Memoriam disparage the singing of songs to the dead.
Various lines in the poem focus on stages of life, for example birth ("the poppies were not born" and "the last eggs had not hatched as yet"), youth ("May was young" and "tender corn"), and old age ("it passed away, / And left me old"). Considering C. Rossetti's focus on death in a number of her poems, one might expect death to be the logical conclusion of this poem. Yet at the end of the poem the protagonist has aged but not died. Why might this be the case?
Rossetti uses language describing light, color and temperature (for example "bright," sunny," "grey," "breezy," and "cold") in several ways: she creates a visual image of a scene in the mind of the reader; she expresses a sense of aging; and she evokes a feeling of mourning for the thing that has been lost. Does the language work equally well to achieve all of these goals, or is it best suited to one of them?
What "passed away?" The image of a couple of birds seems to be hinting at lost love. Does the text suggest any other possible events?
This poem focuses on a cycle of feelings occurring in May. Yet since it is natural that "all sweet things" eventually pass, that a person feels sadness at loss, and that he must age, is this poem actually describing the cycle of emotions that a person feels in a lifetime? If this is the intention of the poet, then what is accomplished by condensing the time span of these emotions so that they occur over the course of a month or two?
Last modified 17 October 2003