May 1st has been celebrated for thousands of years. Steeped in folklore magic, it marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
The earliest known celebrations of May are Floralia – the festival of Flora, celebrating the Roman Goddess of flowers during the Roman Republic era. Throughout history, the celebration’s theme lies in that of fertility, nature and the summer season, with the Celtic celebration Beltane (translating to ‘lucky fire’) blessing the movement of cattle to summer pastures.
We’ve chosen this sweet poem from The Springtide of Life – Illustrated by Arthur Rackham to celebrate this wonderful time of year.
SUN, whom the faltering snow-cloud fears,
Rise, let the time of year be May,
Speak now the word that April hears,
Let March have all his royal way;
Bid all spring raise in winter’s ears
All tunes her children hear or play,
Because the crown of eight glad years
On one bright head is set to-day.
What matters cloud or sun to-day
To him who wears the wreath of years
So many, and all like flowers at play
With wind and sunshine, while his ears
Hear only song on every way?
More sweet than spring triumphant hears
Ring through the revel-rout of May
Are these, the notes that winter fears.
Strong-hearted winter knows and fears
The music made of love at play,
Or haply loves the tune he hears
From hearts fulfilled with flowering May,
Whose molten music thaws his ears
Late frozen, deaf but yesterday
To sounds of dying and dawning years,
Now quickened on his deathward way.
For deathward now lies winter’s way
Down the green vestibule of years
That each year brightens day by day
With flower and shower till hope scarce fears
And fear grows wholly hope of May.
But we—the music in our cars
Made of love’s pulses as they play
The heart alone that makes it hears.
The heart it is that plays and hears
High salutation of to-day.
Tongue falters, hand shrinks back, song fears
Its own unworthiness to play
Fit music for those eight sweet years,
Or sing their blithe accomplished way.
No song quite worth a young child’s ears
Broke ever even from birds in May.
There beats not in the heart of May,
When summer hopes and springtide fears,
There falls not from the height of day,
When sunlight speaks and silence hears,
So sweet a psalm as children play
And sing, each hour of all their years,
Each moment of their lovely way,
And know not how it thrills our ears.
Ah child, what are we, that our ears
Should hear you singing on your way,
Should have this happiness? The years
Whose hurrying wings about us play
Are not like yours, whose flower-time fears
Nought worse than sunlit showers in May,
Being sinless as the spring, that hears
Her own heart praise her every day.
Yet we too triumph in the day
That bare, to entrance our eyes and ears,
To lighten daylight, and to play
Such notes as darkness knows and fears,
The child whose face illumines our way,
Whose voice lifts up the heart that hears,
Whose hand is as the hand of May
To bring us flowers from eight full years.
An anthology, collected by Edmund Gosse, containing Algernon Charles Swinburne’s enchanting verses for children. His poems are here decorated with the delicate and romantic illustrations of Arthur Rackham. Gosse once told Rackham that ‘this volume will not merely be the best book of the present art-season, but a joy to all sensitive people for years and years to come.’
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