Wordsworth in the Month of May

William Wordsworth is a springtime poet. Even if read in a different season, his best ballads and sonnets seem fixed fast within the spring season — particularly, it seems, during the 31 days of May. Reading Wordsworth, you don’t come looking for autumn odes or lines composed on a January morning. No, if you could assign the father of the English Romantic movement a favorite month, it is going to be May. I’m not being hyperbolic. It is particularly bizarre to discover him and his beautiful, sentimental reflections, during May itself.

In his seminal Ode on Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth gives special attention to May three times. First, in celebration of the month itself and the life it brings:

And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every beast keep holiday;

Then, he checks any dark thoughts that don’t reflect the sunny season:

O evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning
This sweet May morning;

Finally, he commands the birds and lambs to sing “a joyous song” so that

Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!

May and the “jocund company” it keeps spans much of Wordsworth’s best work, from the dancing of daffodils to glory of the Green Linnet, where Wordsworth confesses, “The May is come again–how sweet / to sit upon my Orchard seat!”

By my count, he wrote nine poems with May in the title, including the ode, To May:

THOUGH many suns have risen and set
Since thou, blithe May, wert born,
And Bards, who hailed thee, may forget
Thy gifts, thy beauty scorn;
There are who to a birthday strain
Confine not harp and voice,
But evermore throughout thy reign
Are grateful and rejoice!

Reading lines like that, all while myself living out a pleasant but by no means life-altering May, makes me feel like a bit of a curmudgeon. May’s swell, to be sure, but the fellow’s taking it a bit far, right? But then, consider what May really means in these poems. It is that fragile thing: a beginning. The opening notes of a favorite melody, or the first hour back in a beloved city. It’s all of the wanting of something, and the remembering of the wanting, encapsulated in a blip of time. In the end, May is nothing but time, something we anticipate, we relish, and long for once it is gone.

Wordsworth’s poetry famously–and excessively–reflects about childhood and lost loves, treasures that we can never appreciate enough during their brief lifespans. May is all of these things. Even in May, I know it is ending. Perhaps then, May isn’t actually even a block of time. It is a wanting, that passes by like a comet every so often. It never goes away, just retreats a short distance. I wonder if Wordsworth felt most inspired before, during, or after the fifth month of every year. Or maybe he was always beyond May, even during it. The true Romantic never breaks out of the past.

 Hush, feeble lyre! weak words refuse
The service to prolong!
To yon exulting thrush the Muse
Entrusts the imperfect song;
His voice shall chant, in accents clear,
Throughout the live-long day,
Till the first silver star appear,
The sovereignty of May.


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