‘May’ by Christina Rossetti

I cannot tell you how it was,
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny day
When May was young; ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird foregone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was,
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and gray.

I love this poem for its gentleness, and because of the way it is mysterious; at the end the reader is still wondering what happened. The poet will not tell us anything about the event, or even what it was. All we are told is that it happened “When May was young”, when the “last egg had not hatched”, and before “any bird [had] foregone its mate”. The mentioning of the birds’ mates, and of all those images of fertility, such as the eggs not yet hatched, the flowers — the poppies not yet “born” — makes me feel like what happened was a love affair.

The poem enforces the notion of the fleetingness of everything: of the seasons, of life, of nature, of “all sweet things”. And that final line is so sad and poignant. Everything passes away; this event “came to pass” and “did but pass” and finally “passed away”. There is some revelling in the happiness of the event (“ah, pleasant May!”) but not too much, and once it has passed away, there is mourning, but, again, not too much (she is left “old, and cold, and gray.”) I like that, because there seems to be some measure of acceptance there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh