MAYPOLE

 

1836
TWICE-TOLD TALES
THE MAYPOLE OF MERRY MOUNT
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

BRIGHT WERE THE DAYS at Merry Mount, when the Maypole was the
banner staff of that gay colony! They who reared it, should their
banner be triumphant, were to pour sunshine over New England's
rugged hills, and scatter flower seeds throughout the soil. Jollity
and gloom were contending for an empire. Midsummer eve had come,
bringing deep verdure to the forest, and roses in her lap, of a more
vivid hue than the tender buds of Spring. But May, or her mirthful
spirit, dwelt all the year round at Merry Mount, sporting with the
Summer months, and revelling with Autumn, and basking in the glow of
Winter's fireside. Through a world of toil and care she flitted with a
dreamlike smile, and came hither to find a home among the lightsome
hearts of Merry Mount.
Never had the Maypole been so gayly decked as at sunset on
midsummer eve. This venerated emblem was a pine-tree, which had
preserved the slender grace of youth, while it equalled the loftiest
height of the old wood monarchs. From its top streamed a silken
banner, colored like the rainbow. Down nearly to the ground the pole
was dressed with birchen boughs, and others of the liveliest green,
and some with silvery leaves, fastened by ribbons that fluttered in
fantastic knots of twenty different colors, but no sad ones. Garden
flowers, and blossoms of the wilderness, laughed gladly forth amid the
verdure, so fresh and dewy that they must have grown by magic on
that happy pine-tree. Where this green and flowery splendor
terminated, the shaft of the Maypole was stained with the seven
brilliant hues of the banner at its top. On the lowest green bough
hung an abundant wreath of roses, some that had been gathered in the
sunniest spots of the forest, and others, of still richer blush, which
the colonists had reared from English seed. O, people of the Golden
Age, the chief of your husbandry was to raise flowers!
But what was the wild throng that stood hand in hand about the
Maypole? It could not be that the fauns and nymphs, when driven from
their classic groves and homes of ancient fable, had sought refuge, as
all the persecuted did, in the fresh woods of the West. These were
Gothic monsters, though perhaps of Grecian ancestry. On the
shoulders of a comely youth uprose the head and branching antlers of a
stag; a second, human in all other points, had the grim visage of a
wolf; a third, still with the trunk and limbs of a mortal man,
showed the beard and horns of a venerable he-goat. There was the
likeness of a bear erect, brute in all but his hind legs, which were
adorned with pink silk stockings. And here again, almost as
wondrous, stood a real bear of the dark forest, lending each of his
fore paws to the grasp of a human hand, and as ready for the dance
as any in that circle. His inferior nature rose half way, to meet
his companions as they stooped. Other faces wore the similitude of man
or woman, but distorted or extravagant, with red noses pendulous
before their mouths, which seemed of awful depth, and stretched from
ear to ear in an eternal fit of laughter. Here might be seen the
Salvage Man, well known in heraldry, hairy as a baboon, and girdled
with green leaves. By his side, a noble figure, but still a
counterfeit, appeared an Indian hunter, with feathery crest and wampum
belt. Many of this strange company wore foolscaps, and had little
bells appended to their garments, tinkling with a silvery sound,
responsive to the inaudible music of their gleesome spirits. Some
youths and maidens were of soberer garb, yet well maintained their
places in the irregular throng by the expression of wild revelry
upon their features. Such were the colonists of Merry Mount, as they
stood in the broad smile of sunset round their venerated Maypole.
Had a wanderer, bewildered in the melancholy forest, heard their
mirth, and stolen a half-affrighted glance, he might have fancied them
the crew of Comus, some already transformed to brutes, some midway
between man and beast, and the others rioting in the flow of tipsy
jollity that foreran the change. But a band of Puritans, who watched
the scene, invisible themselves, compared the masques to those
devils and ruined souls with whom their superstition peopled the black
wilderness.
Within the ring of monsters appeared the two airiest forms that had
ever trodden on any more solid footing than a purple and golden cloud.
One was a youth in glistening apparel, with a scarf of the rainbow
pattern crosswise on his breast. His right hand held a gilded staff,
the ensign of high dignity among the revellers, and his left grasped
the slender fingers of a fair maiden, not less gayly decorated than
himself. Bright roses glowed in contrast with the dark and glossy
curls of each, and were scattered round their feet, or had sprung up
spontaneously there. Behind this lightsome couple, so close to the
Maypole that its boughs shaded his jovial face, stood the figure of an
English priest, canonically dressed, yet decked with flowers, in
heathen fashion, and wearing a chaplet of the native vine leaves. By
the riot of his rolling eye, and the pagan decorations of his holy
garb, he seemed the wildest monster there, and the very Comus of the
crew.
"Votaries of the Maypole," cried the flower-decked priest,
"merrily, all day long, have the woods echoed to your mirth. But be
this your merriest hour, my hearts! Lo, here stand the Lord and Lady
of the May, whom I, a clerk of Oxford, and high priest of Merry Mount,
am presently to join in holy matrimony. Up with your nimble spirits,
ye morris-dancers, green men, and glee maidens, bears and wolves,
and horned gentlemen! Come; a chorus now, rich with the old mirth of
Merry England, and the wilder glee of this fresh forest; and then a
dance, to show the youthful pair what life is made of, and how
airily they should go through it! All ye that love the Maypole, lend
your voices to the nuptial song of the Lord and Lady of the May!"
This wedlock was more serious than most affairs of Merry Mount,
where jest and delusion, trick and fantasy, kept up a continual
carnival. The Lord and Lady of the May, though their titles must be
laid down at sunset, were really and truly to be partners for the
dance of life, beginning the measure that same bright eve. The
wreath of roses, that hung from the lowest green bough of the Maypole,
had been twined for them, and would be thrown over both their heads,
in symbol of their flowery union. When the priest had spoken,
therefore, a riotous uproar burst from the rout of monstrous figures.
"Begin you the stave, reverend Sir," cried they all; "and never did
the woods ring to such a merry peal as we of the Maypole shall send
up!"
Immediately a prelude of pipe, cithern, and viol, touched with
practised minstrelsy, began to play from a neighboring thicket, in
such a mirthful cadence that the boughs of the Maypole quivered to the
sound. But the May Lord, he of the gilded staff, chancing to look into
his Lady's eyes, was wonder struck at the almost pensive glance that
met his own.
"Edith, sweet Lady of the May," whispered he reproachfully, "is yon
wreath of roses a garland to hang above our graves, that you look so
sad? O, Edith, this is our golden time! Tarnish it not by any
pensive shadow of the mind; for it may be that nothing of futurity
will be brighter than the mere remembrance of what is now passing."
"That was the very thought that saddened me! How came it in your
mind too?" said Edith, in a still lower tone than he, for it was
high treason to be sad at Merry Mount. "Therefore do I sigh amid
this festive music. And besides, dear Edgar, I struggle as with a
dream, and fancy that these shapes of our jovial friends are
visionary, and their mirth unreal, and that we are no true Lord and
Lady of the May. What is the mystery in my heart?"
Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little
shower of withering rose leaves from the Maypole. Alas, for the
young lovers! No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion than
they were sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in their
former pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change.
From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves
to earth's doom of care and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no
more a home at Merry Mount. That was Edith's mystery. Now leave we the
priest to marry them, and the masquers to sport round the Maypole,
till the last sunbeam be withdrawn from its summit, and the shadows of
the forest mingle gloomily in the dance. Meanwhile, we may discover
who these gay people were.
Two hundred years ago, and more, the old world and its
inhabitants became mutually weary of each other. Men voyaged by
thousands to the West: some to barter glass beads, and such like
jewels, for the furs of the Indian hunter; some to conquer virgin
empires; and one stern band to pray. But none of these motives had
much weight with the colonists of Merry Mount. Their leaders were
men who had sported so long with life, that when Thought and Wisdom
came, even these unwelcome guests were led astray by the crowd of
vanities which they should have put to flight. Erring Thought and
perverted Wisdom were made to put on masques, and play the fool. The
men of whom we speak, after losing the heart's fresh gayety,
imagined a wild philosophy of pleasure, and came hither to act out
their latest day-dream. They gathered followers from all that giddy
tribe whose whole life is like the festal days of soberer men. In
their train were minstrels, not unknown in London streets: wandering
players, whose theatres had been the halls of noblemen; mummers,
rope-dancers, and mountebanks, who would long be missed at wakes,
church ales, and fairs; in a word, mirth makers of every sort, such as
abounded in that age, but now began to be discountenanced by the rapid
growth of Puritanism. Light had their footsteps been on land, and as
lightly they came across the sea. Many had been maddened by their
previous troubles into a gay despair; others were as madly gay in
the flush of youth, like the May Lord and his Lady; but whatever might
be the quality of their mirth, old and young were gay at Merry
Mount. The young deemed themselves happy. The elder spirits, if they
knew that mirth was but the counterfeit of happiness, yet followed the
false shadow wilfully, because at least her garments glittered
brightest. Sworn triflers of a lifetime, they would not venture
among the sober truths of life not even to be truly blest.
All the hereditary pastimes of Old England were transplanted
hither. The King of Christmas was duly crowned, and the Lord of
Misrule bore potent sway. On the Eve of St. John, they felled whole
acres of the forest to make bonfires, and danced by the blaze all
night, crowned with garlands, and throwing flowers into the flame.
At harvest time, though their crop was of the smallest, they made an
image with the sheaves of Indian corn, and wreathed it with autumnal
garlands, and bore it home triumphantly. But what chiefly
characterized the colonists of Merry Mount was their veneration for
the Maypole. It has made their true history a poet's tale. Spring
decked the hallowed emblem with young blossoms and fresh green boughs;
Summer brought roses of the deepest blush, and the perfected foliage
of the forest; Autumn enriched it with that red and yellow
gorgeousness which converts each wildwood leaf into a painted
flower; and Winter silvered it with sleet, and hung it round with
icicles, till it flashed in the cold sunshine, itself a frozen
sunbeam. Thus each alternate season did homage to the Maypole, and
paid it a tribute of its own richest splendor. Its votaries danced
round it, once, at least, in every month; sometimes they called it
their religion, or their altar; but always, it was the banner staff of
Merry Mount.
Unfortunately, there were men in the new world of a sterner faith
than these Maypole worshippers. Not far from Merry Mount was a
settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches, who said their prayers
before daylight, and then wrought in the forest or the corn-field till
evening made it prayer time again. Their weapons were always at hand
to shoot down the straggling savage. When they met in conclave, it was
never to keep up the old English mirth, but to hear sermons three
hours long, or to proclaim bounties on the heads of wolves and the
scalps of Indians. Their festivals were fast days, and their chief
pastime the singing of psalms. Wo to the youth or maiden who did but
dream of a dance! The selectman nodded to the constable; and there sat
the light-heeled reprobate in the stocks; or if he danced, it was
round the whipping-post, which might be termed the Puritan Maypole.
A party of these grim Puritans, toiling through the difficult
woods, each with a horseload of iron armor to burden his footsteps,
would sometimes draw near the sunny precincts of Merry Mount. There
were the silken colonists, sporting round their Maypole; perhaps
teaching a bear to dance, or striving to communicate their mirth to
the grave Indian; or masquerading in the skins of deer and wolves,
which they had hunted for that especial purpose. Often, the whole
colony were playing at blindman's buff, magistrates and all, with
their eyes bandaged, except a single scapegoat, whom the blinded
sinners pursued by the tinkling of the bells at his garments. Once, it
is said, they were seen following a flower-decked corpse, with
merriment and festive music, to his grave. But did the dead man laugh?
In their quietest times, they sang ballads and told tales, for the
edification of their pious visitors; or perplexed them with juggling
tricks; or grinned at them through horse collars; and when sport
itself grew wearisome, they made game of their own stupidity, and
began a yawning match. At the very least of these enormities, the
men of iron shook their heads and frowned so darkly that the revellers
looked up, imagining that a momentary cloud had overcast the sunshine,
which was to be perpetual there. On the other hand, the Puritans
affirmed that, when a psalm was pealing from their place of worship,
the echo which the forest sent them back seemed often like the
chorus of a jolly catch, closing with a roar of laughter. Who but
the fiend, and his bond slaves, the crew of Merry Mount, had thus
disturbed them? In due time, a feud arose, stern and bitter on one
side, and as serious on the other as anything could be among such
light spirits as had sworn allegiance to the Maypole. The future
complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel.
Should the grizzly saints establish their jurisdiction over the gay
sinners, then would their spirits darken all the clime, and make it
a land of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm
forever. But should the banner staff of Merry Mount be fortunate,
sunshine would break upon the hills, and flowers would beautify the
forest, and late posterity do homage to the Maypole.
After these authentic passages from history, we return to the
nuptials of the Lord and Lady of the May. Alas! we have delayed too
long, and must darken our tale too suddenly. As we glance again at the
Maypole, a solitary sunbeam is fading from the summit, and leaves only
a faint, golden tinge blended with the hues of the rainbow banner.
Even that dim light is now withdrawn, relinquishing the whole domain
of Merry Mount to the evening gloom, which has rushed so
instantaneously from the black surrounding woods. But some of these
black shadows have rushed forth in human shape.
Yes, with the setting sun, the last day of mirth had passed from
Merry Mount. The ring of gay masquers was disordered and broken; the
stag lowered his antlers in dismay; the wolf grew weaker than a
lamb; the bells of the morris-dancers tinkled with tremulous affright.
The Puritans had played a characteristic part in the Maypole
mummeries. Their darksome figures were intermixed with the wild shapes
of their foes, and made the scene a picture of the moment, when waking
thoughts start up amid the scattered fantasies of a dream. The
leader of the hostile party stood in the centre of the circle, while
the rout of monsters cowered around him, like evil spirits in the
presence of a dread magician. No fantastic foolery could look him in
the face. So stern was the energy of his aspect, that the whole man,
visage, frame, and soul, seemed wrought of iron, gifted with life
and thought, yet all of one substance with his headpiece and
breastplate. It was the Puritan of Puritans; it was Endicott himself!
"Stand off, priest of Baal!" said he, with a grim frown, and laying
no reverent hand upon the surplice. "I know thee, Blackstone! Thou art
the man who couldst not abide the rule even of thine own corrupted
church, and hast come hither to preach iniquity, and to give example
of it in thy life. But now shall it be seen that the Lord hath
sanctified this wilderness for his peculiar people. Wo unto them
that would defile it! And first, for this flower-decked abomination,
the altar of thy worship!"
And with his keen sword Endicott assaulted the hallowed Maypole.
Nor long did it resist his arm. It groaned with a dismal sound; it
showered leaves and rosebuds upon the remorseless enthusiast; and
finally, with all its green boughs and ribbons and flowers, symbolic
of departed pleasures, down fell the banner staff of Merry Mount. As
it sank, tradition says, the evening sky grew darker, and the woods
threw forth a more sombre shadow.
"There," cried Endicott, looking triumphantly on his work, "there
lies the only Maypole in New England! The thought is strong within
me that, by its fall, is shadowed forth the fate of light and idle
mirth makers, amongst us and our posterity. Amen, saith John
Endicott."

*Did Governor Endicott speak less positively, we should suspect a
mistake here. The Rev. Mr. Blackstone, though an eccentric, is not
known to have been an immoral man. We rather doubt his identity with
the priest of Merry Mount.

"Amen!" echoed his followers.
But the votaries of the Maypole gave one groan for their idol. At
the sound, the Puritan leader glanced at the crew of Comus, each a
figure of broad mirth, yet, at this moment, strangely expressive of
sorrow and dismay.
"Valiant captain," quoth Peter Palfrey, the Ancient of the band,
"what order shall be taken with the prisoners?"
"I thought not to repent me of cutting down a Maypole," replied
Endicott, "yet now I could find in my heart to plant it again, and
give each of these bestial pagans one other dance round their idol. It
would have served rarely for a whipping-post!"
"But there are pine-trees enow," suggested the lieutenant.
"True, good Ancient," said the leader. "Wherefore, bind the heathen
crew, and bestow on them a small matter of stripes apiece, as
earnest of our future justice. Set some of the rogues in the stocks to
rest themselves, so soon as Providence shall bring us to one of our
own well-ordered settlements, where such accommodations may be
found. Further penalties, such as branding and cropping of ears, shall
be thought of hereafter."
"How many stripes for the priest?" inquired Ancient Palfrey.
"None as yet," answered Endicott, bending his iron frown upon the
culprit. "It must be for the Great and General Court to determine,
whether stripes and long imprisonment, and other grievous penalty, may
atone for his transgressions. Let him look to himself! For such as
violate our civil order, it may be permitted us to show mercy. But
wo to the wretch that troubleth our religion!"
"And this dancing bear," resumed the officer. "Must he share the
stripes of his fellows?"
"Shoot him through the head!" said the energetic Puritan. "I
suspect witchcraft in the beast."
"Here be a couple of shining ones," continued Peter Palfrey,
pointing his weapon at the Lord and Lady of the May. "They seem to
be of high station among these misdoers. Methinks their dignity will
not be fitted with less than a double share of stripes."
Endicott rested on his sword, and closely surveyed the dress and
aspect of the hapless pair. There they stood, pale, downcast, and
apprehensive. Yet there was an air of mutual support, and of pure
affection, seeking aid and giving it, that showed them to be man and
wife, with the sanction of a priest upon their love. The youth, in the
peril of the moment, had dropped his gilded staff, and thrown his
arm about the Lady of the May, who leaned against his breast, too
lightly to burden him, but with weight enough to express that their
destinies were linked together, for good or evil. They looked first at
each other, and then into the grim captain's face. There they stood,
in the first hour of wedlock, while the idle pleasures, of which their
companions were the emblems, had given place to the sternest cares
of life, personified by the dark Puritans. But never had their
youthful beauty seemed so pure and high as when its glow was chastened
by adversity.
"Youth," said Endicott, "ye stand in an evil case, thou and thy
maiden wife. Make ready presently, for I am minded that ye shall
both have a token to remember your wedding day!"
"Stern man," cried the May Lord, "how can I move thee? Were the
means at hand, I would resist to the death. Being powerless, I
entreat! Do with me as thou wilt, but let Edith go untouched!"
"Not so," replied the immitigable zealot. "We are not wont to
show an idle courtesy to that sex, which requireth the stricter
discipline. What sayest thou, maid? Shall thy silken bridegroom suffer
thy share of the penalty, besides his own?"
"Be it death," said Edith, "and lay it all on me!"
Truly, as Endicott had said, the poor lovers stood in a woful case.
Their foes were triumphant, their friends captive and abased, their
home desolate, the benighted wilderness around them, and a rigorous
destiny, in the shape of the Puritan leader, their only guide. Yet the
deepening twilight could not altogether conceal that the iron man
was softened; he smiled at the fair spectacle of early love; he almost
sighed for the inevitable blight of early hopes.
"The troubles of life have come hastily on this young couple,"
observed Endicott. "We will see how they comport themselves under
their present trials ere we burden them with greater. If, among the
spoil, there be any garments of a more decent fashion, let them be put
upon this May Lord and his Lady, instead of their glistening vanities.
Look to it, some of you."
"And shall not the youth's hair be cut?" asked Peter Palfrey,
looking with abhorrence at the love-lock and long glossy curls of
the young man.
"Crop it forthwith, and that in the true pumpkin-shell fashion,"
answered the captain. "Then bring them along with us, but more
gently than their fellows. There be qualities in the youth, which
may make him valiant to fight, and sober to toil, and pious to pray;
and in the maiden, that may fit her to become a mother in our
Israel, bringing up babes in better nurture than her own hath been.
Nor think ye, young ones, that they are the happiest, even in our
lifetime of a moment, who mis-spend it in dancing round a Maypole!"
And Endicott, the severest Puritan of all who laid the rock
foundation of New England, lifted the wreath of roses from the ruin of
the Maypole, and threw it, with his own gauntleted hand, over the
heads of the Lord and Lady of the May. It was a deed of prophecy. As
the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gayety, even so
was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They
returned to it no more. But as their flowery garland was wreathed of
the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united
them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys.
They went heavenward, supporting each other along the difficult path
which it was their lot to tread, and never wasted one regretful
thought on the vanities of Merry Mount.

NOTE. There is an admirable foundation for a philosophic romance in
the curious history of the early settlement of Mount Wollaston, or
Merry Mount. In the slight sketch here attempted, the facts,
recorded on the grave pages of our New England annalists, have wrought
themselves, almost spontaneously, into a sort of allegory. The
masques, mummeries, and festive customs, described in the text, are in
accordance with the manners of the age. Authority on these points
may be found in Strutt's Book of English Sports and Pastimes.


THE END

 

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