Rites of May (Part 1)

Magdalen Tower, Oxford

Here in Montana, the May fields are greening. I wish we kept up the old traditions: trips to the woods in the early morning; Maypoles decked in greens and flowers; dances in the center of town.

When I was a student at Oxford, I’d walk for hours in the warm May sun, stopping to sit in the grass and fill my notebook with spring visions. Oxford, as always, has its own traditions: on May Day, students rise at 6 a.m. to stand below the Bell Tower of Magdalen College and listen to choristers sing the “Hymnus Eucharisticus.” They’ve done that since the 1500’s.

In a less-official tradition, reckless students (usually male!) dive off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell, a perilous jump since the water is extremely shallow. A few years ago a guy seriously injured his spine, and other people had broken legs, arms, ribs, etc.

The year I was at Oxford (the year after all those injuries), Magdalen Bridge was closed on May Morning to prevent a repeat, so those of us who lived on Cowley side (mostly we of St Hilda’s College, always luckless) couldn’t get over to hear the choristers. I meant to wake up at 4 a.m., bike down the road to the next bridge, bike all the way back along the Thames, and so cross into Oxford city.

Maypole dancing

A late night spent on an essay extinguished that plan. Still, I celebrated in my own way, strolling far across fields and down tree-lined lanes, imagining the scene as part of some Austen novel.

Funny how my ideas of May always run back to England. A week or so ago, I went for a walk in the fields across from my house, exploring a back fence line where I’d definitely get in trouble for trespassing if caught. For a moment I pictured myself as young Harry Hotspur, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part I.

In the play, Hotspur’s the fiery rebel leader, so full of vim and youth and life. I love him! “The time of life is short,” he’ll say. “Come, let me taste my horse, who is to bear me like a thunderbolt.” There in the fields, I strode with Hotspur’s vigor, absorbing the zestful power of May.

A little Maypole in Montana

It’s hard to escape to the country and dream May dreams. Everything’s so cluttered up with houses and roads and power lines. Even here, in rural Montana, a line of houses cuts across the hill above my May fields. I could imagine them as quaint English houses, I suppose, though they’re big and square with vinyl siding.

But that’s just it – even in England, houses are in the way, and you have to look past them (or make them part of your imaginary scene). Those visions of flowery poles and May dances are hazy, muddled in the glorious mess of our minds.

Which goes to show – May is what you make it.

(To be continued…)

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3 Comments

  1. You have reminded me of maypole dancing as a little girl at school!

    Reply
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  2. Rites of May (Part 2) « StarMuse

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