This is the fifth entry in our poetry calendar: you can read our poetry recommendations for January, our pick of the best February poems, our poems for March, and our April poems in previous posts. Now, it’s the turn of May, which is a time of Mayday, Maypoles, and going a-maying. What are the best May poems in the English language? Here are ten of our favourites.
Robert Herrick, ‘Corinna’s Going a Maying’. This is one of Robert Herrick’s most popular poems, and like another of his most famous poems, ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, it’s a carpe diem poem, which sees the poet entreating his beloved to come to the Mayday festivities with him, ‘while we are in our prime’.
William Wordsworth, ‘Ode, Composed on a May Morning’. The title of this poem from one of Romanticism’s most famous poets says it all. This poem praises the ‘sovereignty of May’: ‘While from the purpling east departs / The star that led the dawn, / Blithe Flora from her couch upstarts, / For May is on the lawn.’
Leigh Hunt, ‘May and the Poets’. No pick of the best poems for the month of May should be without this poem, which even name-checks some of the poets to have written about Maytime: ‘There is May in books forever; / May will part from Spenser never; / May’s in Milton, May’s in Prior, / May’s in Chaucer, Thomson, Dyer; / May’s in all the Italian books: – / She has old and modern nooks…’
John Clare, ‘May’. Taken from the wonderful nature poet’s Shepherd’s Calendar, ‘May’ by John Clare is a beautiful evocation of the month: ‘Come queen of months in company / Wi all thy merry minstrelsy / The restless cuckoo absent long / And twittering swallows chimney song…’
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘It Is Not Always May’. ‘Maiden, that read’st this simple rhyme, / Enjoy thy youth, it will not stay; / Enjoy the fragrance of thy prime, / For oh, it is not always May!’ As we’ve revealed elsewhere, seize the day poems were once all the rage. Here, the American poet Longfellow offers such a carpe diem sentiment in verse form, reminding the young female addressee that it won’t be ‘May’ forever, and that her youth will fade.
Christina Rossetti, ‘May’. ‘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.’ This poem ends on a typically mournful note that is characteristically well-judged by the Victorian poet (pictured right). The concluding triplet is particularly powerful.
Emily Dickinson, ‘May-Flower’. Emily Dickinson (1830-86) didn’t tend to give her poems titles, but this poem has attracted the title ‘May-Flower’ in light of its subject – the flower, not the 1620 ship: ‘Pink, small, and punctual, / Aromatic, low, / Covert in April, / Candid in May…’
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The May Magnificat’. ‘May is Mary’s month, and I / Muse at that and wonder why: / Her feasts follow reason, / Dated due to season – / Candlemas, Lady Day; / But the Lady Month, May, / Why fasten that upon her, / With a feasting in her honour?’ For Hopkins, a fine nature poet as well as one of the great religious poets in English literature, May means Mary: the Virgin Mary. ‘The May Magnificat’ demonstrates the importance of the Virgin Mary to this time of year.
W. H. Davies, ‘In May’. ‘Yes, I will spend the livelong day / With Nature in this month of May; / And sit beneath the trees, and share / My bread with birds whose homes are there’: a fine May poem from the self-described ‘supertramp’ and poet, W. H. Davies.
Sara Teasdale, ‘May Night’. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American lyric poet whose work is often overlooked in discussions of twentieth-century American poetry. Yet at its best, Teasdale’s work has a lyricism and beauty which can rival that of many poets of her time, even if her work is not as innovative or revolutionary as that of, say, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, or William Carlos Williams: ‘The spring is fresh and fearless / And every leaf is new, / The world is brimmed with moonlight, / The lilac brimmed with dew.’