I started thinking about this blog post on May Day, but life (to be specific, knee replacement surgery) intervened. Now I’m finally getting it posted just under the May wire.
The tradition of the maypole isn’t always associated strictly with the month of May, however. In some countries it is erected during mid-summer celebrations. And this short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (published 1836) is based on such an occasion in the early American colony of Mount Wollaston, a.k.a. Merry Mount, which was adjacent to the better known Plymouth colony in the 1620s.
The rivalry between the two colonies, one Puritan and one Anglican, and the historical incident in which John Endicott cut down the maypole at Merry Mount are documented by historians from both colonies. William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation describes the Merry Mount colonists and their ringleader Thomas Morton as “licentious,” “dissolute,” and “profane.” Their maypole is an “idol,” around which the merrymakers engage in drunken dancing, “inviting the Indian women for their consorts…frisking together like so many fairies, or furies…” Thomas Morton, in his New English Canaan, mocks the “precise Seperatists” of Plymouth, who “make a great show of Religion but no humanity,” and their leader Captain Miles Standish as “Captain Shrimp.”
In the preface to his story Hawthorne notes that the historical facts “have wrought themselves, almost spontaneously, into a sort of allegory.” “Jollity and gloom,” says the narrator of the story, “were contending for an empire.”
In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne offers two world views for comparison, using one to critique the other, finding fault with both, and suggesting that each could learn from the other. (See blog post Oct. 24, 2012). In “The Maypole of Merry Mount” Hawthorne uses the nominally Anglican but actually more secular/commercial colony of Merry Mount to invoke pre-Christian paganism, referencing not only the maypole itself and the American Indians, but also the “Golden Age,” “fairies and nymphs,” “ancient fable,” and “Comus,” the Greek God of immoderate pleasure, excess, revelry, and disorder. Similar to The Scarlet Letter, 17th century Puritanism is contrasted with excessive hedonism and untempered pleasure seeking.
In this story the Puritans emerge victorious as they cut down the maypole, punish the wrongdoers, and invite the newly married “Lord and Lady of the May” into their more sober community. Yet the narrator, while acknowledging the historical triumph of Plymouth over Merry Mount, does not spare the Puritans. They are “dismal wretches”—“grim,” “stern,” “darksome,” hard-hearted, and punitive. The whipping post is their maypole. If the merrymakers of Merry Mount indulge in excessive pleasure seeking, the Puritans seem almost to take sadistic pleasure in an excess of pain and punishment.
More than an historical allegory, the story represents a process of maturation from a child-like view of the world as playground to the inevitable encounter with evil and suffering that accompanies a “coming of age.” Yet, the story seems to question whether the Puritan view of the world as a crucible of suffering, a “vale of tears,” is really superior.
The newly married couple who join the Puritan community offer some hope of a healthier outlook. Even before the Puritans arrive to cast their shadow over the mirth and merriment of Merry Mount, the young couple has a “presentiment” of future “care and sorrow and troubled joy,” thus chastening the youthful exuberance and carefree quality of their wedding celebration. Later, their devotion to each other and their willingness to suffer, each for the other, in the face of Puritan judgment and punishment, softens the “iron man,” Endicott, who lifts a wreath of roses from the ruined maypole and throws it over their heads, thereby holding open the possibility that flowers and sunshine may mix and mingle with Puritan gloom.
As Hawthorne says elsewhere, “Life is made up of marble and mud.” Neither youthful hedonism nor age-worn cynicism captures its complexity. Wisdom, truth, and healthy human community lie somewhere between the two extremes.