‘May’ by Christina Rossetti is a thirteen line sonnet that is separated into one set of eight lines and another set of five. Rossetti imbued this piece with a very consistent rhyme scheme. It follows a pattern of AABBCCDD AABBB. The lines also conform to a metrical pattern of iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
The poem begins with the speaker outlining the setting and telling her listener that there is something important she can’t tell them. This does not impede her from talking around “it.” Whatever happened to her occurred in May, in days she now recalls fondly, and with a deep longing.
She loved this time period for how it sat on the edge of life. Death was so far off the month seemed without end. In the last lines, the speaker reiterates what she conveyed in the first three. She also states that now that the event is in the past, she feels cold. This is a distinct change from the warmth of the sun in the previous lines.
The images of this piece are concerned almost entirely with the development, flourishing, and decline of life. ‘In the first half of ‘May’ the speaker is reminiscing on a perfect, warm, infinite seeming past. She speaks of the “bright and sunny” days of May and the youth that was to be found there. Her emotions are not overwhelmingly joyous, but rather more serene. It is clear from her description of this liminal space between life and death, as seen through the “not born” poppies and the “not hatched” eggs, that she would have been happy to stay here.
In the last couple of lines of this piece, the images shift dramatically. The narration transitions to the present and/or the near past, and the speaker states that she was/is feeling cold, old, and worn out. The “young” days of May are gone and so too are the images of warmth.
As important as the images presented by Rossetti are the point of view and tense in which she addresses them. While the images are peaceful and serene, they are also in the past. They are automatically made temporary due to Rossetti’s use of the past tense. A reader is never able to become as acquainted with the scene and season as the speaker was because spring, or at least the month of May, is long since passed.
Analysis of 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!
The speaker begins this piece by telling the reader there is something she “cannot tell.” Throughout the text, there is no definitive answer to what “it” is or was. It’s easy to assume through context clues, such as the title that she is speaking about something that happened in May. The speaker is unable to adequately relay what the lead up to the event but she does go into detail about the settings and her emotional connection to the season.
In the following stanzas Rossetti’s speaker does her best to give the listener a picture of what she saw and felt while she watched spring come and go. By the end of the poem, a reader should feel a connection to the unnamed place she is describing.
She begins by giving the reader a warning, that she can’t tell everything but she will tell what she knows. First, “it” passed into being on a “bright and sunny day.” These were the first days of the month and represent the start of the mysterious event. Due to the fact that this piece is written in the past tense, there is a sense of longing present in the speaker’s tone. She is looking back on “young…pleasant May” as a time when things were better.
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.
In the next four lines, the speaker outlines what the setting was like as well as what plants and animals were to be seen. These descriptions emphasize the fact that the world is no longer as it was. She recalls the days when the “poppies were not born.” They did not appear in-between the “blades of tender,” or young, “corn.” The poppies, as well as the eggs mentioned in the next line, are symbols of the season. They represent the birth of new life in spring and inherently, the loss of that life as the seasons change.
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.
The poem concludes with the speaker reiterating her opening statement. She reminds the reader that there is something going on, or something that went on in her life she can’t discuss. Lines nine and ten are almost identical to lines one and two. This time though the speaker states that she cannot tell “you what it was” rather than “how it was.” She doesn’t have access to, or the ability to relay, the emotions around the event or even the event itself.
There are also similarities between the eleventh line and the third. She again speaks of May as being “sunny.” The warmth of the majority of the text is contrasted with the final two lines. At this point, the speaker moves away from the distant past and into the near past or present. She tells of how, just as “all sweet things” do, “it” went away. Her unnamed experience left her as spring moves into summer and inevitably into fall and winter.
No longer does she bask in the perfect moment of still blooming poppies and hatching eggs, she is now “old, and cold, and gray.” It is as if her life has ended, or at least the most exciting part of it. Although it is impossible to say for sure what Rossetti was thinking about as she wrote this piece, a love affair is as good a guess as any.