‘May the Twenty-third’ by Edward Thomas is a three-stanza poem that is separated into one set of ten lines, one of twenty-eight, and another short set of eight. These lines follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poem progresses. There is not one particular pattern of rhythm in the poem, but the lines are all around the same length. They range in syllable numbers from around 8-12.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that this particular day in May is better than any other he has ever experienced. He doesn’t think that any in the future will compare either. There was a brief thunderstorm, but that only strengthened his belief in its greatness.
In the second stanza, another person enters the scene. It is a man named Jack who is wandering through the countryside with cowslip flowers and cresses. These plants are just as beautiful as everything else the speaker can see around him. Jack gives them to the speaker for free and the speaker is pleased with his transaction. Jack lops away up the road after suggesting that a better day might see the speaker pay him back.
The poem ends with a series of small discomforts that do not bother the speaker. The last lines explain that one of the reasons he remembers the day is due to the mysterious disappearance of Jack.
Thomas makes use of a number of poetic techniques in ‘May the Twenty-third.’ They include alliteration, general repetition of images and words, anaphora, and enjambment. One of the best examples of alliteration is in line twenty-one in which “t” begins four of the words and “f” begins two. There are other examples, such as in the phrases “fairer flowers” and “May is May.”
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This occurs in a few select sections of the poem in which Thomas wanted to emphasize the details of a scene. One example is in lines four and six of the second stanza, both beginning with “And.” Then again in lines twelve and fourteen, both beginning with “Like.”
Another common technique is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Analysis of May the Twenty-third
There never was a finer day,
And never will be while May is May,—
The third, and not the last of its kind;
But though fair and clear the two behind
Seemed pursued by tempests overpast;
The first stanza of ‘May the Twenty-third’ begins with the phrase, “There never was a finer day.” This is always going to be the case while “May” is as good as “May” is. Unless there is some seismic shift, he can’t imagine things getting better. The reasons for this follow, but are questionable, and somewhat confusing without context.
Thomas’ speaker compares this particular May day to others, and finds that this is truly the best. The previous two he thought were good, but now when he looks back it seems as if they were stormy and terrible.
And the morrow with fear that it could not last
Was spoiled. To-day ere the stones were warm
Five minutes of thunderstorm
Dashed it with rain, as if to secure,
By one tear, its beauty the luck to endure.
The setting is explained more in the second half of the stanza. Thomas states that in the past, the “Morrow” or the next day, was spoiled before he spent all of the present-day worry that the “fine” weather and mood would not last. But, it is different today. The “stones,” somewhere in the landscape, “were warm.” They were at one point pounded by a thunderstorm, but that only lasted five minutes. The fact that there was this brief thunderstorm did the day well. After it happened. Thomas’ speaker felt like it disrupted the day enough to where it could “endure”
At mid-day then along the lane
Old Jack Noman appeared again,
Jaunty and old, crooked and tall,
And stopped and grinned at me over the wall,
With a cowslip bunch in his button-hole
And one in his cap. Who could say if his roll
Came from flints in the road, the weather, or ale?
The second stanza begins with the speaker encountering another man. This is “Old Jack Norman.” There are very few details about who exactly this person is, but the speaker does give some information about his appearance. He is “old, cooked and tall.” The crookedness might speak to the way he walks, or maybe even to his personality.
On the fine day, Jack stopped where the speaker was resting, at mid-day, and “grinned” at him. This occurred “over the wall.” Perhaps this is the wall around the speaker’s house. A few more details about the setting make their way not the text as the speaker states that the man had “cowslip in his “button-hole” and “one in his cap.” This is a kind of plant that grows throughout Europe and Asia. It is most commonly known for its medicinal properties. It is often used to treat swollen noses and throats and bronchitis, but there is a number of other uses.
The fact that he was decorated with these flowers adds to one’s perception of his personality. There is something very upbeat seeming about Jack, a fact which is confirmed in the next lines. At one point he “roll[s].” This refers to a stumble he takes in the road. The speaker doesn’t know if it was caused by flint rocks, or by the weather, or even by ale the man had drunk.
He was welcome as the nightingale.
Not an hour of the sun had been wasted on Jack.
‘I’ve got my Indian complexion back’
Said he. He was tanned like a harvester,
Like his short clay pipe, like the leaf and bur
That clung to his coat from last night’s bed,
Like the ploughland crumbling red.
The man’s cheery attitude is similar to a nightingale which is known for its beautiful song. Jack had been outside, soaking in the sun and using his day up with pleasure. This is something that Jack adds to by saying that he got his “Indian complexion back.” A problematic phrase today, but in Thomas’ time, Jack was simply expressing the way his skin had tanned, making him look like he was from India.
The speaker takes note of this fact too. He thinks that the man was “tanned like a harvester,” someone whose main job forces him to be outside in the sun. There are other elements of Jack’s appearance that make the speaker think of a harvester. This includes the pipe he’s smoking and the leaves that are all over his clothes. There are also bits of red dirt from the “ploughland.”
Fairer flowers were none on the earth
Than his cowslips wet with the dew of their birth,
Or fresher leaves than the cress in his basket.
‘Where did they come from, Jack?’ ‘Don’t ask it,
And you’ll be told no lies.’ ‘Very well:
Then I can’t buy.’ ‘I don’t want to sell.
Take them and these flowers, too, free.
In the next seven lines of ‘May the Twenty-Third’ the speaker goes on to describe how beautiful the flowers in Jack’s hair were. They seemed as fine as the day and that there could be no flower more perfect. They still carried some of the “dew of their birth.” Jack was also carrying some “cress” leaves in his basket, they too were of the best possible quality.
The speaker expressed his interest in the leaves and asked Jack where they came from. Jack replied that unless the speaker wanted to be lied to, he shouldn’t ask. As if to encourage Jack to part with his secret, he tells him that he won’t buy them from him then. Jack is unbothered by this, in fact, he wants to give the leaves to the speaker for free.
There are a few moments in these lines, such as in line fifteen, where Thomas makes use of alliteration But, the best example is line twenty-two where four words start with “t” and two with “f.”
Perhaps you have something to give me?
Wait till next time. The better the day . . .
The Lord couldn’t make a better, I say;
If he could, he never has done.’
So off went Jack with his roll-walk-run,
Leaving his cresses from Oakshott rill
And his cowslips from Wheatham hill.
Jack finishes up his dialogue in the next lines, adding that maybe the speaker will have something for him when he comes back. He doesn’t state what he wants that something to be, but that doesn’t seem to concern him or the speaker.
The man leaves after saying that “something” might be given to him on a better day. The speaker makes sure to express his belief about the day— that there couldn’t be a better one. At that point, Jack moves off, in his same loping, off-center run. He left behind his precious cowslips and cresses.
‘Twas the first day that the midges bit;
But though they bit me, I was glad of it:
Of the dust in my face, too, I was glad.
Spring could do nothing to make me sad.
Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse,
The elm seeds lay in the road like hops,
That fine day, May the twenty-third,
The day Jack Noman disappeared.
In the final eight lines of ‘May the Twenty-third’ the speaker concludes his description of the day. There are a few more elements of the beautiful May day that might turn it bad, but don’t. This includes the speaker getting bit by midges and getting dust in his face. There was nothing that “Spring could do to make” him sad.
The natural elements of the day are what makes it so perfect, but there is one final twist at the end of the poem that makes one question its perfect-ness. It was the day that “Jack Norman disappeared.” It is completely left up to the reader’s imagination of what this means or how it happened. Something bad could’ve occurred, considering the lopsided way the man was walking, or maybe he wandered off into the perfect day was happily lost amongst the elms and bluebells.