It Is Not Always May

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality: American

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a famed poet and educator.

His poetry collections include Voices of the Night and Ballads and Other Poems.

It Is Not Always May is a fairly straightforward statement, and one that just about everyone can agree is undeniably true. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the idea serves as the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem of the same name, which takes on a very optimistic tone as it addresses a topic that many might consider being one that isn’t positive at all — the permanence of change, and the difficulty some people have in adapting to it. It Is Not Always May takes on a topic that is uniquely approached by all, and does so in Longfellow’s unmistakable style, and his welcome voice.

It Is Not Always May by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It Is Not Always May Analysis

No hay pajaros en los nidos de antano.

—Spanish Proverb

The Spanish Proverb that informally introduces It Is Not Always May roughly translates into a phrase appears a few times throughout the poem and informs its central theme: “There are no birds in last year’s nest.” This idea of moving forward and not looking back seems to have been an inspiration for Longfellow, as the basic idea is present throughout the entirety of the work.

It Is Not Always May is written in a straightforward format — it consists of six verses, each one a quatrain rhyming in an ABAB pattern. The poem is essentially designed to be simple and to flow in a pleasant manner, to convey the relative cheeriness of Longfellow’s message.

First and Second Stanzas

The sun is bright,–the air is clear,

The darting swallows soar and sing.

And from the stately elms I hear

The bluebird prophesying Spring.

So blue you winding river flows,

It seems an outlet from the sky,

Where waiting till the west-wind blows,

The freighted clouds at anchor lie.

It Is Not Always May begins with Longfellow describing a natural environment, placing his narrator in the middle of an outdoor area, observing the wildlife. He describes the bright sun, clear air, and the sounds of the animals initially, and suggests that the poem takes place in the latest weeks of the winter season. Longfellow provides his reader with a great deal of sensory information, including the sights, sounds, and scents of the world around. The first few verses use several positive connotations, in the form of bright, “happy” phrases. The colour blue is used a few times, for instance, and Longfellow makes note of the soaring and singings birds. There are also a number of symbols utilized here that have positive associations, such as the anchor in the clouds, which typically represent hope or stability. The primary function of the introductory verses is largely to “set the scene,” as it were, however, the theme of change is already present, in the form of the changing seasons from winter into spring, and the gradual emerging of various animals that would not have been present in the same scene only a few weeks prior.

Third and Fourth Stanzas

All things are new;–the buds, the leaves,

That gild the elm-tree’s nodding crest,

And even the nest beneath the eaves;–

There are no birds in last year’s nest!

All things rejoice in youth and love,

The fulness of their first delight!

And learn from the soft heavens above

The melting tenderness of night.

The changes that serve as a central concept for It Is Not Always May become much more apparent in the next two verses, beginning with the first four words of the second verse — “all things are new.” The third verse also concludes with the English translation of the aforementioned proverb, which enhances the idea from the first line; nothing is the same way this spring as it was when summer and spring were ending last year. The birds are building new nests, because they have new young to shelter, Those young are born and live throughout the spring and summer, described in the fourth verse with great enthusiasm. Longfellow places a special emphasis of the “first delight” of the young animals, which are “rejoicing in youth and love.” Rather than a sense of nostalgia — a yearning, for that rejoicing youthfulness — Longfellow focuses on the idea that each year, everything is new, and everything is exciting, expressed here by comparing day and night and finding each one to be fulfilling. After winter has ended, nearly everything in nature must start over again in some way. New leaves have to grow on trees, and spring is the mating season for a great many animals. The idea of a world that revolves around change is extremely clear in this midsection of It Is Not Always May.

Fifth and Sixth Stanzas

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!

Enjoy the Spring of Love and Youth,

To some good angel leave the rest;

For Time will teach thee soon the truth,

There are no birds in last year’s nest! 

In the fifth verse of his poem, Longfellow addresses his reader directly (and directs his message more towards his female audience), advising them to enjoy their youth while it lasts, because it will not last forever. In this way, springtime is an ideal metaphor for the proverb that concludes the poem, because springtime ends as well, as does summer and autumn, until it is winter in the world again. In the same way, each person’s youthfulness fades over time, and so everyone realizes in their own turn the simple truth — that there are no birds in last year’s nest. This is the inspiration for the title of the poem, as May is the last full month of spring, the vernal equinox taking place in June. After May, spring ends, in the same way that winter once did.

Even as Longfellow warns his reader against the passage of time taking away their youth, he decorates his finishing verses which cheerful language, using symbols such as angels to keep the reader’s focus on the present, instead of looking with worry to the future. Worry is not the purpose of It Is Not Always May — gratitude is, and living in the moment; enjoying youth while the youth is there to enjoy. Longfellow keeps It Is Not Always May optimistic, rather than being full of longing or sad nostalgia, preferring the most positive view on a concept that can be regarded easily as both joyous and devastating — the passing of time.

Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.

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