Queen o’ the May


Our Daily Correspondent


The Elfin May-Pole, a Mardi Gras float design for Krewe of Proteus, New Orleans, 1887.

The other day, I received the sweetest note from an old neighbor of my family’s commenting on the beauty of spring in the town where I grew up. She recalled something I’d done many years ago: “The first year I lived here, you walked up and down the street, perhaps alone, perhaps with a friend, on May 1, to celebrate May Day. Perhaps you left a little bunch of flowers by my door?”

Perhaps I did. In any case, I’m going to guess that I was alone. I can’t imagine anyone joining me in this practice. I’d like to say it was rooted in some precocious notion of workers’ solidarity, but in fact my touchstone was more Kate Greenaway than International Socialism. (Especially given the maypole and hurdy-gurdy I requested for my eighth birthday.)

Every year, I would roll some cones out of recycled computer paper; Scotch-tape them extravagantly; fill them with small bunches of violets, mallow flowers, and whatever I could steal from nearby yards; and leave them on neighbors’ doorsteps. Then, of course, I would ring the bell and hide. Usually no one was home, which was anticlimactic. If someone was home, it was also anticlimactic—confusion was the best-case scenario—although having experienced my caroling expeditions and Midsummer Revels, everyone probably assumed it was me. 

I’d been very influenced by Tennyson’s poem “The May Queen.” I would trudge up and down the suburban street with my bag of wilting flowers, a tiny, solitary figure in a big flannel dress. Sometimes other kids would pass me on their way home from school, in twos and threes, radiating normalcy. But in my head, I was romance incarnate. And I would whisper, 

To-morrow ‘ill be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;
Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest merriest day;
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

I think my kids’ poetry book must have only included the first section. I certainly didn’t realize that by poem’s end the speaker has wasted away and gone to Heaven, in the best Victorian fashion. Tennyson wrote that part later.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.