THE MAYPOLE OF MERRY MOUNT

THE MAYPOLE OF MERRY MOUNT


There is an admirable foundation for a philosophic romance in the
curious history of the early settlement of Mount Wollaston, or
Merry Mount. In the slight sketch here attempted, the facts,
recorded on the grave pages of our New England annalists, have
wrought themselves, almost spontaneously, into a sort of
allegory. The masques, mummeries, and festive customs, described
in the text, are in accordance with the manners of the age.
Authority on these points may be found in Strutt's Book of
English Sports and Pastimes.


Bright were the days at Merry Mount, when the Maypole was the
banner staff of that gay colony! They who reared it, should their
banner be triumphant, were to pour sunshine over New England's
rugged hills, and scatter flower seeds throughout the soil.
Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire. Midsummer eve
had come, bringing deep verdure to the forest, and roses in her
lap, of a more vivid hue than the tender buds of Spring. But May,
or her mirthful spirit, dwelt all the year round at Merry Mount,
sporting with the Summer months, and revelling with Autumn, and
basking in the glow of Winter's fireside. Through a world of toil
and care she flitted with a dreamlike smile, and came hither to
find a home among the lightsome hearts of Merry Mount.

Never had the Maypole been so gayly decked as at sunset on
midsummer eve. This venerated emblem was a pine-tree, which had
preserved the slender grace of youth, while it equalled the
loftiest height of the old wood monarchs. From its top streamed a
silken banner, colored like the rainbow. Down nearly to the
ground the pole was dressed with birchen boughs, and others of
the liveliest green, and some with silvery leaves, fastened by
ribbons that fluttered in fantastic knots of twenty different
colors, but no sad ones. Garden flowers, and blossoms of the
wilderness, laughed gladly forth amid the verdure, so fresh and
dewy that they must have grown by magic on that happy pine-tree.
Where this green and flowery splendor terminated, the shaft of
the Maypole was stained with the seven brilliant hues of the
banner at its top. On the lowest green bough hung an abundant
wreath of roses, some that had been gathered in the sunniest
spots of the forest, and others, of still richer blush, which the
colonists had reared from English seed. O, people of the Golden
Age, the chief of your husbandry was to raise flowers!

But what was the wild throng that stood hand in hand about the
Maypole? It could not be that the fauns and nymphs, when driven
from their classic groves and homes of ancient fable, had sought
refuge, as all the persecuted did, in the fresh woods of the
West. These were Gothic monsters, though perhaps of Grecian
ancestry. On the shoulders of a comely youth uprose the head and
branching antlers of a stag; a second, human in all other points,
had the grim visage of a wolf; a third, still with the trunk and
limbs of a mortal man, showed the beard and horns of a venerable
he-goat. There was the likeness of a bear erect, brute in all but
his hind legs, which were adorned with pink silk stockings. And
here again, almost as wondrous, stood a real bear of the dark
forest, lending each of his fore paws to the grasp of a human
hand, and as ready for the dance as any in that circle. His
inferior nature rose half way, to meet his companions as they
stooped. Other faces wore the similitude of man or woman, but
distorted or extravagant, with red noses pendulous before their
mouths, which seemed of awful depth, and stretched from ear to
ear in an eternal fit of laughter. Here might be seen the Savage
Man, well known in heraldry, hairy as a baboon, and girdled with
green leaves. By his side a noble figure, but still a
counterfeit, appeared an Indian hunter, with feathery crest and
wampum belt. Many of this strange company wore foolscaps, and had
little bells appended to their garments, tinkling with a silvery
sound, responsive to the inaudible music of their gleesome
spirits. Some youths and maidens were of soberer garb, yet well
maintained their places in the irregular throng by the expression
of wild revelry upon their features. Such were the colonists of
Merry Mount, as they stood in the broad smile of sunset round
their venerated Maypole.

Had a wanderer, bewildered in the melancholy forest, heard their
mirth, and stolen a half-affrighted glance, he might have fancied
them the crew of Comus, some already transformed to brutes, some
midway between man and beast, and the others rioting in the flow
of tipsy jollity that foreran the change. But a band of Puritans,
who watched the scene, invisible themselves, compared the masques
to those devils and ruined souls with whom their superstition
peopled the black wilderness.

Within the ring of monsters appeared the two airiest forms that
had ever trodden on any more solid footing than a purple and
golden cloud. One was a youth in glistening apparel, with a scarf
of the rainbow pattern crosswise on his breast. His right hand
held a gilded staff, the ensign of high dignity among the
revellers, and his left grasped the slender fingers of a fair
maiden, not less gayly decorated than himself. Bright roses
glowed in contrast with the dark and glossy curls of each, and
were scattered round their feet, or had sprung up spontaneously
there. Behind this lightsome couple, so close to the Maypole that
its boughs shaded his jovial face, stood the figure of an English
priest, canonically dressed, yet decked with flowers, in heathen
fashion, and wearing a chaplet of the native vine leaves. By the
riot of his rolling eye, and the pagan decorations of his holy
garb, he seemed the wildest monster there, and the very Comus of
the crew.

"Votaries of the Maypole," cried the flower-decked priest,
"merrily, all day long, have the woods echoed to your mirth. But
be this your merriest hour, my hearts! Lo, here stand the Lord
and Lady of the May, whom I, a clerk of Oxford, and high priest
of Merry Mount, am presently to join in holy matrimony. Up with
your nimble spirits, ye morris-dancers, green men, and glee
maidens, bears and wolves, and horned gentlemen! Come; a chorus
now, rich with the old mirth of Merry England, and the wilder
glee of this fresh forest; and then a dance, to show the youthful
pair what life is made of, and how airily they should go through
it! All ye that love the Maypole, lend your voices to the nuptial
song of the Lord and Lady of the May!"

This wedlock was more serious than most affairs of Merry Mount,
where jest and delusion, trick and fantasy, kept up a continual
carnival. The Lord and Lady of the May, though their titles must
be laid down at sunset, were really and truly to be partners for
the dance of life, beginning the measure that same bright eve.
The wreath of roses, that hung from the lowest green bough of the
Maypole, had been twined for them, and would be thrown over both
their heads, in symbol of their flowery union. When the priest
had spoken, therefore, a riotous uproar burst from the rout of
monstrous figures.

"Begin you the stave, reverend Sir," cried they all; "and never
did the woods ring to such a merry peal as we of the Maypole
shall send up!"

Immediately a prelude of pipe, cithern, and viol, touched with
practised minstrelsy, began to play from a neighboring thicket,
in such a mirthful cadence that the boughs of the Maypole
quivered to the sound. But the May Lord, he of the gilded staff,
chancing to look into his Lady's eyes, was wonder struck at the
almost pensive glance that met his own.

"Edith, sweet Lady of the May," whispered he reproachfully, "is
yon wreath of roses a garland to hang above our graves, that you
look so sad? O, Edith, this is our golden time! Tarnish it not by
any pensive shadow of the mind; for it may be that nothing of
futurity will be brighter than the mere remembrance of what is
now passing."

"That was the very thought that saddened me! How came it in your
mind too?" said Edith, in a still lower tone than he, for it was
high treason to be sad at Merry Mount. "Therefore do I sigh amid
this festive music. And besides, dear Edgar, I struggle as with a
dream, and fancy that these shapes of our jovial friends are
visionary, and their mirth unreal, and that we are no true Lord
and Lady of the May. What is the mystery in my heart?"

Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little
shower of withering rose leaves from the Maypole. Alas, for the
young lovers! No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion
than they were sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in
their former pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of
inevitable change. From the moment that they truly loved, they
had subjected themselves to earth's doom of care and sorrow, and
troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount. That was
Edith's mystery. Now leave we the priest to marry them, and the
masquers to sport round the Maypole, till the last sunbeam be
withdrawn from its summit, and the shadows of the forest mingle
gloomily in the dance. Meanwhile, we may discover who these gay
people were.

Two hundred years ago, and more, the old world and its
inhabitants became mutually weary of each other. Men voyaged by
thousands to the West: some to barter glass beads, and such like
jewels, for the furs of the Indian hunter; some to conquer virgin
empires; and one stern band to pray. But none of these motives
had much weight with the colonists of Merry Mount. Their leaders
were men who had sported so long with life, that when Thought and
Wisdom came, even these unwelcome guests were led astray by the
crowd of vanities which they should have put to flight. Erring
Thought and perverted Wisdom were made to put on masques, and
play the fool. The men of whom we speak, after losing the heart's
fresh gayety, imagined a wild philosophy of pleasure, and came
hither to act out their latest day-dream. They gathered followers
from all that giddy tribe whose whole life is like the festal
days of soberer men. In their train were minstrels, not unknown
in London streets; wandering players, whose theatres had been the
halls of noblemen; mummers, rope-dancers, and mountebanks, who
would long be missed at wakes, church ales, and fairs; in a word,
mirth makers of every sort, such as abounded in that age, but now
began to be discountenanced by the rapid growth of Puritanism.
Light had their footsteps been on land, and as lightly they came
across the sea. Many had been maddened by their previous troubles
into a gay despair; others were as madly gay in the flush of
youth, like the May Lord and his Lady; but whatever might be the
quality of their mirth, old and young were gay at Merry Mount.
The young deemed themselves happy. The elder spirits, if they
knew that mirth was but the counterfeit of happiness, yet
followed the false shadow wilfully, because at least her garments
glittered brightest. Sworn triflers of a lifetime, they would not
venture among the sober truths of life not even to be truly
blest.

All the hereditary pastimes of Old England were transplanted
hither. The King of Christmas was duly crowned, and the Lord of
Misrule bore potent sway. On the Eve of St. John, they felled
whole acres of the forest to make bonfires, and danced by the
blaze all night, crowned with garlands, and throwing flowers into
the flame. At harvest time, though their crop was of the
smallest, they made an image with the sheaves of Indian corn, and
wreathed it with autumnal garlands, and bore it home
triumphantly. But what chiefly characterized the colonists of
Merry Mount was their veneration for the Maypole. It has made
their true history a poet's tale. Spring decked the hallowed
emblem with young blossoms and fresh green boughs; Summer brought
roses of the deepest blush, and the perfected foliage of the
forest; Autumn enriched it with that red and yellow gorgeousness
which converts each wildwood leaf into a painted flower; and
Winter silvered it with sleet, and hung it round with icicles,
till it flashed in the cold sunshine, itself a frozen sunbeam.
Thus each alternate season did homage to the Maypole, and paid it
a tribute of its own richest splendor. Its votaries danced round
it, once, at least, in every month; sometimes they called it
their religion, or their altar; but always, it was the banner
staff of Merry Mount.

Unfortunately, there were men in the new world of a sterner faith
than those Maypole worshippers. Not far from Merry Mount was a
settlement of Puritans, most dismal wretches, who said their
prayers before daylight, and then wrought in the forest or the
cornfield till evening made it prayer time again. Their weapons
were always at hand to shoot down the straggling savage. When
they met in conclave, it was never to keep up the old English
mirth, but to hear sermons three hours long, or to proclaim
bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians. Their
festivals were fast days, and their chief pastime the singing of
psalms. Woe to the youth or maiden who did but dream of a dance!
The selectman nodded to the constable; and there sat the
light-heeled reprobate in the stocks; or if he danced, it was
round the whipping-post, which might be termed the Puritan
Maypole.

A party of these grim Puritans, toiling through the difficult
woods, each with a horseload of iron armor to burden his
footsteps, would sometimes draw near the sunny precincts of Merry
Mount. There were the silken colonists, sporting round their
Maypole; perhaps teaching a bear to dance, or striving to
communicate their mirth to the grave Indian; or masquerading in
the skins of deer and wolves, which they had hunted for that
especial purpose. Often, the whole colony were playing at
blindman's buff, magistrates and all, with their eyes bandaged,
except a single scapegoat, whom the blinded sinners pursued by
the tinkling of the bells at his garments. Once, it is said, they
were seen following a flower-decked corpse, with merriment and
festive music, to his grave. But did the dead man laugh? In their
quietest times, they sang ballads and told tales, for the
edification of their pious visitors; or perplexed them with
juggling tricks; or grinned at them through horse collars; and
when sport itself grew wearisome, they made game of their own
stupidity, and began a yawning match. At the very least of these
enormities, the men of iron shook their heads and frowned so
darkly that the revellers looked up imagining that a momentary
cloud had overcast the sunshine, which was to be perpetual there.
On the other hand, the Puritans affirmed that, when a psalm was
pealing from their place of worship, the echo which the forest
sent them back seemed often like the chorus of a jolly catch,
closing with a roar of laughter. Who but the fiend, and his bond
slaves, the crew of Merry Mount, had thus disturbed them? In due
time, a feud arose, stern and bitter on one side, and as serious
on the other as anything could be among such light spirits as had
sworn allegiance to the Maypole. The future complexion of New
England was involved in this important quarrel. Should the
grizzly saints establish their jurisdiction over the gay sinners,
then would their spirits darken all the clime, and make it a land
of clouded visages, of hard toil, of sermon and psalm forever.
But should the banner staff of Merry Mount be fortunate, sunshine
would break upon the hills, and flowers would beautify the
forest, and late posterity do homage to the Maypole.

After these authentic passages from history, we return to the
nuptials of the Lord and Lady of the May. Alas! we have delayed
too long, and must darken our tale too suddenly. As we glance
again at the Maypole, a solitary sunbeam is fading from the
summit, and leaves only a faint, golden tinge blended with the
hues of the rainbow banner. Even that dim light is now withdrawn,
relinquishing the whole domain of Merry Mount to the evening
gloom, which has rushed so instantaneously from the black
surrounding woods. But some of these black shadows have rushed
forth in human shape.

Yes, with the setting sun, the last day of mirth had passed from
Merry Mount. The ring of gay masquers was disordered and broken;
the stag lowered his antlers in dismay; the wolf grew weaker than
a lamb; the bells of the morris-dancers tinkled with tremulous
affright. The Puritans had played a characteristic part in the
Maypole mummeries. Their darksome figures were intermixed with
the wild shapes of their foes, and made the scene a picture of
the moment, when waking thoughts start up amid the scattered
fantasies of a dream. The leader of the hostile party stood in
the centre of the circle, while the route of monsters cowered
around him, like evil spirits in the presence of a dread
magician. No fantastic foolery could look him in the face. So
stern was the energy of his aspect, that the whole man, visage,
frame, and soul, seemed wrought of iron, gifted with life and
thought, yet all of one substance with his headpiece and
breastplate. It was the Puritan of Puritans; it was Endicott
himself!

"Stand off, priest of Baal!" said he, with a grim frown, and
laying no reverent hand upon the surplice. "I know thee,
Blackstone![1] Thou art the man who couldst not abide the rule
even of thine own corrupted church, and hast come hither to
preach iniquity, and to give example of it in thy life. But now
shall it be seen that the Lord hath sanctified this wilderness
for his peculiar people. Woe unto them that would defile it! And
first, for this flower-decked abomination, the altar of thy
worship!"


[1] Did Governor Endicott speak less positively, we should
suspect a mistake here. The Rev. Mr. Blackstone, though an
eccentric, is not known to have been an immoral man. We rather
doubt his identity with the priest of Merry Mount.


And with his keen sword Endicott assaulted the hallowed Maypole.
Nor long did it resist his arm. It groaned with a dismal sound;
it showered leaves and rosebuds upon the remorseless enthusiast;
and finally, with all its green boughs and ribbons and flowers,
symbolic of departed pleasures, down fell the banner staff of
Merry Mount. As it sank, tradition says, the evening sky grew
darker, and the woods threw forth a more sombre shadow

"There," cried Endicott, looking triumphantly on his work, "there
lies the only Maypole in New England! The thought is strong
within me that, by its fall, is shadowed forth the fate of light
and idle mirth makers, amongst us and our posterity. Amen, saith
John Endicott."

"Amen!" echoed his followers.

But the votaries of the Maypole gave one groan for their idol. At
the sound, the Puritan leader glanced at the crew of Comus, each
a figure of broad mirth, yet, at this moment, strangely
expressive of sorrow and dismay.

"Valiant captain," quoth Peter Palfrey, the Ancient of the band,
"what order shall be taken with the prisoners?"

"I thought not to repent me of cutting down a Maypole," replied
Endicott, "yet now I could find in my heart to plant it again,
and give each of these bestial pagans one other dance round their
idol. It would have served rarely for a whipping-post!"

"But there are pine-trees enow," suggested the lieutenant.

"True, good Ancient," said the leader. "Wherefore, bind the
heathen crew, and bestow on them a small matter of stripes
apiece, as earnest of our future justice. Set some of the rogues
in the stocks to rest themselves, so soon as Providence shall
bring us to one of our own well-ordered settlements where such
accommodations may be found. Further penalties, such as branding
and cropping of ears, shall be thought of hereafter."

"How many stripes for the priest?" inquired Ancient Palfrey.

"None as yet," answered Endicott, bending his iron frown upon the
culprit. "It must be for the Great and General Court to
determine, whether stripes and long imprisonment, and other
grievous penalty, may atone for his transgressions. Let him look
to himself! For such as violate our civil order, it may be
permitted us to show mercy. But woe to the wretch that troubleth
our religion."

"And this dancing bear," resumed the officer. "Must he share the
stripes of his fellows?"

"Shoot him through the head!" said the energetic Puritan. "I
suspect witchcraft in the beast."

"Here be a couple of shining ones," continued Peter Palfrey,
pointing his weapon at the Lord and Lady of the May. "They seem
to be of high station among these misdoers. Methinks their
dignity will not be fitted with less than a double share of
stripes."

Endicott rested on his sword, and closely surveyed the dress and
aspect of the hapless pair. There they stood, pale, downcast, and
apprehensive. Yet there was an air of mutual support and of pure
affection, seeking aid and giving it, that showed them to be man
and wife, with the sanction of a priest upon their love. The
youth, in the peril of the moment, had dropped his gilded staff,
and thrown his arm about the Lady of the May, who leaned against
his breast, too lightly to burden him, but with weight enough to
express that their destinies were linked together, for good or
evil. They looked first at each other, and then into the grim
captain's face. There they stood, in the first hour of wedlock,
while the idle pleasures, of which their companions were the
emblems, had given place to the sternest cares of life,
personified by the dark Puritans. But never had their youthful
beauty seemed so pure and high as when its glow was chastened by
adversity.

"Youth," said Endicott, "ye stand in an evil case thou and thy
maiden wife. Make ready presently, for I am minded that ye shall
both have a token to remember your wedding day!"

"Stern man," cried the May Lord, "how can I move thee? Were the
means at hand, I would resist to the death. Being powerless, I
entreat! Do with me as thou wilt, but let Edith go untouched!"

"Not so," replied the immitigable zealot. "We are not wont to
show an idle courtesy to that sex, which requireth the stricter
discipline. What sayest thou, maid? Shall thy silken bridegroom
suffer thy share of the penalty, besides his own?"

"Be it death," said Edith, "and lay it all on me!"

Truly, as Endicott had said, the poor lovers stood in a woful
case. Their foes were triumphant, their friends captive and
abased, their home desolate, the benighted wilderness around
them, and a rigorous destiny, in the shape of the Puritan leader,
their only guide. Yet the deepening twilight could not altogether
conceal that the iron man was softened; he smiled at the fair
spectacle of early love; he almost sighed for the inevitable
blight of early hopes.

"The troubles of life have come hastily on this young couple,"
observed Endicott. "We will see how they comport themselves under
their present trials ere we burden them with greater. If, among
the spoil, there be any garments of a more decent fashion, let
them be put upon this May Lord and his Lady, instead of their
glistening vanities. Look to it, some of you.

"And shall not the youth's hair be cut?" asked Peter Palfrey,
looking with abhorrence at the lovelock and long glossy curls of
the young man.

"Crop it forthwith, and that in the true pumpkin-shell fashion,"
answered the captain. "Then bring them along with us, but more
gently than their fellows. There be qualities in the youth, which
may make him valiant to fight, and sober to toil, and pious to
pray; and in the maiden, that may fit her to become a mother in
our Israel, bringing up babes in better nurture than her own hath
been. Nor think ye, young ones, that they are the happiest, even
in our lifetime of a moment, who misspend it in dancing round a
Maypole!"

And Endicott, the severest Puritan of all who laid the rock
foundation of New England, lifted the wreath of roses from the
ruin of the Maypole, and threw it, with his own gauntleted hand,
over the heads of the Lord and Lady of the May. It was a deed of
prophecy. As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all
systematic gayety, even so was their home of wild mirth made
desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more. But as
their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that
had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were
intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys. They
went heavenward, supporting each other along the difficult path
which it was their lot to tread, and never wasted one regretful
thought on the vanities of Merry Mount.

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Główna Czytelnia Literatura Legendy THE MAYPOLE OF MERRY MOUNT

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