May Morning in Literature

May Morning on Magdalen Tower (William Holman Hunt, 1890)

May Morning is an Oxford tradition that has been celebrated in various forms for centuries. The singing of the Hymnus Eucharistus from the top of Magdalen College tower at dawn is first recorded in 1695 - more about this hauntingly beautiful hymn (including sheet music) can be found here. It's thought that New College hosted similar celebrations in the first half of the 17th century and there is evidence from as early as 1250 that May Day revels were causing early morning disruptions;

"In 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University forbade ‘alike in churches, all dancing in masks or with disorderly noises, and all processions of men wearing wreaths and garlands made of leaves of trees or flowers or what not."

Over the years, many writers have been inspired by May Morning - some by the unique traditions of Oxford and others by the ubiquitous changes that the arrival of May brings. Below are a selection of extracts from poetry and ballad sheets that capture some of the mystery and magic of May Morning.

May Morning on Magdalen Tower
John William Burgon (1813–1888)

"... But turn!--while we are dreaming there hath grown
A crowd about us. Lo, a tuneful choir,
White-robed, bare-headed, all eyes one way thrown:
...
Ring out, glad bells! and let the sleepers know
That, while they slept, we watched the month of May
Twine the first garland for her virgin brow."

John Burgon was Dean of Chichester from 1876 until his death in 1888. He spent much time in Oxford and made it his headquarters for business, having graduated from Worcester in 1845 and made a fellow of Oriel College in the following year. May Morning on Magdalen Tower is Spenserian in form and, with a focus on the religious aspects of May Day, includes a translation of the Hymnus Eucharistus (originally written c.1685 in Latin by Thomas Smith, Fellow of Magdalen College) between the 3rd and 4th stanzas.

Read the full poem and hymn translation here.

The Dairy-Maid's Mirth and Pastime on May-Day

The Young-Men they, with Damsels play, and many Sonnets Sing,
Their Joys Compleat, with Musick sweet, to welcome in the SPRING.

They will carefully tustle
at the Harrow and Plow,
Ever eating their Morsel
by the sweat of their brow;
Yet when Merry together,
then their hearts for a while,
Is as light as a Feather,
they forget all their toyl.

This is the penultimate stanza of a ballad from the late 1680s which now sits in the Pepys collection at Magdalane College, Cambridge. The ballad's subject is a more pagan version of May Day than the one represented in Burgon's poem, choosing instead to celebrate the love, joy and 'innocent Mirth' that the day's festivities bring to a local community!

See the full text and a facsimilie of the ballad sheet here.

May Morning
Vera Brittain (1893-1970)

"...This was the morning hour
When life awoke with Spring's creative power,
And the old City's grey to gold was fired.

Silently reverent stood the noisy throng;
Under the bridge the boats in long array
Lay motionless."

Brittain started to read English Literature at Somerville College in 1914, before delaying her degree in the summer of 1915 to work as a VAD nurse for much of the First World War. Her fiancé Roland Leighton, close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, and her brother Edward, were all killed. She returned to Somerville after the war to study History. In the full poem (which appears in her memoir Testament of Youth) Brittain remembers, with a mix of hope and despair, a May Day before the outbreak of war.

Read the rest of Brittain's poem here.

Song on May Morning
John Milton (1608-1674)

"Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
...
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcom thee, and wish thee long."

Final mention must go to Milton, whose poem about May Morning is probably the most well known of the bunch. Milton wasn't writing about the Oxford tradition (he was a Cambridge man after all...) but he manages to distil the kind of respect us locals have for the annual celebration. His poem, like those above, praises the morning light, mirthful song and the triumph of the nature coming together to forge that May Day magic.

Find the rest of Milton's short poem here.

Everything you need to know about this year's May Day can be found on our dedicated page. Discover even more about the history of the May Day festivities on this dedicated May Morning website, or from this fascinating account of Oxford's traditions.

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