Enda O’Doherty writes: Could summer be a-coming in? Or is it Spring? This morning’s weather in Dublin – blue skies, plentiful light and just a few clouds out over the Dublin mountains ‑ certainly looks encouraging, and somewhat unfamiliar. But of course we know what every silver lining encases, and yes, Met Éireann forecasts for later today “sunny spells and scattered showers, the showers heaviest and most frequent this afternoon”. And there was me planning to take a stroll out along the Royal Canal in my stripey Bloomsday jacket. I don’t think so.
Of course not everyone minds the odd shower:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour …
What meteorological information does this impart? That March is a dry month and April rainy, though its showers are sweet and benevolent (TS Eliot, however, found them cruel, and for just the same reason that Chaucer found them pleasant, that they wake nature into life again; Tom, it seems, could see the downside of every good thing and the upside of what most people hated – “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow).
And what about May? Well May is a fine month, or at least it apparently was in the fourteenth century when Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland went out one day along the Malvern hills in Worcestershire in western England – in a somer seson whan soft was the sonne – and slombred in a slepying along the side of a stream where he was vouchsafed his dream vision of a tower on a hill, a deep dale with a dungeon beneath and in between a faire felde ful of folke going about the business of this world.
Ronald Blythe, the author of the classic study of English village life Akenfield (1969), wrote some years ago in a review of Nick Groom’s book The Seasons: “Our seasons cannot remain those of earlier writers. Neither the climate nor our activities will allow it.” Indeed. And is there really any justification for thinking – in Ireland at any rate – that we have four of them? This is a country where we, or some of us, fondly imagine that Spring starts on February 1st (lá ’le Bríde) and yet one finds oneself still wearing a heavy overcoat in early May (Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May): Summer consists for the most part of day after day of sullen, overcast skies; Autumn – and in particular October – can give us our most pleasant weather and it doesn’t get cold until late November or warm again (this is where we came in) until possibly late May. There is something missing here. I think it may be Spring – at the very least.
Of course it is not just in Ireland but in the prosperous West as a whole that we have pretty much lost touch with the rhythms of the calendar – when to expect the first cherry blossom, the flowering of the hawthorn, the arrival of raspberries, hazelnuts, damsons – the answers to which questions were once central to pretty much everyone’s life and are still quite generally known in rural continental Europe, but for how much longer before they follow us in measuring out the year not through its fruits and harvests but with the noisy coming in of Easter, Hallowe’en and Christmas buying opportunities?
But nature is still out there. Go out in all weathers, Blythe advises. “touch the earth, pray in an old parish church, step back a bit from what you think you possess. Tread in footsteps. An English year both clears and batters your head. The Seasons is a list of losses and gains. Saints, poets, artists and ploughmen mark it out. As do meals and games. It is full of timetables that still go somewhere.”
William Langland may have been afforded a splendid vision (formally The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman) when he fell asleep by the side of a Worcestershire stream but he may well have got up with damp having seeped through his shepherd’s cloak, which will have done nothing for his rheumatism. So I think the motto that appeared some years ago on the cover of The Erotic Review – “Hooray, hooray the first of May: / Outdoor sex begins today.” – may have been a bit optimistic.
Not that May was not associated with fertility ‑ and the shenanigans required to make it possible ‑ and thus traditional May celebrations became deeply suspect to clerics and in particular Protestant or Puritan ones. Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583), was so incensed by the survival of pagan practices that he has left us a rather charming account of what went on:
… thei tye about either legge twentie, or fourtie belles, with riche hande kercheefes in their handes, and somtymes laied a crosse over their shoulders and neckes, borrowed for the moste parte of their prettie Mopsies, and loovyng Bessies, for bussyng [kissing] them in the darcke … then marche this Heathen companie towards the Churche and Churche yarde, their Pipers pypyng, their Drommers thonderyng, their stumppes Dauncying, their belles jynglyng, their handkerchefes swyngyng about their heades like madmen, their Hobbie horses and other monsters skirmishyng amongest the throng.
And yet, as Nick Groom stresses, there is little real evidence that there was very much of that kind of thing going on. Spikes in natality tended to come not nine months after May Day but nine months after late summer. It is possible that the weather played a part here: remember, Britain did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 (170 years after much of continental Europe), so May 1st was, weatherwise, more akin to today’s April 20th, with consequent chills.
Ronald Blythe’s 2014 review of The Seasons in the TLS appeared under the heading “Icumen in”, a reference to the thirteenth century lyric “Summer is icumen in”:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode nu;
We can only hope.
Image: Gather ye bluebells while ye may. Photograph: Ripley Junior School. A somewhat different and shorter version of this blog post first appeared in June 2014.