Having already written about Julia Margaret Cameron’s Sadness in my midterm essay, I took the time to explore her other photographs and was struck by one called May Day. In it, Sylvia Wolf describes:
…A tangle of leaves, twigs, and berries in the foreground and wilting flowers strung around the models’ necks, or tucked behind their ears, add an element of disorder and decay that is reminiscent of the vanities theme of a Dutch still-life painting—everything a bit ripe and overdone, as a reminder of mortality. (Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women)
Upon first glance, it’s hard not to be drawn to the central figure: a woman with long flowing hair wearing a flower crown and gazing directly at the viewer. When looking at the photograph and taking into consideration its title, I make an American connection and recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” in which the people of Merry Mount gather to celebrate the wedding of the young Edith and Edgar until John Endicott and his Puritan followers come to whip everyone. Edith and Edgar are spared on the condition that they dress more conservatively and Edgar cuts his hair in the classic Puritan fashion. The story goes from joy to gloom quickly because of the power struggle between pleasure and religion. It is also notable that May Day was, for a time, banned by Puritans in the 17th century.
May Day is a holiday for celebrating the coming of spring and fertility. The most notable aspect of this holiday is the dancing around the maypole and Moho’s do in the spring and as Edith and Edgar did. Typically, a May Queen is also chosen. The May Queen is someone who personifies the tradition and wear a white gown garnered with flowers to symbolize purity and fertility and a crown.
Upon further research, Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph has an alternative name: “For I’m to be Queen of the May Mother, I’m the Queen of May” and the central figure is her niece. In the photo, on a day expected to be filled with joy and celebration, there is a touch of sadness to. Each figure has a stillness while spring is supposed to be filled with life and movement. Flowers are supposed to be in bloom, but the ones in the photograph seem wilted and dark. The May Day theme doesn’t end with the flowers and crown, the very composition of the subjects are reminiscent of the maypole. The figures surrounding the May Queen seem to encircle her instead of just merely gathering with her. Though she is not lively, she acts as the maypole in a way.
Though “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” made for an exciting comparison, Cameron actually based the photograph off of Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The May Queen.” Written in two parts, the latter describes Alice’s expectation of life in the spring:
The honeysuckle round the porch has woven its wavy bowers,
And by the meadow-trenches blow the faint sweet cuckoo-flowers;
And the wild marsh-marigold shoes like fire in swamps in hollows gray;
And I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.
To her subsequent death in the winter:
If you’re waking, call me early, call me early, mother dear;
For I would see the sun rise upon the glad new-year.
It is the last new-year that I shall ever see,—
Then you may lay me low i’ the mold, and think no more of me.
The poem is oddly reminiscent of the myth that the May Queen was to be sacrifice after May Day. However, Alice does live to see another spring. Though May Day is about supposed to be about new life, both the poem and photograph bring up themes of death and decay.