Thursday, 1 May 2014

May Day meanderings

It's May Day; arguably the one day of the year outside of Christmas Day and January 1st that carries its own familiar quotations. Before nine a.m. I had heard both of them on the radio:
"Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out" and "the darling buds of May".
But what exactly do they mean? Time for a bit of Googling and some random fact finding....

Ne'er cast a clout is simple: it means don't put your winter woolies away until May is out,  'clout' being a 15th century word for a garment. But the 'May' in question is not the month but the white blossom of the may tree or hawthorn, which of course typically comes out in May or June.
"The Darling Buds of May" was a tv series derived from an HE Bates novel and starring David Jason and the young and very beautiful Catherine Zeta Jones but it originates with Shakespeare whose Sonnet 18 must be one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Reading it, facts drifted back from the dim recesses of my memory of my English Lit GCE  .. a sonnet is 14 lines of iambic pentameter whose lines rhyme ABABCDCDEE. The weird stuff one remembers when you manage to forget why you just walked into the kitchen!

May Day is a spring festival in many northern countries but also the traditional celebratory day for international trade union and socialist movements. Why? I presumed it must have been a starting day for one of the big revolutions in France or Russia but, no it dates from the 'Haymarket Massacre' of1886 in Chicago. Heard of it? I certainly hadn't.
In the rapidly industrialising USA of that time workers were campaigning for an eight hour day. On May 4 in Chicago's Haymarket Square there was a large and peaceful demonstration which turned violent when police tried to break it up and an unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd which killed seven police.
Eight anarchist labour leaders were charged with conspiracy though no evidence linked them to the bomb. After something of a show trial with a hostile judge and biased jury seven were sentenced to hang. One committed suicide and  four others were hanged. The remaining three were later pardoned by a new Illinois governor.
The hanged men became martyrs to labour movements around the world and May 1st was taken up around the world as the day to remember them and continue the campaign for workers' rights.

That is the end of today's lesson in random facts! Normal blogging resumes tomorrow.

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