The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was a bestseller in the 1970s. It was a gift book, a coffee table book, a book that might be picked up to enjoy its illustrations or to reflect on a line of its prose. Along with the intricate drawings of flora, there were lines of poetry appropriate to the artwork.
“The merriest month of all the year is the merry month of May,” is the only line that remains in the memory. They were words that always brought a sense of joy during the thirty-one days of the queen of months.
Knowing little about poetry, I had imagined for more than years that the words were written by Keats, or someone of similar standing, the sort of poet whose lines might appear on the reading lists of school students. I was surprised when I discovered that the lines are from a song called “Robin Hood and the Widow’s Three Sons” which appears in The Oxford Book of Ballads published by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1910. The first stanza of the ballad goes:
There are twelve months in all the year,
As I hear many men say,
But the merriest month in all the year
Is the merry month of May.
When the stanza is complete, even I knew that it was hardly the work of Keats, not the sort of poetry that would be taught in a classroom. Yet, being a ballad, its pedigree was far more ancient, it was from a source much older than those mostly favoured by school poetry syllabuses. The song was one of more than three hundred English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis Child during the late-Nineteenth Century.
The song was one that had endured for generations, men in taverns, women at firesides, had raised their voices to sing the lines. Perhaps it was just the alliteration, the repetition of the letter “m,” but perhaps they found, in it, something more, perhaps May really was the best of months for them.
A nonagenarian lady whom I used to know would have concurred with such a thought. The lady loved the month of May and there was almost a hint of regret when she spoke of the coming of the month of June. The month of June, she would remind me, was the month when the days would turn and the daylight would again begin to shorten. Perhaps the Edwardian lady shared such a thought.