Gerard Manley Hopkins: May is Mary’s Month

It is now the month of May, and (officially at least) Spring is upon us. On Thursday we celebrated May Day (and, more importantly, the feast of Saint Joseph the Workman), and tomorrow (in the UK) we have a Bank Holiday. May as a whole though, has traditionally been seen as ‘Mary’s month’, and in his poem The May Magnificat, Gerard Manley Hopkins explores why this might be. In doing so, he considers in parallel the nature of Spring – freshness, birth, vitality – and the nature of Our Blessed Mother, who represents to us all these things and more.

Hopkins uses a rich array of pastoral imagery to convey the feelings of warmth and affection we so naturally associate with motherhood, and supposes how the things we see bursting into life in the natural world at this time of year ‘magnify’ their kind, calling to mind how Our Lady magnified Our Lord in assenting to be the means by which His Incarnation would be brought about, and the pure faith in God that she showed in doing so. By using such imagery, Hopkins manages to draw a vivid picture of natural fecundity, so that Mary’s motherhood, when placed within this context, is seen as both completely consonant with the regular rhythms of creation, but also startlingly different to it.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, immaculately conceived by virtue of the graces won for her by the One she would bear into the world, is here shown as paradigm of all true fruitfulness, and also of the humble faithfulness of creation itself, responding obediently to the promptings of God. The poem’s whole texture shows us what marvellous beauty is achieved each year by the obedience of the created elements; its denouement shows us how much greater was the result of the obedience of Our Blessed Mother, and thus why the glorious fertility of Spring should so be associated with the incomparable riches brought into the world by her – the fruit of her womb, Jesus:

 

MAY is Mary’s month, and I

Muse at that and wonder why:

Her feasts follow reason,

Dated due to season—

 

Candlemas, Lady Day;

But the Lady Month, May,

Why fasten that upon her,

With a feasting in her honour?

 

Is it only its being brighter

Than the most are must delight her?

Is it opportunest

And flowers finds soonest?

 

Ask of her, the mighty mother:

Her reply puts this other

Question: What is Spring?—

Growth in every thing—

 

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,

Grass and greenworld all together;

Star-eyed strawberry-breasted

Throstle above her nested

 

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin

Forms and warms the life within;

And bird and blossom swell

In sod or sheath or shell.

 

All things rising, all things sizing

Mary sees, sympathising

With that world of good,

Nature’s motherhood.

 

Their magnifying of each its kind

With delight calls to mind

How she did in her stored

Magnify the Lord.

 

Well but there was more than this:

Spring’s universal bliss

Much, had much to say

To offering Mary May.

 

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple

Bloom lights the orchard-apple

And thicket and thorp are merry

With silver-surfèd cherry

 

And azuring-over greybell makes

Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes

And magic cuckoocall

Caps, clears, and clinches all—

 

This ecstasy all through mothering earth

Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth

To remember and exultation

In God who was her salvation.

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