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Thomas Morton and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount"

by Professor William R. Heath
Mount Saint Mary's College

Professor William R. Heath, Department of English, Mount Saint Mary
Professor William R. Heath, Department of English, Mount Saint Mary's College

"The May-Pole of Merry Mount" is another meditation on the danger of "merriment" out of control. Although not as artistically accomplished as "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown," it rewards analysis because it presents a fateful moment in early New England history and foreshadows central themes in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's Puritan tales not only dramatize the melancholy fact of human depravity, they also explore the possibilities of happiness. How can satisfaction be found and suffering avoided in the world? Did the Puritans’ rejection of the superb culture and festive occasions of merry old England doom their descendants to meager lives of quiet desperation? The confrontation between Morton's "silken colonists" and Endicott's "men of iron" juxtaposes polarized extremes, of which the maypole and the whipping post are the most telling examples. Was there a golden mean? Hawthorne, a student of how American character evolved, wanted to understand himself in terms of that evolution. He knew that "the future complexion of New England was involved in this important quarrel" (366). In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" jollity and gloom are contending for an empire, but they are also contending for Hawthorne.

Hawthorne claims in his brief preface that "the facts, recorded on the grave pages of our New England annalists, have wrought themselves, almost spontaneously," into a "philosophical romance" and "a sort of allegory" (360). He later refers to these "true" and "authentic passages from history" as "a poet's tale" (365). Yet to anyone familiar with the sources available to Hawthorne, nothing is more striking than how much authentic history he has left out—most notably, Thomas Morton himself! What do we know about the man who put up the maypole that so outraged his pious neighbors? Why has Hawthorne omitted Morton from his story?

Governor Dudley termed Morton "a proud insolent man," "an attorney in the West countries" who fled to New England "upon a foul suspition of murther" (Adams 169). In New English Canaan (1637) the author referred to himself as "Thomas Morton of Clifford's Inn, Gent.," "mine Host," and "the Sonne of a Souldier." An aristocrat by birth and a bon vivant by inclination, Morton was educated for the law at Oxford; he was fond of falconry and foppery, bawdy puns and pedantic poetry, fawning on his patrons and imbibing with Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern. He was, in sum, an Elizabethan man, with a hankering to walk on the wild side. In 1620 he married one of his clients, an elderly widow. When her sons inquired about her estate, he slipped away, reappearing in the summer of 1622 with Andrew Weston in New England.

A man of many vices, certainly Morton's most persistent and appealing virtue was his infatuation with America: "The more I looked the more I liked" (41), he reported. "If this land be not rich, then is the whole world poor" (42). His enduring love of the natural beauties of the land is the key to understanding Morton's subsequent behavior. In 1626 he was back with Captain Wollaston, who departed after one New England winter for Virginia with a few of his indentured servants. The rest Morton convinced to stay, on the promise that they would "converse, trad, plante, and live togeather as equalls" (Bradford 237). They also bartered "peeces, powder, and shotte" (Bradford 238) with the Indians for furs, and celebrated their good fortune "with Revels & merriment after the old English custome" (Morton 89): they "sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob; & therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare" (Morton 89). Morton composed a song for his merry men to sing as they danced hand-in-hand around the maypole—"Lasses in beaver coats come away,/ Yee shall be welcome to us night and day" (Morton 91)—in anticipation, as Bradford noted with disgust, of cavorting with "the Indean women...dancing and frisking togither, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived and celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddes Flora, or the beastly practises of the madd Bacchinalians" (238).

They called their den of joyous iniquity "Meriemounte, as if this jolity would have lasted ever" (Bradford 238). Morton, with his love of word play, had chosen a name susceptible to many meanings—ma-re, mare, Mary, marry, merry-mount: The place could connotate a seaside mountain, sodomy in the stable, honoring or dishonoring the Virgin, marriages of various sorts, and a cornucopia of ways to be happy. What it meant to the Puritans was trouble. Morton had violated their cherished beliefs while undercutting their economy and security. As an Anglican cavalier with literary pretensions and an hedonistic bent, Morton epitomized the "eat-drink-and-be-merry" England the Puritans had hoped to leave behind. His maypole festivities smacked of folk superstitions and pagan practices; his consorting with Indian "lasses" violated their sexual and racial taboos; his hospitality to indentured servants threatened their labor supply and social order; and his trading of guns for furs not only stole the beaver and deerskin trade away but it also armed their deadly enemies, who became "a terrour unto them, who lived straglingly" (Bradford 240).

"This harmless mirth made by younge men," Morton lamented, "was much distasted by the precise Separatists," who began "troubling their branes" about how "to overthrow his ondertakings" (91-2). The Pilgrims wrote him two letters, citing King James's prohibition against selling firearms to the natives, but he responded with "scurillous termes full of disdaine...and said the king was dead and his displeasure with him" (Bradford 242). Morton was legally correct, but that did not prevent Miles Standish, in a slapstick skirmish where more rounds were drunk than fired, from taking him prisoner the following May. Before being shipped to London, he was imprisoned on the Isle of Shoals, off the mouth of the Piscataqua, without "so much as a knife" to procure food "or any other clothes to shelter him with at winter then a thinne suite" (97). Had not friendly Indians provided aid, he would have perished. The Pilgrims were no more successful inducing England to punish Morton than Claudius had been in the case of Hamlet, for the following year he sailed back to Plymouth as Isaac Allerton's secretary. In no time he was up to his old tricks, employing his Indian friends to hunt for him and beating his envious competitors to the best furs. Endicott, peeved that Morton had rejected a trading partnership, arrested him on the trumped-up charge of stealing a canoe. He was put "in the Billbowes," all his goods were confiscated, "his house fired before his face, and he sent prisoner to England." And, of course, his maypole was chopped down and his followers "admonished...to look ther should be better walking" (Bradford 238).

Jailed briefly in Exeter before his patron Gorges arranged his release, Morton then poured all his rancor into an account of the "cruell Schismaticks" in Boston Bay. New English Canaan mocks captains Shrimpe and Littleworth (Standish and Endicott) and celebrates the merry exploits of "mine Host of Mare Mount," but the chief merit of the book, as Samuel Maverick first perceived in 1659, is that it provides "the truest description of New England as then it was that ever I saw" (Adams 351). Unlike the Puritans, Morton was at home with the natives: "I have found the Massachusetts Indian more full of humanity, then the Christians, & have had much better quarter with them" (77). Morton's first-hand observations were also filled with wonder at the naturalistic bounty of the new world, delighting in naming its species, including hawthorne of "two sorts" (45). Although marred by slap-dash composition and a plethora of classical allusions, as natural history, anthropology and exposé of hypocritical bigotry, Morton's book is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, its only readers appear to have been the subjects of his satire. In the summer of 1643 Morton, like the proverbial bad penny, returned to Plymouth claiming to be an agent of one Rigby. A born sportsman—"probably the only man who ever flew bird at quarry in Massachusetts" (Adams 172)—Morton once again aroused "the fierce wrath of Miles Standish by wandering gun in hand over the Duxbury marshes" (Adams 345). The following summer he was imprisoned in Boston ("he hath set forth a book against us"), and a winter in jail so ruined his health that Winthrop decided not "to inflict corporal punishment upon him, being old and crazy" (194-6). Banished to Maine, Morton died there two years later "poor and despised" (Winthrop 196). Thus was this man of wanton summers broken at last by the Puritans, and rough winter weather.

It is not surprising that Hawthorne, who restored the English spelling to his surname (a synonym for "May"), should have an interest in May-day festivities. "Oberon," the prince of fairies and the May king in A Midsummer Night's Dream, was the name he chose for his alter-ego in several of his early stories. Shakespeare's play about midnight metamorphosis also inspired the names for the protagonists of "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown." Those two stories saw merriment as nightmare—not a necessary steam valve to release pent-up desires, but an open floodgate whose torrential waters sweep everything away. In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" Hawthorne takes a more conflicted, if not contradictory, view of Morton's attempt to transplant English merriment to America.

Elizabethan England was deemed "merry" because of its heritage of holidays and folk festivals; its prodigious repertoire of pageants, processions, plays, songs, dances, sports, games, feasts, toasts, jests, and simple good cheer. Based on a Christian calendar of saints' days and ceremonies that had been layered over pagan rites and rituals, the English year was marked by seasonal celebrations, each with its own rules for being unruly, its own prescribed codes and customs. "Candlemas, Shrove Tuesday, Hocktide, May Day, Whitsuntide, Midsummer Eve, Harvest-home, Halloween, and the twelve days of the Christmas season ending with Twelfth Night" (Barber 12) were designed to enrich life and give it resonance. Rather than threatening and undermining society, these sanctioned festivities served to consolidate the traditional order.

Holiday vitality is made possible when "the energy normally occupied in maintaining inhibition is freed for celebration" (Barber 7). These interludes for relief and release, however, were positioned within the larger context of a workaday world and human mortality. The Elizabethans understood present mirth and laughter in relation to future suffering and sorrow. "Holiday affirmations in praise of folly were limited by the underlying assumption that the natural in man was only one part of him, the part that will fade....`from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe/ And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot'" (139). Holiday, C. L. Barber argues, provided a method for "mastering passionate experience." The festive comedies of Shakespeare dramatize both "the need for holiday and the need to limit holiday" (192), but the Puritans could never grasp that "holiday gave a license and also set a limit" (196). The purpose of holidays was to provide a temporary respite from everyday drudgery and demands—that they were transitory added spice to the occasion. "We are so made," Freud observed, "that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things" (23). As Shakespeare put it, "If all the year were playing holidays/ To sport would be as tedious as to work;/ But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come..." (Henry IV, I).

Seasonal festivities are as old as agriculture, which is to say they originate in the neolithic goddess cults of the Middle East. When Hebrew herders posited one God on high and the spirit above the body, they were opposed by farming peoples who worshipped Mother Earth. The story of Adam and Eve—with its serpent goddess, fruitful tree, and woman born of man—subverts the older religion. Probably the Judeo-Christian suspicion of the feminine and the flesh derives from that early struggle between monotheism and animism. Clearly, the maypole ceremony derives from prehistoric phallic worship and sympathetic magic: The primitive belief that like produces like; in this case, that an outdoor orgy will ensure abundant crops. Catholic Europe countenanced these archaic festivals among the peasantry, even the veneration of Mary as a surrogate goddess. But the Puritans, of course, were deadset against all "popish practices" and pagan rituals. The situation was made more complex by the fact that King James I fostered a revival of all sorts of traditional English merriment as a way to win support among rural folk, entertain his court, and laugh away the nascent Puritan movement. Shakespeare and other writers were drawn into this controversy over "the politics of mirth," giving the Puritans yet another pretext for censoring the arts and closing the London theaters (Marcus).

The Puritan Phillip Stubbes described an English maypole celebration as follows: "Again May, Whitsunday, or other time all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hills, and mountains, where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes.... The chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration.... And thus being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top...they fall to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols.... Of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over-night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled...." (Barber 21-22). Stubbes was sure that the "grand captain (of all mischief) whom they ennoble with the title of `my Lord of Misrule'" was Satan incarnate, and that their frenzied antics were an exercise in "heathenry, deviltry, whoredom, drunkenness, pride and what not" (Barber 27-28). It is worth noting that these maypole festivities were not restricted to May-day, and that young and old alike participated. The erotic power of such merrymaking is supported by the fact that Elizabethan conception rates were seasonal and that one in five brides was pregnant, two patterns that carried over to cavalier Maryland but not to Massachusetts (Thompson 54). The Puritans attributed this difference to the fact that "New England men came hither to avoid anniversary days" (Fischer 158-9). Thus by the time Thomas Morton set up his maypole, it was a potent symbol indeed, a red flag to enrage all Calvinists and a lightning rod to draw their thunderbolts.

As with the black veil and the scarlet letter, Hawthorne was probably not aware of everything the maypole symbolized, but he knew that it signified a great deal. Nevertheless, his understanding of the materials he was dramatizing appears to be incomplete. What he omits is in many ways more interesting than what he includes, and his general treatment is marked by an oscillating point of view that sabotages straightforward readings. Instead of the ribald antics of the mercurial Thomas Morton, as "the very Comus of the crew" (362) we have "Blackstone" (367), along with an author's note admitting the misnomer. No mention is made of Morton's swapping firearms for furs, which posed a real threat to the dispersed settlers; instead there is a reverse emphasis on how the Puritans kept weapons handy "to shoot down the straggling savage" (365). The "lasses in beaver coats" with whom Morton's men danced and dallied are conspicuous by their absence, replaced by a fair English maiden, Edith, and a "flower-decked priest" to sanctify her marriage with Edgar. In sum, Hawthorne's tale suffers from various suppressions, displacements, and sentimental substitutions.

"My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" and "Young Goodman Brown," for example, are distinguished by Hawthorne's skillful adherence to the point of view of his young protagonists. The reader shares the temptation and "liberation" of Robin as well as the bewilderment and embitterment of Brown. In "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," however, there is no consistent vantage. Hawthorne is fascinated by the festivities, but he can't hide his anxiety—it is a threat and a temptation. A voyeur at heart, he can watch but he can't fully approve or participate, and for this he feels relief and regret. The tale is divided into three parts: An opening description of the maypole celebrants, an historical digression to explain who they and the Puritans were, and a final scene in which Endicott chops down the maypole and passes out punishments. Hawthorne stresses the contrasts between "gay sinners" and "grisly saints," suggesting that they represent two incompatible philosophies of life. The revelers can only sing and dance, while the Puritans can only work and pray. But as the juxtaposition of maypole and whipping post suggest, the choice is not only between the physical and the spiritual, but also the sensuous and the sadistic. The story anticipates Freud's theories about the struggle between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, while supporting his fears that civilization tended to stifle the legitimate demands of instinct and impulse. If Morton and his men demonstrate the dangers of the uninhibited id, Endicott and company represent the overly repressive superego. It is the malaise of civilization that there is no perfect balance.

Where does Hawthorne stand? He appears to be in favor of the colonists's attempt to transplant "May, or her mirthful spirit," the maypole with its "seven brilliant hues," and English roses with their "richer blush" to New England (300-1). And when he imagines Morton's men (in truth seven renegade indentured servants) as including "minstrels... wandering players...mummers...rope-dancers...mountebanks and mirthmakers of every sort" (364), it is clear that Hawthorne sympathizes with this motley crew of would-be artists and their spring-summer-fall-winter celebrations: "Thus each alternate season did homage to the May-Pole, and paid it a tribute of its own richest splendor. Its votaries danced round it, once, at least, in every month; sometimes they called it their religion" (365). Hawthorne approves at least the effort to bring jollity to Merry Mount if not "the quality of their mirth" (364).

Sympathetic passages are undercut by others that criticize the revelers for their counterfeit happiness and degenerate sensuality. Some men wear the disguises of potent animals—a stag, a wolf, a venerable he-goat, even "a bear erect, brute in all but his hind legs, which were adorned with pink silk stockings" (361)—others don grotesque masks, "with red noses pendulous before their mouths, which seemed of awful depth, and stretched from ear to ear in an eternal fit of laughter" (361). Here Hawthorne is on the verge of nausea; this frenzied merriment is more than he can tolerate. Edith's presentiment that "these shapes of our jovial friends are visionary, and their mirth unreal, and that we are no true Lord and Lady of the May" (363), is expanded on by the narrator: "From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves to earth's doom of care, and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount" (363). Later Hawthorne adds: "Erring Thought and perverted Wisdom were made to put on masques, and play the fool. The men of whom we speak, after losing the heart's fresh gaiety, imagined a wild philosophy of pleasure, and came hither to act out their latest day-dream.... Sworn triflers for a life-time, they would not venture among the sober truths of life, not even to be truly blest" (364). And the final sentence informs us that the former Lord and Lady of the May, after joining the Puritans, "went heavenward, supporting each other along the difficult path which it was their lot to tread and never wasted one regretful thought on the vanities of Merry Mount" (370). This harsh critique seems to settle the issue in favor of the Puritans, who maturely face the tragic facts of life and devoutly walk the straight and narrow path toward salvation.

Hawthorne's treatment of the Puritans within the story, however, does not support this pat resolution. Their actions fit H. L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy." If the revelers are too whimsical and indulgent, they are too superstitious and cruel. They are described as "most dismal wretches," who "peopled the black wilderness" with "devils and ruined souls," proclaimed "bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians," and turned festivals into fasts, maypoles into whipping posts (365). Hawthorne calls Endicott, the "Puritan of Puritans" (367), a "remorseless enthusiast" (367) and an "immitigable zealot" (369). He is a killjoy who wants to banish plump Jack Falstaff from their Holy Commonwealth; his list of punishments includes "a small matter of stripes" (368), "branding and cropping of ears" (368), and executing a bear suspected of witchcraft. His order to cut off Edgar's lovelocks epitomizes the constricting conformity to come. In sum, it is unfortunate indeed that the new world contained "men of a sterner faith than these May-Pole worshipers" (365). Thus Hawthorne gives us an either/or situation to which the reader responds, "Neither!"

Hawthorne calls his story both a "philosophical romance" and a "poet's tale," phrases that recall Keats's aphorism: "What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet." Hawthorne the philosopher sides with the pious saints, but his poetic sympathies are often with the protean sinners. He would like to imagine a world where the dichotomy of jollity and gloom could be resolved, where passion and reason had a place and the arts flourished. He senses that Shakespeare's England enjoyed such felicity; but he can't quite envision so sophisticated and satisfying a balance for New England. In fact, he sees himself and his culture as the sad product of fanatic reformers who tossed the baby out with the bathwater. He criticizes the revelers, in turn, for their "systematic gaiety," but in English folk tradition having a system for gaiety was precisely the point. "How many things by season season'd are," Portia says, "To their right praise and true perfection!" (Merchant of Venice, V). Knowing how and when to be happy was an art that neither the "silken colonists" nor the "men of iron" had mastered. "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" ends by suggesting that the best of Edgar and Edith's "real passion" had a place among the victorious Puritans; The Scarlet Letter repudiates that assertion.

Works Cited

Adams, Charles Francis. Three Episodes of Massachusetts History. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1893.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963.

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.

Marcus, Leah S. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvel and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Morton, Thomas. New English Canaan. Tracts and Other Papers. Vol II. Collected by Peter Force. New York: Peter Smith, 1947.

Thompson, Roger. Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts Colony, 1649-1699. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Winthrop, John. Journal, 1630-1649. Vol. II. Ed. James Kendall Hosmer. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908.

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