May Day

May 1: Celebrants of May Day have their pick of two causes, roughly speaking — love and war, the maidenly Maypole and the workers’ Red Flag. One of the most famous and militant poems on the theme of class warfare is Alfred Hayes’s “Into the Streets, May First,” first published in the socialist magazine New Masses in May, 1934. Hayes is perhaps best known for “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” commemorating the execution of the Wobblies activist whose ashes were ceremonially scattered to the wind on May 1, 1916. “Into the Streets” turns the lament for injustice and inequality into a fighting song:

Into the streets May First!

Into the roaring Square!

Shake the midtown towers!

Shatter the downtown air!

Come with a storm of banners,

Come with an earthquake tread,

Bells, hurl out of your belfries,

Red flag, leap out your red!…

The tradition of romance-fertility is pre-Christian in origin, and celebrated worldwide according to local custom, from the Obby Oss (Cornwall) to Walpurgis Night (Scandinavia and Northern Europe) to flower-giving (Hawaii, France, and elsewhere). Ludlow, Shropshire celebrates A. E. Housman along with May Day; Houseman died on April 30, 1936, he is buried in a local churchyard, and his poem “The First of May” is regarded as a hymn to the region and to the hope of renewal:

The orchards half the way

    From home to Ludlow fair

Flowered on the first of May

    In Mays when I was there;

And seen from stile or turning

    The plume of smoke would show

Where fires were burning

    That went out long ago.

The plum broke forth in green,

    The pear stood high and snowed,

My friends and I between

    Would take the Ludlow road;

Dressed to the nines and drinking

    And light in heart and limb,

And each chap thinking

    The fair was held for him….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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