Wednesday 28 July 2021

Pear-Shaped & Humdrum Diversion


" ... and then the book was banned!"

Are things looking a little pear-shaped in your neck o' the woods, Dear Reader? Or is it the humdrum of the workaday that cries out for a diversion? Forsooth, you are in luck, for the first of many gems mined from my recent read* leads to today's Small Adventure:

"Any Man that has a Humour is under no restraint or fear of giving it Vent; they have a Proverb among them, which, may be, will shew the Bent and Genius of the People, as well as a longer Discourse: He that will have a May-pole, shall have a May-pole." 

So did sayeth one 25-year-old playwright Mr. William Congreve** to Mr. John Dennis in his letter "Concerning Humour in Comedy" in 1695, wherein he goes on rather about the Source of Humour***. 

Humour went thataway ...
William Congreve
Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1709, NPG 3199
© National Portrait Gallery, London

But hunting down the May-pole proverb? Purists might suggest this is a topic for a May Day contemplation, but tra la to that idea. And yet, after perusing the letterly banter (also reprinted by J.E. Spingarn later as Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, if you have a copy handy), and getting no joy from Mr. Dennis either about the humour intrinsic to Maypoles, & finding only one other unrelated mention across the whole of the interwebs****, I thought elucidation may come by employing traditional Flying With Hands research tools and, in this fashion, simultaneously compensate by enriching our lives with images thusly:

Visually punning Christopher Kane AW16 anyone?
She that is a May-pole, shall be a May-pole ...
[And yet I don't remember seeing this look in my 'hood]

How about some frolicking Monopolists?
Puck Magazine obliges with some May-pole satire 
Frederick Burr Opper chromolithograph, 1885

Or was this what Congreve had in mind?

Those more familiar than I with Maypoles, Morris Dancing and the stock-in-trade of Merrie Olde England can see I am barking up the wrong tree with this illustrative crop, as the ribbons and cats are all Victorian embellishments. And while England flip-flopped between Catholic and Protestant mores in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Maypole was banned for stretches as idolatrous symbols of resistance. But they were back in fashion by the time of the Restoration, and Maypoles beheld by Congreve & Friends rather more looked like this, viz:

Maypole before London's St. Andrew Undershaft,
As imagined before Protestant zealots destroyed the "Pagan Idol" in 1547.
Penny Magazine wood engraving, June 14,1845

The infamous 80-foot Merrymount Maypole in Massachusetts, 1628
C19th engraving of grumpy Puritan Militia surveying the sordid scene

Aha! Now it seems to me that while the Maypole's politically-saucy recent-ish history is the simplest explanation of its allure to the satirist, I prefer an idea that it's this Merrymount Maypole that could be the source of Congreve's proverb. For having, through this pictorial sleuthing, inadvertently discovered the tale of Mr. Thomas Morton, the man of the Small Adventure who erected a mighty Pagan-Maypole in the midst of the Good People of New England, we come to the first book to be banned in America! Behold:

Scandalous reading!

It seems that around sixty years prior to Mr. Congreve's youthful musings, Mr. Thomas Morton - lawyer, libertine and lampoonist - published The New English Canaan, achieving notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic. Within this too-hot-to-touch wit-laden tome, he both eulogised Massachusetts as the paradisiacal Canaan and denounced and lampooned the New England colonists. And so it was promptly banned.

Copies of the book became as rare as hen's teeth, exacerbated by it also falling foul of English censors since it was printed in Amsterdam, a known hotbed of Puritan publishing. And if nothing could whet the intellectual appetite of the young Wits who held court at Will's Coffee-House in London, it is the tale of a fellow-lampoonist being censored. And a Merrie Maypole being at the heart of the matter*****.

The Wits at Will's
Pope's Introduction to Dryden at Will's Coffee-House [inc. Congreve clubbing around]
Eyre Crowe, 1858

Well, that's My Theory, anyway. I've not found a shred of evidence to suggest that fifty years after Morton's decease, Congreve and his literary cronies had ever read or even got their mitts on a copy of The New English Canaan or were still talking about it, but I rather believe just mentioning the word Maypole would bring a glint of mischief into their all-knowing eye. 

* A treasure-trove known as Before the Romantics: An Anthology of the Enlightenment chosen by Geoffrey Grigson, 1946, and which will provide seemingly endless fodder for Flying With Hands! Chockfull of Pope, Johnson, Diaper, Swift, Dryden &c. &c. for the oh so interested.

** My book's small excerpt, wherein his observation that "there is more of Humour in English Comick writers than in any others" can also be "ascribed to their feeding so much on Flesh, and the Grossness of their Diet in general", is footnoted with the infamous encounter between Voltaire and Congreve, where V may have been insolent, C may have been a literary snob, and V may have later retracted his critical comments in a mea culpa

*** To wit, upon heading to the fountainhead, Letters upon Several Occasions: Written by and between Mr. Dryden, Mr. Wycherly, Mr. -, Mr. Congreve and Mr. Dennis, 1696. he exposits upon why "Humour is neither Wit, nor Folly, nor Personal defect; nor Affectation, nor Habit; and yet, that each, and all of these, have been both writte [sic] and received as Humour", & offers up his understanding of Humour to be "A singular and unavoidable manner of doing, or saying any thing, Peculiar and Natural to one Man only; by which his Speech and Actions are distinguish'd from those of other Men" and throws in some Choller and Flegm and Spleen. In other words, he helps no-one who is trying to understand what a GSOH means in the Personal Columns.

**** An archived 1964 US Choristers Guild newsletter equals a total dead-end in my book!

***** In a nutshell, the shady-all-round Devonshire-born Morton had been living in a Utopian colony in Massachusetts, with the non-PC-name "Merrymount" (as in non-Puritanically-Correct), established by him and a notorious pirate soon after the Mayflower landed. His Small Adventure runs the gamut of "subversive" living in the eyes of his dour Puritan neighbours,  viz. pagan practises and "going native" with the local Algonquin tribe and Bacchanalian May Day performances, but his worse crime was to cut in on the settlers' fur trade and arm the said Algonquins. An eighty-foot antler-topped Maypole erected at Merrymount two years in a row was the final straw. The Plymouth Militia arrested Morton, the Maypole was cut down, he narrowly avoided execution and was banished back to Olde England via a spell on a deserted nearby island, and Merrymount was sacked. Spells in prison ensued, but, ever the lawyer, Morton bounced back and tried to sue the Puritans through the Massachusetts Bay Company. King Charles I, naturally hostile to the Puritans, ultimately revoked the Company's charter, and Morton published the fruits of his legal campaign as his book, The New England Canaan.

Image credits: 1, 5: via Pinterest; 2: National Portrait Gallery, London; 3: Rex via; 4: Wikimedia Commons; 6: The British Museum; 7: Penny Magazine via Google Books; 8: via Project Gutenberg; 9: via


  1. The May Pole still exists here in France, but in a slightly different guise. After local elections a May Pole is erected in the garden of the new Mayor or his acolytes. It is highly decorated, and is always topped by a wooden shield announcing 'Honour to the Elected ones'. The pole is called a Mai (French for May), and stays in place until it falls over. There may be examples on Google Images(?).

    1. Taking your direction, Dear Cro, I discover two excellent images of such from your own post! The idea of the celebratory pole for other announcements, like the betrothal announcement, is a nice one, too. Traditionally waiting for the pole to fall over goes back a long way, I discovered, but it might look rather tatty when on its last leg.

  2. 25-year-old playwright William Congreve had a sensitive, handsome face in the painting. I like Kneller's work anyhow, but I love the Congreve portrait in particular because he showed the playwright's blond-red eye lashes and eye brows. I always wanted to marry a redhead (and did), so I can pick one, even with a large wig covering his head :)

    1. You did make me larff, Hels! The pink cheeks are a bit of a giveaway, too :)

  3. Eva (via email):

    Hi Pipistrello,

    I reminded of the Maibaum tradition in Germany and Austria where one dances around the tree ( but not like a Morris dancer!) to welcome spring. This is followed by young and agile males climbing to the top of the tree to ring a bell. The festivities can last a month. It is also the month to declare one's love.
    It does translate a bit oddly here in the antipodes but it is surprising to see people eager to take on ritual even if the seasons do not align.
    Thank you for another interesting blog post.

    1. Dearest Eva, thank you kindly! And thank you, too, for sending me down a rather interesting path this morning, investigating Maibaum traditions. Somehow I feel that young men going out into the woods at night with chainsaws and cases of beer in the name of a love declaration should ordinarily be a recipe for disaster, but the Germanic tribes must be able to wield sharp edges with a steady hand when under the influence!


  4. We have a maypole in our town which sits in a spot called Paganhill and has done so since 1192. It has received mention in works of historical reference, gazetteers, travel guides and other publications, relating to the county, over several centuries. It is believed that some of the poles in the village have been the tallest unsupported such structures in the land.
    The Paganhill Maypole is also something of a rarity, with few maypoles of its size having survived.
    Over the centuries it has, at frequent intervals, been lovingly repainted and restored - a token of the esteem in which it has been held by generations of those living nearby.
    The current maypole has moved away from the traditional larch pole to the more durable medium of fibreglass!!!

    1. I had a look at your Paganhill Maypole, dear Rosemary, for the interwebs provide pictures! What a wonderful history and I expect it probably went through periods when it was threatened by Protestant zealots. Unless your Valleys' were ever secure Pagan strongholds?! I see there are bollards around it - how does this work for dancing around it?

    2. It is situated on what is now a small roundabout in the middle of the road, and I must admit to never having attended any May Day celebrations since we came to live in this area. However, all of the bollards would be readily removeable.

  5. Hello Pipistrello, I'll have to look up copies of the Spingarn book and a few others you mention here. This was quite a timely post, as I have just reread (for the umpteenth time) Ogden's Nash's tale of the man who hated Spring, and when his wife served him waffles, he "objected to the May-pole syrup."
    p.s. I just looked up the life of Joel E. Spingarn in Wikipedia. It is worth a gander--his story is interesting and unexpected.

    1. Mr. Spingarn is indeed a man of unexpected repute! I'm pleased you found some diversion here, dear Jim, and you, in return, have set me off this morning to see if, in the spirit of Congreve trying to analyse Humour, I can figure if the "May-pole syrup" is meant to be a malapropism or a mondegreen, but I'm going to have to read the tale in full myself. Which I don't imagine will be a chore!

      Btw, if you do go in search of the "New England Canaan", the Amsterdam publisher may or may not be a furphy, but was a rabbit-hole I didn't wish to drag the unwilling down. I did read somewhere that Morton was cross about his book being confiscated & fruitlessly tried to save the copies, so it was good enough for me to leave it that censors took it for granted that it was Amsterdam.

  6. There is somethings so positively pagan about a maypole it is small wonder thems in charge despise it.

    1. I did read some rather amusing things, dear Ur-spo, re how enraged some became in times past. Chopping down May-poles into little bits and burning the bits and stamping on the ashes, just to be sure it doesn't look like a fun thing anymore. Students in particular got rather het up under their collars. What can this mean? Brains can't be behind it.


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