Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
Maypole of Merry Mount” is a short story that focuses on a conflict between
two groups of American colonists. Because it is highly imaginative, emphasizes
strong emotions, and casts nature (flowers, trees, animals, woods, sunlight,
and dusk) in a prominent role, the story falls within the genre of romanticism.
The final version of the story was first published in 1837 in Twice-Told
Tales, a collection of Hawthorne's short stories.
action takes place on June 23 (Midsummer Eve) in the late 1620s in the
Massachusetts seaside village of Merry Mount. Merry Mount was in present-day
Quincy, Mass., part of the Boston metropolitan area.
Background: Merry Mount
trader named Captain Wollaston (first name unknown) established the village
of Merry Mount as Mount Wollaston in 1625. With him were thirty to forty
other settlers—including another trader, Englishman Thomas Morton (1590-1647),
who was also a lawyer. Wollaston and Morton had migrated to America from
England in 1624, settling in
the Puritan colony of Plymouth, Mass. But because they and other settlers
could not abide the Puritans, they founded their own village, Mount Wollaston.
Within a year, Captain Wollaston and some of the other settlers moved to
Virginia. Morton stayed on with the remaining settlers and renamed the
village Ma-re Mount. Ma-re is the hyphenated spelling of mare,
the Latin word for sea. Thus, Ma-re Mount was a village “by the sea.” But
Morton also apparently intended Ma-re to suggest the word merry,
inasmuch as he and his fellow settlers—unlike the gloomy Puritans—were
bent on leading a life of gaiety and good cheer.
preparation for May Day celebrations (May 1), they brewed a barrel of beer
and prepared a special song for the occasion. When May Day arrived, they
carried a maypole to the place designated for its erection while playing
drums and shooting pistols. With the help of Indians, they raised the pole,
a pine tree eighty feet tall with a pair of deer horns nailed near the
top. The maypole could be seen from the sea and could serve as a landmark
to guide people to the village. The colonists attached a poem to the pole
to explain its purpose. But because of obscure allusions in it, the Puritans
could not discern its meaning, to the delight of Morton, who wrote in his
book, The New Canaan: “[A]lthough it were made according to the
occurrents of the time, it being Enigmattically composed pusselled the
Seperatists [Puritans], most pittifully to expound it.”
to tolerate the merrymaking at the village, which became known as Merry
Mount, the Puritans raided the settlement, cut down the maypole, and exiled
Morton to the Isles of Shoals, an archipelago of nine islands about six
miles off the coast of New Hampshire. Morton escaped to England, then returned
to America only to provoke officials one more time. He was sent back to
England but returned to America again. This time he was imprisoned in Boston
and later exiled to Maine. In Hawthorne's story, Morton is represented
by an Anglican priest.
began in England in the late Sixteenth Century when Protestant reformers
attempted to purge the Church of England (or Anglican Church) of the elaborate
ceremonies, rituals, and hierarchical structure it retained from the Roman
Catholic Church after King Henry VIII established Anglicanism by acts of
Parliament between 1529 and 1536. The Act of Supremacy, approved in 1534,
officially established the Church of England as an independent Protestant
entity separate from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Church of
England retained Catholic rituals such as the mass and prelates such as
bishops. For the Puritans, the pure word of the Bible, presented in part
through inspired preaching, took precedence over rituals while direct revelation
from the Holy Spirit superseded reason. After Queen Elizabeth I died in
1603, the Puritans petitioned the new monarch, King James I, to adopt their
reforms. In January 1604 at a special conference at Hampton Court Palace
near London, the king rejected most of the proposed Puritan reforms, but
he did grant a Puritan request for a new translation of the Bible, which
resulted in publication of the King James Version in 1611.
disenchanted puritans left the country. Those who remained behind joined
with members of Parliament opposed to the crown's economic policies. Together
they defeated the king's forces in the English Civil War. With the king
out of the way, the Puritans became a dominant faction in the new Commonwealth
government headed by Oliver Cromwell. However, after Cromwell's death in
1558, a movement to restore the monarchy began, and King Charles II was
restored to the throne in 1660. Under the Clarendon Code, approved in 1662,
the Church of England expelled all Puritan ministers who refused to accept
church tenets. Many Puritans then emigrated to America and established
their brand of religion in Massachusetts and other colonies.
Edgar and Edith: Young
couple who marry in a ceremony at the maypole.
of the Puritans. Hawthorne based this character on a historical figure,
John Endicott (1588-1665), administrator of a Massachusetts plantation.
Endicott (also spelled Endecott) later served several terms as governor
and deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Peter Palfrey: Endicott's
assistant. Hawthorne based this character on a historical figure who migrated
to America in 1623.
Minister who presides at the wedding and incurs the wrath of the Puritans.
Hawthorne based this character on a historical figure, John Morton (1597-1647),
a lawyer. For more about Morton, see Historical Background:
Merry Mount, above.
Merry Mount Revelers:
Villagers who dance around the maypole at the wedding of Edith and Edgar.
They live a life of pleasure.
based the Puritans in the story on historical Massachusetts settlers. For
information about them, see Historical Background:
Introduction to "The Maypole of Merry Mount"
wrote the following introduction to the story:
is an admirable foundation for a philosophic romance in the curious history
of the early settlement of Mount Wollaston, or Merry Mount. In the slight
sketch here attempted, the facts, recorded on the grave pages of our New
England annalists, have wrought themselves, almost spontaneously, into
a sort of allegory. The masques, mummeries, and festive customs, described
in the text, are in accordance with the manners of the age. Authority on
these points may be found in Strutt's Book of English Sports and Pastimes. Plot Summary
Michael J. Cummings...©
sunset in the town of Merry Mount on June 23, Midsummer Eve, a maypole—a
tall, slender pine tree—stands decorated with flowers, blossoms, and ribbons.
At the top is a banner with the colors of the rainbow. Near the bottom
is a wreath of roses. The maypole is a beautiful sight, contrasting markedly
with the grotesque costumers of revelers holding hands around it. One wears
the antlered head of a deer; another, the head of a wolf; a third, the
head of a goat. A fourth is in the guise of a bear. On his hind legs are
pink stockings. Also within this circle is a real bear, its forepaws extended
to human hands.
faces wore the similitude of man or woman,” the narrator says, “but distorted
or extravagant, with red noses pendulous before their mouths, which seemed
of awful depth, and stretched from ear to ear in an eternal fit of laughter”
man wears the guise of an Indian hunter and another that of a hairy savage.
Many revelers appear in the caps and bells of jesters. There are young
men and women in everyday clothing, but their faces reveal the same wild
look of the others.
Puritans who observe the scene at a distance compare the revelers to devils
and lost souls that they believe roam the forests.
the ring of revelers is a “youth in glistening apparel” (paragraph 5) with
a scarf in rainbow colors crossing his chest. In his right hand is a gilded
staff signifying his high place among the revelers. His left hand holds
the fingers of a pretty maiden in colorful apparel. Roses are scattered
at their feet. They bear the title “Lord and Lady of the May” (paragraph
6). Behind them stands an Anglican priest in clergyman's garb decorated
with flowers. On his head is a wreath of vine leaves. He announces that
he will marry the two young people and calls upon the revelers to sing
with the merriment of Old England and the wild glee of the wilderness around,
then to dance to show the young couple “how airily they should go through
[life]” (paragraph 6).
pipe, cithern, and viol then strike up a merry tune in a nearby thicket.
Oddly, though, the young lady, Edith, appears sad. The young man tells
her that this is the best moment of their lives. He says, “Tarnish it not
by any pensive shadow of the mind; for it may be that nothing of futurity
will be brighter than the mere remembrance of what is now passing” (paragraph
very thought—that the joy of the moment would soon be replaced with the
humdrum routine of everyday life and all its cares and sorrows—had just
crossed her mind, says Edith. Moments later, Edgar and Edith pledge their
vows in the marriage ceremony, and the masqueraders celebrate by dancing
around the maypole until the sun sets.
narrator then flashes back to the time when the Merry Mount residents first
settled their community. Ever searching for ways to amuse themselves, they
began wearing costumes and disporting themselves foolishly while developing
a “philosophy of pleasure” (paragraph 13). They recruited followers, including
minstrels, actors, and mummers. Young and old participated in the merriment.
Among their activities were amusements they brought from England. Thus,
at yuletide, they crowned a king of Christmas and appointed a lord of misrule
to manage Christmas merrymaking, including feasts, theatrical entertainment,
and masques. They also built bonfires to dance around. In the fall, the
narrator says, they fashioned “an image with sheaves of Indian corn, and
wreathed it with autumnal garlands, and bore it home triumphantly” (paragraph
every month, they danced around the maypole. “[S]ometimes they called it
their religion, or their altar,” the narrator points out (paragraph 14).
Merry Mount lived a colony of Puritans. Early in the morning—even before
sunrise—they gathered to say prayers. They spent the day working in forests
or fields, keeping their weapons ready for intruding savages, then returned
home for evening prayers.
they met in conclave,” the narrator says, “it was never to keep up the
old English mirth, but to hear sermons three hours long, or to proclaim
bounties on the heads of wolves and the scalps of Indians” (paragraph 15).
Anyone caught dancing was whipped or placed in stocks. The only music they
allowed was the singing of hymns. On festivals, there was no merriment;
they simply fasted.
were times when these grim people passed into the vicinity of Merry Mount
while the maypole colonists were masquerading, dancing around the pole,
playing blind man's buff, or attempting to explain their merriment to an
Indian. The Merry Mounters sometimes sang ballads or told stories for their
grim visitors, juggled for them, or paraded around for them in their strange
costumes. On one occasion, they held a yawning contest. The Puritans merely
stood by and frowned. It was as if for a moment a black cloud had descended
over Merry Mount.
time, the Puritans objected to the noisy merriment, and a feud developed
between the two communities. Who would win?
narrator then flashes forward to the evening when the wedding celebration
at the maypole ends. In the fading light, shadows emerge from the forest—armed
Puritans in their traditional black garb. Their leader, John Endicott,
stands in the center of the Merry Mount maskers “like a dread magician”
(paragraph 18), and says,
off, priest of Baal!" . . . . "I know thee, Blackstone! Thou art the man
who couldst not abide the rule even of thine own corrupted church, and
hast come hither to preach iniquity, and to give example of it in thy life.
But now shall it be seen that the Lord hath sanctified this wilderness
for his peculiar people. Wo unto them that would defile it! And first,
for this flower-decked abomination, the altar of thy worship!" (paragraph
19)Endicott draws a sword and cuts
down the maypole, then says its fall foreshadows the fate of “light and
idle mirthmakers” (paragraph 21).
discourage the Merry Mount folk from resuming wayward activities in the
future, Endicott orders several of them whipped and others placed in stocks.
penalties, such as branding and cropping of ears, shall be thought of hereafter,"
he says (paragraph 27).
court is to determine the punishment of the minister. The bear (the real
one) is to be shot through the head against the possibility that he is
bewitched. Peter Palfrey, Endicott's assistant, suggests that the newlyweds
be whipped. The young couple wait with apprehension for the pronouncement
of the governor. The young man had dropped his staff to comfort his bride,
putting his arm around her shoulder. She is leaning against his chest.
The youth then says he would fight to the death if he had a weapon. That
not being the case, he tells the governor to do with him as he wishes but
asks him to spare Edith. Endicott answers that Puritans do not confer special
treatment on women. If anything, he says, the young lady should receive
the heavier punishment.
sayest thou, maid? Shall thy silken bridegroom suffer thy share of the
penalty, besides his own?" (paragraph 36).
says she wishes to accept the penalty herself, even if it is death: “Lay
it all on me” (paragraph 37).
feeling sympathy for them, decides not to punish them. However, he orders
his subordinates to find more decent attire for them and, at the urging
of Palfrey, to trim the curly long hair of the young man. Henceforth, the
young couple will live with the Puritans. Endicott believes that Edgar
will be a good worker and valiant fighter and Edith a good and nurturing
mother. The governor then places the wreath of roses from the fallen maypole
over their heads.
Edith and Edward "went heavenward," the narrator says, "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" (paragraph
love can bring people together and make them happy. True, there will be
trials and sorrows in life, as Edith realizes when she has vague feelings
of uneasiness. In fact, she and Edgar face a severe test immediately after
the marriage ceremony, when Endicott threatens them. But instead of cowering
before him, they stand together firmly bound in their love, each expressing
a willingness to die for the other. Their courageous love softens Endicott,
and he spares them.
practicing their austere way of life, the Puritans go to the extreme, becoming
sadistic spiritual policemen. In pursuing their “philosophy of pleasure,”
the Merry Mount colonists likewise go to the extreme, becoming hedonistic
Merry Mount colonists attempt to avoid the pain and suffering of life through
the constant pursuit of pleasure. The Puritans attempt to avoid sin by
denying themselves pleasure. But neither group succeeds. The former eventually
experience a kind of malaise in middle age. The latter eventually take
pleasure in punishing outsiders.
Edgar and Edith win the admiration and sympathy of Endicott, he takes them
with him to live among his fellow Puritans. Perhaps the young couple's
love will set a good example for the other Puritans as well, making them
less suspicious of outsiders.
climax occurs when Endicott determines the fate of the young couple.
Baal (paragraph 19):
Fertility god in the ancient Middle East. In modern usage, the term is
often used as a pejorative, meaning idol or false god.
Comus (paragraphs 4,
5, and 23):
Evil magician in John Milton's Comus, a masque. A masque is an allegorical
drama with music, dancing, elaborate sets, and characters in colorful costumes.
Comus tries to tempt a woman into committing sin, but fails.
Grecian ancestry (paragraph
3): Perhaps an allusion to the Dionysia and the orgia, festivals in
ancient Greece dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. They
featured drinking, dancing, theatrical productions, and general merrymaking.
lord of misrule (paragraph
14: In medieval and Renaissance England, a person designated to oversee
Christmas merrymaking, including drinking parties. In ancient Rome, a person
designated to oversee merriment during the Saturnalia, a festival dedicated
to the god of agriculture, Saturn. The festival, which dates back to the
third century BC, was held in December .
red noses (paragraph
3): Allusion to rhinophyma, a swelling and redness of the nose that
can be caused by excessive drinking.
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) theorized that all humans share inborn impulses
that cause them to perceive certain external stimuli in the same way. For
example, all humans associate dark forests (like the one in "The Maypole
of Merry Mount") with danger, obscurity, confusion, and the unknown. On
the other hand, they associate sunlight with joy, happiness, merriment,
or optimism. Jung coined the term primordial symbol
such an external stimulus, primordial meaning existing from the
beginning of time.
symbols appear frequently in the works of Hawthorne. Following are examples
from "The Maypole of Merry Mount":
Examples of other primordial
symbols you may encounter in your study of literature include the following:
a river (the passage of time), overcast sky (gloom, depression, despair),
lamb (innocence, vulnerability), violent storm (wrath, inconsolable grief),
flowers (delicacy, perishability, beauty), mountain (obstacle, challenge),
eagle (majesty, freedom), the color white (purity, innocence), the color
red (anger, passion, war, blood), the color green (new life, hope), water
(birth or rebirth), autumn (old age), winter (death).
[A] band of Puritans, who
watched the scene, invisible themselves, compared the masques to those
devils and ruined souls with whom their superstition peopled the black
wilderness. (paragraph 4)
Even that dim light is now
withdrawn, relinquishing the whole domain of Merry Mount to the evening
gloom, which has rushed so instantaneously from the black surrounding woods.
On the lowest green bough
hung an abundant wreath of roses, some that had been gathered in the sunniest
spots of the forest. (paragraph 2)
Such were the colonists
of Merry Mount, as they stood in the broad smile of sunset round their
venerated Maypole. (paragraph 3)
costumes and bright colors:
To the Puritans, these represent the elaborate rituals that Anglicans retained
from Roman Catholicism. (For further information, see Puritanism, below.)
To the Merry Mount residents,
these represent merriment and the freedom to express oneself.
Merry Mount: To some
readers, it symbolizes the Garden of Eden. To other readers, it symbolizes
an escape from the hardships of everyday life. Escape can refer
to anything that enables a person to retreat from everyday life, such as
a drug or a dream, or simply indolence.
"The Maypole of Merry Mount, " the maypole represents to the Puritans idol
worship, paganism, and perhaps sexual license. To the Merry Mount residents,
it symbolizes a pleasureful way of life.
Following are examples of
figures of speech in "The Maypole of Merry Mount":
Repetition of a consonant
Paragraph 2: birchen
with silvery leaves, fastened
by ribbons that fluttered in fantastic
knots, wreath of roses
Paragraph 3: a bear
erect, brute in all but
his hind legs
Paragraph 5: the riot
of his rolling eye
Paragraph 7: continual
Comparison of unlike things
without using like, as, or than
Paragraph 1: pour
sunshine over New England's rugged hills. (The narrator compares sunshine
to a liquid.)
Paragraph 7: dance of life.
(The narrator compares everyday living to a dance.)
Comparison of a thing to
Paragraph 1: But
May, or her mirthful spirit, dwelt all the year round at Merry Mount. .
. . Through a world of toil and care she flitted with a dreamlike smile,
and came hither to find a home among the lightsome hearts of Merry Mount.
(The narrator compares May to a smiling woman.)
Paragraph 2: Garden flowers,
and blossoms of the wilderness, laughed gladly forth amid the verdure.
. . . (The narrator compares flowers and blossoms to laughing human.)
Comparison of unlike things
using like, as, or than
Paragraph 18: The
leader of the hostile party stood in the centre of the circle, while the
rout of monsters cowered around him, like evil spirits
in the presence of a dread magician. (The
narrator compares the disguised Merry Mount folk to evil spirits.)
Paragraph 3: [T]heir
mouths, which seemed of awful depth, . . . stretched
from ear to ear in an eternal fit of laughter.
Paragraph 9: Immediately
a prelude of pipe, cithern, and viol, touched with practised minstrelsy,
began to play from a neighboring thicket, in such a mirthful cadence that
the boughs of the Maypole quivered to the sound.
and Edith dress in the bright colors of Merry Mount for their wedding.
But a single phrase in a description of them in the fifth paragraph seems
to foreshadow the hard life they will come to know while living among the
somber Puritans. Here is the description, with the foreshadowing phrase
highlighted in red:
One was a youth
in glistening apparel, with a scarf of the rainbow pattern crosswise on
his breast. His right hand held a gilded staff, the ensign of high dignity
among the revellers, and his left grasped the slender fingers of a fair
maiden, not less gayly decorated than himself. Bright roses glowed in
contrast with the dark and glossy curls of each, and were scattered
round their feet, or had sprung up spontaneously there. .......Throughout
the story, the narrator associates darkness and blackness with the Puritans.
But in this paragraph the reader discovers that the young man and woman
both have dark curls. Then, in the eleventh paragraph, the reader discovers
that Edith is in a dark mood when she says, "Therefore do I sigh amid this
festive music. And besides, dear Edgar, I struggle as with a dream, and
fancy 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."
sense of foreboding, along with her and Edgar's conspicuously dark hair,
both suggest that the gaiety surrounding them will soon end, as it does
when the heavily armed Puritans arrive and end the festivities.
Glossary of Terms
chaplet (paragraph 5):
Wreath worn on the head.
cithern (paragraph 9):
In music, a pear-shaped stringed instrument. The player plucked the strings.
faun (paragraph 3):
In Roman mythology, a minor woodland god with the trunk of a man and with
the legs, ears, and horns of a goat.
foolscap (paragraph 3):
Hat worn by a court jester.
maypole (title, various
paragraphs): Tall wooden shaft decorated with flowers, greenery, and
ribbons as a centerpiece for festivals heralding spring and the rebirth
of nature. Since ancient times, Europeans have erected maypoles for such
festivals, usually taking place on May 1 but sometimes also taking place
on Midsummer Eve (June 23) as a solstice celebration. Typically, festival
participants dance around the pole. In the United Kingdom, dancers in some
festivals hold a ribbon attached to the top of the pole. In other British
festivals, men do a folk dance called the morris in which they may be dressed
in various costumes with bells attached. One of the men may be in the guise
of an animal. In some parts of England in the late sixteenth century and
part of the seventeenth century, Protestant groups succeeded in banning
maypole celebrations as occasions for drinking and wild mirth-making. However,
upon the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the government lifted
the ban on maypoles.
morris (paragraph 6):
Midsummer Eve (paragraph
1): June 23, the day before the feast of St. John the Baptist. In some
countries, it is also a day set aside to celebrate the summer solstice.
Elizabethan England, Midsummer Eve and Midsummer Day were times of feasting
and merriment. On Midsummer Night, fairies, hobgoblins, and witches held
nymph (paragraph 3):
In Greek and Roman mythology, a minor goddess living in woods, rivers,
pipe (paragraph 9):
In music, a wind instrument.
viol (paragraph 9):
In music, an instrument with six strings played with a curved bow.
votaries (paragraph 6):
Followers of a particular religion, creed, or cause.
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Questions and Essay Topics
passage in the story indicates that at least some of the Merry Mount residents
(other than Edith and Edgar) are only pretending to be happy?
2. What was the attitude
of the Merry Mount residents toward Indians? What was the attitude of the
3. Are there any similarities
between the Puritans and the Merry Mount residents? Explain your answer.
4. Write an informative
essay that explains the mind-set of Puritans.
an informative essay about the maypole activities in various European countries.