The Maypole of Merry Mount
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Historical Background
Hawthorne's Introduction
Plot Summary
Figures of Speech
Glossary of Terms
Questions, Writing Topics
Hawthorne's Biography
Complete Free Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Type of Work and Year of Publication

.......“The 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. 


.......The 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. 

Historical Background: Merry Mount

.......A 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.
.......In 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.”
.......Unable 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.

Historical Background: Puritanism

.......Puritanism 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. 
.......Many 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.
Endicott: Leader 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. 
Anglican Priest: 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.
Puritans: Hawthorne based the Puritans in the story on historical Massachusetts settlers. For information about them, see Historical Background: Puritanism, above.

Hawthorne's Introduction to "The Maypole of Merry Mount"

.......Hawthorne wrote the following introduction to the story:

.......There 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
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2009

.......At 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. 
.......“Other 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” (paragraph 3).
.......One 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. 
.......Unseen Puritans who observe the scene at a distance compare the revelers to devils and lost souls that they believe roam the forests.
.......Inside 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).
.......A 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 10).
.......That 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. 
.......The 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 14). 
.......Once every month, they danced around the maypole. “[S]ometimes they called it their religion, or their altar,” the narrator points out (paragraph 14).
.......Near 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. 
.......“When 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.
.......There 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. 
.......In time, the Puritans objected to the noisy merriment, and a feud developed between the two communities. Who would win?
.......The 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, 

......."Stand 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).
.......To discourage the Merry Mount folk from resuming wayward activities in the future, Endicott orders several of them whipped and others placed in stocks.
.......“Further penalties, such as branding and cropping of ears, shall be thought of hereafter," he says (paragraph 27).
.......A 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. 
......."What sayest thou, maid? Shall thy silken bridegroom suffer thy share of the penalty, besides his own?" (paragraph 36).
.......Edith says she wishes to accept the penalty herself, even if it is death: “Lay it all on me” (paragraph 37).
.......Endicott, 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. 
.......Thereafter, 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 42).



.......Only 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. 


.......In 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 idolaters. 

False Goals

.......The 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. 


.......After 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.


.......The 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.

Primordial Symbols

.......Psychologist 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 to identify such an external stimulus, primordial meaning existing from the beginning of time. 
.......Primordial symbols appear frequently in the works of Hawthorne. Following are examples from "The Maypole of Merry Mount":


[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. (paragraph 17)


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)

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).

Other Symbols

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.
maypole:  In "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.

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in "The Maypole of Merry Mount":

Repetition of a consonant sound

Paragraph 2: birchen boughs, some 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 carnival 
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 a human
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

.......Edgar 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."
.......Her 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): See maypole. 
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. In Elizabethan England, Midsummer Eve and Midsummer Day were times of feasting and merriment. On Midsummer Night, fairies, hobgoblins, and witches held their festival. 
nymph (paragraph 3): In Greek and Roman mythology, a minor goddess living in woods, rivers, and mountains.
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.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Which 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? 
  • What was the attitude of the Merry Mount residents toward Indians? What was the attitude of the Puritans? 
  • Are there any similarities between the Puritans and the Merry Mount residents? Explain your answer. 
  • Write an informative essay that explains the mind-set of Puritans. 
  • Write an informative essay about the maypole activities in various European countries.