Corinna's Going A-Maying Summary
It's May Day, and the speaker of the poem is trying to get his girlfriend out of bed and into the outside festivities. It's a party outside, honey! He tries to shame her into hurrying up, describing how the morning is already in full bloom and all the villagers are eating cakes and courting like nobody's business. There's no time for primping or prayers when spring's a-coming in!
Besides, it's not like this kind of pleasure will just be around forever. They're in their prime right now—young, gorgeous, in love—and they should take advantage of the good weather to make love and play games. Seize the day, Corinna. 'Cause you'll be dead before you know it.
Get up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air:
- "Get Up Get Up Get Up." It's the boyfriend alarm clock. Corinna's still asleep, but her lover, the speaker of the poem, is up and at 'em, trying to guilt her awake with some well-placed landscape imagery.
- The thing about alarm clocks is, they're pretty insistent. The speaker is, too. He starts out in the imperative mood (he's a demanding little bugger), and he rarely leaves it. This poem issues commands like a three-year-old. Get up! See! Play with me!
- His personification of nature gives the dawn human qualities: the morning is a woman with wings who tosses dawn-colors across the sky like a pioneer quilt. The sun with its strong rays is like some guy's well-haired head.
- Think Louis XIV.
- But κόλαση! if there's not some Greek mythology going on here, too. The morning is named Aurora, Greek goddess of the dawn, and the sun she's bearing through the sky is probably Helios, god of the sun.
- The speaker's basic gripe is this: if the sun's up, then you should be, too.
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow'd toward the east
Above an hour since: yet you not dress'd;
Nay! not so much as out of bed?
- Line 5 hits us with a third "get up," a repetition that adds to the speaker's urgency. He really wants Corinna to come a-Maying with him.
- He's urgent, but he's not mad. So yeah, we wouldn't want to be called a "slug-a-bed," but the "sweet" indicates that it's an endearment, kind of. The triple lineup of s-alliteration in "sweet," "slug," and "see" points to the tension: he really loves her but can't she get out of bed already?
- Get ready for some more humanized nature. The flowers have already cried dew all over the garden and twisted up for some good ol' photosynthesizing sunshine. That was an hour ago, and Corinna is still not dressed or even out of bed. Talk about lazy.
- All this raving about dew and grass and glorious dawn puts this poem in the pastoral mode. By celebrating spring and May Day festivities, Herrick is also celebrating a traditional, simple, rustic way of life. Corinna and the speaker are no city slickers. They're sweet butter-churning, pie-making, rug-weaving, pig-feeding country folk.
- The exclamation mark after "Nay" and then the incredulous question—wait, you're still under the covers?—illustrate the speaker's playful irritation. It also makes you wonder, where exactly is this guy? Is he drifting in and out of Corinna's bedroom while he hunts down his shaving cream? Is he standing under her open window with a lute, a feathered cap, and a picnic basket full of England's best cheese?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, 'tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
- Moving from dawn to plants to animals in his nature tour, the speaker offers a flock of personified birds as a final plea. Even the pigeons on the windowsill have said their prayers (matins is a type of morning prayer) and chirped a few hymns. Can't we get out of here already?
- He ramps up his complaint in line 11 with some more religious talk. Although the rest of this stanza is pretty pagan, what with Aurora trundling Helios through the sky, here the speaker goes all Christian on us. Who knows? Maybe those praying birds inspired him.
- According to our speaker, it's a sin to stay inside on this May Day. No wait, it's even worse. It's a profanation.
- What the what? To profane means to disrespect something sacred, which implies that May Day is a holy day.
- But unlike Easter or Christmas or even Sundays, which are holy because they are days of Christian worship, May Day is holy for the opposite reason: it's a day of pagan celebration. Corinna isn't late for church; she's late for frolicking around the Maypole and getting busy in the flowering bushes.
- So here the speaker uses a little Christian imagery only to flip it on its head. Cheeky boy and his irony. Keep your pagan eyes peeled for other examples below.
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.
- The speaker wraps up the stanza with a jolt of hyperbole (a thousand virgins) and a dash of wordplay. All the maidens in the village are celebrating May Day and they're not doing it sluggishly. They "spring" faster than a lark darting through the sky to celebrate the spring. Get it? They jump in it.
- This punny exaggeration is an obvious contrast to Corinna, who is more like a slug than a lark. She can't be bothered to fetch in the May, not when there's zzzzz's to be had.
- Plus, even though "a thousand virgins" is deliberately over-the-top, this festivity is community-wide. In other words, the speaker isn't inviting Corinna out on a romantic date down lovers' lane, just we two. Instead, he's coaxing her out to celebrate with the entire village.
- "Fetch" is an interesting verb here since it implies that spring can't come in on its own. It's like a frisbee lying on the grass, waiting for Fido to come along and pick it up. For all our speaker's celebration of the natural world, he and the other villagers actually play an important role in this seasonal come-and-go.
Rise and put on your foliage, and be seen
To come forth, like the spring-time, fresh and green,
And sweet as Flora. Take no care
For jewels for your gown or hair:
- The imperatives continue in stanza 2. The speaker tells Corinna to get up and dress herself with the simplicity and freshness of nature. What, you mean I can't wear my jeggings? Heck no! Using a metaphor, he calls her clothes "foliage" (leafy green stuff), and then grabs a simile to say she's purty as Flora, Roman goddess of the spring and flowers.
- And with Flora we've met our third pagan. For more on Flora's history and significance, tune in here.
- In fact, he adds, don't even worry about primping. Looking fresh and nature-like is what's stylin' on May Day. Those jangly gold hoops? Your favorite sock bun? Totally inappropriate.
- But does he actually want her to show up in some flower chains, ready for Woodstock? Probably not. All this talk of foliage and freshness is figurative. He just wants Corinna to embody the simple sweetness of nature, from her clothes to her favors (hey-o).
- Notice how some of these sentences are wrapping around two lines with no comma or semicolon to break it up?
- Line 17 for instance starts a sentence with "take no care" but has to finish it in line 18, "for jewels." That kind of wrap-around action is called enjambment. It adds to the flow of the poem, drawing your eye forward. Head down to "Form and Meter" for more.
Fear not; the leaves will strew
Gems in abundance upon you:
Besides, the childhood of the day has kept,
Against you come, some orient pearls unwept;
Come and receive them while the light
Hangs on the dew-locks of the night:
And Titan on the eastern hill
Retires himself, or else stands still
Till you come forth. […]
- Don't worry, Corinna, if you feel a little less put-together than usual. Nature's gonna take care of it. Those personified leaves are going to give you "gems," a metaphor for dewdrops or flowers. But hey, she probably wouldn't say no to a cute little fern frond either.
- But save the best for last. The early dawn has been keeping some pre-dew aside, just for the pleasure of scattering those drops in Corinna's hair. "Against" here means "in anticipation of" and "orient" means this dew comes from the east, i.e. from the rising sun.
- These are time-sensitive offers, however, because they're hanging on the "dew-locks" of the night and this dawn is coming fast ("dew-locks" is a Herrick-invented word, probably meaning the dew-wet hair of the personified night).
- These drops would probably already have evaporated, but the "Titan" (referring to the night disappearing in the east) is willing to wait it out. At first it looks like he's going to disappear, but nope, he's going to dawdle, keeping those dew-pearls wet and unevaporated.
- Wait a second, the night is going to hang around for her? Isn't that, like, stopping time? This gal must be something else because nature itself caters to her whims.
- Say "stand still" out loud. Notice how you naturally slow down over those two st's? It's like the line is slowing down along with the night. Nifty, right?
[…] Wash, dress, be brief in praying:
Few beads are best when once we go a-Maying.
- The night was slowing down in line 26, but line 27 is exactly the opposite. The short single syllables of "wash, dress, be brief" give the line a quick, brisk feeling. It's getting late, Corinna, so you'd better get a move on.
- But what's this about being "brief in praying"? And skipping most of the rosary? Rewind back to stanza 1. There, the speaker claimed that staying inside was a sin, using Christian rhetoric to celebrate a pagan holiday. Here he's more obvious. The guy's actually encouraging her to ditch the religious stuff and come out for some frisky play.
Come, my Corinna, come; and, coming, mark
How each field turns a street, each street a park
Made green and trimm'd with trees: [...]
- Stop a minute and admire that train of "comes." The hard c's in "Corinna" and "mark" round out the alliteration to 5 c-sounds. Is this message getting across? Come out, Corinna?
- Next he tells her to notice how nature and civilization are woven together around this village, how the natural unmowed fields turn into streets and then the streets turn into parks. If the fields are pure nature and the streets are pure civilization, then the parks are a hybrid of the two. Humans plan and plant them, but they're full of green and trees.
- Like line 14, these lines highlight the role of humans in controlling nature and using art to make it even more pleasing. It's like when you add a few plaster gnomes to your front yard and all of sudden your flowerbeds go from bad to rad.
[…] see how
Devotion gives each house a bough
Or branch: each porch, each door ere this
An ark, a tabernacle is,
Made up of white-thorn neatly interwove;
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
Can such delights be in the street
And open fields and we not see't?
- So these villagers obviously like a little horticultural landscaping; now we find out that they also like to take a little nature home with them. Each doorway is decorated with flowering branches or woven wreaths.
- Is this some kind of Southern hemisphere Christmas? Not quite, although "devotion" is behind it. But these 17th-century Martha Stewarts aren't lugging home local greenery for religious reasons.
- Again, the speaker uses the language of Christian ritual ironically, to plug the pagan lifestyle. In a church, these arks and tabernacles are sacred boxes or sanctuaries that house important religious stuff, like scriptures and relics.
- But here they're metaphors for the secret sanctuaries of lovemaking. That's right: these branch decorations make a cool and shady retreat for some out-of-sight hanky-panky.
- Is it always better to keep your lovemaking to the porch? The speaker admits that anything done outside, on the street or in the nearby fields, will be spotted by other May revelers. But this is a public holiday, so take your "festivities" into the open!
- Note the emphasis on "each": "each house," "each porch," "each door." This pagan celebratin' is a full-village deal.
- Everyone's got their decorations up.
Come, we'll abroad; and let's obey
The proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.
- Again the speaker commands Corinna to get outside and start playing. And this time he slyly uses two types of authority to back him up.
- The first is civic authority, or an appeal to secular power held by the state or village. Wanna know why we should be bustin' out moves round that Maypole? Because a "proclamation" says so and we have to obey.
- Is it likely that May Day is enforced by an honest-to-goodness proclamation, written on parchment with a big ol' seal? No. It's a figurative way of stressing the festival's importance to the village way of life.
- The same goes for the second type of authority he invokes. Would this couple actually be sinning if they stayed inside? If they were using that room to pray and do other virtuous things, definitely not. Especially if they were avoiding the naughtiness outside.
- This is hyperbole, used to emphasize just how desperately he wants her to come outside. But it's also ironic, since again he's using religious terms to make fun of them. It's a sin to stay inside only according to the May Day rules, which are all about maximizing pleasure and fun.
- On the other hand, could Herrick be using religious language because he thinks that May Day fits in with religion?
- Perhaps he's not mocking Christianity but encouraging a different form of it. After all, if God made the world, maybe it is a sin to sleep in on a beautiful morning where one might witness his creation.
- Either way, all this talk of proclamations and sin is an obvious in-your-face to Puritan legislation of 1644 that banned May Day celebrations in England. The Puritan-controlled Parliament actually did write a proclamation declaring the traditional observance of May Day a crime and a sin.
- By insisting that May Day must be celebrated, by counter-proclamation and counter-sin, Herrick is thumbing his nose at the Puritan killjoys in power.
There's not a budding boy or girl this day
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
A deal of youth, ere this, is come
Back, and with white-thorn laden home.
Some have despatch'd their cakes and cream
Before that we have left to dream:
- Nature's not the only one that's been busy this morning. All the village young people have been up and at it since the dawn, gathering branches and decorating their front porches.
- "Budding" gives these adolescents a flower-like feel, emphasizing their natural connection with springtime. It also indicates that they're still growing—not quite adults, but definitely awash in hormonal urges.
- If this sounds more like a middle school cafeteria and less like a fun day out, remember that responsibility was fast-tracked in the 17th century. These teenagers were already planning careers (at least the boys) and future marriages.
- Some have been out with the wheelbarrow and clippers, but others have been chillaxing. It's not a festival without refreshments, right? Well, you better get your speed on, Corinna, before the youngsters eat every crumb of dessert before you're even in your bathrobe.
- We don't know about you (or Corinna), but to us "cakes and cream" is just one more reason to love May Day. This is a holiday that celebrates material pleasures, and all the sweet, sticky, fragrant, beautiful things that make life worth living.
And some have wept, and woo'd, and plighted troth,
And chose their priest, ere we can cast off sloth:
Many a green-gown has been given;
Many a kiss, both odd and even:
Many a glance too has been sent
From out the eye, love's firmament;
- Along with collecting branches and eating creamy layer cakes, these budding boys and girls have also been wooing each other this morning.
- Some keep it PG and commitment-free, flirting with simple glances and chaste kisses. But others put a little raunch into the romp. "Green-gowns" is a euphemism for sex, since any girl lying on her back in the grass would get telltale stains.
- Others have marriage on the mind. Although the speaker is compressing the time frame for effect (i.e., getting Corinna out of bed), it seems that a lot of these young people are interested in putting a ring on it.
- It may be unlikely for a couple to date, get engaged, and pick a wedding date and priest all in a single morning. But the speaker wants Corinna to know that a lot of folks are getting a move on with their future lives and happiness—all while she lies in bed.
- Hear that alliterative pep? We've got "cakes and cream" in line 47, "wept" and "woo'd" in line 49, and the infamous "green-gown" of line 51.
Many a jest told of the keys betraying
This night, and locks pick'd, yet we're not a-Maying.
- If you thought the green gowns were dirty (and we're talking more than grass stains), get a load of the euphemistic metaphor here. These locks and keys and picks are clear stand-ins for people who are getting it on.
- The girls are the locks, meant to be opened by a designated key (probably a husband or at least a fiancé). But it looks like these keys are currently MIA or maybe even nonexistent. Come on, a lot of these girls are super-young.
- Instead the locks are going to be picked tonight—illicitly opened by inappropriate dudes.
- There's more than a whiff here of sexual assault, what with this breaking-in imagery. But the speaker neutralizes the violence by telling Corinna that these stories are jokes. Does that mean all the ladies were willing? Or could this festival also shield some not-so-savory non-consent?
Come, let us go while we are in our prime;
And take the harmless folly of the time.
- Seize the stanza, Shmoopers! Although the whole poem has focused on persuading Corinna to get up and enjoy the pleasures of the moment, this is the stanza that really trumpets the carpe diem theme. That's Latin for "seize the day" or, in other words, GET OUT THERE AND HAVE FUN. And in poems written by men in ye olden times, fun usually = sex.
- This stanza shifts the focus from nature and society to the speaker and Corinna. Instead of comparing her laziness to the can-do industry of the morning and the villagers, the speaker urges her to take a good hard look at her life and her choices.
- Basically his message boils down to this: they're not getting any younger. They'll never look or feel as good as they do in this very moment, when spring is around the corner and they're in love and healthy.
- So why not enjoy a little harmless fun while they can? It's not like this is a job interview she's missing—it's just a little sleep. He admits that it might be silly to bring in the May with a pole and flowers. But it's also enjoyable. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, despite what the Puritans might say.
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.
Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun;
- The speaker elaborates on his message, stressing that time is shorter than you think. Life's like a game of Taboo: the freaking hourglass just won't stop.
- The danger is that they'll both get old and rickety before they've had a chance to fully enjoy their good health and youth and beauty. He doesn't want them to turn into the crotchety senior citizens on benches at the park who carp that youth is wasted on the young.
- After all, life doesn't last forever, and it's easy to forget that days can rush past, as fast as the sun setting into the horizon.
- It's kind of an obvious simile—of course our days travel as fast as the sun, since the sun's traveling is a day. But the point is that we spend a lot of time looking at the sun and tracking its movements, whether we're checking the time, looking for rain, or enjoying the sunset on lawn chairs. We're super-conscious of where the sun is and how fast it can change.
- What we don't realize as much is that the sun is directly linked to our lives. Every time that burning ball sets, that's one less day for us to live.
And, as a vapour or a drop of rain
Once lost, can ne'er be found again,
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade,
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drowned with us in endless night.
- The speaker hits us with another simile at line 63, comparing the shortness of life to evaporation. Everyone knows that once water vaporizes into the air it joins the great water cycle, hanging out in the clouds until it rains down again. But Herrick is not going for 7th grade science here, okay. For the sake of this simile, once mist or rain disappears, it's a true goner.
- And bummer: that's what life is like. Now it's here, then it's not. And once you're dead, you're never coming back again.
- That means that once he and Corinna are gone—made into stories or poems or just ghosts—it's curtains on all material pleasures. No more sex, no more cakes and cream, no more dancing around the Maypole in a green-gown.
- All that fun stuff will be as dead and inaccessible as they are.
- The deluge of l-sounds and long i's in line 67 points up the tragedy of missing out on all these good times. See "Sound Check" for more on assonance and other sound tricks.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come, let's go a-Maying.
- After all the dire warnings of this stanza, the "then" of line 69 hits us with the force of a thrown cream cake. Here's the kicker, the answer, the only way to avoid this sad fate of dying old, ugly, and with zero memories of fun times.
- But we already know it, since it's only been repeated about fifty million times: "let's go a-Maying."
- It's clear now that this poem is not just about dancing around a maypole and having a few beers. It's about eluding time and death, about dodging religious rules and puritanical laws and seizing your chance to have fun and experience the pleasures of the world right now. In other words, May Day is just a metaphor for living life to its fullest.
- "Decaying" here doesn't mean that Corinna will slowly rot until she finally dies, turning brown and wrinkled like a bad orange. Instead, it's more a synonym for "living": every day we're alive, we're edging closer to our deaths. So in a sense, while we're living we're also decaying.
- All the more reason to get out with that maypole.