Thursday, May 01, 2014

May Day Greetings - Wat Tyler's Deptford May Day 1381 (as imagined By Robert Southey in 1794)

All the best you May Day revellers... or like me dreaming of revelling on a stressful day at work.

On Monday night, I gave a talk on the history of May Day in South London at a Haunt London event at the Miller pub by Guys Hospital SE1. Sarah Crofts also spoke on the 30th anniversary of the Deptford Jack in the Green, while David Aylward introduced a film of the Jack's 2006 procession through Deptford.

I have spoken and written about all this before - and you can download my history pamphlet 'May Day in South London' for free here. I had some new material for the talk though, including something on this dandy....

The romantic poet Robert Southey (1774-1843)  wrote his dramatic poem 'Wat Tyler' in 1794, at the height of his youthful radicalism and support for the French Revolution. Later he became Poet Laureate and a staunch defender of the status quo, and he was embarrassed when his paean the 1381 peasants revolt was reprinted in 1817.

The play opens at 'A BLACKSMITH'S-SHOP, Wat Tyler at work within. A May-pole before the Door' A group of May Day revellers including Tyler's daughter sings:

'Cheerful on this holiday,
Welcome we the merry May
On ev'ry sunny hillock spread,
The pale primrose rears her head;
Rich with sweets the western gale
Sweeps along the cowslip'd dale.
Every bank with violets gay,
Smiles to welcome in the May'.

'...During the Dance, Tyler lays down his Hammer, and sits mournfully down before his Door'. His friend Hob Carter asks:

'Why so sad, neighbour?—do not these gay sports,
This revelry of youth, recall the days
When we too mingled in the revelry;
And lightly tripping in the morris dance
Welcomed the merry month?'

Tyler has other things on his mind though:

'who should pay for The luxuries and riots of the court?
Who should support the flaunting courtier's pride,
Pay for their midnight revels, their rich garments,
Did not the state enforce?—Think ye, my friend,
That I—a humble blacksmith, here at Deptford,
Would part with these six groats—earn'd by hard toil,
All that I have! To massacre the Frenchmen,
Murder as enemies men I never saw!
Did not the state compel me?

His daughter Alice admonishes him:

'Did we not dance it well to-day, my father?
You know they chose me queen, and your friend Piers
Wreath'd me this cowslip garland for my head—
Is it not simple?—you are sad, my father!
You should have rested from your work to-day,
And given a few hours up to merriment—
But you are so serious!'

Still Tyler is no mood for merriment - he's got a major insurrection to launch!

I think in this extract we have most of the elements of the London May Day story:  the songs and dances of Merry May, the May Queen, the maypole and the Morris Dance, the nostalgia for the good old days, the radical politics, and a South London location too. Southey sets Tyler's blacksmith workshop in Deptford - this leader of the Kent rebels in 1381 has been variously attribute to here and to Dartford and Maidstone, Southey has presumably been influenced by Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791) which states that 'Wat Tyler, whose proper name was Walter, and a tiler by trade, lived at Deptford'.

Incidentally, Southey himself lived in 1797,at Prospect House in Newington Butts, by what is now the Elephant and Castle.


Sarah Crofts said...

I enjoyed your talk last Monday. Did I imagine this, but I thought that Robert Southey also lived at New Cross at some point?

Transpontine said...

Not as far as I know. You might be thinking of Robert Browning who lived on the site of what is now Haberdashers' Aske's school in New Cross.

Sarah Crofts said...

Yes of course. I got my Roberts mixed up.

But Robert Southey did write that curious book, Letters from England, under the guise of a Spanish visitor in which he described a Jack in the Green.