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A Morris For May-Day
by [?]

Not long ago a prospectus was issued by some more or less aesthetic ladies and gentlemen who, deeming modern life not so cheerful as it should be, had laid their cheerless heads together and decided that they would meet once every month and dance old-fashioned dances in a hall hired for the purpose. Thus would they achieve a renascence–I am sure they called it a renascence–of `Merrie England.’ I know not whether subscriptions came pouring in. I know not even whether the society ever met. If it ever did meet, I conceive that its meetings must have been singularly dismal. If you are depressed by modern life, you are unlikely to find an anodyne in the self-appointed task of cutting certain capers which your ancestors used to cut because they, in their day, were happy. If you think modern life so pleasant a thing that you involuntarily prance, rather than walk, down the street, I dare say your prancing will intensify your joy. Though I happen never to have met him out-of-doors, I am sure my friend Mr. Gilbert Chesterton always prances thus–prances in some wild way symbolical of joy in modern life. His steps, and the movements of his arms and body, may seem to you crude, casual, and disconnected at first sight; but that is merely because they are spontaneous. If you studied them carefully, you would begin to discern a certain rhythm, a certain harmony. You would at length be able to compose from them a specific dance–a dance not quite like any other–a dance formally expressive of new English optimism. If you are not optimistic, don’t hope to become so by practising the steps. But practise them assiduously if you are; and get your fellow-optimists to practise them with you. You will grow all the happier through ceremonious expression of a light heart. And your children and your children’s children will dance `The Chesterton’ when you are no more. May be, a few of them will still be dancing it now and then, on this or that devious green, even when optimism shall have withered for ever from the land. Nor will any man mock at the survival. The dance will have lost nothing of its old grace, and will have gathered that quality of pathos which makes even unlovely relics dear to us–that piteousness which Time gives ever to things robbed of their meaning and their use. Spectators will love it for its melancholy not less than for its beauty. And I hope no mere spectator will be so foolish as to say, `Let us do it’ with a view to reviving cheerfulness at large. I hope it will be held sacred to those in whom it will be a tradition–a familiar thing handed down from father to son. None but they will be worthy of it. Others would ruin it. Be sure I trod no measure with the Morris-dancers whom I saw last May-day.

It was in the wide street of a tiny village near Oxford that I saw them. Fantastic–high-fantastical–figures they did cut in their finery. But in demeanour they were quite simple, quite serious, these eight English peasants. They had trudged hither from the neighbouring village that was their home. And they danced quite simply, quite seriously. One of them, I learned, was a cobbler, another a baker, and the rest were farm-labourers. And their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had danced here before them, even so, every May-day morning. They were as deeply rooted in antiquity as the elm outside the inn. They were here always in their season as surely as the elm put forth its buds. And the elm, knowing them, approving them, let its green- flecked branches dance in unison with them.

The first dance was in full swing when I approached. Only six of the men were dancers. Of the others, one was the `minstrel,’ the other the `dysard.’ The minstrel was playing a flute; and the dysard I knew by the wand and leathern bladder which he brandished as he walked around, keeping a space for the dancers, and chasing and buffeting merrily any man or child who ventured too near. He, like the others, wore a white smock decked with sundry ribands, and a top-hat that must have belonged to his grandfather. Its antiquity of form and texture contrasted strangely with the freshness of the garland of paper roses that wreathed it. I was told that the wife or sweetheart of every Morris-dancer takes special pains to deck her man out more gaily than his fellows. But this pious endeavour had defeated its own end. So bewildering was the amount of brand-new bunting attached to all these eight men that no matron or maiden could for the life of her have determined which was the most splendid of them all. Besides his adventitious finery, every dancer, of course, had in his hands the scarves which are as necessary to his performance of the Morris as are the bells strapped about the calves of his legs. Waving these scarves and jangling these bells with a stolid rhythm, the six peasants danced facing one another, three on either side, while the minstrel fluted and the dysard strutted around. That minstrel’s tune runs in my head even now–a queer little stolid tune that recalls vividly to me the aspect of the dance. It is the sort of tune Bottom the Weaver must often have danced to in his youth. I wish I could hum it for you on paper. I wish I could set down for you on paper the sight that it conjures up. But what writer that ever lived has been able to write adequately about a dance? Even a slow, simple dance, such as these peasants were performing, is a thing that not the cunningest writer could fix in words. Did not Flaubert say that if he could describe a valse he would die happy? I am sure he would have said this if it had occurred to him.