#46 Hawthorn or The May

Hawthorne or The May/ Thorn Trees


Hawthorns comprise a group of thorny shrubs or small trees in the rose family. Widely used in roadside hedges, common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and the smooth hawthorn, also known as whitethorn (C. laevigata), produce a proliferation of white blossoms so profuse as to look like midwinter snow, as T.S. Eliot noted in the beginning stanzas of his “Little Gidding” (1942): “you would find the hedges / White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness. ” The blossoms, which Pratt notes have a “great family likeness to the briar rose” (101), are often called “the May” and were traditionally gathered for May Day festivities; in 1752, however, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar with its subtraction of eleven days meant that they now bloom later. In his study of Wild Flowers in Literature, published in 1934, Vernon Rendall suggests May 25th is the optimum date (155). Modern cross-breeding has also produced pink and red varieties.

When not in hedges, hawthorn can grow into a tree, usually called a thorn tree. Solitary thorn trees are scattered all over England; in fact Kendall assets that “Thorn” is the “most common tree found in English place names.” [1]  Watts and Eberly both note that such trees were associated with fairies as gateways into other lands (Watts 180, Eberly 43). As Folkard notes, thorn trees are very long-lived and therefore persist as local landmarks (190). The most famous thorn tree in Britain is the Glastonbury Thorn, which is said to have sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he brought the Grail to England; it confirms its sacred status by blooming in the middle of winter as well as in spring (Pratt 100). Folkard notes that Christian lore also claims that the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus was believed to be made of White Thorn (189).[2]

In her article on “The Hawthorn in Medieval Love Allegory,” Susan Eberly suggests that the hawthorn, which she declares is “a constant” of medieval love poetry, acts as an arbor cupititas, an inversion of the Tree of Life or arbor caritatis, and marks its ironic use as a “consistent symbol of carnal love, as opposed to spiritual love” (41), as in Chaucer’s “Court of Love” where white robe of a blooming hawthorn tree is said to fill “full the wanton eye with May’s delight.” Hawthorn’s ambivalent reputation as an emblem of carnality draws further support from folkloric traditions which link the blossoms of the plant with both the festive fertility of May Day and the smell of death, specifically “the stench of the great Plague of London” (Eberly 42). Indeed Watts explains that some hawthorn flowers contain trimethylamine, “an ingredient of the smell of putrefaction” (182).

In his compendium of references to wild flowers in mostly British literature, Vernon Rendall compiles eight pages on hawthorne and may which include examples from the entire pantheon of poetical greats after Chaucer. There are many celebrations of hawthorn as a harbinger of spring. In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Helena praises Hermia’s voice, comparing it to the lark which sings “when hawthorn buds appear” (I, i, 183; quoted by Rendall 156). Hawthorn buds also appear in Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar (V, l.13; quoted by Rendall 157). Herrick’s “Corinna’s going a-Maying” and Tennyson “May Queen” are entire poems devoted to the traditions of May Day (158), and Matthew Arnold twice refers to the “whitening hedges” and “white-blossom’d trees” in his pastoral elegy Thyrsis (161). Hawthorn hedges also frequently provide shelter, as in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the “hawthorn-brake” serves as a “tiring house” for the “mechanicals” to change costumes (III, I, 3; quoted by Rendall 156) and in Henry VI, Part 3 where the hawthorn bush is said to provide “a sweeter shade” than “a rich embroider’d canopy” (II, v, 42-44; quoted by Rendall 157).  The shepherds tell their tales “under the hawthorn in the dale” in Milton’s L’Allegro, and Burns clasps his “Highland Mary” underneath the “fragrant shade” of the hawthorn’s rich blossom (Rendall 158, 161).

In line with these traditional uses, hawthorn and may appear thirty-one times in Woolf’s published writing, nineteen times as hawthorn and twelve as may; thorn trees appear an additional nine times, although they can occasionally be confused with furze bushes. While there are a few mentions of hawthorn in flower, it mostly appears as a hedge, sometimes sheltering lovers or farm animals; references to “the May” are consistently more full of vernal delight, more personal, more redolent of traditional England, and more consistent with the hawthorn’s Victorian significance as “Hope” (Greenaway 21).

Early references to hawthorn and the may alternate between connotations of love and death. In Night and Day, in an effort to find a connection with Ralph Denham, who lives in Highgate, Katherine’s aunts recall the blooming hawthorn as a memory of forgotten beauty: “I dare say there are very pretty lanes in Highgate. I can recollect walking with your mother, Katharine, through lanes blossoming with wild hawthorn. But where is the hawthorn now?” (149) The flower’s connection with love and courtship is soon emphasized as the Aunt’s recall how Katherine’s uncle met his future wife Emily, their union being forecast when she wore “A sprig of May in her bonnet” (150). The hawthorn in Jacob’s Room, however, appears in darkness without flowers paired with spiny gorse or furze in a churchyard, linking it to Christian associations with the Crown of Thorns: “The frail waves of sound broke among the stiff gorse and the hawthorn twigs as the church clock divided time into quarters” (JR 139).

Hawthorne lane near Richmond.

In Orlando, Woolf continues to present hawthorn as linked to a ghostly past of innocent eroticism. In the Elizabethan era, Orlando walks “very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree” (14); here he rides the spine of the tree’s root until his heart is stilled and he feels “as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like about his body” (15), a good example of the hawthorn marking out what Eberly calls a “precinct . . . sacred to Venus” (Eberly 47).  Much later, in the Victorian age, Orlando harkens back to the days of relatively free love, contrasting them with the present chaste imprisonment of marriage: “she began to notice a new habit among the town people. In the old days, one would meet a boy trifling with a girl under a hawthorn hedge frequently enough. Orlando had flicked many a couple with the tip of her whip and laughed and passed on. Now, all that was changed. Couples trudged and plodded in the middle of the road indissolubly linked together” (176). Near the end of the book, ascending the same hill to the oak tree, the hawthorn fades into ghostly memories of life at Court: “the ferny path up the hill along which she was walking became not entirely a path, but partly the Serpentine; the hawthorn bushes were partly ladies and gentlemen sitting with card-cases and gold-mounted canes; the sheep were partly tall Mayfair houses; everything was partly something else” (O 237).  This double vision is a shadow of beauty which relieves “the pressure of the present” (236), allowing her to once again enter the sacred precinct of the oak tree where she meditates on a symbolic celebration of her book of poetry, embodying “the intercourse of lovers” which is her answer to “the old crooning sound of the woods, and the farm and the brown horses standing at the gate” (O 238).

The association of hawthorn hedges with the countryside and animals continues in The Years, where hawthorn is passed by very quickly, almost as if it were a slide being shown across the screen of memory. At the beginning of the book, in the 1880 section, the pervasive gentle rain in Oxford causes the sheep to question whether it was “worth while to shelter under the hawthorn, under the hedge” where the cows in the grey fields already “under the dim hedges, munched on, sleepily chewing with raindrops on their hides” (TY 45).  The farm animals reappear in 1914, as Kitty Lasswade takes the night train out of London, headed for the countryside: “The light from the engine lit up a quiet group of cows; and a hedge of hawthorn. They were in open country now” (TY 256).

These rustic references to hawthorn are complemented by more explicitly poetical invocations of “the May” in Woolf’s later fiction. In The Waves, the “moonlight coloured may,” a direct quotation from Shelley’s poem “The Question,” [3] is part of the imaginary garland Rhoda weaves at the beginning of the novel in an attempt to escape from the anxieties of school by anticipatin the solitary comfort of lying dreaming in her bed at night (TW 40). Later, she recalls the poem and the flowers as she rides a mule up the Spanish hill in a scene which I cannot help but read as a foreshadowing of her suicide. Imagining herself again in bed, a “valedictory movement” from a “good woman with a face like a white horse” at the foot of the bed (a ghostly doppelganger?) precedes her declaration of solitude: “Who then comes with me? Flowers only, the cowbind and the moonlight coloured may” (TW 151). Once more she weaves them into a garland and imagines launching the flowers, and presumably herself as she uses the pronoun “We,” “over the precipice” and into the sea where the “white petals will be darkened with sea water” and her body will be rolled over and shouldered under by the waves (151). The white petals of these commemorative may flowers recall the white petals the young Rhoda rocked “to and fro in her brown basin” standing by the hedge (TW 11). A memento of literary tradition, the may represents a gift of beauty that confirms Rhoda’s isolation.

In Between the Acts, Isa has a somewhat similar relation to the may.  During the first interval, Isa imagines escaping the crowd gathered for tea in the barn, murmuring one of her poetic meditations about going “Down the ride, that leads under the nut tree and the may tree . . . to the wishing well” (BTA 71). Not seeing anyone she knows, in particular the gentleman farmer dressed in grey to whom she is romantically attracted, she wonders what she should wish for and imagines oblivion: “That the waters [of the wishing well] should cover me” (71).  She goes on to picture dead leaves falling on the surface of the well and asks whether she should “mind not again to see may tree or nut tree?” (72).  Like Rhoda, she associates the may with the almost comfortable solitude of drowning, with detritus floating on the surface of water, and with a gentle nostalgia for what might be left behind.

In the essays, hawthorn predominates decisively over May; however, its appearance is always strangely derivative. With remarkable consistency all eleven mentions of the flowering hedge occur in essays or reviews as either direct quotations from or references to passages in other writers’ work. The first appearance of hawthorn in a 1916 essay on Charlotte Bronte is rather bleak. Woolf quotes a passage from Jane Eyre describing the road to the aptly named Thornfield in the winter when the hedges are bare of flowers: “If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path” (E2 30). In “A Man With a View” (also 1916), the association of hawthorn with the smell of death is evoked as Woolf quotes a biographer quoting Samuel Butler who, signaling his general aversion to Victorian values, characterized Matthew Arnold as having an “odor which was as the faint sickliness of hawthorn” (E2 35). A review of poems by Sassoon a year later in 1917 also references the smell of hawthorn, but in a more positive vein when Woolf quotes the entirety of Sassoon’s “South Wind” as an example of his “valuable” gift for poetry of “indefinable beauty,” including the last lines: “but I forgave you/ When you stole to me shyly with scent of hawthorn (E2 121). A sentimental biography of Mary Russell Mitford in 1920, incites Woolf to quote an overly flowery sentence about hawthorn as an example of the author’s “mendacity” (E4 190): “Alresford was the birthplace of one who loved nature as few have loved her, and whose writings 'breathe the air of the hayfields and the scent of the hawthorn boughs'" (E4 191). No source has been identified for the source of the quotation inside the quotation, but here the mention of hawthorn is twice displaced from Woolf (see E4 208, n. 2). In her 1929 essay on Dorothy Wordsworth, Woolf quotes a passage from Dorothy’s journal noting “the approach of spring”-- “The sloe in blossom, the hawthorn green, the larches in the park changed from black to green, in two or three days” -- and then repeats elements of the quotation a paragraph later to emphasize the cyclic repetition of the seasons: “and then again the sloes were in blossom and the hawthorns green and spring had come again” (E5 114).

In essays where the references to hawthorn are not direct quotations, they nevertheless point to specific moments in the texts of other authors.  For example, in her 1920 review of Logan Pearsall Smith’s collection, A Treasury of English Prose, Woolf praises the inclusion of a passage from Walter Pater about “the red hawthorn tree in full flower” (E3 171). Similarly, in her “Notes on D.H. Lawrence” (1931) she refers to the passage describing “the famous hawthorn hedge in Swann’s Way” as having a quality of “rapture” lacking in Lawrence (E6 465). Even in her essay on Oliver Goldsmith (1934), Woolf’s assertion that Goldsmith creates “a small complete world” in which the reader can “enjoy the present moment -- “We ask nothing better to sit in the sun on the hawthorn bank” (E6 23) -- and her counter claim that “the silver-tongued writer was no simple soul, gently floating through life from the honeysuckle to the hawthorn hedge” (E6 26) reveal themselves to be hidden references when one remembers that Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village” begins by praising “The Hawthorn-bush with seats beneath the shade,/ For talking age and whispering lovers made” situated at the edge of the town green (ll. 12-3).  

            Unlike the hawthorn, which can be a bleak marker of winter as well as a harbinger of spring, carrying the scent of death as well as new life, the may only appears once in Woolf’s essays and, as in some of her fiction and the hawthorn in her essay on Goldsmith, is associated with the nostalgic rural context of a timeless England. In “The Pastons and Chaucer (1925), Woolf suggests the particular pleasure of Chaucer’s poetry comes from its “unfigurative language”: “it is more closely connected with what we have ourselves felt or observed” (E4 33).  The list she makes of “common things” arranged into poetry by Chaucer includes: “Eating, drinking, and fine weather, the May, cocks and hens, millers, old peasant women, flowers” (E4 33), all of which evoke a somewhat ahistorical sense of village life.

This inclusion of the May in a list of “common things” which affect us like poetry is characteristic of Woolf’s references to the may in diaries and letters where it appears six times in contrast to only once for hawthorn. Interestingly, she doesn’t mention the may in her life-writing until her forties, although the first time it is a recollection of times gone by. Writing in her diary on May 26, 1926, she reminisces on the “inexpressibly disagreeable memories” of being dragged to parties by George Duckworth, which somehow leads to thoughts of her sister Vanessa’s upcoming birthday and “the little hard pink rosettes of the may, which we used to stop & smell on the pavement at the top of Hyde Pk. Gate” (D3 87). An article in The Times in May of 1876 praising the delights of Kensington Gardens mentions that “The hawthorns and horse-chestnuts are now in marvellous beauty,” so one assumes there were hawthorns in the south end of the park near Queen Anne’s Gate, which is probably the entrance that the Stephens’ children used.[4]

While this memory of tight unopened buds (hawthorn is often pink in its first flush) has a feeling of constraint, Woolf’s subsequent references become increasingly lyrical.  On June 4, 1932, she records a painterly symphony of color in Hyde Park: “The mauve grey green trees, flushed with livid pinks & yellows; the may & and the laburnum scarcely burning, like colour under water” (D4 108). A little over a week later she waxes almost ecstatic about a “good week end at Rodmell”: “with the may tree like a breaking wave outside”  (D4 109). The next year, she conjures the hawthorn hedge in a postcard to Vita: “I rang you up, all for the sound of your lovely dim voice, like a bird piping through a hawthorn hedge; but heard only buzz buzz buzz” (L 4 180).

 The color combination of yellow laburnum and pink may reappears in early May of 1938, when a diary entry about driving up to London from Rodmell in “the clear May morning light” elicits a description of  “laburnum all chipped by the bitter spring: but pink on the may, & various fine shades of gold red & bluebell blue on the trees all the same.   (D5 139).

Woolf’s last mention of the may is perhaps the most telling of all, for it brings together all her affection for the rural and literary traditions of hedge and blossom. Only months before her death, in a January 12th 1941 letter to Ethel Smythe, Woolf speaks with reminiscent regret about her love of London, which, “in some odd corner of my dreaming mind represents Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens” (L6 460). This love of the city is, she says, her “only patriotism,” except for a complementary rural vision glimpsed from the car in Warwickshire one spring: “I saw a stallion being led, under the may and the beeches, along a grass ride; and I thought that is England “ (L6 460).  One wonders if this image is hovering in the background of Isa’s imagined escape Down the ride, that leads under the nut tree and the may tree” in Woolf’s posthumously published novel about the survival of England (BTA 71).
Hedges of may ringing a buttercup meadow near Richmond
            Unlike the may, which is almost wholly positive, and the hawthorn which is mixed, thorn trees are largely negative whenever they appear in Woolf’s work.  There is a thorn tree near a gorse bush in the nighttime churchyard in Jacob’s Room, which suggests Christian references to the crown of thorns and thereby anticipates Jacob’s death on the battlefield.  In the Waves also, the thorn tree is an ominous figure.  Overawed by her friends’ competency, Rachel feels as if she is exposed to the leap of a tiger; trembling, she sees “a wild thorn tree shake its shadow in the desert” (TW 76), its movement in a place of desolation echoing her own unease. [5] Later, in the last Interlude, the “solitary thorn tree” appears again with “empty snail shells at its foot” (TW 174), the skeletal detritus left by the predatory birds who broke the shells of snails in the fourth Interlude (TW 78).  The thorn tree and shell resurface a few years later, in a January note to Ethel Smyth complaining of the cold where Woolf says she is perpetually badgered by demanding letters which she refers to as “a crop of nettles” (L5 361); quoting Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” says she goes “round and round the prickly pear” before recounting her visit to a dying Frances Birrell and recalling “all these deaths” which she says she “cant feel any more” (L5 362).  And then, as a sign of how happy she is in Rodmell, despite all these woes, she tells of walking miles and miles “right into remote valleys; with a thorn tree, and a shell,” the frozen isolation making her feel she in in some ancient landscape: “I always think the ice has only melted off the downs a year or two ago—the primeval ice—green ice, smooth ice” (L5 362). Even her description of happiness echoes the strong cluster of associations between thorn trees, loneliness, and a barren landscape. 
Two last mentions of thorn trees, in Between the Acts, carry a similarly ambivalent tonality. At the end of the parody of Restoration Comedy Sir Spaniel Lilyliver expresses his disgust at the prospect of marrying Lady Harpy Harraden by exclaiming, “Why, Madam, I’d rather lash myself to a tar barrel, be bound to a thorn tree in a winter’s gale. Faugh!” (BTA 100).  His rejected bride compares his current metaphors to his previous praise of her as “a very galaxy, a constellation. . . a very Aurora Borealis” (BTA 88) as his rejection prompts a confused mélange of images: “My head spins … Tar barrels, quotha. Cassiopeia … Chalk stones … Andromeda … Thorn trees…. “ (BTA 100). The wild mixture of darkness and light is reminiscent of Woolf early praise of John Donne: “in the thickest of his thorn bushes are glimpses of the highest heavens, and ecstasies and pure and windless calms (E3 463) -- a fitting valediction to shoots of life in the tree of death.

[1] Paul Kendall’s essay on the “Mythology and folklore of hawthorn” on the Trees for Life website is a mine of information, including this tidbit about the calendar change. https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/hawthorn/

[2] Also see Eberly for an outline of the biblical tradition of “flowering rods” (49-50).

[3] (see also the entry on COWBIND or Bryony)

[4] The Times article is quoted in the extensive history of Kensington Gardens by Edward Walford, available on-line at

[5]Rachel’s leaping tiger always reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” (1920) where  “Christ the tiger” comes “In depraved May.”

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...