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The meaning and origin of the expression: The darling buds of May

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The darling buds of May

Meaning

An appreciation of what is fresh and new.

Origin

the darling buds of MayThe phrase refers to the opening buds that point toward the warm summer season ahead and to the freshness and exuberance of youth as it turns toward adult maturity. It probably refers not to the month of May directly but to the May tree (the Common Hawthorn) that flowers in England at that time of year. The hawthorn is important in the mythology of old England and there's a rich symbolism wrought from its standing as an early flowering common tree. Global warming has now given the UK a climate that causes May to begin flowering earlier, but I doubt that the 'darling buds of April' will ever catch on.

The legend of the Glastonbury Thorn is also related to the flowering time of the hawthorn. The story has it that when Joseph of Arimathea arrived in England from the Holy Land he stuck his thorn walking stick into the ground and it began to flower, and continues to flower each year at Christmas to mark Christ's birth. That's a myth but there are some facts that give it a little credence. The Glastonbury Thorn is unusual in that it does flower during the winter. There is a middle eastern form of the tree that flowers at that time and some would have it that this is what Joseph brought with him.

Not all the symbolism relating to the hawthorn is warm and inviting. The tree also has negative associations. In Ireland a hawthorn standing alone in open ground is known as a fairy tree and there is a strong superstition that to cut one is unlucky. Even in recent years roads in Ireland have been rerouted to avoid uprooting hawthorns. It is also considered unlucky and an omen of death to cut the blooms and bring them into a house. This may well have come about from the unpleasant aroma, which is like decaying flesh.

Back to the phrase itself, best known these days as the title of H. E. Bates' story of idyllic country life, which has been made into a successful television series. Bates took the title from Shakespeare who coined it in his celebrated Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

See also - cast not a clout 'till May be out.

See other - phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.