Today we will look at poem XXII (22) from Alfred Edward Housman’s Last Poems. Like his poem V (5) from A Shropshire Lad, “O See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” this one deals with a seduction. In the latter poem, it fails; but in the former — the one we read today — the outcome is unhappy:
The sloe was lost in flower,
The April elm was dim;
That was the lover’s hour,
The hour for lies and him.
If thorns are all the bower,
If north winds freeze the fir,
Why, ’tis another’s hour,
The hour for truth and her.
The sloe (Prunus spinosa) is a small, rather spiny tree found in Britain that bears white flowers in spring and purple-blue small fruits in autumn.
This poem is the contrasting story of two people — a man and a woman, or let us say a young man and young woman, because it begins in spring.
The sloe — also called the blackthorn — is “lost in flower,” meaning it is covered over in its beautiful white blossoms that hide the “thorns” — the spines. And the “April elm was dim” — the large elm tree, freshly leafed out, provided an overshadowing. We already see a contrast here between the bright white of the sloe boughs and the shade of the elm. There is also a contrast between the blossoms of the sloe and the thorns they conceal. We shall see a similar contrast between the first verse, which deals with the male, and the second, which deals with the female.
“That was the lover’s hour,” it was the time when the young man was succeeding in seducing the girl, and because of the enticing but untrue and faithless words he spoke to lure her, it was “the hour for lies and him.” In short, he told her “pretty lies” and got what he wanted.
About nine months later, things have changed. Now “If thorns are all the bower,” that is, if in place of the beautiful spring blossoms on the sloe where they lay, there are now only wintry thorns (both real and metaphorical), and “If north winds freeze the fir” — if the warm air of April has become the icy winds of December that chill the branches of the firs, now that the elm is bare — then “’tis another’s hour.” The “another” is the woman; it is her time to pay the price for her gullibility in believing those seductive springtime words. It is the “hour for truth and her,” the time when allowing her young man to seduce her in the spring bears its winter fruit: she has a baby “out of wedlock,” as the old saying goes, and all the countryside knows of the scandal. Her reputation is ruined in those very conservative times.
Notice that Housman mentions no similar reckoning for the young man, showing the unfairness of the society of those days, which judged women more harshly than men in such matters.