I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century — and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen. In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.
Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.
The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:
By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.”
(Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)
I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.
So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.
As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics. I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism:
“…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].
We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku. So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that. Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.
When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics. We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature. That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.
That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.
If you happen to see the book of selections from R. H. Blyth titled Essentially Oriental, you will find this verse, written by Blyth in Japanese, given in the introduction:
葉がくれに 青い夢見る かたつむり
Hagakure ni aoi yume miru katatsumuri
And the translation given there is:
Behind a leaf
Dreaming a blue dream
I would translate it differently:
In the leaf shadows, Dreaming a green dream — The snail.
While in modern Japanese aoi can mean blue, in its older use it meant green; it uses a borrowed Chinese character (青/qīng), which could mean blue-green, but in relation to leaves, it would commonly be understood as signifying the color green.
So this is how I understand Blyth’s verse:
A snail is in the leafy shadows, seeing only shades of green, and at that moment, this is its unthinking life — a green dream.
I strongly suspect that Blyth’s inspiration for this verse was the English poem “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell — specifically the last two lines of this stanza:
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade
Looked at in the cold light of science, can a snail even see colors? Well, many say no, but there is some evidence that they can make distinctions, though whether this would be seeing color as we do is yet another question. Of course if Blyth were to read this, he would probably give a sniff of derision, because his attitude is that of Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu, who, on seeing fish swimming about in the river, commented to his companion that they were happy. His companion then told him, “You are not a fish. How do you know they are happy?” Zhuangzi replied, “You are not I. How do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?”
So basically, in this verse Blyth was writing like Issa, putting himself into the snail. And that is what we see here: Blyth as snail, dreaming a green dream in the green shade of the leaves.
There is a very dangerous trend in the United States that unfortunately seems to be spreading — a trend toward denying those with whom one disagrees the right to speak.
It has popped up in news stories from here and there and from time to time in the last few years. I was reminded of it again a few days ago, when while walking through a neighborhood shopping district, I began to notice posters advertising a public lecture.
The problem however, was that the posters were not just informing the public of the lecture; instead, they were encouraging people to appear at the lecture and “shut it down,” so that the lecturer would not be able to give his presentation.
This an extremely dangerous and virulent form of censorship. Without freedom of speech — the open marketplace of ideas — a free society cannot long exist. It is only natural to oppose views that we may consider wrong or even abhorrent, but we must be very cautious and sensible in how we oppose them. Preventing the public expression of those views by “shutting down” lectures, or by intimidating speakers, or by somehow getting speakers banned (yes, this has shockingly even happened on college campuses lately) only leads to the loss of freedom of speech for everyone, because no matter what ideas a person may have, one will find others who disagree with them.
The right way to deal with ideas one abhors is to use your own freedom of speech to oppose them — not with violence or intimidation or banning, but with facts and evidence and rational persuasion — and of course the vote.
The right to freely and publicly express one’s ideas is a hard-won privilege born out of centuries of violent religious and political persecution and bloodshed. No sensible person would want to turn the clock back to the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition or Nazi Germany, but those who advocate only permitting the public expression of ideas with which they agree, and encourage “shutting down” any public speech with which they strongly disagree, are unwittingly advocating and working toward the return of such a Dark Age. It is the height of foolishness and irresponsibility, and unworthy of a democratic society.
Deny one person free speech today, and you endanger everyone’s right to free speech — your own included — tomorrow.
If it were not for the one great love in Alfred Edward Housman’s life — which also proved to be the one great sadness — it is doubtful that he would have become the poet we know.
It can all be traced to his remarkably deep but unrequited love in his youth for his friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate student, Moses Jackson — a love that Jackson — not being homosexual by nature — could not return. Nonetheless, Housman never abandoned that love, never got over it.
It is a hard lesson those with homosexual affection for a heterosexual person — or the reverse — must learn (often with great pain): the necessity to let it go and move on, learning from it as part of the experience of life. But Housman could not let it go. Instead, he enshrined it in his heart as the classical lifelong, deep bond between males — though in reality he was the only one bound by it. Moses Jackson made that clear when he left England for work in India, then married a young woman, then moved to western Canada, where he eventually died. None of this change in time and space lessened Housman’s long-distance attachment.
Just what it was about Jackson that caused Housman to be so smitten is hard to say. Jackson was good-looking and sturdily built and what in modern terms would be called a “jock”; Housman was more the intellectual. But such differences mean little when one is struck by the romantic obsession known as limerence. It is not something you choose; it is something that happens to you, like getting hit by a car.
Dorothy Tennov, author of the book Love and Limerence, defined it as:
“an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”
Some characteristics of limerence may be:
• Idealization of the other person’s characteristics (positive and negative)
• Uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts about the other person
• Extreme shyness,stuttering, nervousness and confusion around the other person
• Fear of rejection and despair or thoughts of suicide if rejection occurs
• A sense of euphoria in response to real or perceived signs of reciprocation
• Fantasizing about or searching obsessively for signs of reciprocation (“reading into things”)
• Being reminded of the person in everything around you
• Replaying in your mind every encounter with the other person in great detail
• Maintaining romantic intensity through adversity
• Endlessly analyzing every word and gesture to determine their possible meaning
• Arranging your schedule to maximize possible encounters with the other person
• Experiencing physical symptoms such as trembling, flushing, weakness or heart palpitations around the other person
We can certainly say that for Housman, “maintaining romantic intensity through adversity” is an understatement. Some people get over limerence within a few months, some within a few years, and some — well, those some who never do include Housman.
Among all of Housman’s extraordinary verses, there are three in particular that exemplify his unfading and deep affection for Jackson. The first and second must be, in their simplicity, among the greatest love poems ever written. Both deal with the two parting to go their separate ways, after Housman’s rejected declaration of love for Jackson. Here is Housman speaking in poem XXX from his volume More Poems:
Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over; I only vex you the more I try. All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said, And nought to help it in this dull head: Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye.
But if you come to a road where danger Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share, Be good to the lad that loves you true And the soul that was born to die for you, And whistle and I’ll be there.
Though the poem begins by saying “we shall never be friends,” and “all’s over,” it really makes quite clear that for Housman, it will never be over. In spite of Jackson’s rejection, Housman remains
“…the lad that loves you true,
And the soul that was born to die for you,”
Accepting and living in a homosexual relationship at the time was quite accurately “where danger / Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share.” It was a socially hostile environment in which Housman — without Jackson — had to go his own way alone and manage as best he could, which was the lot of countless other homosexual young men.
Here is the second poem, XXXI from his More Poems:
Because I liked you better Than suits a man to say, It irked you, and I promised To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us We parted, stiff and dry; ‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’ ‘I will, no fear’, said I.
If here, where clover whitens The dead man’s knoll, you pass, And no tall flower to meet you Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming The heart no longer stirred, And say the lad that loved you Was one that kept his word.
“Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say.” In Housman’s day, homosexuality was something that for social and legal reasons, and as Housman knew well — had to be hidden: “the love that dare not speak its name.” People did not then understand that it is just a normal part of human variation, as some people like strawberries and others do not. So Housman’s love for Jackson was something that it did not “suit a man to say” in those times, and Jackson was troubled by the admission.
Housman, outwardly accepting Jackson’s rejection, promised to “put the thought aside,” (which of course was impossible), and the two eventually parted “stiff and dry,” with Jackson asking Housman to forget him — at least as a romantic interest — and Housman promising “I will.”
But Housman — speaking to Jackson in the poem, tells us the true state of affairs. He says in essence, “if you ever pass the bare, clover-covered knoll where my grave lies, stop by the tombstone with my name on it. There I will be, with my heart no longer stirred with love for you — but only because I am dead.” And so it was to be only finally and in the grave that Housman eventually was to keep his word and forget Jackson. So at last, keep it he did:
“And say the lad who loved you
Was one who kept his word.”
And that was very much how it was, though of course as it turned out, Housman outlived Jackson.
The third poem revealing Housman’s deep love for Jackson is actually his rather loose translation of an ancient poem originally written by the Roman Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 b.c. – 8 c.e.), better known in English as Horace. Housman rendered it in a formal, deliberately old-fashioned English, using words like “shaws” (a grove or copse of trees), “mead” (meadow), “aye” (always), “wintertide” (wintertime), “assize” (a trial/judgment), and of course the old “thee” and “thou” (you). I will put Housman’s stanzas in bold type, each followed by an explanation:
DIFFUGERE NIVES [The Snows Depart]
The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws And grasses in the mead renew their birth, The river to the river-bed withdraws, And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The snows have melted and disappeared; the leaves on the trees and the grasses in the meadow spring up again, and the river level goes down between its banks, and the appearance of the world changes.
The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear And unapparelled in the woodland play. The swift hour and the brief prime of the year Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.
The Nymphs and three Graces — representing beauty, charm, and grace — play in the woodlands. But amid all this beauty and fresh new life, the swiftness with which the hours pass, and the shortness of the spring, are signs warning humans they were not born to live forever.
Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers Comes autumn with his apples scattering; Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.
The way of the seasons is that the frost of winter is followed by the spring thaw, and quickly after spring comes summer, which is also fated to be brief. And immediately as summer dies, autumn appears, with the apples on the trees that soon fall. Then winter returns again, when nothing in nature stirs in the cold.
But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar, Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams; Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.
Whatever is destroyed by the changing positions of sun, moon, and stars — that is, the change of seasons, is replaced as month follows month. The vanished leaves and flowers of spring and summer and fruits of autumn eventually appear again — but they are not those that the changing seasons destroyed. And humans, when they have gone where the ancient Roman kings Tullus and Ancus are, where Aeneas the hero of the Trojan war and progenitor of Romans is — that is, when they have died — are only dust and dreams.
Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add The morrow to the day, what tongue has told? Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had The fingers of no heir will ever hold.
Horace tells his friend Torquatus that no one knows if the gods will give a man another morning — that is, whether he will be alive the following day. So one might as well enjoy the moment, because it cannot be passed on to one’s heirs at death. This is the equivalent of carpe diem — “seize the day”; appreciate the moment, because it will never come again.
When thou descendest once the shades among, The stern assize and equal judgment o’er, Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue, No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.
When one dies and descends among the dead, and has passed through whatever judgment awaits, neither one’s noble family history nor one’s eloquence will be of any more use or help.
Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain, Diana steads him nothing, he must stay; And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain The love of comrades cannot take away.
Hippolytus, who lived a life of chastity as a devotee of the goddess Diana, will not be freed from the night of death by her; in death he must remain. And though Theseus and Pirithous were devoted friends in life, when they descended into Hades — the land of Death — Hercules was eventually able to free Theseus, but Pirithous could not be freed, no matter how much Theseus might wish it — but had to be left among the dead.
This Latin poem had great significance for Housman. What did it mean to him?
It is notable that the last Latin lines of the original poem read:
“…nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro vincula Pirithoo.”
“…nor can Theseus break the Lethean chains of his dear friend Pirithous.”
But Housman rendered them as:
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain The love of comrades cannot take away.
A student of Housman has this memory of a lecture he gave his Latin class:
“One morning in May 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace’s Fourth Book, ‘Diffugere Nives, redeunt iam gramina campis‘. This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in a quite different voice said: ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion first in Latin, and then in an English translation of his own. ‘That’, he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, ‘I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’ and walked quickly out of the room.
Afterwards another undergraduate, a scholar of Trinity, commented: ‘I felt quite uncomfortable. I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’
“Almost like a man betraying a secret.” We know what that secret was. The poem brought to Housman’s mind the brevity of life and his own deep love for Jackson — his hopeless and unrequited love. He considered his love for Jackson a classic friendship, like that of Theseus and Pirithous — who in some versions were also lovers — something that Housman and Jackson were not to be.
Here is the letter Housman wrote to a friend on receiving news of Jackson’s death:
Trinity College Cambridge
Jan 17 1923
My dear Pollard,
Jackson died peacefully on Sunday night in hospital at Vancouver, where he had gone to be treated for anaemia, with which he had been ailing for some years. I had a letter from him on New Year’s Day, which he ended by saying “goodbye”. Now I can die myself: I could not have borne to leave him behind me in a world where anything might happen to him.
One might consider Housman’s lifelong devotion to Jackson the height of foolishness — but one cannot help but see in it also a kind of classical nobility — a faithfulness that neither rejection nor time could erase.
In any case, out of the pain and sadness of his love for Jackson, Housman created a cluster of memorable poems that continue to speak to us today.
Many people first discover hokku after having been involved with other forms of short verse — even short verse that was inspired by and in an historical sense “developed out of” hokku and may even superficially look like hokku — but has taken a different path and a different name — the modern “haiku.”
If you look for a clear definition of the verse form that was inspired by the hokku and that gained popularity in the West from about the middle of the 20th century onward — the “haiku” — you will find that people generally say it can be “described but not defined,” meaning there is no clear definition for it. It is whatever a writer says it is.
From that alone, we can see that modern short verses that may look like hokku and were originally inspired by hokku are nonetheless not hokku, because hokku can be clearly defined.
A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse expressing an experience of Nature and/or humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season. It consists of two parts, a longer of two lines and a shorter of one line, with either beginning the verse. The two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation, and the first letter of each line is capitalized, and the whole ends with an appropriate punctuation mark. It is characterized by brevity, simplicity, concreteness (dealing with things rather than our ideas about things) and objectivity. It focuses on sensory experience (seeing, hearing touching, tasting, smelling) rather than abstract thought, and when dealing with states of mind such as sadness or joy, it presents them objectively. It avoids violent topics as well as other topics that disturb the mind, such as sex and romance. It deliberately de-emphasizes the ego, and when mentioning the writer, it does so objectively, as one would deal with a bird or a stone.
So that is hokku. We could go deeper into the mental attitude behind hokku, but that is enough of a definition for now.
The aesthetics of hokku are so very different from those of Western poetry that it is misleading to even think of hokku as poetry, because that only causes confusion. That is why the best way to regard hokku is to see it like this:
A hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.
If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the undulating waves of the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event. An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens. So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event. The sun rising is a thing-event. An old man sneezing is a thing-event. A child burping is a thing-event. Similarly, a hokku is not a poem; it is a thing-event put into simple words.
The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.
Where is the poetry in that? It is just a statement of what is happening, set in the context of a season.
Nonetheless, when we look at the sea there is poetry in the experience, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:
“There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever. It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry. It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)
If we do not consider a hokku poetry, what then is it? It is simply a thing-event — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.
Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”
In hokku that means the poetry is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup. It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration. Instead, with hokku poetry is something awakened in the reader by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it. That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku. Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist. So the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.
That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us. Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize and experience the poetry in it, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.
We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader. Without the reader the verse is just words on page. But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event is experienced by the reader — and that experience “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.” So again, the poetry is not the hokku, but it is rather the experience the hokku evokes in the mind of the reader.
If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:
Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader. That is why, when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only
The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.
That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts — with attempts to make them into poetry. “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”
That is why in hokku there are no poets. The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature. It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will. The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice. Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer. When we write a clear, objective hokku about the ripples in a stream, the universe as ripples in a stream is able to speak through the universe as writer. The writer disappears, and only the ripples are heard.
This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense. It is exactly how hokku works.
When we read the words of Mokudō,
The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.
– where is the writer? Where is the reader? Both have disappeared. There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field. The truth is revealed for all to see. Hokku simply presents us with the thing-event “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration…”
Because in hokku the writer gets out of the way to let Nature speak, we can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is. It is not a poem, it is not literature. Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature….” It restores our sense that humans are not apart from, but are just a part of Nature — something that is needed now more than ever, with the world teetering on the edge of a serious climatic and environmental crisis.
Those of you who may wish to learn to write hokku, rather than just read about it, will find practical lessons and methods for doing so on my Hokku Inn site: https://hokkuinn.wordpress.com/
The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.
The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now’s the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.
One might call the theme of this poem the “human comedy,” the fact that humans repeat essentially the same actions — the same thoughts and at times even the same words — as those who came before them. In this poem the narrator looks back to his youth, when he and his friends would walk past green and blooming orchards to the May Day fair at the town of Ludlow. They were young and foolish, each looking forward to what he expected to find at the fair, where Ludlow Tower (the tower of St. Laurence’s Church) lay “planted on the dead” — that is, where those of previous generations were buried. By that phrase, Housman introduces the transient and repetitious nature of human life, noting later that the young men now off through the blooming orchards in the morning light to Ludlow Fair are “still the fools that we were then.” Human nature is the same from generation to generation. The young men hope for the same pleasures as those who came before them — and make the same foolish mistakes. It is the same tale told over again.
Alfred Edward Housman was buried at St. Laurence Church in Ludlow. Here is his grave marker there:
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.