BLOSSOMS AND THORNS

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.

 

David

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HOUSMAN’S FLOWERS: I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

Today we will take a look at poem # 63 — LXIII in Latin numerals — the last poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad:

I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

The writer has been a diligent grower of flowers, hoeing them, keeping them free of weeds, and trenching (mixing the lower and upper levels of soil).  The result is blooming flowers that he gathers and takes to the fair to sell.  An English fair, in those days, was a place where one could buy all kinds of things, as well as see various simple entertainments.  But his efforts to sell his flowers failed.  People paid no attention to them, because they were not the popular color to wear.  So he took them back home, where they will wilt unappreciated.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Having found the locals had no interest in what he had grown, he decides to take the flower seeds and sow them — scatter them to grow and flower — “up and down,” meaning in all kinds of random places, all over the countryside.  Places where young men are likely to happen upon them in future springs and summers, after the writer is dead and buried and forgotten.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars,

Some of the seeds he scatters will of course be eaten by the birds.  And some will be ruined by the bad weather of the season.  But nonetheless, here and there some of them will sprout and flourish, and so here and there will be flowers growing alone — “solitary stars.”

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

Every year the flowers grown from his scattered seeds will bloom again in the country fields, when spring with its tender leaves appears.   And other lads who have similarly not had good fortune in life will pluck the blossoms, and wear them on hat or pinned to the shirt or coat,  when the writer who planted them has long been dead and gone.

Now we can understand this poem on two levels.  First, it is the simple tale of a country lad who fails in what he tries, but nonetheless thinks what he has grown is worthwhile, so he scatters the seeds abroad so that they may flower for other fellows like him to find and enjoy in future years.

The second level is that of the writer himself.  He carefully composes his various poems (his flowers), but finds they do not seem to be popular with those around him.  They just don’t “get” what he creates.  Nonetheless, he does not give up, but scatters his verses out where the public can see them (has them published), so that those few young men who will understand the writer and share his sentiments will find them and appreciate (“wear”) them.

As you can see, this poem is a kind of summary and finale to A Shropshire Lad.  And Housman was right.  Those “luckless lads” do find and appreciate the beautiful results of his efforts — the scattered flowers of his poetry — these many long years after his death.

Housman, of course, was quite familiar with the King James Bible.  He once remarked “I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,” meaning he did the dutiful formalities of a normal Englishman in his relations with the national Anglican Church, while not at all believing its doctrines and dogmas.  It is not surprising that we find in this poem an echo of Matthew 13:3-9:

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;  And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:  Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:  And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.  And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:  But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

David