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Here’s poem XXXIX from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896):

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
    The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
    Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
    Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
    The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
    Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
    That will not shower on me.

Most of this is straightforward: the speaker remembers the spring flowers of their native Shropshire, the golden flowers of common broom and the white flowers of the hawthorn or May-tree. But what does the speaker mean by “wear the broom and climb the hedgerows”? In the case of “wear the broom” I can guess that it means wearing a sprig of broom-flower in a button-hole, but was this ever a custom? If it was, it’s not recorded in Maude Grieve’s A Modern Herbal or Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica. In the case of “climb the hedgerows” however I am baffled—this would be a very painful activity as the May-tree is well-supplied with thorns. I suppose that other kinds of hedgerows might be climbed, but then how would they be “heaped with may”?

Update Peter Shor suggests in comments that “climb the hedgerows” might mean “climb alongside the hedgerows” which would at least make sense, but is there such a sense of “climb”? In the OED I find sense “2.b. To reach or attain (a point) by this action” (that is, by climbing) which might work, though it would be nice to see another use by Housman of this sense of the word. Or maybe this is a figure of synecdoche, the hedgerows standing for the hills.

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  • Could "climb the hedgerows" mean "climb the hills by walking alongside the hedgerows"?
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 31 at 12:14
  • @PeterShor that was my initial assumption, but I've not been able to find anything to back that up. There are certainly plenty of hills in Shropshire.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented May 31 at 13:36
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    Picking 'May' blossom (Maying) is certainly a very old tradition. My guess is that he just means 'reach up into the high hedges to pick may'. Commented May 31 at 15:44
  • Large mature overgrown hedgerows that were basically a linear strip of woodland, these were great for climbing, switchecology.co.uk/blog/hedging-our-bets So that explains it. Wear the broom can just be putting in over/round your body with a strap so it does not interfere with climbing. I don't know if this is an answer or not.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 31 at 17:29
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    @Lambie: Except that the poem says that these hedgerows were made of hawthorn bushes, which would have been extremely painful to climb because of their thorns.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 31 at 17:37

1 Answer 1

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Housman wrote most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad in 1895, when he was living on North Road in Highgate, London, and had never been to Shropshire. The details of his depiction of rural life were thus taken from guidebooks, fiction, and his imagination.

For example, in poem LXI he wrote, “The vane on Hughley steeple / Veers bright, a far-known sign”. But when he later visited Shropshire, he found that the church was at the bottom of a valley and so its steeple could not be seen from afar:

I ascertained by looking down from Wenlock Edge that Hughley Church could not have much of a steeple.† But as I had already composed the poem and could not invent another name that sounded so nice, I could only deplore that the church at Hughley should follow the bad example of the church at Brou, which persists in standing on a plain after Matthew Arnold has said that it stands among mountains.‡ I thought of putting a note to say that Hughley was only a name, but then I thought that would merely disturb the reader. I did not apprehend that the faithful would be making pilgrimages to these holy places.

A. E. Housman (5 October 1896). Letter to Laurence Housman. In Henry Maas, ed. (1971). The Letters of A. E. Housman, p. 39. Harvard University Press.

† It had a tower, not a steeple. ‡ From Poems (1853): “’Mid the distant mountain chalets / Hark! what bell for church is toll’d?”

Later still, Housman admitted never having seen the church at all:

Now that Hughley is burnt down it is curious to think that I never saw it; though it cannot have been much to see.

A. E. Housman (29 December 1925). Letter to Laurence Housman. Letters, p. 233.

In a short autobiographical sketch he explained why he had set the poems in a county in which he had not set foot:

I was born in Worcestershire, not Shropshire, where I have never spent much time. My father’s family was Lancashire and my mother’s Cornish. I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire because its hills were our western horizon. I know Ludlow and Wenlock, but my topographical details—Hughley, Abdon under Clee—are sometimes quite wrong. Remember that Tyrtaeus† was not a Spartan.

A. E. Housman (5 February 1933). Letter to Maurice Pollet. Letters, p. 328.

† A 7th-century BCE elegaic poet. An entry in the Suda says, “The Lacedaemonians [Spartans] swore that they would either capture Messene or die, and when the god gave them an oracle to take a general from the Athenians, they took the poet Tyrtaeus, a man who was lame.”

Based on the above, we have no reason to expect “wear the broom” or “climb the hedgerows” to refer to real Shropshire customs, and need to take them as imaginary mores of Housman’s fictional “land of lost content”.

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    While this might explain "wear the broom," I'm not convinced that it's an adequate explanation of "climb the hedgerows." Surely may-trees have just as sharp thorns in Worcestershire as in Shropshire.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 2 at 12:30

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