Clout-casting, a provisional guide

Ne’er cast a clout
Till may be out.

This continuing dismal weather – five weeks of spring and early summer so far wet wet wet and miserably cold – has got me wondering again about the meaning of this arcane and somewhat dodgy piece of advice.

For example: does the ‘may’ in the rhyme refer to the month of May? That’s usually the preferred interpretation, but it doesn’t make the best sense. And if you go with that, is the recommendation that you shouldn’t cast a clout until the month of May is ‘out’ – that is, over? So, for just one e.g., you shouldn’t get your winter coats dry-cleaned until the end of May. In most years, that would be somewhat over-cautious. (Today I’m slightly regretting having done exactly that, in a burst of foolish impulsiveness.)

Or does ‘may’ refer to blossom on the May tree? So, the rhyme is suggesting, when the blossom comes out, you can cast a clout or two? Get your winter coat dry-cleaned? Sort out that shelf of summer clothes?

I’ve always gone for the second interpretation because it seems to make better sense – especially of the word “out”. (And yes, I do realise that it might only be there to effect a rhyme with “clout”, but then again, why choose “clout” at all? Why not try for something more dramatic: maybe “Ne’er cast a jumper/Till may be asunder.”) And by the time the blossom on the May trees has opened, presumably the temperatures have warmed up sufficiently to justify taking off the odd layer.

Yes?

Well, here’s the present problem. The May trees on Primrose Hill are showing definite signs of opening blossom but it’s still much too cold to cast off sweaters, or finally – finally! – to sort out your summer clothes, let alone put them on. It’s cold. And rainy. And downright dismal.

But take a look at this:

And a close-up of another one:

It’s possible that pink May blossom comes out with less regard for the weather than the traditional white blossom. But even so …

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