Literature

A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) didn’t write a great deal of poetry. When he died, he had published just two slim volumes, A Shropshire Lad (published at his own expense in 1896) and the fittingly titled Last Poems (1922).

The second poem in Housman’s perennially popular A Shropshire Lad, the poem that begins ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’, is one of his most widely anthologised poems. Below is the poem, with some notes towards an analysis of its meaning and language.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

‘Loveliest of trees’: summary

First, a brief summary of ‘Loveliest of trees’ then.

The poem sees the speaker reflecting on the fact that, at twenty years of age, he only has fifty of his threescore years and ten (i.e. seventy years, which the Bible states as the average length of a man’s life) remaining. The cherry tree is in full bloom, all along its boughs and branches, as it does every year when it comes into flower.

Because time is short, the speaker announces that he will appreciate the cherry blossom while he’s around to do so – and make the most of his time on Earth.

(Note: a ride is a path made for people riding on horseback, especially through woodlands.)

‘Loveliest of trees’: analysis

Housman remains a popular English poet, whose first volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad, was a favourite book among young male soldiers fighting in the Great War. The book was a bestseller, and poems like ‘Loveliest of Trees’ – with their sense of wistfulness at the brevity of human life and the quickness with which one year gives way to another – are among the most emblematic poems in this 63-poem collection.

‘Loveliest of Trees’ is, then, something of a carpe diem poem (urging us to ‘seize the day’ and enjoy life while we can) and also, like many of A. E. Housman’s poems, something of a memento mori (i.e. a reminder that we are going to Housman Cherry Blossomdie someday).

These two meanings softly provide a backdrop to Housman’s description of the lad walking along the ‘woodland ride’ (a ‘ride’ being a path meant for horses) and admiring the white cherry blossom on the trees.

The poem’s setting of Easter time (‘Eastertide’) reminds us of the springtime when the cherry comes into blossom, but the whiteness of the cherry trees (wearing white at Easter is a Christian tradition; here nature seems to have adopted the custom) also suggests purity, fresh beginnings, and rebirth, things associated with springtime (and rebirth obviously being a central part of the Easter story).

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The metaphorical description of the white cherry blossom as ‘snow’ in the poem’s last line reinforces this idea of fresh starts, snow being a popular symbol for purity, for washing things clean. This paves the way for the poem’s message: that the speaker will adopt a new approach to life, and try to make the most of the fifty years he estimates he has remaining on this planet.

‘Loveliest of Trees’ offers, in the last analysis, a fresh take on an old message. The idea that our time is short on this planet was not original to A. E. Housman, of course. But his focus on a particular phenomenon glimpsed for only a short time during the year brings home the fact to us.

Fifty years left on this planet may seem like quite a generous number to a young man. But only fifty more chances to see the cherry trees like this?

One final note on this poem may help to pinpoint a reason for the perennial popularity of Housman. His poetry is technically accomplished, if not innovative: here, he uses quatrains of rhyming couplets (aabb) and iambic tetrameter metre (although the opening lines of the poem, ‘Loveliest of trees’, lead us in with a strong heavy stress and a trochaic substitution).

One wonders whether Robert Frost had this poem in mind when he wrote his ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (a poem also featuring trees – and quite literal snow – using iambic tetrameter quatrains). Indeed, in that poem Frost is riding a horse, much as the Lad in Housman’s poem is standing on a woodland ride.

But this is not the reason Housman endures – at least, not the chief reason. There is a strong mixture of wistfulness and stoicism in his poetry, which gives the lie to the idea that he is a depressing or self-pitying poet.

True, there’s plenty of unrequited love and untimely death in Housman’s poetry, but the first is often tempered by the knowledge that true love survives being rebuffed by the one we love (as a poem like ‘Because I liked you better’ demonstrates) and the latter by a sneaking suspicion that dying young is the best way: that it’s better to burn out than fade away (as a poem like ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ states).

In other words, Housman’s outlook is far more stoic than many people believe. And the final stanza of ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ nicely captures this, as the Shropshire Lad resolves to make the most of his narrow span – his threescore and ten, or at least the twoscore and ten that remain to him – and enjoy what the world, and the world of nature, has to offer him during the time remaining to him.

Continue to explore Housman’s poetry with our pick of his best poems and discover more English nostalgia with Edward Thomas’s wonderful poetry. The best affordable edition of Housman’s work is Collected Poems And Selected Prose (Twentieth Century Classics).

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: Cherry blossom by Ingfbruno, 2013; via Wikimedia Commons.

6 Comments

  1. Once more, a marvellous analysis – thank you:)

  2. Jeanie Buckingham

    Interesting to illustrate a poem about white cherry blossom with cherry trees with pink blossom. But Housman makes a good point, enjoy things while you can, I shall re read your blog when I have sent this and see how long he was able to enjoy the blossom.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Interesting remembering Housman’s ‘ heartless, witless nature in tell me not here yet he wants more than fifty years to admire it .
    I noted he actually had three score and seventeen but enough is never enough. Take away the loving creator of Hopkins and and your left to admire the blindwatch maker of Richard Dawkins.

  4. truly so,,,, poetry shows our wit and depth….. even when writing about tree… it becomes catharsis to our sleeping soul…

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