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.
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. Because time is short, the speaker announces that he will appreciate the cherry blossom while he’s around to do so.
‘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 die 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).
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?
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.