Literature

A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘The Lent Lily’

The poet A. E. Housman is best-known for A Shropshire Lad (1896), which became a bestselling volume of poetry at the turn of the century and would later be popular among soldiers during the First World War. ‘The Lent Lily’ is not one of the best-known of Housman’s poems, but it contains the signature twist we find in much of his poetry, as melancholy breaks in on hope.

The Lent Lily

’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

‘The Lent Lily’: that is, the daffodil. Daffodils don’t last long, and we have a narrow window every spring to enjoy their beauty in all its bright and abundant yellowness. Wordsworth’s celebrated poem, itself a celebration of their joyous quality, is as much a reminder that part of the joy of daffodils lies in their being recollected long after they have been seen and admired. After all, we don’t have long to keep them around the house, or pass them as we stroll among the Lake District (or wherever we happen to be strolling).

‘That dies on Easter day’: Jesus came back to life on Easter Day, having died on Good Friday. The juxtaposition seems deliberate. Daffodils don’t all die on Easter Sunday; Housman’s choice of this specific day yokes together nature and Christianity, and invites us to acknowledge the dovetailing of the flower’s death (and short lifespan) and Christ’s rebirth (and immortality). Housman had become an atheist while he was still a teenager, and never regained his Christian faith, so there is something ironic about this. For him, Easter is about the death of the daffodils – and perhaps, by extension, the brevity of all life – and there is no real consolation to be gained from the message of Easter.

The alternative name for the daffodil, the Lent or Lenten lily, reminds us that daffodils are around at this time of year, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day. In homing in on this particular flower towards the end of his poem, Housman is reminding us of this blaze of glorious colour brightening up the lean period of Lent (regardless of whether he himself observed the tradition). Like everything else, though, it dies all too soon.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Poems about Flowers | Interesting Literature

  2. Fascinating! What you have missed, I think, is that there is a specific reason why the lent lily dies on Easter day and it is alluded to in the last stanza: “Bring baskets now…And bear from hill and valley, The daffodil away…” It was traditional (and still is, in some churches) for daffodils to be brought into the church on Easter Sunday and often given out to mothers in the church membership too. So the daffodils will have been plucked from the ground and taken away in baskets to church. Effectively, once plucked, they have ‘died’. The irony is surely deliberate, as you already refer to it in the post.

    • You’re absolutely right, of course – and this idea of plucking the flower while it’s in season is something we find elsewhere in Housman (where he sees dying young and ‘slipping betimes away’ as a good thing).