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A. E. Housman's "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now"

Updated on April 20, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

A. E. Housman

Source

Introduction and Text of "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now"

A. E. Housman's "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" (poem number II in A Shropshire Lad) consists of three four-line stanzas with the rime scheme AABB CCDD EEFF; thus each stanza is composed of two couplets.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Even though the poem's theme can be interpreted as carpe diem—"seize the day"which would mean that the speaker is nudging himself to go and take in the loveliness of the cherry blossoms while he is still able to do so, the poem's achievement is greater than such a reading allows because it offers a way to transcend the limitation involved in the philosophy of carpe diem.

Regardless of how closely an individual grasps or "seizes the day," that day must still end because no one can add a moment to a day's limited 24 hours. However, this speaker dramatizes a plan for factually doubling his pleasurable experience of the loveliness. If one extends his reasoning, clearly available by implication, the individual may thus even quadruple that pleasure by viewing the cherry trees not only in spring and winter but also in fall and summer.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

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.

Reading of "Loveliest of trees", the cherry now"

Commentary

A. E. Housman's "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" often read as a carpe diem poem, actually offers a plan to increase his enjoyment of loveliness, not just grasp it for a brief span of time.

First Stanza: Beauty Captures the Imagination

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

The speaker is enjoying the spectacle of the beautiful cherry blossom as he rides through the woods. It is springtime for the trees are "[w]earing white for Eastertide," as he colorfully describes them. He deems them to be the "[l]oveliest of trees" at this time of year. The loveliness of the cherry trees captures his imagination, and he begins to muse on how short is his time to enjoy such beauty.

Second Stanza: Only Fifty More Springs

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.

As the speaker muses about beauty and time for its enjoyment, he begins to calculate just how many times he will be able to ride through these woods and observe these glorious blossoms. The speaker uses the biblical number for a life span "three score years and ten."

Thus he subtracts his present age of twenty years from his appointed total of seventy and realizes that he has only fifty more years—that is fifty more times—to see these trees wearing white.

Third Stanza: Fifty Not Enough

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 speaker then reveals his plan to overcome the limitation of having only fifty more times to observe the loveliness of the cherry tree: he will ride out in winter to see them when the blossoms have been replaced with "snow." By visiting the trees in winter, he automatically doubles his installments of pleasure in observing them "wearing white."

Beyond Carpe Diem

Of course, the carpe diem interpretation is also possible, though it seems highly unlikely for at least two reasons:

(1) Why would someone urge himself to do what he is already doing? The speaker is already in the process of taking pleasure from the blooms; he is, in fact, already "seizing the day." Admonishing himself to do what he is already doing would be patently silly.

(2) By his meticulous calculation of the number of times available to him to experience the trees "wearing white," the speaker shows that he does not think fifty occasions are enough; he remarks, "And since to look at things in bloom, / Fifty springs are little room."

The carpe diem suggestion to get out there and look at the blooms does nothing to increase those fifty occasions left to him. And as we have seen, he is already out there looking.

Literal "Snow"—not Metaphorical

The carpe diem interpretation would mean that the speaker is using "snow" in the final line metaphorically for the cherry blossoms. But a metaphorical interpretation limits the depth of poem, even renders the speaker a bit silly for telling himself to do what he is already doing.

The literal interpretation of "snow" broadens and deepens the poem's achievement. The speaker has solved the problem of having only fifty times to look at the loveliness of the cherry "wearing white." If he goes out to see them with snow on their branches, he will double his opportunities for observing such loveliness.

Readers may grasp by suggestion that the speaker might even extend the notion of doubling those occasions to quadrupling them. He can also go visit the trees in summer and fall. Their loveliness will not be the same as "wearing white," but they will be beautiful, nonetheless, and the speaker has clearly demonstrated his penchant for beauty.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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