Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now

by A. E. Housman

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The Poem

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A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” consists of three four-line, essentially iambic stanzas, or quatrains, in which the poet, through his observation of the beauty of the natural world, is reminded of the brevity of his own life and resolves, henceforth, to experience life with intensity. The poem begins with an image from nature, a cherry tree in bloom, which suggests the beauty of life at its prime, and then focuses throughout on the poet’s response to it. As the poet beholds the cherry, the “Loveliest of trees,” in its springtime finery, “Wearing white for Eastertide,” he experiences a sense of oneness with the natural world and assumes, simply, that he is part of it.

The second stanza continues an elaboration of the effect of this glorious sight upon the poet. While he considers the perpetual rebirth of nature, he is reminded sharply that of his biblical “threescore years and ten,/ Twenty will not come again,” and further calculation of his mortality, following the biblical allotment, ironically confirms that he has “only” fifty years left. He becomes aware of his own transience in the midst of nature’s splendor.

The change in the poet’s perception of the natural scene, but not of the scene itself, is charted by the succeeding descriptions of the cherry tree. The second mention of the tree, in the third stanza, as one of many “things in bloom,” though a conventional representation of trees, nonetheless suggests the speaker’s consciousness has moved beyond the growth associated with springtime into the blooms of maturity and, therefore, to a consideration of his own limited existence. The poet’s harmony with the natural world is weakened as he ponders his own certain death.

While literally referring to the whiteness of the cherry blooms, the image of the “cherry hung with snow” continues the progression of the symbolistic patterns from birth to growth to death. The “snow” on the trees, a matter of much discussion among critics and scholars, suggests connections between the notions of Easter and rebirth in addition to winter and death. The tree itself, in effect, has guided the poet from a view of a springtime world of rebirth to one “hung with snow.” The young poet’s perception that the blooms will melt and disappear reflects his realization that even the “loveliest” aspects of nature reveal a world in decay. He does not, however, in the face of such knowledge, succumb to pessimism or despair, but rather determines to renew his passion for living.

Forms and Devices

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Housman is indebted to the pastoral tradition, an ancient poetic form in which shepherds and rustics sing and converse or occasionally occupy themselves with farming. Early in the evolution of the pastoral, it became an artificial and unnatural form, with the “shepherds” often discussing life at court, but more modern use of the pastoral mode includes any poem of rural people and setting. In “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” Housman employs a more sophisticated concept of the pastoral, which conveys complex ideas through simplistic personages. The complexities of life have been reduced to a level that can be communicated by a rustic youth who expresses the truths of his own insights. The poetic voice of a simple country lad enables Housman, an erudite scholar, to avoid sentimentality or the betrayal of his own voice in the poem.

Housman’s use of the rustic setting and the pastoral persona that evokes a more primitive world of shepherds and simple folk is part of the same impulse that led nineteenth century Romantic poet William Wordsworth, whom Housman admired,...

(This entire section contains 466 words.)

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to the simple character in the bucolic setting. Housman’s changing responses to the external world that are reflected through the “ages” of man invite comparison with Wordsworth, who follows the same pattern in his “Ode on the Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Despite the fact that Housman’s intimations of nature, however, are not of nature’s divinity, but of his own mortality, both poets suggest a process inspired by the loss of a harmonious relationship with nature, which takes the persona from innocence to knowledge to resignation.

Other technical patterns that contribute to a sense of growth and development appear in Housman’s manipulation of images of sunrise, dawn, and spring—all of which suggest invitations to the young lad to revel in a world at its prime—to end with images of death, graveyards, and darkness. The clear images of death that end the cycle indicate the intimations of mortality discovered in the innocent’s view of the world, which becomes forever colored by those intimations.

The simplicity in “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” that is more apparent than real is further substantiated to a large extent by the use of irony and paradox—both qualities that modern criticism has come to view as marks of complexity in poetry. The persona’s ironic realization that he has “only” fifty more years to live and that is “little room” to enjoy all that life has to offer reflects his complex response to his own mortality. Also, the striking use of paradox, wherein the persona’s acknowledgment of certain death renews his zest for living, permits Housman to avoid pessimism and despair and to provide some benefit to the persona from his woeful predicament.