Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now

by A. E. Housman

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Themes and Meanings

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“Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” is the second of sixty-three poems in A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s work that represents a concern with the problem of the change that characterizes existence. The poem depicts the poet’s first awareness of mutability and death in his world of youth and beauty, in that his perception of the facts of his existence indicate that the “loveliest” things in nature contain the seeds of decay and death. Yet, at the poem’s end, the poet, conscious of his own mortality, retains some sympathy with nature.

In A Shropshire Lad, the theme of change is explored relentlessly, proceeding from the first consciousness of mortality to a complete state of alienation from youthful harmony and innocence. Terence, the rustic lad, endures various revelations of change and death and eventually removes himself from Shropshire and the naïveté of his youth to exile in London and the resignation of manhood.

The journey, represented in terms of a progression from innocence to experience, is highlighted by Housman’s subtle allusions to Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), the epic poem by the seventeenth century English poet John Milton, who depicts Adam’s innocence in Eden and his subsequent recognition of human evil and death. Echoing Milton’s narration of fallen angels in a universe of death, Housman illumines his theme of lost innocence as he attempts to come to terms with the human condition. For Housman, the cherry, the “loveliest of trees,” serves as the Tree of Knowledge, as it sparks the recognition of death and decay that ultimately blights the pastoral Eden. Shropshire becomes Eden after the Fall, from which Terence, the innocent country lad, is eventually expelled.

It was in his reliance upon the pastoral tradition that Housman achieved the most felicitous treatment of an extraordinarily persistent theme in literature. In his poetic mode, Shropshire is, in effect, a pastoral Arcadia, an ancient region in Greece incorporated into early pastorals and suggesting idealized rural simplicity and contentment. This idealization provides a symbolic environment through which the innocent persona’s discovery, initially contained within himself, broadens thematically to include estrangement and ultimate departure from the lost land of the imagination.

The transition from innocence to experience is relayed not in terms of time, but in widely differing geographical areas, and it follows the pastoral’s original distinction. Terence’s expulsion from the peace and contentment of Shropshire and the sympathy of humanity and nature takes him to a life of loneliness, anxiety, nostalgia, and loss in alien, hostile London. The fact that Shropshire and London are seen symbolically as two different poles of existence emphasizes the loss sustained by the knowledge of death but is offset by a vision of maturity required to adjust to life without the security of youth. Paradoxically, the search for permanence in a world of change can only be achieved through the loss of the essence of existence.

“Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” records a discovery each individual makes about the nature of his or her world and presents this commonplace event with all the complexities and contradictions that accompany this discovery. The development of Housman’s theme corresponds to the evolution of a feeling in the persona and, consequently, encourages in the reader a shock of recognition of universal experience. Each individual reader may participate in an emotional and imaginative response to the elemental facts of his or her own existence.

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