TO SEE THE CHERRY HUNG WITH SNOW

I have always been very fond of the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman.  He is not a verbal fireworks poet like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  He is more straightforward, with a sense of transience remarkably like that of the Japanese hokku writers.

Housman told the truth.  Unlike Mary Carolyn Davies, who tells us that “pain rusts to beauty,” Housman had a more realistic view of things.  He would not say that like iron, pain rusts to beauty.  He would say that as the blade of a knife is dulled by time and wear, so the sorrows of life may be dulled by the passage of  days and years.  In his poem The Rain it Streams on Stone and Hillock, he says to someone who has died,

Tomorrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And he adds,

Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

But the dulling of sorrow by time does not lessen the pain of the human condition:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

So Housman knows life; he knows the brevity of youth; he knows that what is will alter, whether it be joy or pain.  And that leads us to one of his best-known poems, Loveliest of Trees:

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, let’s go though the poem part by part, so that we may be certain we understand the poet’s phrasing and vocabulary:

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

Housman tells us the cherry is the loveliest of trees; the cherry trees stand all along the woodland road, and they are covered in (“wearing”) white (white blossoms) for Eastertide.  White, for those who have lost touch with religious custom, was associated with Easter.  “Eastertide” means here Easter time — the time of year when Easter happens. “Tide” is an old word meaning “time.”

Many Americans misunderstand “woodland ride” as meaning that Housman must have been astride a horse or sitting in a carriage, but in British usage, a woodland ride was just a rural road, a reasonably wide and worn pathway through a wood.  It comes from the days before cars, when a path broad enough for horse riding was called a “ride.”  But riding is not actually intended by the term.  So we may assume that the poet is walking leisurely and thoughtfully along a woodland road where many lovely cherry trees are in bloom at Easter time.

Next, Housman does something surprising in poetry: he talks mathematics, and his mathematics are based on what to “church folk” in those days was common knowledge gleaned from the Bible, from Psalm 90:10:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

So Housman reckons,

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.

Housman (or rather the young man speaking through Housman) tells us that out of his life, out of his threescore (a score is twenty, so threescore is sixty) years plus ten years, meaning out of the seventy years allotted to him for his lifespan, twenty will not come again.  So we know he is a young man in his twentieth year, a young man of twenty.  For him, those twenty years are “past” — at least almost — and will never come again.  Subtract those twenty (a score) years from the seventy years of a man’s lifespan, and that leaves our fresh young man only fifty years of life.  He tells, us, with bittersweet good humor,

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.

Realizing that he only has fifty more years in which to live, our young man, who obviously loves things of beauty, knows nonetheless that they are transient, impermanent, as he himself is.  So he tells us that the fifty springs he has ahead of him are little enough time (“little room”) in which to look at such lovely things as the blossoms of spring; therefore he is going to take the time to walk through the woodlands while the cherries are covered in white bloom, to “see the cherry hung with snow” (the “snow,” of course, is the white blossoms).

There is a rather odd misunderstanding of the last line of the poem flitting about on the Internet, asserting that by “to see the cherry hung with snow,” Housman meant he would not only go in spring to see the blossoms, but also in winter to see snow on the cherry trees.  It should be obvious, however, that he was simply using a descriptive metaphor:  snow = white blossoms.  How do we know this?  First from the poem itself:

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 first line tells us: “And since to look at things in bloom….”  Winter snow is not “things in bloom,” and that is obviously the subject.  We may add that a cherry tree in winter does not hold snow on its bare limbs luxuriantly, as an evergreen tree does.  So a cherry in winter is not a stunning sight like a cherry covered with spring bloom.

We also know this from Housman’s use of the snow = white blossoms equation in the first verse of his poem #XXXIX from A Shropshire Lad:

‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

We may also turn to other English poets for similar usage — first to  Robert Bridges for the snow = white blossoms equation, in his poem Spring Goeth All in White:

Spring goeth all in white,
   Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
   O’er heaven the white clouds stray:

White butterflies in the air:
   White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
   Scatter their snow around.

“Milk-white may” in the first line means white hawthorn blossoms.  “Prank” in the sixth line means “adorn,” “decorate,” “ornament.”

We may also take a quick look at the first lines of Springtime in Cookham Dean, by Cecil Roberts:

How marvellous and fair a thing
It is to see an English Spring,
He cannot know who has not seen
The cherry trees at Cookham Dean,
who has not seen the blossom lie
Like snowdrifts ‘gainst a cloudless sky
And found the beauty of the way
Through woodlands odorous with may…. 

Again, “may” in the last line means hawthorn blossoms, not the month.

But back to Housman.  There is, as I said, a kind of bittersweet humor in this verse.  One might call the poem a young man’s “apology for his use of time,” his response to someone accusing him of “slacking.”  But Housman knew that what would really be wasted was the all-too-brief beauty of the cherry trees in blossom along the woodland road (the woodland ride), and so knowing that life is brief, he gives us this little argument for appreciating things of beauty, for seizing the day, complete with the mathematics to back it up.

Housman was a classicist, a scholar of Greek and particularly a professor of Latin.  One might therefore think him dry as dust, all endless conjugations and grammar and “Mr. Arbuthnot, please translate line three on page 37,” but obviously he had poetry in his soul and he understood the brevity of life and the sweetness of spring.

There is an odd kinship between this poem and Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  But we have the feeling that the latter is a mature man’s poem, while Loveliest of Trees is a young man’s poem.

David


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