THE FIRST OF MAY

In A. E. Housman’s Last Poems, we find this:

The First of May

The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.

The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.

Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now’s the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.

Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.

One might call the theme of this poem the “human comedy,” the fact that humans repeat essentially the same actions — the same thoughts and at times even the same words — as those who came before them.  In this poem the narrator looks back to his youth, when he and his friends would walk past green and blooming orchards to the May Day fair at the town of Ludlow.  They were young and foolish, each looking forward to what he expected to find at the fair, where Ludlow Tower (the tower of St. Laurence’s Church) lay “planted on the dead” — that is, where those of previous generations were buried.  By that phrase, Housman introduces the transient and repetitious nature  of human life, noting later that the young men now off through the blooming orchards in the morning light to Ludlow Fair are “still the fools that we were then.”  Human nature is the same from generation to generation.  The young men hope for the same pleasures as those who came before them — and make the same foolish mistakes.  It is the same tale told over again.

Alfred Edward Housman was buried at St. Laurence Church in Ludlow.  Here is his grave marker there:

(Photo: Detail from photo by Brian P. Harris)

 

David

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