NO HARM IN TRYING: HOUSMAN’S TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Those familiar with Alfred Edward Housman will know that a “sports” poem by him is not going to be simply a sports poem.  That is certainly the case with today’s example, which is poem XVII (#17) in his collection A Shropshire Lad.  We shall take it part by part.  It is titled:

TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

“Thorough” here is just an old spelling of “through.”  And “football” here is the British term for what Americans traditionally call “soccer,” though with the current spread of popularity for the game in the United States, the term “football” for it has become better known.

A man looks back to the youthful days of his life.  He is (at least in memory) on the playing field, and tells us that twice every week, all through the winter, he stood on this spot as goalkeeper (shortened to “goalie” or “keeper”).  But he was an unhappy young man, melancholy, and in those days football then was a way of fighting his sorrow, of keeping the sadness and depression out of mind.  It was a common belief in British schools of that time that sports were an important part of male education, helping to provide, as the Latin saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano — “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”

footballgoalie

He does not tell us why he was sad.  Housman himself was homosexual, and there would have been reason enough for a person so inclined to sorrow in those days when it was spoken of in whispers, the so-called “love that dare not speak its name.”  Not only was there the possibility of being a social outcast if word got out, but also there were sobering legal penalties.  So Housman knew well what it meant to be “acquainted with grief,” as the biblical expression puts it.

But speaking more generally, there are many reasons why a young man might be given to sadness and depression, with the reasons varying as widely as the individuals.  And one thinks too of William Blake’s notion that some are just “born that way,” recalling these lines from his poem Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

So we know our young man was deeply unhappy, and used football as an escape all through the winter days.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

The season moves on to spring.  It is the month of May, and the seasonal sport now played is that quintessentially British game, cricket.  Our unhappy young man marches out to the rectangular “pitch,” that is, the playing area.  He has his flat cricket bat, and wears the customary knee pads.  He stands at the wicket.  In cricket there are two wickets, one at each end of the pitch, consisting of three short upright sticks in the ground topped with two loose crosspieces called “bails.”

So as he marches out with bat and pads to the wicket, he invites the reader to see him as he was then, a “son of grief,” that is, a very sad young man, trying again to keep his sorrow temporarily at bay, “trying to be glad.”

Housman uses the football season (approximately autumn to spring) and the cricket season (approximately spring to autumn) to show us how the speaker in the poem attempted to deal with his unhappiness throughout the year.

And now Housman comes to the summation of the matter, looking back on the youthful attempt of the lad to fight sorrow through sport:

Try I will; no harm in trying: 
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

As in those young days of playing sports, the speaker of the poem says, “Try I will.”  He will keep trying to keep sadness off, because trying certainly does no harm, though success may be limited.  Because after all, he says, it is a wonder how little mirth, how little enjoyment in life, keeps a person from just giving up on living entirely, and becoming merely dead bones lying in the earth.

Housman frequently turns to this kind of bittersweet paradox.  It takes but little pleasure in life to make a person want to keep living, and the speaker of the poem wonders that it takes so little — just the escape in a game of football, or in a game of cricket.  Or, of course, in any number of other things.

It reminds one of Woody Allen’s comments at the end of the movie Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

That is the “glass half empty” approach.  But there is also the “glass half full” approach that we find in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  The Spirit of Christmas Past takes miserly Ebenezer Scrooge back in time to a Christmas Party, small in cost, but rich in mirth, held by his kindly first employer, Mr. Fezziwig.  The Spirit comments on the party Fezziwig has provided, and thus evokes in Scrooge significant thoughts on the way Fezziwig treated his fellow humans:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I hope in this holiday season. as the Midwinter Solstice approaches, that we may all try, in whatever way, to make the burdens on our fellow humans a little lighter, at minimum no more severe.  And as Housman wrote, “…no harm in trying.”

Here again is the whole poem, at one go:

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

David

BROOKS TOO BROAD FOR LEAPING, FIELDS WHERE ROSES FADE

Today, one of the simplest and most effective poems of Alfred Edward Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad. Like other poems in that anthology, it has deep undertones of loss and bittersweet nostalgia. It is titled

With Rue My Heart is Laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

I will explain it part by part, though the overall sentiments are immediately clear:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

The poet is recalling the boys and girls — the lads and lasses — he knew earlier in life, and is saddened. He tells us that his heart is laden — loaded, weighted down — with rue, that is, with sorrow and regret. It has a double meaning in that there is an herb called rue, a plant with a bitter fragrance that also traditionally symbolizes loss and regret. So we know the writer is made very sorrowful by remembering the “golden friends” he once had but has no more. By “golden” he means both precious and also beautiful in his memory, using “golden” as people do who recall pleasant days in the past and say, “Those were the golden years.” He remembers the dear friends of his youth.

And who were those friends? “Many a rose-lipt maiden” and “many a lightfoot lad.” He recalls the young girls he knew in the days when they had the beauty of youth, with their lips the pinkish-red color of rose petals. “Rose-lipt” is just a variant spelling of “rose-lipped.” They had rosy lips, which has undertones of the fragrance and fresh beauty of the rose flower, but also of its fragility and brevity. And he recalls “many a lightfoot lad,” many boys he once knew who were fleet of foot and agile in running and leaping, with all the energy youth and vitality gave them.

So the poet has told us first who he is saddened by remembering, and now, he finishes by telling us why he is saddened by the memory:

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

He is speaking metaphorically. It was common, in the English countryside, for village lads to entertain themselves by seeing who could leap across small streams, sometimes with the assistance of a long pole that was pushed down into the water. The boy would come running with pole in hand, like a pole vaulter, and then would push the end of the long pole down into the stream and swing himself up into the air and across to the other bank. Of course either way, anyone who did not do it just right or was not agile enough would fall into the water. But now, the poet is saying, those lightfoot lads he once knew are laid by “brooks too broad for leaping.” By that he means they have died, their years ended by obstacles in life that they could not overcome, whether illness, or death in war, or some other fatal, impassable barrier. There were just some “brooks” in life they could not leap over, and so they now lie dead and buried.

Similarly, Housman tells us that “the rose-lipt girls” are sleeping “in fields where roses fade.” They too have died, because they were, in spite of their beauty and youth, mortal after all; and this world of change and impermanence is “the fields where roses fade.” All things that come into existence in our world, whether roses on a bush or metaphorical roses on the lips of girls, are fated to fade and die.

And that is why our writer is saddened, thinking of the impermanence of things in life, and of how the lively young girls and vigorous young boys he once knew and loved, his “golden friends,” are gone from his life and will not come again.

And of course we know that in mourning them, the writer is also mourning the loss of his own youth and the years that are no more.

That is the reality of life in the world. Nothing lasts, no matter how pleasant, no matter how beautiful. Part of our spiritual path in life is accepting that hard reality without letting the realization become destructive. We must not be too weighed down by the rue of remembrance of things past, but instead must learn to live in the present and appreciate our loved ones while we have them, knowing they will not be with us always.

That is a lesson hard for young people to learn, because it is the nature of the young to feel emotionally that they will live forever, even though their rational minds tell them otherwise. But inevitably, we all come to “brooks too broad for leaping,” and are laid in “fields where roses fade.”

The great gift of Alfred Edward Housman was the beautiful simplicity of his verse and how faithfully it reveals the bittersweet impermanence of life, the temporary nature of all things.

David

ON WENLOCK EDGE: THE GALE OF LIFE AND EMOTION

Today we turn again to one of my favorite poets, Alfred Edward Housman, and to his poem On Wenlock Edge.

English: Wenlock Edge
WENLOCK EDGE  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not a difficult poem, but we shall need to make sure we understand Housman’s vocabulary in order to comprehend the poem easily.  As usual, I shall take it part by part:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; 

His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

We are in the county of Shropshire, England.  To the south is a large escarpment — a sudden, sharp upward slant of the land that rises to some height above us, and runs for some 16 miles across the countryside.  Its ancient limestone slope is covered in leafy forest.  This is Wenlock Edge.  In the distance, some five miles to the north of Wenlock Edge, is a forested hill, the Wrekin (pronounced REE-kin).

THE WREKIN (Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)
THE WREKIN
(Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)

The writer tells us the wood on Wenlock Edge is “in trouble”  meaning it is disturbed, agitated and stormy.  A great wind has come up.  If we look to the Wrekin, the forest on it is tossing in the same wind.  Housman terms the wood on the Wrekin “his [its] forest fleece,” because the wood covers the hill like the fleece on a sheep.  And it “heaves” — the countless branches bending in the wind seem, when seen from a distance, to rise and fall like waves on a green sea.  The gale — the very strong wind — bends (“plies”) the saplings — the slender, flexible young trees — double, bends them nearly to the ground.  And the countless leaves blown away by the awesome force of the gale fall like snow on the waters of the Severn River, which winds between the two heights.   Housman is giving us a scene filled with natural power and motion.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger

When Uricon the city stood:

’Tis the old wind in the old anger,

But then it threshed another wood.

The writer, having presented us with an event in the present, now expresses the thoughts it arouses in him.  He tells us the gale once blew like that through “holt and hanger” in a much earlier time.  “Holt” is an old Germanic word (and English, with its Anglo-Saxon ancestry, is a Germanic language) for a wood, a forested area.  “Hanger” also comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term; it means a wood on a slope, like the forest on Wenlock Edge.  The wind blew through those woods “when Uricon the city stood.”  He is taking us back to Roman Britain — Britain after the Romans had invaded and settled there.  His “Uricon” was the Roman city Viriconium/Viroconium, also called Uriconium, which lay where the present day town of Wroxeter lies, several miles west of the Wrekin.  It was the fourth largest Roman City in ancient Britain.

The writer muses that the same strong wind “in the old anger,” (meaning aroused and violent) that now blows on Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin, then blew on the earlier woods of the region when Uricon was a thriving city in Roman Britain.  He speaks of the wind in the old days having “threshed another wood.”  “Threshed” is an agricultural term used for beating ripe grain from stalks.  So, to repeat, Housman means that the same wind he sees blowing the forests of Shropshire also beat on the woods that grew there in Roman times.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

Just as the narrator now stares at the woods bending and waving in the strong wind, in ancient times a Roman would stand there watching the gale-blown woods of that earlier period.  And, the writer opines, the two men — the ancient Roman and the modern British yeoman (here it means a farmer who owns his own land) — are much the same, bodies warmed by human blood, minds troubled by the same human concerns and emotions.

The writer expands on this similarity of old Roman and modern Briton:

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

There — in early Britain — the “gale of life,” the powerful force of life and emotion, blew strongly (“high) through the Roman like a wind blowing through woods “in riot,” that is, with violence and great disturbance.  And now the same, overwhelming force blows through the writer himself.   Housman likens a man under the force of his own internal, powerful emotions and desires to a tree blown by a gale:

The tree of man was never quiet.

And again, the likening of ancient and modern:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The hopes, fears, sufferings and sorrows of humans are the same, whether in ancient times or today, whether in Roman Britain or modern Britain, or anywhere else on earth.

And now he brings us back to the present, to the blowing wind and the agitated trees, for his summation of the matter:

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:

To-day the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon. 

As early as the Chinese book the Dao De Jing, it was said that a violent wind does not last the morning.  Our writer tells us that the wind he watches is so violent it will soon be gone.  We must know that he is also speaking here of the strong wind of human life and emotion — it blows so strongly that it too will soon be gone.  We should keep in mind here that Housman is giving us an equation:  wind = the force of life.  We see this made clear in the final two lines:

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

And similarly, by extension, our narrator and his troubles will soon be ashes as well.  Nothing lasts, whether it be wind, or trees, or leaves, or sorrow, or joy, or human life.

If we were to express this poem very simply it would be this:

A violent wind is agitating the trees.

The same violent wind I see blowing the woods was seen by a Roman in early Roman Britain.

That Roman and I share the same human blood and human emotions.

Humans are like trees blown in the wind of emotion and desire.

Wind = the force of life and emotion in humans.

A violent wind will not last long.

Human life and emotions do not last long.

As the ancient Roman and his troubles are now nothing but ashes, so shall I and all my troubles be.

Of course Housman’s poetic way of saying it is far more pleasing to read than this kind of prosaic explanation.

As an aside, it might not occur to one immediately, but there is a connection between the name “Wrekin” and the name of the former nearby old Roman city, Viroconium.  Remember that in Latin, a “V” used to be pronounced as a “W.”  So think of “Wrekin” and “Wirocon [-ium].”  Of course the “W” in Wrekin is now silent.

Speaking of the “strong wind of human life and emotion” that is soon ended, we can think of the lines of George Gordon Byron from his poem We’ll Go No More A-Roving:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast…

 
David

A WAY OF SAYING IT: WHAT POETRY IS AND IS NOT

We reach and strain with our thoughts, trying to grasp what poetry is, trying to somehow distinguish it from all that is not poetry, but without success.  Then we come across something as simple as this statement by A. E. Housman:

Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it.”

And it is as though the sun has risen, dispelling the darkness; because that is exactly what poetry is.  It does not lie in the thing said, however significant it may be.  It lies, rather, in how that thing is said.

All of the traditional paraphernalia of poetry, whether rhyme, rhythm, alliteration or assonance, are merely means to this end — saying the thing in a way that makes it poetry.  Their use, of course, is no guarantee at all that the result will be poetry, but we know that they are used with poetry as the goal.

Prose, we may say then, is the reverse; it is not so much how a thing is said as what is said.  It is meaning that is important and the key element.

We should not misunderstand this and think that poetry has no meaning, but rather that what meaning it carries is molded to the manner in which it is presented, however important the meaning may be — if it is to be poetry.

We may separate the meaning from the poem by explaining it in ordinary, everyday English, but by doing so we cause the meaning to lose its poetry.  If that were not so, we would all constantly be speaking poetry.

 So poetry is a way of saying something, a special way, and there are various tools and manners that may be used in so speaking — again like rhyme and measure and rhythm, alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), but not all of these tools are essential for writing a poem.  It all comes back to a way of saying something.

We may go on to remark that obviously, then, poetry is not ordinary, everyday speech, which concentrates more on just saying a thing than on how that thing is said.  Poetry is the changing of one’s common speech pattern to say a thing in a way that makes it more pleasing or interesting or effective, or all three combined.

Sometimes the line between poetry and ordinary speech may seem blurred at first, but with a little reflection it is recognized nonetheless.  When W. H. Auden wrote his poem September 1, 1939, he was talking about the outbreak of World War II, the invasion of Poland by German forces — and he was seemingly conversational in doing so; we see, however, that this would not have been his everyday speech — not the way he ordered a meal, nor the way he talked to a friend.  And it is that little change that makes all the difference in transforming something from prose to poetry:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night

 We find the end rhymes — dives / lives, bright / night, afraid /decade.  And we find “odd” ways of saying things, such as

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth…

Eliminate the rhyme, however, say instead that people all over the world are angry and afraid, and the poetry dissolves — vanishes into prose.  

We tend to think that poetry is cut up into lines (and it usually is), while prose is divided into paragraphs.  But actually poetry and prose are somewhat like human gender behavior, which shades from one extreme to the other.  Some men are very stereotypically masculine; others are very stereotypically feminine; but between the two poles are found all the people who fall somewhere between.  In the change from prose to poetry, as in human gender roles, we find a graduated scale.  Some poets border on prose, but never fall completely into it, or they would not be poets.  There is still something to their way of saying the thing that is recognizable as poetry.

But the matter is a little more complex.  Even in prose, people often do not write as they commonly speak.  They leave little things out; they use “big” Latin or Greek-based words, instead of plain and simple Anglo-Saxon; they say things more concisely, and perhaps more effectively.  There is a vast difference in even so small a matter as an invitation to dinner:

1.  Do you wanna have dinner with me tomorrow?
2.  Your presence is requested at a dinner honoring the accomplishments of H. N. Featherwood.

And then there is poetry:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table; 

One comes to recognize and to distinguish poetry from the other two kinds of speech, the ordinary and the formal.  What one must be wary of is prose that is disguised as poetry by being divided into lines in imitation of poetry.  Some people who write this way think they are writing poetry, and some critics are deceived into thinking the same.  But those who realize that poetry is not just dividing prose into lines on a page, but rather is a way of saying something that is different both from ordinary and formal speech, will not be fooled.

Some would-be poems include the bare minimum of the special way of saying something that is poetry, and sometimes not even that.  We should not confuse that kind of writing with the “conversational” yet quite poetic manner of Walt Whitman in his Shut Not Your Doors:

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves
       yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page. 

But, you may say, no one talks like that!  And I reply that you have grasped the point.  No one talks as Walt Whitman wrote in poetry.  You may think they do for a few words or a line, but the poetry will out.

The same may be said for Robert Frost, another sometimes even more “conversational” poet.  Look at the beginning of his Birches, where he fools us into thinking that we are just listening to the rambling conversation of some New England ruralite, and it is only gradually as we read on, and feel the rhythm, and begin to sense his increasingly revealing way of speaking, that we become aware that what seemed to begin as conversation was actually just the path into poetry:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.  Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.  They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 

When reading Frost, one often has the feeling of being tricked into submitting to some sort of peculiar farmer’s incantation, because what seems ordinary speech at first increasingly weaves a charm of words, as though Frost were a kind of New England shaman chanting away, putting a folksy spell upon us, as in his After Apple-Picking:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

This incantatory nature of his writing is one of the most pleasing things about Frost.  And again, it is a way of saying it; it is poetry.

So we know, in theory, what poetry is and what it is not.  But that does not mean we have defined poetry.  We must still be able to distinguish between poetry and mere verse — between what is genuinely poetic and what just uses some of the tools of poetry but does not succeed in being poetic.  For that we can only return to another statement of Housman: that poetry is known by its effect on us.  But here we are back again at the beginning, reduced to saying that “good” poetry is a matter of opinion and taste formed by education and experience.

David

 

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