Thursday, May 30, 2024

What Good Is Poetry? Making the Most of Life With A.E. Housman’s the ‘Loveliest of Trees’

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Even in the awakening of new life in springtime and in Eastertide (the time that stretches beyond Easter), there comes the sweet yet sad reminder of the fleetingness of things, that all that lives must die. This is a favorite subject of poetry.

The freshness of spring is all too brief, as Robert Frost’s famous poem laments. He says at once, “Nature’s first green is gold” and “Nothing gold can stay.” Gerard Manley Hopkins has a similar sadness in “Spring and Fall,” where we sense the inevitability of death in the seasons.

For every tear shed for the arrival of things and the passing of things, there is a tear for our own journey, with its own beginning and end. And it often takes a poem about spring or a tree or life itself to make “the tears in things,” as the Roman poet Virgil put it, shine with hope and happiness.

‘Loveliest of Trees’
Alfred Edward Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” from his celebrated collection “A Shropshire Lad” is one of these springtime poems that can change a person’s life by changing his or her outlook.

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.

We all know the joy of seeing the cherry tree or any budding tree every spring. We all know the profundity of seeing something again as though for the first time. We all know these fulfillments of the heart, which are often either the cause of poetry or caused by poetry.

Whether in a poem, a tree, a piece of art, or a long-remembered conversation, returning to some familiar thing and finding new meaning, new significance, and new fulfillment is a vital aspect of the human journey.

The young man in Housman’s poem has a quiet determination to appreciate the loveliness of the cherry tree, and all the rest of the blooming springtime world, creating an instance of one of those moments of joyful recognition.

He looks at the span that he might expect to live, and realizing that, at 20 years old, he only has another 50 or so to take in what beauty he can, he resolves simply to do so.

The Poetic Attitude
Even though 50 years is not enough time to take in all the beauty that will surround him in the woodlands—or in his life—his attitude itself is beautiful; it is something like a peaceful shrug that says, “seize the day,” and he goes forth in the springtime of his life to see what he can see and enjoy it.

Such an attitude might be called a poetic attitude: One that will allow him to pause under apple trees and rest at inns on the road of life. The poet or the poetically minded stop to smell the flowers or take in a sunset. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as that which, when seen, pleases, and it is the poets who take the time they have to see and to be pleased.

Visions and delights, the reason for the existence of good poems, are what is at stake in the never-ending distractions of a rushed lifestyle.

Grand Poetry of Springtime
The great poetry of springtime plant slow-growing perennials in the soul that may only be noticed and appreciated after years of blooming. These perennials include not only poetry like Housman’s (or Hopkins’s, or Frost’s, for that matter), but the grand poetry of the seasons, and especially springtime.

The energies and rhythms and symbols of spring and Eastertide work their way like roots into the soil of the heart, returning as unexpected fruit and foliage in the lives of children grown to adults, often when their savor is most needed. In these moments of unexpected comprehension, after years of pondering, salvation sometimes lies.

What is at stake is the eternal moment.

As the cherry tree falls to blight over the course of time, as every tree must, so must all who walk beneath its boughs, and so do we mourn even as we rejoice.

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