Monday, March 21, 2011

"Loveliest Of Trees": A. E. Housman And J. L. Carr

In this fairly temperate part of the world, the cherry trees are in bloom.  This means that, just as Philip Larkin appears each year in May ("Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May"), so A. E. Housman appears each year in spring:

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.

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad (1896). 

The poem reminds me of an anecdote about J. L. Carr, the novelist whose masterpiece is A Month in the Country (1980).  Carr was the headmaster of Highfields School in Kettering, Northamptonshire, from 1952 until 1967.

"His ageing former pupils recalled, as in a dream, the headmaster who every year had the whole primary school march through a housing estate, past trees in blossom, all 200 of them reciting the Housman poem, 'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now . . .'  Forty years on, to their surprise, they realised they still had the poem by heart."

Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman: The Life of J. L. Carr (2003).

                             Julian Trevelyan, "The Cherry Tree" (1946)


Eric Thomson said...

You're only about a week early. Housman noted the cherry blossom in his diary on 28th and 31st March 1893, 28th and 31st March 1894, 31st March 1896, and 29th March 1903.
From Percy Withers' biography, 'A Buried Life' (pp. 27-8): 'Whatever he felt about wild flowers, he never betrayed more than partiality, never a touch of ravishment. This, or something like it, was reserved for the flock of purple crocuses on 'the Backs' at Trinity and for the avenue of cherry trees, both planted at his instigation; but for the latter, alas, he lived to see little more than the promise. He loved the cherry blossom more, I think, than the sheets of purple crocus, and many times spoke with a glow of anticipation of the loveliness the display would one day make - a sight he must have known he would never look on, for his health began to fail at about the same time the trees were planted'. The cherry-lined avenue is now about eighty years old and has more than fulfilled its promise.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Thomson: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for the additional information. It is nice to hear that the avenue of cherries is still there. I might supplement Mr. Withers on one point: Housman did write about "The Lent Lily" as well.

As always, thank you.