Gilbert: The loveliest of trees

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(HOST) This year’s cherry blossoms are already going by in Washington, but here in Vermont they’re just beginning to bloom.  Here’s VPR commentator and Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter Gilbert to encourage us to enjoy them – not only now, but all year long.

(GILBERT) It’s said that if you know a poem, you’re never alone.  It pops to mind at just the right moment, adding depth and conscious awareness of whatever the experience is.

At this time of year, I invariably think of a poem by the late nineteenth-early twentieth century English poet A.E. Housman – particularly when I go by a stunningly beautiful cherry tree that’s about a mile from our house.

The poem’s called "Loveliest of Trees."  It’s short – only twelve lines, and like the tree, it’s lovely.  It goes like this:

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.

At first blush, it looks like the poem’s urging us to really enjoy the cherry blossoms during the short time they’re in bloom.  After all, the poem’s narrator says, if he lives seventy years and he’s twenty now, he only has fifty more spring times to enjoy cherry trees in bloom.  And so, he seems to be saying that he’s going to go out and enjoy the cherry trees with their beautiful white blossoms that look just like snow.  Carpe diem – seize the day – the poem seems to tell us.

But one can also read the poem another way.  If you read the last stanza literally, the poem becomes a bit of advice about how to get more joy out of life – and that is to not only enjoy cherry trees in the seventy spring times that we may be allotted in our life-time, but also to enjoy them in winter, when the trees are "hung with snow."  That would dramatically increase the number of such special moments one gets in a lifetime.

Let me read the last stanza again, and this time, take it literally – with snow referring not to blossoms that look like snow, but to real snow:

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.

Maybe then, this poem isn’t so much a melancholy meditation on the brevity of our lives as it is a piece of advice about how to get the most out of life.  You do that by being aware of and enjoying things all the time, including when they’re not at their very best – like Vermont in mud season or stick season, like the ordinary days and ordinary things of our lives.  Enjoy intensely the finite number of gorgeous spring times we’ll see, but enjoy other times of the year, as well.

Sounds like good advice to me.

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