Dang, the cherry blossoms are gone

That's the Jefferson Memorial in the background

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

by A.E. Housman

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.

I visited my mother three days after Easter with a plan to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin and in Kenwood, a neighborhood in Maryland that for two weeks every year is one of the most magical places on earth. As a child I thought it was a fairyland.  We would get out of the car and walk under a tent of pink trees that covered the width of the street. We kicked up thick layers of pale velvety blossoms and threw the petals at each other like confetti.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so lovely.  This April I was sure I would see the cherry blossoms again—I would arrive only two days past the peak.  Alas, the trees in Kenwood were green with a only a hint of pink, and those at the Tidal Basin, where I posted this poem, had all but lost their delicate coloring.  I wasn’t completely disappointed in the outing, though, because the sight of my 84-year old mother enjoying herself in a Tidal Basin paddle boat was a treat in itself.

I love this little poem but it’s always confused me.  All that math!  Turns out my confusion sprang from a misapprehension of Housman’s age.  I thought that he was three score year and ten, or less poetically, 70.  And 70 minus 20 is 50, the additional years he says he has to enjoy the blossoms.  Was he assuming that he’d live to be 120?  No, but I was.  Thanks to a little internet research, I now understand that threescore year and ten is a biblical reference to the average lifetime.  So Housman has just passed 20 and is thinking of the 50 years he has left before he dies at 70 and never sees cherry blossoms again.  I guess this shows that you don’t have to fully understand a poem to enjoy it—understanding can come over time.  And also that math can make me a complete idiot.

Housman actually lived to be 76, so he got in six more springs with the cherry blossoms than he had anticipated.


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