I’ve always been strongly taken by A. E. Housman’s poem, “Loveliest of trees.” It’s one of the few poems I’ve memorized in its entirety, and here it is.
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.
[OK, misremembered two words: said “is” for “are” after “Fifty springs,” and said “country” instead of “woodlands” in the last stanza.]
Given that Vancouver is full of flowering cherry trees, most of them the gift of the government of Japan, some of them white, some pink, with the fullest and most beautiful to be found near the Burrard SkyTrain Station, I haven’t been moved until this last week to challenge Housman’s claim that the cherry is the loveliest of trees.
However, about a week ago, walking on my regular route between my apartment and my village (the little ‘hood around the corner of 14th and Main), I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of a magnolia tree on the northwest corner of 14th and Sophia (ah, Sophia: wisdom). The day I noticed it–and why that day?–I walk that route five days out of seven–it must have reached its apogee of ripeness, of fullness, of perfection. You may have heard that in Japan people will make special trips to see the blossoming cherry trees at just such a point, knowing that within a very short time, the blossoms will begin to fall until the trees are entirely bare of them. For this magnolia tree, this was that moment. I stopped and revelled in its beauty, staggered that in the eight years I have been walking this route, I had never noticed it before.
The next day, walking back along the same route, and on the opposite side of 14th, I came across a small sprig from the tree, bearing one blossom only: torn off, broken off, blown off? I didn’t know which, of course; but I picked it up, took it home, and floated it in a bowl of water until today, when it had faded to the point that I let it go.
But having it in my possession for a while enabled me to take a closer look at the blossom; and in it I saw small elements for which I had no names. OK, Wikipedia, “Magnolia tree.” There I learned that these small elements bore such names as bract, perianth, sepal and tepal; that the magnolia is of “disjunct” distribution (meaning that it grows both in Asia and North and South America); that the magnolia family is about 20 million years old, with its ancestors traceable to 95 million years ago; that it was named after French botanist Pierre Magnol (I had assumed an origin in the Latin word magna, great, because the blossoms are large); and that I would not live long enough to master all the botanical terminology which describes the different categories of magnolia.
Each day since my first noticing it, I stopped to have a smell-the-roses visit with the tree; and today–a big change from yesterday–I saw that about three-quarters of the blossoms had fallen to the ground, and been ground underfoot by those walking my route to the village. Tomorrow, I hunch, it will have lost almost all its blossoms. There is something entirely natural about this, and at the same time, something very poignant, even sorrowful.
Gerard Manley Hopkins picks up this feeling in his “Spring and fall: to a young child.”
Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? / Leaves, like the things of man, you / With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? / Ah! as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder / By and by, nor spare a sigh / Though world of wanwood leafmeal lie. / Now no matter, child the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same/ Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / what heart heard of, ghost guessed: / It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.
In my fiftieth year, my year of Jubilee, a time of great confusion and mortal sorrow for myself around the end of my marriage, I came into my office one day and found that a friend, responding to my emotional space, had put that poem on my desk. This past week, I couldn’t look at the magnolia tree without thinking of it. Yes–unleaving; mortality; mourning for oneself. I can’t say that I agree with Hopkins, however, that “as the heart grows older/ It will come to such sights colder.” My experience is the opposite: as the flame of physical vitality burns lower, I find, its twin, the flame of delight in the beauty of life, fed with the fuel of the recognition of the shortness of that life (even for those of us who live long lives), burns for me ever more fiercely.
And of course that is what Housman’s poem is about as well: mortality, figured in the beauty of the flowering cherry. Twenty springs have come and gone for me, and the next fifty, and the three after that. But I read the reference to Easter with a new sensibility: resurrection will come to the tree four seasons later; and (here I speak as a Christian) to anyone who has gone all the way into the sorrow of death and returned from it. Resurrection, in other words, can start now.