STLT#98, Loveliest of Trees

I’m gonna start right off and say, Gentle Reader, if you have an opinion on this hymn, please share it. If you use this hymn…ever, tell me when and how. If you feel a connection to the lyric, or in general the poetry of AE Houseman, please describe it.

Because hooo-boy, I don’t get this one. I mean, I get what Houseman is saying: I’m 70, I won’t be a child again, 50 adult years haven’t been long enough, wah wah wah, gather ye rosebuds or some such inanity. And yes, I am a fan of storytelling, finding universality in particularity, the living human document as a way to understanding. But frankly, I found myself (a) wondering whether this was really an Easter hymn, (b) wondering why we would ever sing this, and (c) doing the math.

Now I love the tune – Orientis Partibus is a gorgeous little medieval French melody used in countless hymns. These lyrics, though…

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 three-score years and ten,
twenty will not come again,
and take from sev’nty springs a score,
leaving me just fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
fifty springs are little room,
about the woodlands I will go,
seeing the cherry hung with snow.

Anyone have a more helpful insight than mine? Because unless I am preaching to just a group of 70 year olds in the late spring, and I want them to feel (a) old and (b) superior, I don’t get this. Not one bit.

  1. I guess I would use this to talk about nostalgia, or about the times when one wakes up to being present, at whatever age. Possibly to talk about privilege, health/ableism, opportunities? But not by itself. It’s more an illustration for a text than a text on its own.

  2. As I understand it, the writer is 20 – he’s saying that 20 of his allotted 70 years have been used. I love the poem – to me it’s a praise of beauty and encouragement to get out there and enjoy it. I’ve never sung the hymn, so can’t comment on the tune. Thanks for your daily comments – I find them thought provoking and well worth the time to read them.

    1. i agree with you Suzanne. Well put. A young person realizes he has his biblical three score and ten, if fortunate, and decides not to waste them by holding back, or letting fears dampen his life. No more beauty and life from a distance…So off deeply into the woods bright with blossoms! Off to live! For me decidedly Easter. The tune is delightful, altho’ not as syncopated as it originally was. It was used during the playfully blasphemous ceremony in many french churches in April (thus one aspect of April Fool’s) when a wooden donkey, used often in the Palm Sunday procession, was decorated by the people, and mocked in a kind of ass mass. the clergy abandoned the church for a day, and the people sang “orientis partibus, adventavit assinus, pulcher et fortissimus…”. out of the east, the ass arrives, beautiful, strong, and appropriately dressed.”. The tune must have sounded hilarious at one time, but now there is a childlike sweetness to it that i personally love.

      1. Thanks for the perspective. I read it so differently.

        And I’m laughing st the original lyrics – I love the tune and didn’t know how silly-sweet its words are!

  3. My suspicion is that is included to meet the (Anxiety-driven?) perceived need to include songs for Christian holidays that don’t mention Jesus or other trigger words (God, Spirit, holy, sacrifice, cross, etc). If that’s the case, I would argue for continuing non use as those anxieties need to be addressed and met instead of pacified and allowed to (further) fester.

  4. Yes, I agree — a lovely tune but a curious and somewhat awkward lyric. Although I don’t believe I’ve ever actually seen this hymn used in a UU service, I believe it could be used alongside a reflection on the death/life themes of Easter and spring. I’m neither a theologian nor a poet, but I wonder if the image of a cherry (symbol of spring/life) covered with snow (winter/death) is a reflection of the yin/yang dichotomies of our lives, and that as we walk through the woodland of our lives, we should strive for a simple, zen-like acceptance of these dichotomies?

  5. I like both the lyric and the tune! Fifty springs is not enough to enjoy the beauty of the cherry tree, so I’ll seek it out in the winter also. I’ll embrace life now — winter or spring! Does the cherry tree represent nature, beauty, or perhaps life or love?

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