How To Approach A Poem—Analysis Of A. E.
Housman's Poem, "Loveliest of
Here, The Muse Of Literature presents a practical example developed by
The Muse to demonstrate how to approach a poem using The Muse's method. The poem analyzed by
The Muse is Loveliest of Trees, by A. E.
- The Muse's Approach To A Poem is explained at the feature called How To
Approach A Poem. If you're not already familiar with The Muse's method for
approaching a poem, explore it now and then return to this page:
Plan of attack
To gain the most from this example, The Muse suggests that you follow
- Read Housman's poem, below.
- Read the poem to yourself out loud.
- Listen to the reading by Alexander Scourby, below.
- Read The Muse's analysis that follows the poem.
- Now, if it isn't already open, open the How To Approach A Poem page:
- To confirm your understanding of The Muse's Approach, compare The
Muse's analysis below on this page with the Checklist and Procedure
described on the How To Approach A Poem page.
- So far, The Muse has done the analysis for you. Now do your own
analysis of Housman's poem using The Muse's Approach. Consult the Checklist
and Procedure on the How To Approach A Poem page, point by point, this time
supplying your own understandings, insights, and ideas.
- Compare The Muse's analysis with your own. Note how The Muse's application of the Approach on this page, below, differs from
your own analysis.
- When finished, close this page, return to the How To Approach A Poem
page, and continue reading.
Listen to the poem Loveliest of Trees by A. E.
Housman read by Alexander Scourby.
|Loveliest of Trees
—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.
This poem is in the form of rhymed couplets.
The meter of the poem is basically iambic tetrameter; that is it has four
major stresses in each line with a pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables.
For example, the second line fits the metric pattern.
Other lines do not exactly fit the stresses of the meter to offer variety
and different emphases. The first line gives emphasis to the word
loveliest with the stress on the first syllable followed by three
The fourth line (as well as lines 6 and 10 leaves off the first
unstressed syllable to provide some variety in the rhythm of the piece.
Note however that the pattern of four stressed syllables per line is
strictly adhered to.
The result of the meter is a pleasant pattern that adds a smooth flow and
cohesion to the poem and words.
This is a lyric poem expressing an emotion or idea produced through an
observation of nature.
- The End Rhyme in this poem is all masculine or strong rhyme.
- Internal Rhyme such as alliteration and assonance is used.
- Alliteration is used – ex. woodland, wearing; seventy, springs,
- Some assonance is used – ex. threescore years; leaves me.
The strongest image in the first stanza is that of early spring. Without
using many figures of speech, Housman draws a picture of a countryside path
lined with blossoming cherry trees. This image is a reference to youth and
beginnings. The reference to white and Easter suggest naiveté and purity. The cherry tree represents the beauty of nature
The second stanza uses a riddle-like method to tell us the speaker’s age. The first figure of speech here is a reference or allusion to the age
allotted to man in the Bible – threescore years and ten- or seventy years. The reference to spring in line 7 is a synecdoche; spring here stands for a
In the third stanza, Housman uses the synecdoche things in bloom to
represent all of life and woodlands to represent the world, just as hung with bloom in the first stanza represents spring and the
beginning of life.
Cherry trees come in white, pink, dark pink, yellow, and green
varieties. Some blossoms change from white to pink over a few days. See
pictures of cherry trees white with blossoms in spring and white with
white snow in winter, below.
The last stanza refers to these color differences. In the
last line, cherry blossom hung with snow is a double
metaphor, a reference to both real snow in winter and to white cherry
blossoms that look like snow in spring. It's another reference to the
bloom of spring, like the one in the first stanza,
and it reminds us that the end of life is with us at its start.
Woodlands represent inner life, not just the outer world. I
will go to see the cherry hung with snow encourages us to search for
beauty everywhere and in every moment of life, not only in nature, and
not only when we're young. The cherry tree is the loveliest of trees
because it symbolizes all this beauty.
This poem was written in 1896 as part of Housman’s book The Shropshire
Lad at the end of the Victorian period and the beginning of the Modern.
However, the poem is strongly reminiscent of the Romantic period in its
natural imagery and optimism. This is often the case in works of later poets
who draw on earlier periods for inspiration.
The beautiful cherry tree stands out along the woodland path when it is
blooming white in springtime. I’m twenty years old and can expect to live to
be seventy. Since I only have about fifty years left in my life, I will look
at nature’s beauty in all seasons.
theme and Meaning
Using the theme of the beauty of the natural world, the poet is
expressing the view that we should seize every opportunity to experience
life in all its beauty. Because of its lighthearted tone (especially notable
because of the riddle-like second stanza), this is an optimistic poem
despite a reference to the shortness of man’s tenure in the world. The
poem's briefness, short lines, and simplicity remind us that life is short;
they urge us to speed.
About this example
This example is a practical demonstration of the principle that you get
the most from a poem when you analyze it.
As you explore this example, keep in mind that there is no one right way to analyze
the technical aspects of a poem. Many viable and effective methods for analyzing the
technical aspects of a poem have been devised and can be applied with
approximately equal success; The Muse's Approach is only one of them. The most important thing is not to find the "best" method; the
most important thing is
to do the analysis.
The test for whether a method is viable? Any sound analytical methodology for approaching a poem will lead to the
same result as any other; that is, it will elucidate
technical design and implementation that the poet has conceived
and implemented—it will lead to a better understanding of the language of
the poem itself, of what it says and how it says it.
This fact does not imply that there is only one way to understand a poem.
Poetry, as with any art, is a subjective experience. There can be a large number of possible interpretations of a poem's meaning
that are consistent with its language; the same words may evoke different
feelings or thoughts. In
principle, all reasonable interpretations of a poem are equally "right" so
long as they are not absurd or irrelevant, even if they contradict or
conflict with one another.
One example will not make a master analyst of you. To mature as a reader
and listener of poetry, you will need to know more and more about poetry's
technical elements and to cultivate your analytical skills; you will have to
acquire a knack for deftly applying what you know when you approach poems in
As you progress into the realm of poetic analysis, you may encounter poems deliberately
intended by the poet to convey multiple meanings. Other poems may be
designed to encourage you to perceive more than one valid interpretation or
have more than one relevant emotional reaction. Some may be ambiguous; they
may even leave you wondering what they mean or how they make you feel. For a
number of reasons, including your unique point of view and the personal life
experiences you bring to bear, your interpretations and reactions may differ
from those of other readers; you may even disagree with yourself from one
reading to the next or at different times in your life.
Meaning and emotion are fundamental human capacities. The best approach
you can take to develop your faculty for poetic interpretation is to
deliberately exercise your natural powers of imagination and insight
whenever you approach a poem. Read all sorts of poems and keep an open mind
to all their possibilities; let yourself go.
Almost everyone has an innate ability to understand and love poetry; it
just has to be developed. No doubt, you have one too. After a while you
will develop your own inborn ability to make up your own mind about what a poem
means, to experience and react to it, and to know with certainty in your heart of hearts what you
genuinely feel about it.
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