A A. E. Housman

When green buds hang in the elm by A. E. Housman

A. E. Housman’s poem ‘When green buds hang in the elm’ is about a speaker’s attachment to nature and how it reminds him of his own mortality. It appears in the poetry collection Last Poems (1922).

When green buds hang in the elm by A. E. Housman Visual Representation

‘When green buds hang in the elm’ by A. E. Housman is a poem about the transience of life and the beauty of nature. In this poem, Housman describes a spring day where he gets lost in the beauty of nature. The scene makes him want to reconsider his priorities in life. The tone of this poem is thoughtful, sad, reminiscent, and wishful, which makes the mood of the poem yearnful. Read the full text of the poem below:

When green buds hang in the elm
A. E. Housman

When green buds hang in the elm like dust
And sprinkle the lime like rain,
Forth I wander, forth I must,
And drink of life again.
Forth I must by hedgerow bowers
To look at the leaves uncurled,
And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers
Are lying about the world.
When green buds hang in the elm by A. E. Housman


Summary

‘When green buds hang in the elm’ by A. E. Housman highlights the beauty of nature during spring and how it reminds the speaker of the futility of life.

In this poem, Housman’s poetic persona gazes at the green buds on the elm tree, perhaps during spring as they bloom. He watches the green buds “sprinkle the lime like rain” and gets lost in wishful thinking about his own life. Further, he imagines himself walking by the hedgerow bowers and examining the leaves. He wants to refocus and concentrate on the little things in life that he often took for granted. Things that would make him forget about the uncertainties and melancholy of daily life.

Structure

The poem ‘When green buds hang in the elm’ follows the free-verse form. It has 8 lines, and there is no stanza break. The rhyme scheme of this piece is ABAB CDCD. It is written from the first-person point of view. Regarding the tone, it is wishful and reminiscent. The poem’s ambiance is colorful yet somber. It is composed of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, alternatively. Housman includes an anapestic foot within a line having an odd number of syllables. For instance, in the first line, the third foot “in the elm” is an anapest.

Literary Devices

Housman uses literary devices to enhance the beauty of the scene described in the poem. The following are the poetic devices used in the poem:

  • Simile: The poet says, “When green buds hang in the elm like dust/ And sprinkle the lime like rain,” using the poetic device simile. Here, the “green buds” are compared to “dust” and drops of rain, respectively.
  • Repetition: Housman repeats the words “Forth I” at the beginning of the third and fourth lines. By using this repetition, he tries to emphasize the fact that he plans to change his life from that moment onwards. He imagines the different things he would do.
  • Inversion: The regular order of a sentence is inverted in the following line: “To look at the leaves uncurled.”
  • Assonance: The speaker repeats the “ai” sound in the lines, “And sprinkle the lime like rain,/ Forth I wander, forth I must,/ And drink of life again.” The “o” sound gets repeated in the line “Forth I must by hedgerow bowers.”
  • Consonance: Readers can find the repetition of the “l” (consonant) sound in the lines, “When green buds hang in the elm like dust/ And sprinkle the lime like rain.”
  • Personification: It occurs in the lines, “And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers/ Are lying about the world.” Here, the flowers are given a human characteristic.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

When green buds hang in the elm like dust

And sprinkle the lime like rain,

Forth I wander, forth I must,

And drink of life again.

At the beginning of ‘When green buds hang in the elm,’ the poet describes the green buds blooming on an elm tree. The buds appear as “dust.” The speaker views this scene unfold in front of him and ponders about his own life. He thinks he needs to “drink of life again” as if to reset his priorities and begin to think about the little things in life that he should pay more attention to before the beauty passes away.

From these lines, it can be inferred that the speaker is reminded of his own mortality after watching the “green buds.” They appear like “dust,” a symbolic reference to death and decay. So, there is an urge to reconsider his definition of life as he stands on the verge of oblivion. The conviction of his tone is visible in the phrase “forth I must.” It means there is no other way. He has to rethink his priorities in life.

Lines 5-8

Forth I must by hedgerow bowers

To look at the leaves uncurled,

And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers

Are lying about the world.

In the last four lines, Housman imagines himself walking by hedgerow bowers, where he would stop first to examine the leaves that are placed together. Then, he further imagines himself in a field of cuckoo-flowers, forgetting all the burdens, responsibilities, and pain of his reality.

In the first two lines, the speaker seeks to have the touch of nature in order to rejuvenate his ailing soul. The unfurling of the leaves may give him some enlightenment.

The following lines hint at the time of spring as the cuckoo flowers bloom during that time. It seems the flowers are lying to him about the world. The beauty he notices in nature is transience as his life is. So, it is better to think or do the things that nourish the soul.

Themes

‘When green buds hang in the elm’  taps on a number of themes that include nature, life, romanticism, and death. Throughout the poem, Housman paints a beautiful picture of the green buds on an elm tree. The unbloomed buds symbolize the lack of happiness/satisfaction in the poet’s life. His mind wanders to the beautiful places he wants to be. He wishes to wander around in places, get lost, and find new things. It is a must for him so that he can “drink” of life again and rejuvenate his soul. The simple buds of an elm tree made him realize how he takes the little things for granted without ever waiting to examine them.

He wants to stand in a field where the wild cuckoo flowers are surrounding him for as far as he can see. Then he can finally forget about the pain in his life. A sense of romanticism in his mind lodged a deep-rooted craving for escapism. In this way, Housman does an excellent job of capturing the emotions of a speaker wandering in nature.

Historical Context

Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was a classical scholar and poet. Some of his most popular collections of poetry are A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty-three poems, and De Amicitia (Of Friendship). Most of Housman’s poems include impeccable imagery and a distinctive style of writing, which is visible in ‘When green buds hang in the elm.’ This piece first appeared in Housman’s Last Poems, published in 1922. It is a collection of his last forty-two poems.

FAQs 

What is the poem ‘When green buds hang in the elm’ about?

A. E. Housman’s poem ‘When green buds hang in the elm’ is about the beauty of nature and how the speaker wants to live his life more freely inspired by nature. The speaker wants to reconsider the priorities of his life with the help of nature.

What is the form of ‘When green buds hang in the elm’?

The poem is written in free-verse with the rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD. It is composed of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, alternatively. Housman wrote this poem from the perspective of a first-person speaker that gives this piece a lyrical quality.

What is the tone of ‘When green buds hang in the elm’?

The tone of this poem is thoughtful, sad, yearning, and reminiscent. In the first few lines, there is a sense of determination in the speaker’s tone. However, it changes into a hopeless one after the speaker observes the transient cuckoo flowers.

What is the theme of ‘When green buds hang in the elm’?

This piece taps on a number of themes that include nature, life, death, futility, and romanticism. The main idea of the poem revolves around the sense of mortality a speaker carries within his mind while wandering about in nature.

What do the “green buds” in the poem ‘When green buds hang in the elm’ symbolize?

The “green buds” of the elm tree symbolize the speaker. Just like the buds are waiting to bloom, so is the speaker. His life waits to blossom into something more meaningful.


Similar Poems

The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on themes present in A. E. Housman’s poem ‘When green buds hang in the elm.’

You can also explore these beautiful poems about spring.

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When green buds hang in the elm by A. E. Housman Visual Representation
Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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