Personal Poetry: “The Trees” by Philip Larkin

Spring is blooming belatedly in New England this year. After a series of false starts, the warmth of the sun in the longer daylight hours is a cause of celebration. Yet counting the daffodils sprouting in my yard fills me with despondence. With the reawakening of nature, my mind wanders to thoughts of loss. These feelings have only heightened with age. However, I am not alone. Many poets have used the imagery of spring to express their discontent. One standout is Philip Larkin’s “The Trees”, in which the English poet delves into the inherent pessimism of the season.

Larkin begins “The Trees” with an unassuming observation: “The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said.” The trees are almost trying to speak to Larkin. In the next line, he reveals his interpretation, “The recent buds relax and spread,/Their greenness is a kind of grief.” These trees are not joyously celebrating new life. They welcome the fresh buds with grief. These new buds are not the symbol of rebirth. Instead, the leaves are another year of growth.

In the second stanza, the mourning for the passage of time becomes more apparent. “Is it that they are born again/And we grow old? No, they die too,/Their yearly trick of looking new/Is written down in rings of grain.” The trunks and branches of the trees survived the winter but these are new buds blossoming. The leaves Larkin observed in springs of the past, withered from the trees in autumn. It is a mere illusion of rejuvenation. The rings inside tell the truth. These trees are aging just as humans do.

However, in the final stanza, Larkin writes, “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” There is cautious optimism in his words. Even as the trees age, they are planted in the present. They no longer live in the past. Even if they will die one day, they must live today.

Commonly framed as the season of burgeoning new life, spring is, conversely, a season of endings. Even as we delight in the blossoming of flowers or the chirps of hatchlings, there is the ever-present knowledge that those are merely the most recent blooms and birds. The sprouts we nurtured and admired last spring have aged or faded. Nothing is truly “afresh, afresh, afresh,” instead it is only our yearning to believe that such renewal exists. The fountain of youth, even illusionary, is a mere myth for humanity.

Further Reading

The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin

Similar Poets to Discover

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979
W. H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957
Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.

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