04 April 2020

‘The trees are coming into leaf …
Is it that they are born again?’

The trees in the rectory gardens in Askeaton this afternoon, barely beginning to show signs of coming into leaf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in the Rectory in Askeaton this weekend, and the trees are showing signs of coming into leaf – just barely, but still a sign that last year is dead and that there is hope of new life this year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once again this year, I was invited by Christian Aid Ireland to contribute to ‘Footprints,’ their daily reflections each morning throughout Lent and Holy Week. In my reflection (9 March 2020), I recalled words from Pastor Martin Niemöller, whose cell I visited in Sachsenhausen.

Last week (24 March 2020), Stephen Trew, a member of Magheralin Parish in Co Armagh, who campaigns for churches to respond to the climate emergency and take meaningful actions like divesting from fossil fuels, contributed a reflection that included Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘The Trees.’

Philip Larkin (1922-1985), who had been the librarian at the Queen’s University of Belfast in 1950-1955, wrote ‘The Trees’ in 1967. Stanzas 1 and 2 between 9 April and 2 June, the birthday of Thomas Hardy, and it was finished on 3 June 1967.

The poem was published in New Statesman on 17 May 1968, in other journals in 1971 and 1973, and was included in his book High Windows in 1974. It is one of several poems he wrote about Spring and it contains elements of sadness and happiness, grief and joy, despondency and hope, that are so typical of his poems.

In ‘The Trees,’ Larkin is resigned to the fact that both trees and human will eventually succumb to the natural processes that are constantly at work and that are impossible to avoid. But still there is a promise in Spring of new life.

Trees in May in Saint Michael’s churchyard, Lichfield, where many members of Philip Larkin’s family are buried (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Trees, by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

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.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In full grown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

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