This assembly reflects on spring and memories, using a poem written by A. E. Housman
May is traditionally a joyful month. Spring begins to look more like summer. Flowers blossom and there’s a strong feeling of optimism and awakening. But it’s also a time when many older people remember good times in the past.
A. E. Housman’s beautiful poem ‘The First of May’ is about an older person contemplating the timeless beauty of the month of May.
(Housman wrote various poems on this theme. The one we’re using here begins
‘The orchards half the way from home to Ludlow Fair…’)
In the assembly, the feeling and meaning of the poem are interpreted in the form of a story – an encounter between a young person and an old man who’s remembering his own youth.
The poem itself is probably challenging for primary children, but there’s no harm in that. It’s probably best not to analyse it, but just to read it well and let the children pick up on the elegiac mood. If they want to talk about it later, then there’s plenty in it to discuss.
- The poem can be found online in various places such as here.
- You’ll need to be prepared to read it aloud. A little of it at the start, all of it at the end.
Read the first verse of the poem.
That’s the first verse of a poem by an English poet called Alfred Edward Housman. He was born near Bromsgrove, and went to school in Birmingham and in Bromsgrove. He became a professor of Latin and Greek and wrote poetry in his spare time, and his poems were his way of expressing his feelings about life and the countryside. The poem I read to you is certainly about life and about the countryside, and about remembering the past. In that first verse, Alfred Housman tells of an old man remembering the May Day Fair at Ludlow in Shropshire. And the way he remembers it, the flowers always used to bloom on that day.
In a way, although even the whole poem is quite short, it tells a longer story that perhaps goes something like this. This story is about an old man remembering, too. His feelings are like the feelings of the man in the poem.
Maria had been to the shops for her mum. It was a long way to the shops, because they lived in a tower block with no supermarket nearby, and, because they didn’t have much money, Maria had to walk each day to the cheapest supermarket to get what they wanted just to see them through.
Maria’s bag was heavy from her shopping, and as she crossed the little park that was on her way home, she flopped down on a bench for a rest.
There was an old man already sitting on the bench. Maria hardly noticed him, and she sat at the opposite end of the bench. The old man, though, looked at her and smiled. Maria felt a bit scared, because she knew not to talk to strangers. But she needed the rest, so she stayed where she was.
‘Hello,’ said the old man. Maria looked, and she realised that she’d seen the old man before. He often sat on this bench, and she knew that her mum spoke to him sometimes, so she decided it was OK in this public place to answer the old man politely.
‘Hello,’ she said.
The old man said, ‘I know your mum. You’re not from round here, are you? You’re from another country.’
‘Yes,’ said Maria. ‘We are’.
‘Well,’ said the old man. ‘I’ve lived here all my life. And I’ve been coming to this park all my life. I like it here. I like it at this time of the year, when the flowers are in bloom. The council keep it nice, and after the winter it really cheers me up. Do you have parks in your country?’
‘Yes,’ said Maria. ‘And we have nice countryside. But I like this park too.’
They were both quiet for a while. Then the old man spoke again.
‘You know,’ said the old man. ‘When I was a young man, once a year me and my friends would come through this park on our way to the fairground. There was a special May Day Fair every year, and we’d really look forward to it. We’d get dressed up and come through here, laughing, and sometimes with bottles of beer in our pockets because they didn’t sell beer in the ballroom in those days. What great days they were.’
‘Was the park still the same then?’ said Maria.
‘Well, what I do know is that when we walked through to the fair the sun always shone, and the blossom was always out on the trees. Maybe there were bad weather days, or days when the blossom had blown away, but I don’t remember any. I just remember sunshine and colour and the scent of blossom.’
Then they were quiet again for a while.
‘You know,’ said the old man eventually. ‘I’m about the only one of that gang left now. See that church over there? There’s a graveyard there, and some of the lads are in there. I shall go and say hello to them later, and think about the old days.’
‘Is there still a fair?’ said Maria.
‘Oh yes,’ said the old man. ‘But I don’t go. A whole lot of new people go there. But you know they’re still like we were in a way. Still having a good time. Some of them still come through here, looking forward to enjoying themselves. The town changes, but the people really stay the same.’
‘You have lots of memories,’ said Maria.
‘You will have them too,’ said the old man. ‘Everything you do now is giving you your memories, and they’re precious memories. You’ll have some special ones – of your old country, and your new one, and your family. And you may even have a memory of meeting an old man in the park one day.’
‘Right,’ said Maria. And they both laughed together again.
Maria stood up to make her way home with her heavy bag. She turned to smile at the old man, and then she was gone on her way.
The old man closed his eyes and smiled. He knew Maria and her mum were having a hard time of it, but he’d had a hard time too when he was young, and everything had turned out fine. He knew just from talking to Maria that she’d make a good life for herself in her new country.
‘So it’s May again,’ he said out loud. ‘I’ve made it for another year. And life doesn’t seem so bad. Now I’ll go and see the lads.’
He planted his stick firmly on the path, and slowly got to his feet. Then he made his way across the park towards the churchyard.
There’s a very powerful word that fits what we’ve just heard. It’s ‘continuity’. It describes the sense that although many things around us change, there’s a lot that stays the same. It’s really people who provide continuity, handing on ideas and feelings and beliefs from one generation to another as years go by. In our story, the old man was picking up his memories from the past and passing some of them on to Maria. But more than that, he was encouraging Maria to have the same feeling of continuity with her own past and her own future.
Now we’ll hear the whole of A.E. Housman’s poem. I’ll read it slowly and carefully. Don’t worry too much about each word. See if you can see some of the ideas and feelings that were in our story.
Read the poem.
Lord, we thank you for memories and for the continuity that links people together across time. May we respect our own memories, and those of other people, so that they continue to live in our hearts and minds.
The world changes, but people stay the same.
- Information about Ludlow.
- Housman information.
The First of May
The orchards half the wayFrom home to Ludlow fairFlowered on the first of MayIn Mays when I was there;And seen from stile or turningThe plume of smoke would showWhere fires were burning
That went out long ago.
The plum broke forth in green,The pear stood high and snowed,My friends and I betweenWould take the Ludlow road;Dressed to the nines and drinkingAnd light in heart and limb,And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
Between the trees in flowerNew friends at fairtime treadThe way where Ludlow towerStands planted on the dead.Our thoughts, a long while after,They think, our words they say;Theirs now’s the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
Ay, yonder lads are yetThe fools that we were then;For oh, the sons we getAre still the sons of men.The sumless tale of sorrowIs all unrolled in vain:May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010
About the author: Gerald Haigh