Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough,
Right off the bat, we're talking about… yep, trees—no surprise there as this is a poem called "Loveliest of Trees."
In fact, the speaker begins by talking about the loveliest of trees. For him, that's a cherry tree.
The speaker isn't describing just any old cherry tree, however, but one that is now blooming.
Note that he doesn't just say "the cherry tree is blooming," but rather that it is "hung with bloom along the bough." This is a pretty little phrase, but 'tis a wee bit odd.
The image is this: a cherry tree that is blooming, only the speaker imagines the blooms hanging along the branches ("bough") of the tree, almost as if they were ornaments on a Christmas tree. (Check out an example of this right here.)
Now, A.E. Housman was a British poet, and in England (yes they do grow there) cherry trees usually bloom in April and May.
Since we know this, and since we can reasonably assume that this poem takes place in England, we can also surmise that our poem takes place late spring.
We generally think of springtime as a rebirth, a new beginning, the time when the cold, death-like winter months give way to blooming flowers and warmer weather.
Let's read on to see if that time of year holds any significance for our speaker…
And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.
Apparently we have to wait to learn more about just why the speaker is fixating on these cherry trees because in the last two lines of the first stanza he's still describing them.
He's also being very alliterative, what with all the W words hanging out in this couplet. (Check out "Sound Check" for more on the sounds in this poem.)
The word "ride" can refer both to a ride on horseback that the speaker is taking, or it can just be a noun describing whatever path he is on. Either way, this cherry tree is "standing" along the ride and "wearing white."
Obviously trees don't "wear" clothes the same way people do, so this is a textbook case of personification.
Even though this is a springtime poem, the white blossoms remind us of the snow of winter, but also of purity, cleanliness, innocence—that type of stuff.
Now, we've already determined when this poem is taking place, but the speaker gives us an additional indication of the time of year with that word "Eastertide." If you've noticed that "Eastertide" sounds a lot like "Easter time," then… yeah, you've pretty much hit the nail on the head.
"Eastertide" is a word used in the Christian calendar to describe the time that includes Easter Sunday and the seven weeks right after it (leading up to Pentecost). (You can read a little blurb about it right here if you like.)
So, not only do we now have a more specific description of the time of year, but also a reference to Jesus Christ. In Christianity, Jesus is the son of God, who was crucified by the Romans around 33 C.E. and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.
The reference to Eastertide thus reiterates an idea of rebirth, but it also makes us think of things like death and sacrifice.
Whew—there's definitely a whole lot going on in these lines, isn't there?
Just taking a quick look here, it appears this poem is written mostly in a pattern called "iambic tetrameter."
Don't freak out at the terminology, though. You can read a little more about these over at "Form and Meter."
You can also read more there about this poem's rhyme scheme, which so far seems pretty simple: lines 1 and 2 rhyme, and so do lines 3 and 4.