A summary of a classic Hopkins poem
‘Binsey Poplars’ is one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best-known lyrics. It was written in 1879 shortly after he revisited the small hamlet of Godstow near Oxford, a few miles north of Binsey, to find that ‘the aspens the lined the river [Thames] are everyone felled’. Here’s this wonderful poem followed by a few words of analysis.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew –
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
In summary, ‘Binsey Poplars’ is a lament for these aspen trees which have been felled. The poem is divided into two stanzas: the first addresses the felling of the poplar trees themselves, and the second ponders man’s habit of destroying nature in broader terms.
Hopkins begins by lamenting – in typically Hopkinsian terms, with plenty of repetition and alliteration, and his trademark ‘sprung rhythm’ – that not a single tree has been spared. ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’. Six words, but only three different words: ‘felled’ comes at us with the force of an axe, quickly chopping down these trees one after the other. Hopkins draws attention to the trees’ interaction with the ‘leaping sun’: their ‘airy cages’ both ‘quelled’ and ‘quenched’ the sunlight – that is, both softened (with their leaves and branches) the force of the sun’s glare and, on occasion, blocked out the sun’s rays altogether. The trees, Hopkins tells us, ‘dandled a sandalled / Shadow’ that either ‘swam or sank’ in the river (i.e. the shadow either appeared on the surface of the water or on the riverbed). The idea of the trees having ‘dandled a sandalled / Shadow’ is, with trademark Hopkinsian internal rhyme, an idiosyncratic metaphor that likens the trees’ branches to somebody hanging their feet over the edge of the river, their sandals casting a shadow in the water. There is something serene and calm – and calming – about the poplars. But they are now gone, ‘felled, are all felled’.
The second stanza then contemplates this destruction of nature and how it is, in many ways, typical of mankind’s behaviour: we ‘hew’ and ‘delve’ (fracking, anyone?), we ‘Hack and rack the growing green!’ (There we get internal rhyme and alliteration in the same line.) Hopkins likens this wanton destruction to the way in which the delicate wonder of nature that is the eyeball (‘this sleek and seeing ball’) can, with a simple ‘prick’ from a pin or needle be turned into ‘no eye at all’. This analogy is obviously designed to strike us at our very core, to hit us right between the eyes (or rather in our very eyes): who is not extremely delicate and queasy around the idea of their eyes being harmed? It reminds us that our responsibility to look after nature as a whole should be as keenly felt. It also likens the organs of sight, the eyes, to the beauty of the trees: one enabled us to enjoy the other, and both are capable of being snuffed out in seconds. ‘After-comers cannot guess the beauty been’: the people who come after the trees were felled would never know what beauty had once been there.
‘Binsey Poplars’ was not published until 1918, like so much of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s work. Shortly afterwards, the poplars were replanted. In 2004 they were felled again, only to be replanted. As the Bodleian website notes, ‘The poem formed part of the successful campaign to replant the trees.’ The poem is one of Hopkins’s more popular poems, perhaps because, relative to many of his other great poems, it is easy to follow its main message. But its language nevertheless demands careful attention and analysis. Like the poplars themselves, ‘Binsey Poplars’ endures.