What is the major theme of "Binsey Poplars"?

The major theme of "Binsey Poplars" is grief over the destruction of nature. Through focusing on trees that were cut down, the speaker expresses their sorrow that humans fail to appreciate natural beauty and resources until they are gone.

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In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Binsey Poplars,” the first-person speaker expresses their sorrow about a group of trees that have been cut down. Hopkins uses this specific example to make a larger point about human beings and their tendency to take things for granted. The speaker’s grief over the hewn trees extends into a discussion of the connection between nature and human perception. They equate the destruction of the poplars or aspens to injury to a person’s eye.

A close connection is drawn between beauty and regret, giving the poem a melancholic tone. The speaker praises the natural beauty of the trees, not just singly but as a group that formed “airy cages,” and whose leaves provided shade as they “[q]uelled or quenched … the … sun.” They associate the trees with pleasant experiences walking in sandals along a river-side meadow. At the poem’s end, the speaker locates this “sweet especial” location within a larger “rural scene.”

The speaker’s anguish over the trees’ destruction is expressed through varied repetitions of “all felled.” The collective unit of the trees, by extension, can be all of nature that is threatened by reckless human actions. The speaker calls attention to the lack of foresight preceding decisions to destroy such loveliness: “if we but knew what we do.” The delicacy of nature and the resulting offense to one’s vision is likened to a physical attack on the eye. Hopkins uses the term “unselve” to indicate that humans are part of the natural world, so damaging nature is the same as injuring oneself.

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