“Binsey Poplars” is a poem whose meaning functions on several levels. Clearly it is a poem that examines nature from an ecological point of view. The often heartless industrialization of the nineteenth century prompted Hopkins and others to contemplate what was being lost to cutting and clearing as well as to improvement schemes that did more harm than good. The lovely rural quality of the Oxford environs was being threatened by bustling commerce on England’s waterways, which led to the felling of the poplars. Hopkins notes how quickly and unexpectedly such destruction in the name of progress can take place and sees the irony in the finality of such hasty, heedless action. Nothing can bring the Binsey poplars back: They are gone forever.
Just as the poplars are gone, so are the happy days Hopkins spent at Oxford, days when he absorbed the beauty of the “sweet especial rural scene” along with the theology of Duns Scotus and discovered his own Roman Catholic faith and vocation to the priesthood. Because his life bore Hopkins far away from Oxford, it became a more special place in his imagination than it might have been had he stayed there. The news of the felling of his beloved poplars in 1879 hit him hard and led to the meditation on his loss, which became “Binsey Poplars.” “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” written in the same period of his life, also celebrates the connection of Oxford, the rural scene and his growing awareness of inscape, while “Spring and Fall, to a Young Child,” written shortly thereafter, recognizes that the death of natural things foreshadows the demise of the individual. These three poems form a trio of Hopkins’s early ideas concerning the connection of God’s power and the beauty of nature and humanity’s ability to both appreciate and destroy this perfection.
Because “Binsey Poplars” is both accessible and rich, it makes a good introduction to Hopkins’s ideas of inscape and instress, sprung rhythm, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and alliteration. In the poem the reader experiences the mind of the poet as it grows and tests its wings. “Binsey Poplars” is well worth study for its own sake and as an introduction to Hopkins’s more difficult poems, such as “The Windhover,” “Carrion Comfort,” and “No Worst, There Is None.”
While “Binsey Poplars” mourns the loss of the “sweet especial rural scene” that existed before the cutting of the trees, the poem itself restores the image of the trees to the imagination. The airy cages quelling and quenching “in leaves the leaping sun,” the sandaled foot whose shadow casts its reflection on the river, and the “weed-winding bank” are all restored to the reader in the poem. The rural scene unselved by the heedlessness of humanity is re-created by the art of the poet.