The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars” contains two irregular stanzas of eight and sixteen lines which mourn the loss of a stand of poplars to the woodsman’s axe. These remembered trees, which are addressed in the first line, grew along the bank of the Thames River as it meandered from Oxford to the small village of Binsey, a charming walk of two miles that Hopkins often followed as a student at Balliol College, Oxford. The Thames, sometimes called the Isis in the Oxford area, is very narrow in the Binsey area; hence Hopkins recalls the slow-moving water and “weed-winding bank.” The poet depicts the trees as “airy cages” that captured the sun in their leaves and supported a child dangling a sandal over the water, then reports their utter destruction, with none spared.

The second stanza chastizes humanity for its destructive impact on nature, which the poet calls “country” and personifies as both a young girl and an eyeball. Just as pricking an eyeball renders it sightless and unable to perform its proper function, even minor alterations to nature, including ones intended to aid it can destroy it and render it selfless. By investing nature and the Binsey poplars with “self,” Hopkins exemplifies one of his most important concepts, that of the “inscape” of all living things, a sort of fluid DNA, which is made dynamic by the “instress” of God in the world. Hopkins emphasizes that it takes so little to irreparably alter nature; just ten or twelve strokes create a landscape that is unrecognizable and make the original pristine state unimaginable to those who come after. The last three lines celebrate the beauty and tranquility of the “sweet especial rural scene” before the trees were felled in 1879, and perhaps captures the “emotion recollected in tranquility,” which the poet William Wordsworth, a poetic mentor of Hopkins, espouses.

Although Hopkins rarely returned to Oxford after his graduation, he became a Roman Catholic there under the influence of John Henry Cardinal Newman. This intense religious experience, combined with a search for poetic expression, helped him evolve his ideas of inscape and instress. During his years of preparation for the Jesuit priesthood, he made a deep study of Duns Scotus, a medieval theologian, who laid great stress on individuality and uniqueness in each person and all nature. “Binsey Poplars” reflects a synthesis of Hopkins’s intense religious faith, his deep study of Duns Scotus, his growing understanding of inscape and instress, his happy memories of walks on the tow path of the Thames from Oxford to Binsey, and his horror at learning that his beloved poplars had been cut down. These ingredients combine to make “Binsey Poplars” an intense poem that both celebrates and mourns.