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.
Perhaps because Hopkins’s poetry was not published until 1918, under the aegis of his friend and classmate Robert Bridges, who was then poet laureate, his work has often been seen as more modern than its Victorian dates of composition would indicate. Indeed, many twentieth century poets cite Hopkins as a strong influence on them, chiefly because of his experiments with “sprung rhythm” (his term) and his compressed imagery. Hopkins developed the idea of sprung rhythm, in which each poetic foot includes at least one stressed syllable and a varying number of unstressed ones; this form gives Hopkins’s poetry more elasticity than traditional metric schemes while affording it a form not available in free verse. The indentations and overall shape of “Binsey Poplars,” especially in the first stanza, suggest the number of stresses in each line.
The first stanza is written with the eye of an artist...
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as Hopkins describes not only the trees themselves but also the negative space created by their branches, quelling and quenching the sun, which appears to leap as its angle changes and the leaves move. Negative space is suggested again in the image of a child swinging his legs and “sandalled” feet over the water from the branch of a tree, thereby creating a shadow in the river, which can be seen to sink or swim.
Hopkins uses end-rhyme, interior rhymes, and alliteration to tie the poem together. Many critics have noted that he uses more alliteration than any poet writing in English since the Anglo-Saxons, and this observation is certainly true of “Binsey Poplars,” as may be seen in phrases such as “fresh and following folded rank” and “dandled a sandalled shadow.” Hopkins, who had studied Old English, also shows its influence in his choice of such forceful words as “quell,” “felled,” “hack,” “rack,” “hew,” and “delve.” It is worth noting that all these words suggest the destruction or repression of natural beauty.
The second stanza introduces an unusual metaphor that compares the effect of cutting down the trees to pricking an eyeball; the eye, which is such a miraculous instrument of sight, can be rendered functionless with one prick, just as ten or twelve hacks deprive the rural scene of its identity. Again the idea of inscape is made manifest in the “self” of the trees and of their place in the landscape; the beautiful inscape of the Binsey waterway is “unselved” (robbed of itself) by the felling of the poplars.
Binsey is the site of an Anglo-Saxon holy well dedicated to St. Margaret and was often the destination of religious pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Binsey may have been a place of mending in earlier days, but Hopkins makes clear that modern efforts to mend the landscape only end it; once more Anglo-Saxon words such as “end” and “stroke” emphasize this loss with harsh sounds.