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Binsey Poplars, felled 1879
Gerard Manley Hopkins,
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 & river & 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 só 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.
We have met Gerard Manley Hopkins—poet and Jesuit priest—a couple of times in this series. In his poem “God’s Grandeur,” which we read back in April, we saw the strong ecological bent of Hopkins’ poetry, which comes through in this poem as well. “Binsey Poplars” is a short lyric, an elegy for a grove of aspen trees.
In the first part of the poem, Hopkins evokes the distinctive beauty of the aspen tree, a type of poplar tree with fluttering leaves (which appear with some frequency in English poetry!). Hopkins describes them as “airy cages” that “quelled” or “quenched” the “leaping sun,” beautifully evoking the way the sun shines through the trees. The Latin name of these trees, populus tremula, arises from the distinctive movement of the aspen’s leaves, and Hopkins evokes that playful movement in the poem, describing how the trees “dandled a sandalled shadow.”
Even as he evokes their beauty, we sense the poet’s shock and sadness. His “aspens dear” are “felled, felled, are all felled”: the repetition of the word suggests the blows of the axe which cut them down. Hopkins laments, “if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew.” Nature, he says, is “tender,” and her “being” is “slender” – nature has the delicacy of an eye, and is as easily harmed or destroyed.
Why does Hopkins mourn the loss of these trees so much? Aren’t there still plenty of aspens in England? In a journal entry written about six years before “Binsey Poplars,” Hopkins wrote: “The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
That word “inscape” is one of Hopkins’ coinages. It could be defined as the distinctive inner nature or shape of a thing – its uniqueness. That’s why he laments the Binsey poplars—because even though there are many trees left, there’s nothing quite like those particular trees – “after-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” Just ten or twelve strokes of the axe and the trees are gone. Worse than gone, they are “unselved,” another Hopkins coinage which points to the destruction of their distinctive identity.
The poem ends with a series of repetitive phrases—“the sweet especial scene / Rural scene, a rural scene, / Sweet especial rural scene.” That repetition has a musical quality, almost like a song fading away. The words are simple, but they highlight, once again, the reality that something unique, something “especial,” has vanished in the destruction of this row of aspen trees.
I chose this poem at this time because Hopkins so beautifully captures the real sadness we experience when we witness the destruction of the natural world. A few weeks ago, the row of elm trees along Marion Street, planted about the time of the Cathedral’s dedication, was cut down. The trees had to be removed because of Dutch elm disease, but knowing that did not make it much easier to see them taken away. On a much larger scale, we have all experienced a sense of loss at the destruction caused by the wildfires across the west coast—millions of acres destroyed; trees and animals gone; countless “inscapes,” as Hopkins would call them, lost to us.
Hopkins looked at the world with an artist’s keen awareness of the beauty around him. In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis says that this faculty of seeing the beautiful in nature is not tangential to the ecological movement – it is key to protecting the earth and its creatures. Pope Francis writes: “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change,” he says, we all need to learn to see the world with a poet’s eyes.



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