In March of 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a parish priest’s assistant in Oxford, England. It was familiar territory for him, having studied Greek and Latin at Oxford from 1862-1867. In wandering north of the city he came to the little village of Binsey, with which he had long been familiar. There he found to his horror that the long line of tall trees he was accustomed to seeing along the River Thames was gone; all had been cut down. He was so moved by this that he wrote the following poem:
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 and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
Hopkins, in speaking of the vanished trees, says Their “airy cages,” meaning their intertwined leaf-covered branches, sometimes made the bright sunlight more subdued (“quelled”), sometimes blocked the light entirely. By “leaping sun” he may mean the illusion caused by the moving of branches and fluttering of leaves, which makes the light seen through them seem to leap from place to place; or he may mean simply the sun rising in the East and passing over the line of trees (they were oriented in a northwesterly direction) to sink again in the West.
Not one of the “fresh and following folded rank” of trees was spared, he tells us. By “following folded rank” he means simply the line of trees with their individual heights and gaps between them making a vertical “fold”; Not one was spared, not one that “dandled [“dangled”] a sandalled shadow.” He seems to liken the trees to a person dangling a sandalled foot lightly against the water, he may mean simply the “footprint” of the shadow on shore and water, or he even may, as some say (though it seems rather unlikely), be referring to the interlacing shadows of branches, likened to the lacings on a sandal. He says the shadow “swam or sank on meadow and river…and bank,” meaning the shadow appeared both on the surface and beneath the surface of the water, as well as rising or falling with the little swells and depressions in the land.
When he calls the bank “wind-wandering” and “weed-winding,” we may wonder if he intends “wind-” in the first case to have a short “i,” meaning “breeze,” or if he intends it with a long “i” (meaning “meandering”) as used in “weed-winding.” I think he means “wind” as in “breeze,” — signifiying not only that the wind wanders along the bank but also that the bank wanders like the wind. And when he says “weed-winding bank,” he seems to again use a double meaning, signifying the weeds winding (tangling) on the bank, as well as the bank wandering like a weed (the Thames curves at Binsey). We should not be surprised at the vagueness of Hopkins, who seems to often leave us with multiple and intertwining possibilities of meaning.
Then Hopkins laments,
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:
“Oh,” he says, if we only knew what we do when we delve (“dig) or hew (“cut”) Nature, when we “hack and rack the growing green.” Hopkins uses the word “rack” here in an unusual sense that is based more on its meaning as a noun (“destruction, ruin”) than on its usual meaning as a verb.
The rural countryside is so tender that to touch “her,” given that she/it is so “slender” (meaning “delicate, sensitive” here) is as risky as pricking the smooth ball of the human eye, which can destroy it. So even if we mean to mend (“repair”) Nature, we often instead merely do harm when we dig or excavate. There are abundant examples of the results of interfering with Nature, some of them well intended, some not — in the history of human interaction with the natural environment, and we see them still in the daily news.
And then, having altered Nature with hacking and digging,
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
Those who come after cannot guess how beautiful the countryside had been before humans got at it. Only ten or twelve strokes of havoc (“destruction, disorder”), ten or twelve strokes of an axe, can “unselve” (un-self, “take away the character of, ruin”) the sweet especial (“special, pre-eminent”) rural country scene. And Hopkins emphasizes his recollection of the beauty that had been at Binsey but was no more by repeating,
“Sweet especial rural scene.”
“Binsey Poplars” is one of those Hopkins poems that is rather simple in subject but complicated by his unusual use of language. Nonetheless, in spite of his occasional vagueness and implied multiple meanings, the overall sense of the poem is quite clear, and we can easily relate to his feelings on the matter.
Nonetheless, we should be aware that though Hopkins knew poplars well poetically, he did not know them well botanically. European poplars (Populus tremula) decline and decay within a period of about 100-150 years, requiring replacement by replanting if one wants to maintain an avenue of them. In fact not long after Hopkins passed through the apparent devastation of the felled Binsey poplars, they were replanted. By 2004 the poplars at Binsey had again begun to decline, and so replanting was begun again. So in this case, the “sweet especial rural scene” was more resilient than Hopkins knew.
That does not, however, obviate the point of his poem, which is that humans should be more sensitive to Nature, to natural beauty, and to what is done to it. We can see what happens when humans abuse Nature in countless cases of destruction and disaster that are immeasurably more difficult to mend than the cutting of the poplars at Binsey.