Binsey Poplars

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Poplars near Binsey, Oxfordshire. Not the actual poplars that Hopkins wrote about in his poem. Port Meadow is just beside Binsey. The Thames divide them. So it seems that these poplars where very very close, but is not the actual ones. After-comers cannot guess the beauty been...

The Jesuit priest/poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is remembered for his exquisite use of language and the depth of his poetic regard. Binsey Poplars was written in 1879 in response to his shocking discovery that a favourite stand of aspen trees which he had long enjoyed during his days at Oxford had fallen to the axe. At another level, the poem is a lament for the destruction of the natural world without thought for the beauties that it holds and without regard for the blighting of the landscape itself and of our minds when we behold such devastation. Hopkins is acutely aware of the irreversibility of such assaults upon the natural world, and laments the loss to future generations of the mystic entrancement evoked by scenes of natural beauty. Though written over 130 years ago, Binsey Poplars is presciently anthemic of the present day Green movement and of environmentalism more generally. The music that accompanies this piece was written and performed (multi-track) by Nico Di Stefano. A CD quality mp3 audio file is available for download here.


Binsey Poplars
Felled 1879
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My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, all are 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.

O if we knew but what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch her, being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even when 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.

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In order to better understand Manley Hopkins' sigh of grief, it is helpful to remember that Binsey was originally called Thorney, from a profusion of thorns around it; and it afterwards took the name of Binsey, signifying the Island of Prayer, from its being a retreat of nuns and a great resort of pilgrims (ref). To a man whose sensitive mind was steeped in the Christian faith, thorns as such would possess the subtle power of reminding him of the suffering of Christ, the Redeemer. The priest and poet Manley Hopkins must have felt this.

It is also helpful to remember the fact that the ‘true’ black poplar is one of the rarest trees in Britain. One of her most fascinating native trees, the black poplar has a deep historical connection with the English landscape. But with an ageing population of sparsely distributed trees, there are now very few truly wild black poplars left in the country (ref). - So that with the poplars gone, something quintessentially English would have been lost too. Manley Hopkins understood all this and despaired...(Ed.)

Submission/Introduction: Vincent Di Stefano, Dante's Ghost. Photo: Binsey Poplars from Port Meadow, January by Elizabeth Moriarty (flickr). Caption: Catholic Ponderer.

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