Analysis of Poem "Binsey Poplars" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Updated on January 31, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins | Source

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Binsey Poplars

Binsey Poplars is a lament Hopkins wrote after revisiting a river scene in 1879, close to where he had studied when at Oxford fourteen years earlier. He was shocked to find that a row of aspen trees had been felled, the wood being used for the boom industry of the time, the railways.

Hopkins was clearly saddened by this, in his eyes, environmental vandalism. It was a sacrilege, an affront to his God, and he set about venting his emotions in a short yet poignant poem.

  • What is unusual about this particular poem is the absence of any direct mention of divinity, which is present in many of his other poems.
  • Some scholars do however refer to the opening lines of the first and second stanzas - My aspens dear and O if we but knew what we do - as evidence for the speaker acting as a Christ-like figure. The very personal My and the parallel with Christ's statement on the cross - Forgive them Father for they know not what they do (Luke 23, v 24).

Published in 1918 the poem is full of sprung rhythm, a metric invention Hopkins developed which he thought was closer to common speech and also held more musical energy.

  • There's no doubting his love for and study of phonetics. Hopkins delved deep into the different sounds words make, the quality of the syllable and the weight of the word in the line.

This highly technical poet wrote in the posthumously published 1918 book:

'Sprung rhythm is measured by feet of from one to four syllables, stressed on the first....and any number of weak or slack syllables may be used for effect...any two stresses may follow one another running or be divided by one, two or three slack syllables.'

  • Basically, what Hopkins sought was a change from the steady, plodding iambic verses common at the time he was writing. He called this kind of poetry the same and tame and so concentrated on his own unique metrics to create texture and unusual music.
  • He certainly did things differently. His use of invented words, alliterative and repeated language within the framework of a new rhythm, taken along by a startlingly varied syntax, began to stir up the world of poetry just around the time of the first world war.

Unfortunately for Hopkins, recognition came posthumously because he died in 1889, aged 45 years of age. The devout Catholic, teacher and carer, had managed to publish only a handful of poems, known to a select few.

It was only when his long term friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges published the first book (in 1918) that his name and work came to the surface.

These days he is generally held in high esteem, and his poems have become truly popular, despite the challenge of sprung rhythm, unfamiliar diction and quirky, inventive word play.

  • Binsey Poplars is still relevant today and will more than likely go on to become increasingly known and appreciated. Not only is it a fine example of Hopkins' skill as a wordsmith, but the poem is also seen as a commentary on the current battle to save the environment from further mindless destruction by humans.

By creatively expressing the frustration and sadness he must have felt within when revisiting the river in Godstow, Oxfordshire, Hopkins throws light on a cutting edge subject humankind will be forced to reckon with for centuries to come.

Analysis of Binsey Poplars

Binsey Poplars, with its 24 lines in two stanzas, is a poem that carries within its peculiar and unique rhythms, tragedy, beauty, sensitivity and tension. Hopkins, on a visit to a riverbank he knew from his student days, was upset to find a row of mature aspens cut down, the wood used for brake blocks for the railway industry.

He felt this was wanton destruction, an attack on nature and the divine energy at work within nature. Through poetry he was able to redress the balance, to restore the divine element and in so doing come to terms with his own internal struggles.

This poem demands much from the reader primarily because it has a signature sprung rhythm - Hopkins' own idea of what the stress pattern in a line should be, reflective of everyday speech.

It also has words invented by the poet, such as unselve which is close to another word Hopkins liked to use, inscape, the unique divine nature of a living thing.

Hopkins was also a lover of sound and experimented with stress patterns in order to perfect the phonetics in his poetry, how the various syllables interacted to produce the musical effects he wanted.

This poem is an excellent example of the way in which different sounds, phonemes, work together within Hopkins' unique framework.

  • The iambic opening line is immediately personal...note the first word My...and dear..a clear term of affection for this tree lover of a speaker. The airy cages - the branches of the trees - quelled, that is, softened or subdued the light from the lively sun.

Note the repeated quelled which teams up with quenched to produce an alliterative effect (with leaves and leaping) which together with the trochaic and abrupt beat juxtaposed against the mix of long vowels, is the start of an unpredictable rhythm.

  • The third line further adds to the sense of wrong. Not only is it odd, with thrice repeated felled, all stressed, but it introduces drama into the poem. The speaker is obviously upset.

More alliteration fills line four, starting with an unusual Of...and the feathery sound of the f, soft and perhaps refreshing, dominates.

After only four lines it becomes apparent to the reader that this is a poem with special sounds within a syncopated rhythm.

And the introduction of enjambment adds to the sense of tension as the reader, having got through the alliterative gauntlet, faces the first short line, line five, stark in its single syllable words.

Not a tree has been spared, they've all been cut down.

Internal rhyme adds interest to line six as the speaker suggests that the shadows within the trees were dandled, that is moved up and down, as if a sandal was being dipped into or close to, the water.

  • The enjambment means that lines 5-7 have to be negotiated almost in one breath. To make complete sense of these lines the reader has to step back and think through the visuals. OK, the trees dandle the shadows created by the leaping sun which the airy cages (of branches) handle - but is it the shadows that swim or sink on the river bank? Yes, it is.

What a beautifully wrought scene - evocative visuals enhanced by the hushed musicality and flow of wind-wandering and weed-winding - unfortunately lost forever.

  • So the first stanza tells us that these trees are gone, the scene ruined by human interference. The second stanza will reveal the consequences of such mindless actions.

Hopkins perhaps couldn't resist introducing a biblical connection, albeit tenuous. The second stanza's first line reminds us of Christ on the cross and his words to his father asking for forgiveness for the ignorant ones who condemned him.

Whilst there is no direct forgiveness in this poem there is a strong spiritual message hinted at in the opening lines of this stanza - the rhyming couplet reinforces the idea that messing around with the natural environment, chopping green things down - can result in disaster because beauty is lost, and beauty comes from divine sources.

The analogy is with the seeing eye which can be devastated with just one prick - sight will be lost - a small action brings huge consequences. This is an interesting parallel because it suggests that those who thoughtlessly destroy nature lack vision, and those actions might bring irreversible damage.

The speaker sees nature as feminine, it is tender and fragile, and even if the attempts to help her are well intentioned, things might backfire and all beauty will be lost.

  • The syntax in this second stanza is a challenge. Punctuation includes a dash, an exclamation mark, a colon, commas lurking here and there - the reader does have to negotiate the lines carefully, especially with so much enjambment around.

And line nineteen suggests that generations to come (After-comers) won't be able to witness the beauty if everything is chopped down. Note the absence of the contraction that's (that has) between beauty and been. Hopkins going for alliteration again, to keep the rhythm as he wanted.

The last five lines involve much repetition, too much some critics think, but there is a very interesting word to counteract - unselve - which we'll look at shortly.

The speaker gets down to details and suggests that only ten or twelve chopping actions, strokes of havoc, are enough to cause mayhem and bring the trees down. Hard consonants ring out. It doesn't take much to undo nature's work.

  • To unselve means to get rid of the spiritual individuality of the trees. Hopkins believed that all living things had a unique sense of self (the inscape) and that this was divinely created.

And so to the end, three short lines that repeat rhyme, underlining the damage done to the countryside, the spoiling of the scene, the loss of beauty. It's as if the poet is trying to compensate for the felled, the felled, the felled, by reinstating over and over, the lost rural scene.

It's an ending that works for most readers but is deemed over the top by some. The trick is to see this poem as purely lyrical, a song lyric, able to deal effectively with repeated words.

More Analysis of Binsey Poplars

Binsey Poplars is full of unusual language, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, sprung rhythm and repetition.

Metre (meter in American English)

Hopkins developed his own unique sprung rhythm, based on a much older metric tradition with roots in Greek song and Welsh poetry. He wanted an alternative stress pattern within his lines - one that was closer to 'the natural rhythm of speech' so he said - which meant that he avoided writing poetry that was all iambic pentameter.

Sprung rhythm relies on certain syllables of a line being stressed, with non stressed syllables following, either dividing the stresses or together. But it is a flexible system and takes some getting used to, because of the language used and the syntax that carries it along.

Basically, this poem has lines that range from dimeters to hexameters (two feet to six) and has spondees and trochees here and there which inject life into the rhythm.

Let's take a closer look at some of the lines:

My asp / ens dear, / whose air / y cag / es quelled, (iambic pentameter)

Quelled or / quenched in / leaves the / leaping / sun, (trochees + outride)

All felled, / felled, / are all felled; (spondee + stressed + anapaest)

So it is that Hopkins starts with traditional iambic feet before leaving that behind for his preferred livelier rhythms.

Note the necessity of alliteration and repetition (as well as consonance and assonance) - all working to produce the abrupt and bouncy sounds that is sprung rhythm.

What becomes clear when reading this poem is the musicality of the lines. The combination of long and short vowels, the alliterative effects, the pauses, the enjambment - they come together to produce a beautiful creation.

Rhyme

This poem has mostly strong full rhyme in a rhyme scheme abacbacc eefgghhfgifiifff but there are slant rhymes employed in:

lines 2 and 5 (sun/one)

lines 1,3, and 6 (quelled/felled/sandalled)

Rhyme tends to bond and tighten the lines and this is certainly the case in the second stanza where couplets fully engage the senses before a final triplet underlines the whole poem.

The consonance, assonance, internal rhyme and vowel echo runs throughout the first stanza:

quelled/quelled/felled/following.

dear/leaves/leaping/weed.

dandled/sandalled.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

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