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Have you ever really stopped to smell the roses? We don't mean putting your smartphone down to take a break from all the Internet trolls. We mean noticing the actual natural world around you—the trees, the streams, and, yes, the roses.
If you have, well good for you. Paying attention to nature is not only relaxing, but it also broadens your perspective and makes you a more sensitive and aware Earthling. Of course, the flip side of that experience is the way you feel when some piece of the natural world, maybe a piece you've grown familiar with and fond of, gets torn down to make way for "progress."
That kind of downer is precisely what Gerard Manley Hopkins experienced in March of 1879. That's when he decided to take a little nature walk to lift his spirits. Hopkins, who was working as a priest in Oxford at the time, strolled along just northwest of the city, toward the scenic little village of Binsey.
We imagine that all was going just swimmingly for our poet when—whammo—a terrible sight greeted him. A stand of poplar trees that once stood in a meadow along the banks of the river Thames had been cut down. He was so upset by the loss that he went home and wrote "Binsey Poplars," a lament for the fallen trees and for the mindlessness that drives humanity to permanently and irrevocably change our natural environment.
The poem itself didn't see the light of day until 1918, nearly thirty years after Hopkins passed away from typhoid fever. As an ordained Catholic priest, Hopkins was conflicted about whether or not he should be writing poetry, and he even quit writing altogether for a period of time. We're glad that he kept with it, though, and that his work eventually found an audience. Today, he's known as one of the premier poets of the Victorian era.
"Binsey Poplars" is a typical example of Hopkins' particular poetic style. He loved sound, so it's just jam-packed with wordplay and sonic effects. He also loved Nature (as well as God), and this poem's moving tribute to a few simple trees will definitely convince you of that. In fact, we think it's safe to say that, after reading this poem, you'll never look at a tree—or a tree stump—the same way again.
Why should you care about some nineteenth-century trees that got cut down? We have to hand it to you, Shmoopers, that's actually a pretty good question. After all, trees get cut down every day, and it almost never makes the news. Some would even say that, if a tree falls when there's no one around, it doesn't even make a sound.
That's a philosophical question, but philosophy is exactly why you should give a hoot about Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars." More than just provoking tears for some trees, this poem asks some pretty pointed questions about just how "natural" Nature really is.
Think about it: a freshly-mowed lawn may be a beautiful thing, but it's hardly a part of Nature. What about a city park, though? Is that Nature? Once humanity interferes, draws up boundaries, and trims back the hedges, can anything be said to be truly, wholly natural?
This poem would say "no." In Hopkins' eyes, the tragedy of chopping down some trees is not the loss of the trees themselves so much. It's the fact that humankind has permanently changed the natural world. No amount of apologizing, replanting, or rehabilitating will ever restore that part of the natural world to its former state.
When you think of it like that, the world is a far more fragile place than we might have ever thought possible. Every interaction between humans and the natural world exists in a fragile balance. Forget about global warming for a second. This poem teaches you that no impact is too small to forever change our environment. Now are you still going to complain about taking out the recycling?
Enter the Web
When researching Victorian Poets, your best bet is the Victorian Web, which serves up a ton of articles, links, and biographical info.
A Solid Foundation
The Poetry Foundation is another great resource on poets and their work. The Hopkins entry is no exception.
All About Binsey
Here you can read about the village and its thirty (count 'em) residents.
We Need a Montage
Here's a collection of appropriate photos, playing over a rich reading.
Binsey and Balliol
Here's a video with footage of places that Hopkins would have known well.
Here's a calm, capable reading.
Here's a recording of the poem, performed at a charity event put on by Princess Grace of Monaco.
Deep in Thought
Here's the go-to image of Gerard Manley Hopkins, seated at his desk.
Check out one of the few photographic images of G.M.H.
Portrait of the Poem
This painting looks to be inspired by "Binsey Poplars."
In case you thought Hopkins was overreacting to the loss of a few trees, check out these articles on pollution during the Victorian age in England.
Poems and Prose
Here you can get the whole kit and caboodle (er, poems and prose, in other words).