Shhh—do you hear that? That's the sound of a Hopkins poem, which most closely resembles an auctioneer wrestling with a tongue-twister while stuck in an echo chamber. In short, a Hopkins poem is a full-on sonic experience. Sound effects, to put it mildly, are this guy's calling card—and if you don't believe us, just check out "Calling Card."
We could list all the sonic techniques going on in this poem, but it would take all day and most of tomorrow. Instead, we'll just go through the poem's first stanza, which happens to feature nearly every possible sound effect in the book. Once you have those down, we challenge you to see how many other examples you can find in stanza 2.
For now, let's start with the poem's first two lines: "My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, / Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun," (1-2). Right off the bat, we get a dose of alliteration, with the repetition of the Q-words in "quelled" (twice) and "quenched." We also have a lot of assonance happening in these first two lines, with the long E sounds of "dear," "airy," "leaves," and "leaping." Do not adjust your sets out there, Shmoopers. This sonic mash-up is totally intentional on Hopkins part, and he's just getting warmed up.
The next two lines serve up a heaping helping of alliterative F-words (not that F-word): "All felled, felled, are all felled; / Of a fresh and following folded rank" (3-4). Nearly half of those words start with F, a tightness of sound that mimics the tightness of the trees as they stood closely together in the "rank" that's being described. Not long after, in line 6, we get some internal rhyme with the phrase "dandled a sandalled," followed by more S- and W-word alliteration in "Shadow that swam or sank / On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank" (7-8). As well, these lines supply some added short A assonance with the vowel sounds in "Shadow," "swam," "sank," and "bank" and some consonance with the D sounds in "Shadow," "meadow," "wind-wandering," and "weed-winding."
At this point, Hopkins has busted out practically every sonic move in the book, and we're only eight lines in. As we said, we could point this kind of stuff out for days, but the real question is: what's up with that? Why did Hopkins cram so many sound techniques into this poem? Well, when you add up all of these sounds together, you get a poem that is filled with vibrant energy. Every line practically leaps off the page with reverberating echoes of sounds.
The effect of all this is a sense of enthusiasm and urgency, reflecting the speaker's deep investment in the fate of these trees and the natural world more generally. This guy isn't just laying down some boring, monotonous lecture. Nope—he's reaching across the page to grab you by your earlobe and wake you up to the grim reality of humanity ravaging the natural world. We'd say that's a sound approach.
We have a two-word title on our hands, gang, so let's tackle them one at a time. First up is "Binsey," a village in central England not too far from Oxford, where Gerard Manley Hopkins went to college. It sits on the Thames river (the one that runs through the middle of London) and looks a lot like you would expect an idyllic English country village to look, even today. That means plenty of meadows and plenty of trees.
This leads us to the title's second word: "Poplars." As far as trees go, a poplar is a pretty snazzy one. It's tall and slender, with lots of shimmering leaves that look like they're dancing when the wind blows. Poplars also tend to grow together in small groups. They're both beautiful to look at and fun to be around.
The poem's title, then, gives us a pretty peaceful where ("Binsey") and a pretty beautiful what ("Poplars"). That makes things all the more depressing when, as soon as we leave the peaceful scene of the title, we learn in the epigraph that it's all been destroyed. Talk about a set-up. The title announces the poem's setting and subject (check out "Setting" for more), but it also serves as a reminder to the reader about exactly what's been lost, thanks to the handiwork of some thoughtless humans with axes. Way to ruin Nature, guys.
Setting is everything in "Binsey Poplars." It's announced in the title (check out "What's Up With the Title?"), it's the central preoccupation of the speaker (check out "Speaker"), and it's key to the poem's themes (check out…"Themes"). Really, though, we're dealing with a micro-setting and a macro-setting here, so it's worth touching on both.
The micro-setting, the most immediate setting, is the village of Binsey in Oxfordshire, England. Hopkins lived and worked near there (see "In a Nutshell" for more), so he knew the setting and its natural features. He thought he knew them anyway, as one day the disappearance of a familiar stand of poplar trees disturbed him enough to write this poem.
The macro-setting of this poem, though, in a larger sense is Nature itself (or "her" self, as the poem puts it in line 17). It's not just that our speaker is over-the-top in love with some trees. He sees a bigger problem in them being cut down. Specifically, human interference in the natural world effectively stops Nature from being, well, natural. And once that happens, we can never go back.
The poem's setting, then, is our own setting: the natural environment all around us. The speaker wants to let us know how fragile and important it is. So, maybe put down that chainsaw, okay?
To put it simply, our speaker is a tree fan. Leaves, trunks, branches—he celebrates the whole package. Why else would he be so totally bummed about the chopping of "my aspens dear" (1)? That first line is interesting, and it tells us a lot about this guy. (We're just assuming the speaker's a he, because Gerard Manley Hopkins was a he, and we don't have any indication in the poem of who, exactly, the speaker really is.) Those trees are more than just background scenery. They're dear to him. He feels specially connected to them—hence the possessive "my."
Given this guy's passionate connection to the trees, it's not surprising that his imagination is charged with vivid, personified descriptions of these Binsey poplars. He sees them as soldiers and picnickers, but the speaker goes beyond that. He sees these trees as symbols of a natural environment that is fragile, tender, and irrevocably changed by human interference.
It's this big-picture view of things that most matters to our speaker. Sure, he loved those trees, but more than that he understood that those trees were just one small part of Nature that the world will never get back. The speaker understands that even attempts to "improve" Nature will forever change things. Once humanity starts meddling, Nature's never the same.
So sure, you might be tempted to think that the speaker is just a tree nut (an acorn maybe), but there's more to him than that. He's got a deep appreciation for the natural world and a perceptive view of how humanity's thoughtlessness can so easily and totally change our natural environment. This poem, then, is his way of giving us all a heads-up before there's nothing of the environment left unspoiled by human influence. Good lookin' out, man.
True to form, Hopkins puts a few funky turns of syntax in the way here, but in general there's nothing too tricky about a guy bumming about some lost trees. His sadness is pretty direct and understandable, and the rest of the poem follows suit.
In terms of theme, Gerard Manley Hopkins really focused on just three: God, Nature, or some combination of the two. Lots of poets wrote about these Big Ideas, though, so for Hopkins' true calling card, you have to lend an ear. When you do, you'll hear a densely packed soundscape filled with rhythmic variations and sonic effects. Just take a listen to "Pied Beauty," "The Windhover," and "Spring and Fall" for more examples of Hopkins' sound stylings.
It's not hard to recognize a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. If you find your tongue twisting and the beat bouncing about halfway into the first line, chances are that you've run into what the poet called his "sprung rhythm." Sprung rhythm was Hopkins' way of mimicking the patterns of human speech. That's why it can feel, well, all over the place. If you like a meter that you can set your watch to, then Hopkins may not be the poet for you. On the other hand, if you like a poem that celebrates the rich diversity of English sounds and rhythms, Hopkins is definitely your man.
We say a lot more about this poem's sounds over in "Sound Check," but in terms of form we can tell you that "Binsey Poplars" starts off conventionally enough, with some good old iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a metrical pattern that features five two-syllable pairs, called iambs, in every line:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, (1)
When you read that out loud, you should hear a daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM—the calling card of the iambic pentameter beat. Things don't stay on that beat for long, though:
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, (2)
The last four feet of line 2 are iambs, but the first pair of syllables is just the opposite of an iambic daDUM. The DUMda of "Quelled or" is what in the poetry biz is called a trochee. Already Hopkins' rhythm is starting to loosen, and there's hardly an iamb in sight by the time we get to line 3:
All felled, felled, are all felled;
This line really emphasizes the loss of the trees with its repetition of "felled," as well as in the way it totally breaks form from the slightly more regular iambs of lines 1 and 2. The randomness of the trees being cut down is reflected in the way the meter varies for the remainder of the poem. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any exactly repeating metrical patterns whatsoever.
The same can be said of the poem's rhyme scheme, which is irregular and intentionally haphazard. In the poem's first stanza, Hopkins includes end rhymes with lines 1 and 3 (with a slant rhyme in line 6). We also get end rhymes with lines 2 and 5, then 7 and 8.
In the second stanza, try to work out this pattern of end rhymes: lines 9 and 10; lines 11, 16, 19, 22, 23, and 24; lines 12, 13, 17 (along with some internal rhyme); lines 14 and 15; and lines 18, 20, and 21. Can you figure out what end rhyme would go next? Yeah, neither can we. There's a ton of rhyme coming at us in this poem, but it's totally unpredictable—just like the poem's meter.
That, folks, is the influence of sprung rhythm. Hopkins wasn't interested in cramming his content into a dull, predictable pattern. Instead, his lines zig and zag, dodge and duck—keeping us readers constantly on our toes. He'll even add stress to typically unstressed syllables, which is why you see some words with weird apostrophes, like "só" in line 13. The effect is a tone that's impassioned and filled with energy. Good luck trying to fall asleep listening to "Binsey Poplars." The form and the meter just have too much going on. That speaker is really worked up about those trees. (And if you don't believe us, check out "Speaker.")
It's a little obvious to say that "Binsey Poplars" is filled with natural imagery. After all, it is about trees—duh. And those trees are, again, pretty obvious symbols of Nature's unspoiled beauty. This kind of stuff hardly needs to be said (even though…we just said it).
What's more subtle, and therefore more interesting, is how Hopkins gets his readers to care about Nature and her trees. To do that, he's got a particular game of wordplay up his sleeve: personification. By investing the poplars with human qualities, Hopkins makes their loss seem all the more real, and all the more tragic.
There is some violence in those trees being cut down, but our speaker's too bummed to think about anything sexy. This sad message is suitable for all ages.