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.")