Study Guide

Binsey Poplars Quotes

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

  • Man and the Natural World

    felled 1879 (epigraph)

    The poem's epigraph lets us know that we're going to be looking at the intersection of man and the natural world. After all, the word "felled" suggests that those titular trees were cut down deliberately. They didn't just blow over in a stiff wind.

    My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, (1)

    The phrase "My aspens dear" is an interesting one. It tells us that the speaker had deep affection for these trees, and that's borne out in the rest of the poem. At the same time, though, "my" suggests that the poet felt some kind of ownership over these trees, and that's not really how unspoiled Nature is supposed to work—is it?

    All felled, felled, are all felled; (3)

    The repetition of "felled" here drives home the loss that the speaker feels at seeing the trees cut down. He's so stunned, it seems like he's run out of words—in this line anyway. He soon regains his composure, and then he has plenty to say.

    O if we but knew what we do
    When we delve or hew—
    Hack and rack the growing green! (9-11)

    Here the poem shifts from the first stanza to the second and, at the same time, it pivots to a bigger picture. We're no longer just talking about the poplars. The speaker has turned his attention to the natural world as a whole ("the growing green"). The real tragedy, then, becomes humanity's inability to see how much damage it's inflicting on the environment. Well, we're glad sure that changed completely in the last hundred years (sarcasm alert).

    Since country is so tender
    To touch, her being só slender, (12-13)

    Here the speaker personifies the natural world as a "her," saying how fragile and sensitive it is. Sure, this is a pretty backward view of the "weaker sex," but Hopkins is just using the prevailing chauvinism of his time to point out how important it is to take care of our natural world.

     Where we, even where we mean
     To mend her we end her,
     When we hew or delve:
    After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. (16-19)

    Want to "clean up" the environment? Well, too bad. You're still transforming it from unspoiled Nature into an area of human influence. Any attempts to meddle in the natural world, says that speaker, will change the nature of…Nature—forever. Anyone who comes after that moment will be unable to appreciate what was there before humanity came tromping along, ruining everything.

    Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
    Strokes of havoc únselve (20-21)

    It doesn't take much for man to ruin the natural world. Only a dozen or so "strokes of havoc" can permanently change the environment. We're doing more than just damaging the place, says the speaker; we're causing permanent change: "unselv[ing]" Nature and converting it to an extension of human civilization.

  • Sadness

    felled 1879 (epigraph)

    The poem begins with an epigraph that's like something you would see on a tombstone. Sure, we're not in the habit of burying trees (they're a lot more useful to us above ground), but a sad, mournful tone is set right from the poem's beginning.

    My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, (1)

    We move from a mournful epigraph to a poignant reminder of how meaningful these trees were to our speaker. They were dear to him, like friends might be. As such, their loss is rendered more impactful, and sadder, to us readers.

    All felled, felled, are all felled; (3)

    The repetition of "felled" in this line really drives home the speaker's mournful state. He's simply run out of words to describe the awfulness of losing these trees, yet he can't get his mind off of them.

    Not spared, not one
    That dandled a sandalled
    Shadow that swam or sank
    On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank. (5-8)

    As if things weren't sad enough, the speaker comes up with this invented, personified backstory to the trees, who apparently lived once-happy lives, frolicking on the river bank. The fact that they can no longer enjoy themselves in this way makes their "deaths" even sadder.

    O if we but knew what we do (9)

    Here's a quick poetry tip for you, Shmoopers: anytime you see "O" in a poem, you're dealing with some intense emotion. The speaker's sadness really comes through in this line's lamenting of human ignorance. We're just the worst, and that's super-sad in his view.

    Strokes of havoc únselve
    The sweet especial scene,
    Rural scene, a rural scene,
    Sweet especial rural scene. (21-24)

    Just like in line 3, we get more repetition here at the end of the poem. Was Hopkins getting paid by the word? Doubtful—the repetition here is just another mark of sadness. We can practically see the speaker, numb with grief, holding his head in his hands as he repeats his mournful lament for the lost trees. It doesn't get much sadder than this.

  • Change

    felled 1879 (epigraph)

    Yeah, if the poem's title had you all set to enjoy a happy little poem about some trees, the epigraph sets you straight right from the jump. Change has come to these trees, and the natural world, thanks to some well-placed axe blows.

    All felled, felled, are all felled; (3)

    We'll say it again: the repetition of this line really drives home the profound impact that this change has on the speaker. He's totally stunned and at a loss for words.

    O if we but knew what we do
    When we delve or hew—
    Hack and rack the growing green! (9-11)

    In the second stanza, the speaker starts to realize exactly how harmful this kind of change can be. It's not just a few trees that he's talking about anymore. Instead, this loss represents an irrevocable change, one that can never be undone. The speaker laments the fact that folks just don't realize this.

    Since country is so tender
    To touch, her being só slender,
    That, like this sleek and seeing ball
    But a prick will make no eye at all, (12-15)

    If you've ever jammed a stick into your eye, well, first off, why? Second, though, you must have realized pretty quickly that your eyeball ceased to function. It was no longer an eye, really, since you couldn't see out of it. That stick changed the whole function of your eye. The speaker here is comparing that kind of profound change to the changes wrought by human intrusion into the natural world. By definition, humans meddling in Nature ceases to make it natural. Instead, it's now part of human civilization. That's a change that can't be undone.

    After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
    Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
    Strokes of havoc únselve
    The sweet especial scene, (19-22)

    The change brought on by the loss of these trees is permanent and profound. Whoever comes to the same spot after they're gone will never know the beauty that existed before. That's a pretty heavy realization. It really makes you want to tip-toe through the natural world so you don't change a thing.