Binsey Poplars Summary
In terms of timeframe, "Binsey Poplars" begins at the end—at the end of the poplars, that is. Our speaker starts out by letting us know that all of his "aspens dear" (aspens are a kind of poplar tree) have been cut down (1). These weren't just any trees to the speaker; they were beautiful, joyful, and "fresh," arranged in a line almost like a military procession (4). Now, though, every single one of them has been chopped down.
It's not clear who's responsible for this heinous tree-i-cide, but the speaker lets us know that whoever cut these trees down had no idea what they were doing. They weren't just cutting down a few trees; they were fundamentally altering the nature of, well, Nature. Just like a sharp poke can totally change the nature of an eyeball (from an organ of seeing to a pain-filled blindspot), so too can cutting down a tree change the natural world. Once humanity steps in, even to "improve" things, Nature is completely changed—forever.
Folks who happen on this place in the future will never know its prior beauty, when the poplars were still standing. And it only took ten or twelve blows of an axe to transform the scene completely, which once used to be so sweet and special. Oh poplars, we hardly knew ye.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, All felled, felled, are all felled
- We start the poem off with a little note. In the poetry business, a note that comes just after the title but before the first line is called an epigraph. And this one tells us that something was "felled" in 1879.
- Here, "felled" is just another way to say "fallen." More specifically, though, the word "felled" suggests that something made something else fall.
- In this case, the something that has fallen is—just checking the title here—the Binsey Poplars. We say more about them over in "What's Up With the Title?," but for now we'll just note that Binsey is a village in England not too far from Oxford, where Gerard Manley Hopkins went to college and later worked.
- And a poplar is a kind of tree, something that is typically "felled" by storms, or beavers, or lumberjacks. Before we even get into line 1, then, we know that our speaker is focused on some trees that were cut down in the village of Binsey way back in 1879.
- Everybody good? Great—let's get reading, then.
- We start out not with poplars, but with "aspens." Um…what gives?
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
- In these lines, we learn that the trees were arranged in a line or, as the speaker puts it, "a fresh and following folded rank."
- Now, did our speaker just fall in love with F words here (the clean ones, anyway)? Maybe—you can check out "Sound Check" for more on that. Beyond that, a "rank" is a line of something, usually soldiers. The way these trees looked, standing all in a row, made it seem to the speaker as if they were following each other, almost like a military procession, practically folding into one another. The effect for him was a positive one: "fresh."
- You know what's not fresh, though? All of these poor trees have been cut down. Not a single one remains. That's downright rotten, if you ask us.
- The speaker breaks out some serious personification to describe the way the trees' shadows used to resemble legs with sandals on them. These shadows would dangle (or "dandle," which is pretty much the same thing) over the meadow, the river, and the riverbank—or else it seemed as though they sunk into the water or the grass.
- Essentially, the speaker treats these tree shadows as figurative legs of someone who would be frolicking on the riverbank next to the meadow. They gave off a carefree, joyous vibe. After all, who wears their Sunday loafers to go hang out on the river?
- To sum things up, then, our speaker really dug those trees—and he's not very happy to see them all cut down.
- Before we leave this stanza, we should point out that you're not hearing things. These lines are bound pretty tightly together through Hopkins' use of both meter and rhyme scheme. We say much more about that, though, over in "Form and Meter."
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
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,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
- Just scanning over this second stanza, it looks like it would help to know what both "delve" and "hew" mean. To the dictionary machine, everybody.
- To "delve," in this case, means to dig something up. And "to hew" means to chop something, usually with an axe.
- So, the speaker is lamenting the fact that we (human beings) don't know what we're doing when we dig up, chop down, hack apart, or "rack" (fill with pain) the natural world. Nature is described here, using metonymy, as "the growing green."
- The speaker continues, describing "country" (as in the countryside or Nature, not the country of England) as "tender" to the touch—both fragile and sensitive. The very being of Nature, its inner essence, is "slender" in the speaker's view, like a thin, almost frail woman. The speaker uses more personification to reinforce this idea, referring to the natural world as "her" (13).
- Nature is so sensitive, in fact, that the speaker busts out a simile and compares it (or "her") to an eyeball (or "seeing ball" as it's put here).
- How's that work, you ask? Well, if you were to get injured—"a prick" (15)—in your eye, you couldn't really see out of it all that easily, right? (If you've ever owned a BB gun as a kid, you know that this is why your folks were so worried that you'd shoot your eye out.) In fact, even an accidental poke is enough to reduce your eye from a magnificent organ of vision to just a ball of pain and tears. It really ceases to function as an eye at all.
- This is the point that the speaker is making when he says that some injury "will make no eye at all" (15).
- With this comparison, the speaker describes Nature as so fragile that any harm done to it will make it cease to be…well, natural.
- In fact, the speaker goes on, even where we look to improve and repair our natural surroundings ("even when we mean/ To mend her"), we are fundamentally changing Nature (16-17).
- Think about it: any interference by humanity—whether to repair or tear down—represents a kind of irreversible change. Nature that has been affected by humankind is no longer Nature. It has become a part, however small, of human civilization.
- This is what the speaker means when he says that "we end her"—we stop Nature from being natural anymore (17).
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
- Our speaker continues to make his case in these final lines. He notes that, once we cut down or dig up Nature (like the aspen trees), the folks who come after have no idea how beautiful the scene was before.
- It might only take ten or twelve "strokes of havoc"—a figurative way to describe the blows of an axe—to "unselve" the natural beauty.
- With the word "unselve," the speaker suggests that cutting down these trees is not just changing the beauty of the scene. It goes way deeper than that, changing the very essence of the natural word itself. In fact, those tree-choppers are undoing Nature's "self"—bummer.
- "Yes," the speaker concludes, "it is a bummer." He reminds us that the trees made for a sweet, special ("especial") scene out in the country ("rural").
- The repetition of lines 22 through 24 really drive home just how awesome those trees were, and how terrible it is now that they're gone.
- The natural world just isn't the same without them—sniff.