Study Guide

Binsey Poplars Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    If "Binsey Poplars" is about anything, it's about humanity's relationship with the natural world. It's based entirely on a guy's love affair with some trees, for starters. Okay, so "love affair" is too strong a term, but he's definitely upset to see those poplars chopped down. It goes deeper than those tree roots, though. His concerns—which he wants to make our concerns—are about how human beings can change Nature forever—for better sure, but mainly for worse. And keep in mind that this was roughly a century before global warming was even a thing. Who knows? If only more folks had paid attention to Hopkins' poem, our environment might be better off today.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What is the nature of the speaker's relationship with these trees? What, exactly, did he appreciate about them? How can you tell?
    2. How does the speaker get us to care about the natural environment?
    3. Is there any such thing as "pure," unspoiled Nature? If so, what would that be? How might the speaker answer this question?
    4. How might the poem's rich sound effects reflect the speaker's view of the natural world?

    Chew on This

    We hate to break it to the speaker, but even those chopped-down poplars weren't really a part of "Nature," as he seems to understand it. Humanity controls all of the natural world, even if it's by choosing to leave it alone.

    Nature is really a lot less fragile than our speaker seems to think. Just re-planting a few trees would produce the same kind of environment that he once enjoyed with the poplars.

  • Sadness

    It helps if you read "Binsey Poplars" with a handkerchief nearby. Some of you, of course, might be allergic to trees, so that's one reason. Another, though, is that this poem is just so darn…sad. Having seen his beloved trees cut down, our speaker has been put on a one-way train to Bummersville. The poem is really just a dispatch from a place where beauty has been lost, Nature has been spoiled, and some old friends have been permanently taken away. Any way you slice this onion, the tears are going to flow.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. What effect, if any, does the speaker's sadness have on you as a reader? Why?
    2. Is there anything hopeful about this poem? If so, what? If not, why not?
    3. Apart from sadness, what other emotions can you find in the poem? Where do you see them?
    4. Do the poem's sound effects highlight, or work against, its sad tone? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    Sadness is the first step toward substantial change. This poem shows us that, without it, no improvements in society would ever be made.

    Nice try, Hopkins, but the sheer quantity and quality of rhymes and other sound effects really make this poem seem a whole lot less sad. It's practically bubbling over with energy.

  • Change

    Contrary to what the poem's title might promise us, those "Binsey Poplars" don’t stick around for very long. They're gone, in fact, by the time we get to the epigraph. What we don't ever read about, though, is why these trees were cut down. Was it for timber? To make way for a casino? Whatever the reason, it's clear that the trees are victims to human interference in the natural world. During his life, Hopkins—who was a big fan of unspoiled nature—saw more and more of this, as the rise of the Industrial Revolution changed both the English cities and the traditional, idyllic English countryside. To put it mildly, our guy was no fan of these changes. He would have much preferred things to stay the way they were, without all the factories being built up and the trees being torn down. The environmental impact of all this change really bummed him out.

    Questions About Change

    1. How do you think this change, the loss of the trees, will most impact the speaker? How can you tell?
    2. Has the speaker himself been changed by the loss of these trees? How can you tell?
    3. Is the speaker being realistic? Is it noble to expect trees to be left alone forever, or is it crazy? Why do you think so?
    4. Is there any way to undo the changes humanity brings to the natural world? How might the speaker answer this question?

    Chew on This

    The only true constant in life is change. The speaker needs to get with program and accept this loss, or he'll never be able to make it.

    The most profound change in this poem is the one brought about in the speaker's viewpoint. He now sees the world as a more fragile and more precious place.