Many years ago, too many years ago, a boyfriend presented me with a book of Gerard Manley Hopkins poems for my 18th birthday. Hopkins was a poet who was new to me and I was delighted to receive the gift. I was living in Oxford at the time and the boyfriend was studying at the university. He recommended I begin with The Wreck of The Deutschland which is a very long poem (35 stanzas) commemorating the loss of SS Deutschland in December 1875. This being a bit too much for me, I began flicking through the other poems and came across Binsey Poplars which resonated with me immediately, especially since Binsey is just a few miles outside Oxford.
The poem mourns the felling of a row of poplar trees overlooking Port Meadow by the River Thames. The poplars, which Hopkins remembered from his student days at Balliol College, were dear to him, but to his great sadness on his return they were ‘… All felled, all felled, are all felled…’ I memorised the opening of the second stanza almost immediately and it has stayed with me ever since. Hopkins’ message resonates even more now than when he wrote it in 1879. ‘O if we but knew what we do…’ And the boyfriend? Sadly, like Hopkins, he died far too young which, for me, adds even greater poignancy to this poem and the book within which it is contained.
Binsey Poplars My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, All felled, felled, are all felled; Of a fresh and following folded rank Not spared, not one That dandled a sandalled Shadow that swam or sank On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank. 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, When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve Strokes of havoc unselve The sweet especial scene, Rural scene, a rural scene, Sweet especial rural scene. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889)