Binsey Poplars

Hopkins is probably my favorite poet. His dense poetry makes you work hard to understand it, almost requiring you to read it aloud and play with the prosody. This work is rewarded richly, even if you don’t share the beliefs that motivated it. His reflections on nature, beauty, and piety are wonderful and distinctive.

Binsey Poplars

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled—
Quelled and quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
Are felled, felled, are all felled—
  Of a fresh and following folded rank.
      Not spared, not one,
      that dandled a sandled
    shadow that swam or sank
on meadow and river and wind-wandering, weed-winding bank.

Oh 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 so slender, that
    Like this slick and seeing ball,
    But a prick will make no eye at all.
  That we, even where we mean
    to mend her we end her,
  when we hew or delve;
Aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been.

Ten or twelve, just ten or twelve
    strokes of havoc unselve
  the sweet especial scene.
Rural scene, a rural scene—
Sweet, especial, rural scene.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Is there any better eulogy one could produce for the death of a beloved forest? The comparison to an eyeball is jarring and grimacing, but fitting, when you think how relatively quick and easy it is to bring to an end (“unselve”) something whose scale is measured in decades. I love the way he describes how we do this without thinking; “that we, even where we mean // to mend her we end her”. Any reader who has spent some time near a wooded stream can almost feel the “leaping sun” and the “sandled shadow” on a hot summer day. And the forgetting is almost a deeper sadness when you realize how quickly people can become accustomed to ugliness, noise, and grime. “Aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been.” It makes me wonder what we have lost that we will never know we have lost. It is a question for every parking lot.

On the subject of nature, another of his that I love (but haven’t memorized) is Inversnaid, which ends with this lovely stanza:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wildness and wet? Let them be left, O,
Let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

It would be a fitting caption for the Half-Earth Project.