Notes on the poem
Some years after his studies at Oxford, Hopkins returned for a visit. Taking time to walk to a favorite spot along the River Cherwell, he found the entire stand of trees felled. “Binsey Poplars” is the poet’s elegy for this place, these trees. The tragedy of their loss is made more poignant by Hopkins’ observation of both the ease of the destruction – “only ten or twelve strokes” of the axe – and the ultimate nature of the destruction; the “sweet especial rural scene” is essentially unmade, unselved so utterly that “aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been.”
Notes on the piece
A portion of the poem’s second part was omitted so that this movement could be structured as a strophic song with two identical verses. The three-note accompanying motives can be understood in three ways – as the sound of the wind through the trees, as the slight motion of the trees themselves in the wind, or as soft moans of lament.
While the inner movements of Inscapes share the predominant images of water and woods (in contrast to the air and fire imagery of the outer movements) “Binsey Poplars” does have one fire image, in the second line: “…quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun.” Hopkins may have implied a theological subtext here; if the “leaping sun” is an image of the creative force of God, then one may entertain the gratifying notion that the Creator’s own thirst to create is quenched by the be-ing of Its creatures. Musically, this same line anticipates the Lydian mode of the final movement, where the raised fourth step suggests the surging life and “lift” that all beings share in their arising.
III. Binsey Poplars
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
Áll félled, félled, are áll félled;
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.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!…
…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.