Study Guide to Binsey Poplars
Hopkins lived in Oxford during two periods in his life—the first and longer period as a student at Balliol College (April 1863 to June 1867), and the second as a newly-ordained Jesuit priest at a parish in that city (November 1878 to October 1879). This poem comes from the second period. During both periods, he and his friends were accustomed to taking frequent walks out along the river Thames towards the small town of Binsey. That walk offered beautiful views of the city across Port Meadow, and it was delightfully tree-shaded by a long line of poplars. (Poplars are a variety of aspen—see the first line.) But in March of 1879 the trees were all cut down, much to the poet’s dismay, and this poem is the result. You might be reassured to know what Hopkins could not have known then, that the poplars would be replaced by new poplars.
Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:
- How or in what ways does the poet speak about the poplars as if they were human?
- The first stanza assigns certain functions to the poplars—they are “airy cages,” they form a “folded rank.” What function does a poplar fulfill when it is an airy cage (cage for what)? What is a “folded rank” (rank of what?), and what function does it fulfill?
- How might the second stanza tie in with what we today call ecology or environmentalism? And what does the poet mean, do you think, when he says that the destruction of the trees “unselve[s]” the rural scene?
- In this poem Hopkins uses sprung rhythm, according to which the number of stressed syllables in a line can be accompanied by any number of unstressed syllables, and you can determine the number of stressed syllables in a given line by observing how far the line is indented. Thus line 5, indented the farthest, has only two stressed syllables, while the longest (line 8) has six. So what do you make of line 3, which must by its indentation have five stressed syllables but (ignoring the silent –eds) has only six syllables to begin with? In other words, what is the effect the poet achieves by this line where almost every syllable is given a strong stress?