One of the saddest, most moving poems of man’s wanton destruction of natural beauty is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars.” These now-famous trees had lined the River Thames as it passes by the village of Binsey, in Oxfordshire, but in 1879, they were cut down – a sorry blow indeed:
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.
Hopkins goes on to lament the heedlessness with which we so often “hack and rack the growing green”; sadly, he says, “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.”
He had no power to stop the felling of his beloved poplars – but he wrote his poem. And so great a poem is it, that it helped the ‘after-comers’ to guess what beauty had been there – and to regret its loss, and to set it right. Hopkins’ poplars could not be un-felled, but new young trees could be planted in their place.
And they were.
I’ve walked on the path beside the Thames, and looked up at the airy cages of the Binsey poplars, their high branches tossing in the wind, rustling and whispering, beside the smooth water of the river. People walk the path, laughing, talking, playing with their children, enjoying the tranquil beauty of the trees and the water. Ugliness does not have to have the last word.
Yet we cannot be complacent. Along the Binsey path, in between the living trees, are also some of the stumps and great trunks of the felled poplars, a reminder of the scene of destruction that Hopkins saw. I have no doubt but that it took a great deal of time and effort to turn aside the industrializing hand that hewed the Binsey poplars down, and to bring back the quiet beauty of that “sweet especial rural scene.” Sometimes those “strokes of havoc” cannot be undone; or, certainly, cannot be healed without determined and patient effort.
The Binsey poplars stand as a sign of life: a sign of life’s fragility and vulnerability; a sign of the fruitfulness of the poetic word to effect change in the world; a sign of the possibility of beauty winning out after all.
Holly is a poet, teacher, and apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. She is the author of the memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms.