The scene is along a river that runs between Oxford’s Port Meadow and Binsey Village. It is a place Hopkins’ once used to walk, enjoying the outdoors.
A line of Aspen trees—his aspen trees (for he says “My aspens”)—once grew atop the river embankment, forming a series of bars—“airy cages” that once “quelled or quenched” the apparently captured glory of the sun.
But the trees have been hewn, “felled, felled, are all felled,” like so many soldiers formed in “rank.”
Not a one that once “dandled a sandalled/Shadow” that passed this line remains.
Though these trees are like a cage or a battalion of soldiers, to Hopkins they were almost (all the way?) benevolent, like a special guardian caring for his young.
In the second stanza, Hopkins moves into the heart of his lament for the loss of these trees. Hopkins echoes Christ’s prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), but his cry is addressed to his readers and not to God the Father. “If we but knew what we do,” we would not be cutting these trees. Hopkins uses harsh sounding words—“hew,” “hack,” “rack,” “strokes of havoc”—to emphasize the violence of the loss. Nature (“country”) is delicate, “tender/ to touch,” and like an eye that is pricked and thus made “no eye at all,” will be made no nature at all. To “hew or delve” is to “end her.” As Hopkins understands it, to cut these trees is to “unselve/ the sweet especial scene,” that is, to strip, not just the trees, but the very countryside of its very identity and purpose for which it was made. The passion and intensity of Hopkins’ words demonstrate to us the intensity and severity stripping the land of these stalwart poplars.
Hopkins isn’t politicking, nor is he proposing some sort of ignorant or mindless tree-hugging agenda. He’s warning us that this is genuine loss. He would have his audience see the expanse of the loss , not just to the countryside, but also to mankind.
Hopkins would have us know what we do. I would have all of us know what we delve and hew at the creation of God.
If you are enjoying Kent Travis’ teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What? It’s packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn’t believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It’s awesome!
Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.