Fathering Graces at Hampstead: Manley Hopkins' "The Old Trees" and Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars"

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On January 23, 1879, a letter which began four days earlier on January 19, Hopkins wrote to Robert Bridges from Oxford: I enclose some lines by my father, called forth by the proposal to fell the trees in Well Walk (where Keats and other interesting people lived) and printed in some local paper. See what you think of them. And return them, please." (1) Three weeks later on February 12, 1879, Hopkins, in a letter to his mother, expressed concern over the fate of the trees: "I hope the Well Walk trees are saved. I do not know if my father wants the printed copy of his choicely phrased lines back again." (2) Hopkins had been at Oxford for only two months, having arrived on November 21, 1878, from the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Farm Street, London, where he had served under the well-loved Father Peter Gallwey. Hopkins was now curate at St. Aloysius's Church, and enthusiastically announced his return in a February 27, 1879 letter to Canon Dixon: "You will see that I have again changed my abode and am returned to my Alma Mater and need not go far to have before my eyes 'The little-headed willows two and two' and that landscape the charm of Oxford, green shouldering grey, which is already abridged and soured and perhaps will soon be put out altogether, the Wytham and Godstow landscape." (3) In the postscript to a letter written on that same day, Hopkins remarked to Bridges that he had commenced something, "if I cd. only seize on it, on the decline of wild nature" (p. 73). Oxford was most resplendent in the spring, "but its own skeleton in wintertime" (Correspondence, p. 20). To reacquaint himself with the area and to recapture his undergraduate years, Hopkins turned, characteristically, to landscape. He took the familiar towpath to Binsey to view his favorite aspens gracing the banks of the Isis.

It now appears that Hopkins' trip to Binsey was triggered by the poem his father sent him on the fate of the Well Walk trees. Highgate Wood in Hampstead Heath was known for its black poplars, Britain's rarest native trees, and it had always been felt that they were under the threat of extinction. Hopkins journeyed to Binsey mentally burdened, anxious to see whether they were still standing. The Manley Hopkins poem reminded him of his "park" and "pleasaunce" ("To Oxford") perhaps under threat. To Hopkins' consternation, the black poplars were all felled, cut down like hapless soldiers on the battlefield: "Not spared, not one." (4) The act itself altered the Binsey-Port Meadow landscape, transforming it into the featurelessness Hopkins so resented. The change was part of the "graceless growth" he was beginning to witness taking place around Oxford, where trees were being replaced by bricks and mortar, country by town. On the afternoon of March 13, 1879, Hopkins reported his horror at the demise of the aspens: "I am sorry to say that the aspens that lined the river are everyone felled" (Correspondence, p. 26). Two weeks later, he penned the companion poems "Duns Scotus's Oxford" and "Binsey Poplars," and dispatched them to Dixon on March 29, 1879, noting that "they have not their last finish" (Correspondence, p. 26). (5) This was all within two months of receiving a copy of his father's poem "The Old Trees," protesting the destruction of limes lining Well Walk in Hampstead Heath. (6) Hopkins' grief and disgust at the devastation of poplars lining the Isis occasioned the beautiful elegy "Binsey Poplars," with the subtitle, really an obituary, "felled 1879":

 
   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 sandaled 
   Shadow that swarm or sank 
   On meadow and river in wind-wandering weed-winding bank. 
 
   O if we but knew what we do 
   When we delve and hew-- 
   Hack and rack the growing green! …