Fathering Graces at Hampstead: Manley Hopkins' "The Old Trees" and Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars"
Nixon, Jude V., Victorian Poetry
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! Since Country is so tender To touch, her being so slender, That, like this sleek and seeing ball But a prick will make no eye at all, Where we, even when we mean To mend her we end her, When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve Strokes of havoc unselve The sweet especial scene, Rural scene, a rural scene, Sweet especial rural scene. (7)
Hopkins scholars have long held, without ever having seen it, that the Manley Hopkins poem on the potential demise of the Well Walk trees inspired "Binsey Poplars." The association and influence have been all speculative. No one until now has offered evidence of a likely connection between these two poems protesting the destruction of wild nature. Biographers like Bernard Martin have maintained that "undoubtedly Gerard was greatly influenced by his father's incessant literary activity," but "since he did not emulate him directly, it is difficult to be precise about the nature of the influence" (p. 5). This paper reveals for the first time the poem Manley Hopkins wrote and sent his son, the controversy surrounding the development of the Well Walk at Hampstead Heath that occasioned the poem, and the way that controversy contextualized Hampstead's rich natural history and galvanized public protest. Additionally, the paper looks at the way Hampstead, as represented in Ford Madox Brown's Work and in Constable's art, informed Hopkins' poetry as well as his attitude to nature. Indeed, Hopkins' formative years at Hampstead shaped the poet he would become when years later he composed "Binsey Poplars." Finally, the essay intends to prompt critical readings of Manley Hopkins' "The Old Trees," showing how the ecological argument it asserts and the ideas inherent in it cohere with and depart from the ones Hopkins advances in "Binsey Poplars."
Manley Hopkins clearly fathered his son's own love of nature, which might be gleaned from a few select stanzas from two of Manley Hopkins' published poems, "Mabel," and the Thomas Gray inflected "Far from the Madding Crowd":
From "Mabel" Nature, unwearied, ever loves To make new, endless, forms arise: To fill with unlike tribes the groves, The fields, the waters, and the skies. Profuse and boundless, drawing still Infinite shapes from zoneless will. Beneath the mountains, green and blue, The lake lay slumb'rously at rest; And its dim margins mirror'd grew Like visions in a sleeper's breast. The circle of the bridge was whole, Where, arched, the trouted streamlet stole. Run on, then, little brook, and tell This tale to other listening ears. Be grey in twilight, thou loved dell, When I am cold to smile and tears. But see, the fields with dew are hoar, The night breeze sighs. My tale is o'er.
From "Far from the Madding Crowd"
With morn returns the weekly toil; The boys with clappers fray the rooks; The ploughman turns the easy soil; The leisure angler whips the brooks, Or by the sallows leaves his rod, And dreamless sleeps on daisey'd sod. (8)
The poetic connection between father and son can perhaps best be demonstrated by the poem Manley Hopkins wrote and sent Gerard. "The Old Trees" was written in December 1878 and published in the weekly Hampstead & Highgate Express (Ham & High) on December 28, 1878.
The Old Trees Remember, we were girl and boy-- Ah me! 'tis fifty years ago (9)-- When 'neath these limes we sat, in joy-- The West was red with day's last glow: Eve stirred the foliage with her breath: The nightingale sang on the Heath. Under these trees, in married love, We paced so oft when day was o'er Since that blest eve; while dim above The shadowing foliage, more and more, Brought peace with darkness; and the breast Found, midst a busy world, its rest. Alas! 'twas fifty years ago. The God-'made world, the man-made town Have changed their limits. Time's stern flow Has cast some domes of fancy down, It is not that our hearts have ranged, But scenes that nursed our love have changed. We miss some land-marks of our life; "Progress" our cherished haunts invades. We feel how useless were the strife To oppose. The Dryads fly their shades. All, now, we ask, a little space Ere these trees fall beside their race. Once more to find th' accustomed seat, Close-sitting, feel our ancient love: Once more the gushing Spring to greet, Verdure around, below, above. Not now to scan hope's faery glass-- The years on memory's mirror pass. Grant us, sweet heaven, that one more Spring May glad our eyes with old delight; Greeting the birds' returning wing, When tassel'd lindens scent the night: Our slower steps this Walk may tread With shade, grown solemn, overhead. Then say good-night! and leave the stage For those who choose to shift its scene, And modernise a by-gone age, Unreverent to what has been. We, also, past unvexed in heart, Not seeing all we prized depart. Hampstead, December, 1878.
According to an archival document, entitled Well Walk. Proposed Destruction of the Avenue. 1878, "in November 1878 the Trustees of the Wells Charity with the concurrence of the Charity Commissioners decided to cut down the trees on one side of the avenue in Well Walk on the pretext that it was necessary for the further development of the estate. Mr. Henry Sharpe, then resident in Well Walk, thereupon sent to the 'Hampstead and Highgate Express' a letter (which appeared on Dec. 7, 1878) calling attention to the proposed destruction of the trees." (10) The letter from the vigilant Henry Sharpe, resident of 30 Well Walk, was written on December 5. Addressed to the editor of the Ham & High, and exhibiting an eye for detail and the kind of aesthetic sensibility and love of nature that informed such naturalistic treatises as Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, (11) the Sharpe letter reads:
Sir,--Your readers will be very sorry to hear that they will probably never again see the avenue in Well-walk. The trustees of the Wells Charity have decided to cut down the side of it next the road, which is by far the longest. They say that they are not going to destroy the avenue, but only going to cut down the middle row, and that it will be an improvement. There are only two rows in the avenue. They are going to cut down one with thirty-one trees, and leave one with nineteen. They hope that these, with eight in Mr. T. Toller's garden, will form an avenue. It will only be a broad street with some trees on each side of it. The great beauty of the present avenue is that the trees are all but one of the same sort and age. Those in Mr. Toller's are different sorts and sizes, and stand four feet below the avenue. The broad path is to be made narrow, and the greater part will not be sheltered from the sun till late in the afternoon. I thought the Vestry had stopped this. I have not been able clearly to make out why it is to be done. I hear something about opening out the property and a Mr. Smith from the Charity Commissioners. I cannot imagine how any body of Hampstead gentlemen can have agreed to such a scheme. Their wives cannot know what they are doing, or they would have stopped them. What would Mr. Wells, the pious founder of the charity, say to it, if he could express his opinion? One excuse given is that it is necessary to make a wide road to the Highgate fields, and that this is part of it. A road can be made quite wide enough without cutting down a tree. There is twenty-two feet between the avenue and the trees in Mr. Toller's garden; opposite the Volunteer headquarters five feet of the path can be thrown into the road, and from the chalybeate spring to Christ-church road the high path can be narrowed, and a part thrown into the road. The road would not be straight enough to please somebody's architectural eye. If the scheme of the trustees is carried out Well-walk will exist no more. It must be renamed Well-street. I am getting up a petition to the trustees, and I hope that, although they may not have any appreciation of what is beautiful, we may at least work on their feelings--Yours, &c., H. Sharpe.
The Sharpe first salvo was followed by a veritable arsenal of letters to the editor in the Ham & High opposing the removal of the Well Walk trees. One trustee of the Wells & Campden Charity, Charles H. L. Woodd, "a rich wine merchant," (12) writing on December 14, 1878, observed that the vote taken to remove the trees was "by no means unanimous" and was "carried by a very small majority." He pointed to the plan by the Wells Charity's Surveyor and Architect, Henry Simpson Legg, "showing how the road might be widened without removing a single tree from the grove." Thus, he insisted that "there is no demand for the destruction of the trees, and it is an open question whether the estate would not be greatly depreciated by the suggested alteration rather than made to yield any advantage to this charity." Woodd concluded that since "the Hon. Susannah Noel gave the six acres of waste, together with the mineral wells, for the sole use and benefit of the poor of Hampstead," they, the poor, ought to be "consulted as to the benefits and increase of enjoyment by the removal of their long-cherished resort on a summer evening." Another trustee, S. Stone, took the opposite stance in the same column of the Ham & High, acknowledging that "It is the duty of the trustees of this charity to develope, and make the best of the estate for the benefit of the poor." He cited an earlier study by the previous surveyor, Mr. Smith, which reported that "the conversion of Well-walk itself into a good broad road fifty feet wide, instead of the present one fifteen feet wide, with a row of old trees between them, would materially improve the property on both sides, and also the whole neighbourhood." Mr. Stone observed that "the trees will soon fall, and the walk has already outlived its term and deteriorates the value of the estate." He wanted to assure Mr. Sharpe that if he thought that "the projected plan would detract from the beauty of Well-walk, or much alter its character, I would take no hand or part in carrying it out.... I can assure him that some of the trustees have some 'appreciation of what is beautiful,' and have shown the greater desire to preserve it."
The Well Walk controversy was all about making plots of land available for development, which meant removing some of the existing trees to facilitate greater egress and traffic. In June 1875, Legg had developed a plan to increase the value of the six acres of land including Well Walk, "whereby the Estate may be developed and the most made of it for the benefit of the Charity, though at the same time preserving its present characteristics as much as possible." The plan was to make available "desirable building plots" (Wade, p. 65). Legg outlined three plans for the Estate. The trustees preferred the third and endorsed it: "having regard to the advantages of amenity and situation, this property should hardly be covered by small villa plots and all the fine trees and agreeable features obliterated." But the trustees' plan met with disapproval by the Parish Vestry, the elected Town Council, "about widening Well Walk and East Heath Road, and also by the lack of good offers for large plots.... As the plan to sell large plots failed, the Trustees now proposed to cram as many small villas on their Estate as possible. This meant building on gardens and removing trees, including an ancient chestnut and a yew. Well Walk was to be widened to a 40-foot thoroughfare (the northern stretch was little more than a track) and the raised path was to be reduced to the level of the road--and the avenue of trees would have to go" (Wade, pp. 66-67).
In the mounting letters in the editorial column of the Ham & High, most of them opposing the removal of the trees, one Hampstead resident, who signed his name P. M. E., insisted in the December 14, 1878 issue that were there time enough "I believe we should obtain signatures of nearly all the householders in the parish, but none but those who carry the papers round have any idea of the universal feeling of regret and often indignation expressed at the proposed destruction of one of the most beautiful, ancient, and characteristic spots in Hampstead." But he sided with the trustees. "I believe," he claims, "that the argument used to justify this ruthless act is that, as conscientious men, the trustees feel bound to make the best of the property, and that they think that the value of the houses to be erected on the site of Mr. Toller's old garden will be enhanced thereby." The editorial cited one irritable landowner who complained of paying "a higher rent for their houses than others do in those of a similar size, because they are opposite a garden in which some old trees stand, and surely the vicinity of such a terrace as the one in question, where invalids can stroll or sit, and children play in the hottest weather, under the grateful shade of Nature's leafy cloister, would add rather than take from the value of the proposed new houses." Mr. Sharpe, in the meantime, had begun a petition drive, pointing out in the same issue of the Ham & High that "the petition for saving the avenue is going on very satisfactorily." He enumerated the progress in securing signatures and areas canvassed, and noted that "the meeting of the trustees is to be held next Wednesday. The whole of Hampstead will not have been visited by that time, but I shall be able to show them that, as far as we have been able to ascertain, the inhabitants of the old town of Hampstead are practically unanimous." Some 550 residents of Hampstead signed the petition, and 39 declined (Well Walk ms. H942.14; Wade, p. 67). The trustees met on Wednesday, December 18, 1878; three days later on December 21, 1878, an article in the Ham & High, entitled, "The Proposed Destruction of Well Walk," reported on it:
We understand that at a meeting of the Wells Charity Trustees on Wednesday last, notice of motion was given by Mr. Joseph Hoare, J.P., to rescind the resolution passed at the previous meeting. Mr. Hoare's motion has in view the adoption of an alternative plan which had previously been submitted to the Board by its surveyor, Mr. Legg, whereby the trees would be preserved.
Manley Hopkins did not wish to go on public record opposing the destruction of the trees. Two years later (1880) he would be elected a trustee of the consolidated Wells and Campden Charities. (13) He apparently wanted to appear neutral, but given Manley Hopkins' own poetic celebration of wild nature he clearly sided with Mr. Sharpe and those who opposed the removal of the trees. And so perhaps unknown to anyone but his family, Manley Hopkins penned "The Old Trees," and submitted it anonymously to the Ham & High. The same issue of the Ham & High in which the poem appeared included other protests. One, signed J. H. M. (John Henry Metcalfe), casting the proposed removal of the trees in an even broader historical light, journeyed back to 1734 when the Honorable Susanna Noel bequeathed the property including the chalybeate water to the poor:
Now that the charming avenue of limes in Well-walk is again threatened with destruction, I venture once more to refer to the terms of the grant of the land known as the Wells Charity Estate and to ask if the intentions of the noble and generous donor of the "well of medicinal waters," and the six acres of heath ground encompassing it, to the "poor" of Hampstead, are to receive any attention or consideration whatever.... It was never the intention of the noble donor that the land which she gave to the ailing poor of Hampstead for their healthful exercise and recreation, while drinking the medicinal waters, should be covered with streets and houses. And how much more necessary is it for an open space to be preserved about the famous well now that Hampstead, a little village in the Hon. Susanna Noel's time, has grown to be a large town containing some 42,000 inhabitants, and is even now united at several points with the densely populated and rapidly advancing streets of London?
The author lamented the anticipated loss:
When the trees are felled [and this, as a reminder, is a letter found in the same column featuring the Manley Hopkins poem, which Hopkins received], the road leveled, and houses, such as we see already building in what is commonly called "the streaky bacon style," continued on either side of the road, Well-walk will no longer be the pleasant, shady summer lounge, and the cheerful, sunny, winter promenade, so favoured by invalids, poor and rich alike, who come for exercise, or for rest, and to drink the far-famed chalybeate waters of Hampsteadwells. (Cf. Hopkins's "Penmaen Pool")
The very next letter from a resident new to the area, E.W.M., voiced the same lament:
As a new comer [cf. Gerard Manley Hopkins' "after-comers"] into Hampstead, to which I was attracted by the beauty of the Heath and other picturesque features, not the least of which was Well-walk, which I now grieve to hear has been doomed to destruction, allow me to ask, Can it be possible that any body of trustees are to be found who can be guilty of such a vulgar barbarism as to countenance the destruction of one of the few remaining features of the place? Was there no gentleman among the trustees who would raise his voice against the "speculating builder" element, which must have predominated? Is it yet too late to save Well-walk?
The Well Walk of Hampstead is a historically important spot, as is Hampstead, where Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) was artist in residence and did his famous painting Work (1859-63). Set in The Mount, the painting commemorates navvies at work installing sewers in the streets of central Hampstead, where "some of the poor of Hampstead may be glimpsed" (Wade, p. 55). Hopkins' "Tom's Garland," as W. H. Gardner first suggested, was influenced by the Brown painting, generally believed to be his magnum opus, and the sonnet appending the painting. (14) Hopkins, as far as I can tell, nowhere acknowledged the Brown piece. His only reference to Ford Madox Brown is a terse entry in his diary of 1864, a year that manifests Hopkins' sustained interest in the Pre-Raphaelites (personally meeting Holman Hunt, for instance) and might indicate that he was studying the painter. In that year, Brown was planning his great exhibition from March 10 to June 10, 1865 on Piccadilly Street, when Work attracted the most public attention. However, in 1865, the year of the exhibition, Hopkins, as he often does with poems he loved (for example, "The Blessed Damozel," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a former student of Madox Brown (15)), copied the Brown sonnet, a piece very much in the tradition of the Victorians' view of work, especially Carlyle's:
Work! which beads the brow and tans the flesh Of lusty manhood, casting out its devils; By whose weird art transmuting poor men's evils Their bed seems down, their one dish ever fresh; Ah me, for want of it what ills in leash Hold us; its want the pale mechanic levels To workhouse depths, while master spendthrift revels: For what of work the fiends soon enmesh. Ah, beauteous tripping dame with bell-like skirts, Intent on thy small scarlet-coated hound, Are ragged wayside babes not lovesome too? Untrained their state reflects on their deserts, Or they grow noisome beggars to abound Or dreaded midnight robbers breaking through. (qtd. in Gardner, p. 12)
This sonnet that accompanied the painting certainly articulates a social message that was not Brown's original intention, which was merely to dignify English work, as his diary entry indicates:
At that time extensive excavations were going on in the neighbourhood, and, seeing and studying daily as I did the British excavator, or navvy, as he designates himself, in the full swing of his activity (with his manly and picturesque costume, and with the rich glow of colour which exercise under the hot sun will impart), it appeared to me that he was worthy of the powers of an English painter.... Gradually this idea developed itself into that of Work as it now exists, with the British excavator for a central group, as the outward and visible type of Work. (16)
As relevant to the topic of work was Brown's concern with the effects of light: "I have only to observe, in conclusion, that the effect of hot July sunlight, attempted in this picture, has been introduced because it seems peculiarly fitted to display work in all its severity, and no [sic] from any predilection for this kind of light over any other" (Ford, p. 195).
The similarities between the sonnet for the picture called Work and Hopkins' "Tom's Garland" suggest close parallels. Brown's poem points out the need for work, the absence of food and shelter, and the barbarity and crime that result when these basic necessities are denied. However, Hopkins' poem, while suggesting it, does not quite attribute blame to the aristocracy as does Brown's. More closely related to "Tom's Garland," as Norman White indicates, is Brown's prose description of Work, which Hopkins possibly read in the 1865 exhibition catalog but did not copy (White, p. 432). Brown's description is the most detailed explanation he had ever provided a painting, a factor not lost on Hopkins' own unusually long crib. Though the social underthought of the painting expressed throughout the prose account would have concerned Hopkins, the passages particularly relevant to "Tom's Garland," and equally to "Harry Ploughman," occur at the beginning and end of Brown's prose explanation:
Here are presented the young navvy in the pride of manly health and beauty; the strong fully-developed navvy who does his work and loves his beer; the navvy of strong animal nature, who, but that he was when young taught to work at useful work, might even now be working at the useless crank.... Through this picture I have gained some experience of the navvy class, and I have usually found, that if you can break through the upper crust of mauvaise honte which surrounds them in common with most Englishmen, and which, in the case of the navvies, I believe to be the cause of much of their bad language, you will find them serious, intelligent men, and with much to interest in their conversation, which, moreover, contains about the same amount of morality and sentiment that is commonly found among men in the active and hazardous walks of life, for that their career is one of hazard and danger none should doubt. Many stories might be told of navvies' daring and endurance, were this the place for them. (Ford, pp. 189, 194)
Brown's crowded landscape in Work depicts scenes of rich upper-class non-workers, workers, religious zealots, family life, the unemployed, the poor, waifs, outcasts, and vagrants. However, he considered the young navvy with the raised shovel "the hero of the picture" (Ford, p. 153).
Begun in 1852, Work evolved slowly, daily occupying Brown from the time it was commissioned in 1857 for 400 [pounds sterling] until its completion in 1863. What made the painting such a long enterprise is Brown's near fanatical aesthetic realism, the belief that "everything must be--and accordingly was--where possible, painted from Nature. Workmen in pits must be painted in pits, and pits must be dug out or sought; mortar must be turned again and again to get the requisite soiling of a spade. Of each implement studies must be made in just the right shade or just the requisite glare of sunlight" (Ford, pp. 156-157). As a result of such dogged pursuit of naturalness and painstaking accuracy of detail, Brown's landscape paintings are done outdoors in natural light and so his figures "belong to the landscape and are part of it." (17) Work features Thomas Carlyle, the taller, bearded man with a sardonic smile "in friendly communion with the philosopher, smiling perhaps at some of his wild sallies and cynical thrusts." The two men are of "a kindred and yet very dissimilar spirit" (Ford, p. 190). The other individual, "the philosopher," is Frederick Denison Maurice, the self-proclaimed Christian socialist whose importance is not lost because the elder married lady to the left of the painting is distributing tracts that articulate, says Ford, Maurice's "practical" ideas (p. 196). Brown calls Carlyle and Maurice figures who, "seeming to be idle, work, and are the cause of well-ordained work and happiness in others." While Maurice "moulded a nation to his passion" and "reversed men's notions upon criminals, upon slavery, upon many things," Carlyle had "much in communion with the working classes, 'honouring all men,' 'never weary in well-doing,'" and gave to society the principle that "each unit of humanity feels as much as all the rest combined" (Ford, pp. 190-91).
John Constable (1776-1837) brought the same degree of visibility to Hampstead. In many of his paintings trees are essential, if not central, including black poplars, featured in Landscape: Noon (The Hay Wain) (1821), where the trees as in the Hopkins poem line the river, and Salisbury Cathedral from the River (1820s). Constable moved to Hampstead Heath in the summer of 1819 into a rented cottage before taking up residence around August 26, 1827, at No. 6 Well Walk, now No. 40, where a plaque commemorates him: "We are at length fixed in our comfortable little house in Well Walk, Hampstead, and are once more enjoying our own furniture, and sleeping in our own beds" (Leslie,' p. 142). The move was precipitated by his wife's poor health, and "unexpectedly extended the scope of his subject-matter." (18) Constable's "skying," essentially his attentiveness to the science and representation of skies and clouds, was developed at Hampstead, which had the reputation for being the ideal spot for such naturalistic observation. In a September 20, 1821 letter, Constable boasted of having around him in Hampstead "many skies and effects; we have had noble clouds and effects of light and dark and colour, and is always the case in such seasons as the present" (Leslie, p. 72). He would elaborate even further:
The sky is the source of light in nature, and governs everything; even our common observations on the weather of every day are altogether suggested by it. The difficulty of skies in painting is very great, both as to composition and execution; because, with all their brilliancy, they ought not to come forward, or, indeed, be hardly thought of any more than extreme distances are; but this does not apply to phenomena or accidental effects of sky, because they always attract particularly. (Leslie, p. 74)
For Constable as it was for Hopkins, Hampstead brought out in profound ways his attention to nature, skies, and clouds. (19) While many Hopkins scholars have commented on his journalistic and poetic obsession with skies and clouds, attributing the influence to Ruskin and Turner and to his Oxford, Alpine, Welsh, and Stonyhurst experiences, no one to my knowledge has suggested that Hampstead, in fact, fathered and nurtured it. Constable brought to "skying" the same attention to meteorological details of clouds, skies, and weather we find in Hopkins. (20) "Most of the 1821 sky studies include land, trees, or a distant view, but those of 1822 represent, almost entirely, only cloud." (21) Constable commemorated Hampstead and the Heath in all of its settings, doing over fifty paintings of the area, the most of any site next to Suffolk. Among them are Branch Hill Pond (1819, 1821-22), Hampstead Heath: The Salt Box (c. 1820), Hampstead Heath (c. 1820-21), Building on Rising Ground near Hampstead (1821), the Turneresque/impressionistic Landscape Study, Hampstead Heath, Looking East (July 14, 1821), View from Hampstead Heath Looking towards Harrow (August 1821), Hampstead Heath Looking towards Harrow (October 31, 1821), The Grove, Hampstead (The Admiral's House) (c. 1820-25), and Hampstead Heath from near Well Walk (1834). "These Hampstead Heath scenes are exercises in the tumble of land, its texture, the sweep of distance, the feeling for atmosphere, the chiaroscuro of the composition" (Cormack, p. 172). (22) Constable's biographer, C. R. Leslie, says of his Hampstead period, having in mind the painting Hampstead Heath with the House called "The Salt Box" (1820), "Constable's art was never more perfect, perhaps never so perfect as at this period in his life" (p. 63). Constable loved Hampstead unequivocally. "Our nice house in the Well Walk," he writes on October 10, 1827, "far exceeds any of the houses inhabited by any of my family here, for comfort and convenience." (23) And when not there he lamented its absence: "Hampstead, sweet Hampstead, is deserted" (Leslie, p. 145). Constable particularly savored the close contact with nature at Hampstead, finding there the very equipoise between country and town Hopkins later felt Oxford with its growing modernization lacked. Constable also relished the privacy Hampstead afforded him and the equipoise between country and town he found there: "I shall be more out of the way of idle callers, and above all, see nature, and unite a town and country life" (Leslie, p. 141). He also painted the street on which he lived, Well Walk. Constable is now interred in Hampstead alongside his wife Maria Elizabeth and eldest son John Charles in a vault in the Churchyard at St. John's, the Hopkins family church.
With the reputation Constable, Brown, and other prominent artists brought to Hampstead, (24) it was not that surprising that the planned destruction of the Well Walk trees drew even greater attention. Articles in the Times and Daily Telegraph broadened the protest. The Times for December 23, 1878, recalls the meeting of the trustees five days earlier and the compelling nature of the signed petition. The letter expressed optimism that "the beautiful lime-trees which adorn this walk, and which it was lately contemplated to cut down in order to facilitate building operations on the estate of the Campden Charity, at Hampstead, will, after all, be spared." The letter noted the importance and heritage of the Walk: "this avenue of limes, leading from the heath to the chalybeate well and pump-room, was, a century ago, the fashionable resort and promenade of visitors to 'the Wells,' and that it is associated with the names of Richardson, Dr. Johnson, John Constable, Leigh Hunt, and John Keats (whose favourite seat was at its eastern extremity), and, indeed, with those of half the men of letters and art during the past century." The rich iron content of the well also argued for its preservation: "the old chalybeate spring, which first made Hampstead wells a celebrated watering place, has lately been analyzed and found to contain more iron than the springs of Tunbridge Wells, though its flow has been slightly diminished by recent draining and building operations. It is also hoped, alas, that this spring will be preserved." An article in the Daily Telegraph for December 31, 1878, supported the petition to rescind the proposal on the removal of the trees, but, aware that at the December 18, 1878 meeting of the trustees an alternative proposal would have to be made, cautioned about too premature a celebration of victory until the appeal is finally ratified:
It is satisfactory to find that the crusade against the proposed destruction of Well-walk, Hampstead, promises to be a success, the trustees of the charity having allowed it to appear that they are not minded to place themselves in a position of general odium. We have ourselves strongly opposed this scheme, and much of the favourable result of the opposition should undoubtedly be attributed to the determined notion of the residents in the neighbourhood. It is not always those who have really most interest in preserving a picturesque or healthful spot that show the keenest sensibility when danger threatens it; and it might, perhaps, have been expected that the Hampstead tradesmen's regard for the custom likely to flow from an increased number of "eligible villa residence" would overcome any sentiment entertained for the old Well-walk.... We learn that out of six hundred and twenty-nine householders who were waited upon by the promoters of a petition in favour of sparing the walk and its noble trees, five hundred and forty-eight signed their names, forty-two could not be "interviewed," and only thirty-nine refused. Among these thirty-nine were seven who "could not sign on account of their connection to the vestry or the trustees," most of the remaining thirty-two did not care about the matter one way or another, and but six oddly-constituted individuals expressed a desire that the trees should be cut down. "It is perfectly marvelous," writes Mr. H. Sharpe, a resident of Well-walk, and an active opponent of the trustees, "the amount of feeling that there is about the matter among all classes. No one would have imagined that in Rosslyn Hall, Porrin's-court, Church-lane, and Church-place every one took an interest in the matter, or that in the Grove, Greenhill Estate, East Heathroad, Squire's-mount, and the Heath, every one would have signed." The trustees might possibly have defied the opinion of outsiders, but they show a desire to conciliate the neighbourhood, and Mr. Sharpe hears that they "considered the petition very important," while some "who were before in favour of cutting down the trees have agreed that it should not be done after this very strong expression of the wishes of the inhabitants of Hampstead." More than this, at a recent meeting of the trustees notice was given by Mr. J. Hoare, J. P., of a motion to rescind the obnoxious resolution.... So far the opponents of wanton destructiveness may rejoice, but it will be necessary for them to watch the future action of the trustees very keenly. There is an alternative scheme of some sort under consideration, and this, although it may spare the trees, may otherwise utterly destroy the character of the pretty spot. We therefore counsel the Hampstead residents to remember that, in some cases, it is wise to consider nothing done while anything remains to do.
An encouraging January 23, 1879 article in the Times announced that "in all probability the venerable lime trees of which the walk is composed, and which are connected with the memories of Dr. Johnson, Charles Lamb, S. T. Coleridge, and John Keats, will be spared" (25) (see Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison").
The announcement observed that the trustees "have now rescinded their resolution, having been moved thereto by an almost unanimous memorial from the parishioners and residents of Hampstead." But it noted that the decision was not yet final: "As, however, the intended destruction of Well-walk had been sanctioned by the Charity Commissioners and their surveyor, it will be necessary to submit the altered plan of operations to that Board for their approval before the walk can be said to have been permanently saved." The Manley Hopkins poem and the public protest clearly worked. The Wells Charity Commissioners rescinded their earlier decision. On January 16, 1879, "the Clerk to the Trustees wrote to inform Mr. Sharpe that the Resolution had been rescinded and that an alternative plan would be submitted to the Charity Commrs. This was announced as accepted on Feb. 13. 1879" (Well Walk ms. H942.14). The announcement was made public in an entry in the 18 January 1879 Ham & High, entitled "Well Walk":
We hear the trustees of the Wells Charity, at their monthly meeting on Wednesday last, rescinded their former motion, and agreed to adopt a plan whereby the trees in Well-walk will be spared. The former plan to taking down the middle row of trees was the one recommended by the surveyor for the Charity Commissioners, and had obtained the sanction of that body. It will now be necessary to submit the altered plan to that Board for approval.
The plan was approved by the trustees. Well Walk was later widened without removing the trees. The last public statement we have on the events surrounding the saving of the Well Walk trees appeared in the June 2, 1879 Times, in which the author attributed success to the determined efforts of Hampstead's residents, because of whom "this favourite walk of Keats, Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, &c., has been preserved from destruction. The committee of the local charity, who were at one time about to sanction its destruction, held at the close of last week a meeting, at which the new plans for laying out and building on the Wells Estate were passed and approved, and contracts were entered into for carrying them out without delay." The plans included how to improve the flow of water in the chalybeate well, which had become a trickle because of construction in Hampstead. But to everyone's amazement, a new source of drinkable water was discovered: "within a few yards of the old spring a new one has been discovered, perfectly clear and free from all chalybeate properties. The old well-head will now be restored and made more picturesque, and so altered that the waters of the new spring will join it at a point below its present exit."
Although Hopkins nowhere acknowledged it, he would have known that whereas the trees of Binsey had been lost, those at Well Walk had been saved because of the timeliness of public and poetic protest, and that the father, Manley Hopkins, had succeeded where the son, Gerard Manley Hopkins, had failed. Extremely busy as he was in the winter of 1879 with his parish duties at St. Aloysius', Hopkins could also have been following the events in the pages of the Times as he had done years earlier when the Deutschland sank in the mouth of the Thames. He was not as removed now at "towers musical" and "quiet-walled grove" Oxford as he had been then on a pastoral forehead of Wales. The wet and wildness, of which Hopkins writes about in "Inversnaid," desiring to see them preserved ("Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet" [ll. 15-16]), remained intact in the Well Walk area but not so at Binsey. But preserving things in nature is a battle that constantly must be waged. July 1879 saw yet another assault on nature, according to an article in The Builder: "Well Walk, which had recently suffered severely at the hands of the Trustees of the Wells Charity, is about to be still further despoiled.... The Walk will soon be filled with neat stuccoed villas" (qtd. in Wade, p. 69). This attack occasioned yet another poem from a partially anonymous Hampstead resident, who curiously signed his name H.F. The poem was printed in the Ham & High for July 26, 1879:
A Lament for the Spoilation of Wildwood, North End There is no haunt on Hampstead-heath more rich in native charms Than Wildwood, where the chestnuts lift their gnarled and bony arms, And 'front the limes in serried lines, While, high in air above, The branches blend and shadows lend To bats and whispered love. Those who approve the modest mien in grove as well as maid Enjoy the rare secluded grace that dwells about this glade; No flaunting pride doth here deride, No vulgar sounds intrude; A hallowed spell rules o'er the dell, And prompts the tender mood. Alas! that this has been--not is--that Power and Pelf combine To mock this fair romantic spot and raise a rival shrine; While nature, foiled and part despoiled, Must pair with brick and mortar, That carriage wheels may churn her fields, For Pluto's stole Earth's daughter. The fir-top and the birch no more may screen the water's glow, 'Gainst rouged walls for background now their treasured beauties grow; The feathered broom must wave its bloom 'Mid kitchen smoke and mist, And sweethearts find a window blind Is blinking at their tryst. Unfairly thrust in Nature's face--at man unkindly aimed-- This building blurs the soft romance that Wildwood ever claimed. And where's the need for this ill-deed That strikes such tender part; When sites abound the Heath around Why smite it in the heart?
Victorian in its agenda, the Well Walk controversy staged a whole set of issues, among them questions of history and historical memory, progress, gender, health, nature, ecology, the environment, aesthetics, economics, and the poor. (26) Manley Hopkins' "The Old Trees" and Hopkins's "Binsey Poplars" brought these issues together in poems protesting the destruction of wild nature. For these environmentally ardent poets, the delicate ecological balance is compromised when, as Manley Hopkins puts it, "scenes that nursed our love have changed." Nightingales no longer sing, and the sun becomes a ferocious lion loosed upon the earth. But these changes also lead to personal disorientation, for they alter the self and one's sense of place. There is, too, a kind of personal loss when we remove natural landmarks that are also markers of the mind, heart, and soul.
(1) The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 61. Research for this paper was aided by a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society.
(2) Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 153. According to Norman White, Hopkins "used to see them [the Well-Walk trees] every day in his last year at Hampstead on his way from Oak Hill across the Heath to school at Highgate" (Hopkins: A Literary Biography [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992], p. 309).
(3) The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. Claude Colleer Abbott, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 20.
(4) Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips, Oxford World's Classics (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).
(5) These two poems were sent to Dixon well before Bridges saw them. In an April 9, 1879 letter to Bridges, Hopkins promised, "As soon as I have time to write them out you shall have 'Duns Scotus's Oxford' (sonnet) and a little lyric 'Binsey Poplars'" (p. 78). Bridges considered including "Binsey Poplars" in August 1893 in Alfred H. Miles' The Poets and the Poetry of the Century, but felt that its "rivalry with Cowper is against it for this purpose" (Donald Stanford, The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges, [Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1983], 1:239). The reference here is to William Cowper's "The Poplar Field." John Constable adored Cowper. "I have all Cowper's work on my table," he confessed to his walking companion Tomas Stothard on June 15, 1812. "I mostly read his letters. He is an author I prefer to almost any other, and when with him I always feel the better for it." Writing to Stothard one week later on June 22, he commented on "all those sweet fields where we have passed so many happy hours together," and then observed: "How delighted I am that you are fond of Cowper. But how could it be otherwise? for he is the poet of religion and nature" (C. R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable [London: J. M. Dent, 1911], p. 29). The art of landscape for Constable is one with the science and poetry of landscape, hence his attraction to Gilbert White and Cowper; "Londoners, with all their ingenuity as artists," he writes on April 1, 1821, in the context of his painting Landscape: Noon (The Hay Wain), "know nothing of the feelings of a country life, the essence of landscape" (Leslie, p. 69).
(6) Although unaware of the Well Walk poem and the controversy that occasioned it, Bernard Martin is right about the degree to which Manley Hopkins' poem fathered the son's: "Mr. Hopkins sent the lines to his son in Oxford, whose sensibilities on the subject may have been sharpened by reading them almost exactly a month before the stumps at Binsey were to shock him so profoundly" (Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life [New York: G. P. Putnam, 1991], p. 306).
(7) For studies on the poem, see Jude V. Nixon, "'Sweet especial rural scene': Revising Binsey," HQ 16, nos. 1-2 (1989)." 39-60, and "'O Ubi? Nusquam' and 'Binsey Poplars': Influence or Approximation," HQ 17, no. 4 (1991): 139-147; and Brian Green, "Hopkins's Manliness: 'Binsey Poplars' and Macbeth," HQ 24, nos. 1-2 (1997): 34-37.
(8) Manley Hopkins, Spicilegium Poeticum: A Gathering of Verses (London: The Leadenhall Press, n.d.). For more on Manley Hopkins' background, literary production, talent, and connections between his poetic ideas and those of Hopkina, see White, pp. 3-23.
(9) Manley Hopkins was born in 1818, making him 60 at the time of the poem's composition. He imagined himself a lad of age ten (to fit the phrase "girl and boy") when he might have enjoyed playing on the Walk. The Hopkinses moved to Hampstead in 1852.
(10) H942.14. Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre at the Holborn Library. I am grateful to archivist Malcolm Holmes. The emphasis in the Sharpe letter is mine, identifying passages that would become key themes in "Binsey Poplars." It is quite likely that Hopkins was also sent copies of the Ham & High pertaining to the protest, including even the Sharpe letter, for the Manley Hopkins poem appeared on a page in which there are two such protest letters; in the February 12, 1879 letter to his mother about his father's poem, Hopkins described it as "the printed copy." Might the line from the Sharpe letter, "Their wives cannot know what they are doing, or they would have stopped them," be the source behind the line from "Binsey Poplars," "since Country is so tender / To touch, her being so slender," clearly meant to feminize nature? For a brief treatment of the feminine features of the trees in the poem, see Ricks Carson, "Hopkins's 'Binsey Poplars,'" The Explicator 54, no. 3 (1996): 162-164.
(11) A friend of Constable, John Fisher, recognizing similarities between Gilbert white's practice and Constable's art, wrote to him on March 6, 1821, recommending White's Selborne: "It is a book that would delight you, and be highly instructive to you in your art. ... White was the clergyman of place, and occupied himself with narrowly observing and noting down all the natural occurrences that came within his view." One month later, on April 1, 1821, Constable wrote thanking him for the recommendation: "The mind that produced the 'Selborne' is such a one as I have always envied. The single page of the life of Mr. White leaves a more lasting impression on my mind than all that has been written of Charles V. or any other renowned hero. It shows what a real love of nature will do" (Leslie, pp. 69-70). In his May 26, 1836 lecture at the Royal Institution, Constable, with White in mind, described the profession of the artist as "scientific as well as poetic; that imagination alone never did, and never can produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities" (Leslie, p. 267).
(12) Christopher Wade, For the Poor of Hampstead for Ever: Three Hundred Years of the Hampstead Wells Trust (London: The Camden History Society, 1998), p. 63.
(13) According to Bernard Martin, "Manley Hopkins threw himself into local affairs with all the energy of the newcomers and soon was a churchwarden at St. John's.... He also acted as business manager of the parish school and predictably contributed to the parish magazine" (p. 7). Martin, however, like all previous and subsequent Hopkins biographers, remains unaware of Manley Hopkins' membership on the board of the Wells and Campden Charities. And so too Norman White, who notices that though a church warden at the Parish Church, St. John's, Manley Hopkins "did not take a prominent part in local politics," and his name "does not appear often in the minutes of the Hampstead vestry. He attended a few important meetings only as one of a large number of parishioners.... He took an interest in the Hampstead Public Library, and was elected to the committee in April 1857.... His name appears again on the 1877 committee" of the library (p. 188). As far as White is concerned, this was the bulk of Manley Hopkins' civic involvement. Nothing again was said about his membership as a trustee of the Wells and Campden Charities.
(14) W. H. Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), 2:12.
(15) The poem was loaned to Hopkins by Robinson Ellis of Trinity College. See this in an unpublished manuscript of Hopkins in the Bodleian (MS. Eng. Poet. e. 90).
(16) Ford M. Ford, Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work (London, 1896), p. 189.
(17) Allen Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 28.
(18) Graham Reynolds, Constable: The Natural Painter (London: Cory, Adams and Mackay, 1965), p. 78.
(19) For more on Constable and skies, see John E. Thornes, John Constable's Skies (Birmingham: Univ. of Birmingham Press, 1999). According to Thornes, "Hampstead Heath can be regarded as an 'atmospheric laboratory' that had an important influence on Constable's skies. From its elevated position Constable could look down on views in all direction, enhancing the size of the sky" (p. 55). See also Kurt Bapt, John Constable's Clouds (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950).
(20) Hopkins knew Constable's work quite well. Constable came up in an October 18, 1882 letter to Bridges, one in which curiously "Binsey Poplars" was mentioned and linked to Walt Whitman. Hopkins observed that Constable's style is the source of modern French landscape: "they say the French trace their whole modern school of landscape to a single piece of Constable's exhibited at the Salon early this century" (pp. 154-157).
(21) Malcolm Cormack, Constable (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 137.
(22) In his third lecture at the Royal Institution on the Landscape of the Dutch and Flemish school, delivered on June 9, 1836, Constable defined chiaroscuro as "that power which creates space; we find it everywhere, and at all times in nature; opposition, union, light, shade, reflection, and refraction, all contribute to it." In other words, chiaroscuro is the way objects relate to each other in proximity through our visual perception of them (Leslie, pp. 278-279). "Chiaro" (clear or transparent) together with "scuro" (dark or darkness) is "the art of advantageously distributing the lights and shadows which ought to appear in a picture as well for the repose and satisfaction of the eye as for the effect of the whole together" (qtd. in Ray Lambert, John Constable and the Theory of Landscape Painting [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005], p. 112).
(23) John Constable's Correspondence: The Family at East Bergholt, 1807-1837, ed. R. B. Beckett (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1962), p. 236.
(24) Three Horseshoes, the elegant pub located on No. 28 Heath Road, is a favorite Hampstead spot, to which I was introduced years ago by Norman White. This public house was a major part of old Hampstead and an important Hampstead landmark. Its entire upper walls are adorned with portraits of celebrated Hampstead artists and literary figures, among them Hopkins.
(25) The writer might also have mentioned Carlyle, who in Sartor Resartus (1833) famously celebrated the lime and connected it to the even more famous Igdrasil, which for him became a major symbol of cosmic harmony and historical continuity: "ever-living, ever-working Universe: it is a seed-grain that cannot die; unnoticed to-day ... it will be found flourishing as a Banyan-grove ... after a thousand years" (Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, ed. Rodger Tarr [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2000], pp. 30, 71). While the Igdrasil is not named in Sartor Resartus, its correlative trees are named, the banyan and especially the German lime, "'brave old Linden,' stretching like a parasol of twenty ells in radius ... like its Sacred Tree; and how the old men sat talking under its shadow.., and the wearied labourers reclined, and the unwearied children sported, and the young men and maidens often danced to flute-music." In the penultimate stanza of "The Old Trees," Manley Hopkins, following Carlyle, alternates between the "linden" and the lime: "When tassel'd lindens scent the night."
(26) See also John Clare (1793-1864) on "the last Elm next the street & the old Plum tree at the corner" (The Letters of John Clare, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951], p. 257) and his poem "The Fallen Elm" (The Poems of John Clare, ed. J. W. Tibble, vol. 2 [London: J. M. Dent, 1935]). Similar sentiments are expressed by the Rev. Robert Francis Kilvert (1840-79), on the destruction of trees in Wales (Kilvert's Diary, 1870-1879, ed. William Plomer [New York: Macmillan, 1947], p. 187). I owe the Kilvert and Clare sources to R. K. R. (Kelsey) Thornton.…
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Publication information: Article title: Fathering Graces at Hampstead: Manley Hopkins' "The Old Trees" and Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars". Contributors: Nixon, Jude V. - Author. Journal title: Victorian Poetry. Volume: 44. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2006. Page number: 191+. © 2008 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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