June 20, 2013

Bodleian Library acquires a classic of environmental literature


The draft in Hopkins’s handwriting.

A draft of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Binsey Poplars”—the last major Hopkins manuscript known to be in private hands—has been bought by the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford for a whopping £49,250.

Hopkins studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford and later returned to the area as a curate at St. Aloysius’s Church in 1878. The poem, which he wrote during his time at St. Aloysius’s, refers to a line of poplars that ran along the Thames in the village of Binsey. The trees were chopped down in 1879, but when Robert Bridges guided Hopkins’s work into print in 1918, thirty years after Hopkins’s death, the poem struck a chord and became part of a successful campaign to have the poplars replanted. Bridges’s timing was excellent: “Binsey Poplars” is a eulogy for lost beauty and a lament over casual human desecration of the natural world, and it must have seemed particularly apposite in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

The Bodleian has four other drafts of “Binsey Poplars,” along with many other Hopkins manuscripts, but this late draft was, until April, in the possession of Roy Davids, a poet and scholar who had amassed an extraordinary manuscript collection. This spring, it was auctioned off in two parts at Bonham’s, and items sold at record-breaking prices included a draft by Keats of his poem “I stood tiptoe on a little hill” and a tiny (3 inches by 3 inches) poem written by the 13-year-old Charlotte Brontë (pictures here). The “Binsey Poplars” draft was called by the Bodleian “the most significant Hopkins item to have come to the market in over forty years.”

With Gezi Park in mind these days, here’s Hopkins’s poem:

Binsey Poplars

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 sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where 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.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.