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 and river and 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 so 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.
The poet mourns the cutting of his “aspens dear,” trees whose delicate beauty resided not only in their appearance, but in the way they created “airy cages” to tame the sunlight. These lovely trees, Hopkins laments, have all been “felled.” He compares them to an army of soldiers obliterated. He remembers mournfully the way they their “sandalled” shadows played along the winding bank where river and meadow met.
Hopkins grieves over the wholesale destruction of the natural world, which takes place because people fail to realize the implications of their actions. To “delve or hew” (dig, as in mining, or chop down trees) is to treat the earth too harshly, for “country” is something “so tender” that the least damage can change it irrevocably. The poet offers as an analogy the pricking of an eyeball, an organ whose mechanisms are subtle and powerful, though the tissues are infinitely delicate: to prick it even slightly changes it completely from what it was to something unrecognizable (and useless). Indeed, even an action that is meant to be beneficial can affect the landscape in this way, Hopkins says. The earth held beauties before our time that “after-comers” will have no idea of, since they are now lost forever. It takes so little (only “ten or twelve strokes”) to “unselve” the landscape, or alter it so completely that it is no longer itself.
This poem is written in “sprung rhythm,” the innovative metric form developed by Hopkins. In sprung rhythm the number of accents in a line are counted, but the number of syllables are not. The result, in this poem, is that Hopkins is able to group accented syllables together, creating striking onomatopoeic effects. In the third line, for example, the heavy recurrence of the accented words “all” and “felled” strike the ear like the blows of an ax on the tree trunks. However, in the final three lines the repetition of phrases works differently. Here the technique achieves a more wistful and song-like quality; the chanted phrase “sweet especial rural scene” evokes the numb incomprehension of grief and the unwillingness of a bereaved heart to let go. This poem offers a good example of the way Hopkins chooses, alters, and invents words with a view to the sonorousness of his poems. Here, he uses “dandled” (instead of a more familiar word such as “dangled”) to create a rhyme with “sandalled” and to echo the consonants in the final three lines of the stanza.
This poem is a dirge for a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford. Hopkins here recapitulates the ideas expressed in some of his earlier poems about the individuality of the natural object and the idea that its very being is a kind of expression. Hopkins refers to this expression as “selving,” and maintains that this “selving” is ultimately always an expression of God, his creative power. The word appears here (as “unselves”), and also in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Here, Hopkins emphasizes the fragility of the self or the selving: Even a slight alteration can cause a thing to cease to be what it most essentially is. In describing the beauty of the aspens, Hopkins focuses on the way they interact with and affect the space and atmosphere around them, changing the quality of the light and contributing to the elaborate natural patterning along the bank of the river. Because of these interrelations, felling a grove not only eradicates the trees, but also “unselves” the whole countryside.
The poem likens the line of trees to a rank of soldiers. The military image implies that the industrial development of the countryside equals a kind of (too often unrecognized) warfare. The natural curves and winding of the river bank contrast with the rigid linearity of man-made arrangements of objects, a rigidity implied by the soldiers marching in formation. Hopkins points out how the narrow-minded priorities of an age bent on standardization and regularity contributes to an obliteration of beauty. Nature allows both lines and curves, and lets them interplay in infinitely complex and subtle ways; the line of trees, while also straight and orderly like soldiers, nevertheless follows the curve of the river, so that their “rank” is “following” and “folded,” caught up in intricate interrelations rather than being merely rigid, efficient, and abstract. Its shadows, which are cross-hatched like sandal straps and constantly changing, offer another example of the patterning of nature. This passage expresses something of what Hopkins means by the word “inscape”: the notion of “inscape” refers both to an object’s perfect individualism and to the object’s possession of an internal order governing its “selving” and connecting it to other objects in the world. (For more on Hopkins’s notion of “inscape,” see the commentary on “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame.”)
The pricked eyeball makes a startling and painful image; in case the readers have not yet shared Hopkins’s acute pain over the felled poplars, the poet makes sure we cringe now. The image suggests that when the trees disappear from sight, the ramifications are as tragic as the loss of our very organ of vision. The implication is that we are harmed as much as the landscape; Hopkins wants us to feel this as a real loss to ourselves. Not only will the landscape not be there, but we will no longer be able to see it—in this way, it really is as if our eyes were punctured. For Hopkins, the patterning of the natural world is always a reflection of God and a mode of access to God; thus this devastation has implications for our ability to be religious people and to be in touch with the divine presence. The narrowness of the industrial mindset loses sight of these wider implications. Hopkins puts this blindness in a biblical context with his echoes of Jesus’ phrase at his own crucifixion: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”