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Lesson Note 

Subject: Literature In English 
Topic: Summary Analysis of the poem “Binsey Polars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Lesson Objectives: This lesson is aimed at helping learners understand the poem “Binsey Polars”. So by the end of the lesson, the learners should be able to:
A. In few sentences describe the author;
B. Identify and write about setting of the poem;
C. Discuss the forms and meter of the poem;
D. Identify and discuss the themes in the novel;
E. Identify poetic devices used in the poem;
F. Recite the poem “binsey polars “.

Lesson Summary Aids: see reference materials below content.

Lesson Summary / Discussion

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Author  “Binsey Poplars”

About The Poet

Gerard Manley Hopkins (28th July, 1844 – 8th June, 1889) was an English poet and Jesuit priest, whose posthumous fame established him among the leading Victorian poets. His manipulation of prosody (particularly his concept of spring rhythm and use of imagery) established him as an innovative writer of verse. Two of his major themes were nature and religion.

The Poem

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 rank
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 here 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.

Content Analysis

For clarity sake, “Binsey Polars” are trees that once stood in a meadow along the banks of the river.

Binsey Polars’ is one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s best known lyrics. It was written in 1879 shortly after he revisited the small Hamlet of Godstow near Oxford, a few miles north of Binsey, to find that his “aspens dear” (aspens are a kind of polar tree) have been cut down. Their freshly beautiful appearance and line arrangement just almost like a military parade or procession makes them remarkable and this brings joy to the poet each time he sights them. The sudden disappearance (cutting down) of the trees left the poet broken hearted. Though the identity of the persons responsible for this evil act is not known to the poet, but he still makes it deeply clear that they had no idea of the importance of these trees. So they had fundamentally altered the work of nature for their selfish interest. This justifies the adage which says “when the purpose of a thing is not known, abuse becomes inevitable. Once humanity steps in or interferes, even to improve things, nature is completely change- forever. It also reminds us that our responsibility to look after nature as a whole should be keenly felt. This poem also likens the organs of sight, the eye to the beauty of the trees: one enabled us to enjoy the other. According to the speaker, the folks (people) who came after in the future will never know it’s prior beauty, when the Polars’ were still standing.
Within a twinkle of an eye, it took just ten or twelve blows of an axe to transform the scene completely, which once used to be so sweet and special. Those trees are more than just background scenery. They are dear to the speaker. He feels specially connected to them – hence the possessive “my”. The speaker’s imagination is charged with vivid, personified descriptions of these Binsey Polars. Although the speaker sees them as soldiers and picnickers, but he goes beyond that. He sees these trees as symbols of a natural environment that is fragile, tender, and irrevocably changed by human interference. It’s this big-picture view of things that most matters to the speaker.
Without any doubt, he loved those trees, but more than he understood that those trees were just one small part of Nature that the world will never get back. The speaker understands that even attempt to “improve” Nature will forever change to things. Once humanity starts meddling, Nature is altered and never the same.
The speaker is never a tree yet he feels this deep appreciation for them. This is simply because he loves nature and understands its human responsibility to care for them. With this poem, he encourages humanity to be conscious while dealing with nature even when we need to take them out for other things of comfort to stand.

Poetic Devices In Binsey Polars

Language (Diction): Diction is a ” saying, expression, or word. In its original meaning, is a writer’s or speaker’s distinctive vocabulary choices and style of expression in a poem or story. In its common meaning, it is the distinctiveness of speech, the art of speaking so that each word is clearly heard and understood to its fullest complexity and extremity, and concerns pronunciation and tone, rather than word choice and style.
In this poem “Binary Polars”, the language or diction used by the poet is quite simple except for some few onomatopoeic words and phrases which may pose problem to an average reader. These words include ” dandle”, “growing green”, “quelled”, “quenched”, “felled”, “dandled”, “sandalled”, “hack”, “rack”, ” folded rank”, “wind-wandering”, ” weed-winding back”, “delve “, ” hew”, “havoc unselved” etc.

Onomatopoeia: this is the tendency in words to echo the meaning by the actual sound. Some onomatopoeic words on the poem are: “quelled”, “quenched”, “felled”, “dandled”, “sandalled”, “hack”, “rack”, etc. The poet exploit this sound effect to convey the meaning of the poem to the reader.
Alliteration: there are many instances of the use of alliteration in this poem. Specifically, alliteration is the frequent and continuous repetition of the same consonantal words or sounds in any literary work. Some notable examples as used in the poem are: “growing green”, “where we”, “beauty been”, “when we’ll”, “fresh/following folded”, “swam/sank”, “sleek/seeing”, etc. Their general application in the poem heightens the musical and rhythmic quality of the poem.
Imagery: The following imagery were carefully drawn from the poem: “leaping sun”, “trees”, “river”, “growing green”, “airy cages”, “weed-winding bank”, all help to increase our understanding of the poem.
Personification: this is often used in poetry when a writer wishes to give some quality which does not have any life really with attributes of human being. The poet breaks some serious personification to describe the way the trees’ shadows used to resemble legs with sandals on them. These shadows would dangle (or “dandle”, which is pretty much the same thing) over the meadow, the river, and the river bank – or else it seemed as though they sunk into the water or the grass. The poet also uses personification in referring to the natural world as “her” in line 13.
Metaphor: The idea of the trees having ‘dandled a sandalled/shadow’ is an idiosyncratic metaphor that likens the trees’ branches to somebody hanging their feet over the edge of the river, their sandals casting a shadow in the water.
Rhythm: Hopkins’ poem is definitely a kind that celebrates the rich diversity of English sounds and rhythms. This is the reason it’s isn’t difficult to recognize his poems. If you find your tongue twisting and the beat bouncing about halfway into the first line, chances are that you’ve run into what the poet called his “spring rhythm” which was Hopkins’s way of mimicking the patterns of human speech. That is why it can fell, well, all over the place.
Figurative Usage: Ten or twelve “strokes of havoc” is figuratively used to describe the blows of an axe – to “unselve” the natural beauty. With the word “unserved”, the poet suggests that cutting down these trees is not just changing the beauty of the scene. It goes deeper than that, changing the very essence of the natural world itself.
Simile: This is an imaginative comparison between two things or objects which are in general not alike, but in a particular aspect, are similar. One notable example of this literary device of comparison is found in the expression, “like this sleek and seeing ball”. Nature is so sensitive that the poet bursts out this simile and compares it (or “her”) to an eyeball (or “seeing ball” as it is put here). With this comparison, the poet describes Nature as so fragile that any harm done to it will make it cease to be … well, natural.
Tone / Mood: The tone of the speaker is that of regret, anger, agony, and Lamentation over his “aspens dear” which have been cut down, while a general mood of uncertainty and disorder prevails in the poem.

See WAEC past questions on Literature in English


The following are themes drawn from the poem Binsey Polars
  1. The beauty of Nature has no comparison.
  2. The fragile nature of our natural environment.
  3. Destruction of nature through human interference.
  4. A lament for the “aspens trees” which have been cut down.

Setting And Arrangement of the Stanzas

A setting (or backdrop) is the time and geographic location within a narrative, either non-fiction or fiction. It is a literary element. The setting initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story. The setting can be referred to as story world or milieu to include a context (especially society) beyond the immediate surroundings of the story. Elements of setting may include culture, historical period, geography, and hour. Along with the plot, character, theme, and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.

Setting is everything in “Binsey’s Polars”. It is announced in the title, it is central preoccupation of the speaker, and it is key to the poem’s themes. In this poem, we are dealing with a micro-setting and a macro-setting. This micro-setting which is the most immediate setting, is the village of Binsey in Oxfordshire, England. The poet lived and worked near there, so he knew the setting and its natural features, as one day the disappearance of a familiar stand of Polars trees got him worried and disturbed to the extent of him writing this poem.
The macro-setting of this poem, though in a large sense is Nature itself (or “her” self, as the poet puts it in line 17). It is not just that the poet is over-the-top in love with some trees. He sees a bigger problem in them being cut down. Specifically, human interference in natural world effectively stops Nature from being, well, natural. And once that happens, we can never go back. The poet’s setting, then, is our own setting: the natural environment all around us. The poet needs to prove to us how delicate, fragile and relevant it is to us all.

Stanza Arrangement

In poetry, a stanza is a group of lines within a poem, usually set off from others by a blank line or indentation. Stanzas can have regular rhyme and metrical schemes, though stanzas are not strictly required to have either. There are many unique forms of stanzas. Some stanzaic forms are simple, such as four-line quatrains. Other forms are more complex, such as the Spenserian stanza. Fixed verse poems, such as sestinas, can be defined by the number and form of their stanzas. The term stanza is similar to strophe, though strophe sometimes refers to an irregular set of lines, as opposed to regular, rhymed stanzas.

“Binsey Polars” is divided into two stanzas: The first addresses the felling of the Polar trees themselves, and the second stanza ponders man’s habit of destroying nature in broader terms.

Forms And Metres

In poetry, metre (Commonwealth spelling) or meter (American) is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order.
“Binsey Polars” starts off conventionally enough with some good old iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a metrical pattern that features five two-syllable pairs, called iambs, in every line: My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, (1) When you read that out loud, you should hear a daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, DADUM – the calling card of the iambic pentameter beat. Things don’t stay on that beat for long though. Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, (2) The last four feet of line 2 are iambs, but the first pair of syllables is just the opposite of an iambic daDUM.
The daDUM of “Quelled or” is what in poetry is called trochee. Already, Hopkins’ rhythm is starting to loosen, and there’s hardly an iamb in sight by the time we get to line 3. All felled, felled, are all felled; This line really emphasizes the loss of the trees with its repetition of “felled” as well as in the way it totally breaks form from the slightly more regular iambs of lines 1 and 2. The randomness of the trees being cut down is reflected in the way the meter varies for the reminder of the poem. The same can be said of the poem’s rhyme scheme, which is irregular and intentionally haphazard. In the poem’s first stanza, Hopkins includes end rhymes with lines 1 and 3 (with a slant rhyme in line 6). We also get end rhymes with lines 2 and 5, then 7 and 8. Hopkins wasn’t interested in screaming his content into a dull, predictable pattern, instead, his lines zig and zag, dodge and duck-keeping us readers constantly on our toes. He will even add stress to typically unstressed syllables which is why you see some words with weird apostrophes, like “so” in line 13. The effect is a time that’s impassioned and energy filled.

Done studying? See previous lessons from literature

Lesson Evaluation / Test

  1. In few sentences describe who the author is.
  2. Identify and write about setting of the poem.
  3. Discuss the forms and meter of the poem.
  4. What are the themes in the ?
  5. Mention the poetic devices used in the poem.

Questions answered correctly? Bravo!
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Baldick, Chris (2004), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Binsey Polars“. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89): Poems. Wikipedia.org. 2 February 2014 . Retrieved 12 April 2022.

Carey, Gary; Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (1999),  A Multicultural Dictionary of Literary Terms, Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

“diction”. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 12 April 2022.

Georges Le Roy, Traité pratique de la diction française, 1911.

Michael J. Cummings (2006). “metre in Poetry and Verse: A Study Guide”. Cummings Study Guides. Retrieved 2022-04-12. 

Murfin & Ray: The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, p. 455.

Roberts, Edgar V.; Zweig, Robert (2014), Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, Pearson.
Rozelle, Ron (2005). Write Great Fiction: Description & Setting. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 

Image credit: Wikipedia.org

Warning: We consider the above academic resources appropriate and so were sourced for the development of this lesson. Hence no part of these reference materials should be lifted from this blog without due credence.