The Binsey Poplars
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There once was an avenue of mighty Poplars, each 100 feet high with 6 foot wide trunks, running along the bank of the Thames between Oxford and the village of Binsey.    One day in 1879 they were cut down.  

The outraged poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote one of his most famous poems about meddling humans destroying the beauty of nature.  "To mend her we end her" and "Ten of twelve, only ten or twelve/Strokes of havoc unselve/The sweet especial scene".

He was a poor environmentalist.  The poplars were immediately replanted and long since grew back.  But poplars only live about 150 years and the replanted ones are now nearing the end of their natural life.  Earlier this year some were damaged in a storm and many are likely to fall soon.  Some had to be cut down recently, provoking complaints from a few muddled greens.  But they will be replanted in turn, and the glorious Thames bank at Binsey will remain, a monument to man's wise stewardship of nature.    

Jim Thornton 12 Dec 2002

21 Jan 2005 Update

I've just discovered that Hopkins was outraged to later discovered that the poplars had been used to make brake shoes for the Great Western railway.  
How wrong could he have been?  The Great Western was privately funded and its human benefits have been incalculable.  

Countless people owe their very lives to the development of this or later railways, and we now recognise that railways are usually a much more environmentally friendly method of transport than, generally government-built, roads.  Not only that but the Aspens grew back.  Rich people who had benefited from railways became environmentally friendly and are now replanting tress faster than they are cutting them down.   


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 and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank. 

O if we but knew what we do 
When we delve or hewó  
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. 

By Gerard Manley Hopkins


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Last modified: November 12, 2006