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Gerard Manley Hopkins

Binsey Poplars

Some more challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poet bemoans the chopping down of a grove of poplar trees, probably to make way for an industrial site. He regrets that such beauty can be so wantonly destroyed.


Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844, the first of nine children. His parents were staunch Anglicans.

He attended a grammar school in Highgate and then continued on to Oxford University. His search for religion, however, caused him to fall under the influence of the great Catholic convert, John Henry Newman. As a result, Hopkins became a Catholic in 1866 and then joined the Society of Jesus the following year.

Initially Hopkins burned all his early poetry because he believed it was a symbol of ambition in the world. He later changed his mind, being influenced by the writings of the medieval scholar Duns Scotus who saw art as a reflection of God within the world.

From this concept, Hopkins developed his own philosophy of Inscape and Instress. Inscape is the underlying form that marks the essence of all things, the God-principle which exists in everything. Instress, on the other hand, is our ability to experience that God-principle.

Everything has Inscape. In other words, everything has a God-principle. However, not everyone has Instress. The person who watches the glory of the setting sun but cannot see the beauty of it clearly lacks Instress.

Works of art - painting, poetry, etc - also have Inscape those people who lack Instress will not be able to admire the beauty in it.

The poet studied Theology in Wales, which is probably where he picked up the Welsh lyrical way of speaking and writing. He would translate this into his poetry in what he called Sprung Rhythm.

Hopkins was ordained a priest in 1877 and then worked as a curate in Sheffield, Oxford and London before moving on to become parish priest in slum parishes in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. None of this was intellectually suitable for a man who had such a brilliant mind.

He then became a professor of Latin and Greek, first at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire and then at University College in Dublin. His frustration, however, at having to mark a plethora of mediocre scripts sent him spiralling into a state of deep depression from which he would not emerge.

He died of typhoid fever in 1889. He was then just 44 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew -
Hack and rack the growing green!"
  • Comment on the poet's choice of words "delve", "hew", "hack" and "rack". (6)

[Need help?]

  • The poet asks a rhetorical question here. What is a rhetorical question? What is the poet's answer to this question? (4)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • The poet places emphasis on two words here: "tender" and "slender" . What is his purpose in doing so? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is "this sleek and seeing ball"? (2)

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  • What does the poet mean when he says, "A prick will make no eye at all"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene."
  • The poet uses repetition throughout this poem. In these lines we find repetition used twice. Why? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet speak of "only ten or twelve strokes"? (4)

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  • The poet is famous for his making up words. What then would be the meaning of his made up word "únselve"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Inscape is the underlying form that marks the essence of all things, the God-principle which exists in everything. Instress is our ability to experience that God-principle. Everything has Inscape. In other words, everything has a God-principle."
  • If this is true, how would it explain how extreme must have been the poet's distress at seeing the grove of poplar trees gone? (10)

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