Hopkins’ poem is a meditation on both nature’s fragility and enduring vitality. The mournful, reflective elements of the poem are set against the exuberance of bracing alliteration, invented words and rhapsodical metrical effects to create a sense of joy in nature, while simultaneously lamenting its destruction. The poet draws on Biblical imagery to cast the felling of the poplars as a momentous, tragic event.
The dual mood of the poem is captured in the alternating first lines of stanza 1. Line 1’s sibilance and assonance create a melancholic tone, with the word ‘quelled’ especially conveying a sense of loss, putting us in mind of a candle snuffed out – a stock image for death. Yet the meaning of this word changes significantly over the second line, as it becomes an active verb rather than a participle. Playing on ‘quelled‘, the word ‘quenched’ loses the soft ‘ll’ sound and gains the more assertive, energetic ‘ch’. The prominent alliteration of ‘leaves’ and ‘leaping’ gives a springing energy to ‘leaping’, such that the line is read to mimic what it describes. The image works in two senses: the poplars’ branches crossed the sun, appearing as the bars of a ‘cage’. Also the trees themselves captured the sun’s ‘leaping’ energy, energy which caused them to grow upwards too. The upward movement of line 2 is in antithesis to the stark line that follows, ‘All felled, felled are all felled’. The rhetorical force behind this line (with a rule of three), and the metre disrupting the approximate iambic pentameter lines that proceeded it, give the line the weight and force of a dramatic soliloquy. We are put in mind of the laments of King Lear, ‘Never, never, never, never, never’, and of Macduff, ‘In one fell swoop’. The poem continually juxtaposes exultant, exciting views of nature against stark and brutal lament.
Biblical language and imagery underpins the mournful tone of Stanza 1. ‘Not spared, not one’ could continue a reference to Macbeth, started with ‘felled’, but it also reminds us of the brutality of Old Testament battles. With the next line it might also be seen to refer to Christ, with ‘sandalled’ – on a basic level simply meaning ‘mottled’. The allusion is strengthened by the a reference to Jesus’ walking on water, with the trees here seen as disciples who ‘sink or swim’ – an idea echoed later in ‘ten or twelve’. We notice how these background suggestions of the death of Christ or persecution of the Apostles maintain an element of mourning through lines that are otherwise exciting and beautiful. The invented word ‘dandled’ seems fashioned to harmonize with ‘sandalled’, and suggests ‘dangled’, ‘dawdled’ and ‘landed’. The ‘Shadow that swam or sank’, without any potential symbolism, gives an image of the tree’s shadow on both the surface of the water and the river bed, a detail which strengthens our connection with nature as it is described in the poem. Therefore the solemn and joyful elements not only coexist though the poem, but actually inhabit the same images at different levels of meaning.
The overpowering rhyme on ‘knew’ in lines 10 and 11 takes away somewhat from the sinister sounding ‘delve or hew’ – which carries a suggestion of secrecy, as well as man’s destructive influence. However, the rhyming does serve to re-establish the pace and rhythm of the poem after the meandering rhythms of lines 8 and 9 describing the river. The word ‘rack’ takes on a greater figurative potency after ‘country’ is personified as a woman, in the vein of Classical Love Sonnets, as suggested by ‘tender’, ‘touch’. This allusion makes the final lines of the stanza seem even more gruesome – the pierced eyeball recalls ‘rack’ as an image of torture. It might also suggest the Earth as a ‘ball’, making the adjective ‘seeing’ suddenly ominous and forceful.
We are forced to consider the insignificance and baseness of Mankind, as suggested by ‘mean’, by the word’s position at the end of the line, cut away from the verb it serves. The lack of punctuation in line 18 rushes the reader to the conclusion, ‘end her’, making if feel more brutal as a result. The repeated ‘hew and delve’ makes us consider the words in all their implications – suggesting greed through a connection with diamonds, and something infernal by association with either coal and firewood or an underworld. The word ‘havoc’ also picks up a diabolical association, and plays against the ‘ten or twelve’ – with an image of the trees as twelve Apostles martyred by twelve ‘strokes’. ‘twelve / Strokes‘ also suggests the chimes of a clock, bringing to mind all the associations of midnight, with another reference to demonic power.
The repeated phrase with which the poem ends brings back to mind a theatrical soliloquy. We imagine the speaker in dismay at the destruction witnessed, almost in a state of mumbling near-insanity. Equally the firmness and forcefulness of the lines might imply that nature is not as fragile and vulnerable as suggested earlier in the poem – it is the enduring final note one takes from the poem, perhaps reflecting the endurance of nature itself.