Choose two of the poems given in the handout . Compare and contrast these two poems (‘‘Binsey Poplars’’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and ‘‘The Trees’’ by Philip Larkin), paying close attention to their language and form.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Billy Mills writes, ‘Trees have been putting down roots in poetry for centuries’, and indeed there are as many poems about trees as there are species of trees themselves. As someone who grew up surrounded by trees and as a lover of poetry, it was a natural choice for me to use this assignment to explore two poems that are ostensibly about trees; Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ and G.M. Hopkins’ ‘Binsey Poplars’. Of course, to say that the ...view middle of the document...
Its third person narrative gives a distance to the poem’s message and renders it less personal, but by no means powerful, than ‘Binsey Poplars’. Larkin’s poem is unsophisticated in its form and metre. The words are simple and easily understood. Its unpretentious rhyming scheme of ABBA, CDDC, EFFE and simple three stanza four line structure should not present the reader with too many concerns with regards to comprehension and meaning. However, this apparent simplicity is deceptive and I believe a misrepresentation of Larkin’s intent. Simplicity in form and structure does not result in a simple poem. In fact it is its simplicity that I find underlines its creativity and its power.
Larkin opens the poem with an almost banal and childish quality, ‘‘The Trees’ are coming into leaf’; the kind of poem opening we have all written at school. It is also quite an optimistic opening talking about new life and rebirth. As a reader we do not feel at this point that we are going to be challenged by the poet. However, this optimism is almost immediately undermined in the second line and a pattern of optimism contrasted with ambiguity begins. The use of words such as ‘almost’ and ‘kind of’ and ‘seem to’ throughout the poem add an uncertainty that is beguiling and unusual given that the subject matter we are dealing with is a certain one. Leaves die and are renewed. People die and new life is born in a continuing cycle. Why the uncertainty? I don’t believe Larkin is questioning the phenomenon as such but asking the reader instead to ponder on it, think about it and reflect on how the human experience is mirrored in nature. We are asked to consider if death really is death if we know new life is to come. Leaves falling are like a kind of dying but not quite because they also represent the new life force about to come into being.
There are some clever similes and metaphors throughout that engage the reader and provoke meditation on the theme. The leaves are words ‘almost said’ their greenness is a ‘kind of grief’. The alliteration in line four is a beautiful sound when we listen to the poem but it is an unusual choice to juxtapose greenness, which we usually link to life, with grief, which is usually denoted with the colour black. But Larkin himself seems to be saying that this is all one of nature’s tricks, the leaves are not dying just simply making way for new life, the bark renewed hides the rings of truth inside which tells us the many years the tree has stood. He strikes a pensive and meditative tone in the second stanza,
Is it that they are born again
And they grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly look of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
The poem is questioning itself, musing on this seeming trick of nature. The enjambment from line one to two echoes the continuing of the life cycle. The superficial veneer of the renewed bark hides the real age of the tree just like our outward ageing appearance hides all our life’s experiences which...