Oxford library purchases draft of poet's 'Binsey Poplars', in which he mourns the destruction of local trees, for almost £50,000
A manuscript of "Binsey Poplars", Gerard Manley Hopkins's celebrated lament for the trees that ran along the Thames in the village of Binsey, has been bought at auction by the Bodleian Libraries for almost £50,000.
The importance of the yellowing manuscript "cannot be overstated", said the Bodleian, which acquired financial support from individuals and funding bodies to pull together the £49,250 needed to acquire the poem in a Bonhams auction in April. It is, the library said, "the most significant Hopkins item to have come to the market in over 40 years", and the last known major Hopkins manuscript to have been in private hands; it will join the only other known manuscripts of "Binsey Poplars", which survive in four copies kept in the Bodleian.
Hopkins was a curate at St Aloysius's Church in Oxford when he wrote to a friend that "I have been up to Godstow this afternoon. I am sorry to say that the aspens that lined the river are everyone felled" (the aspens are the poplars; Godstow is along the river from Binsey). He went on to write a poem mourning the destruction of the 100-foot-high trees: "My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,/ Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,/ Áll félled, félled, are áll felled."
The newly acquired manuscript shows the deletions, revisions and repetitions he made, revealing that at one point he even considered deleting the poem's famous ending. The last five lines – "Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve/ Strokes of havoc únselve/ The sweet especial scene,/ Rural scene, a rural scene,/ Sweet especial rural scene" – are written out twice, the first rendering crossed out and replaced with "Other Springs, more Summers cannot render".
"The various revisions in the draft, particularly when studied alongside the other drafts, give us a remarkable insight into how the poet crafts his passionate lament on man's disregard for the sanctity of nature. It's an enduringly relevant poem everyone should know," said Dr Chris Fletcher, keeper of special collections at the Bodleian, which will show the newly acquired manuscript alongside the other four drafts in a display on 9 May.
"The Bodleian holds the world's most important collection of manuscripts by Gerard Manley Hopkins," he added. "It is wonderful to be able to add this draft of one of his most celebrated works to that collection."
Hopkins is known today as one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era, but his reputation was largely made in 1918, 30 years after his death, when his friend, the poet Robert Bridges, edited a volume of his poetry. The trees in Binsey were replanted in 1918, and when they were cut down again in 2004, Hopkins's poem was part of the successful campaign to have them replanted.
"The poem has a very particular local meaning but speaks to a much broader audience in its plaintive evocation of spiritual desolation through the destruction of nature," said the Bodleian in its announcement of the acquisition.