This poem is written in “sprung rhythm,” the innovative metric form developed by Hopkins. In sprung rhythm the numbers of accents in a line are counted, but the numbers of syllables are not. The result is that Hopkins is able to group accented syllables together, creating striking onomatopoeic effects, “quenched”. In the third line, the heavy recurrence of the accented words “all” and “felled” strike the ear like the blows of an axe on the tree trunks that Hopkins mentions. However, in the final three lines the repetition of phrases works differently. Here the technique achieves a more song-like quality; the chanted phrase “sweet especial rural scene” evokes the numb incomprehension of grief. This poem offers a good example of the way Hopkins chooses, alters, and invents words with a way of further showing the troublesome atmosphere of his poems. He uses “dandled” instead of a more familiar word such as “dangled” to create a rhyme with “sandalled”. The tone is very much of grief and is biblical towards the end.
This poem is to express grief for a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford. Hopkins here recapitulates the ideas expressed in some of his earlier poems about the individuality of the natural object and the idea that its very being is a kind of expression. Hopkins refers to this expression as “selving,” and maintains that this “selving” is ultimately always an expression of God, his creative power. Hopkins emphasizes the fragility of the self or the selving: Even a slight alteration can cause a thing to cease to be what it most essentially is. In describing the beauty of the Aspens, a type of tree, Hopkins focuses on the way they interact with and affect the space and atmosphere around them, changing the quality of the light and contributing to the elaborate natural patterning along the bank of the river.
The poem shows the line of trees to a rank of soldiers, “Of fresh and following folded rank”. The military...