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  • Hopkins' Spiritual Ecology in “Binsey Poplars”
  • Brian J. Day (bio)

As an interdisciplinary endeavor, ecocriticism, "the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment,"1 has been with us for more than a decade, yet its impact on the study of Victorian literature has been slight, and on Victorian poetry even less. Jonathan Bate devotes part of a chapter to John Ruskin and William Morris in his groundbreaking study Romantic Ecology,2 but little else appeared until the publication of The Environmental Tradition in English Literature,3 an essay collection edited by John Parham. In his own contribution to the volume, "Was there a Victorian Ecology?," Parham briefly lays out the ecocritical credentials and potential of a number of Victorian writers, asserting, in the final paragraph, that "[Gerard Manley] Hopkins was the one Victorian poet who consistently, imaginatively re-created the specific conditions of the Victorian ecosystem" (pp. 170-171). Parham makes large claims for Hopkins, whose poems, he believes, "contain an imaginative seed with the essence, not just of a broader understanding of Hopkins, or of Victorian ecology, or even of ecocriticism, but of ecology, itself" (p. 171). To date, however, no significant attempt at an ecocritical reading of Hopkins has appeared since a pair of essays by Jerome Bump in the early 1970s.4

Parham argues that from its Victorian beginnings, ecology has been "both a scientific and a social philosophy" (p. 156), and he posits an ecocritical approach that parallels this development. While it is certainly true that Hopkins was aware of and actively engaged in scientific enquiry,5 and that he experienced and wrote of the environmental degradation of Britain's countryside and inner cities,6 his ecological and economic views owe at least as much to his spiritual beliefs as they do to science and social philosophy, something evident in his poetry and theological writings alike. In pursuing the argument that Hopkins' writings demonstrate an ecological worldview—that is, one acknowledging the interrelatedness of the human economy with nature's economy—this paper will argue, through a reading of "Binsey Poplars: felled 1879," that Hopkins' ecology is fundamentally spiritual, and constituted as a tripartite economy, with the divine economy inseparable from the human economy and nature's.7 [End Page 181]

But before turning to "Binsey Poplars," we need to consider the theological underpinnings of Hopkins' spiritual ecology, evident in hiswriting out of "some thoughts" on St. Ignatius Loyola's "Principium sive Fundamentum" ("First Principle and Foundation"),8 during a spiritual retreat in Liverpool in 1880. Loyola's brief text, composed as a subject for Christian meditation, begins:

Man was created to praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth were created for man's sake and to help him in the carrying out of the end for which he was created. Hence it follows that man should make use of creatures so far as they help him to attain his end and withdraw from them so far as they hinder him from so doing.

("Principium," p. 122)

Despite the unpromisingly anthropocentric view of nature expressed inthis passage, Hopkins' "thoughts" on Loyola's text ask basic ontological questions with profoundly ecological implications. In answering questions about the nature of being, Hopkins posits the interrelated nature of all beings and their self-development. Hopkins begins by asking: "From what . . . do I with all my being and above all that taste of self, that selfbeing, come? Am I due (1) to chance? (2) to myself, as selfexistent? (3) to some extrinsic powers?" ("Principium," p. 123). He quickly dismisses the first proposition and concludes by affirming in a single sentence the third, that he is "due to an extrinsic power"—God ("Principium," p. 128). He expends the greatest part of his energies on the second proposition, considering two points that are germane to the study of Hopkins' ecology: the relation of self and other, and the relation of the particular to the universal. In considering these relations, Hopkins sets out first principles and foundations not only for a theology but for an ecology too.

Hopkins' treatise considers ontological and...


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