‘The Poplar Field’ by William Cowper is a five stanza poem which is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme in the pattern of, aabb ccdd eeff.., etc. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Poplar Field
‘The Poplar Field’ by William Cowper describes the destruction of a field of poplar trees and how its loss allows a speaker to reflect on his death.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the place he loves no longer gives him shade. The trees have been cut down and are now more like seats. Their loss has impacted more than just his own emotions though, the blackbird no longer has anywhere to gain protection from the sun and has been forced to move to a new “scene.”
In conclusion, the speaker realizes that the pleasures of life are incredibly short, so much so that they are sure to die out before humankind does. The entire situation has forced to speaker to contend with his own death.
Analysis of The Poplar Field
The speaker begins this piece by describing the current state of a place that means a great deal to him. The poet has chosen to focus on the details of this place rather than fully describing when or where it is. Further description is not necessary due to the fact that the reader will gain a full understanding of the emotions tied to the setting. The experiences of the speaker in this place are what matters, not its actual location.
The speaker does devote a remarkable amount of time to describing the individual details of the setting. One very important detail that is noted in the first line is that the “poplars are felled.” This is important because of the title of the piece, and the fact that the poet chose to begin the poem in this way. The entire poem is named after this particular field and the poplars within it. If the poplars are gone, then what is left? What kind of field is it?
The poplar trees have been cut down and the speaker notes to himself that this is a “farewell to the shade.” He is describing the situation, and truly wishing the past farewell. A place that he cares deeply about has been irreparably changed.
Departing alongside the trees is the “whispering sound of the cool colonnade” and the winds that used to “play” in the landscape. There is an element of peace that is draining away, and the reader is not yet sure what is going to be left behind.
This stanza ends with the loss of one other element of the landscape, the reflection of leaves in the River Ouse, located in Yorkshire, England.
The second stanza begins with the speaker describing why it is that things appear to be so changed. It has been “Twelve years” since the first time that the speaker ever set his eyes upon the “view / Of [his] favourite field.”
Once more he turns to what was the grandest element of the landscape, the poplar trees. They have been felled, or cut down, since the last time he was there. They no longer provide him with the shade they used to. His favourite tree is now his “seat.” This is a reference to the fact that the trees are horizontal on the ground, they have been cut down and, at this point anyway, abandoned.
The setting has been transformed and permanently changed within his mind. This descriptions the poet has included are presented through a setting, but represent something so much larger. Cowper has crafted a larger commentary on loss and change. As well as the inability to get back something, or some time, lost.
In the third stanza the speaker turns to another creature that has been impacted by the cutting down of the poplars in the field. He mentions “The blackbird” which has “fled” the poplar field for some other “retreat” which is now more hospitable. “He,” referring to the bird, is looking for somewhere that can “screen” him from the heat.
There is no forest to protect the animals from the sun, nor from greater dangers. Everyone, including the speaker, are newly exposed. The blackbird is seeking out a new sanctuary where he can sing his “ditty.” It no longer echoes around the “scene” that the narrator remembers.
In the second to last stanza the speaker directly references the passage of time and how it has brought so much change to his own life, and to the life of his environment. He sees that his “fugitive years,” or the years of his youth are “hasting away,” or slipping into the past.
He knows that becoming part of the past is his own fate as well. “Ere long,” or before long, he too will be lost. When this happens, and he is dead, he will be covered in “turf” or earth, and have a “stone” at his head.
He is describing his own grave, where he will rest in the future. The speaker knows that before this field of poplars can ever grow back, he will be long dead. He will not live to see it rejuvenated.
In the final stanza the speaker takes a larger, overarching view of what has happened to his world. The shock of seeing the field in this state has triggered him to think more deeply about life. It has “engage[d] him” more than anything else. It has also inspired him to think on the way that the “pleasures of man” so easily “perish.”
As stated above, the poet has chosen to represent loss through the degradation of a much loved landscape. It is the embodiment of loss, and is made easier to understand through its relatability.
In the last two lines the speaker summarizes what he has learned through seeing the poplar field as it now is. He knew previously that the “enjoyments” of humankind are short, but now he knows that they “die sooner than we.” They must be fully appreciated while they exist.