Sprung Rhythm of G. M. Hopkins

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      We are so close to the Spenserian tradition even yet that it is difficult to realize the extent of the revolution Spenser affected. His full influence in establishing the eighteenth and nineteenth-century feeling for a “continuous literary decorum,” which so easily associated itself with the quiet throbbing of the smooth alternating-stress verse he perfected, is only beginning to be recognized as comparable to that of his greater disciple Milton, for whom he had everywhere paved the way. Saintsbury was not only making a supposition common in his day but he was calling attention to a fact when he said that Spenser was the Joshua who brought English prosody into its promised measure and rhyme. To appreciate the revolutionary effect of Spenser’s verse, we need only look to the diffidence of Elizabethan prosodists toward the “feet” which become the stock in trade of prosody in the late Spenserian tradition we have known. The Spenserian tradition cannot be said to have achieved nothing: it does one of the things which poetry can do.

      Hopkins found a tradition in English poetry which was older and stronger than the one in possession in his day. He found a rhythmic tradition which could cut under and around the “running” or “common” rhythm of the nineteenth century, not because his new rhythm was the ancient rhythm of English—this would be a fact of no value in itself—but because it was a rhythm still inherent in the language and only suppressed by an artified sustained tradition. It is indeed strange that between the period when we find Shakespeare’s “cabined, cribb’d, confined” and

If it were done, when it’s done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly....

      The later period which finally brought Hopkins’s “hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire” or “And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow”, there is almost nothing to compare with these passages. Certainly, such experession were not entirely foreign to speech though they may have been more foreign to it than we suspect but the kind of poetic rhythm in favor left them no room. Hopkins opened a place for them. In opening this place, Hopkins’s achievement was not quite alone. After the dramatists and the wit poets, there had remained tendencies to maintain in English poetry the strength of the sense-stress rhythms.

      In turning from the verse of the simple alternating stress, the nineteenth-century writers were all in one way or another felling back on the sense-stress pattering which is so much the bone and sinew of English rhythm. Evidence of the revival of the pattern is often in individual instances equivocal, but the evidence in the whole body of English verse two and the end of the 19th century as against the middle of the eighteenth is unmistakable. Moreover, there are such signs as the alliteration to be found here and there. It is the old functional alliteration asserting itself again, as it had asserted itself in Old English and was to assert itself in Hopkins’s sprung rhythm.

      Hopkins had found the tradition of a sense-stress rhythm, which we may also call the declamatory rhythm or the interpretive rhythm of English—a rhythm inherited from Old English as one of the bases of verse until the “reform” and “smoothing” of English numbers, principally under the influence of Edmund Spenser and his followers. Basically, this sense-stress rhythm is a rhythm which grows not from the tendency of English to stress every second or third syllable, but from the tendency of each sense stress, especially in emotional utterance, to constitute itself a kind of rhythmic unit, either alone or together with a varying number of slack syllables which may precede and follow it. These rhythmic units can be of more or less equal weight while retaining great variety of movement— falling, rocking, or rising—and various lengths.

      Hopkins’s achievement in reviving sense-stress rhythm is largely traceable to this understanding. On the strength of it, he turned in his poetry to language which is the normal tender for emotion, a currency heavy with the Anglo-Saxon small change of the English tongue. Hopkins’s preference for the short word is apparent in every line of his verse.

      General neglect of the longer Latin derivatives is indeed not essential to sense-stress rhythm. “Free Verse” has never been remarkable for Anglo-Saxon preferences, and its rhythm is no less sense-stress because the stresses consequently occur at a greater distance from one another than is usual in Hopkins, who is able to say of his own sprung rhythm verse that it uses more than three successive slacks only “for particular rhythmic effects”. Moreover, an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary is, conversely, quite consonant with the smooth rhythms of Gray’s Elegy, which in many stanzas can be convicted of no more Latinity than Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire”.

      Hopkins’s diction does make the characteristic movements, of his verse more unmistakable. By and large, the number of sense stresses in English decreases as
words become longer, since each words, no matter how long, ordinarily is ready to receive no more than one sense stresses, Hopkins’s verse moves so as to underline heavily the principles on which it is based.

      The reason for adopting “sprung rhythm” as a regular and permanent principle of scansion, Hopkins says that it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, teethe native and natural rhythm of speech. He calls it the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms, combining, in his opinion, opposite and seemingly incompatible excellences—“markedness of rhythm and naturalness of expression”. Hopkins thus catalogs the main features of sprung rhythm as distinguished from the traditional standard rhythm which he calls “running rhythm”; (1) Sprung rhythm is the rhythm of common speech and of written prose, when rhythm is perceived in them. (2) It is the rhythm of all except the most monotonously regular music, so that in the words of choruses and refrains and in songs written closely to music it arises. (3) It is found in nursery rhymes, weather saws, and so on (4) It arises in common verse when reversed or counter-pointed. The prosodic freedom was not a new thing. Shakespeare, Donne and Milton had worked with astonishing freedom within traditional prosodic patterns. All Hopkins did in some of his poems was openly and professedly to jettison these patterns. Quite frequently, however, he used traditional meters.

      Hopkins also observes that the old English verse (Piers Ploughman for instance) is in Sprung rhythm, though this rhythm ceased to be used after the Elizabethan Age, Green being the last writer who recognized it. To organize verse written in sprung rhythm he adopted the device of a fixed number of stresses per line. But even here he made provision for additional stresses, calling them “obtruding feet”. Other devices to organize verse in Sprung rhythm were rhyme (both at the ends of lines, and internally) alliteration, vowel-music etc.


According to Hopkins:

(i) Sprung Rhythm is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, to the native and natural rhythm of speech.

(ii) A fairly clear idea of sprung rhythm can be found in nursery rhymes, or in weather saws.

(iii) It is the rhythm of all except the most monotonously regular music, so that in the words of Choruses and refrains and in songs writen closely to music if arises.

(iv) It arises in common verse when reversed or counterpoint.

(v) The prosodic freedom was not a new thing. Shakespeare, Donne and Milton had worked with astonishing freedom within traditional prosodic patterns.

(vi) Sprung rhythm has over conventional meter the distinct advantages of strongly marked emphasis, naturalness, and flexibility in the placing of accents. Its disadvantages lie in its frequent lack of both rhythmic and rhetorical clarity (which he tried to defeat by means of elaborate markings), and its lack of subtlety—of rhythmic subtlety from the absence of counterpoint and of expressive subtlety from the non-descriptive status of all except indubitably strong and indubitably weak sounds.

Nature of sprung rhythm in one of his letters:

Why do I employ sprung rhythm? Because it is nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all rhythms, combining it seems to me, opposite, and one has thought, incompatible excellences, markedness of rhythm — that rhythm’s self naturalness of expression...

      There are some advantages in using sprung rhythm. As the poet would not be bound to a fixed number of syllables in very line he can get nearer to the natural and sometimes more forcible rhythms of ordinary speech. And not being bound to an underlying rhythm dictated by a predetermined meter, the poet has for greater freedom to make the sound of his words and phrases enhance his logical meaning. Hopkins always attached great importance to the oratorical effect of poetry, insisting that poetry was meant to be read out aloud and to be heard for its own sake even over and above the interest of meaning. Sometimes according to him, even the meaning became clearer through a poem being read aloud, through the sound of words. Sprung Rhythm is one of the technical innovations introduced by Hopkins. In a letter to Dixon Hopkins wrote:

I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realized on paper. I do not say the idea is altogether new, but no one has professedly used it and made it the principle throughout. However I had to mark the stresses and a great many more oddnesses could not but dismay an editor’s eye, so that when I offered it the poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland) to our magazine, The Month, they dared not print it.


      Hopkins is the almost unique case of a poet who preached what he practiced and practiced what he preached. As the voluminous comments his Letters show, his verse conforms to a thesis—a metrical thesis. Understand the thesis, and you grasp his poetic purpose.

      Hopkins’s verse reaches ultimate expression as poetry only when performed by a skilled reader before an audience capable of appreciating its phonal and rhythmical subtleties. On this point the poet himself is insistent:

“Everybody cannot be expected to like my pieces. Moreover, the oddness may make them repulsive at first sight.... Indeed, when on somebody returning to me by Eurydice, I opened and read some times, reading, as one commonly reads whether prose or verse, with the eyes, so to say, only it struck me aghast with a kind of raw nakedness and unmitigated violence I was unprepared for; but take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes right”.

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