Sprung Rhythm

This is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term for his most characteristic and idiosyncratic poetic mode. Hopkins seemed to define it as organizing lines around stressed syllables. In sprung rhythm, the poetic foot always starts on a stressed syllable and may be one to four syllables long; other unstressed, or “slack,” syllables may also cluster around the strongly stressed ones, but it is only stress that counts. The most important consequence of this theory for Hopkins’s own poetry was his feel for a poetic foot that might be a single syllable long: No alternation of any sort is required between stressed and unstressed syllables, as would be required in what Hopkins called “running meter”—that is, the received iambic and sometimes trochaic meter of English poetry.

In Hopkins’s poetry, the accumulation of stresses can produce moments of great intensity, as in the sonnet “The Windhover.” There such lines as “Brute beauty & valour & act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” and “& blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, gáll themsélves, & gásh góld-vermílion” pile up stresses without pausing for breath. The accent marks in the last line show Hopkins making sure that the stresses are not neglected, and they tend to match up as well with assonance and alliteration: Brute beauty; pride, plume; blue-bleak; Fall, gáll; gash gold. To write in sprung rhythm is to hunt for stresses and therefore to tend to go to Anglo-Saxon one-syllabled nouns and adjectives; thus, one becomes a kind of poetic cataloger of the intense and bristling variety of the world (which is one of the affinities between Hopkins and the American poet Walt Whitman, whom he admired).

Hopkins, one of the central theorists of prosody in English literary history, confirmed the percussive nature of this meter in a letter of 1879, when he wrote: “[T]he word Sprung which I use for this rhythm means something like abrupt and applies by rights only where one stress follows another running, without syllable between.” Later, he wrote of some kinds of poetry in which “the stresses come together and so the rhythm is sprung.” Hopkins invented the name, in an 1877 letter to Robert Bridges, his friend, fellow poet, critic, and editor, using it to describe the meter of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “I do not of course claim to have invented sprung rhythms but only sprung rhythm; I mean that single lines and instances of it are not uncommon in English. . . . The choruses in Samson Agonistes are intermediate between counterpointed and sprung rhythm. In reality they are sprung.”

Hopkins was more modest in a preface he wrote for possible publication of his poems six years later, where he again defined the sprung form as a rhythm based on stresses but claimed that he had rediscovered the rhythm of classical and early English poetry, in particular the medieval poem Piers Plowman, probably by William Langland. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who did not know that he was reinventing the prosody of Old English, also wrote a stress-based meter in Christabel (under the influence of the ballad meter of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry [1765]). But Hopkins was more radical still (if not quite so great a poet) in allowing for one syllable feet and in also making, as he often did, a series of stresses into one stress by the way he crammed them together.

In the 1877 letter to Bridges, Hopkins asked, “Why do I employ sprung rhythm at all? Because it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms.” But to say that it is close to prose is not to say that it is close to speech, which Hopkins also liked to claim. Rather, it shares with considered rhetoric a sense that rhythm should sustain pressure rather than dissipate it, as it does in what Hopkins called “running meter.”

Hopkins did not write only in sprung rhythm and, in fact, noted that the kind of counterpoint between expectation and actualization that is characteristic of much of the most mellifluous English poetry is impossible in sprung rhythm. It is nevertheless his most memorable mode, and no one succeeded better than he. William Butler Yeats, later in life, experimented with it, and in our own day, it can be seen in poets such as Paul Muldoon. But Hopkins is unexcelled in its use.

Bridges, Robert. Preface to Notes in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by W. H. Gardner, 94–101. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.
Gardner, W. H. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889): A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949.
———, ed. Introduction to Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, ­England: Penguin, 1963.
Hollander, John. “Blake and the Metrical Contract.” In From Sensibility to Romanticism, edited by Frederick Hilles and Harold Bloom, 293–310. New York: Oxford, 1965. Reprinted in John Hollander, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985, 187–211.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Terms and Techniques, Literature, Poetry, Victorian Literature

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