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Sprung Rhythm in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins and His Poetry : Introduction
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is full of unusual and innovative phrases and rhythms, inspired by Nature and created in praise of his God. A Jesuit priest and teacher, many of his poems are religious but transcend religion, are beautifully structured and have what Hopkins called sprung rhythm, a term he invented and which is based on Old and Middle English lines with alliteration and rhyme.
When I read his poetry I sometimes feel the words bouncing off my tongue in a strange yet enriching syllabic dance. It's fascinating. His poetry was certainly different for the time.
He also created the terms inscape and instress which are to do with why a thing is created and how divine energy holds things together.
'Poetry is in fact the speech employed to carry the inscape of speech for inscape's sake.'
His poems are full of observations made out in the countryside of England, Wales and Ireland. He refers to the landscape, the trees, plants and in particular the birds. His poetry gives praise to God, the Lord and the Holy Spirit, the energy inside every living thing.
I find his work fascinating despite it's complexity. He uses words for their musicality and aural effect.
This guide will throw light on three major poems - Inversnaid, The Windhover and God's Grandeur - as well as giving insights into the life and times of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is an important link between the Romantic poets (for example Wordsworth and Keats) the Victorians (Tennyson and Browning) and on through to Ezra Pound and the Imagists. Why?
His poetry used new words, gave fresh twists to the English language and brought different use of stressed and unstressed syllables. Because of his experiments he helped loosen up poetic expression.
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
The Windhover - Help with Words
favourite or darling
a french word for prince
hold the end of
fasten, meet in one, join closely
ridge between furrows of a ploughed field
break the surface
Hopkins considered this his best ever poem. It's about a falcon - called a kestrel - a bird of prey that when hunting, 'hovers' above the ground looking out for mice and voles and other creatures, which it swoops down on. It's also a master of the wind, using sharp wings and keen senses when flying.
The poem initially focuses on the physical action of this bird, how it delights and inspires the poet. This in turn releases the spiritual energy within, the human desire to attain such heights of ecstasy, related to the sacrifice made by Christ.
The first six lines take us straight into the bird's flight, captured by the poet in first person, not physically catching the kestrel but caging it with the eye. Note how the sound pattern changes, twists and turns and flows, reflecting the movement of the falcon as it exploits the wind.
Watch out for enjambment, assonance and alliteration, poetical devices that help bring texture and movement within the unusual rhyme scheme - all the words from line 1-8 end in -ing.
Line 7 suggests that the poet was inspired by the kestrel's flight, uplifted by the exceptional artistry:
My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Technically there's iambic pentameter in line 1 (caught, morn, morn, min, king) but then the lines begin to stretch and challenge. Line 2 for example has seven stresses and is what Hopkins called an outrider. You can sense the poet's excitement as the bird again and again masters the 'big wind'.
The final six lines of the sonnet deal with the beauty of this bird and its inherent spiritual energy, in this case related to Christ. There is a 'fire' within the kestrel that takes the bird to the edge, into near danger, soaring to the heights, a true royal. This fire is within us all and every living thing;even the earthly soil turned over by the plough, which shines as it cuts, revealing the interior, the essence, which is 'gold-vermilion', like blood.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Inversnaid is a short four stanza poem about the Scottish wilderness, near Loch Lomond. It has a classic look and feel - until you start reading through for the first time. Unusual words and phrases begin their journey along your tongue, reflecting the flow of the 'darksome burn' (Scots burn = English brook or beck) as it tumbles down.
Take the first two lines:
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down...
Full of energy and power these rough tetrameter lines have four compound words one of which is invented - rollrock - within a common rhyme scheme. The second line conjures up an image of water crashing down over boulders, quite evocative.
The second and third stanzas continue the vivid descriptions of this burn as it tumbles its way into the lake below. Note the short line and the longer line in stanza three.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
The final stanza is a direct question followed by the answer, one which has great relevance for today, with the environment being such a hot topic. Having set the scene with a wonderfully textured description of the burn as it threads its way downwards the poem then asks the reader - what the world would be like without 'wet and wildness?'
The poet suggests that the world would be 'bereft', it would lose something vital. The last line is curious - 'Long live' is often used to praise royalty as in 'Long live the King', yet here it's used to praise lowly weeds. I think this is a nod to the grandeur of God again. Although the poet doesn't mention God or Christ or the Holy Spirit in the poem, stanza one does imply that the rollrock highroad is 'His', ie God's.
Inversnaid - Help With Words
compound of dark and handsome
flute or frill shape
floating/riding like a sail or hat
light brown colour like a young deer
mix of dwindle, twist
sprinkled (Scots dialect)
banks or hillsides(Scots dialect)
heather packed/heath clumps
side of meat/flicks or streaks
beautiful droplets like beads
robbed of a lover or loved ones.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28th, 1844 in Stratford, Essex, England. Both his parents were staunch Anglicans and his father an amateur poet. The young Hopkins was bright enough to win a scholarship which took him to Balliol College, Oxford, to study Classics.
An artistic person, he was also deeply religious but unable to find contentment at Oxford. Eventually he met with Cardinal Newman, a convert from Church of England Anglicism to Roman Catholicism. Newman's influence proved crucial. Over the next two years Hopkins entered the Catholic church, passed his degree with first class honours and joined the Society of Jesus to train as a Jesuit priest. He was 22 years old.
He'd never stopped writing poetry during his days at Oxford and was strongly attracted towards the work of Christina Rossetti and John Ruskin. He also considered painting as a way forward in his life but ultimately it was the need to serve God that prevailed.
When he became a priest he burned all of his poetry because he thought it might clash with his role as a humble servant of God. He stopped writing altogether in 1868.
In his studies he began to read the work of an early philosopher, Duns Scotus, who thought that a human could only know things and objects directly by their inner essence. Gradually, with other influences taking hold, he took up poetry again, returning to his Muse in 1874.
Sonnets and verse flowed from his pen, climaxing in 1877 when he wrote many of his most well known poems.
Up until his death from typhus in 1889 little of his poetry was published. It was only when his friend Robert Bridges published a collection of his poems in 1918 that people became aware of Hopkins's exceptional work.
Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins was published by Humphrey Milford in London. A second edition in 1930 finally established his name.
Many modern poets have been influenced by his work, including Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, W.H.Auden and T.S. Eliot.
I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession.— Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
This poem is about the energy of God, it's continuing greatness and depth within Nature, despite the attempts of humans to destroy its beauty. Like many of Hopkins's poems this sonnet appears to be classical in form. For example, it has two parts, the 8 line octet and 6 line sestet, separated. The rhyme scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd. So far so good.
What makes this poem pure Hopkins is the unusual use of language and metre. Take lines 2 and 3.
Line 2 is pentameter but is it iambic? ...shining from shook foil...is a good example of sprung rhythm, two stressed syllables together, reflecting common speech.
Line 3 is an enjambed line...the ooze of oil/crushed...and also contains sprung rhythm.
So we have the classical and the experimental in one.
Lines 4-8 concentrate on the damage industry and human trade can do to the planet.
'/Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?'
Note the single syllable run of this line, the internal rhyme men/then and the alliteration reck/rod. This means why don't men pay heed to God's power?
Internal rhyme continues with seared/bleared/smeared...wears/shares...repeat rhyme.... have trod/have trod with end rhyme shod and rod.
This rich mix of rhyme and rhythm give a brilliant texture to the poem.
The final six lines reinforce the strength of this divine energy. Human interference may happen but Nature always recovers:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things
This line is often quoted and I love it for the optimism it holds. The poet is rejoicing in the fact that Mother Nature again and again replenishes that which is lost, recycles waste and comes out it with fresh growth. How this happens is down to the Holy Ghost which, like a nurturing bird broods over the planet keeping it safe and warm.
The final line has some interesting play between b and w....bent/World broods...with warm breast..with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins - Religious Poetry - Conclusion
There's no doubting the passion for language and the love for God in these poems. You don't have to be religious to enjoy them but you do have to read through the lines repeatedly to get the most out of them. Yes, there are some awkward archaic words and some of the lines are grammatically confusing, yet the feel and flow more than make up.
For rhymes, rhythm and experimental language there are few poets to match his genius.
Richard Burton Reads The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo by G.M.Hopkins
Images are by chef-de-jour unless stated otherwise.
© 2014 Andrew Spacey