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  • Hopkins' Affective Rhythm:Grace and Intention in Tension
  • Joshua King (bio)

"Why do I employ sprung rhythm at all?" the Victorian poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins asks fellow poet Robert Bridges in 1877.1 Hopkins' question remains largely unanswered. I do not, however, intend yet another contribution to the eye-glazing debate over sprung rhythm's technical integrity, its viability versus impracticability; doing so would merely perpetuate the presumption, still active in most discussions of sprung rhythm since W. H. Gardner's foundational Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition, that Hopkins poses his question in purely technical terms.2 Unquestionably much has been and is yet to be learned from such formal scrutiny; but the assumption that analysis of sprung rhythm should begin and end at this level is entirely questionable. Hopkins answers his own question for Bridges, and his focus is not on pure technique. He champions his prosody's preservation of "the native and natural rhythm of speech" (Letters, p. 46). To presume to have captured in poetry the native character of spoken rhythm is to presume to have captured at least some of the native character of its speaker.3 Sprung rhythm is more than a metrical novelty: in it Hopkins finds a means for apprehending and recommending to a reader kinds of affective and cognitive experience. In his earliest experiments with sprung rhythm, he connects its performance to an experience of grace. He wants to guide his anticipated reader's rhythmic voicing into an impression of grace.

My use of "anticipated" recognizes the tension between Hopkins' intention for his rhythm and his inability to ensure its fulfillment. In Hopkins' theology and prosody, the intentions—meanings, designs, purposes—of poetry and the experienced world are "uttered" by a person through intensive mental engagement and received by him as stresses of affective and cognitive energy. This process requires straining inherent qualities of the speaker and what is spoken into more vigorous states, just as potential energy is converted into kinetic: the activation of sprung rhythm's intentional tension necessitates conversion of a reader's "natural" inclinations in voicing. When Hopkins' few contemporary readers resist this conversion, he is confronted by the possibility that, rather than conveying the nature of grace, his cadences evidence his efforts to shape his reader's nature. [End Page 209]

II. One's Own Utterances: Hopkins' Theology of Grace

"God, grant to men to see in a small thing, notices common to things great and small."4 St. Augustine comments on our experience of time and grace, "notices" of which we encounter "in [the] small thing" of listening to ourselves speak. He recites a line of Latin verse, wondering how he measures its syllables, since each is instantly passing before he finishes hearing it. He does this, he believes, because his "'present [mental] intention (praesens intentio) [intentio: a straining, a tension]'" conveys before him a sequence of mentally preserved sensations.5 A person's present intention can be drawn out of mental distension (distentio: a stretching asunder) between diverse impressions and toward God's eternal present through the mediation of the incarnate Word, Christ. Hopkins holds a similar conviction: humans are intended to interpret temporally and spatially distended impressions of the world's energies into spoken utterances, through which may be felt present, affective stresses of God's grace. He wrote his most systematic meditations on grace while on his 1881 Long Retreat, a thirty-day contemplation of St. Ignatius Loyola's Exercises observed by Jesuits. Yet, the meditations are Hopkins' exposition, with the aid of Roman Catholic theology,6 of intuitions he had been working out in poetry and prose for over a decade: these temporally disparate writings can be used to interpret each other's uniting intentions.

We might begin with notes Hopkins made as an undergraduate at Oxford on the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides. Parmenides believes the "is" invoked or implied by all speech acts (e.g. "blood is red") actually exists, everywhere indivisible and itself: every time we speak we can hear ourselves saying "Being is." Cotter identifies the significance of this statement for Hopkins: "The divine name of...


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