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  • Hopkins's Prosody
  • Meredith Martin (bio)

Hopkins Quarterly, 38.1-2, published by agreement of the editors in conjunction with Victorian Poetry, 49, no.2, as sharing the common theme, “Prosody.”

It is impossible to tell the story of twentieth- and twenty-first century prosodic criticism without mentioning the priest, poet, and prosodist Gerard Manley Hopkins. Is there a history of nineteenth or twentieth century poetics that does not include his sprung rhythm? It was not at all surprising when, after posting a call for papers on "Victorian Prosody" for the journal Victorian Poetry, the majority of submissions mentioned Hopkins. In fact, this special issue of The Hopkins Quarterly is in response to how many scholars of nineteenth-century poetry and scholars of linguistic prosody continue to approach poetic form through Gerard Manley Hopkins's work. But however familiar Hopkins seems to us as the prosodic experimenter, the innovator whose publication history aligned him with modernist poetic experiments, the darling of both literary and linguistic scholars alike, there is no lack of new work on Hopkins's prosody. Indeed, though critical fads come and go (and are reflected in the different ways Hopkins's use of poetic form have been considered by scholars) the fact remains that Hopkins's poems demand a different kind of reading than other poems, and they compel us to understand why that is.

In 1921, in his revision to the incredibly useful English Metrists, Being a Sketch of English Prosodical Criticism from Elizabethan Times to the Present Day,1 Thomas Stewart Omond writes a postscript, updating the present day to include the first edition of Hopkins's Poems. Only three years after 1918, when the first full volume of Hopkins's poems appeared, Omond's inclusion of Hopkins signaled that the poems, and Bridges's introduction to them, were participating in a specifically prosodic discourse, a discourse that is part of reading Hopkins's poems whether we know it or not. After praising Cary Jacob's The Foundations and Nature of Verse (1918),2 Omond sandwiches his dismissal of Hopkins between summaries of Adelaide Crapsey's A Study in English Metrics (1918)3 and Mr. (Matthew Albert) Bayfield's two-volume [End Page 1] The Measures of the Poets (1919).4 Here is what Omond has to say about Hopkins's prosody:

1918 brought the Poems of Gerard Hopkins, with introduction and notes by the Poet Laureate. Readers who enjoy fantastic new would-be developments of metre will study these poems and their author's teaching about "Sprung Rhythm" and other mysteries, and will find ample material in the one poem entitled "The Wreck of the Deutschland"; others, neither intolerant of nor unhopeful for new experiments, will turn from them with repugnance. The Editor's introduction and notes are, as always, clear and helpful, expounding his friend's metrical theories, and not infrequently registering dissent from his eccentricities, especially in rhyming. The double rhymes in "The Loss of the Eurydice" are simply atrocious, and curiously enough the Editor has singled out for special censure one of the least offensive of these. I cannot believe that these poems deserve or will receive attention from even the most determined seeker after novelties.


Nearly ninety years after this dismissal, most critical accounts of English prosody in the latter half of the twentieth century recognize Hopkins's development of "sprung rhythm" as a subsection of English poetry, so important as to deserve its own explanation. Sprung rhythm appears in many introductions to poetic forms5 and Hopkins is often named as its innovator (though Piers Plowman is also often mentioned). But despite a general acceptance of Hopkins's "sprung rhythm" into the canon of prosodic forms, literary and linguistic scholars immediately began puzzling over the problems of Hopkins's prosody. And Hopkins himself puzzled over it—it was a ghost rhythm haunting his ear as he wrote "The Wreck of the Deutschland," and he revised his approach to meter and rhythm over the course of his lifetime. His own equivocation over, and revision of, what sprung rhythm was is part of the reason we go back to Hopkins again and again; the rhythm itself was something we can...


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