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  • Thronging the Ear:Hopkins and the Counterpoint of Prosody
  • John Golden

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.”

"I fumble a little at music, at counterpoint, of which in course of time I shall come to know something; for this, like every other study, after some drudgery yields up its secrets, which seem inpenetrable [sic] at first."1 Hopkins, aged thirty-nine, wrote this to Richard Dixon in June, 1883; he would die six years later. There is more than humility in this self-caricature: Hopkins's life-long interest in music took the form of a perpetual amateur's struggle. As a child, he sang rounds and songs written by his father, but he could not read music. He never learned to play an instrument well, but in the last decade of his life he set several poems (usually not his own) to music. He would be seen in his last years at University College, Dublin, sitting at a piano and strumming with one finger, trying out melodies.2 Yet Hopkins has become a central figure in discussions of the relation of music to prosody in particular because of his notion of counterpoint rhythm. Counterpoint as a possibility of poetic rhythm continues to raise questions for prosodic theorists, but Hopkins's own difficulties with counterpoint suggest that productive difficulty itself lies at the root of its application to prosody, indeed at the root of the relation of music to prosody generally. Hopkins's aesthetic generalization of counterpoint, finally, illuminates his innovative sense of the dynamic, layered nature of cognition and self-recognition.

It is in the "Author's Preface" of 1883, the year of his letter to Dixon about learning musical counterpoint, that Hopkins's most influential description of "Counterpoint Rhythm" occurs. Hopkins describes a reversal of meter (usually trochees substituted for iambs) for two consecutive feet:

[Such a reversal] must be due either to great want of ear or else is a calculated effect, the superinducing or mounting of a new rhythm upon the old; and since the new or [End Page 51] mounted rhythm is actually heard and at the same time the mind naturally supplies the natural or standard foregoing rhythm, for we do not forget what the rhythm is that by rights we should be hearing, two rhythms are in some manner running at once and we have something answerable to counterpoint in music, which is two or more strains of tune going on together, and this is Counterpoint Rhythm.3

The ambiguity left open here—that the reversed feet might indicate simply the poet's "great want of ear"—is not duplicated on the side of the reader: "the mind," Hopkins unequivocally asserts, "naturally supplies the natural or foregoing rhythm" as it hears the "new" one. And yet this dual action is itself an open question for later critics. Thus John Hollander in 1975 urges us to see Hopkins's term less as a "fruitful analogy" than as a "startling metaphor":4 "[N]otice how Hopkins's own metaphors of 'superinducing or mounting a new rhythm on the old' lead him to an actually inaccurate musical analogy. The correct one would be rather one of syncopation." Hollander allows Hopkins a passage out of this semantic cornering by denying Hopkins the aural metaphor. What Hopkins was really thinking of, Hollander explains, was a visual image. "For Hopkins, counterpoint is generated by two musical lines, commensurate in category; but the two kinds of rhythm, the potential or schematic and the actual, are hardly so." Hopkins must have imagined the poetic line supplemented by two "alternative strings of scansion marks," one for the standard and one for the mounted rhythm. "Together, these two strings of syllable markers might have seemed to Hopkins like a staff of musical notation, like two musical lines being simultaneously generated."5 By removing Hopkins's metaphor to the visual realm, Hollander defuses even its power to "startl[e]" us: he makes it another formal notation, a side-effect of mere scansion. Derek Attridge, in The Rhythms of English Poetry, similarly refuses any audible reality...


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