- "Opening" the Pentameter:Hopkins's Metrical Experimentation
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.”
"[F]ew will read it ["The Loss of the Euridyce"], and of those few fewer will scan it."1
Hopkins's insistence on peppering his verse with peculiar diacritics ("so much needed and yet so objectionable")2 is something that has puzzled—indeed, irritated—many of his admirers, but it reflects not only his understanding of the crucial importance of rhythm to poetic form and meaning, but also a sophisticated awareness (derived, perhaps, from his professional expertise in philology) that the prosodic structures that shape rhythm—patterns of stress, accentuation and so forth—are not automatically and unambiguously encoded in writing merely because they were present in the writer's mind. If we are to understand his innovations in meter—that is, if we are to read him appropriately—we will need to draw upon a similar degree of linguistic sophistication. This the ad hoc diacritics by themselves cannot supply; despite them, for example, he has been enlisted as an early champion of free verse by those who see meter as a kind of oppressive constraint (even Bridges thought that "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo" was too much under the spell of Walt Whitman).3 Herbert Read wrote in 1933 that
the virtue of Hopkins's theory of Sprung Rhythm is that it justifies every departure from regularity of rhythm: it justifies, in fact, free rhythm—the rhythm, in Hopkins's own words, not only of his poetry but also of common speech, nursery rhymes, weather saws and so on. So that it seems meaningless to say … that Hopkins was merely [End Page 93] substituting … one set of laws for another…. There can be no possible doubt that the rhythm of Hopkins's poems, considered individually, was intuitive in origin.4
Yet Hopkins himself explicitly disavowed any connection with what he called Whitman's "irregular rhythmic prose" (LI, 155) and insisted that there was method in his madness, a method he labeled "Sprung Rhythm." That method has proved to be less than transparent, however, since (as a recent commentator has remarked) "No other poetry in English has excited such wildly diverse judgments" about its metrical form;5 he cites various recent critical pronouncements that deem it to be fundamentally "accentual (the most common view)," or spondaic, or quantitative, or even (paradoxically) "a disciplined form of free verse."6 Some, like Harold Whitehall and Edward Stephenson,7 take Sprung Rhythm to be dipodic (that is, characterized by alternating strong—or stressed—and weak (unstressed) beats), a view based on a reading of Hopkins's "Author's Preface" and effectively disposed of by Hurley, who points out that "even for critics sympathetic to a dipodic interpretation, the overwhelming majority of Hopkins's lines resist being read in that way."8 There has been just as much confusion among readers and critics over what Sprung Rhythm represents in purely practical terms: one critic calls "No worst" and "I wake and feel" "sonnets in sprung rhythm" but "God's Grandeur" and "Starlight Night" "sonnets in standard rhythm,"9 a distinction that in these cases I find baffling. Sometimes critics confuse metrical complexity with Sprung Rhythm. One, to illustrate the concept, claims that while "To R. B." is "written mainly in iambic pentameters," the second line "would have been unacceptable to prosodists before Hopkins,"10 but this is just false: "Spur, live| and lan|cing like| the blow|pipe flame|" can be easily equaled in metrical and prosodic complexity, even by Pope: "Shut, shut| the door|, good John|! fatigu'd|, I said|."11 What I wish to suggest in this essay is that his claim about "Deutschland" ("The development is mine but the beat is in Shakspere")12 is more than a mere rhetorical flourish, and that in one form Sprung Rhythm represents an exploration and extension of some of Shakespeare's more peculiar metrical practices, in particular his use of catalexis, or the representation of offbeats by syllabic gaps or absences. Understanding these practices, however, will...