When approaching forms, it’s always surprising to find how old some of them are. When considering modern poetry, it’s surprising also to know that poems we consider modern even revolutionary are over one hundred years old. I think the period after World War II must have curtailed the move toward “modernism”. And as I’m often reminded by one of our dVerse poets Arron Shilling, the most fertile modern movements in art, literature, philosophy, theater, music and dance was the period between the two world wars. Even though this type of poetry was conceived before that era, it has impacted and continues to impact the prosody of modern poets since its creation. The sound of it is new, different and exciting to a poet.
Gerard Manley Hopkins who is credited with the invention of Sprung Rhythm was born in 1844. He was the son of a poet and apparently could have been almost anything he wanted. One of those gifted young men, the oldest of nine children he attended grammar school in Highgate and won a scholarship to Bailliol College, Oxford. He graduated as its star. Having been tutored in drawing and painting as well as music, at university he opted for poetry. He was almost surely a manic/depressive personality with a strong Anglican faith. Seeking for “authenticity”, he converted to Roman Catholicism under the influence of Cardinal Newman who had famously converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
Becoming very devout, he took Holy Orders, and became a Jesuit Priest. Early on Hopkins (having read Thomas Acquinas) decided that it was distracting, and possibly sinful to carry on with his poetry. He burned all his early poetry and didn’t write again for seven years. After reading Dun Scotus in 1872, he changed his mind and began writing again. He studied Old English and having moved to Wales learned Welsh.
In 1874, he wrote a poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, about a shipwreck that had killed five German nuns who had been persecuted. This was the initial use of his new theory about poetry, Sprung Rhythm. By not limiting the number of “slack” or unaccented syllables, Hopkins allowed for more flexibility in his lines and created new acoustic possibilities. In this meter of poetry, rhythm is based on the number of stressed syllables in a verse without regard to the number of unstressed syllables.
Put another way, sprung rhythm may be said to designate the meter of a verse which contains feet of varying number of syllables, with the first syllable accented in each case. The feet possible are the monosyllabic (a single stressed syllable), the trochee, the dactyl, and the spondee. The obvious result of a line composed of combinations of such varying feet is extreme metrical irregularity. The scansion of such poetry is, as W. B. Yeats noted, difficult because “it may not be certain at first glance where the stress falls”. The Poetic foot may continue to the beginning of the next line is noted in almost all the information concerning this technique.
When considering how to write it for myself, I more or less disregarded the concept of foot altogether. I believe the way to approach sprung rhythm is to consider only the number of stressed syllables per line. Choosing a number like four or five (both of which are common to English speech patterns) and employing that many per line seems to work. For the most part, I think lines begin and end with stressed syllables; however Hopkins liked the idea of enjambment rather than end-stopped lines. In such cases if the end syllable is stressed the following syllables at the beginning of the next line may be unstressed to keep the “spring” in the text continuing.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines sprung rhythm as “an irregular system of prosody developed by the 19th-century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is based on the number of stressed syllables in a line and permits an indeterminate number of unstressed syllables. In sprung rhythm, a foot may be composed of from one to four syllables. (In regular English metres, a foot consists of two or three syllables.) Because stressed syllables often occur sequentially in this patterning rather than in alternation with unstressed syllables, the rhythm is said to be “sprung.” Hopkins claimed to be only the theoretician, not the inventor, of sprung rhythm.”
In addition to developing new rhythmic effects, Hopkins was also very interested in ways of rejuvenating poetic language. He regularly placed familiar words into new and surprising contexts. He also often employed compound and unusual word combinations, interjections, assonance and alliteration giving his poems counterpoint in musical terms. As he was both an artist and a musician as well as a poet, his poetry has color, texture and musicality that he would likely argue was present in English from its inception. He found that music in the rhythms of Irish and Welsh speech, in nursery rhymes, and the texts of Old English manuscripts.
I think to write using this technique is to listen to one’s own personal music. As it’s difficult to scan, there is no “right or wrong” in using this technique. It’s another tool in finding one’s personal voice using English words and rhythms as the music of poetry. I am including Pied Beauty, one of his more famous poems in a proposed scansion.
|Glory|be to|God for|dappled|things—
For|skies of|couple-|colour as a|brinded|cow;
For|rose-moles|all in|stipple upon|trout that|swim;
|Landscape|plotted and|pieced—fold,|fallow, and|plough;
And|all|trades, their|gear and|tackle and|trim.
|All things|counter, o|riginal,|spare,|strange;
What|ever is|fickle,|freckled|(who knows|how?)
With|swift,|slow; sweet,|sour; a|dazzle,|dim;
He|fathers-|forth whose|beauty is|past|change:
If there is a “challenge” today, it is to take this springing of stresses and use it in a poem of your own. Feel free to link below and share it; or in the comments, share your thoughts on its use.