Introduction to Gerard Manley Hopkins: Devout Catholicism and Sprung Rhythm

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  • 0:02 Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • 2:22 Sprung Rhythm
  • 5:46 'Pied Beauty'
  • 9:22 Homoeroticism
  • 11:57 'The Wreck of the Deutschland'
  • 14:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this video, we'll introduce the 19th-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins is famous for inventing a new type of meter for poetry: sprung rhythm. We'll examine his poems and analyze how sprung rhythm works. Additionally, we'll examine the influence of Catholicism on Hopkins' poetry.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

We're talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose middle name distinguishes him from his cousin, Gerard Not-Manley Hopkins, who enjoyed crocheting and dressing in drag. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th-century poet and also a Jesuit priest.

Since he was a Jesuit, his poetry is mainly religious in nature. You might think that this means that it's boring - I thought that when I first heard about this guy - but you'd be wrong. Hopkins' poetry is super-weird and interesting. It's awesome.

It has two things going on that you don't really associate much with religious poetry: it's got homoeroticism and it's avant-garde. So that should make you want to watch the rest of this video, I think! So let's go.

We're going to talk about what made Hopkins unique and then look at a few poems and see how they epitomize this really strange style that he takes to using.

First weird thing about Hopkins: he actually didn't publish during his lifetime. He had some kind of early rejection and got really self-conscious about it. If you think about it, his work was bound to be rejected because it was so different than anything going on at the time. So all of his fame and recognition came posthumously - kind of like movies that tank at the box office and then they eventually get cult popularity. Donnie Darko, Rocky Horror Picture Show, even Blade Runner didn't do well and now it's a classic.

He was pulled out of obscurity in the early 20th century - 1918 is when his first collection gets published. It's interesting because it was seen as weirdly contemporaneous with the avant-garde Modernist poetry being written at that time, in part because of this initial publication context. He's seen as a forerunner of Modernist poetry, and as someone who was ahead of his time in terms of the poetry he wrote.

A lot of the strange descriptions in his works are right at home in something like Ezra Pound's movement of Imagism, which tries to express ideas as specific images that are well-evoked and singular.

Sprung Rhythm

What exactly did he do that was so weird? I mentioned that he did images, but what he really did that was the strangest was that he came up with this whole new way of thinking about poetic meter.

Meter is just a fancy term for how poetry sounds - its rhythm; where it stresses and unstresses. Hopkins invented something that he called sprung rhythm. In order to understand sprung rhythm, we're going to have to do a quick primer on meter in general so that you can understand the difference.

You've probably heard of 'iambic pentameter,' which was common to Shakespeare. This is a type of something that is called 'accentual-syllabic verse,' which means that you construct your lines of poetry based on both on the number of accents in a line and also the number of syllables.

What does this mean? Let's take a look at a line of iambic pentameter and we'll figure it out:

Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer's day?

You can divide this line into five 'iambs,' which are a type of metrical 'foot' or group of syllables. An 'iamb' consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable - da DUM.

In iambic pentameter, there are five iambs per line (because penta- means five). So you've got:

Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY?

So that's an iambic pentameter line. Sprung rhythm is a type of 'accentual verse,' which means that you only pay attention to the number of accents in a line, instead of in something like iambic pentameter where you're paying attention to the accents and the numbers of syllables (that one is 'accentual-syllabic').

Example? What is this? Here's one you probably already know:

Baa baa black sheep

Have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir

Three bags full.

So if you go through that nursery rhyme and you count syllables, the poem looks totally irregular. You've got 4 syllables, then 5, then 4, then 3. But if you look at the accents, there's actually the same number of accents in each line.

BAA baa BLACK sheep

HAVE you any WOOL?

YES sir, YES sir,


Hopkins thought that if you designed poetry this way, it would more closely mimic the sounds of actual English speech. When he writes in 'sprung rhythm,' he makes sure that each of the lines in the poem has the same number of accents, but he doesn't pay attention to the number of syllables.

In general, the accents are set fairly rhythmically as well - so it's like you were timing the accents to fall with a metronome and had to squeeze all the unaccented syllables in to fit.

Again: BAA baa BLACK sheep HAVEyouanyWOOL?

You have to speed up on the 'haveyouany' to get those extra syllables to fit in on the rhythmic accent.

It's this kind of sing-songy accentual verse that got me convinced that LMNO was a letter in the alphabet song - LMNO P. But it's the same thing - you have the same number of accents but different numbers of syllables.

So let's get out of nursery rhyme land and look at some of Hopkins' poetry to see how this is put into practice in a cool way, rather than a little-kid way.

He was so into sprung rhythm that he actually marked it all out on his poetry - he would write in little accent marks.

'Pied Beauty'

'Pied Beauty' is probably one of his most famous poems. Not only does it show off sprung rhythm, but you can also start to see how religion works its way into his weird poetry. So let's read this one:

Glory be to God for dappled things -

For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;

For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoals chestnut-falls; finches' wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Can you believe this poem was written in 1877? It seems so weird and modern and crazy.

All those made-up words and phrases ('fathers-forth') and unadorned adjectives all in a row (swift, slow; sweet, sour) - and if you look at it closely, you can see that it totally follows sprung rhythm.

Look at these two lines:

All things COUNter, orIginal, SPARE, STRANGE;

Whatever is FICKle, FRECKled (WHO knows HOW?)

The first line is 10 syllables, and the second line is 11 syllables. But they have the same number of stresses (in totally different places).

If you want to think about what this poem means and how sprung rhythm helps accentuate that meaning Hopkins is basically describing a lot of things in nature that are 'dappled' or 'pied,' which just means multi-colored. He says at the beginning that glory should be to God for these multi-colored things - God makes all of this beautiful, pied stuff: the 'landscape plotted and pieced' (farm fields, essentially); the 'skies of couple-colour.'

The sprung rhythm allows Hopkins to place his emphases so as to enhance the effect. He can list these adjectives and emphasize all of them or none of them ('counter, original, spare, strange').

'Fickle, freckled' - he can choose to emphasize the 'fick' and the 'freck' in there and to show how those words are so similar. In doing so, he shows that that their different connotations (fickle is a personality trait, and freckled is a physical descriptor) become merged, right? Perhaps something freckled is a bit fickle in its coloration, because it's got more than one? It also adds the connotation of 'fickle,' or not long-lasting, so something that is freckled might not be permanent.

And then he presents God at the end, who isn't dappled or pied; whose beauty is constant. God creates the beautiful dappled things, but God's own beauty is above the changeability of the world.

'He fathers-forth' - first of all, that's one of my favorite phrases in poetry. It's this perfect image of God striding through the world and also creating (or fathering) everything in it. So good! It's how Hopkins expresses God. He finds God in the natural world, in the pied beauty, and praises Him; and he also uses these natural speech patterns (what the sprung rhythm is trying to get at) to follow finding God in the natural world. He's finding the God in natural speech as well - that's what he's trying to do.


You probably remember, if you were paying attention, that I mentioned something about homoeroticism in my intro. (And I think I said it in exactly that voice as well.)

Gerard Manley Hopkins is widely considered to have suppressed homoerotic impulses all of his life, which is sad. As a Jesuit and a resident of 19th-century England, it just wouldn't have been okay if he followed through on that.

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