Sprung Rhythm: Definition & Examples from Gerard Manley Hopkins

Sprung Rhythm: Definition & Examples from Gerard Manley Hopkins
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Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

The image of a twanging spring might not sound fitting for poetry, but 'sprung rhythm' is actually a rather sophisticated mode of poetic expression. Learn more about it and see some examples of it in the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins in this lesson!

Sprung Rhythm Defined

If you've spent any time with poetry before, you might be familiar with poetic meters like iambic pentameter. The name of this meter lets you know to expect five (penta-) iambs per line, so there are few surprises when dealing with poetry composed in this standardized metrical pattern. On the other hand, sprung rhythm is full of surprises, since it's a verse form containing various numbers of feet per line and from one to four syllables per foot.

Sprung rhythm got its name from the man who devised it: Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet of the Victorian era. Hopkins never claimed to have invented sprung rhythm on his own; rather, he held himself as the theorist behind reviving the rhythmic patterns of common speech he observed in folk songs, early poems, and other traditional forms of English literature.

Sprung rhythm never caught on as a metrical format, and none of Hopkins' poems were even published during his lifetime. There are few who have followed his direct example. Nevertheless, Hopkins' work with sprung rhythm has done much to bridge the gap between the predominance of accentual verse, poetry following prescribed metrical patterns such as iambic pentameter, and free verse, which adheres to no such template. This diagram displays the five feet available for use in spring rhythm, with a capital S representing stressed syllables and lower-case w standing in for weak ones:

Diagram of metrical feet in Sprung Rhythm

Despite the fact that sprung rhythm is not as rigid as accentual verse, it is still quite complex. In fact, many of the complications of the rhythm arise from this lack of guiding principles in formatting. For instance, each line in sprung rhythm may contain any number of feet. However, there is some sense of direction in Hopkins' limiting the number of syllables per foot to between one and four; whereas, the feet normally used in English accentual poetry contain only two or three. There is also his designation that the first (or only) syllable in each must be stressed. This leaves us with the possibility of five different metrical feet that can appear in sprung rhythm:

Monosyllable - a single stressed syllable (such as 'beech')

Spondee - two stressed syllables (such as 'flue/breathed'). The prevalence of heavy spondaic feet in this verse form led Hopkins to call it 'sprung' rhythm.

Trochee - one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed (or weak) syllable (such as 'hard as')

Dactyl - stressed syllable followed by two weak syllables (such as 'rope-over')

First paeon - A paeon is a metrical foot containing four syllables. A first paeon, then, is such a foot in which the first syllable is stressed, and the remaining three are unstressed (such as 'service where do').

Hopkins also included several poetic devices that are seen as commonplaces of sprung rhythm. One favorite of Hopkins' was elision, or the slurring of multiple syllables into one. He also invented a couple terms of his own to describe some of the phenomena he observed in older poetic works. For instance, there's the concept of roving over, by which Hopkins meant that a foot may begin on one line and end on another, which is not found in normal accentual verse. He also identified certain syllables as hangers or outrides that aren't supposed to be pronounced with the same emphasis as others during recitation. Let's take a look at a couple of examples of Hopkins' own work to get an idea of how these concepts fit into practice.

Sprung Rhythm in Hopkins' Poems

'Harry Plowman'

Each of these examples used to illustrate the various feet in sprung rhythm come from the first stanza of Hopkins' 'Harry Plowman:'

'Hard as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldish flue

Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank

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