"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

G M Hopkins and English Prosody




It is well-known that Gerard Manley Hopkins incorporated Welsh metrical forms into his poems as part of what he considered a radical re-think of how to scan verse in English. His correspondence with the poet Robert Bridges contains a number of references to the possibility of writing something on metrics and many of his explanations of his poems come from his letters to Bridges as instructions on how they are to be read. It is important to realize that, although Hopkins’ practice deviated considerably from the norms of his contemporaries with regard to versification, he was by no means writing any sort of free verse. When Bridges wrote to him comparing the long lines of ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’ (from his verse play on St Winefride) with the recently published work of Walt Whitman, Hopkins replied to inform him that he was mistaken. Whitman wrote, says Hopkins, a type of rhythmic prose. Hopkins, on the contrary, produced highly wrought work of some formal complexity. That Bridges, who was for some time his “only audience” could not see this must have been frustrating in the extreme for Hopkins. He regarded the most part of English verse practice to be in a state of extreme laxity as far as versification was concerned. What he wanted was to develop a prosody that would address this lack and he sought to do it by analogy with music. What he eventually wrote for Bridges about metrics was a preface to a possible collection of his poems. There he looked at the metrical foot by analogy with the bar in a passage of musical notation and asserted that we should “take the stress always first, as the accent or the chief accent always comes first in a musical bar”. There should, therefore, be only two types of feet commonly found in English verse: the trochee and the dactyl, (i.e. a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable or by two unstressed syllables). Those brought up on the idea that the iambic pentameter is the standard English metre will no doubt be surprised by this, and in fact Hopkins, in his letter to Bridges about Whitman, concedes that the iambic foot of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable is the way the scanning of English verse is usually conducted. Hopkins is here re-thinking the way we scan verse to accord with his way of writing it, though he also insisted that ‘sprung rhythm’, as he called it, was buried in native practice and would be more obvious if we scanned differently. The imprecision of much English versification (and the lack of comprehension of Bridges and others to whom Hopkins wrote) only underlines the fact that Hopkins’ discovery of a rigorous metric tradition in the Welsh canu caeth, may have drawn him to its possibilities even had the sonorous possibilities of cynghanedd not suggested ways of capturing the instress of things in language.

In spite of the fact that, as Geoffrey Grigson put it, “Hopkins wrote for no public, had no care for publication, and as a Jesuit did not entertain the thought of poetic fame”, his attitude could not have been more professional nor his practice as a versifier less amateurish. His conviction that the chief problem with the poetry of his day was its slackness of form led him to a prosodic practice that was every bit as rigorous as poets writing in the strict metres. The analogy with music is also instructive as more than an attempt to make the process of notation formally coherent. Hopkins told Bridges that his verse needed to be “read with your ears”. The musical analogy is therefore appropriate also because of the extreme musicality of many of his lines:

I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night in the white and the walk of the morning
(‘Moonrise’)

which seems as if it ought to be sung rather than recited. But it applies even where his subject is graver


I did say yes

O at lightning and lashed rod;

Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess

Thy terror, O Christ, O God


(‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’)

The need to hear the line rather than rather than simply register its images and meanings is clear and the assertion by Hopkins that his expression was to be taken as oratorical rather than reflective is appropriate. Each of the lines quoted have equal weight and a system of indentation is used to indicate this. The further indented a line is, the stronger the stresses it contains. So ‘did’ and ‘yes’ in the first line are heavy with emphasis. The stresses in the second line are still heavy, and reinforced by alliteration. The idea is that the three stressed syllables are in total equal in weight to the two in line one. The next line has four stresses, again to add up to the same total weight so that each one is lighter. Line four returns to three stresses. The pattern for the whole stanza is 2-3-4-3-5-5-4-6 and this is repeated in the following stanzas.

‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ comes closest in formal construction to a long poem written in the strict metres in Welsh. Many of his poems are shorter, supercharged affairs with the sonnet being his favourite form. But in the ‘Deutschland’ he put together a long sequence which, in spite of the fact that it appears to be variable in its rhythms, has overall a tight formal structure. The poem also contains many lines that are correct or nearly correct examples of cynghanedd, such as the often remarked ‘Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey’ (a near perfect cynghanedd draws). If Hopkins’ theory of sprung rhythm, which is also applied here, aims to reproduce in verse the rhythms of speech, his formal innovations , including the use of cynghanedd, seek to reproduce a written language abstracted from speech. It is the tension between this desire to achieve a verse which can respond to all the complexities and changes of speed and direction that occur in natural speech, together with the desire to achieve a musical notation for his verse as constructed artifice, that makes Hopkins such a significant prosodic innovator.

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