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
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.