Gerard Manley Hopkins: Sprung Rhythm and “The Windhover” Analysis

Gerard Manley Hopkins was both a Jesuit priest and a poet.  His poem,“The Windhover” covers only a tiny span of time, the few seconds that the kestrel hangs in the air as it seeks its prey.  The moment leaves the narrator breathless.  Hopkins brings the reader into the moment with his use of sprung rhythm.  This rhythm, comprised of a strongly accented syllable followed by several lightly accented syllables effectively mimics the kind of motion that it would take to keep the bird in one position, even against a light breeze. This paper will be used to examine sprung rhythm as it is used in “The Windhover.”

Like many writers of his time, Hopkins often wrote in what is called “running rhythm.”  Running rhythm is also known as Common English rhythm.  It is a regular and ordered type of meter, characterized by having feet measuring either two syllables or three syllables.  With few exceptions, such as when the beginning of a line creates an odd series of beats, the beats in a single foot never vary above or below these numbers (Hopkins 106).

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By contrast, the sprung rhythm that Hopkins both created and frequently used has far greater latitude than that of running rhythm.  It is has a range of one to four syllables in its feet, one of which is heavily accented.  Unlike running rhythm it is neither regular nor ordered, since “particular effects” additional softly accented may be added (Hopkins 107).  According to Hopkins, “In Sprung rhythm, [. . .] the feet are assumed to be equally long or strong and their seeming inequality is made up by pause or stressing” (107).  Finally, in sprung rhythm the scansion of the poetic lines is carried over, from line to line (Hopkins 107-108).  That is, if one line has a greater number of syllables and “wraps” into the following line, the following line will have the same number of syllables less than it otherwise would.

The use of this meter is visible throughout Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover.”  It’s use is obvious in the rhythm of the very first two lines of the poem “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- / dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding . . .” (Hopkins 1123).  The use of sprung rhythm is particularly noticeable in the soft syllables in the phrase “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.”  The characteristic wrapping of lines is also present in these lines as Hopkins eases his thoughts into the third line.

Upon reading Hopkins’ poetry, the complexity of the language that he uses may make them difficult for some modern readers.  This complexity was deliberate, according to Balz Engler, who indicates that Hopkins’ poems were intended to be complex, multilayered, and difficult to read.  According to Engler, “it is not surprising that Hopkins was only discovered and reached the apex of his fame in a period in which complexity in poetry was highly valued” (146). If Engler is correct, the importance of individual words in Hopkins’ poetry can hardly be overemphasized, both in terms of the use of sprung rhythm and in terms of their meaning.  The importance given to some words was emphasized by unique spelling or punctuation, such as that seen with the capitalized word “AND” in “The Windhover.”  With that “AND,” Hopkins’ narrator reaches his revelation–the bird is more than just a bird as it has caused his soul to rise toward God.

Ralph C. Wood suggests that it is perhaps possible that Hopkins came to his unique view of the world and to his use of a unique rhythm due to cultural training that his mother provided in his childhood.  Wood suggests that the drawing and music lessons that she gave served all of her children well.  Woods writes that Hopkins would “become a poet with a painterly eye” that would not “ever forget his musical upbringing” (1).  Woods states that Hopkins at one point even commented that “his poems were meant to be sung, perhaps even chanted” (1), a comment that seems to have some merit.  It is true, in fact, that Christian singer Sean O’Leary recorded 22 songs based on Hopkins’ poetry, including a song using “The Windhover,” as its origin (Earth Sweet Earth Designs).

It was during his years at Oxford and in his later years as a Jesuit, however, when Hopkins developed his poetic viewpoints, in addition to the artistic viewpoints he’d already established.  Wood comments that in his studies at Oxford Hopkins expressed dislike of Spenser and Pope as being among the “worst offenders” of those poets who used “regularity in rhyme and meter [and] all neutrality in tone and point of view” (5).  Woods goes on to explain that Hopkins’ “heroes” were poets like Shakespeare, Shelley, Whitman, and Keats (Woods 5).  Later, Hopkins’ poetic craft was influenced by something called the “composition of place,” a Jesuit practice of meditation and by the teachings of the Franciscan philosopher Scotus, who “gave primacy to love and will” (Woods 7).  To some degree, Scotus’ writings contributed to the focus on the natural world of the senses displayed in Hopkins’ work.

In addition to the influence of these writers, all of whom expressed some freedom in the movement of their poetic verses, Woods explained that Hopkins stated that he wanted his work to replicate the “vitality” of the sounds of natural human speech and to prevent “any easy iambic cradle-rocking” (Woods 8).  “The Windhover” clearly reflects all of these things.  Not only does it display the world of the senses at its most vivid, with its play of colors and light, but it also mimics the breathless, eager sound of the speech of a person wrapped up in the emotion of such a moment.  Not for one moment is the narrator a neutral speaker, not for one moment is he given to fall into the simplistic back and forth rhythm of iambic pentameter.  The narrator feels the moment with the vitality that Hopkins spoke of and communicates it effectively to the reader.

Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover,” is an amazing representation of a simple moment in time.  This representation becomes amazing not because we are told that Hopkins was an “amazing” poet; rather, it becomes amazing due to the author’s skill with the use of language.  The attention that Hopkins pays to the details of the setting and the breathless pace of the sprung rhythm that he developed elevate this poem from mere lines about a flying bird and raise it to the level of art.

Works Cited

Earth Sweet Earth Design.  4/20/07. <>.

Engler, Balz. “Reading Hopkins’ Writng.”  The Authentic Cadence: Centennial Essays on Gerald Manley Hopkins, Anthony Mortimer (ed.).  Fribourg: University Press Fribourg, 1992.  143-151.

Hopkins, Gerald Manley.  “The Windhover.”  Title of Textbook, name, (ed.).  City: Publisher, date.

—.  Gerald Manley Hopkins: The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics), Catherine Phillips (ed.).  New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wood, Ralph C. “Gerald Manley Hopkins.” 4/11/07. ;;.


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