Structure and versification in Henry Purcell

The extended sonnet

This section has necessarily to be quite technical:

  • the basic sonnet form consists of lines written in iambic pentameter, the five feet usually generating some 10-11 syllables.
  • Hopkins' way of extending the sonnet is to push the line length out, using six or more stresses and a number of extra unstressed syllables
  • these either do not count in the scansion or, if they do, give rise to all sorts of other feet besides iambic, such as anapaestic, dactylic or even paeonic
  • thus the line can contain anything from 12-19 syllables.


Usually a 12-syllable line is called an alexandrine, and it is the typical measure of French poetry. Arranged into iambic feet, it is more often called in English verse an iambic hexameter. However:

  • Hopkins' use of the iambic becomes increasingly relaxed
  • the line length goes way beyond twelve syllables too, so the term alexandrine is also inaccurate.

So we run out of classifications. Hopkins' own markings are not always helpful, either, as he sometimes fails to put stresses on syllables that have to be stressed, however we read the line.

Let's look at a few examples:

  • 1.5 seems to consist of 13 syllables, so is basically an alexandrine
  • stresses have to fall on ‘mood', ‘mean-', ‘fire', ‘sac-', and ‘fear'
  • ‘him' would seem to need a stress to keep up what would then be a fairly regular iambic rhythm
  • ‘proud' seems to demand a stress from its meaning, though Hopkins does not intend it to
  • Hopkins discounts the ‘-ing' of ‘meaning' from the scansion, thus making ‘proud' have an unstressed syllable to give an iambic foot (proud fíre)
  • The other thing about an alexandrine is that it usually has a caesura or break halfway through the line, as here, after ‘meaning'. Yet Hopkins was suspicious of alexandrines, thinking they settled down into a very inflexible sort of verse, the exact opposite of what he wanted!

Alliterative patterns

The alliterations are clearly placed in each line. Traditional alliterative poetry tends to use caesurae for its patterning: two alliterations in the first part of the line, one in the second. Hopkins still keeps an ear for that, but, with so much else going on, it is more difficult to catch this pattern than in some of the earlier poems.

Enjambement and counterpointing

Exactly half the lines use enjambement (run-over lines), including every single line of the first tercet. If we look at l.9, we see that its flow is interrupted by two exclamations. In fact, if we take all the pauses, we could easily think we are reading four lines rather than three. This leads to the equivalent of a syncopated rhythm.

Investigating Henry Purcell
  • Read line a through a number of times, to get the best rhythm for it.
    • How many stresses and pauses do you end up with?
  • Try working out the scansion and rhythm of l.13.
  • Would you say the sonnet eventually loses its sense of shape?
    • Or does it still feel a well-structured sonnet to you?
  • Would you say that just too much is going on, both technically and in terms of what is being said?
    • Or does it feel as if Hopkins still basically knows what he is doing?
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