Structure and versification in Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves

An extended sonnet

The structure of the sonnet is its obvious feature. Hopkins was aware of this, saying it must be the world's longest sonnet, and it took him just as long to write. At some 190 words, with eight feet per line, Hopkins must have been right (until he wrote That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire a year or two later, which is even longer!). Some people have protested it is not a sonnet at all.


Hopkins was very particular about indicating the poem's metre. He marked no less than 43 out of a possible 112 accents over the stressed syllables, and he marked in every single caesura. Each line divides into two sets of four stressed syllables, before and after the caesura. The first line has a rest or pause, where an accented syllable is meant to come. The predominating metre is a falling one, as in l.2:

‘Evening| stráins to be| tíme's| vást,| wómb-of-all,| hóme-of-all,| héarse-of-all| níght'

where the dactyls are only interrupted by the two final spondees closing each half-line, and the dramatic emphasis on ‘time's'.

Some of Hopkins' marking of accents may seem eccentric. He puts accents on ‘in'(ll.6,14);'our'(l.8); ‘her'(l.11); ‘two'(l.12), which make for a very odd reading. We either disregard them, and read according to normal speech stress instead, for example: ‘sélf in sélf stéepèd and ...' or try to read it as Hopkins indicated and just give up any notion of this being normal speech, but more intoned. In incantation, all sorts of odd syllables carry the note. Stressing such words shades the meaning of the whole poem.


The last point to notice is the enjambement, which, as usual with Hopkins' notion of sprung rhythm, is a major structuring device. The bold one at the end of the first line tips us into ‘evening' gasping for breath, but adds to the sense of ‘strain'- a huge line to convey a huge concept. The dramatic carry over of l.3 into the ‘Waste' of the next line underlines the desolation of the whole poem. The enjambement at the end of l.10 brings out more the sense of continuity of ‘wind'- things are quickly winding down.

Investigating Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves
  • Take two other lines and scan them.
    • Can you discern any sort of metric pattern?
  • Try reading ll.8,11,12 and 14 as Hopkins indicates, and then as you would naturally want to.
    • What is the difference?
      • Which do you prefer?
  • Comment on the enjambement at the end of l.5.
  • Generally, would you agree this is a powerful poem?
    • Wherein does its power reside?
  • Would you see the poem as a sonnet?
    • Argue for and against.
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