Sprung rhythm

Differing poetic metres

Rhythm in poetry is based on line and metre, metre being the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line.

There are various traditional metres in English poetry, the most common being the ‘rising' metres of iambic and anapaestic lines, where the emphasis comes at the end:

  • We talk and shop until we drop (iambic metre – de dum / de dum )
  • My emotions were kept under check (anapestic metre – de de dum / de de dum).

These conform more to the English sentence structure, rather than the ‘falling' metres of the trochaic and dactylic pattern, where the emphasis comes at the start:

  • Never talk with strangers (trochaic metre – dum de / dum de)
  • Rabbits like munching their carrot tops (dactylic metre – dum de de / dum de de).

Sprung rhythm

Use of this metre is particularly associated with the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins usually takes the traditional metre of the English sonnet form, which is iambic pentameter (five groups, or feet, of two syllables; each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one – de dum / de dum). He then:

  • Introduces extra unstressed syllables to the line, extending its length, or

  • Sometimes he even adds an extra foot, to give the line six or even seven feet

  • Sometimes he marks these additions with little loops under the syllables, which he calls ‘outriders'.

This extended sound pattern is what he calls ‘sprung rhythm'. It is moving towards a freer verse form, but still using traditional poetic structures as a base.


Counterpointing' is when there are two or more sound patterns or tunes going on at once. The easiest poetic counterpointing to recognize is to take the line as the basic rhythmic unit (like a drum beat under a rock tune). That becomes one sound pattern. The second sound pattern can be affected by a number of factors.


If there is no punctuation at the end of a line of poetry (i.e., it is not ‘end-stopped'), the voice naturally runs on into the next line, and only pauses where the punctuation dictates. The device of over-running a line is called enjambement. Even though there may be rhyming words to re-enforce the visual ending of the line, the grammatical force of the sentence produces a second sound pattern, overlying the first.


Another example of counterpointing arises when a break is made in the middle of the line. This is called a caesura. Use of the caesura is common in French, Welsh and Old and Medieval English poetry, where it often becomes the climax of the line. This sort of verse uses alliteration and caesuras to create its main rhythmic sound pattern.

Using a caesura can set up a counterpoint rhythm, on top of the metric line, which usually looks towards the end of the line for its climax.

A fresh approach

Hopkins began to develop a desire to move English poetry beyond its traditional metric rhythms, as did a number of his Victorian contemporaries, such as Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne. There was a feeling that the Romantics and Tennyson had taken English verse to a sort of metrical perfection, and there was no point in continuing this. It was becoming stultified and uncreative.

The influence of music and speech

Hopkins was extremely musical, also, and had a keen sense of musical rhythm, which tends to accentuate the first beat of the bar, unless syncopated in some way. This is more akin to the falling metres of poetry. Music also counterpoints, laying one rhythm over another. Hopkins also followed Romantic predecessors such as William Wordsworth, in believing the language of poetry should not be cut off from the common, everyday language of people. He wrote, ‘Poetical language should be the current language heightened.' Wordsworth applied this to diction; Hopkins also wanted to apply it to speech rhythms, as did Browning in many of his Dramatic Monologues.

Other influences

Eventually, Hopkins put all three types of rhythm together to form his new rhythm, which he called sprung rhythm. He had also studied other poetry -- Greek, Latin, Old English, Welsh -- and took ideas from these as well. The Wreck of the Deutschland was the first poem in which he put this new rhythm into action.

The characteristics of sprung rhythm

The characteristics of sprung rhythm include the following:

Stressed syllables

Scansion should be by means of the stressed syllables only. It doesn't matter how many or how few unstressed syllables there are. The patterning will only come from the stressed/accented ones:


‘Wórld's| stránd,| swáy| of the séa' (The Wreck, stanza 1)

where the little unstressed syllables are outnumbered two to four by the stressed.

At the other extreme:

‘I stéad|y as a wát|er in a wéll,| to a póise,| to a páne' (The Wreck, stanza 4)

has eleven unstressed syllables to five stressed ones.

As you will have seen in the analysis of The Wreck, Hopkins is very disciplined about the number of accented syllables in each stanza, even though he adopted a complicated scheme.


In sprung rhythm, it is difficult to scan the lines as a whole as iambic, anapaestic, etc. We can either generalize, as with the last example, by saying it is a rising metre, or we can just describe each foot separately, saying: there is an iamb, followed by a nameless foot with three unstressed syllables followed by a stress, followed by two anapaests. As that doesn't sound very good, we could re-arrange the scansion and make the first foot rocking: ‘I stéady| as...', thus making the rest of the line three anapaests, probably a neater solution. It does mean there is some ambiguity in terms of classical scansion, but the anapaestic solution would give a strong rising rhythm to the line, and is thus to be preferred.

Additional feet

Extra feet can be added to the line which would not count in the scansion. In other words, Hopkins was still thinking in terms of traditional line lengths and patterns, but not wanting to be too much constrained by them. Later poets, such as T.S.Eliot, were to take this and move English verse into Free Verse.

These extra syllables/feet were called outrides, outriders, or outriding feet by Hopkins. In his copies of the poems he sent to Bridges he often marks them with a loop under them. Thus, in The Windhover, in l.3:

‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding'

Hopkins puts loops under ‘-ing lev-' and ‘him'. Without that, we would put a stress on ‘lev-' and so get a hexameter instead of the pentameter needed for the sonnet form. So according to Hopkins, we should scan the line:

‘Of the róll|(ing lev)el únd|erneath (him) stéad|y áir,| and stríding'

where all the feet are rising except, apparently the last, which appears to be rocking.

Continuous scansion

In fact, the last foot of that line is not rocking at all, as Hopkins meant the last unstressed syllable to be attached to the next line, so making the foot: ‘ing/ Hígh|...' - in other words, an iambic. So, another innovation Hopkins employs is to make the scansion continuous, and so it does not stop at the end of each line, as in traditional scansion. Thus, the enjambement has to be noted as part of the metre.

Initial beat

One of Hopkins' other attempts was to introduce the musical idea of the beat falling on the first note of the bar. This is really a falling metre, but the whole force of end rhymes and the sentence structure of the English language works against that, so what we mostly have are first-foot inversions, if anything. This is most noticeable in opening lines, such as:

‘Súmmer| énds now;| now, bárb|arous.....' (Hurrahing in Harvest)

where the iambic resumes after the caesura (marked by the semi-colon).


‘Glóry| bé to| Gód for| dáppled| thíngs –' (Pied Beauty)

where the trochees keep going till the fifth foot, where the pressure for a masculine rhyme brings a spondee.

The rhythms of speech and music

Hopkins' attempts to bring speech rhythms into his sprung rhythm as dramatic monologue were similarly patchy and inconsistent. One of the most striking examples is:

‘But how shall I ... make me room there: Reach me a ... Fancy, come faster …' (The Wreck, stanza 28)

where he conveys dramatically the excitation of his mind: he can hardly get the words out. Elsewhere, he shows an inclination to use exclamations: ‘oh' ‘ah' and so on. These give rise to little pauses, creating musical and dramatic effect. Music often has rests, where a pause counted as a beat. Hopkins writes in such pauses as exclamations or even just dots. Elsewhere he uses questions to create dramatic monologue, as in:

‘The majesty! what did she mean?' (The Wreck, stanza 25)

But in a poem like Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves he has clearly abandoned any attempt at normal speech.

The main musical innovation was in the idea of counterpointing, having two ‘tunes' or sound patterns or rhythms criss-crossing each other. The most obvious way of achieving this is through enjambement. The metrical and musical rhythm sees the line-ending as its natural unit, re-inforced often by the rhyme. The speech rhythm, however, looks to the sense and punctuation, so may well continue through one line into the next. Thus two distinct rhythms are in operation. In sonnets like The Windhover or Hurrahing in Harvest, the counterpointing is only resolved at the end of the octave, sestet, quatrain or tercet.

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