Poetry as music

Hopkins' own theory on poetry

Hopkins developed a fully worked-out theory of poetry:

  • whilst he was an Oxford undergraduate and writing his first poems
  • whilst he was in training
  • during the year he was at Manresa House and when he was asked to teach a course on rhetoric
  • through his reading of Duns Scotus
  • whilst he was in North Wales and writing poetry once more; Welsh poetry gave him further ideas about the patterns poetry could have.

His theory is complicated, but if you are interested in it, especially if you have a good sense of rhythm or are musical, there is a fuller account in Appendix 1. However, it is best to study that only when you have read quite a number of the poems.

Musical Rhythm

Hopkins was musical as well as artistic. He insisted that poetry and music were allied, and that poetry should certainly be read aloud, not just silently.

As you study, be sure to read the poems out loud!

Tape yourself or others reading the poems.

See if you can read them rhythmically.

Rhythm in poetry

Two terms Hopkins used frequently were ‘sprung rhythm' and ‘counterpointing'. All language has some rhythm, made up of the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that occur in English. More on English rhythm?

More on English rhythm: Of forms of literature, poetry has the strongest rhythmic sense, followed by drama, followed by prose. However, even good prose has a clear rhythm, as good public speakers realize.

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 un til we drop (iambic metre – de dum / de dum )
  • My e motions 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

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 you have 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.


However, if there is no punctuation at the end of the line (ie. 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 in Hopkins comes when he makes a break in the middle of the line. This is called a caesura. More on caesura?

More on 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.

Hopkins sets use of ceasuras up as a counterpoint rhythm, on top of the metric line, which usually looks towards the end of the line for its climax.

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