Structure and versification in Harry Ploughman

The sonnet has been extended by what are called ‘burden' lines, where the last half of a line is repeated. The Victorian music hall was full of such songs, with half lines being repeated. So here there are five burdens, occurring at the end of each third line apart from at the end of the octave, where it falls after just two lines. It means each rhyme gets repeated once more apart from the b-rhyme, which gets repeated twice more. As Hopkins wanted this read out loud, this repetition makes it more song-like and performance-orientated.

In his original manuscript form, Hopkins has marked a number of outriders and hurried feet, suggesting he was using sprung rhythm at a fairly basic level. If you have the Penguin edition, you will see the ms. in the notes at the back.
Although some editors suggest each line is basically pentameter, we may well feel that many lines are pushing their way to hexameters, even taking outriders into account. Consider 11.12-13. Even with the outriders marked by Hopkins, we want to put stresses as follows:
‘He léans to it, Hárry bends, lóok. Báck, élbow, and líquid wáist In him, all quáil to the wállowing o' the plóugh: 's chéek crimsons; cúrls'

The metre is on the whole a rising one, but the rhythm is broken by much mid-line punctuation (e.g.11.2,3). Sometimes there is a regular caesura, as in 1.12 above, but, as in Shakespeare's last plays, the rhythm takes on a life of its own, certainly not ruled by lines or metre, following, perhaps, speech rhythms more.

Investigating Harry Ploughman
  • When you read this aloud, does your voice seem to fall into a regular rhythm, or does each line take on a rhythm of its own?
  • What is the effect of the burden lines?
    • Do they destroy the feel of a sonnet form?
    • Overall, does this seem to work like a sonnet to you or is it more a 19-line poem?
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