Language and tone in Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves

Descriptive language

The language of the poem is dramatic. The list of epithets that fills the first line is astounding - seven in a row. Each epithet requires thinking about, as each is original. Hopkins refuses the ‘stock' epithets, even Romantic ones such as Wordsworth's ‘calm is the eve'. The wording is overwhelming, filling the page, defying us to sort it out. Alliterations abound. So do lists of words - but these are not always easily dealt with. For example, after ‘black, white' we would expect ‘wrong, right', but we get ‘right, wrong' - a chiasmus, to use a technical term, in which the parallelism is reversed.

Typical of Hopkins are words like:

  • ‘dapple', ‘throngs', ‘pashed'
  • dialect words such as ‘disremembering', the Irish for ‘forgetting', and ‘throughther' and ‘aswarm'
  • invented compounds, like ‘sheathe- and shelterless', ‘tool-smooth', ‘womb-of-all'.

Sung speech

Hopkins left very specific instructions as to voice.

‘This sonnet should be almost sung,' he wrote: ‘it is most carefully timed in tempo rubato.'

He wanted long rests, as in music, and the dots in the first line indicate this. The term incantation has been used of how he wanted it read.

More on incantation: Incantation is a form of reading, somewhere between speaking and singing. A form of it may be heard in churches where there is a sung liturgy. The priest or the cantor, as he may be called, intones a line on a certain pattern of pitches or notes. The method was designed in an age before microphones, as the voice does carry a long way. Hopkins would be used to intoning whenever he took the Mass.

Intoning removes the poem from being ordinary speech, but, intoned or not, it must be read dramatically. The drama of inner anguish bursts out of it.

Investigating Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves
  • Contrast the diction and the tone with The Starlight Night.
    • What significant differences do you note?
  • Try reading the poem out loud.
    • What challenges do you face?
    • Do you find the urgency of it takes over from the complications of the metre and diction, which seem to suggest a slow reading?
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