Structure and versification in The Starlight Night

Sonnet structure

The Petrarchan sonnet form is tightly maintained in terms of structure:

  • the rhyme scheme runs abbaabba for the octave
  • the octave and sestet neatly divide into two parts each.


  • the first line of the sestet seems to belong as much to the preceding octave, and stands somewhat apart from the rest of it
  • the rhyme of the sestet is strange; every line has the same rhyme, though they are slightly dissonant: for example ‘vows' and ‘house' do not exactly rhyme (an example of pararhyme).


Parallelism at times helps us determine the meaning. Obvious examples include:

  • ‘Look at the stars!' paralleled by ‘look, look up at the skies!'
  • ‘it is all a purchase' paralleled by ‘all is a prize'
  • ‘These indeed are the barn' is paralleled by ‘This piece-bright paling': though this is less obvious, parallelism helps us equate the meaning (although in good parallelism, the second term pushes the sense further on, not just repeats it).


As usual with Hopkins, the metre is stretched at times with extra stresses in his sprung rhythm. A good example is the first line of the sestet, which, as we have seen, has to do a lot of work:

  • ‘Buy','bid','What?', ‘Prayer','Pat-','alms', and ‘vows' all take stresses, giving two extra stresses to the line which still only carries ten syllables in total, making it emphatic in its questioning
  • there are also two pauses, marked by dashes before and after ‘What?'

Elsewhere, the hyphenated words tend to share the stress between them:

  • ‘fire-folk' should be scanned not as two stresses, but really as two half-stresses, adding up to a full stress
  • this creates a certain amount of counterpointing, since this does not sit easily with the iambic metre
  • similarly the adjective-noun cluster of ‘dim woods', gives the line its regular five stresses on ‘Down', ‘dimwoods', ‘dia-','delves' and ‘elves'-eyes'.

Alternative scansion would suggest separate stresses on ‘dim', 'wood' etc., beginning the line with two unstressed syllables.

Try reading both scansions out loud and see which you prefer. Are you aware of the counterpoint?

Hopkins himself said the poem should be read ‘slowly, strongly marking the rhythm and ‘fetching out' the syllables.' By ‘fetching out', he may have meant making the long syllables as long as possible:

  • e.g. in line 1, ‘stars' and ‘skies' must not be hurried over.
Investigating The Starlight Night
  • What effect is gained by the sestet rhyme scheme, do you think?
  • Look for examples of internal rhyme.
  • Can you scan ll.6 and 11?
  • Try reading the poem out loud, making sure you don't hurry it and that you give the long syllables sufficient length.
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