Structure and versification in To What Serves Mortal Beauty

Use of caesura

The significant feature of this extended sonnet is that Hopkins has actually marked in caesuras in every line. Typically, the French alexandrine is constructed round this caesura, which often carries the ebb and flow rhythm of the line. As the first four lines have enjambement, our ear is necessarily carried away from the end of the line, and need to find some other place for pauses. Where more obviously than at the caesuras? But the caesuras are only marks on paper - they need to be backed up somehow. ll.1,3,4,5 certainly do back the caesura up with punctuation, but not in l.2 (or ll.6 or 8 or 10). So the rhythm in those lines is still tentative, searching for a pause. This is intentional: Hopkins wanted to prevent the monotony of the alexandrine.


The metre, compared to the other extended sonnets, is fairly regular iambic hexameter. 1.9 is actually a perfect iambic hexameter; there is no need to revert to any theory of sprung rhythm just here. Other lines are problematic, as ll.4,11.

The speaking voice

The overall feeling of the voice and rhythm is that we almost have a dramatic monologue: the sense of the poet speaking out his argument extempore to someone to whom he is trying to make a point.

More on dramatic monologues: Two great Victorian poets, Browning and Tennyson, had developed the dramatic monologue as a serious poetic form, so this suggestion about the poem is not extraordinary in any way.

This would help to explain why the rhythm is irregular, whilst the metre, for once, seems comparatively regular.

Investigating To What Serves Mortal Beauty
  • Try reading the poem dramatically, as if you were talking to another person
    • Then try to read it more ‘poetically'
      • Which reading seems better?
  • Try scanning ll.4, 14.
  • The poem as a whole: what seems to you particularly interesting or memorable about the poem?
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