Beyond the metrical beat

Metre is the foundation for poetic rhythm, but of itself, the metre cannot fully determine whether the rhythm is going to be:

  • slow or fast (its pace)
  • soft and lyrical or loud, emphatic and dramatic (its genre)
  • triumphant, celebratory, mournful and so on (its tone).

A number of other factors help us to decide the rhythm, the first of which is the meaning itself. A poem like God's Grandeur is going to be lyrical and celebratory just by its sheer subject matter, the force of its imagery, and the way in which Hopkins progresses the argument or thesis. But, again, subject matter cannot force us to read something in a certain rhythm, though it can set the tone and place it in a genre.

Vowel length and ‘colour'

The length of the vowels of the accented syllables helps determine pace:

  • In some poetry, called quantitative poetry, such as Latin verse, the poetry is patterned by long and short syllables
  • Short vowels, usually marked with a little ‘u' over them, have to be ‘hurried over', as Hopkins puts it
  • Long vowels, marked by a ‘-' over them, can be lengthened indefinitely without losing the sense
  • Thus, the difference between ‘bad/bade'; ‘bed/bead'; ‘bit/bite'; ‘log/rogue'; ‘cut/cute'
  • Diphthongs are usually long, as ‘caught', 'loud'.

A line full of long vowels is bound to be read slowly, as

‘HÃ…Â?pe had grÃ…Â?wn grÄ“y hÄÂ?irs' (The Wreck),

whilst short syllables help us skip through a line, as

‘Thrõstle abõve her nÄ•sted' (The May Magnificat)

The unstressed syllables are also short, to re-inforce the effect, but of themselves would not affect the rhythm.

The colouring of the vowels of the accented syllables also affects the rhythm, though more subtly:

  • ‘i', ‘e' and ‘oo' are the front vowels, and give a lighter tone
  • ‘ÄÆ'' is a mid-vowel
  • ‘ÄÂ?', 'o', 'au/ou' and ‘u' re the back vowels, and darker or heavier.


‘and the call of the tall nun' (The Wreck)

is heavy, all accented syllables being back, whilst

‘Nestling me everywhere' (The Blessed Virgin)

is much lighter, being front vowels.

Internal rhyme, assonance and repetition

The rhythm of a poem is also affected by internal rhyme and assonance.

  • In the line
    ‘and the call of the tall nun' (The Wreck)

    ‘call/tall' is an internal rhyme and draws attention to itself and therefore its sound.

  • Assonance is a repeating pattern of vowel sounds, as in
    ‘great grey drayhorse' (Felix Randal).
  • Hopkins prefers simple repetition to complex assonance patterns:
    ‘sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks...' (Golden Echo)

    which is a sheer play with words.


Consonants can also affect rhythm and pace:

  • A group of consonant clusters, difficult for the tongue to get round, will slow the pace
  • On the other hand, a series of open syllables (syllables with one vowel and one consonant)) can be said very fast
    • Eg. ‘la la la la' (as opposed to ‘slosh froth briskly')

In Hopkins, we find:

‘bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded' (Duns Scotus' Oxford)

where the consonant clusters hinder us rushing through this line. We have to stop and savour each one of its compounds.

Compare this with:

‘Crying Whát I dó is me; for that I came' (‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire')

which is not necessarily to be said quickly, but has a lightness and a triumphant bright tone and rhythm.


We might not think of alliteration as rhythmically important, but Hopkins did. He mentioned it specifically, mainly because his alliteration is heavily patterned, and will necessarily bring attention to the initial consonants of accented syllables.

If the consonants or consonant clusters are hard or explosive (fricatives), this will affect their emphasis, just as soft consonants (sibilants, liquids) will soften the rhythm.


‘His rollrock highroad roaring down' (Inversnaid)

The r-alliteration is quite onomatopoeic, sounding really quite like a motor-bike to us; whereas two lines later:

‘Flutes and low to the lake falls home.'

The liquid consonants mimic the sound of soft water.

The whole poem is an excellent one to study for its many rhythmic effects.

Monosyllabic and polysyllabic words

Another obvious rhythmical device is the mix of accented monosyllabic and polysyllabic words:

  • A series of monosyllabic spondees will produce a slow emphatic rhythm
  • A line of polysyllables will probably produce what Hopkins called hurried feet.

However it's difficult to generalise. In these two examples from Inversnaid,

‘His rollrock highroad roaring down' ‘Flutes and low to the lake falls home.'

the polysyllables of the first line produced the explosive line; the monosyllables of the second example produce a very gentle rhythm, since open syllables can be run into each other smoothly.

Each of these devices, of themselves, are not sufficient to explain any particular rhythm. It is the particular combinations that do, just as in a band or orchestra, it is the combination of instruments that are needed to explain a particular effect:

  • Eg.: ‘Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest' is an emphatic list of Christ's titles, part of the climax of The Wreck of the Deutschland. The monosyllables help this emphasis, the first three being spondees
  • ‘high-priest' is a good example of the ‘shared' stress. Each part is almost a monosyllable, and each has a secondary or half-stress, thus making a full one. Hopkins often marked this effect with a ‘^'.


Punctuation is a very visual indication of rhythm. If a poet uses many commas, full-stops, dashes and parentheses (brackets), the rhythm is bound to become fragmented and blocked, whereas an absence of these things will produce a flowing rhythm.

Most poets use punctuation as needed, but Hopkins was a more deliberate poet than that, and put particular focus on it.


  • This is a mid-line break, often marked by punctuation or a ‘|' or a ‘||'
  • In alliterative poetry, the caesura is part of the patterning: usually two alliterations before it, and one after
    ‘Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding' (The Windhover)
  • The caesura is marked by a full-stop. Before it there is a b- alliteration; after an h-
  • The rhythmic effect is to run the line upwards to its mid-point, then run it down again
  • Hopkins also used this in counterpointing (see below).

The caesura in Hopkins doesn't occur in every line by any means, nor does it always come mid-point.

In The Windhover, it occurs near the beginning:

‘In his ecstacy! then, off, off......'


‘No wonder of it: sheer plod...'

or near the end:

‘As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding'.


Hopkins called this ‘rove-over' lines. In the example:

‘Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding' (The Windhover)

the previous line ends without punctuation and so is meant to be read over into the quoted line without a voice break. Similarly, the quoted line has no end-stopping at all, so has to be read over into the following line. This really means the mid-line full-stop comes under serious pressure as THE place to stop. The sense is thus brought out - Hopkins is making a transition from looking at the bird to looking within himself at his own emotions.

What this all means is that the reader has to learn to be very flexible in reading Hopkins, attentive to the punctuation markers and other clues and prepared to read each poem in several different ways before settling on a ‘right way'.

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