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More on sprung rhythm - watch your feet

I am continuing on with yesterday's discussion of sprung rhythm today. And tomorrow, too, though I'm getting ahead of myself.

Today it's about poetic feet, and the "rules" of sprung rhythm.

First and foremost, there are four feet per line, according to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the founder of the sprung rhythm. (See, however, yesterday's example with eight feet per line, where each line is split by a virgule.)

Second, there is a caesura in the middle of each line, creating two hemistichs.

Third, poetic feet range from one to four syllables in length. And they can shift about from line to line. That means that a poetic foot can be a monosyllable, as in the opening line from "Pied Beauty", which reads "Glory be to God for dappled things." The syllabic break/stress is as follows: "GLORy be to | GOD for | DAPPled | THINGS." (Four syllables - called primus paeon, followed by two trochees, followed by a monosyllable.)

Fourth, no matter what you read, even if it's written by Hopkins himself, sprung rhythm uses all sorts of different metrical feet.

Hopkins intended for sprung rhythm to operate "regularly", and explained in the "Author's Preface" to his Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (published posthumously), that sprung rhythm uses only four sorts of poetic feet:

It has one stress, which falls on the only syllable, if there is only one, if there are more, then scanning as above, on the first, and so gives rise to four sorts of feet, a monosyllable and the so-called accentual Trochee, Dactyl, and the First Paeon.

To him, this was plain as day and he even goes so far as to call it a "regular" pattern, while acknowledging that "for particular effects any number of weak or slack syllables may be used". However, Hopkins no sooner sets up his rules than he breaks them, using LOTS of other forms of feet (iambs, anapests, etc.) to create various rhythms (rocking, rising, etc.), and adding what he calls "outliers" - where there's an extra stressed syllable in a line at times.

If you really want to go line by line through one of his poems, identifying the precise types of feet used, it can be done. (I know, because I've done it - and will do it here if you insist.) What you will quickly grasp is that there is no regularity to which feet he uses, no matter what he says about it.

Go ahead and read the following (best done out loud), and I'll scan a couple lines for you afterwards to prove the point:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This poem opens with a line with five stressed syllables: "as KINGfishers catch FIRE, DRAGonflies DRAW FLAME". The accent marks above "draw" and "flame" are there because Hopkins put them there, demanding that both words get stressed. Note the alliteration between "king" and "catch", between "dragon" and "draw", and between "fishers", "fire", "flies", and "flame".

If I were to assign poetic feet, I'd probably break the line as follows:

As kingfishers | catch fire, | dragonflies | draw flame.

Second Paeon | iamb | dactyl | spondee

Although one could argue that the last two words are two monosyllables (making for five feet). Or possibly argue with me over the designation on that first foot. Regardless, it's pretty clear that this line involves at least two feet that begin with unaccented syllables. Often, Hopkins treats spondees as if they were singly stressed words, so he may have considered that last foot a spondee, and only as one stressed syllable. This is what happens when you make the rules - you can make all the little tweaks and exceptions you like and not have anyone call you on it.

I scan the second line as follows:

As TUMBled | over RIM | in ROUNDy | WELLS

Amphibrach | anapest | amphibrach | monosyllable

Of course, one could argue for straight iambic pentameter here, if one were to stress the first syllable of "over": as TUMbled O-ver RIM in ROUNDy WELLS. I just don't think that's what he intended. See how complicated this sort of attempt at analysis can get? It's why most people decide that sprung rhythm is just too difficult, and give it up.

I would argue that figuring out exactly what feet are being used is unnecessary and beside the point, and doesn't help you appreciate the poems or really "get" the idea of sprung rhythm. Mostly, the important general principle is four stressed syllables per line, with a caesura in the middle. Even where there are more than four stressed syllables, through the use of spondees and "outliers", or where he decided to add an extra foot or three because it made sense to him at the time.

The other important components of sprung verse include alliteration, which I will discuss more fully tomorrow, along with his word choices and use of kennings. (See how all that Anglo-Saxon verse stuff comes in handy now?)

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