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Sprung Rhythm in the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sprung Rhythm and His Poetry

The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is full of unusual and innovative phrases and rhythms inspired by nature and created in praise of his God.

As a Jesuit priest and teacher, many of his poems are religious but in some cases transcend religion and are beautifully structured and have what Hopkins called sprung rhythm, a term he invented and which is based on Old and Middle English lines with alliteration and rhyme.

Sprung Rhythm

The first poem Hopkins wrote using his new sprung rhythm was 'The Wreck of the Deutschland,' in 1875-76. In a letter to a friend, R.W. Dixon he wrote:

'I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper. To speak shortly, it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong.'

What Hopkins proposed was for him a more natural way of reading a poem, with the emphasis on a wider range of stresses in a foot (from one to four) as opposed to the traditional method of two or three stresses.

In sprung rhythm stressed syllables can occur in close sequence resulting in the spring or bounce effect when spoken. Hopkins saw himself as an explorer of rhythm, rather than an inventor. He looked at old English nursery rhymes, for example, Pussy's in the Well:

Ding Dong Bell,

Pussy's in the Well.

With the stress on all three words in the first line and on Pussy's in and Well in the second. Hopkins believed that this strongly stressed delivery was reflective of natural speech, though not all agree with his theory.

When I read certain lines of his poems I sometimes feel the words bouncing off my tongue in a strange yet enriching syllabic dance. It's fascinating because as a reader it makes you wary and challenges your idea of what poetry should be. There is rarely a monotonous and boring iambic beat with Hopkins.

His poetry was certainly different for the time, and although sprung rhythm didn't really catch on as a poetic device (probably to Hopkins's relief) his poems are loved for their unusual linguistic and rhythmical qualities.

He also created the terms inscape and instress which are to do with why a thing is created and how divine energy holds things together. He applied this theory to words:

'Poetry is in fact the speech employed to carry the inscape of speech for inscape's sake.'

His poems are full of observations made out in the countryside of England, Wales and Ireland. He refers to the landscape, the trees, plants and in particular the birds. His poetry gives praise to God, the Lord and the Holy Spirit, the energy inside every living thing.

I find his work fascinating despite it's complexity. He uses words for their musicality and aural effect, but always maintained that natural speech was the inspiration for the sprung rhythmic lines, with their stresses, strong and weak positions, outrides and timing.

This guide will throw light on three major poems—'Inversnaid,' 'The Windhover' and 'God's Grandeur'—as well as giving insights into the life and times of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is an important link between the Romantic poets (for example Wordsworth and Keats) the Victorians (Tennyson and Browning) and on through to Ezra Pound and the Imagists. Why?

His poetry used new words, gave fresh twists to the English language and brought different use of stressed and unstressed syllables. Because of his experiments he helped loosen up poetic expression.

The Windhover is a kestrel, Falco tinnunculus.

The Windhover is a kestrel, Falco tinnunculus.

'The Windhover': Help With Words



favourite or darling


a french word for prince



rung upon

hold the end of


fasten, meet in one, join closely




ridge between furrows of a ploughed field


break the surface

Analysis Guide to The Windhover

Hopkins considered this his best ever poem. It's about a falcon—called a kestrel—a bird of prey that when hunting, 'hovers' above the ground looking out for mice and voles and other creatures, which it swoops down on. It's also a master of the wind, using sharp wings and keen senses when flying.

The poem initially focuses on the physical action of this bird, how it delights and inspires the poet. This in turn releases the spiritual energy within, the human desire to attain such heights of ecstasy, related to the sacrifice made by Christ.

The first six lines take us straight into the bird's flight, captured by the poet in first person, not physically catching the kestrel but caging it with the eye. Note how the sound pattern changes, twists and turns and flows, reflecting the movement of the falcon as it exploits the wind.

Watch out for enjambment, assonance and alliteration, poetical devices that help bring texture and movement within the unusual rhyme scheme - all the words from line 1-8 end in -ing.

Line 7 suggests that the poet was inspired by the kestrel's flight, uplifted by the exceptional artistry:

My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,- the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Technically there's iambic pentameter in line 1 (caught, morn, morn, min, king) but then the lines begin to stretch and challenge. Line 2 for example has seven stresses and is what Hopkins called an outrider. You can sense the poet's excitement as the bird again and again masters the 'big wind'.

The final six lines of the sonnet deal with the beauty of this bird and its inherent spiritual energy, in this case related to Christ. There is a 'fire' within the kestrel that takes the bird to the edge, into near danger, soaring to the heights, a true royal.

This fire is within us all and every living thing; even the earthly soil turned over by the plough, which shines as it cuts, revealing the interior, the essence, which is 'gold-vermilion', like blood.

For a more comprehensive analysis of the poem, check on my article on 'The Windhover.'


This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down,

In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam

Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth

Turns and twindles over the broth

Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,

It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew

Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,

Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,

And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Inversnaid waterfall, inspiration for the poem.

Inversnaid waterfall, inspiration for the poem.

Analysis Guide to Inversnaid

Inversnaid is a short four stanza poem about the Scottish wilderness, near Loch Lomond. It has a classic look and feel—until you start reading through for the first time.

Unusual words and phrases begin their journey along your tongue, reflecting the flow of the 'darksome burn' (Scots burn = English brook or beck) as it tumbles down.

Take the first two lines:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,

His rollrock highroad roaring down...

Full of energy and power these rough tetrameter lines have four compound words one of which is invented—rollrock—within a common rhyme scheme. The second line conjures up an image of water crashing down over boulders, quite evocative.

The second and third stanzas continue the vivid descriptions of this burn as it tumbles its way into the lake below. Note the short line and the longer line in stanza three.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew

Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,

The final stanza is a direct question followed by the answer, one which has great relevance for today, with the environment being such a hot topic. Having set the scene with a wonderfully textured description of the burn as it threads its way downwards the poem then asks the reader—what the world would be like without 'wet and wildness?'

The poet suggests that the world would be 'bereft', it would lose something vital. The last line is curious—'Long live' is often used to praise royalty as in 'Long live the King', yet here it's used to praise lowly weeds.

I think this is a nod to the grandeur of God again. Although the poet doesn't mention God or Christ or the Holy Spirit in the poem, stanza one does imply that the rollrock highroad is 'His', i.e. God's.

'Inversnaid': Help With Words



compound of dark and handsome


brook/small stream/beck


enclosed hollow


rippling water


flute or frill shape


floating/riding like a sail or hat


light brown colour like a young deer


mix of dwindle, twist


severe frown




sprinkled (Scots dialect)


curved edges


banks or hillsides(Scots dialect)


heather packed/heath clumps


side of meat/flicks or streaks


beautiful droplets like beads


robbed of a lover or loved ones.

Brief Biography

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28th, 1844 in Stratford, Essex, England. Both his parents were staunch Anglicans and his father an amateur poet. The young Hopkins was bright enough to win a scholarship which took him to Balliol College, Oxford, to study Classics.

An artistic person, he was also deeply religious but unable to find contentment at Oxford. Eventually he met with Cardinal Newman, a convert from Church of England Anglicism to Roman Catholicism. Newman's influence proved crucial. Over the next two years Hopkins entered the Catholic church, passed his degree with first class honours and joined the Society of Jesus to train as a Jesuit priest. He was 22 years old.

He'd never stopped writing poetry during his days at Oxford and was strongly attracted towards the work of Christina Rossetti and John Ruskin. He also considered painting as a way forward in his life but ultimately it was the need to serve God that prevailed.

When he became a priest he burned all of his poetry because he thought it might clash with his role as a humble servant of God. He stopped writing altogether in 1868.

In his studies he began to read the work of an early philosopher, Duns Scotus, who thought that a human could only know things and objects directly by their inner essence. Gradually, with other influences taking hold, he took up poetry again, returning to his Muse in 1874.

Sonnets and verse flowed from his pen, climaxing in 1877 when he wrote many of his most well known poems.

Up until his death from typhus in 1889 little of his poetry was published. It was only when his friend Robert Bridges published a collection of his poems in 1918 that people became aware of Hopkins's exceptional work.

Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins was published by Humphrey Milford in London. A second edition in 1930 finally established his name.

Many modern poets have been influenced by his work, including Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, W.H.Auden and T.S. Eliot.

I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

God's Grandeur in Nature.

God's Grandeur in Nature.

'God's Grandeur'


Sprung Rhythm: God's Grandeur

This poem is about the energy of God, it's continuing greatness and depth within Nature, despite the attempts of humans to destroy its beauty.

Like many of Hopkins's poems this sonnet appears to be classical in form. For example, it has two parts, the 8 line octet and 6 line sestet, separated. The rhyme scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd. So far so good.

What makes this poem pure Hopkins is the unusual use of language and metre. Take lines 2 and 3.

Line 2 is pentameter but is it iambic? ...shining from shook a good example of sprung rhythm, two stressed syllables together, reflecting common speech.

Line 3 is an enjambed line...the ooze of oil/crushed...and also contains sprung rhythm.

So we have the classical and the experimental in one.

Lines 4-8 concentrate on the damage industry and human trade can do to the planet.

'/Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?'

Note the single syllable run of this line, the internal rhyme men/then and the alliteration reck/rod. This means why don't men pay heed to God's power?

Internal rhyme continues with seared/bleared/smeared...wears/shares...repeat rhyme.... have trod/have trod with end rhyme shod and rod.

This rich mix of rhyme and rhythm give a brilliant texture to the poem.

The final six lines reinforce the strength of this divine energy. Human interference may happen but Nature always recovers:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things

This line is often quoted and I love it for the optimism it holds. The poet is rejoicing in the fact that Mother Nature again and again replenishes that which is lost, recycles waste and comes out it with fresh growth. How this happens is down to the Holy Ghost which, like a nurturing bird broods over the planet keeping it safe and warm.

The final line has some interesting play between b and w....bent/World broods...with warm breast..with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Religious Poetry

There's no doubting the passion for language and the love for God in these poems. You don't have to be religious to enjoy them but you do have to read through the lines repeatedly to get the most out of them. Yes, there are some awkward archaic words and some of the lines are grammatically confusing, yet the feel and flow more than make up.

For rhymes, rhythm and experimental language there are few poets to match his genius.

Poems With Sprung Rhythm



  • Poetry Foundation
  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
  • The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, 2005, OUP
  • Sprung_Rhythm_89.pdf (

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 29, 2014:

Thank you for dropping by Chitrangada. Mr Hopkins was certainly a one off with his rich, textured poetry.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 29, 2014:

A very well done, informative hub about the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins!

I have read about his poetry but not so much in detail. Thank you for the education. Voted up!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 24, 2014:

jamie thank you for the visit. Mr Hopkins certainly produced some technically wild poems, complex and inspirational.

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on October 24, 2014:

His work with prosodic form and his creation of his own sonnet fascinates me. What an incredible poet. Thank you for this great hub. Jamie

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 19, 2014:

Dianna thank you for the visit and comment. So glad you got something out of this challenging, innovative poet.

Dianna Mendez on October 19, 2014:

You certainly know your material and have shared it so that anyone can understand the deeper meaning of poetry. Your analysis and definition of words was a great add. I am now educated on this poet, Hopkins, and appreciate his work. Thank you.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 13, 2014:

Thank you for the comment and visit Catherine, I appreciate them both.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on October 13, 2014:

Thanks for the lovely poems. The glossaries were a real help. it was also interesting to read our analysis of the poems.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 13, 2014:

Thank you for visiting Theresa, much appreciated. A religious poet with a keen eye for Nature and a divine way with words.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 13, 2014:

suzette, thank you for dropping by, I appreciate it.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 13, 2014:

Chef, this is such a wonderfully insightful hub into a truly gifted poet, Hopkins. He may now be my favorite poet due to your sharing his amazing poetry where his love for God shines through so beautifully.

I will return to this hub and enjoy it often.

Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

Bless you

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 13, 2014:

I love your hubs about poets and their poetry. I had forgotten about Gerald Manley Hopkins and this is a wonderful reminder of his unique and beautiful poetry. I like the poems you chose and thank you for your in depth analysis of these poems. I certainly enjoyed reading this. Voted up+ and shared.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on October 13, 2014:

Colleen, thank you for the visit. I think GMH was ahead of his time - a religious ecologist who loved playing around with words!

Colleen Swan from County Durham on October 13, 2014:

A lovely Hub. Beautifully written and illustrated. Inversnaid painted a heady picture. I needed the Help with Words for groins of the braes, and it all fell into place.