Poetry for Musicians

Pianistic Rhythms in Gerard Manley Hopkins

All poets worthy of the name are by constitution musical: they compose with their ears, not with their eyes, and their verses demand to be read with the ears, as well. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the gravest and most original English poet of the 19th century, says just that about poet John Keats. In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins writes of Keats’s poem “Eurydice” that “you must not slovenly read it with the eyes but with your ears, as if the paper were declaiming it at you.” The following is an excerpt from an essay about Hopkins’s musicality, the tenor of his verse, and the special meter he named “sprung rhythm.”

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There can be meaning in rhythm before there is meaning in definitions, in diction. What you hear in Hopkins is “sprung rhythm,” an emotion-pressed metrics—influenced by the nursery rhymes he treasured as a child—that makes complete use of the accentual possibilities of the language. The lines are marked by definitive stresses, major and minor, instead of syllables. (Hopkins turned poor Robert Bridges batty with his obsessive stressing—“stress is the life of it,” he wrote Bridges about his meter.) Each unit or “foot” of a line holds up to four syllables but only a single stress. These are two lines from the second stanza of his moiling masterwork “The Wreck of the Deutschland”—the thirty-five-stanza poem Bridges dubbed “a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance”—with the stresses in bold: “The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod / Hard down with a horror of height.” And from stanza three: “I whirled out wings that spell / And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.”

Sing that—rap it if you want. Hip-hop is a more deserving nomenclature than rappers realize. They’ve been unwittingly sampling Hopkins from day one, their bang-bang Anglo-Saxon rhythms and alliterative melodies—cadence from clangor—mere copies of the master’s art. Bob Dylan once had the humility to recognize that he requires music to make poetry of his words, whereas for the genuine poet—he was thinking of T. S. Eliot—the words are the music. For the sheer ecstasy of the acoustic, neither Whitman nor Swinburne surpasses Hopkins: His stanzas are perfectly carpentered amphitheaters.

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You can see this musicality manifest in one of Hopkins’s most important poems, “God’s Grandeur.”

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Guest Writer William Giraldi is the author of the novels Busy Monsters (Norton, 2011) and Hold the Dark (Norton, 2014, forthcoming). He is fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.

The above excerpt is from William Giraldi’s article that originally appeared in Poets & Writers.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciated this article–would like to see the full article if that is possible.
    Gerard Manly Hopkins is music, and to read his poetry out loud, an auditory pleasure.

    So glad that you posted this entry of William Giraldi– Hopkins poetry in sound touches the spiritual as well and Giraldi catches all the nuances of his art.

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