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Sprung Rhythm

Sprung rhythm is a rhythmic pattern used in poetry that mimics natural speech. 

The pattern was discovered by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a British poet who investigated the rhythm in folk songs, the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton, as well as other sources. He chose to use it rather than iambic pentameter or free verse because he believed it felt more natural, this is due to the fact that it is stress-timed rather than syllable-timed. The form is a marker of his work but didn’t catch on widely during his time or after. Although, some credit Hopkins’s sprung rhyme as an influence on the movement towards free verse in the 20th century. 

Sprung rhythm pronunciation: Sp-ruh-ng r-eye-m

Sprung rhythm definition and examples


Definition and Explanation of Sprung Rhythm 

Sprung rhythm refers to the arrangement of stresses rather than syllables in a line of verse. The first syllable is stressed and is followed by a number of unstressed other syllables. That number can vary but was usually between one and four in Hopkins’s work. Spondees are quite commonly found throughout this style of rhyme. Hopkins believed that this type of rhyme better mimicked the natural patterns of speech. It is more dynamic and variable, unlike iambic pentameter (the most popular metrical pattern in the English language), which is steady and slow. To some, the latter is considered monotonous. This was something that Hopkins was trying to avoid in his own poetry. 

When writing his poetry, Hopkins was aware of the fact that some readers might struggle to determine which syllables were supposed to be stressed and which unstressed. To compensate for this, he used diacritical marks to indicate which parts of words were the ones the reader should put the stress on.


Examples of Sprung Rhythm 

Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins 

‘Spring and Fall’ is a great example of a Hopkins poem that uses sprung rhythm. In this poem, it creates a sing-song effect that helps center this poem as an address to a child. As with most of his sprung rhythm, the lines contain four syllables, and the stresses are juxtaposed interestingly and compellingly. There are some surprises pauses in the middle of lines and some alliterative moments in which the stresses put extra emphasis on that literary device. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:


The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins 

‘The Windhover’ is a sonnet with a fairly confusing pattern of syntax and structure. Hopkins purposefully confuses parts of speech while using the “ing” ending repetitively. This is all a part of his effort to create the feeling of that which he is depicting. This poem is also a good example of sprung rhythm. The lines vary in speed and stress arrangement allowing Hopkins greater control over the verse while at the same time making the lines seem natural.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,


Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins 

In this short poem, Hopkins depicts the Scottish wilderness. The lines of the poem are full of energy and excitement that is meant to mimic the movement of the “darksome” brook in the first line. This continues into the next two lines as the poet uses alliteration (a feature of accentual verse) to increase the feeling of rhythm. Here are the lines from the poem: 

This darkroom 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.


Why Do Writers Use Sprung Rhythm? 

Unlike some rhythmical patterns, this one is almost entirely associated with Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are a few examples of Hopkins’ sprung rhythm in children’s songs and lullabies from before his time, but it’s only Hopkins who truly used and promoted the pattern. On the most basic level, Hopkins chose to use sprung rhythm in an effort to make his lines sound more realistic as if they were being spoken by someone. This makes them quite interesting to read out loud as they rest somewhere in-between metered verse and free verse. The former is filled with structure, usually (at least mostly) maintaining the same pattern throughout the stanzas of a poem. At the same time, the latter is completely without structure, no rhyme scheme, and no metrical pattern. Hopkins’s use of sprung rhythm also allowed his poems to stand out. He was doing something different than others during his lifetime. 


Sprung Rhythm and Accentual Verse

Sprung rhythm is often considered to be a version of an accentual verse. The latter was popular in Old English poetry. In accentual verse, the lines have the same number of stresses but vary in their number of syllables. It can be found in nursery rhymes as well as in the poetry of Anglo-Saxon writers, almost all of whom are lost to time. Hopkins’s use of sprung rhythm is similar in that the stresses are the central part of the pattern. Like with Anglo-Saxon poetry, there is room for interpretation with Hopkins verse. Not every reader is going to read the stresses in the same way (but the same thing can be said for any metrical pattern). 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Anapaestic Meter: depends on three-syllable sections of verse or words. It is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • Dactylic Meter: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
  • Spondaic Meter: an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.
  • Structure of Sonnets: a fourteen-line poem that usually makes use of the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.
  • Iambic Pentameter: a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. Each line has five sets of two beats, the first is unstressed, and the second is stressed.


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