[No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]

Poem: [No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling–
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


It is difficult to explain the genius of this poem, not because this genius is subtle or hidden, rather quite the opposite: it is so obvious, proclaims itself so loudly, that it is hard to see what there is to do besides point at it: “Look, just look!” But I shall try.

To begin with a formality, let us simply admire that this is a successful, wholly proper Italian sonnet, not an easy feat to pull off in English, certainly vastly more difficult than a Shakespearean sonnet. (This I know from experience: I have written many Shakespearean sonnets, but for both of the two Italian sonnets I have attempted, I have found I needed to bend the rules.)

A second reason to admire the poem is its sonic density (this indeed is among the major reasons to admire Hopkins in general). Hopkins was a master of alliteration. To alliterate is easy; to do so without sounding corny is difficult. Hopkins had a delicate ear for it, and every alliteration here is sounded perfectly. In the first two lines, we have: no/none; pitched/pitch/pangs; wilder wring. We also have a slight consonance with “grief/forepangs,” which carries over into the next line (comforter/comforting) and, more importantly, sets up later developments. This sort of alliteration continues throughout the poem, but comes to a fever pitch at the end of the octet, spilling over into the sestet:

………………………………Fury had shrieked ‘No ling–
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

Here both the ‘m’ and the ‘f’ alliterations are picked up: must/mind/mountains/man; Fury/fell/force/cliffs/fall/Frightful/fathomed. The density is amazing, and even more amazing in light of that density is the entirely unforced character of it.

How does Hopkins pull this off? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that a major help comes from his use of rhythm. This poem is mostly in a standard iambic pentameter (though some lines make use of Hopkins’ notorious sprung rhythm, e.g. lines 5-6), but Hopkins pushes this pattern to the breaking point in a way that interacts with the alliterations. For instance, in the passage just quoted, though ‘fell’ and ‘force’ appear back to back, they are separated by a colon, giving a slight pause that makes the alliteration, for lack of a better word, quieter. This effect is enhanced by the fact that ‘force’ is the first syllable in an anapestic foot, and so is further diminished in emphasis since it must take a lighter stress than ‘must’.

Similarly, placing ‘fall’ and ‘frightful’ back to back is dangerous. Here, however, rather than mitigate the alliteration, Hopkins calls attention to it. They are separated by a line break, giving the sense of a fall. While in one sense this does separate the terms and so ought to have a similar effect as the colon between ‘fell’ and ‘force’, the actual effect is different. And here again a metrical substitution plays a role, in this case a line-opening trochee (‘Frightful’). This calls attention to the alliteration, making it inescapably obvious.

It works because this is the most heightened moment of the poem. The octet explaining (not in a detached, intellectual sense of ‘explain’) his painful mood has ended, and it seems the mood itself has ended (“Let me be fell: force I must be brief”). In this moment of mental clarity, Hopkins arrives at this terrible vision of the human mind and its “cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” The heightened sonic and rhythmic effects are needed to give this vision its frightfulness. Hopkins succeeded: these are among the finest lines in English literature.

A similar modulation of the rhythm of the poem helps to explain the success of a different precarious technique Hopkins employs: the triple internal rhyme of line 12.

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep

The line scans as two trochees (Durance deal with) followed by three iambs. The stressed syllable of each iamb rhymes, and little imagination is needed to realize how terribly wrong this could go. It is especially the third and final rhyme that is risky. How does Hopkins manage it? Not by a modulation of the meter—for it is a perfect iamb—but by a bold rhythmic modulation. By isolating “Here!” and punctuating it with an exclamation mark, Hopkins forces a tremendous stress on the word. It is further emphasized by the pause on either side of it, enforced by the punctuation. Thus, despite being only one word, it puts substantial distance between ‘steep’/’deep’ and creep’, and this distance makes the internal rhyme effective.

I began worried it would be difficult to explain the brilliance of this poem. But I have not found it hard. I have not found it hard precisely because I have mostly stayed away from the meaning of the poem, looking at it from a purely technical level. When I think about the meaning of it, I find myself again at a loss for how to articulate it. It describes a mood, and if you have ever been in it you will know that Hopkins describes it perfectly. The final lines characterize almost too well the feeling of being a wretch clinging to a wretched comfort: “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”

It seems worth noting that the poem is not understood if this last line is taken to express a suicidal thought. Hopkins does not desire to die, but he is comforted by the fact that this existence is not permanent, that the recurrence of this mood shall one day come to end. It makes those recurrences before one does die, more bearable. Moreover, the line expresses two comforts, and this is the lesser of the two. The second comfort, that “each day dies with sleep,” is the main. Once again I must appeal to personal experience. When this mood comes, the day can feel lost, and the only comfort available is that when I wake the next morning it may be gone.

The basic genius of this poem is that Hopkins took a mood ugly and wrathful and made of it something of astonishing beauty. And with that, I have said what I can say. All that remains is some friendly advice: look, just look!

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5 comments
  1. One of my favorite posts on here–you notice so much and refocus my own attention on the words so I notice anew.

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    • Thanks! Another post may be coming soon. I’m working to figure out how sprung rhythm works (I understood it basically not at all as I wrote this post; I understand it ever so slightly more now), and I’m coming to realize that understanding it will probably help with this poem. I think the basic rhythmic insights I tried to articulate here are sound, but I’d like to see what happens once I can scan the lines of this poem in sprung rhythm.

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      • I had it explained to me as being simpler than Hopkins in his letters makes it sound: it has to do with the number of stresses per line–only stressed syllables count, whatever pattern of stresses is being established. In “Wreck,” for instance, in each stanza, the first line will have x number of stresses, the second y stresses, the third line z stresses, and so on; the number of stresses in corresponding lines in any stanza is consistent, with the unstressed not mattering. Sometimes, as a consequence, three stressed syllables in a row will appear–the ear is wrenched accordingly (on the Derek Attridge principle that three beats in a row should result in the demotion of the middle beach: “brown dog” gets two beats; “small brown dog” means that “brown” gets demoted and doesn’t get a beat–but if Hopkins insisted on having that as a line of sprung rhythm with three stresses, even “brown” would have to be stressed). In a terrible sonnet, I’m not sure how it works out, whether there are consistent numbers across lines, or something else. He doesn’t always use sprung rhythm though; in some of the earlier sonnets, it’s scansion by traditional means. Maybe helpful, maybe confusing. But that at least is how I orient myself. (Also helpful for orientation–Hill’s criticism of Hopkins, as you probably know. And, for a dissenting view, Yvor Winters.)

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    • That was roughly my understanding as well, but I find it hard to apply, so described. The paper I was reading last night, by Jeanne Levasseur, isolated nine principles of sprung rhythm that I think point me more clearly to an understanding of how to apply it. They are:

      1. The rhythm is always a falling rhythm, i.e. feet always start with a stressed syllable.
      2. Feet come in differing lengths, including from 1-3 slack syllables
      3. Feet are isochronic, i.e. of approximately equal duration (to be achieved via stressing and pauses)
      4. Use of dipodic rhythms, where a foot has a secondary stress (e.g. lark in skylark). Can occur in any non-monosyllabic foot.
      5. Use of clashing accents (two+ stressed syllables in a row)
      6. Occasional rove-over lines, where slack syllables at the start of a line attach to a foot that begins in the previous line
      7. Use of outrides, extrametrical syllables that don’t count in the scansion (I’ll admit I am still unsure in what context these would emerge)
      8. Use of alliteration, assonance, & rhyme as clues to proper emphasis
      9. Use of rests that can replace all or part of a foot (including the primary stress)

      This gets me somewhere closer to being able to actually scan a poem in sprung rhythm. One of the things Levasseur argued is that, once you recognize the importance of dipodic feet, you can see that a lot of apparently clashing accents are in fact a combination of a dipodic foot with a monosyllabic foot. This helps me especially because the problem I consistently have had with sprung rhythm (in earlier, fairly half-hearted attempts to scan it) is that I found too many stresses. And I think that now that I know that dipodic feet are allowed I’ll be able to work things out. Also, the importance of isochronicity.

      In a sonnet, I take it that they would have to scan as sprung pentameter, five feet per line. Probably should expect a *lot* of rove-over lines, since the rhyming syllables have to take a stress. So either you’ll get rove-overs, or every line will end with a monosyllabic foot.

      An attempt at two lines from “No worst, there is none.”

      Key:

      /: primary stress
      \: secondary stress
      u: slack syllable
      o: outride
      |: break between feet

      The lines:

      My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
      Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—

      The scansion:

      u | / \ | / \ | / u u u | / u | /
      \ | / \ u | o o / \ | / u | / u | /

      I’m quite certain about the first line, quite uncertain about the second, not least because it requires me to put in two outriding syllables and I don’t understand when it’s appropriate to use those.

      – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 

      I will one day get to Hill’s critical works – one day…

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Parry

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