Poem: [No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins
A few days ago I published a reading of this poem, trying to show how Hopkins deftly modulated the rhythms of the poem both to accommodate his heavy use of alliteration and to enhance the power of his imagery. The only difficulty was: the poem is in sprung rhythm, and at that time I had no real idea how sprung rhythm works. I then read a fine paper by Jeanne Levasseur, from which I came away with a sense of how to scan Hopkins. This post is my attempt at a scansion of “No worst, there is none…” I should say at the outset that I am aware that the precise nature of sprung rhythm is controversial, and I have no doubt that some scholars will take exception to Levasseur’s interpretation. I am not competent to judge whether she is faithful to Hopkins’ vision. What I can say is that, after applying what I learned from her to this poem, I feel I have a better sense of how to read it.
A brief introduction to sprung rhythm, as Levasseur presents it, is in order. She discusses nine principles of sprung rhythm, derived (with modification?) from an earlier paper by Edward Stephenson. This latter I have not read, though I look forward to doing so. In any event, the nine principles are:
- Sprung rhythm is always a falling rhythm, meaning that each metrical foot begins with a stressed syllable.
- The feet in sprung rhythm are of variable length. There are four basic feet: the (stressed) monosyllable, the trochee, the dactyl, and the first paeon (a stressed syllable followed by three unstressed syllables). The trochee and dactyl are carried over from standard metrical theory.
- Each foot is approximately isochronous (i.e. of equal duration), regardless of the number of syllables in the foot. This effect is to be achieved by stressing (which can naturally lengthen a syllable), as well as by pauses.
- Sprung rhythm makes heavy use of dipodic rhythm. Dipodic rhythm emerges when a foot contains two accented syllables, one of which contains a primary stress, the other a secondary stress.
- Sprung rhythm makes use of clashing accents, in which two or more stressed syllables occur in a row (i.e. with no intervening unstressed syllables).
- Sprung rhythm makes occasional use of rove-over lines, in which the last metrical foot in a line spills over onto the next line. (This will occur wherever a line begins with unstressed syllables.)
- Certain syllables, called outrides, may be treated as extrametrical and are not counted in the scansion. (I confess I am not sure when a syllable counts as an outride, though I make use of them in one place in the scansion below.)
- Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme provide clues to the proper emphasis of the line.
- In some cases, rests may substitute for the primary stress of a foot.
In scanning “No worst, there is none…”, I will make use of the following symbols:
/ = primary stress
\ = secondary stress in a dipodic foot
u = unstressed syllable
o = outriding syllable
With these preliminaries out of the way, here is my attempt at scanning the poem:
With the exception of the ninth, all Stephenson/Levasseur’s principles can be seen at work in this poem. Some examples:
- Variable length: here we can find monosyllables (grief; line 1), trochees (pitch of; line 1), dactyls (comforter; line 3), and first paeons (mother of us; line 4).
- Dipodic rhythm: at least one dipodic foot can be found in each line of the poem, with the exception of lines 3, 4, 8, and 12. The first foot of the poem (No worst) is dipodic.
- Clashing accents: there are three instances of clashing accents in the poem, in line 3 (where, where), line 8 (fell: force), and, most extravagantly, lines 12-13 (deep. Here! creep, / Wretch,). Note that in each case punctuation enforces a pause between them.
- Rove-over lines: found in lines 4-5 (-lief / My), lines 6-7 (sing — / Then), lines 7-8 (ling- / ering), etc. Interestingly, more than once a dipodic foot roves over, as in lines 5-6 (chief / Woe) and lines 11-12 (small / Durance).
- Outrides: I could not find any way to scan line 6 that (a) contained only five primary stresses and (b) preserved isochronicity without treating “on an” as outrides. I am not sure this is correct, but I gain confidence when I consider that they follow a semicolon. That forces a pause that allows me to treat “on an” as a brief interlude before the next foot begins with “age.”
Ultimately, I think my main rhythmic insights from my previous post survive this exercise, though they need to be expressed differently. To give just one instance, in that post I scanned line 11 as two trochees (durance deal with) followed by three iambs (that steep or deep. Here! creep). That scansion fails on two fronts. First, it massively violates isochronicity, because it forces me to tree “small” in line 10 as a monosyllable. In fact, however, the rhythm of the poem forces me to proceed directly from “small” to “Durance” without a pause, leaving “small” (if treated as a monosyllable) markedly shorter in duration than any other foot in the poem. Moreover, such a scansion forces me to understress “Here!”, despite contextual clues that it takes a heavy stress (the exclamation point being the most obvious such clue).
Numerous other errors in how I was reading the poem found correction in this exercise, not least because scanning it as iambic pentameter forces it into a rising rhythm. Thus, for instance, I had earlier treated “No worst” as an iamb almost by default, when in fact it sounds much more natural as a dipodic trochee. In general, I can say without question that, having scanned the poem in this way, I have a much better feel for how it must be read.