Study Guide to Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves

Study Guide to Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves

This remarkable sonnet—yes it is a sonnet, we’ll explain later!—was completed in 1886, during Hopkins’s Dublin years, and it shares some of the dark, desolate mood of the so-called “terrible sonnets” written a year or so before, when the poem was first drafted. Hopkins was emphatic that this poem should be performed, “not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests…. This sonnet shd. be almost sung: it is most carefully timed in tempo rubato.” The poem’s title alludes to the Cumaean Sibyl, a prophetess in ancient Rome who wrote her warnings on the leaves of oak trees. Since the Sibyl was a guardian of and guide to the underworld and her warnings were usually mysterious if not dire, the poem’s title also alludes to predictions of dark times in the underworld—or, in Christian terms, in Hell. The Jesuits required periodic meditations on Hell, and funeral masses included the Latin hymn beginning Dies Irae , the “days of wrath” which shall be inflicted on the guilty by the just judge (God). So, Hopkins was steeped in this kind of language. The poem follows a familiar Hopkins pattern of drawing observations from nature and then suggesting conclusions based on these observations—see, for example, “Spring,” or “Pied Beauty,” or any number of his exuberant nature poems. The difference here can be found in the darkness of the observations and in the direness of the message. As to its being a sonnet, Hopkins himself called it “the longest sonnet ever made,” largely because he allows eight feet per line (thus eight stressed syllables and any number of unstressed ones per line—check out line 3, for example, which has 20 syllables!). This stretching of the usual limits of sonnets corresponds to his earlier experiments with shortening them, as in a curtal sonnet.

Here are some things to think about regarding this poem:

  • Try reading the poem aloud and slowly, as Hopkins suggests—even sing it, if you feel up to it. What emotions come to the fore?
  • Try enumerating the images from nature which dominate the first nine lines of the poem. What do they have in common?
  • If you’ve read “Pied Beauty,” you might recall where, among the many glorious contrasts evident in nature, he praises those which are “adazzle [and] dim” (l. 9). Also remember “The Windhover,” where that bird is described as the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” (l. 2). Look now at line 5 of this sonnet, where the poet says of nature that “her dapple is at end.”  What do you make of such a change?
  • The last five lines of this poem contain a caution and a warning to us. The Sibyl is after all an oracle, and she warns us to “reck[on]” with a world wound between two spools. What are the spools, and what would it mean to reckon with them?

For this poem you might want to be familiar with the following terms from the Hopkins Terminology:
alliteration | assonance | coinages | curtal sonnet | consonant-chiming | inscape | parallelism | sprung rhythm

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