Terminology

Guide to Hopkins Terminology

This guide is designed more for the new reader of Hopkins rather than the expert. Hopkins’s poetry can require of experts a very detailed study and mastery of more terms than these—by no means is this guide exhaustive. At the same time the focus here is on Hopkins: new readers should understand that this guide will not cover what ordinary general guides to poetry cover, e.g. terms like sonnet, rhyme, rhythm, and the like.


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of neighboring words. Alliteration is a common but usually occasional feature of poetry—what makes it worth noting here is the astonishing frequency of it in Hopkins. Sometimes the frequency relates to his use of cynghanned, sometimes it comes from his sheer love of the sound effects he can create. Here, for example, is just the opening line of “As kingfishers catch fire”:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

You can see how every word except the opening “As” alliterates with another word in the line. The d and f sounds are obvious enough because it’s the same letter. But remember that alliteration is the repetition of consonantal sounds, which is why the k of “kingfishers” and the c of “catch” both count. Think too of another feature of his sound, the use of assonance.


Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within neighboring words. Again it is a common but not-too-common component of poetry; as with alliteration, what makes it worth noting here is the astonishing frequency of it in Hopkins. Remembering that assonance is a feature of sound, not of spelling, see if you can find at least three assonances in this line (the ninth) of Felix Randal:

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.

The us/us is very obvious. So too is the endears/endears, but notice that the long e sound occurs also in seeing. Perhaps less obvious is the i sound of sick and it. (And some readers might even hear a fourth: the vowel sounds in the, them, and en-/en-.)


Coinages are words invented by a poet to convey something for which the “ordinary” English language proves inadequate: in other words, the coinage derives from bringing together other, more recognizable words into a new and fresh combination that accomplishes what the poet cannot otherwise achieve. Hopkins is a great inventor of coinages. Consider these, all having to do just with color: “dappled-with-damson” (from “The Wreck of the Deutschland”); “mealed-with-yellow” (from The Starlight Night); “gold-vermilion” (from The Windhover); “fresh-firecoal” (from Pied Beauty). But it’s not only colors, it’s qualities like “very-violet-sweet” (from Hurrahing in Harvest) and “dare-gale” (from The Caged Skylark), qualities which can be added one to another, like in the second line of Duns Scotus’s Oxford: “Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmėd, lark-charmėd, rook-racked, river-rounded.” Even nouns can be coined, like the “moonmarks” of Henry Purcell.


Counterpoint is a term normally applied to music which Hopkins then adapts to his poetry. In music counterpointing occurs when a different melody runs at the same time “above” or “below” another melody, each retaining its own characteristics but the two complementing and enriching each other as they run together. Hopkins often does the same in poetry with rhythms. A simple example might be the opening lines of The Windhover:

  • Line 1 is regular iambic pentameter, i.e. five regular iambic feet, ten syllables total, and can be scanned in a familiar way (with italics here representing stressed syllables): “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-“
  • But line 2 introduces a new and very different rhythm: “dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-da’wn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…” Note both the total number of syllables (16) and the irregular number of unstressed syllables in each foot—you know you are in sprung rhythm territory. Yet the previous iambic pattern still persists on occasion, as in the stretch “-ple da’wn drawn Fal-“. So the two rhythms run together and complement each other, they counterpoint.

Curtal sonnet represents another coinage by Hopkins. He uses it to describe his practice in Pied Beauty and two other poems, Peace and “(Ashboughs).” A curtal sonnet is best explained as three quarters of a regular sonnet: in other words, it’s as if you took the identifying features of a regular sonnet and multiplied by .75. Thus “Pied Beauty,” instead of having the normal fourteen lines, has 10 ½ lines and consists of a six-line equivalent of the octet (thus 8 X .75 = 6) and a 4 1/2 -line equivalent of the sestet (6 X .75 = 4 ½). How can you have a half-line? Notice how the last “line” of the poem has a long space, the equivalent of a long rest in music, before you get to the two stressed syllables that make up the two feet of this last line, which in its sound lasts about as long as half a line should. While “Pied Beauty” is Hopkins’ best-known example, the other two curtal sonnets represent an advance in technique by applying the .75 principle to the rhythm as well. It’s worth noting that in addition to making sonnets shorter (i.e. curtal), Hopkins also experimented with making them longer: see, for example, “Harry Ploughman” or Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves.


Inscape is a Hopkins coinage. He invented and started using the word in his letters and journals shortly after graduating from Oxford, and he continued to employ it, both as a noun and as a verb, for the remainder of his life. While much ink has been spilled in arguing about the nuances of definition (he may, for example, have derived it in part from Dun Scotus’s concept of haecceitas, or “this-ness”), suffice it to say here that inscape has to do with the very essence, the individual distinctiveness, of something-what makes it distinct from all others of the same kind, and therefore memorable. “Something” of course seems vague; for Hopkins it could be a scene, or a specific part of nature, or a person, or… Maybe the best way to understand it would be to put yourself into the world of “Pied Beauty,” which could be said to consist of a number of inscapes flashing by, like “skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow” and “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls.” Then take just one inscape, that of “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” Now anyone carefully observing a trout stream could see fish swimming by, and could make several observations about trout and much else. But to be an observer who sees and remembers and puts into words that sort of instantaneous image, not just of “a trout,” but of a trout whose side shows little rose-colored moles as if they had been stippled (a technique of the then-current Impressionist painters like Seurat)–well, that’s an observer sensitive to an inscape, the individual and distinctive essence of that fish at that moment of time. Some other observer would grasp different inscapes. You have had the experience, I am sure, of visiting a beautiful scene-mountains, seashore, park, garden-and retaining a vivid mental image of something you saw, a scene or a plant or a person or something else. Now the entire experience would have afforded you a myriad of inscapes, of individually distinctive observations. But the one among many that you retain in your memory, the one you could put into a poem or a painting-that’s the inscape that counts for you. At the time you were there you inscaped it (verb), whether or not you were aware of it; now in your memory you retain it as an inscape (noun).


Parallelism is a useful term for so much of what Hopkins tries to accomplish in his poetry. He loves repetition, that is, repetition of words and sounds (alliteration and assonance), sometimes in a specific pattern as in cynghanedd, but also repetition of lines and phrases and grammatical structures, as in the final three lines of Binsey Poplars:

    The sweet especial scene,
  • Rural scene, a rural scene,
  • Sweet especial rural scene.

Sprung rhythm occurs in most of Hopkins’ mature poetry—he explains it as early as an 1877 letter to his friend Robert Bridges. Most English poetry written before this time, and also a good portion written afterwards, is in what is called rising rhythm: the most familiar example is the iambic foot consisting of a slack or unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, as in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…,” where the stress falls on BE and then NOT and then BE, and goes on in a similar manner. Such a rhythm is called rising because within each foot the emphasis or stress usually rises, gets stronger. Moreover the rhythm requires some measure of regularity, such as when each line of a poem has five iambic feet (so-called iambic pentameter), each foot of which normally has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Hopkins jettisons those requirements: for him a foot will contain one stressed syllable, yes, but it can have any number of unstressed syllables, even none, and the stressed syllable can be the first one in the foot, so that it becomes what we call falling rhythm. Here are some varying examples, which you will understand if you read aloud the passage in question and put the stress either where it falls naturally in speech or where Hopkins especially marks it:

  • Line 3 of The Windhover: “…[under]neath’ him steady…” (Stressed syllable, marked as such by Hopkins, followed by three unstressed syllables before the next marked syllable occurs.)
  • Line 8 of Hurrahing in Harvest: “…greeting of realer, of…” (Two feet, stressed syllable followed by two unstressed.)
  • Entire line 11 of Pied Beauty: “Pra’ise hi’m.” (Two syllables, both marked as stressed by the poet, i.e. there are two “feet” but no unstressed syllables in this line.)

Sprung rhythm occupies a kind of middle ground between such very regular meters as iambic pentameter (each line has five iambic feet) and iambic quadrameter (each line has four iambic feet) and the kind of free verse practiced by Walt Whitman and others, which also uses any number of unstressed syllables. Hopkins, unlike Whitman and most modern poets, keeps a portion of the old regularity by specifying the number of feet for each line. Thus each eight-line stanza of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” for example, has the following number of stressed syllables (and thus feet) per line: two/three/four/three/five/five/four/six. There can, of course, be any number of unstressed syllables, as when the eighth line of stanza 2 has six stressed syllables and nine unstressed ones, total 15, whereas the eighth line of stanza 3 has the same six stressed but eleven unstressed, total 17. In sum, Hopkins keeps the regularity of the number of feet per line and adds the irregularity of the number of unstressed syllables per foot. A related feature of sprung rhythm you might wish to consult is his habit of using counterpoint, also covered in this guide.

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