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Spring and Fall

Spring and Fall

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Analysis: Form and Meter

Rhyming Sprung Rhythm

So, if ever a poet was interested in Form and Meter, it was our man Hopkins. Let's start with the easier part of the form: the rhyme scheme. It's actually pretty straightforward in this particular poem: AABBCCDDDEEFFGG. Those letters each represent a rhyming sound. So, we can see that line 1 (A) rhymes with line 2. Line 3 (B) rhymes with line 4. And so on.

The rhyme scheme is pretty regular, then, at least at first. But then we get to lines 7-9, where we have three rhyming lines in a row. Not only that, but the words "By and by" in line 7 form an internal rhyme with the end rhymes of these lines. What's up with that? Hopkins might want to emphasize those lines in particular. They fall exactly halfway through the fifteen-line poem, and they make a kind of dramatic climax. This is the point in the poem when the speaker says that the little girl, Margaret, will one day continue to "weep" at the sight of fallen leaves, but when she's older, she'll understand the reason. In other words, she will come to understand death and mortality when she's older.

Heavy stuff, we know. But hey, that's the message of the poem. It could be that Hopkins wanted these lines to stand out more at the center of the poem, and wanted us to linger over these lines in particular. The extra rhymes—the repeated long "I" sounds—help accomplish that.

So that's it for the rhyme scheme. But what about the meter? Hopkins is famous for throwing the usual rules of poetic meter out the window and coming up with his own meter, which he called "sprung rhythm." He thought that his kind of poetic meter did a better job of imitating natural human speech patterns. He was so into this idea that he often made notes in his poems about where the stress should fall in each syllable. So, when you see his poems published elsewhere, that explains what looks like a stuck apostrophe key on his typewriter.

Regular poetic meter has a set pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line, but sprung rhythm might have groups of stressed syllables all in a row, followed by a bunch of unstressed syllables. Check it out:

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
(8-9)

If we highlight the syllables that you'd naturally stress, you'll see what we mean:

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
(8-9)

The first line—line 8—is very regular. In fact, it is iambic tetrameter (an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and "tetrameter" means that there are four—"tetra-" being Greek for four—of those iambs in the line). Iambic tetrameter is actually a very traditional meter for English poetry. But then look at line 9. There are still a total of four stressed syllables, but instead of being evenly spaced out, they're clustered together.

Hopkins thought that this was a more natural way of writing (after all, most people don't actually speak in iambic tetrameter all the time). Plus, clustering those stressed syllables together draws our attention to those particular words. And, as we pointed out when we were talking about the rhyme scheme, these lines are the dramatic climax of the whole poem—so no wonder Hopkins wanted to draw attention to them!

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