Study Guide

As Kingfishers Catch Fire Form and Meter

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Form and Meter

Petrarchan Sonnet

There's a lot of challenging imagery, intricate metaphors, and wonky syntax in "As Kingfishers Catch Fire." Thankfully for us, though, the general form of the poem is pretty straightforward.

Fourteen lines and a regular rhyme scheme? Yep, we're dealing with a sonnet here, Shmoopers. More specifically, we're dealing with a Petrarchan sonnet, which features an eight-line stanza known as an octave, followed by a six-line stanza called the sestet.

In addition, a few other elements of the poem mark it as a Petrarchan sonnet. The rhyme scheme of the poem reads ABBAABBA CDCDCD, where each letter is that line's end rhyme. What's more, the octave in a Petrarchan sonnet typically acts as the set-up for the poem's investigation, while the sestet includes a "volta," or turn, starting in line 9 and advancing a comment on that set-up which carries forward to the end of the poem.

In the case of this poem, the octet announces several comparisons of things that project themselves—by sight or by hearing—into the world. The sestet, then, reflects on how this is also the case for those who project their true selves into the world through their actions. In so doing, they're inhabited by Christ and honored by God.

So, we've got a clear-cut case of Petrarchan sonnet on our hands, but—come on—this is Gerard Manley Hopkins we're talking about. It can't be that straightforward, can it? No, no it can't. When it comes to the poem's meter, we're in for a whole different kettle of kingfishers.

Typically, a Petrarchan sonnet sticks to a particular rhythm. The most popular of these is iambic pentameter, which features five two-syllable pairs, called iambs, in every line. And we certainly see that meter in this poem. Check it out:

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells (2)

Hear that pattern of daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM? That's the sound of iambic pentameter in action.

If you really like that rhythm, well…too bad. Hopkins wanted to push past this old poetic standby in his writing. He actually invented his own approach, something called "sprung rhythm." Sprung rhythm was the result of Hopkins trying to mimic the more natural patterns of human speech. To do that, he liked to put the stress on the first word of a line and also vary the number and consistency of his metrical feet.

As you might imagine, then, Hopkins' was really deliberate in how he structured his lines and where he put the stress. That explains all the weird apostrophes in "As Kingfishers Catch Fire." It's not that Hopkins was trying to make those words sound fancy with a foreign accent. Nope, he wanted the reader to know that this is where the emphasis should be placed when reading his poem out loud. Let's look at an example:

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, (12)

The first word in this line, "Christ," has an accent mark. This means it should be stressed. Those marks actually pop up throughout the poem—entertain yourself by looking for other stress marks. Also notice that, even after this stressed start, Hopkins moves away from iambs and opts mainly for dactyls in this line. That's the kind of random variation he was going for with his sprung rhythm.

Really, this approach was the precursor to free verse, which later moved away from set meters altogether in favor of less formal patterns of speech. So why is sprung rhythm a good fit for this poem?

Well, as a bridge between formal meter and free verse, we'd say it's super-appropriate. Not only does sprung rhythm allow Hopkins to inject new life into a very old form, it also fits with the way Hopkins's speaker is trying to make more modern sense of traditional religious convictions. In that way, Hopkins is building a different kind of bridge, one that moves the philosophical ("who am I?") into the tangible ("act according to your inner self").

Both in his content and with his choices of form, Hopkins is trying to renovate outdated modes of writing and thinking, injecting them with new energies that more closely match reality as he understands it. With his sprung rhythm, then, he was really looking to spring things forward in poetry.

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