Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, now first published. Edited with notes by Robert Bridges.Ed. Robert Bridges. London: Humphrey Milford [1918]. One of 750 copies. ABLibrary Rare X 821.8 H794p 1918.

Rare Item Analysis: Friend or Foe? Bridges’s Rhyming Woe: How Robert Bridges’s Critical Response Sheds Light on Hopkins’s Unique Rhyme

By Shaye Widger

COVE timeline | COVE timeline entry | COVE map

Within the Rare Books Collection in the Armstrong Browning Library, a first edition copy of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins is held. Although some of his early poems were published during his lifetime, this is the first substantial publication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry. Robert Bridges, England’s poet laureate at the time and Hopkins’s friend with whom he shared much of his poetry through letter correspondence, published this work nearly 30 years after Hopkins’s death. Even though Bridges was the person who enabled Hopkins to have an audience, his concluding notes critically handle Hopkins poetry in such a way that impacted how the initial readers received his poems. In an earlier blog post “Creating Imagined Community & Critiquing Imagined Incompetence: Two Early Printings of the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins,” Sørina Higgins clarifies Bridges’s criticisms in great detail and shows how such comments would have intervened with Hopkins’s initial audience’s response to his poetry. Instead, this post will only focus on one criticism that was particularly brash: Hopkins’s rhyme, which Bridges called “distressing,” “hideous,” and “vulgar” (100). Yet, Hopkins cared deeply for his rhyme and chose it purposefully to convey a theme through it. This is identifiable through a close reading of his poem “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” (1886). Within this poem, Hopkins conveys a concern for entropy, which is the second law of thermodynamics. This is the unraveling of useful energy within the world that will ultimately lead to destruction and the absence of life. The rhyme within this poem is powerful in conveying this distressing theme. By taking a closer look into this rare-item, one will gain insight into why Bridges had an issue with Hopkins’s rhyme and gather Hopkins’s purpose in pursuing this rhyme style even though it was confusing to Bridges and, it appears, to many initial readers of The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This rare item is intriguing because although Bridges was the first to bring Hopkins’s wide range of poetry into the public eye, he was also a major critic of his work. He makes his thoughts on Hopkins poetry aggressively clear in the concluding notes. What troubled Bridges most about Hopkins’s rhyme, in particular, was that he employed “ear-rhyme” rather than the traditional eye-rhyme (100). Bridges believed in the traditional eye-rhymes, calling them “pleasant relief,” for one is able to identify the rhyme scheme by just looking at the poem (100). Yet, Hopkins cared more for the sound of the rhyme rather than the look of the rhyme (Hutchison 217). For example, in “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” he rhymes “stupendous” with “overbend us” and “an end, as-” with “will end us:”

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ` vaulty, voluminous,…stupendous


Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ` stárs principal, overbend us,

Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ` her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-


With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ` whélms, whélms, ánd will end us. (1, 4-5, 8)

Each one of these rhymes when spoken aloud, yet on paper they look nothing alike. In contrast, Bridges believed eye-rhyme to be supreme and he employed it in his own poetry. In “Sonnet LXII” in his The Growth of Lovehe rhymes “toil” with “turmoil” and “despoil” with “assoil:”

Sweet sleep, dear unadornéd bride of toil,


Closing the cloudy gate on day’s turmoil:

Though through the soft ways enterest to despoil


When God’s Welldone doth all their sins assoil. (1, 4, 5, 8)

With one glance one is able to discern this rhyme pattern without needing to understand anything else about the poem. Hopkins responds critically to this sonnet in a letter to Bridges after he sent him this sonnet. Hopkins wrote, “could you not find another rhyme? There is spoil, despoil, turmoil, not to speak of coil, boil, parboil, and Hol Hoyle on whist — the very sight of which dreary jugglery brings on yawns with me” (4–5 January 1883). Hopkins believed that the rhyme of a poem should reflect the theme through its sound and therefore applied rhyming patterns that did not fit within the traditional fashion of rhyming, as Bridges understood it.

Hopkins’s use of rhyme integrates the theme of the poem with its rhythm in order for the reader to feel the purpose that he is trying to convey. This is clearly seen in his poem “Spelt from  Sibyl’s Leaves.” Hopkins wrote this poem toward the end of his life when he was living in Dublin. Enduring depression, Hopkins became increasingly fascinated with the second law of thermodynamics. This law puts forth the idea that life will no longer be able to survive because of the ultimate unraveling of useable energy. He interprets his fearful feelings surrounding this doom as he looks at the setting sun. He implements a form of rhythm that he pioneered, entitled sprung rhythm, here by using an eight-foot meter (Gardener 133). This rhythm pushes the bounds of a traditional iambic pentameter, in order to deliver to the audience an “affective and cognitive” experience (King 209). For the reader this rhythm creates difficulty in reading this poem smoothly aloud, almost feeling as if their tongue is weighed down by each line. For example, the first line reads: “Earnest, earthless, equal, attainable, ` vaulty, voluminous,… stupendous” (1). There are so many stressed syllables within this line and every line that follows, that it is physically difficult for one to read this sonnet aloud. Hopkins did this purposefully, for the theme that he is tackling is difficult for himself to swallow. Yet, he employs clever rhymes to draw the reader further through this sonnet. For instance, lines 5-6 read: “her dapple is at an end, as- / tray or aswarm” (52). Hopkins will literally unravel certain words, like “astray,” to keep in line with the rhyme scheme, draw the reader to the next line despite the difficulty, and convey the theme of unraveling energy. Knowing that his friend Bridges was a traditionalist, Hopkins defends this work in a letter to Bridges when he first sends it to him. Hopkins reminds Bridges that his work is “a living art” and is meant for “performance,” “not [meant for] reading with the eye,” but aloud with special focus on “rhyme” and “tempo” (11 December 1886). This important quotation demonstrates that Hopkins places purpose within his rhyme, and although it may be misunderstood, it has powerful implications.

This rare-item holds immense power for one to grasp how misunderstood Hopkins was within the Victorian period. Yet, it also demonstrates how such misunderstandings shed light on Hopkins’s innovation that pushed forth techniques of rhyme for future poets to follow. Although Bridges published Hopkins’s work, he did not fully accept his way of writing, especially in the way of his “appalling” rhyme (100). However, upon looking directly at “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” one is able to see the depth of integration Hopkins is able to implement through his use of rhyme. In a further study, it would be fascinating to look into how impactful Hopkins’s rhyme has been for 20th-century poets that used him as inspiration for their own poetry. In such a study, one could scour works done by 20th-century poets that used Hopkins as inspiration, intently looking for notes of Hopkins rhyming technique. This way one would be able to tangibly see how his work impacted the next generation of poetry. A potential classroom activity that one could apply this research to would be having students look at a poem by Hopkins and draw out how his rhyme conveys the theme of the entire poem. This would be an impactful way for students to understand the power of rhyme and why it is imperative for poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet of rhyming genius, and although misconceived in his period, can impact one’s knowledge of poetry today.

Image from a book of Gerard Manley Hopkins in profile and sitting in a chair. He has dark hair and is wearing a white priest's collar..

Image of the title page of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins Image of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves" printed in a book