Of Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves he writes: Of this long sonnet above all remember what applies to all my verse, that is, as living art should be, made for performance and that its performance is not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on.
His objection to the word ‘rhetorical’ is interesting: in 1887 he had used it of sprung rhythm without a qualm: ‘Because it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the Chanel Jewelry most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms’ but a few lines later in the same letter he has switched to the favoured ‘oratorical’: ‘My verse is less to be read than heard, as I have told you before; it is oratorical, that is the rhythm is so’.
Ernest Felita S. J. in 1990 looked at this point and concluded that it is the reading aloud that must not be ‘rhetorical’, i.e. in the manner of forensic, persuasive speech, because Hopkins’s directions suggest something more like musical recitative.
With long pauses, dwells etc, which public rhetorical speech would not have, but the rhythm can safely be described as rhetorical because it is the rhythm of speech. The difference might be thought to be too fine, but it has spiritual significance: rhetorical delivery might indeed pause, dwell, etc.
But for emotional impact, making it a contrivance by a speaker to sway a passive audience: Hopkins’s pauses, dwells etc are for the reader, to make an inward movement, a sinking in, a gathering of inward attention.
These caesurae hold back the voice for a breathing space, raise the stress on the next word, and when accompanied by strong enjambement, denying even a perfunctory end-of-line pause, as in ‘bare of, they challenge line structure itself. Rhyme and the sonnet structure hold the lines in place: the rhythmic features of caesurae and strong enjambement challenge them.
If Hopkins had not been committed to traditional structures such as end rhyme and sonnet form, we might have had something like that (but it would still not be Whitman). Inside the second of these balanced forces, the challenge to line integrity of caesurae and enjambment, lies yet another pair, as caesura holds back and the stress rhythm pushes on.
The whole is a dynamic interplay of movements. Strong energies move on: in fact it is always very difficult to break of from reading, or Pandora Jewelry quoting from, a Hopkins poem it will not allow itself to stop. It is as J. H.
Arnold said of performing plainsong: ‘aim at being aware that you are in a constant state of moving forward to something further on., a literally tip-toe attitude of mind… expectancy rather than resignation’. This overall characteristic of Hopkins’s poetry manages to contain the freedom he takes in certain poems with abrupt stress and heavy pauses.