In 1875, a number of Roman Catholic religious people had been driven out of Germany by the Falck Laws. In the winter of that year, five exiled nuns took passage on the Deutschland, which ran aground in a snowstorm near the Kentish shore of England. The ship gradually broke up in the high seas and many lives were lost, including those of the nuns. Their bodies were brought to England for solemn funeral ceremonies and the whole affair was widely reported in the newspapers. At this time, Gerard Manley Hopkins was studying theology at St. Bueno’s College in Wales. He read the reports in the press, and many details in his poem reflect the newspapers’ accounts. He seems especially to have noticed the report that, as passengers were being swept off the deck into the icy seas by towering waves, the tallest of the five nuns rose up above the others just before her death and cried out for Christ to come quickly to her. Hopkins discussed this fearful catastrophe with his rector, who suggested that someone should write a poem about it. Taking that hint as a command, Hopkins broke his self-imposed poetic silence and began to write again. The experience of the tall nun at her moment of death captured his imagination. How frightening and cruel it must have been to be on the deck of the shattered ship! Yet she was a faithful Catholic servant of God. How could God torment her so? What did she mean when she cried out for Christ to come to her as the fatal waves beat down on her?
“The Wreck of the Deutschland”
“The Wreck of the Deutschland” is a very difficult poem. Unlike the smooth sentences of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), for example, Hopkins’s elegy is contorted, broken, sometimes opaque. When Robert Bridges published the first volume of Hopkins’s poems in 1918, he warned readers that “The Wreck of the Deutschland” was like a great dragon lying at the gate to discourage readers from going on to other, more accessible poems by Hopkins. The thread of the occasion, however, can be traced in the text. The dedication of the poem to the memory of five Franciscan nuns exiled by the Falck Laws drowned between midnight and morning of December 7, 1875, gives the reader a point of reference. If readers skip to stanza 12, the story goes ahead, following newspaper accounts of the events reasonably clearly. Stanza 12 relates that some two hundred passengers sailed from Bremen bound for the United States, never guessing that a fourth of them would drown. Stanza 13 explains how the Deutschland sailed into the wintry storm. Stanzas 14 and 15 tell how the ship hit a sandbank and people began to drown. Stanza 16 depicts an act of heroism in which a sailor tries to rescue a woman, but is killed; his body dangles on a rope for hours before the eyes of the sufferers. Stanzas 17 through 23 are about the tall nun. In stanza 24, the poet contrasts his own comfortable setting under a safe roof in Wales with that of the nuns who were in their death struggle on the stormy sea. He has no pain, no trial, but the tall nun is dying at that very moment. Rising up in the midst of death and destruction, she calls, “O Christ, Christ, come quickly.” Stanzas 25 through 35 contemplate that scene and ask, “What did she mean?” when she called out. What was the total meaning of her agony and life? The poem therefore can be divided into three sections: Stanzas 1 to 10 constitute a prologue or invocation, stanzas 11 through 25 depict the agony of the shipwreck and the tall nun, and stanzas 25 through 35 contemplate the meaning of that event. The middle section, describing the shipwreck and the tall nun’s cry, is reasonably clear. Difficult details in this section are mostly explained in the notes to the revised fourth edition of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are some additional perspectives, however, which are helpful in grasping the total work.
“The Wreck of the Deutschland” is related to the Jesuit contemplative “composition of place” and “application of the senses.” As a member of the Society of Jesus, Hopkins’s daily life and devotions were shaped by the Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Moreover, at certain times in his career, he withdrew from the world to perform the spiritual exercises in month-long retreats of an extremely rigorous nature. One objective of the spiritual exercises is to induce an immediate, overwhelming sense of the presence of divinity in our world. The contemplative is directed by the Spiritual Exercises to employ the technique of “composition.” For example, to get a sharper sense of the divine presence, one might contemplate the birth of Christ. First one must imagine, or compose, the scene of the Nativity in all possible detail and precision. When Christ was born, how large was the room; what animals were in the stable; where was the holy family; were they seated or standing; what was the manger like? The imagination embodies or composes the scene. The contemplative then applies his five senses systematically to the composition. What did it look like, sound like, smell like, feel like, and taste like? Such a projection of the contemplative into the very situation induces a very powerful awareness of the religious experience. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is similar to such a contemplative exercise. Hopkins is trying to experience the religious truth of the nuns’s sacrifice. The middle of his poem is a composition of the scene where the tall nun died. It is constructed systematically to apply the five senses. Stanza 28 depicts the struggle of the poet to put himself in the nun’s place, to feel what she felt, to suffer as she suffered, to believe as she believed. At her death, she saw her Master, Christ the King. The poet tries to participate in her experience. The poem should be read in comparison with other poems of the religious meditative tradition—for example, the poetry of George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. Louis L. Martz in The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (1962) is the best introduction to this aspect of Hopkins’s work.
Complexities of sprung rhythm
In addition to the religious complexities of the poem, there are aesthetic complexities. Hopkins claimed to have discovered a new poetic form, “sprung rhythm,” which he employed in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Despite intense scholarly investigation of Hopkins’s metrics, there is no clear agreement as to what he means by “sprung rhythm.” “The Wreck of the Deutschland” contains thirty-five stanzas, each with eight lines of varying length. If one counts the syllables in each line, or if one counts only the accented syllables in each line, there is a rough agreement in the length of a particular line in each of the stanzas. For example, line 1 has four or five syllables in almost all stanzas. Line 8 is much longer than line 1 in all stanzas. What makes lines of varying length metrical?
It is sometimes thought that Hopkins was isolated in the Jesuit order and did not know what he was doing when he created unusual poetic forms. That is absurd, for he was a professor of classical literature and in correspondence with leading literary scholars. The best way to look at sprung rhythm is to see what Hopkins’s associates thought about meter. Robert Bridges, his college friend and lifelong correspondent, studied the iambic pentameter of Milton and wrote a major book on the prosody of Milton. Bridges thought that Milton built his lines out of iambic feet, units of two syllables with the second syllable pronounced more loudly than the first. An iambic pentameter line therefore had five iambic feet, or ten syllables with the even-positioned syllables stressed more loudly than the odd-positioned ones. Lines in Miltonic pentameter that do not fit this pattern follow a few simple variations defined by Bridges. Bridges’s study appears to be accurate for Milton, but clearly Hopkins is not writing poetry of this sort. The number of unstressed syllables differs widely in his lines, a condition that Bridges shows never occurs in Milton.
Another of Hopkins’s correspondents, Coventry Patmore, was a leading popular Catholic poet who wrote a study of English metrics based on time, similar to the prosody of hymns. Hopkins’s sprung rhythm seems more consistent with such a musical time-based pattern than with the accentual-syllabic pattern of Milton as defined by Bridges. Hopkins, as a professor of classical languages, knew the advanced linguistic work going on in that area. Greek poetry was thought to be quantitative, based on the length of vowel sounds. As a schoolboy, Hopkins had to practice translating an English passage first into Latin, then into Greek poetry, arranging the long and short vowels into acceptable feet. (Some of his Latin and Greek poetry is collected in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.) Modern readers are not often trained to understand these models in classical languages and so do not appreciate how important they are to Hopkins’s patterns in English verse. In Hopkins’s unpublished papers, there are lines of Greek poetry interlined by drafts of his English poems, sometimes with arrows and doodles matching up the English and Greek phrases. It seems possible that Hopkins based his distinctive rhythms on Greek models, especially the odes of Pindar. Essentially, however, the key to sprung rhythm remains to be discovered.
Priest vs. poet
“The Wreck of the Deutschland” was submitted to the Jesuit magazine The Month and, after some delay, rejected for publication. Hopkins said that they “dared not” print it, although there is no need to imagine a dark conspiracy among the Jesuit authorities to silence Hopkins. It is likely that the editors of The Month simply found “The Wreck of the Deutschland” baffling in form and content. The rejection dramatizes, however, a peculiar condition in Hopkins’s life. His unquestionable genius for poetry found almost no encouragement in his immediate surroundings as a Jesuit priest. His poetry is, of course, shaped by Roman Catholic imagery and is mainly devotional in nature. Without his Church and his priestly calling, he never could have written his poems. On the other hand, what he wrote was largely unappreciated by his closest associates. Ironically, this highly religious poet became famous in the twentieth century because of the praise of readers who were frequently anti-Roman Catholic. There was a central anguish in Hopkins’s life, a conflict between his priestly duties and his artistic creativity. Many scholars have tried to explain how Hopkins’s poetry and his priesthood fit together. Roman Catholic critics usually tend to say that the Catholic faith made Hopkins a great writer. Readers who are hostile to Catholicism tend to think that Hopkins was a serious writer in spite of extreme discouragements and restraints placed on him by his faith. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. If Hopkins had not been severely troubled, he would have had little motivation to write. His poems show all the commonplaces of religious imagery found in much less powerful Catholic poets, such as his friend Coventry Patmore. Hopkins rises above the average religious versifier because of his origial genius, yet this originality is what the Jesuit editors of The Month did not understand.
Stung by the criticism of his major poem, not only by the Jesuit editors but also by his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins never again tried to write something so long and elaborate. He retreated into the most traditional form in English prosody, the sonnet. After “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Hopkins’s most famous work is the sonnet “The Windhover.” More has been written about these fourteen lines than about any other piece of poetry of comparable length in English. All of Hopkins’s sonnets are related to the Petrarchan model, but he alters the tradition to fit his peculiar genius. The poem employs line-end rhymes abba abba cdcdcd. In addition to the repetition of sound at the end of each line, there is also thickly interwoven alliteration and assonance within each line. This internal rhyme is related to the cynghanedd or consonant chime of Welsh poetry. Hopkins tried to learn Welsh when he was a student at St. Bueno’s College in Wales and he actually wrote a bit of Welsh poetry in the form called cywydd. The meter of “The Windhover” is the so-called sprung rhythm, allowing great variation in the length of lines. The Petrarchan sonnet uses its rhyme scheme to define two parts of the poem: abba abba is the octave or exposition in the opening eight lines, cdcdcd is the sestet or commentary in the concluding six lines. Hopkins explained in his letters that the essence of a sonnet is balance and proportion. The octave asserts a situation or condition and then a surprising commentary comes back in the sestet to reply to the octave. Since the sestet has only six lines, it must be correspondingly “sharper” or more forceful if it is to balance the initial statement. The key to the sonnet is this proportion. Hopkins wrote some sonnets longer than the usual fourteen lines and a few shorter, “curtail” or cut-short, sonnets. In all his sonnets, however, he maintains the proportion of octave to sestet, eight to six, and forces the shorter conclusion to a higher pitch of intensity.
In its octave, “The Windhover” describes the flight of a hawk of a kind commonly used in falconry or hunting circling against the dawn sky. The sestet begins with the description of the hawk diving, plummeting earthward, as it “buckles.” The...
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