In a letter written to R. W. Dixon, Gerard Manley Hopkins explains the background of the poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” In 1875, during cold weather, the German ship Deutschland set sail for New York but was shipwrecked on the sands of the Kentish Knock at the mouth of the Thames River in England. Although Hopkins resolved not to compose any more poetry after his ordination as a Jesuit priest, his superior expressed the wish that someone write a poem in the wake of this tragedy. “I was affected by the account,” Hopkins wrote in his letter.
Hopkins was moved by the loss of 168 passengers and crew, including five nuns from a convent in Westphalia who were exiled from Germany. Although 138 people were rescued by a Liverpool tugboat, many boats passed by and ignored the distress signals because sailors feared risking their lives in the freezing weather. Stranded off the English coast near Harwich for nearly thirty hours, the Deutschland eventually sank. With great descriptive power and depth of emotion, Hopkins depicts the scene of tragedy and the anguish of the drowning victims. The blasts of wind (“For the infinite air is unkind”), the blinding snowstorm (“whirlwind-swivelled snow”), the shock of the ship hitting, not a rock or a reef, but “a smother of sand” all bring the passengers and crew into the jaws of death. After twelve hours of desperate waiting, with no help in sight, “Hope had grown gray hairs,” and “lives at last were washing away.” The heroic efforts of a man to save a woman from drowning are spent in vain before the awesome power of death: “What could he do/ With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?” The piercing sounds of women wailing and children crying echo the roaring of the storm and parallel the blinding of the snow, the wildness of the gales, and the swirling of the sea. In the middle of this tempest, roar, and deluge, a tall nun (a “lioness”) speaks above the din of terrifying destruction, crying “O Christ, Christ, come quickly” (stanza 24). In asking “what did she mean?” Hopkins recalls Jesus calming the waters when his disciples, terrified on the lake of Gennesareth, cried “we are perishing” (Matthew 8:23-27). Rebuking the winds and the sea, Jesus calmed the storm and saved the disciples, demonstrating God’s mastery of nature. Hopkins emphasizes the striking resemblances between the sinking of the Deutschland and the tempest on the lake that frightened the disciples. Christ is present in the hour of danger and of death to all who believe. While the disciples on the lake were reproached for their lack of faith, the tall nun in the hour of darkness entrusts all to God’s providence: “Christ, King, Head:/ He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her” (stanza 28). While the naked eye observes human victims powerless against nature’s forces and drowning in perilous seas, the eyes of faith see God’s hand in all events. “There was single eye!” observes Hopkins of the nun who sees in death not only suffering but also consolation.
The Christian faith of the nun does not leave her “comfortless” or “unconfessed,” for the eyes of faith see in shipwreck also a harvest and view the tempest as an agent of “grain for thee” (stanza 31). That is, as the Catholic Church always teaches, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The heroic death of Christians who embrace their cross and remain steadfast in their faith in the hour of trial wins souls for Christ. The eyes of faith also “Grasp God, throned behind/ Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides” (stanza 32). Just as Christ the master commands the winds and the waves, Christ as sovereign rules over death. He comes to claim his own. The five Franciscan nuns accept their crosses with courage and conviction in the...
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