Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"The Wreck of the Deutschland" is a 35-stanza poem that employs a number of internal rhymes in a loose meter and includes a number of Biblical allusions all in service of describing the wreck of the SS Deutschland, a Scottish-made passenger vessel that ran aground during a blizzard in 1875. Hopkins composed the poem after having become a Jesuit priest. Among the nearly 200 passengers, the victims included five Franciscan nuns from Westphalia who were cast out of Germany as a result of the so-called Falk Laws (1873–5) which cast out Jesuits, Nuns of the Sacred Heart, Lazarists, and other Catholic orders from the Kingdom of Prussia.
The poem begins by addressing himself to God, explaining that God has "mastered" him in the past. The poet claims to have had several encounters with a fearsome God. The poet explains that, as a result of these encounters, he is chastened and lives in quiet and repentant fear of God.
The poem next explains Jesus's journey to Galilee and crucifixion in allusive language, insisting his belief that Jesus must be revered as King. The poet then begins to describe the shipwreck itself, first focusing on the entire group of passengers ("Two hundred souls in the round") who never suspected the possibility of a shipwreck. The poet remarks that the ship runs aground not on reef or rock but on the sands of a shoal.
After laying out the general circumstances of the accident, the poet focuses on the specific experiences of the passengers, especially one nun named Gertrude (a "lioness"). She was one of five whom the poet exalts for her purity (comparing her with a "lily"). The poet also remarks on the tragic irony that these nuns were "banned by the land of their birth" as a result of the expulsion laws.
As the passengers were suffering, the poet admits the personal detail that he was "under a roof here... at rest" while they were "prey of the gales." The poet (himself a Jesuit priest) naturally questions the divine purpose of it all, questioning for what was the "feast of the one woman without stain."
The poet ends with a dialogue with God in which he ponders the future of England and alludes to a wish for a return to Catholicism ("Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!").