Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
"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!").
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1583
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 knowledge of God’s mercy. “The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides” (stanza 33) will not drown them but seal them “in wild waters,/ To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances” (stanza 24).
“The Wreck of the Deutschland,” then, comes to describe not only the deaths of the passengers and the tragedy of a shipwreck but also the shipwreck of a world devastated by Original Sin. Hopkins alludes in stanza 1 to this greater shipwreck in his reference to fallen man ruining God’s original Creation: “And after it almost unmade, what with dread,/ Thy doing.” The storm without, on the sea, magnifies the storm within, in the soul. In stanzas 2 and 3, Hopkins examines the destructive effects of Original Sin in the human soul and in the world, and he describes the fear of God’s punishment for sin, his “lightning and lashed rod” and Christ’s “terror” that evoke the dread of “the hurtle of hell.” Stanza 4 describes the constant decay and impermanence of one’s mortal life, which is symbolized by the image of the hourglass marking one’s progression from life to death. God is as real and present, however, in a fallen world and in sinful human life as he is to the tall nun in the fury of the disaster at sea. Stanza 5 describes the glory of God in the splendor of the star-filled heavens (“lovely-asunder starlight”) and in the beautiful sunset (“the dappled-with-damson west”).
Creation in all its beauty declares the mystery of God’s presence in a fallen world stained with sin. History also gives witness to God’s presence as the Word becomes Flesh and dwells among people. Stanza 7 refers to the Incarnation in its references to “manger, maiden’s knee.” Just as God manifests himself in the beauty of nature and in the miracles of history, God is present in the moment of death.
Christ conquers both sin and death with his “driven Passion and frightful sweat” (stanza 7). He comes as both “lightning and love” and as “a winter and warm” (stanza 9). That is, the wreck of a fallen world or the destruction of passengers at sea do not signify a world devoid of God’s grace and love. God is present in the darkness and storm of tragedy. He comes in the wreck of sin and death to call souls to him. Just as he called Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus “at once, as once a crash” (stanza 10) or summoned Augustine to repentance and conversion “With an anvil-ding,” in a burst of force or energy that erupts like the fire in the forge or the ebullience of spring, God appears in a flash to the drowning victims on the Deutschland—not in a “dooms-day dazzle” but “royally reclaiming his own” (stanza 34) in a surge of love and mercy. This divine energy of God’s infinite love and goodness overflows on Calvary, where Christ’s body bursts with his outpouring blood for man’s redemption. Like a ripe fruit whose juices gush upon being tasted—“How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe/ Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,/ Gush!”—God proffers his everlasting mercy throughout the ages to the sinful who are struggling in the wreck of a fallen world. This divine energy Hopkins calls “inscape” or “instress,” a dynamic creative power that radiates God’s glory in flashes, bursts, explosions, and eruptions in unique, unpredictable, and astonishing ways. The manifold expressions of God’s power in the world in wind, lightning, fire, and sea; the myriad forms of beauty in all its colorful variety that infuse nature; and the multiple manifestations of God’s mystery and reality all reflect the boundless, kinetic energy of God’s being. The passion and sweat of Christ, that burst with the blood of sacrifice, the discharge of the flash of lightning, the day-spring of Easter that swells with life and rebirth all emanate from the divine energy of God’s being that overflows in “God’s three numbered form” and hurls itself throughout all of Creation in “The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden furled/ Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame” (stanza 34). To capture the fullness of God’s being that is constantly spilling, flinging, hurling, flashing, and erupting with spontaneous energy and generating life, Hopkins writes in a style called sprung rhythm, which imitates the dynamic surges and bold movements of God’s art in the world. Hopkins’s verbal power breaks loose in the poem with the same explosive force as God’s creative energy. However, sprung rhythm, while not a tame or a rigidly controlled movement, is not a wild, undisciplined, or random force. Rather it is as intricate, designed, and harmonious as God’s beauty—a complex pattern of words and rhythms that echoes the music of sound and follows the expansion of the heart in the ecstasy of love. Sprung rhythm, in other words, resembles the vibrations, movements, and passions of a heart in love with God and in awe at His beauty, love, and grace. The lifting of the heart ascends in rapture and ecstasy with breathless wonder: “Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’s chivalry’s throng’s Lord.” Hopkins’s originality in the use of sprung rhythm, his notions of inscape and instress that inform his poetry, and his use of authentic but unusual diction and syntax with a strong emphasis on alliteration (“lovely-felicitous Providence/ Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy”) all distinguish Hopkins as one of the great pioneers of modern poetry.