"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!").
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 entire section is 1,969 words.)