Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"The Wreck of the Deutschland," written by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is a poem about a very specific event and really features very few characters. The Deutschland was a ship that wrecked and sank in 1875 after running aground just off the coast of England. After being stranded for several hours, dozens of people on board perished in the cold waters, and in the poem, Hopkins focuses on the deaths of five Franciscan nuns, who might be considered among the main characters of the poem. Hopkins dedicates the poem to their memory and writes that as one of the women suffered in the cold, she "was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly.' " These women were not only to be mourned for their tragic deaths, but because they were actually exiles from Germany. During the so-called Kulturkampf initiated by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the German parliament enacted a series of laws that attacked monasteries, convents, and other Catholic institutions in the interest of promoting ideological purity in Germany. As a Catholic (who had taken his vows as a Jesuit) himself, Hopkins was angered and profoundly moved by the tragic circumstances of the nuns' exile, almost as much as their deaths. Perhaps the other main character in the poem is Christ. In Hopkins's account, the nuns appeal to Jesus as they perish, and Hopkins frames them, especially given the circumstances of their departure from Germany, as martyrs for Christ.
But Hopkins also focuses on the role of divine providence in the wreck itself. For the poet, nothing occurs except by God's plan, and the wreck of the Deutschland, while a terrible tragedy, is simultaneously evidence of God's redemptive love for its victims. This is especially true of the nuns, who have been delivered from persecution in Germany (and, more generally, a sinful world) in more ways than they could have imagined before the wreck. So, the main characters of the poem are the nuns that Hopkins makes the centerpiece of his tragic tableau. But it is the interaction between God and man on the sandbar outside the Thames estuary that he finds especially compelling, and the divine, "the Master, Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head" is the other main actor in this tragic poem.