The Wreck of the Deutschland

by Gerard Manley Hopkins
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

"The Wreck of the Deutschland" is a poem by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem is composed of 35 stanzas and is written in the style of an ode, which is a lyrical form of poetry. Hopkins, who was a Jesuit priest, wrote the poem as an ode to five Franciscan nuns who died during a shipwreck. The nuns were aboard the SS Deutschland, a passenger ship that departed Germany (at the time called the German Kingdom of Prussia).

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The poem highlights not only the tragedy itself, but also contains a subtle political criticism of the Falk Laws, also known as May Laws, in the German Kingdom of Prussia. The Franciscan nuns were forced to leave Germany because the Falk Laws made it hard for Catholic orders in the kingdom to conduct services to their parishioners. The Falk Laws also sought to expel Catholics from the German Kingdom of Prussia. Hopkins, a Jesuit, defended the Catholic faith by dedicating the poem to the nuns who died in the act of being exiled.

Hopkins portrays the nuns as martyrs of religious prosecution and political oppression. The title is also interesting in that it can be interpreted as the German Kingdom of Prussia—or Deutschland—being wrecked by their political leaders, who steered the kingdom towards self-destruction.

In this sense, the poem is not only an ode to the Franciscan nuns but also a kind of elegy for the once-glorious German society where Protestants and Catholics coexisted. In retrospect, the poem is a documentary piece that provides insights into the history of Catholicism in present-day Germany. Catholicism has always had a strong presence in Germany. In fact, the previous pope was a German national, so the poem serves as footnote in history that highlights the persecution Catholics faced during the 1800s.

Overall, the poem is a lyrical ode in the traditional sense: lamentation for people who have passed away and meditations on the deeper meaning behind their death. But what gives the poem a somewhat revolutionary edge is the political subtext.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883

The poem consists of a narration of a shipwreck on the English seacoast on December 6 and 7, 1875, and a meditation on the meaning of the shipwreck. It is dedicated to the “happy memory of five Franciscan nuns,/ exiles by the Falck Laws,/ drowned between midnight and morning of/ Dec. 7th, 1875.” In 1871, the chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, launched a program of “purification” of the German nation from international influences, the Kulturkampf—the struggle for a purely German national feeling. In 1873, he had his Minister of Public Works and Education, Dr. Falk (not “Falck,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins spells it), bring in the “May Laws,” which closed monasteries and convents, confiscated all church property, and expelled all members of religious orders except those who were caring for the sick. Among those going into exile were five “tertiaries,” lay women associated with a Franciscan convent near Paderborn in Westphalia. They left Germany on December 4, 1875, embarking on the transatlantic steamer/sailing ship Deutschland, which sailed from the port of Bremerhaven the next day, Sunday, December 5.

There were 113 passengers, a crew of ninety-nine, and three pilots. The ship was proceeding through heavy snow in the English Channel on Monday, December 6, when the lookout reported that there was land directly ahead. There was an attempt to go into reverse, but the propeller broke off; the ship was driven into a dangerous sandbank called the Kentish Knock, at the mouth of the Thames. During the day, the waves drove the ship deeper and deeper into the sand, and the ship began to fill with water. The seas were too rough for rescue, and the passengers began to die from the cold, to fall to the deck from the shrouds into which some of them had climbed, and to drown. (More than forty of the passengers and sixteen of the crew eventually died.) The five Franciscan tertiaries were among those killed. They waited calmly during the ordeal, and one of them, a tall, gaunt woman 6 feet tall, standing on a table in the main salon of the ship with her body raised up through the skylight, was heard to call out loudly many times to God to shorten the time of their agony. (“O Christ, come quickly” was only one version of her exclamations.) All five were drowned, with hands clasped in prayer.

When the disaster took place, Hopkins was in his second year of study at a seminary at St. Beuno’s in northern Wales preparatory to his ordination as a priest (which took place in 1877). Hopkins read about the disaster in the newspapers, and when his rector said that he wished someone would write a poem about the event, Hopkins set to work. He had all but given up writing poetry, as a (voluntary) sacrifice upon entering his studies for the priesthood seven years previously; this event started him on the road to his greatest poetry. Yet the Catholic journal to which he submitted it, The Month, rejected the poem, and even his friends were confused by it. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that it came to be recognized as a great modern poem.

The poem is organized into five sections, contained in two larger “parts.” In part the first (stanzas 110), there is an invocation to God and a general introduction to the poem. The longer part the second begins with a description of Death in stanza 11. Stanzas 1219 describe the shipwreck itself. Stanzas 2033 present the reaction of the poet to the event and his meditation on the meaning of the shipwreck to England. The final stanzas, 34 and 35, contain Hopkins’ prayer to the heroine of the poem, the tallest of the five tertiaries killed.

In stanzas 1 through 10, Hopkins feels the finger of God on him as he is writing the poem; the event has more than human significance to him. He remembers a previous time, perhaps the time of his conversion, when he had felt the same power operating on him. He also enunciates a Christian paradox—that God, in dealing out suffering, is also dealing out Grace—a doctrine that is hard to accept. Stanza 11 declares that Death comes to all, although most people do not think of death even when others die around them.

In stanzas 12 through 19, there is a description of the shipwreck itself and of the suffering of the passengers and crew. In stanza 18, at the thought of the tall woman calling on Christ to come quickly, Hopkins records his tears, how his heart is touched at the thought. Stanzas 2033 contain a meditation on the meaning of the event for England. In stanza 28, Hopkins records in broken language the vision of Christ that comes to him as he thinks of the cry of the tall woman. He again asserts the mercy of God in causing the suffering and rewarding the sufferers.

Stanzas 3435 consist of a declaration about the meaning of the event: God is going to return to England in the form of the Catholic church reclaiming its power, which it had lost in the sixteenth century with the English Reformation. The last stanza contains a prayer to the tall woman to remember England and a plea to God to “easter in us”—that is, to rise up like a sunrise and to resurrect the Catholic church in England.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

Hopkins had a theory that all things are created by a particular creative curve or pressure, which he called “instress,” and that the instress of an object can reveal itself to the viewer when the viewer is in a state of sensitivity to the form of the object. All instresses, however, are really Christ, since Christ was incarnated in solid matter. Therefore, the instress of each event described in his poems should be found in the language of the poem itself. The suffering of the passengers and the tall woman should show itself in the complexity of the language and the unusual nature of the syntax. In addition, however, Hopkins believed that poems had their own particular form as poems; this form is shown in the complex metrical and alliterative patternings that make a poem a poem. In each of the major poems of Hopkins, therefore, there are two instresses: the instress of the subject and the instress of the poem as poem.

The poem consists of thirty-five stanzas of eight lines each, rhyming ababcbca. The stanzas are not in a traditional meter such as iambic pentameter, however; they are in accentual meter; that is, one only counts the strong stresses in each line. For example, in the first stanza, the number of strong stresses in each line is 23435546. This pattern lasts for the first ten stanzas; then it changes to a 33435546 pattern. It should be noted, however, that there are a number of different ways to locate strong stresses in English and that Hopkins’ count is sometimes difficult to find.

There is considerable alliteration in the poem, owing to the influence on Hopkins of Welsh poetry, which is richly alliterative. For example, in the line, “Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift,” one can see an interlocking pattern of assonance and alliteration. The o sound in “gospel” and “proffer” assonates, as does the i sound in “principle” and “gift.” The pr sound of “proffer,” “pressure,” and “principle” alliterates. Note also how the patterns of alliteration and assonance are linked—the first and second patterns at “proffer,” the second and third at “principle.”

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653


*Deutschland. Ship whose 1875 sinking caused the deaths of five Franciscan nuns to whom Hopkins dedicates this poem. Also the German-language name for Germany, “Deutschland” is, in Hopkins’s words, “double a desperate name!” because it is both the ship on which the nuns perished and the country that passed the anti-Roman Catholic laws that expelled the nuns from their homeland and forced them to undertake their ill-fated voyage.

Hopkins’s poem re-creates the sufferings of the ship’s passengers after their ship struck a sandbar near the mouth of England’s River Thames. He notes that the day after the death of the “tall nun”—December 8—was the Catholic feast day celebrating the conception of Mary without the stain of Original Sin, making her fit to be Christ’s mother. Just as Mary physically gave birth to Christ, so the tall nun, calling out his name before she died, brought forth Christ in a “birth of a brain.” The nun’s faith, Hopkins imagines, served to “Startle” the other passengers—“the poor sheep” he calls them—back to Christ. Hopkins suggests that the site of the wreck is the Lord’s harvest field. He rhetorically asks, “is the shipwrack then a harvest,/ does tempest carry the grain for thee?”


*Britain. The poem ends with Hopkins’s address to the tall nun, the “Dame, at our door/ Drowned,” that she remember “English souls” still on their journey through life, that they might eventually attain the only true shelter, not a port or a political refuge, but a “heaven-haven.” Just as he earlier surmised that the nun’s call to Christ quickened the faith of those on the Deutschland, so he now prays that Christ will be resurrected in the hearts of those in Hopkins’s own “rare—dear Britain.”

*Tarpeian Rock

*Tarpeian Rock (tar-PEE-yahn). Famous cliff in Rome that made the ancient capital, in John Milton’s words, a “citadel.” Immediately after referring to the tall nun as “The Simon Peter of a soul,” Hopkins says she was “to the blast/ Tarpeian-fast.” To Hopkins, the nun’s faith made her like the rock, and like the Apostle Peter, whom Christ spoke of as the rock on which He would build His church, like the house Christ spoke of that resisted the blasts of storm because it was built on a rock.


*Gennesareth (geh-NEHZ-eh-ret). Another name for the Sea of Galilee in the Holy Land’s Jordan Valley. Sudden fierce storms often occur over it because of cold air masses from the north. Hopkins evokes an incident in the Gospels in which such a storm found Christ asleep in a boat on the lake, with his terrified disciples. Christ then calms the storm and takes note of the disciples’ small faith. Hopkins evokes this incident to suggest that the men on the Deutschland were in the spiritual condition of the disciples in the boat, and to highlight by contrast the strong faith of the tall nun that—he expresses the hope or belief in stanza 31—was a source of comfort to them, bringing them back to Christ.


*Galilee. Region in northern Palestine (now Israel) where Jesus began his ministry. Hopkins notes that God’s mercy dates from the time of Christ’s life in and around Galilee. That ministry culminated with His death on a cross, by which in Christian belief He redeemed humankind. As Hopkins puts it, Christ became “hero of Calvary,” a reference to the hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. However, as Divinity, Christ is not limited to time and place and, in Christian belief, is present in a special way wherever and whenever people say “yes” to Him: the main examples in Hopkins’s poem being in the first part, Hopkins’s own assent—“I did say yes”—and in the second part, the cry to Christ of the tall nun in 1875, off England’s coast.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280

Boyle, Robert. Metaphor in Hopkins. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960. Chapter 1, “The Heroic Breast,” discusses the theme of heroic sacrifice in “The Wreck of The Deutschland.” This chapter provides a careful, close reading of the many religious allusions in the poem.

Downes, David. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Study of His Ignatian Spirit. Boston: Twayne, 1959. Discusses Hopkins’ poetry in the light of his training and background as a Jesuit priest. Chapter 2 applies many of the moral precepts of St. Ignatius to the poem, comparing individual stanzas to specific exercises in St. Ignatius’ spiritual classic.

Gardner, William. Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1944. This comprehensive two-volume work encompasses a multitude of topics—from “Diction and Syntax” to “Critics and Reviewers” to “Hopkins and Modern Poetry.” Chapter 2 focuses exclusively on “The Wreck of The Deutschland,” arguing that the poem has a completeness, an intellectual and emotional unity, and a subtlety and variety of verbal orchestrations that are unique in English.

Lahey, G. F. Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1930. Excellent biography of Hopkins, examining his early life, his years at Oxford, and his friendships with writer Coventry Patmore, Cardinal Newman, and poet Richard Dixon. Chapter 7, “The Artist,” presents a succinct discussion of Hopkins’ poetry, comparing his techniques to the work of other English poets.

Peters, Wilhelmus A. M. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Critical Essay Towards the Understanding of His Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948. This book renders a close, careful reading of Hopkins’ poetry, analyzing many of the techniques and devices of Hopkins’ verse. Chapter 1, “The Meaning of Inscape and Instress,” offers an especially valuable discussion of two major concepts that inform all of Hopkins’ poetry.

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