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...
(The entire section is 883 words.)