The Wreck of the Deutschland Analysis
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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The Wreck of the Deutschland Analysis

"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

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 2,512 words.)