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 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...

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Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

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(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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.