The Wreck of the Deutschland

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"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).

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.

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