The Wreck of the Deutschland

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The themes of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland" include religion and natural disaster. The lengthy poem is written in free verse (with lines of varying length) and commemorates the death of five Franciscan nuns in 1875. Gerard Manley Hopkins, then a Jesuit priest, wrote the poem at the exhortation of a church superior. The poem contains many literary devices, such as apostrophe and internal rhyme.

The poem begins with the speaker's dialogue with God. In the first ten stanzas, the speaker explicates his own path to religion. He begins by describing God as "mastering [him]" and avows that God is the "giver of bread and breath." The speaker explains that God has seen his lowest depths by means of confession. He also acknowledges God as all-powerful and with both good and awe-inspiring sides ("thou art lightning and love").

In the second part of the poem (stanzas 11–35), the speaker describes the specific circumstances of the sinking ship and reconciles himself to the fact that the wreck occurred under the "master of Yore-flood" (referring to the biblical flood that befell Noah). The speaker ends the poem, too, with the theme of religion. Specifically, he asks for "the King [Christ] back, upon English souls!" He asks "let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us," meaning that he wants a return to religiosity (specifically Catholicism). This is a commentary on the so-called "Falk Laws" (sanctioned by Bismark) that restricted the power of the Catholic Church. It is because of these laws that the nuns traveling aboard the Deutschland were leaving their country for America.

In addition to religion, a major theme of the poem is natural disaster. The speaker describes "wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow" and says that the "infinite air is unkind." The speaker comments on the irony that the Deutschland did not sink owing to a reef or rock, but rather "the combs of a smother of sand." Much discussion is devoted to the flooding of the decks and the wailing of the women who succumb to the "widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps." A major point of tension is that such a cruel fate could befall the nuns aboard the ship. For the speaker, the reconciliation is that they await a more divine end after falling victim to the tumult of the natural world:

Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light

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