Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The basic theme is that God (while preserving human free will) controls all aspects of human destiny. This means that God deals out good and bad experiences to human beings; in dealing out both, God is always moved by infinite Mercy. This is sometimes difficult to accept, since so many of the bad experiences are tragic and overwhelming, but God has His purposes in everything He does. Part of God’s purpose in ordaining human suffering is to drive the evil from rebellious human beings by ordeals:

Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm.

Hopkins finds significance in every aspect of the dreadful event he depicts. The name of the ship, Deutschland, means “Germany” in German; the sufferings of the passengers on the ship symbolize for Hopkins the suffering of all people in the modern world, and especially in a secular, persecuting state such as Germany became in the time of the Kulturkampf. In addition, Germany was the country where Martin Luther had begun the Reformation. Germany was therefore the source of the infection (as Hopkins saw it) of the world by a heretical and secularizing religion, Protestantism. Yet the same town in Germany, Eisleben, was the hometown of both Martin Luther and Saint Gertrude, so Hopkins finds reason for hope in the symbolic agony of “Deutschland”: “But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,/ Christ’s lily, and beast of the waste wood:// Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.” Since both the source and the cure for the inflection of the modern world came from the same place, there is hope for the world.

Therefore, the sufferings of the tall woman in the poem have a supremely important meaning to Hopkins. They are a signal and a symbol to England to expect a crucial event—the return of Protestant England to the Roman Catholic fold:

Our King back, Oh, upon English souls!Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,be a crimson-cresseted east,More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls.