Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

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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

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372

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.

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