Hopkins Lectures 2002

Mariology in Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland

Aleksandra Kedzierska Marie Curie University, Lublin, Poland

Gerard Manley Hopkins has been recognized as a poet whose poetry reads like a prayer. While the Christocentric character of his work is recognized, few seem to realize how indispensable, for his poetry is Hopkins's preoccupation with the Mariology as in The Wreck of the Deutschland.

The unique achievement of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) has long been recognized. One of the most outstanding English poets of the late nineteenth century, he made poetry read like a prayer, offering a profound insight into the world of the spirit, into the mystery of the Word "instressed" and "stressed" by word(s). For years now, critics have been concerned with exploring numerous aspects of the poet's dogmatic Christianity (Leavis, 85), yet although they often emphasize the Christocentric character of his work, only a few seem to realize how crucial, and in fact indispensable, for his poetry and the religious quest it offers to the privileged reader (cf. Delli-Carpini, viii) is Hopkins's preoccupation with the Marian theme, represented in every major phase of his poetic life.

Hence, this study, a fragment of a greater whole (concerned with the portrayal of the Virgin in Hopkins's works), will concentrate on "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (henceforth "The Wreck"), the first great poem of his maturity (Sprinker, 96) in which, defying the sentimental descriptiveness, song-like rhythms and easy rhymes of his preconversion poems, Hopkins turns to inscaping the central spiritual mysteries of his faith. Not only does he effectively demonstrate "a miraculous birth" of Christ in the Bethlehem of the human soul, but, at the same time he manages to render Mary's unique role in the Incarnation which, Hopkins seems to believe, takes place again and again, whenever the "heart right" lovingly utters the name of the Saviour.

In "Nondum", one of Hopkins's late Protestant poems, he so complained about the cross of his spiritual aridity and God's indifference he was made to bear:

. . . And Thou art silent, whilst Thy world
Contends about with many creeds
And hosts confront with flags unfurled
And zeal is flushed and pity bleeds
And truth is heard, with tears impearled,
A moaning voice among the reeds.

My hand upon my lips I lay;
The breast's desponding sob I quell;
I move along life's tomb-decked way
And listened to the passing bell
Summoning men from speechless day
To death's more silent, darker spell.

Oh! till Thou givest that sense beyond,
To shew Thee that Thou art, and near,
Let patience with her chastening wand
Dispel the doubt and dry the tear;
And lead me child-like by the hand
If still in darkness not in fear.

Speak! whisper to my watching heart
One word--as when a mother speaks
Soft, when she sees her infant start,
Till dimpled joy steals o'er its cheeks.
Then, to behold Thee as Thou art,
I'll wait till mourn eternal breaks. (GMH, 82-3)

Apart from offering a sample of Hopkins's juvenile writing, "Nondum" articulates the poet's need for a mother-like deity whose tender affection might bring him closer to the Divine and whose support might give him strength he needs to confront God as He is. This need was met, when, having renounced the Anglican Church, in Catholicism, Hopkins found the Blessed Virgin whom he eagerly embraced as his spiritual mother and hero, extolling her many virtues in such works as "Ad Mariam", "Rosa Mystica", "The May Magnificat" or "The Blessed Virgin compared to the air we breathe", considered to be "the most penetrating and beautiful Marian poem (McNamee, 146) in the English language.

Exploring possible ways of encounter between man and God, which, be it through storm or prayer, invariably takes place under the spiritual patronage of Mary, turned by her "fiat" into "the visible principle of unity" (Papetti, 184), "The Wreck" describes the spiritual birth of the poet's persona whose newly rediscovered childhood is viewed through the prism of Galilee and a far more divine infancy of Christ Himself. It is in this God-created context that Mary appears, anonymous yet so familiar, maid and mother, her "stress" of "the Ark of covenant" extended also to the ode's "tall nun" whose rendezvous with Christ on the "wild waters" triggers yet another spiritual epiphany in the poet's experience of new faith and his subsequent "flight to the heart of the Host".

Marking the artist's departure from the mode of explicit descriptiveness and its characteristic didactic streak, "The Wreck" is famous for its daring metaphors and highly unconventional imagery and rhythms. Besides, the unique balance the ode strikes between the personal and the impersonal enables the poet not only to reproduce Mary's `dogmatic' life, but, more importantly, to make her a very special linguistic creation, borne out of "the driven Passion" for words, exploding in their meanings.
An embodiment of the most fundamental mysteries of the Christian faith intertwined in her person: the Annunciation, the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection and the Assumption, Mary's amazing complexity is reflected in the following lines:

But it rides time like riding a river...
It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden's knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat:
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet --
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard
at bay,
Is out with it! (GMH, 7-8/pp.111-2)

Image upon image almost attacks the reader, forcing him to trudge through words which, once this exacting pilgrimage is over, meanings decoded and understood, will allow him to grasp the pure essence of the experience: the story of salvation. Rendered through four key images, and thus exposing a strictly linguistic dimension of the economy of salvation, the story demonstrates Hopkins's expertise at condensation, yet simultaneous hyperbolization of meaning; also his artistry in projecting a narrator, a type of Everyman, involved in the actual - word by word - formation of his relationship with God. What follows is that emerging as a crucial aspect of this relationship, Mary cannot simply be taken for granted, treated like a ready-made picture to be reproduced and translated into a poem. Instead, she also has to be perceived afresh, "re-hearsed", in the creative process which resembles building a mosaic, piece upon piece of image: "warm", "grave", "womb", and "grey".

Opening the Virgin's portrayal in "The Wreck", the centre of Mary's inscape is her womb, word-sculpted so that it becomes a miniature litany of Loretto, evocative of such phrases invoking the Maiden as for instance "Mother most chaste", "Mother inviolate" or "Mother undefiled". However, Hopkins's depiction of Mary's womb viewed as "[s]piritual vessel" of life at the same time points to the "dark side of Mary's divine maternity" with its core in the word "grave". Thus, Mary's role as "the necessary instrument of the divine Incarnation" (Papetti, 189) is from the very start interlocked with that of Stabat Mater -- her son's faithful companion on that Way of the Cross (via crucis) which in fact begins through his deliberate "wreck" from heaven and his enfleshment in her very "[s]ingular vessel of devotion". This again brings to mind the litany invoking "Queen of martyrs" and the "Mystical rose", both addresses suggestive not only of Mary's being a witness to the martyrdom of her son but of her actual sharing of it, this physical involvement best alluded to by the correspondence between her five petals and the number of Christ's wounds . Interlocked through her own suffering with that of Jesus, Mary becomes an epitome of sacrifice, her salvific martyrdom containing within itself also the deaths of the Deutschland nuns, wrecked in the storm, and all other lives perished before and after the Crucifixion.

Comprising thus and at the same time defining what is perhaps the greatest -- life-death -- paradox of the Divine, the womb's first prerogative is its warmth, enriched later with the softness of possibly the dove "grey", a symbol of the "feathery delicacy" of the Holy Spirit. These `pro-life' attributes extend into the image of the "maiden's knee", the image of warmth externalized, inviting one to visualize a caressed, fondled child in the woman's lap. Thus Mary is perceived as the matrix of encounter in which, as Hopkins wrote in one of his sermons, "met all things that are thought to be and even are opposite and incompatible" (Sermons, 29).

This portrayal of the womb emphasizes the understanding of the Incarnation as Christ's death to the heavenly bliss as well as his birth to the constriction and slavery of the body which could be liberated from only through the Crucifixion. This interconnectedness of life and death is further stressed by Ewa Borkowska pointing to the phonic correspondences, semantic affinities and analogous word relationships (warm/womb; grave/grey; life/laid) in the cluster "warm-laid grave" which almost echoes "womb-life-grey" (cf. 97). Also Viola Papetti notices the line's "perfect balance, alliteration and double turn". "As tomb", she writes, "the matrix is warm (with life) and as womb it is grey (bloodless), tomb and womb interlocked, inseparable site of life-death" (189).

Signalled above are merely the most obvious meanings inherent in Hopkins's perception of the womb and these indicate that Mary can eventually be treated as both a logical and spatial beginning of the Cross, and, more importantly, as an actual embodiment of the Passion. Progressing through the images of "frightful sweat", "swelling" and finally being "out with it", this Passion seems to render the story of the ancientness of God's plans concerning the Virgin who is herself an externalization of the holy stress, the masterpiece of creation uttered at the beginning of time . An equally fundamental aspect of the discharge is that it finalizes Mary's pregnancy through which the divine Word-become-flesh came to live among people. Even in his delivery into the world, "God and Mary's son" obeys the law of nature made part and parcel of the ode's fertility's context. "The flush", Borkowska writes, "is the first moment of vegetation when the plant shoots up new leaves. It carries a reference to the womb which, when instressed ("Lashed"), makes its floody and luxuriant ("lush") water overflow ("brim full) to "burst out" ("mouthed", "gush") into light ("flash")" (98).

Initiated in the mystery of the Incarnation and following Christ to Galilee - his first grave of a "womb-life grey", the reader, too, "rides time", struggling on this bumpy road with the images of "discharge", the "swelling" that finally leads to "flushing" man with His grace. This is also the moment marking the origin of Mary as the mediatrix of graces, invoked in the litany as "Mother of divine grace". Anticipating the frightful sweat at Calvary, Christ's self-dethronement with its dense and driven Passion" is, among others, uniquely conveyed by the stanza's expressive typography: by exclamations, with their message of the triumph of double-naturedness of the Lord, and by numerous pauses, climaxing in tmesis, the splitting of the compound "Brim, in a flesh, full!" - which as if finalizes Christ's enfleshment, the first of His many "dark" descendings, "most merciful then".

Being an act of Great sacrifice, the Incarnation, which therefore may be viewed as a kind of eucharist (with Mary privileged to be its first beneficiary), finds its completion in the sacramental merging of the human and the divine which the speaker, well aware of the cynghanedd, depicts as the mouthing of a "plush-kept sloe". Reached through successive assonantal variations - "lash", "lush", "plush", "flesh", "gush", "flush", "flesh" - with the "flesh-burst/ Gush!" as their climax, the communion grants the communicant the cleansing and flushing which, extending also through its ripples, finally fills "him with a Presence he is unable to request or resist" (McNees, 89). Almost felt exploding on the tongue, the Host, the burst body of Christ brings about another explosion, one within the speaker's prayer which, having returned to its initial directness and intensity, is offered for the whole mankind. It is impossible to disregard the role of the Maiden in thus becoming "Mother of Church", providing herself as the first communion altar, the temple of the Holy Spirit, into which, once shown the way, other believers can become transformed.

Allowing the mankind to celebrate the very first Christmas with infant Jesus Himself the gift to the world, the mystery of Incarnation can be felt by the poet's heart whose "throe" - this unique "stress" of God's closeness - provides him with the exclusive knowledge of the womb. Hence his "heart knows" what otherwise "none would have known", the darkness of the discharge, the liberation, through Mary's womb, to Life and Truth.

To this complex, inspired perception of Madonna with infant Jesus, another picture is added in stanza 30, showing Mary with her already mature Son, God prayed to, yet still united with his Mother in the feast of the Immaculate Conception: the ceremony which carefully prepared for the passengers of the Deutschland, reenacts, though outside the womb, the cycle of life through death.

Jesu, heart's light
Jesu, maid's son
What was the feast followed the night
Thou hadst glory of this nun?
Feast of the one woman without stain,
For so conceived, so to conceive thee is done;
But here was heart throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright. (GMH, 30/p.117)

Enhancing the perception of the Incarnation as "wreck", a very different delivery of the Deity takes place on the "endragoned seas", where the tall nun, "calling Christ to her", "words" the Logos whose name was born in her brain. In "The Wreck", too, is born a highly, unorthodox, provocative vision, which Hopkins will later elaborate upon in "The Blessed Virgin", "of an eternal and hipostatic matrix that conceives and bears in us `New Nazareths' or `Bethlehems'" (Viola Papetti, 187). Equipped with the "heart right", capable of interpreting the storm as a sign of God's presence and intervention in the human world, the nun is privileged to reexperience, if only partially, Mary's experience of divine motherhood. Turned into a "New Nazareth", she becomes a "specie mariana for Christ" (Papetti, 187), another Mary recreated also through such crucial characteristics of the Maiden as her "virginal tongue" (st.17), her sacrifice to the Word (st.17, 19, 24), her participation in the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and last but not least her Assumption-like reception into sainthood (23), justifying her intercessory power.

When in the ode's penultimate stanza (34), the poet addresses the nun-worded Christ, Mary, like a fairy godmother, reappears as if to bless the gift of spreading sainthood, a witness to her Son's coming to life, born anew, this time out of "the tense and the driven Passion" of the tall nun. Having been conceived in the heart "that heard and kept thee", the Word is finally "done", borne through the urgency of the sister's call. Uttered to become again a concrete, physical presence, Christ arrives "to cure the extremity" (st. 28) of his new mother and to receive her into heavenly glory. The nun's role as "a bell" (st. 31) which, "startl[ing] the poor sheep back" from their unbelief, shows them the way toward salvation, of turning loss into gain: the shipwreck into the harvest of souls, additionally characterizes this new Mary as "Mother of good counsel" and "Spiritual vessel", betraying thus the reliance on the Paraclete's "lovely-felicitous Providence" "the Maiden / could obey so". Recreated through the nun's involvement in the passengers of the Deutschland, Mary's commitment to her children is further highlighted by such invocations of the litany as "Help of Christians", "Refuge of Sinners", "Comfort of the Afflicted". Last but not least the new Mary appears as "Queen assumed into heaven" that status most evidenced in stanza 35, with its inspired prayer for England and the whole of mankind.

When in the context of this prayer Mary's name appears, it once more stresses the indissoluble bond between Mother and Son, "new born to the world" whom she so complexly helps to define as

Double-natured name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Miracle -in-Mary-of-flame,
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder throne! (GMH, 34/p.118

This word-sculptured "double-naturedness" of Christ would simply be impossible without Mary's human body - the foundation of his throne, and of his presence on earth; the presence which, turning the Virgin into a representation of heaven , transforms her into the first living temple of Christ and as such into the first worshipper of the "heart-fleshed", "furled" mystery her sacred womb contains. Emphasizing the paradox of Christ as "maiden-furled / Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame", the adjectival compounds demonstrate how, despite the unity wrought out by the Holy Spirit (flame), there must always exist -- even if only a hyphen-wide -- distance between man and God, a (pre-determined?) breach which, with time, might be seen as a reason for the wreck of the Deutschland, God's chance of interference in the man's world.

Such a chance, allowing to view the nun/Mary as the "Gate of heaven", opening its doors with her intercession, is evoked through the prayer closing the poem:

Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the
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,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high priest,
Our hearts' charity's hearth's fire, our thoughts' chivalry's
throng's Lord. (35/p.63)

The piling of genitives seems, as Holloway claims, to reinforce the meaning of "mastery" of Christ who "re-stresses" his power over the total man, his heart and mind. "His burning dominion covers the private arena of home, the hearth's fire of being, the centre of love, and the public domain of the mind where he is seen as the Lord, coming back in triumph, followed by the throngs of noble thoughts" (95). Thus the journey which began with Christ's descent into Mary's womb and led to God's encounter with the passengers of the Deutschland ends with the Son's returning Home, to the Father awaiting Him with the "heaven-haven of the reward". Also in this context Mary's/new Mary's significance reasserts itself, communicated through her prayerful share in the mystery of the Ascension and the hope in the power her prayer can have for God's conquest of men's minds and hearts, the power that can turn any wreck, the Deutschland or otherwise, into a great spiritual triumph.

For a poem which is neither fully nor typically Marian, "The Wreck's" scant Mariology, recreated from some 3 out of 35 stanzas of the ode, is amazingly profound indeed. Nevertheless, although Hopkins as theologian manages to address all major issues of Mary's dogmatic life, on the whole, "The Wreck" represents first and foremost a victory of a poet, capable of expressing most complex theological truth in just one line: "Maiden-furled / Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame". As condensed as a sermon, exploring various aspects of Marian identity, Hopkins's poetic definition when viewed in the context of the ode, pays homage to the Maiden as "terra unita", epitomizing in her person the mysteries of the Christian faith and uniting not only the Triune God with the whole of mankind, but on its microcosmic, miniature scale also the poet and the reader brought together to experience the communion of the Word in "The Wreck of the Deutschland".


Gerard Manley Hopkins, (ed.) C. Phillips, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1986.
Borkowska, Ewa, Philosophy and Rhetoric: A Phenomenological Study of Gerard Manley Hopkins's Poetry, Uniwersytet Slaski, Katowice 1992.

Delli-Carpini, J. , Prayer and Piety in the Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Landscape of A Soul, Edwin Leller Press, Lewiston 1998.

Holloway, M. , Sr., "`The Rarest-Veined Unreveller': Hopkins as the Best Guide to `The Wreck'" in Readings of the Wreck: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of G. M. Hopkins's `The Wreck of the Deutschland', ed. P. Milward, S.J., Loyola University Press, Tokyo 1976, pp.87-99.

Leavis, F.R., "Gerard Manley Hopkins" in Scrutiny, xii, Spring 1944, p. 85
McNees, E., "Beyond `The Half-Way House': Hopkins and Real Presence" in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 31 (1989) no 1 Spring 1989, pp. 85 - 105.

McNamee, M.B. S.J., "Hopkins Poet of Nature and of the Supernatural" in . Immortal Diamond, Weyand, N/S.J. (ed.), NY, Sheed and Ward 1949, pp.
Papetti, V.,"The Figure of Mary in the Poetry of Hopkins", in Gerard Manley Hopkins Tradition and Innovation, P. Bottala, G. Marra, F. Marucci (eds.) Longo Editore, Ravenna 1991, pp. pp. 171- 191.

Sprinker, M., A Counter Point of Dissonance. The Aesthetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1890.

Slownik Teologii Biblijnej ed. Xavier Leon-Dufor, tr. from the French by Bp K. Romaniuk, Pallotinum, Poznan Warszawa 1985.

The Gerard Manley Hopkins web - home page

The Annual Gerard Manley Hopkins Summer School - each year since 1987

James McKenna, Irish sculptor, creator of the Hopkins Monument