Hopkins Lectures 2010

The Dragon in the Gate - the Wreck of the Deutchland

Ciaran O Hare Hopkins Festival 2010

Robert Bridges once described “The Wreck of the Deutchland” as ‘the dragon in the gate' standing as it did as an imposing hurdle to the rest of Hopkins poetry. It does however give us an intriguing insight into the multifaceted personality of the dragon keeper himself and the attraction to sacrifice and suffering that he uses to recommend himself to his God and which was often a complete contrast to his sense of humour and normality in his personal affiliations and happy family relationships

“The world, man, should after his own manner give God being in return for the being he has given it or should give him back that being he has given This is done by the great sacrifice. To contribute then to that sacrifice is the end for which man was made.”

On the 7th of December 1875, the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the wreck of a German steamer was to end Hopkins's seven-year poetic silence. The poem was of such intensity, uniqueness and resoluteness that it was to stand as a monument in Victorian poetry. The Wreck of the Deutschland despite its complexity of technique and intensity of theological thought, stands as a release of poetic genius that had remained suppressed and relegated in deference to what Hopkins perceived to be more “sacred duties”. The concentrated zealousness of the poem can be seen as one of conversion, an affirmation of faith and an appeal for the conversion of England to the Roman Church but it should not go unnoticed that Hopkins return to poetry is marked with a skill, imagination and fulfilment that barely disguises his rapture in writing poetry again, a rapture that he had personally repressed as a means of recommending himself to his God. That a poem be written was apparently only a vague suggestion by the rector at St. Beuno's Fr. Jones but Hopkins saw it as a licence to write poetry again even though there had never been any prohibition imposed on him by the Order. Hopkins had been inclined to prescribe for himself sanctions that demanded a personal and private sacrifice, quietly dropping it when it no longer had meaning for him.

The relief of this subjugation of poetry is most clearly characterised in Hopkins's introduction of sprung rhythm in The Wreck of the Deutschland. Sprung rhythm differs from Common English rhythm by having only one nominal rhythm instead of three, in feet of one to four syllables. The feet are mixed and any one can follow the other. This leads to twice the flexibility of foot allowing any two stresses to follow one another or be divided by one, two or three slack syllables. The feet are taken to be equally long and the differentiation is made by pause or stressing. It is common in Sprung Rhythm that the scanning of each line takes up that of the one before so that if the first has one or more syllables at the end, the following has that many less at its beginning. This can result in the scanning running without break from the beginning of a stanza to the end in one long vein through different lines. Hopkins used sprung rhythm for the first time in The Wreck of the Deutschland but it has been identified and traced back to the old strong-stress Anglo Saxon alliterative measure and even the choruses of Milton's Samson Agonistes .The influence of his contemporary Walter Swinburne is also evident in the direction Hopkins took in developing his sprung rhythm. Hopkins sought to use maximum stress or emphasis to contribute forcefully to the drama and reflect the magnitude of what the poem told. In Part the First, the distribution of stresses in each eight line stanza is 2-3-4-3-5-5-4-6; and in Part the Second the first line has three stresses. Although the surviving manuscripts have some stress marks, by looking at the normal strength of words and syllables and Hopkins's penchant for devices such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyming and the chiming of consonants it is possible to see where the stresses cynghanedd (cunhaneth) fall. Scanning by accents and stresses alone gave much greater freedom than ordinary syllabic rhythm. If we look at stanza three we can see clearly the potency that sprung rhythm lends to the meaning.

The frówn of his fáce
Befóre me, the húrtle of héll
Behind, whére, whére was a, whére was a place?
I whirled out wings that spéll
And fléd with a fling of the heárt to the heárt of the Hóst.

My heárt, but you were dóvewinged, Í can téll,
Cárrier-witted, I am bóld to bóast,
To flásh from the fláme to the fláme then, tówer from the gráce
To the gráce.”

Alliteration and assonance add weight to the stressing and the repetition of “whére” in line three magnifies the sense of dread and abandonment. The evolvement of the poet's heart as a bird, from panic stricken flight to homing to effortless soaring is carried weightlessly on seamless syllables of sprung rhythm.

Although intricate, the technicalities of sprung rhythm and even the name itself, evokes a subliminal form of release from constraint, in this case self-inflicted. The movement and cadence of the poetry stem from the liberation from the suppression of Hopkins the poet, underlining again his will to resist the creativity that lay inside the priest.

Sprung rhythm, I feel, also adds to the exhalation and awe associated with Hopkins devotion to his God. It is as if the poetry itself is a personification which attempts to spring up to touch the power that prevails.

From the very beginning the poem is marked with a proliferation of sacrificial images that reflect both the moral masochism and the attraction to suffering which permeates Hopkins's poetry. The belief that the path to his God lay in the degree to which he was able to endure self inflicted suffering had by this time become so intense that Hopkins was to re-forge not only the rhythm of the poem but the language itself in order to capture the fervour and passion of his vision. The poem becomes a validation for his tribulation clothed in an affirmation of his God founded and strengthened by the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Duns Scotus.

Hopkins must have seen his personal connection with the wreck as predetermined, linking as it did, his family concerns as nautical insurers and the suffering and death of the nuns, connected to him by their religious faith. The comparison to the apostles and their calling would not have been lost on him and the poem offered him the chance to document the story and faith of the nuns and at the same time, through his own spiritual autobiography, take part in the great sacrifice, the miracle of the reliving of Christ's Passion and Crucifixion.

The poem itself is in two parts, a shorter spiritual autobiography leading to the story of the wreck itself and the religious consequences interpreted by Hopkins, with the implication that what has happened to one soul may become universal phenomena. The significance of the first stanza is that it addresses God as his master and exalts His involvement in every fibre of existence. There is exhilaration in the power that dominates the first stanza. He also identifies here the connection between the state of grace and the attraction to the suffering he deems necessary to achieve it.

“Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.”

Already the images of bondage associated with words like “Thou mastering me”, “strand,” “bound bones” and “fastened me flesh” show his enthusiasm and attraction to that means to achieve his elevation to grace. Hopkins acknowledges these trials as the meaning of vocation and they themselves are elements leading to “elevating” grace. He defines it as that “which lifts the receiver from one cleave of being to another and to a vital act in Christ: this is truly God's finger the very vein of personality…, the aspiration in answer to his inspiration.” His affirmation to both physical and mental trial become much more potent when we look at the next stanza

“I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;”(ls.9-12)

The fact that he verifies these acts of physical torture in a letter to Bridges in which he states, “I may add for your interest and edification that what refers to myself in the poem is all strictly and literally true and did all occur; nothing is added for poetical padding,” shows that he had accepted and grown accustomed to this form of moral masochism as a way of life. Hopkins's own confrontation with his terrifying God who has unravelled him like a length of rope, in order to put him back together by inscaping him with his own Godliness, is compared to the fate which will transform the nuns aboard the Deutschland. Hopkins's own confrontation with the omnipotence of his God echoes the blind panic, terror and helplessness of those on board the Deutschland when faced with the horror of their doom but it is Hopkins's stimulation in that power which dominates the opening stanzas. He is drawn to that capability to inflict terror and suffering which however omnipotent expresses itself in the flesh and blood reality of human suffering. Hopkins's attraction to that dominating power is highlighted by his selective treatment of the social facts of the wreck. He virtually ignores the central facts reported in The Times regarding the delay in rescuing the survivors and the robbing of the dead bodies by local fishermen.

“It is indisputable that there was no lifeboat at Harwich; that the Deutschland lay beaten by the waves on the Kentish Knock for thirty hours without receiving assistance of any shape, and for one half that time at least the signals were seen and recognised by Harwich seamen.”

Again in the same edition it was reported,

“Twenty bodies have now been brought to Harwich by the steam tug. Mr. Guy the inspector of police here, tells me that with one exception, not a single valuable was found on the persons of these unfortunate people, and it was clear that their pockets had been turned out and rifled.”

Instead he concentrates on his own religious epiphany and the supposed assumption to the Godhead of the nuns, exhibiting a self-centeredness that was seldom concerned to legislate for others. His preoccupation with himself and his co-religious has been commented on by critics who have also noticed the relegation of the sacrifice of the sailor in stanza sixteen

“ One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope's end round the man, handy and brave-
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:”

The description of the brave seaman is construed by some as dehumanising. He ignores the obvious Christ like comparison of the ultimate sacrifice. Although Edward Cohen and indeed Robert Bridges himself have disagreed with this interpretation preferring to believe that the brave seaman can be seen as a personification of Christ's suffering. However I would contend that there are two overwhelming arguments that mitigate against their position and they are the brevity of the account, and the lack of personal affinity which distance the poet himself from the sailor irrespective of the rope imagery which in this case I find tenuous. He is seen as a thing of motion not a human being but part of the physical carnage of the wreck and

“They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece.”

And he quickly becomes the occasion for the exhilaration in the power that caused it which would seem to contradict Cohen and Bridges assertions.

“What could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the

The attraction to physical pain and suffering can be traced from the first part of the poem and connected to the sailor but more pointedly to the tall nun in the second. It is that physical and mental connection which Hopkins seeks. The rope and binding imagery here and the identification of God as “Wórld's stránd, swáy of the séa” are examples. Strand can also be interpreted as a filament, thread or rope, “wórld” has phonic connections with whorled which means to swirl around and Hopkins uses this to bind himself to at least one of these experiences. He is not content with association here he requires intimate experience.

Hopkins stresses the fact that there were five nuns on board and sees the significance of this in the five wounds of Christ. He sees the death of the five nuns here as preordained. They are a manifestation of Christ himself and for Hopkins Christ is the personification of suffering and sacrifice. Hopkins also explores the nun's cry “O Christ, Christ, come quickly,” and makes room for himself on the shipwreck by possessing the nun's thoughts. He calls for the gift of imagination and inspiration in stanza 28 in order to imagine himself on board and participate fully in what the tall nun was going through.

“But how shall I…make me room there;
Reach me a …Fancy, come faster-
Strike you the sight of it?”

This shows a need to not only record but to actually experience the tragedy, to become part of, to feel, and become one with their imminent danger and pain. The Wreck of the Deutschland has allowed him the vehicle not only to miraculously experience the disaster but to take it to an apocalyptic level, by personally encountering through that nightmare, the ultimate power of his own God. A God to whom he feels he must sacrifice himself in order to gain acceptance. The question as to whether Hopkins is describing an actual miracle in the same stanza with the words

“Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she…There then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:”

has been a subject of debate since Elizabeth Schneider put forward the theory that Hopkins believed that Christ actually appeared to the nun. Although it is generally not warmly received, both Alison Sullaway and John Robinson find merit in the theory, given Hopkins's Tractarian belief that miracles were not “a stumbling block in the way of belief.” As an Oxford Tractarian, Hopkins would have also been aware of both Liddon's and Pusey's assertion of the imminence of the second coming signalled by appearances to chosen souls, before the judgement of all. Schneider also interprets the use of the expression “Has one fetch in her,” in stanza nineteen as referring to an apparition. “Fetch” was a word with which Hopkins was familiar when used in this way.

The fact that the poem itself has many of the allegorical characteristics of the writings of the Apocalypse and that everything leads to the end and judgement, underlines Hopkins's own preoccupation with this type of moral masochism.

It was an attraction that was fuelled by the writings of Duns Scotus and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Scotist doctrine of the Incarnation permeates the thinking throughout the poem and reconciles the oppositions of “stars and storms,” and “lightning and love,” which is professed by Hopkins. Duns Scotus maintained that the Incarnation was not a consequence of the Fall and so was not a sacrifice to save mankind. It co-exists with time and is embedded there from beginning to end. The Incarnation therefore is not confined to the historical life of Jesus, it is an extrinsic manifestation of the complexities and overwhelming being of that Godhead incarnate in the world. Therefore both storms as well as stars are part of the essential constitution of matter existing as elements of the Fall and the creation of Man and bound up with the sacrificial Incarnation from the beginning. Although not generally accepted the Scotus doctrine had never been declared heretical by the Church. It is this doctrine that is asserted in the sixth and seventh stanzas of the poem. “Few know this,” refers to the relative anonymity of the philosophy and “the faithful waver,” acknowledge but remain undecided, and differ among themselves, whilst the faithless “fable and miss,” The realisation of the truth in Scotus is compared to the exhilaration of eating that

“lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!- flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,”(ls.59-61)

That this creed should appeal to Hopkins is hardly surprising given his temperament and its potentially masochistic implications. To believe that Christ's sacrificial Incarnation as well as concomitant “storms” of nature are instruments, not conceived nor spiritually practical in the redemption of man, but rather free, supernatural sacrifice independent and autonomous, gives licence to believe that sacrifice could be indulged in for its own sake and not for the good it might produce. These beliefs answered the needs of Hopkins, satisfying as it did ecstatic asceticism and his need for an orderly logical framework. It is also amazing that had Hopkins been alive today these beliefs could quite easily have placed him firmly in the realms of quantum physics and multi dimensional theoretical mathematics

Hopkins remains fundamentally focused on the experience of sacrifice, which he can associate with his own personal needs and from which he can extract his own brand of moral masochism. This was a tendency he displayed regularly throughout his life suggesting that the attraction, and barely disguised ecstasy, in religious aestheticism was more alluring than the inclusion and consideration of the plight of others. This is highlighted in stanza thirty-one where the biblical idea as people as a flock of sheep and also people as a harvest, again a biblical image, are shown as expressions of God's care.

“Startle the poor sheep back! Is the shipwreck then a harvest,
does tempest carry the grain for thee?”(ls.246-247)

The biblical tones here provide an undercurrent of meaning that indicate Hopkins's attraction to power and sacrifice. The sheep in the bible that are in need of God's care become sheep who can be driven at will: “Startle the poor sheep back!” robbed of their uniqueness as individuals. Again, the grain, which in the bible is stored and protected, is here a measure of gain, of profit, that is made at others' expense. Here compassion is lost as Hopkins is more interested in acknowledging God's power and expresses indirectly his attraction to being consumed by it.

That same current underpins the last third of the poem where Hopkins essentially loses the sense of the wreck and exchanges it for a celebration of power bathed in the repetition of words and images seen earlier in the poem. In abandoning the wreck Hopkins gives licence to his exhilaration in the power of the Almighty and appeals for that power to be directed towards the conversion of England.

The poem is marked from the first stanza by a prayer of submission to a God of power and ends with an almost ecstatic appeal for the use of that power. Throughout the work there is an undeniable strand that highlights the fact that through religion Hopkins had found an acceptable means to exercise his physical and psychological need to punish himself. He saw the agony and Passion of Christ as the apex of that need, and the suffering and death of the nuns as a way in which he could not only identify with but actually experience through them the Passion of Christ. The fulfilment of that desire marked the end of a seven year silence but also the establishment of a genre of poetry which was to stand as a monument to the complexity and depth of the priest poet's genius.

Works Cited

Christopher Devlin ed. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London Oxford University Press, 1959),p. 129 Hereafter referred to as S.

C.C. Abbott ed. The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon (London, Oxford University Press 1935.) p.88 2 November 1881 Hereafter referred to as Dixon L.


L1 page 47 25th Feb.1878

The Times, Monday 13th December 1875, p.9, col. 4, reprinted in Immortal Diamond: Studies in Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Norman Weyland, London, 1949, p. 369

Ibid. p. 372.

Alan Heuser, The Shaping Vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London, Oxford University Press, 1958),p. 45.

For a different perspective see Edward Cohen, “The Pitched Sailor and His Example, A Key to Hopkins The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Downside Review 87 (1969) p.182 who maintains that the brave seaman can be seen as a personification of Christ willingly sacrificing himself for humanity and also Robert Bridge's own opinion in Robert Bridges, “Notes,” in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Robert Bridges (London, Oxford University Press, 1918) p.106, hereafter referred to as “Notes”

Elizabeth Schneider, The Dragon at the Gate, Studies in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, (Berkley and Los Angeles:1968), pps. 26-33.

Alison G. Sullaway, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Victorian Temper(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972), pps.182-184 See also John Robinson, In Extremity A Study of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Cambridge University Press,1978), pps. 116-117.

Claude Colleer Abbott Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins including his Correspondence with Coventry Patmore (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p.220, 1864.Hereafter referred to as FL Hopkins was referring to Anglo Catholicism here.

S. pps. 200, 308, and the word is used in the same sense on page 146

Links to 2010 Hopkins Lectures

Wisdon of Cardinal Newman || The Wreck of the Deutchland || Epiphanies and Ecstasy in Hopkins Poetry || African Writers and Influence of Hopkins || Hopkins Musical Notation || Translating Pied Beauty into Finnish || Language