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Re-reading the Wreck

Eamon Kiernan

When I first tried to read The Wreck of the Deutschland, I was an unemployed former student drifting among the London Irish. I was in Battersea Public Library. At the desk next to mine sat a mentally-ill woman who was drawing circles on sheets of paper with a pencil. The Wreck seemed very strange, and I did not understand it. But it evoked a mood in me: one of tense, fearful darkness, drumming towards the light. And it seemed to fit the sheets of paper filling up with little circles beside me. If there be a natural readership for this poem, I think it might be such as that troubled woman.

The Wreck was Hopkins’ first serious poem in seven years. In 1868, believing that poetry stood in the way of his vocation as a Jesuit, he had burnt his poems and resolved never to write poetry again. In December 1875, this sacrifice no longer seemed necessary. What changed his mind? First and foremost, it was the newspaper reports of the shipwreck of December 7, in which five Franciscan nuns, driven from Germany by reason of their Catholic faith, lost their lives on a sandbank near the mouth of the Thames. Hopkins, then a student of theology at Saint Beuno’s, was deeply affected by the tragedy. When his rector gave what seemed a sign of encouragement, Hopkins got to work on a poetic interpretation which invested the fate of one of the victims, the Tall Nun, with the deepest spiritual significance. The poem was submitted to the Jesuit publication The Month, at the timeone of the leading voices of English Catholicism. In the 1860s and 1870s, The Month published articles on the controversies of the day together with some poetry. The editorial policy also reflected a specific Jesuit research interest, the English martyrs of the Reformation. Having represented the five shipwrecked nuns as Catholic martyrs, Hopkins had reason to believe that his poem would be welcomed by The Month, and it was, initially. The later rejection seems due to the technical experiments alone.

Believing that the deep meaning of the shipwreck was disclosed to him and that he had a public task to fulfil in writing about it, Hopkins modelled his poem on the Pindaric Ode. The Pindaric Ode typically narrated a significant event, such as an athletic victory, and sought to portray that event as an exemplary triumph over adverse circumstances. By this, the soul life of the community was to be purified. In The Wreck of the Deutschland, the adverse circumstances were the events of the shipwreck. The triumph lay in the heroic behaviour of the Tall Nun. The soul life of the community, I imagine, is a clutter of conflicting motivations towards good and evil, with a preponderance of the latter due to the Fall. This, at least, is how it appears in the poem. The example of the Tall Nun, as interpreted by Hopkins, opens up the experience of the presence of Christ at the moment of greatest extremity. In enacting the overcoming of fear in the sacrifice of self to God, the poem tries to purify and uplift.

What did the Tall Nun do? In the midst of the horror and chaos of the shipwreck, she rose like a” lioness” and a “prophetess” (St. 17). Where others were panicking and despairing, she had “one fetch in her” (St. 19). She had a “heart right” and “single eye” (St. 29). She understood the spiritual meaning of what was happening, she “read the unshapeable shock night” (St. 29). Others were trying to ward off certain death, but she accepted her fate. With her cry, “O Christ, Christ, come quickly” (St. 24), disaster becomes a personal spiritual victory. She “christens her wild-worst/ Best” (St. 24).

However, in asking who this Christ is that she called to, the poem finds no easy answer. It is not the healer of the Gospels that is meant, nor the dispenser of rewards in Heaven (St. 25). Hopkins gives the word “Ipse” (St. 28) a special prominence. As a word for Christ, it suggests a being beyond the categories of human comprehension, a lordly Christ who will not be made use of. It recalls the unknowable “I Am Who I Am” of the Book of Genesis, and the challenging being of the Book of Job who refuses answers to the quite legitimate questions of His agonised servant. But in finding the words as she does, the Tall Nun wins Christ of death. Christ empowers her to recognise Him as the meaning of her Death, just as He is the meaning of all things, both nourishing and destructive. She may have seen the storm that is about to end her life as God Himself saw it, as a harbinger of eternal life with Him. In the words of the poem:  “Storm flakes were scroll leaved flowers, lily showers, sweet heaven was astrew in them” (St. 20).
In a parallel or doubling technique, which only becomes apparent with repeated re-reading, Part the First presents the poet’s own symbolic death in ways which both prefigure the death of the Tall Nun in Part the Second and are configured by it. The death Hopkins experiences is the loss of his sense of himself. He feels diffuse and is melting away. The basic co-ordinates of existence, among them language and space, begin to fail him (“where, where was a, where was a place?” St. 3). With his life “almost unmade” (St. 1), the judgment of God and Hell Fire press upon him. The only firmness is in the threatening power of God and in the promise of the Gospel, Christ’s gift of faith, which he finds he is “roped with” (St. 4) and which brings the diffusion to a halt. Thus secured, he is released from terror. He can “kiss his hand” (St. 5) to the beauty of the world and grow in his understanding of the mysteries of the Passion and God’s Mercy (St. 6-10).
The setting here may be Hopkins’ conversion to Catholicism of ten years earlier, or an experience during a vigil, or perhaps the one folded into the other, as in a reflection on his life during a nightly visit to the Blessed Sacrament which leads to a renewal of his self-offering. Before the mastering majesty of God, the patterned differences collapse, those of the subjective world of the poet as well as those between the two parts of the poem. The shipwreck and the safe-seeming vigil in a quiet and protected house of religion are one. Martyrdom and modest, unspectacular prayer are the same. The interpreter of the shipwreck is himself shipwrecked. Hopkins and the Tall Nun are one and the same.
In the Wreck, Hopkins was trying to speak with a public, Pindaric voice. Yet, there are salient aspects of Catholic life that a Pindaric Ode for English Catholics might be expected to address, but which are absent. Firstly, the reference to Simon Peter (St. 29) does not point in any way to Papal Infallibility, a dogma defined only in 1870, five years before the Wreck was written. Though an old and widely-held belief, Infallibility was a contentious issue, even among Catholics. Its proclamation was, in fact, one of the reasons for the escalation of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, and thus played a role in the expulsion from Germany of the five nuns of the poem. In England, W. E. Gladstone was sufficiently outraged by the definition to polemicize against it, and, in a widely read pamphlet, to try to force the question of loyalty for English Catholics: either the Papacy or the Crown. Infallibility was probably the clearest line of demarcation for the identification of English Catholics as a community. As a feature of Catholicism that Hopkins must have personally struggled with, it would have had thematic relevance many times over. Secondly, the poem does not refer to the monastic and charitable form of life of the nuns before their departure from Salzkotten. We read, in fact, that their sisterhood is fully achieved only through their shared death (“And five lived and leaved favour and pride,/ Are sisterly sealed in wild waters” St. 23). A shadow is cast on the value of everyday meritorious acts and indeed, on the meaning of religious vows, though Hopkins would surely have agreed that fidelity to Rule and Vow was the primary means given to the nuns for the salvation of their souls.

Rightly, no doubt, the poem is less interested in the dogmatic and formational practices of the Church than in the all-powerful presence of God. But in what seems the intended keynote of the poem, God’s goodness and mercy in the midst of disaster, Hopkins arrives at a disturbing paradox: the double nature of God when perceived through the prism of human experience.

God may have called the Franciscan sisters to their vowed life, but he is also an “unchancelling” God (St. 21), who violates the integrity of the cloister. This is mirrored in Part the First by the “unmaking” God who pulls down the walls of the chapel, and indeed, the life-walls of the worshipper. Behind these double actions, God is revealed as a being of naked power, an amoral ravisher, with whom, through a celebration of the power of the wind and sea, the natural energy of destruction, Hopkins seeks an identification. This culminates in a double Eucharist:
‘ … Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept, plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to a flesh burst,
Gush! Flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim in a flash, full! …’
(St. 8)

The teeth of God burst the flesh at the moment of death and the life of the man or the woman runs like juice in His mouth. At Communion, the wafer, and with it the fullness of the Body of Christ, melts on the tongue of the communicant and he or she is filled with divine life. The language here, as elsewhere in the Wreck, shows a strong charge of eroticism, perhaps even of sado-masochism, as in the overlay of ‘lash’ ‘lush’ and ‘flesh-burst.’ Descriptions of mystical experience, in the effort to say the unsayable, sometimes employ such tones. Though eminently religious, they are not exclusively Catholic, or even Christian.

If Hopkins hoped to position himself for English Catholics as a Greek poet with regard to the polis, he hoped in vain. This public Pindaric poet, only self-appointed in any case, had no public. The poem, however, has a public, and always had one, even if many years were to pass before it received a sympathetic reading. Its public consists of those whose soul-lives are receptive to its strains - a ‘community’ that cannot be delimited by the usual labels, national, confessional or otherwise.

Whom, then, might the paradoxical truths of the Wreck purify and uplift? A person who has experienced bereavement, or a life-threatening illness, or any kind of deep trauma, can find his or her personal journey mirrored in the poem. It is a journey through a conundrum. To the traumatised person, the traumatising power is double-natured, it makes and destroys, like God in the poem. There is no external reason to believe that a shattered life can turn out well. Yet, as the poem shows, the best and the worst are side by side. With the right orientation, they are one. He who speaks the poem rightly can do no other but see with the eyes of faith and mouth the words with the rhythms of faith. Like the Tall Nun, like Hopkins, he or she can win Christ of death.

Hopkins believed that the language of poetry should be common speech heightened in some way. His notebooks are evidence of a deep interest in isolating a root meaning behind different words related to a typical consonant cluster. Some of these, particularly fl- and sl-appear in the Wreck in striking repetitions. Just as the poet was “laced with fire of stress” (St. 2), the speaker of the poem is laced up by the consonant clusters, and is thereby “roped with […] a vein of the Gospel proffer” (St. 4). In the struggle to cope with hard experience, the battle of Good and Evil rages. It is the battle for the “single eye” of the Tall Nun. The poem is a spiritual weapon on the side of Good.

The sonnet Hurrahing in Harvest tells us that the real is round (l. 8). The woman sitting beside me in Battersea Library who filled page after page with little pencilled circles may have known this. With the Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins tried to give us a round poem. The stanzas are circular, or spiralling. The different motifs often recapitulate their starting point, the first and last lines of the stanzas rhyme. The stanzas sometimes seem to form groups of three, which may reflect the possibly circular or spiral movement of Strophe, Antistrophe and Epode known from classical models. The poem begins with the word ‘Thou’ and ends with the word ‘Lord’. The suffering and joy that lie between, all the exalted passion, seem one long word, one breath, connecting the two. Perhaps it is the word ‘art’, as in ‘are.’ If so, it is the word of being. A stormy breath. A song of praise, as well.

Bibliography

Barna, Zsofia. “The Impossible Tradition of the Pindaric Ode in England.” Romanian Journal of English Studies 10 (2013): 208–220.
Dubois, Martin. “The Month as Hopkins Knew It.” Victorian Periodicals Review 43. 3 (2010): 296-308.
Keating, John E. “A Continuous Structural Parallelism.” Readings of the Wreck. Ed. Peter Milward SJ. New York NY: Loyola University Press, 1976. pp. 154-161.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose. Ed. W.H. Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953.
Ker, Ian. The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961. Notre Dame IL: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.
Martin, Robert Bernard. Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. London: Faber and Faber, 2011
MacKenzie, Norman H. A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Milroy, James. The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: Andre Deutsch, 1977.
Saville, Julia F. A Queer Chivary: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Charlottesville VA/London: University of Virginia Press, 2000.
The Jerusalem Bible. Alexander Jones. gen. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1966.
White, Norman. Hopkins: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Other 2014 lectures in our Archive

Catherine Phillips:
The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins with John Henry Newman

Kevin McEneaney
Baudelaire, Hopkins, and Egan: Absence and Presence