Hopkins Archive 1987 - 95

First published in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, 2 (1995)

The Sea took Pity: Hopkins No. 173

Ross Stuart Kilpatrick Queen's University, Kingston, Canada

On an undated scrap of paper, G. M. Hopkins had written in pencil the following four lines:

The sea took pity: it interposed with doom:
`I have tall daughters dear that heed my hand:
Let Winter wed one, sow them in her womb,
And she shall child them on the New-world strand'.

In his definitive edition of Hopkins's poetic works (1990) Professor N. H. MacKenzie has likened these lines to the undergraduate fragments for their lack of context. If they are a translation of some classical text, no such original has been discovered. Mythological leads to Nereus, Poseidon or Boreas (or to Irish mythology) have produced no results.

Those offspring of Winter to be childed some time in the future by a daughter of the sea could be winter storms, such as Hopkins describes in "The Wreck of the Deutschland" and "The Loss of the Eurydice" (101.97-12, 125.21 — 24, MacKenzie), or perhaps "an imaginative account of the birth of ice-floes on the Canadian coast," as perhaps in No. 21.4?8 (MacKenzie):

Must see the waters roll
Where the seas set
Towards wastes where round the ice-blocks tilt and fret
Not so far from the pole.

Hopkins evokes the beauty of icebergs in No. 7 (17): "So like a berg of hyaline." As a possible date for "The sea took pity", MacKenzie's suggestion is 1886?8, ("but the sample is too small for analysis").

Could "The sea took pity" be a fragment of an unfinished poem in which Hopkins intended to deal with icebergs or ice-floes and shipwreck, themes he explored in those three other poems? What would the rhetorical and narrative context be? Could Hopkins, as in his "Deutschland" and "Eurydice" poems, have had a real event in mind?

Rhetorical and narrative context of the fragment   Imagine Hopkins' sea to be responding with grim resignation and sorrow to a disturbing oracle: e.g. `a daughter of his will one day give birth to children by Winter, and their offspring will be responsible for a marine disaster.' There are comparable Greek oracles of ill-omen. 1) The son of Thetis will be greater than his sire. 2) Zeus's son Sarpedon must die (Il. 16.433 — 34) — at first Zeus is tempted to defy fate and save Sarpedon (16.435-38), but Hera dissuades him (16.439?57). With great sorrow he yields (16.458 — 61), but Apollo, Sleep and Death will look after the hero's burial (16.667 — 75). 3) Achilles' response to Thetis' prophecy about his own future choice: either death with honour, or life in quiet obscurity (Il. 18.97-126). If Hopkins' sea is helpless to prevent a union of Winter with his daughter, he must accede to the oracle and to the progeny she will bear on that "New-world strand." Nereus himself might have reacted with similar distress to such predictions of the death and destruction to be wrought by his future son-in-law, Thetis' son Achilles, as foretold by the spinning fates in Catullus LXIV (338?380). Possible Contemporary reference

If the offspring of Winter and a daughter of the sea are to be winter storms (cf. Hopkins 94.9— 10, 101.97 — 104, 150.21 — 24) or icebergs (7.16— 18, 21.5-8), "the New-world strand" must be Newfoundland, and the calamity pitied by the sea in his prophetic foreknowledge ("doom"), a shipwreck . "The Wreck of the `Deutschland'" (1876) and "The Loss of the `Eurydice'" (1878) were both poems about marine disasters covered vividly in the press (see MacKenzie's notes). The "Deutschland" had foundered on a shoal in a winter storm off Harwich in December, 1875. The "Eurydice" capsized and foundered, the victim of a March day's "deceit" (1877) conspiring with "black Boreas" (150.21— 24) in a sudden and deadly hail-storm.
The fated occurrences of sea-ice disasters would be treated by a number of well-known poets in the United States, Britain, and Canada over the next sixty years. An American, Celia Thaxter (1836— 1894), had already published an eighty-line poem in Atlantic Monthly, beginning (with its epigraph) as follows (1916):

wreck of the DeutchlandA Tryst

The iceberg slowly floating down into the path of traffic, to keep its fatal appointment with the ship. ?

wreck of the DeutchlandJohn Weiss, Lecture on Fate

From out the desolation of the North
An iceberg took its way,
From its detaining comrades breaking forth,
And travelling night and day.

At whose command? Who bade it sail the deep
With that resistless force?
Who made the dread appointment it must keep?
Who traced its awful course?

To the warm airs that stir in the sweet South
A good ship spread her sails;
Stately she passed beyond the harbor's mouth,
Chased by the favoring gales.

And on her ample decks a happy crowd
Bade the fair land good by;
Clear shone the day, with not a single cloud
In all the peaceful sky.

This work of twenty stanzas anticipated later poems such as "The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the `Titanic')" by Thomas Hardy (1912), "The Iceberg" by Charles G. D. Roberts (1931), and "The Titanic" by E. J. Pratt (1935). Sinkings due to ice were particularly frequent in 1875 in the area of the Grand Banks, including "Aurora", "King Sverra", "Norway", "Quebec", all of which occurred with no loss of life (Times 31.5.75, p.14).The sinking of the "Vicksburg" (Dominion Lines), however, on May 31, 1875, could have been the stuff of poetry. She had set sail from Quebec for Liverpool on May 27, but struck ice about 11 p.m. May 30, and sank about 5 a.m. the following day. Of her complement of sixty crew and a passenger list of 32 men and women, only 17 (all men) were rescued from two lifeboats, and by two different vessels (Times 11.6.75, p.5a; 12.6.75, p. 10a; 14.6.75, p. 7e). On June 22 the Times devoted almost a full column (p. 5f) to survivors' accounts of the sinking from The New York World, which compared the sinking to that of the "Schiller" (lost in fog off the Scilly Islands on May 7 of the same year with a loss of 331). The World had reported the loss of 55 crew and all passengers for "Vicksburg", aware only of the five crew members rescued by the steamer "State of Georgia" and brought to New York.

The intelligence of another ocean disaster reached this city yesterday, the meager accounts of which call to mind the story of the Schiller. This time a vessel in the midst of fine weather, with fair winds, and all things promising a prosperous voyage, is caught by an enormous icefloe, hemmed in, and injured so that she founders ....

News was later received, however, of the recovery of a second boat with nine crew and three passengers who were brought into St John's Newfoundland by a fishing boat (Times, 14.6.75, p.7e) . Reports in the Times of the capsizing of the other boats on launching, the drowning of the women passengers, the terrible condition of the survivors, and the vivid details of the actual collision and sinking are very moving. That of June 14 (7e) is a good example: Bryan M'Shane (one of the three surviving passengers brought to St John's) gave this version of the disaster:

The ship was in the ice on May 31, and at 11 at night the sides were stove in. The officers did everything to prevent the disaster. Steam pumps worked all night, but all hope was abandoned at five in the morning. Five boats were launched with plenty of provisions. The captain and officers behaved well. The ship sank at half? past 6. There was no chance of escape for those left on board. The first officer's boat was upset and lost after leaving the ship.

If "The sea took pity ..." was begun by Hopkins as a poem about a wreck such as the the "Vicksburg", its obscure mythology made it very different from his "Deutschland" and "Eurydice". Hopkins began his "Deutschland" at Part II, Stanzas 11 to 17 (Letters, p. 44); this fragment too could have been a similar first step (in medias res) toward developing a "Vicksburg" poem. If, as MacKenzie suggests, it was intended as a piece for Latin or Greek composition, he could have composed it as early as June, 1875; an academic exercise would not have required (as the "Deutschland" did) his rector's encouragement. Such a purpose could also account for its stiff mythic style and machinery, so unlike the intense religious feeling and the originality of the other two shipwreck poems.

Hopkins might have abandoned such an attempt for the "Deutschland", in fact, a subject with far more personal and religious appeal for him. The imaginary plight of the sea and his daughters could never have compared with that of the five Franciscan nuns lost so close to home .

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Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 1987 - 2000