Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Wreck of the Deutschland

Gerard Manley Hopkins is an interesting fellow. In some ways, his journey through life and poetry mirrors that of John Donne; but where Donne’s religious life was never a source of torment, Hopkins struggled with his relationship with God for the vast majority of his life. In fact, after his conversion, Hopkins destroyed all of his previously written works and swore to never write again. Fortunately for us (and National Poetry Month), that didn’t last.

It’s that religious fervor that drove him to write the multi-part Wreck of the Deutschland, a sprawling epitaph “To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875.”

Across 35 stanzas, Hopkins describes in his characteristically vivid way the wreck and the loss. The thing that stands out to me about Hopkins is that he packs so much description into so little space. I get the feeling that he carefully chose each and every word for the most vital of impacts. It’s a powerful poem when read as a whole, but on that manages to retain it’s power even when taken in sections.

from The Wreck of the Deutschland

Parts 13 – 17

  Into the snows she sweeps,
  Hurling the haven behind,
 The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
  For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
  Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.
  She drove in the dark to leeward,
  She struck—not a reef or a rock
 But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
  Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
  And canvass and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.
   Hope had grown grey hairs,
   Hope had mourning on,
 Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
   Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
   And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.
   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:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
   Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?
   They fought with God's cold—
   And they could not and fell to the deck
 (Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
   With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman's wailing, the crying of child without check—
   Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

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