THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND
Hopkins wrote “The Wreck of the Deutschland” while he was studying theology at St. Beuno’s College in North Wales. He began the poem in December of 1875 after learning that five Franciscan nuns had perished in a shipwreck near the mouth of the Thames. The nuns, like most members of Roman Catholic religious orders in 1870s Prussia, had been expelled from their convent by the German Empire through laws promoted by Prussian Minister of Public Worship and Education, Adalbert Falk (Hopkins uses the spelling “Falck,” following English newspapers of the time). Hopkins hoped to have the poem included in the Jesuit journal The Month, but it was eventually rejected by the journal’s editor, Fr. Henry James Coleridge.
Notoriously difficult and experimental, “The Wreck” has won both admiration and scorn. Robert Bridges, Hopkins’s friend and literary executor, included in the first published edition of Hopkins’s poetry but warned that the poem was “like a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance, and confident in his strength from past success.” Still, as Hopkins’s most grand and extensive metrical composition, the poem is widely praised as a crucial source for understanding Hopkins’s prosody and major themes as well as a landmark achievement in Victorian poetry—despite the fact that it appeared first in print long after Hopkins’s own lifetime and the Victorian era had ended.
Because of the poem’s length this study guide for it will be a little different. Rather than three or four questions for the whole poem, the division here is by stanza, with a total of over thirty questions. Also, rather than make frequent links to the terminology guide there will be only occasional references. But given the way you can find in this poem almost every entry in the guide, a review of all of the terminology might be helpful.
THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND
PART THE FIRST
• What is the role of “mastering” and “mastery” in this poem? How are they the same, and how are they different?
• Why does Hopkins set up antitheses in this stanza (i.e. strand/sea, living/dead, bound/unmade)?
• Notice the complex metrical and rhyming schemes in which the first rhyme of a stanza appears again in the last line. How does this form lend meaning to the poem?
• What did the speaker say “Yes” to? What does it have to do with the wreck that is the ostensible subject of this poem?
• What type of experience is being described? Why is it one filled with the “fire of stress”?
• Two metaphors make up this stanza. The speaker says he is sand falling through and hourglass and that he is water in a well. What do these images have in common? What does the speaker mean to indicate?
stanzas 6 – 7
• In the next two stanzas, Hopkins introduces again a moment of “stress” but this time it is Christ’s “Passion.” What is the speaker saying about the life and death of Christ and what connection does he mean to make between his own experiences, the nuns’ experiences, and Christ?
• Here, in stanza eight, the poet employs a striking image, a ripe sloe (the berry of a blackthorn plant) bursting in the mouth. What is the connection the speaker means to make between this burst of flavor and the way “We lash with the best or worst / Word last!”?
stanzas 9 – 10
• In the next two stanzas, the speaker returns to themes as images from the poem’s outset. There are a series of antitheses (lightning/love, winter/warm, fondle/wring, melt/master, at a crash/lingering out) as well as the theme of mastery and/or mastering. How do these two stanzas build upon the poem’s beginning?
PART THE SECOND
• What types of “death” does this stanza enumerate?
• Only in the second part of the poem do we arrive at the main narrative. As you read, consider what seems to be the connection between the two parts and the reason for the delay in narrative.
• In the quotation at the beginning of the second part, the speaker imagines the voice of “death” speaking through the storm. Does the speaker agree with the voice of “death”?
• In this next stanza, for the first time we pick up the narrative of the ship that the poem is named for. But the poem does not move into unembellished narration but also pauses to ask about God’s mercy as it related to the occupants of the wrecked ship. On the one hand, the speaker states the people were not “under [God’s] feathers,” and yet he wonders whether they were not protected or cared for in some sense in the “dark side of the bay of [God’s] blessing.” How do these questions and images build on those established in the first part of the poem? How do they add further illumination and/or development?
stanzas 13 – 14
• In the next two stanzas, we find the narration of the wreck itself as the ship foundered on the Kentish Knock, a shoal (shallow area of sea bed) off the English coast. And yet even in the largely fact-based narration, we find important interpretive details. What is the significance of the ship’s name, the fact that it involves a Sunday, and the fact that the wreck is not an explosive moment, but a long process to be “endured”?
stanzas 15 – 16
• In the next two stanzas, the ship’s trial as it is beaten by the waves is at its most unendurable. In stanza 16, Hopkins includes a detail from the newspaper account of the wreck he read. A strong man “handy and brave” tries (and fails) to rescue the women on board. What purpose does it serve to contrast his size and muscle (“thew”) with the way he is “dandled” like a baby by the waves?
• In stanza 17, we see a very different hero arise, whom we later learn is the “tall nun.” Why is she described as a “lioness” and a “prophetess”? What does she do to earn these titles?
• Without actually identifying the words spoken by the nun as she is beaten by the waves, stanza 18 describes a reaction to her words. But whose reaction is it? Who sheds “tears”? How can the reaction be both “exquisite” and painful (a “smart”)?
• In stanza 19, we learn that the tall nun is calling to God (“her master”). If that is the case, then how and why does her cry affect the other people on board the Deutschland or those who read the account of her agony on board?
stanzas 20 – 21
• In the next stanzas we find the narration of the tall nun’s back story. She and her sisters were expelled from “the land of their birth.” What does the speaker mean to indicate by presenting them as in a liminal place between Germany (represented by the Rhine) and England (represented by the Thames) as well as between Church and state (the other meaning of Deutschland, i.e. the German state)?
• Who is “Gertrude, lily”? Why is Luther called “beast of the waste wood”?
• At the end of stanza 21, the speaker suggests that God’s providence is at work in the storm. How is this the case? What is God “weighing”? And is the speaker suggesting that the nuns are martyrs, even though their faith was not the immediate cause of their death?
stanzas 22 – 23
• Stanzas 22 and 23 explore the metaphorical significance of the number five. How is this number a “cipher [code or symbol] of suffering Christ”? What is its connection to Francis of Assisi (the founder of the nuns’ religious order)?
• In stanza 24, the speaker again returns to his own situation, presumably that of Hopkins himself studying in comfort (“under a roof”) while the nuns suffered as the “prey of the gales” (i.e. storms). How does this stanza shed light on Hopkins’s reasons for beginning the poem with his own experiences? Why does Hopkins want to pull us away from the narrative of the storm, to this scene of calm?
• In this stanza, we also learn the words spoken by the nun (“O Christ, Christ come quickly”–mach schnell in her native German). The London Daily News (Dec. 9, 1875) instead reported her words as “O, my God, make it quick! Make it quick!” What is implied in these two different versions of her cry?
• Stanza 25 declares the tall nun’s cry as one of “majesty.” And yet, the cry is not self-explanatory: “what did she mean?” This question receives a number of different answers through the end of stanza 28. Why does the poet dramatize the process of interpreting the tall nun’s cry?
• Why does the speaker mention Christ’s disciples, who woke Jesus in fear while aboard a ship during a storm (“in the weather of Gennesareth”) on the Sea of Galilee? What comparison/contrast is the speaker making?
• What is the final or settled interpretation of the nun’s cry the poem arrives at?
stanzas 29 – 30
• “God’s utterance of himself in himself is God the Word, outside himself is this world […] This world then is word, is expression, news of God” Hopkins writes in one of his sermons. How does this idea connect with this image of “Heaven and earth” as “word of” God in stanza 29 and “Word” in stanza 30? What does this connection tell us about the tall nun and her cry?
• In stanza 31, how is the wreck of the Deutschland “a harvest”? In what ways does calling it a “harvest” hearken back to stanza 23? Who are the “unconfessed” and how does the cry make them “not uncomforted”?
• How is the tall nun (the “Maiden”) like a “bell”? What does she “ring”?
stanzas 32 – 33
• In stanzas 32 and 33, the speaker speaks of his “admir[ation]” for God as “master of the tides.” How do these stanzas develop the theme of master(y)? Why does the speaker admire God? Is admiration the same as adoration?
stanzas 34 – 35
• In stanzas 34 and 35, the speaker turns to the subjunctive mood, suggesting a prayer. Who is “Double-natured”? And what is the speaker asking for in stanza 34?
• In the poem’s final stanza, the speaker mentions the implications of the wreck and its spiritual aftermath for England. What is the speaker’s prayer for England? How does the introduction of this political dimension color our reading of the rest of the poem?