Back when I was leading you through Otros, my collection of other people’s poems, I balked at saying anything about Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” but promised that I’d try later. Later is now. I’ve never done this “close reading” kind of thing before, so bear with me if I do it poorly. I’ll be relying on, and quoting from, the notes to the Fourth Edition of Hopkins’ Poems, edited by W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, which incorporates notes from earlier editions edited by Robert Bridges and Charles Williams. Otherwise this will record my own reactions to the poem. I am not a Hopkins scholar or any kind of expert, only a lover of his verse, and this poem most of all. I’ve had it by heart since the 1970s when I first read it.
My relationship with it is somewhat bittersweet, since when I first encountered it I was a committed Christian, and I long ago renounced Christianity and most of what it stands for. “Wreck” is one of the strongest statements of Catholic Christianity I know, and to read or recite it is always to place myself back into a Catholic headspace and heart-space. I appreciate the power of that space while I’m there. The poem preserves and protects it. I’ve had the weird experience of converting a student of mine to Christianity after abandoning it myself, and I imagine my deference to this poem might have the same effect on someone. Religion in general has a conflicted interface with poetry: the two could be considered enemies, fundamentally opposed ways of dealing with the world. Hopkins, on that assumption, destroyed his early work upon entering Jesuit training and spent close to a decade thinking about poetry but writing none. When he began again, with this poem, he had apparently lost all his doubt that poetry could be a perfect expression, even the highest possible expression, of Christian belief and life—not only its triumphant moments, as here, but also the darkness and dread recorded in the socalled “terrible sonnets” he wrote toward the end of his life. I think his poetry demonstrates, beyond any question, how possible, even how seeming-necessary it is that poetry and religion can and should dovetail, in a religious poet at least.
“Wreck” is the first example of a poem written in what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm,” which goes back to the Anglo-Saxon standard of counting stresses rather than syllables. He instructs us to read each stanza as a unit, not pausing at the end of lines (sometimes an end rhyme will be completed in the next line!), but putting more emphasis on the stressed syllables than one would in reading through a prose passage. In Part the First the stanzas have the following number of stresses in each line: 2,3,4,3,5,5,4,6. In Part the Second the first line has three stresses instead of two. The rhyme scheme is ABABCBCA.
Hopkins describes the composition of the poem this way: “ … when in the winter of 75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames and five Franciscan nuns, exiles from Germany by the [anti-Catholic] Falck Laws, aboard of her were drowned I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realized on paper … I do not say the idea is altogether new … but no one has professedly used it and made it the principle throughout, that I know of … However, I had to mark the stresses … and a great many more oddnesses could not but dismay an editor’s eye, so that when I offered it to [the Jesuit] magazine the Month … they … dared not print it.” The key passage from the report of the shipwreck in The Times reads: “Five German nuns … clasped hands and were drowned together, the chief sister, a gaunt woman 6 ft. high, calling out loudly and often ‘O Christ, come quickly!’ till the end came.”
Next time I’ll give you the entire poem, then focus in on the stanzas, five at a time every entry.