July 2017


            Loathed for a love men knew in them,

         Banned by the land of their birth,

      Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;

         Surf, snow, river and earth

   Gnashed:  but thou art above, thou Orion of light;

   Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,

      Thou martyr-master:  in thy sight

Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily-showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.


“Loathed for a love men knew in them” sounds like the nuns became nuns illegitimately, being in love with earthly men … but it rather means men expected them to marry but hated them because their love for Christ prevented it.  Their native country was in an anti-Catholic phase and had expelled them to die here on the Thames:  “gnashed” seems contracted from “once the surf etc. had gnashed” (like devouring teeth).  But God, like the huntsman in the stars, had actually weighed (poised) the possibilities and caused this to happen, even “unchancelling” (not a real word—it’d mean “driving from their chancel,” sanctuary) the nuns.  The terrible snowfall around the wreck became a shower of lilies—associated with salvation beyond death, and with female martyrs—accomplishing God’s work through the lead nun’s invocation of Christ.


            Five! the finding and sake

         And cipher of suffering Christ.

      Mark, the mark is of man’s make

         And the word of it Sacrificed.

   But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,

   Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—

      Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token

For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.


Even the fact that there were five nuns is significant.  Because of Christ’s five wounds, and/or because a cross has four end-points and one center-point, the number five has traditionally been a symbol of the Crucifixion.  (Before the appropriation of the pentagram by pagans and Satanists, Gawain in the Medieval poem carries it as a Christian symbol.)  “Finding” means something like “the sign by which we find”;  “sake” means purpose, goal (of the number as symbol).  Although it was our fault that Christ died in such a horrible way in the first place, Christ engraves the symbol of suffering on his own elect, given the supreme task of sharing in his own sacrifice.  … Okay, the metaphor is a more than a little stretched:  from Christ tattooing the sign of the cross on a martyr to the simple count of nuns … but despite that, the final line is to me some of the most breathtaking poetry in the poem, combining the sacrificial lamb of the Jews with the mystical Rose of Dante (sacrifice = glory).


            Joy fall to thee, father Francis,

         Drawn to the Life that died;

      With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his

         Lovescape crucified

   And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters

   And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,

      Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,

To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.


What’s more, they were Franciscan nuns—and Francis, toward the end of his life, received the actual wounds of Christ, the Stigmata, on his own body (the reference to the seraph means Francis’ vision of the angel who wounded him).  The “wild waters” that drowned the nuns are precisely the place where they experience the mercy and presence of God.  (“Fall-gold” means “falling gold,” but I also like to think there’s a pun on the gold leaves of the fall which are so lovely when they die.)


            Away in the loveable west,

         On a pastoral forehead of Wales,

      I was under a roof here, I was at rest,

         And they the prey of the gales;

   She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly

   Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails

      Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:

The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.


Finally Hopkins is about to tell us what the tall nun said—but first he again reminds us of himself, the poet who is recreating the nun’s deed in verse.  The contrast is pointed:  while the poet slept in his peaceful Welsh rectory, the nun was broadcasting her summons to the elements and people around her (the people “catch on to” each other for support or “catch their breath” listening to the surprising prayer).  The last sentence is pretty convoluted, but seems to mean either that as she calls Christ to come to her, she holds her crucifix (cross) against her breast, or that she calls this cross (death by martyrdom) the presence of Christ to herself—or both.  When she makes this call (in either sense), she gives birth to, and simultaneously baptizes (christens) the best thing she could’ve done, prompted by her wildest and worst situation—but I always read “worst” as short for “worsted,” like worsted fabric, so “wild-worst” might mean “textured, woven, by the wild (event).”


            The majesty! what did she mean?

         Breathe, arch and original Breath.

      Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?

         Breathe, body of lovely Death.

   They were else-minded then, altogether, the men

   Woke thee with a We are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.

      Or is it that she cried for the crown then,

The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?


What made the nun call on Christ like this?  What was her intention?  The poet asks both the Holy Spirit (Breath) who inspires Christian poets and the nun herself to “breathe” the answer.  Was it a desire to imitate Christ, her Spouse, in violent death?  When the apostles found themselves in a similar storm on Lake Gennesaret, they woke Christ and begged him to calm the waters—which he did, but only after rebuking them for a lack of faith.  Did the nun desire the heavenly reward that comes with martyrdom—the desire for heaven being sharper (keener) because she feels the mourning (keening) that combats it?


            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?


Hopkins agonized over the fact that on shipboard the rope wouldn’t have been called a rope.  To worry about terminology in such a dramatic context might be to our minds a sign of OCD—as his enthusiastic descriptions of male musculature, here and elsewhere, might be a sign of the closet:  I don’t care, myself.  The poet will make himself present in a relevant way very soon.  But the poetry doesn’t quit:  how cool is “cobbled foam-fleece?”  Or the way dropping the article before “buck” makes the line rear up like the waves?



            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.


Gardner’s synopsis:

“(Stanzas 17-31):  Amid the tumult and horror, the voice of a nun was heard calling on Christ to ‘come quickly.’  (She was one of five Franciscan exiles:  surely Five, the number of Christ’s wounds, is the symbol of Sacrifice and the heavenly Reward.)  But what did she mean?  Her cry came from the heart of all suffering humanity.  Man asks deliverance not from danger (which is stimulating) but from the remorseless daily round of toil and disappointment.  That deliverance comes only from Christ, who succeeded by failure;  His Passion holds the promise of heaven in an otherwise ‘unshapeable’ existence (st. 29).  This nun read the symbol aright:  the pain and tragedy of life elucidate, and are themselves elucidated by, the Redemption.  In the nun the meaning of Christ is reborn (a second Virgin Birth!).  Touched by the finger of God (as the poet had been) she had created faith and hope in those around her.”



            Ah, touched in your bower of bone,

         Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,

      Have you! make words break from me here all alone,

         Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.

   O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,

   Why, tears! is it? tears;  such a melting, a madrigal start!

      Never-eldering revel and river of youth,

What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?


Now, with the first appearance of the nun, Hopkins himself appears.  Before describing her, he describes his own reaction to her act.  Stanzas later, when he finally quotes her words, he will mention himself again.  The words of the nun and the poet’s telling about them constitute the same act of bringing Christ into the world to achieve his redemption again.  The poet’s reaction to the nun’s words is initially to become choked up:  the same “exquisite smart” that makes people enjoy tearjerker movies drives the poet to speak from his heart, the “mother of [his] being.”  This sympathy with the nun is not a forbidden crush of one dedicated virgin on another:  no one needs to teach him to go “after” such an evil thing (i.e. chase it away), but as he will reveal in the next stanza, the fellow-feeling of a sibling in the religious life.  The priest/poet’s spontaneous tears are the beginning of a “madrigal:”  a hymn of praise to the nun.  And where does this youthful joy, this ever-renewing river of sympathy come from?



            Sister, a sister calling

         A master, her master and mine!—

      And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;

         The rash smart sloggering brine

   Blinds her;  but she that weather sees one thing, one;

   Has one fetch in her:  she rears herself to divine

      Ears, and the call of the tall nun

To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.


Simply from serving in the same household, under the same divine Master.  Later Hopkins will draw the contrast between the nun and himself in his peaceful Welsh bed:  but here he emphasizes the wild terror of her situation with odd, violent vocabulary (sloggering:  beating;  fetch:  recourse) and odd spelling (hawling).  Despite “that weather” (used here along the lines of “that day”), the tall nun is focused on Christ, the focus too of the poem Hopkins is writing.



            She was first of a five and came

         Of a coifèd sisterhood.

      (O Deutschland, double a desperate name!

         O world wide of its good!

   But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,

   Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:

      From life’s dawn it is drawn down,

Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)


Lest you thought the poem was getting too highminded, time for a little Roman Catholic prejudice.  The nun was “first” (leader) of a group of five, sailing on a ship named after their country of origin, Germany.  We in our time can associate “desperate” things with the name of Germany and also acknowledge its many positive contributions to civilization.  Hopkins’ meaning is narrower:  “desperate” and “good” refer to Germany’s effects on the welfare of the true (Catholic) church.  Saint Gertrude and Martin Luther both lived in Eisleben in Saxony—Hopkins compares the saint to the pure lily of resurrection and Luther to the wild boar who rends the God-planted vine of Israel in Psalm 80.  The history of the human race is a blend of good and evil, from the days of the two brothers Cain and Abel, the first murderer and first victim.  Germany, by expelling the five nuns, has made their leader’s act of salvation possible.

Lately I’ve been hosting an open mic in Bremerton, organized by members of the Bremerton Writer’s Meetup. The next two are scheduled on July 21 and August 18 (with plans to continue on third Fridays), 6-8 p.m. at Hot Java Cafe. RSVP on Meetup or Facebook.

Bob and I have also been frequenting a couple of excellent poetry and prose open mics in Seattle. I think I’ve mentioned Works-in-Progress at Hugo House on first and third Mondays, 7-9 p.m. More recently we’ve been going to a reading at Ampersand, a cafe on the beach (or across the street from it) in West Seattle, on fourth Mondays, 7-9 p.m., a more intimate reading also attended by several other writers who are regulars at Works-in-Progress.

I’ve also been working on a fourth book of poetry, tentatively titled “Tollbooths on the Road to Adulthood” (though so far there are two votes against that title out of two). At the moment, I’m in the putting-it-aside-to-get-some-distance-while-I-fiddle-with-another-project phase, before I come back to it and decide how much work it needs.

Gardner’s synopsis:

“Part the Second.

                “(Stanzas 11-17):  Sudden, unexpected disaster overtook the Deutschland, with her emigrants and exiles bound for America.  A hurricane of wind and snow drove her on to a sandbank.  For a whole night without succour, the passengers and crew of the crippled and settling ship were buffeted by the elements:  many were drowned.”


            “Some find me a sword;  some

         The flange and the rail;  flame,

      Fang, or flood” goes Death on drum,

         And storms bugle his fame.

   But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!

   Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,

      Wave with the meadow, forget that there must

The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.


The sense is clear (though I’m curious as to what form of death “flange” refers to)—we humans are as impermanent and frail as a field of flowers, but though we see death all around us, we persist in thinking it can never happen to us.  The “solid earth” we root in is dust, and so are we.  (“Cringe” is used in an archaic meaning:  “stoop, bend down.”)


            On Saturday sailed from Bremen,


      Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,

         Two hundred souls in the round—

   O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing

   The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;

      Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?


We meet the ill-fated Deutschland, a quarter of its passengers seemingly abandoned by God.  One of the rare feminine images of God in the Bible is of a mother bird shielding her nestlings under her wing:  but these doomed ones received no such protection, were not “vaulted” (covered) by the “bay” (in the architectural sense of recess) of God’s blessing, nor gathered (“reeved” or roped together—a nautical term) under his mercy.  Or so it appears.


            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.


The stanza moves, with the speed of the ship, into a violent blizzard.


            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 canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel

Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.


Crash!  Note that the shock of the impact causes the rhyme to tip over into the next line:  “leeward” (pronounced “loo-ard”) and “drew her d” ….  The Kentish Knock is a sandbar in the mouth of the Thames.  The  ship’s “whorl” is apparently a propeller screw, and “wind” is nautical for steer.  I always pronounce it with a long i to asonate with “idle,” but I’m not altogether sure.

Nothing mysterious in the next stanza:


            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.