The Wreck of the Deutschland (5)

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.