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.
“(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.