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
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?