August 2017


            Well, she has thee for the pain, for the

         Patience;  but pity of the rest of them!

      Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the

         Comfortless unconfessed of them—

   No not uncomforted:  lovely-felicitous Providence

   Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the

      Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and

Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?


Pretty clear—the nun knew what was happening and in her “pain” and “patience” found salvation:  but what about the other some hundred drowned souls aboard the ship?  They died without the benefit of confession, i.e. formal confession to a priest;  but Catholic theology never stipulates that such formal confession is necessary.  A simple prayer of repentance, even of desire to repent, is sufficient to gain one a place among the saved:  and the nun, obeying the subtle command of Providence to proclaim the name of Christ like a steadily clanging ship’s bell, could have been the necessary reminder of the way to redemption, in its Biblical likenesses of lost sheep being found and harvest being brought into the barn.

Gardner’s synopsis:

“(Stanzas 32-5):  Return to the theme of Part the First:  the poet adores the mastery, majesty, and inscrutable wisdom of God.  The dead nun, prophetess of the Faith indomitable and resurgent, is asked to intercede for the conversion of ‘rare-dear Britain.’”


            I admire thee, master of the tides,

         Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;

      The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,

         The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;

   Stanching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;

   Ground of being, and granite of it:  past all

         Grasp God, throned behind

Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;


The close of the poem is a Trinitarian prayer, first to God the Father, then to God the Son—but in the final stanza, not to the Holy Spirit but to the nun he inspired:  Catholics are never shy of praying to dead martyrs, even recent and uncanonized ones.  God the Father is the ruler of the tides (and of the tempest which brings in the harvest, ala the previous stanza).  “The Yore-flood” might refer to the covenant with Noah, but probably refers to the “deeps” of chaos upon which God’s spirit brooded in the first chapter of Genesis, when God fixed limits (“girth” and “wharf” and “wall”) for the destructive element of water and the sinful minds impelled by it.  As “Ground of being,” he is himself the “granite” of that wall that checks the rages of sin and disorder.  The boastful Death of stanza 11 is only his servant:  from behind him God watches and awaits the free choices of humans and rules their destinies anyway.


            With a mercy that outrides

         The all of water, an ark

      For the listener;  for the lingerer with a love glides

         Lower than death and the dark;

   A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,

   The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark

      Our passion-plungèd giant risen,

The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.


But God the KIng is also the merciful Father.  His mercy outstrips all of “water’s” (sin’s, death’s) attempts to destroy the soul.  [“Outrides” is a favorite word for Hopkins:  he called a metrical foot into which several unstressed syllables were inserted an “outrider”—but there are none of these in the Deutschland.]  God’s mercy is an ark that carries the one who listens to his message of salvation across the flood, and it even works after death to free from Purgatory those souls who waited till their deathbed to repent.  This “uttermost mark” or goal was reached (“fetched”) by Christ, whose giant strides extend down and up all the way to hell and heaven once he has been himself drowned (“plunged”) in his suffering or Passion.  Really complex grammar here:  but another possible reading—the one I actually incline to—is that even these “uttermost” souls in Purgatory fix their gazes on (“mark”) Christ as their savior.  Either way, the poem now addresses him.


            Now burn, new born to the world,

         Double-naturèd name,

      The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled


   Mid-numberèd he in three of the thunder-throne!

   Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;

      Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;

A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fire hard-hurled.


The language in these last two verses reaches such a pitch of creativity and beauty, it seems a desecration to comment on it in dull prose, so forgive me.  Christ is asked to “burn,” but it turns out that rather than a “lightning of fire,” his coming to reclaim the souls of the drowned was a sudden gentle rain upon the countryside (“shire”) of England—though such a shower can be said to “flash” like lightning.  Christ is double-natured, human and divine, sent from heaven but made flesh with a human heart, grown (“furled!”) within the virgin Mary, who herself burned like a flame to do God’s will.  He is at the same time the central Second Person of the Trinity, God’s “thunder-throne”—but his salvation is kind (meaning both kind and kindred:  he is one of us), not the dreadful darkness and fire the damned will experience at Doomsday.


            Dame, at our door

         Drowned, and among our shoals,

      Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the reward:

         Our King back, Oh, upon English souls!

   Let him easter in us, be a day-spring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-

      cresseted east,

   More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,

      Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,

Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire, our thought’s chivalry’s throng’s Lord.


In English convents one addresses an older nun as “dame.”  Hopkins asks the nun to remember “us,” the English, in the “roads” (i.e. the wild paths ships take through the sea) and the harbor she has reached in heaven.  [An early poem of Hopkins, imagining a nun taking the veil, is titled “Heaven-Haven.”]  “Remember our King back” is a strange way to put it, or an excessively compressed way:  remember us in your constant prayers for the reconversion of England to the true Church.  Hard to better the flow of Christ’s attributes in the final lines, his rising like the easter sun of resurrected faith whose cressets (rays, more or less) will make Britain, that precious rarity, even brighter with time.  That it didn’t happen—in Hopkins’ eyes the present state of England would seem immeasurably worse than when he lived—somehow doesn’t diminish the triumph in those astounding last alliterations.  Their triumph is a triumph of faith, after all, which can’t be contradicted or disproved by reality.

Thanks for reading!


            For how to the heart’s cheering

         The down-dugged ground-hugged grey

      Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing

         Of pied and peeled May!

   Blue-beating and hoary-glow height;  or night, still higher,

   With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky Way,

      What by your measure is the heaven of desire,

The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?


Perhaps the tall nun experienced, in her expectation that the agonies of the shipwreck would be replaced by the glories of heaven, something of what ordinary people experience when they see the rainstorm (“down-dugged” in shapes of rain like the udders of a cow) replaced by clear blue sky, April replaced by May.  I’m not sure what “hoary” does to help the description of the sky’s daytime glow:  maybe it’s an allusion to hoarfrost, with its feeling of making everything sparkle new-cleaned (“peeled” is a great word to describe this feeling).  Then at night, the sublime regular (“belled”) shine of the stars and the galaxy adds to the sense of peace, of relief … compared to this, how much more relief must come from thought of heaven’s unseen, unconceived reward?


            No, but it was not these.

         The jading and jar of the cart,

      Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease

         Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,

   Not danger, electrical horror;  then further it finds

   The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:

      Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s

Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.


The comparison completely fails, though, when we look at the reasons why people long for the serenity of the afterlife:  they do this in moments of disgust with their long tedious lives of suffering, or meditating on the sufferings of Christ in moments of quiet prayer.  The tall nun’s mind couldn’t have been occupied with these kinds of thought or emotion, in the midst of the “electrical horror” of the storm, the “burly” (shortened from “hurly-burly”) of the wind, the pounding of seas so violent it seemed they contained monstrous dragons.


            But how shall I … make me room there:

         Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—

      Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,

         Thing that she … There then! the Master,

   Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:

   He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;

      Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;

Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.


In this rather astounding, “modern”-seeming stanza, Hopkins combines the confused and terrified cries of the shipwreck victims with his own imperfect attempts to zero in on the nun’s motivations in this poem.  Finally he is unable to do other than bow to her vision of Christ looming through the storm, and admit that Christ alone (Latin ipse, his very self) could have been on her mind in that “extremity where he had cast her,” which only he had the power to “heal”—so the poet leaves Christ, the nun’s “pride,” to make his judgement (his “doom”) of the victims and survivors.


            Ah! there was a heart right!

         There was a single eye!

      Read the unshapeable shock night

         And knew the who and the why;

   Wording it how but by him that present and past,

   Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—

      The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast

Tarpeïan-fast, but a blown beacon of light.


Matthew 6:22-23 says “If your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”  (Long ago I wrote an irreverent character poem based on this verse, in the voice of the cyclops from the Odyssey.)  The nun was focused on Christ and knew him to be the solution to all the turmoil around her, as well as the whole of time, matter and spirit.  Her naming of Christ in that moment made her like the apostle Peter when he first confessed Jesus as the Messiah.  Peter (or Peter’s confession, to the protestant viewpoint) is the rock upon which Christ built his church, and the nun’s steadfast naming of him makes her a steady rock within the storm’s blast, bound to it (rather a shaky metaphor here) as Andromeda was bound to the Tarpeian rock … but the commentators call us to take the “but” seriously … she is only, in that howling fury, a wispy human and mortal beacon, for all her rocklike faith.

Now the poet addresses Christ with an intimate diminutive:


            Jesu, heart’s light,

         Jesu, maid’s son,

      What was the feast followed the night

         Thou hadst glory of this nun?—

   Feast of the one woman without stain.

   For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;

      But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,

Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.


To us, December 7, when the wreck of the Deutschland occurred, is Pearl Harbor Day.  To a nineteenth-century Catholic, it was the eve of the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  In Catholic doctrine Mary and Jesus alone among humans were conceived “without original sin:”  without sharing in the punishment of eternal separation from God attendant on the disobedience of Adam and Eve.  Mary also consented that Jesus be conceived in her without intercourse:  this is called the Virgin Birth, and non-Catholics often confuse it with Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  Both dogmas are mentioned in this stanza:  Jesus was the son of a maid (a virgin) who was the one woman without original sin.  Being “conceived” (implanted in the womb) this way, when we try to “conceive” (comprehend) Christ we have to aspire to Mary’s purity—but the nun’s cry, “conceiving” that Christ was the one solution to her trouble, also “conceived” him in herself as the divine Word and let herself utter that Word to her fellow sufferers.  In a way, says Hopkins, by doing so, she also gave birth to herself!