The Wreck of the Deutschland (8)


            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!