The Wreck of the Deutschland (9)


            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!