The priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), born in the county of Essex, in England, wrote the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland in 1875, which is the year when the ship called “Deutschland” departed from Bremen to the United States of America (stanza 12) and was wrecked in the Thames Estuary (stanza 21 – line 3) when it “beat the bank down with her bows and ..
. keel” (stanza 14 – line 5) in the middle of a very violent storm (stanza 11; stanza 13). Many people died in this tragedy, among them five devout Franciscan nuns, whose deaths motivated Gerard Hopkins to write this beautiful and complex memorial poem which I analyze below.The Wreck of the Deutschland is a long poetic composition written in English, made up of thirty-five stanzas, which are duly numbered in order, and divided in two parts: the first includes the ten initial stanzas, and the second part consists of the twenty-five remaining ones.
All the stanzas consist of eight lines, which do not keep to a pattern regarding the number of syllables. Like all Hopkins’s mature poems, its theme is the sometimes fearful but always glorious presence of God.The first part of the poem reveals the strong influence of religion on Hopkins, who decided to abandon the Anglican church in order to become a Jesuit priest and dedicate himself to the Roman Catholic religion, as well as showing the close and intense connection between his soul and God. In this first part, the poet reveres God (stanza 1 – lines 1 to 4; stanza 5 – line 8; stanza 8 – line 7; stanza 9 – line 1) and depicts the insignificance of human beings in the face of celestial powers (stanza 4), reinforcing the idea that God can create human beings (stanza 1 – line 5) but can also punish (stanza 9 – line 3) or even deprive them of their lives (stanza 1 – line 4) by means of the forces of nature (stanza 6; stanza 9 – line 4).
Hopkins finishes the tenth stanza by praying to God for mercy and leniency, besides venerating and reiterating the importance of divine images.Devotion to God is the main theme of the first part of the poem. Nevertheless, religiosity is vehemently present throughout the poem. It is noticeable that God and Jesus Christ are mentioned in twenty-one stanzas of the poem, and there are references to sacred figures (Saint Paul, the Virgin Mary, Saint Francis, Saint Peter, Saint Gertrude) and to biblical facts and characters (such as Cain and Abel) in practically all the stanzas.
Nonetheless, the second part of The Wreck of the Deutschland focuses more on the details of the sinking itself and all the anguish generated by the disaster. The supernatural and religious aspects only appear in this part when it is necessary to demonstrate the consequences of the celestial forces’ power on human beings (stanza 17; stanza 28; stanza 32) and to reinvigorate the feeling of grief. The author reserves the second part to describe the circumstances in which the accident happened (stanzas from 11 to 17), to pay tribute to the five nuns (stanzas from 19 to 23), to expose the victims’ feelings of pain, sorrow, and suffering (stanzav18), to deal with death (stanza 25), to meditate on the shipwreck (stanza 29), and to pray for the “penitent spirits” (stanza 33). The details about the moments of terror in the ship are deeply portrayed, such as in stanza 16, leading the reader to become strongly touched during the reading of the verses.
The poem ends reinforcing the importance and supremacy of God. The last stanza evokes the divine blessing in order to avoid other catastrophes and also asks for protection for the British people’s souls, families and homes.The poet used a particular writing style to spread a tense atmosphere in the poem. The intense rhetoric of The Wreck of the Deutschland demonstrates Hopkins’s high level of intellectuality.
In this poem, he used many syntactic inversions, composed words (dapple-with-damson west – stanza 5), juxtapositions, interjections (stanza 18) and neologisms (instress – stanza 5, unchilding – stanza 13, sloggering – stanza 19, unchancelling – stanza 21, cresseted – stanza 35), at the same time as he used archaic words, such as thou (stanza 9, stanza 21), hast (stanza 9), thy (stanza 12), thee (stanzas 23, 30, 31, 32) and hadst (stanza 30).There are also many other linguistic and stylistic resources along the lines, such as alliteration, assonance, paronomasia, word repetition, echo, metaphor, synesthesia (stanza 8) and rhymes, which helped to create an expressive sonority and a distinct musicality, which, clearly and indubitably, is one of the most remarkable characteristics in the poem. Furthermore, ellipsis (elimination of some pronouns, verbs and connectives) occurs in order to guarantee the desired sequence of sounds between words. The rhythm, the sonority and the choice of words of the lines intensify the emotional charge of The Wreck of the Deutschland.
Hopkins established, in poetry, a new style, meter and rhythm, which he himself called “sprung rhythm”, in which the lines do not have the same length, for each line is composed by an indefinite number of unaccented syllables after tonic syllables. The principle of “sprung rhythm” is based on the concept that each line has a fixed number of stressed syllables and a varying number of unstressed syllables. According to “sprung rhythm”, the poetic rhythm depends more on the occurrence of accent, stress and tonicity in the lines than on the number of feet along them. In fact, this is a disciplined way of creating free lines.
Stanza 22 will be used here to analyze, in detail, some formal resources used by Hopkins in The Wreck of the Deutschland:1. Five! The finding and sake2. And cipher of suffering Christ.3.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make4. And the word of it Sacrificed.5. But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,6.
Before time-taken, dearest prized and priced -7. Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token8. For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.In the two initial lines, there is the elimination of verbs (ellipsis), which shows the eloquence and the obscure tone of the poem.
Language figures with sonorous effects such as paronomasia (words which are similar in sound but different in meaning) and alliteration (repetition of a phoneme – in this case the phoneme “s”) are evident in the seventh line. In the third line, the language figures mentioned above and the repetition of words, in this case the word “mark”, can also be noticed. Composed words appear in the sixth and eighth lines. Metaphor is another language figure used in the initial lines, which allude to the five dead nuns, the five wounds of Jesus Christ and the five scars received by Saint Francis in a vision.
By analyzing the stanza above it is also noticeable that the rhymes maintain the scheme A-B-A-B-C-B-C-A throughout the poem. The rhymes and the rhythm, together with the internal assonance and the sonorous effect techniques, contributed to create the musical effect of the poem. The musicality in The Wreck of the Deutschland acts like a powerful agent of expressiveness and commotion.The rhythm of the stanzas is determined by the amount of stress/accents in the lines.
The Wreck of the Deutschland follows the rhythm 2-3-4-3-5-5-4-6 along the eight lines of each stanza, with little variation between the stanzas.It is still possible to detect religiosity, so intense throughout the poem, in the stanza selected above. The reference to Jesus Christ (line 2), the power of divine forces (line 5) and the suffering of Jesus (lines 2 and 4) depict the strong religious character of The Wreck of the Deutschland.All this emotionality, mysticism, spirituality, musicality, vigor, complexity, rhetoric, intensity and formal linguistic resources present in this poem make it one of the most important and extraordinary poetic compositions of the British culture, emphasizing the poet’s ability to develop, extensively, a wide range of new techniques of poetic expression.
The Wreck of the Deutschland, full of linguistic transgressions, syntactic-semantic radicalization, diverse vocabulary, authentic prosody, rhythmic peculiarity, eloquent lyricism and psychological tension, arose as an innovative poem which emerged to break with metric tradition, rebelling against the conventional poetic language. All these qualities and other aspects of the The Wreck of the Deutschland contributed to make it considered a canonic poem, which achieved an important type of perfection that few poets are able to follow or imitate.The complexity of the poem, however, caused perplexity in the period when it was written. Hopkins’s friends and the people from his time were not able to understand it, which, like his other poems, remained completely unknown until the second half of the 20th century, which is the period when his unconventional meter, startling images, and unusual vocabulary started to become especially attractive and appreciated by poets and readers.
The Wreck of the Deutschland was written in 1875, in the end of the Victorian age. There are two main characteristics that mark the Victorian poetry. One of them is the freedom of form and prosody, raising the importance of liberty achieved during Romanticism. The other characteristic is the fact that the Victorian poets used to write a message, an interpretation, a revelation or a doctrine about the respect towards important situations and circumstances of the society of that time.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to classify this poem due to the fact that Hopkins’s poetry includes characteristics from different periods, such as Modernism (freedom to create, imagination, originality), Romanticism (subjectivity, emotionality, melancholy and nature) and Symbolism (mystery, supernaturalism, sonority, musicality).Zealous and devout Christians, Hopkins and Patmore were the only poets of their time who maintained religious aspects and preserved the allusion of sacred images in their poems. It is important to point out this religiosity in their poems because the Victorian age was a period in which there was a huge propagation of atheism. It was a period in which the British people were emotionally, but not intellectually, connected to the church.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was and exceptional and extraordinary poet, regarded as the most original and important from the Victorian age (although his style and his works cannot be classified as Victorians). He wrote modern, intense, lyrical, and spiritually suffused verses that rank him among the greatest British poets. An innovator in prosody and diction, he developed new techniques of poetic expression, which he used to convey a unique and personal inner vision. He explored a dramatic and aesthetically beautiful form of expression in his lines, which efficiently touch, affect, and amaze readers up until current times.