• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Poet and the Wreck


by Ron Hansen.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 227 pp., $23.00

The single-screw steamer the SS Deutschland, of the North German Lloyd line, set sail for New York from the Ger- man port of Bremerhaven on the morning of Sunday, December 5, 1875. Among the 113 passengers who had boarded the night before were five nuns from the convent of the Sisters of Saint Francis, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, in Salzkotten; they were bound for the Saint Boniface Hospital in Carondelet, a town in Missouri south of St. Louis, where nineteen sisters of their order were already working as nurses. The decision of their mother superior to dispatch them westward was part of German Catholics’ response to Chancellor Bismarck’s increasingly virulent Kulturkampf against them. The so-called Falk Laws, named after Bismarck’s minister of ecclesiastical affairs, Adalbert Falk, had decreed earlier that year that only religious orders committed almost exclusively to education and care of the sick might be allowed to continue on German soil.

The Deutschland’s first port of call was to be Southampton, but Captain Brickenstein, confused by the appalling weather conditions, misread his charts and mistook her course, and around five on the following morning she ran aground on the Kentish Knock, a treacherous sandbank off the English coast near Harwich. The propeller was thrown into reverse, but caught in the shallows and sheared off. The worsening storm made rescue attempts too dangerous—or at any rate, none was attempted—and for the next twenty-four hours the stranded steamer was the plaything of mountainous pummeling waves, hurricane-force gales, and, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” the “wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow.”

As the lower decks filled with water, the passengers took refuge in the saloon, but with the rise of the tide in the early hours of Tuesday morning, this too began to flood. The captain ordered all on deck. Some sought refuge from “the hurling and horrible airs” and “the rash smart sloggering brine” in the wheelhouse. Those who could scaled the rigging, where

They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the deck.

In its report of December 11, The Times recorded how the chief purser,

though a strong man, relaxed his grasp, and fell into the sea. Women and children and men were one by one swept away from their shelters…. The shrieks and sobbing of the women and children are described by the survivors as agonising.

By the time the storm abated later that morning, allowing a rescue vessel to be sent from Harwich, twenty-two of the crew of ninety-nine had drowned or been washed overboard, along with forty-four of the passengers, including the five Franciscan nuns.

The upper-middle-class affluence in which Gerard Manley Hopkins was raised had been made possible by just such disasters. His father, Manley Hopkins (himself a dabbler in poetry), earned his substantial living in the marine insurance business: he was both the founder of a successful company that specialized in assessing the liabilities incurred to underwriters by losses at sea, and the respected author of the two standard reference books on the subject, A Handbook of Average (1857) and A Manual of Marine Insurance (1867).

To Hopkins senior and his many employees a nautical catastrophe was to be responded to and assessed and interpreted—and eventually profited from: “is the shipwrack then a harvest,” as his son would inquire in his great ode, though addressing a different father, “does tempest carry the grain for thee?” There is not a single reference in all of Hopkins’s surviving writings to Manley’s profession, but it is intriguing to consider his discovery in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” of a silver lining in a sea disaster as a spiritual version of his father’s dependence for business on the fickle, supreme “master of the tides,/Of the Yore-flood,” and on the dangers posed to shipping by the “stanching, quenching ocean.” Though utterly different in so many ways, both Manley and Gerard realized that a shipwreck, however awful, might well be described as a godsend.

We know relatively little about the five nuns whom Hopkins conceived as both carefully singled-out martyrs of contemporary religious persecution (as he noted in a letter, “to be persecuted in a tolerant age is a high distinction”) and, more medievally, as a “five-livèd and leavèd” symbol of the Passion, their five deaths mirroring the five stigmata (nails in hands and feet, and the lance in the side) that made up Christ’s “Lovescape crucified.” He was particularly struck by the account in The Times of the response to the approach of death of a very tall nun, misidentified as the leader of the group: this “gaunt woman 6 ft high” was heard “calling out loudly and often ‘O Christ, come quickly!’ till the end came.” Hopkins presents her as a heroic “lioness,” her height an index of her prophetic and spiritual stature:

Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

Rearing herself to “divine/Ears,” the “call of the tall nun/To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.” Eyewitness reports suggest, however, that far from instilling a courageous readiness to embrace God’s beneficent will in those perched in the rigging, the behavior of Sister Mary Barbara Hültenschmidt unnerved rather than inspired. This is how The Daily News presented the sisters’ last hours on the Deutschland:

There were five nuns on board who, by their terror-stricken conduct, seem to have added greatly to the weirdness of the scene. They were deaf to all entreaties to leave the saloon, and when, almost by main force, the stewardess (whose conduct throughout was plucky in the extreme) managed to get them on to the companion ladder, they sank down on the steps and stubbornly refused to go another step. They seemed to have returned to the saloon again shortly, for somewhere in the dead of the night when the greater part of the crew and passengers were in the rigging, one was seen with her body half through the sky-light, crying aloud in a voice heard above the storm, “O, my God, make it quick! make it quick!”

An article in The New York Herald of December 27, which includes verbatim testimony of some of the survivors who had continued their journey and finally reached New York, again made “the call of the tall nun” central to the nightmarish nature of the scene: one remembered that on receiving the order to go on deck, most obeyed,

but some persisted in remaining in the cabins and main saloon, among them the five nuns. The Stewardess at last induced the sisters to come up to the entrance of the com- panion, but she was herself struck by a sea and washed across the deck and back again. The nuns fled back terrified into the saloon…. One of them, a very large woman, with a voice like a man’s, got halfway up through the skylight, and kept shrieking in a dreadful way, “Mein Gott! mach es schnell mit uns! Give us our death quickly!” All five were drowned in the saloon, and the Stewardess told me that from her place on the seat of the skylight when she looked down she could see their bodies washing about.

The corpse of one of the sisters, the leader Sister Mary Henrica Fassbender, was not among those recovered from the wreck, so there were only four nuns to lay to rest, with great ceremony, the following week in St. Patrick’s Catholic Cemetery in Stratford—near, coincidentally, to 87, The Grove, the house where Hopkins was born and spent the first eight years of his life. In his funeral oration Cardinal Manning simply elided what was to be- come the revelatory climax of Hop- kins’s poem. According to Manning, the good sisters “were so resigned in the tranquillity of their confidence in God, that they showed not the smallest sign of agitation or fear”:

They remained quietly in their cabin, and when at length they were asked to mount the riggings, as a last chance of safety, they refused—they were already prepared for the great voyage of eternity—life and death were the same to them.

It’s probable that Hopkins was aware of Manning’s orthodox line on the sisters’ deaths, which must have struck him as much too tame. For him the nun’s cry was an almost erotic apprehension of the spiritual bridegroom’s masterful descent on his virginal supplicant; in Stanza 28 Christ’s death-dealing becomes one of Hopkins’s most powerful versions of his recurrent fantasy of simultaneous rape and redemption:

…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.

The gap between Manning’s and Hopkins’s interpretations dramatizes just how remote Hopkins’s religious beliefs were from mainstream Catholic opinion. Even the Jesuits found him hard to fathom—“eccentric” is the term used over and over in his superiors’ reports on him. Outwardly their objections took the form of disapproval of his preference for the medieval theologian Duns Scotus over the officially sanctioned Thomas Aquinas, but one suspects it was a more instinctive distrust of Hopkins’s singular temperament, its odd mix of the naive and the baroquely convoluted, that led to the collapse of his hopes of preferment in the Society of Jesus, for which he had abandoned all.

For some decades now attempts to define the pressures that led Hopkins to develop what is probably the most idiosyncratic poetic idiom of all time have focused on his homosexuality, and the extent to which, consciously or unconsciously, his poetry functioned as an outlet for his censored libidinal energies. At times, as Helen Vendler pointed out in an essay in The Breaking of Style (1995), the poetic transcription of his desires for adolescents and young men can be so transparent that it verges on the risible. In “The Bugler’s First Communion” he rejoices in the visit that a bugler boy, stationed at the barracks in Cowley, pays him at his church in Oxford in quest of a blessing; the poem positively trembles with sensual delight as “Christ’s darling” kneels before him “in regimental red.” Like A.E. Housman, who furnished the Latin dedication to the first edition of Hopkins’s poems in 1918, he had a thing about soldiers, and he almost swoons when contemplating this “Breathing bloom of a chastity in mansex fine.” “How it does my heart good,” he rapturously muses, “When limber liquid youth,” i.e., the soldiers at the Cowley barracks, “to all I teach/Yields ténder as a púshed péach.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print