Granger Collection

Gerard Manley Hopkins

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.”


Hopkins found, however (again like Housman), the thought that his military ephebe might in time betray his early “mansex fine” hard to endure. “I am half inclined to hope,” he wrote to his friend Robert Bridges in a letter accompanying the poem, “the Hero of it may be killed in Afghanistan.” In the poem itself, after the consummation of his administering of the sacrament, he prays to “sée no more of him,” lest “disappointment/Those sweet hopes quell whose least me quickenings lift.”

A similar structure of erotic excitement followed by willed separation occurs in the extraordinary late poem “Epithalamion,” intended as a celebration of his younger brother Everard’s marriage; in this unfinished piece an unnamed “listless stranger” secretly ogles a group of boys swimming in a river, their “downdolfinry and bellbright bodies” filling him with “sudden zest.” But instead of joining them he “hies to a pool neighbouring” where “down he dings” his clothes and goes swimming on his own. “Froliclavish” as his solitary gambols in the pool prove to be, there is great pathos in Hopkins’s doomed attempts in the last stuttering lines of this fragment to convert his vision of homoerotically charged and richly sensual water revels into an allegory of spousal love.

One of the great innovations of Hopkins as a religious poet was the visceral nature of his presentation of spiritual experience. To post-Freudian readers his figuration of the nights he spends “wrestling with (my God!) my God” cannot help seeming a heightened, theatrical acting out of a masochistic urge to be dominated. “Thou mastering me/God!” opens stanza one of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and stanza two, “I did say yes/O at lightning and lashed rod.” For all his training in the disciplines expounded by Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, in his poetry Hopkins felt free to imagine his communion with the divine in the most intense and intimately physical of terms: “dost thou touch me afresh?” he inquires of his mastering God, “Over again I feel thy finger and find thee”—a finger later described as “of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy.”

It is no coincidence that so many of Hopkins’s poems are sonnets, though often very queer ones, for the sonnet, from Petrarch on, has been Western civilization’s preeminent form for expressing unrequited longings and passionate love, the dominant emotions of Hopkins’s art. At times in these poems Christ is explicitly addressed as an all-potent knightly lover (“O my chevalier!” he exults in his brilliant reworking of the aubade, “The Windhover”), and at others yearned for with an anguish that equals anything in Sidney’s or Spenser’s or Shakespeare’s sonnets of jealousy and betrayal:

…And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

The connection between the erotic and the poetic was further heightened for Hopkins by the fact that both ran counter, or so he often saw it, to his religious vocation. As an undergraduate at Oxford he scrupulously recorded in his diary the “evil thoughts” occasioned by his attractions to young men, and chastised himself for “dangerous talking” on the “forbidden subject” of Digby Dolben, with whom he grew perilously obsessed in the summer of 1865. As distinctive a product as Hopkins of the English public school system (Eton, from which he was temporarily expelled for secret meetings with Jesuits, and possibly also homosexual misdemeanors) and of the Tractarian crisis that propelled so many conscience-haunted young men into the arms of Rome, Dolben enjoyed dressing up in a monastic habit and pretending to be a medieval monk. He and Hopkins shared a passion for the Dominican friar Savonarola, famous for his bonfire of the vanities. “There can very seldom have happened the loss of so much beauty (in body and mind and life),” Hopkins wrote to Bridges on hearing of his friend’s death by drowning the following year; “I looked forward,” he confessed, “to his being a Catholic more than to anything.”

By this time Hopkins had himself determined, much to the distress of his parents, to abandon the (fairly high) Anglicanism in which he’d been raised for the Catholic faith; but it was not until he had resolved, in May 1868, to become a priest too that he conducted his own bonfire of the vanities, ceremoniously burning his early verses, and noting the event in his journal with the terse phrase “Slaughter of the innocents.” Of course he’d already sent copies to Bridges, and these slaughtered innocents now take up around two thirds of his Collected Poems. The point of the holocaust was symbolic, a way of signifying that on entering the novitiate, which he did that September, he would indulge in poetic composition no more.

And he didn’t, until he chanced on the account in The Times of the wreck of the Deutschland some fifteen months into his residence at St. Beuno’s in North Wales, where he had embarked on a four-year course of study known as the Theologate—though in fact his failure in his third-year oral examination (too much harping on Scotus, apparently) meant that he had to leave a year early, and was subsequently disqualified from holding high office in the Society. In a letter to Richard Watson Dixon of 1878 Hopkins recalled how he had been strongly “affected” by the newspaper report,

and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper.

Rector James Jones’s “hint” to Hopkins may have been no more than an offhand remark, but was clearly taken by the long-stifled poet as official permission for him to resume his relations with the muse. In the event, it was about all the encouragement he was to receive from his fellow Jesuits for his poetic labors. Their house paper, The Month, turned down the completed poem, probably because its editor, Henry Coleridge (a great-nephew of the poet), could make neither head nor tail of it, and a few years later he also rejected Hopkins’s second wreck poem, “The Loss of the Eurydice.” Poor Hopkins even had spurned some verses he wrote in response to a call for poems in honor of the Virgin Mary, with the aim of adorning her statue in the gardens of Stoneyhurst one May Day. For unspecified reasons it was decided that his lively tribute, “May Magnificat,” should be excluded from this mini-poetic shrine.

Nevertheless, all honor to Father Jones for his “hint,” however casually dropped. The “new rhythm” Hopkins had in mind he dubbed “sprung rhythm,” which involved scanning by counting only stressed syllables rather than all syllables, and led him to festoon his manuscripts with an often baffling range of diacritical marks. Certainly these added to the barbarous feel of the manuscript he dispatched to The Month, and then to Bridges, who responded with a parody, and a firm assertion that he would not, for any money, read the poem again. Bridges never in fact warmed to “The Wreck,” and in his introduction to his long-delayed (almost three decades) edition of Hopkins’s poems, which he felt, despite his qualms, had to open with Hopkins’s longest and most innovative performance, he described it as “like a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance.” Indeed he advised readers to skip it, and attack the poet “later in the rear.”

The agnostic Bridges, who lamented on Hopkins’s death that his friend had been “entirely lost and destroyed by those Jesuits,” was not the ideal reader for a poem that opened with a description of a dark night of the soul which, though Hopkins assured him it was “all strictly and literally true and did all occur,” is presented in extravagantly Gothic terms. The violence with which Hopkins dramatizes his plight is closer to the expressionist portrayal of fits of despair in the work of poets such as Plath and Lowell than to anything in mid-Victorian poetry:

Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

In the ten stanzas that make up the first part of the poem, Hopkins establishes his right to interpret “the call of the tall nun” by relating an equivalent moment of “héaven-handling” he had experienced himself; his conversion to the true way in his hour of distress (“I whirled out wings that spell/And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host”) allows him to hope that something similar happened to the many non-Catholics who heard the nun’s cry on the Deutschland, and that they therefore died not “comfortless unconfessed” but as “last-breath penitent spirits.” Further, their hypothetical hour-of-death conversions are taken by Hopkins as the start of a general reclamation of “rare-dear Britain” for Catholicism; the poem’s final stanza opens with a prayer to the resurrected Sister Mary Barbara Hültenschmidt to intercede with God in order to further this project:

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!

To Bridges this was so much “presumptious jugglery,” to which the at times somewhat pedantic Hopkins replied it wasn’t, because “presumptious is not English.” Hopkins also read parts of the poem to a fellow Jesuit at St. Beuno’s called Clement Barraud, who declared that he “could understand hardly one line of it,” and wondered why the aspirant poet hadn’t “condescended to write plain English.” Whatever hopes of fame Hopkins may have allowed himself to nurture must have been rudely nipped in the bud by these hostile responses.

The one-time eccentric is now of course the Society of Jesus’s chief literary glory, though his sexual leanings still present an obstacle to the hagiographical impulses of some of his latter-day Catholic admirers. Paul Mariani, in his quite dreadful biography, ignores the issue altogether, and even furnishes that most confirmed of confirmed bachelors, Walter Pater, with a wife. His knowledge of the Victorian culture from which Hopkins emerged is no more than sketchy, and his approach to the topography of England cavalier in the extreme—Horsham, for instance, is reported to be a hundred miles south of London, which puts it deep in the English Channel. All is written in a breathless present tense that grows more irritating with each page. Mariani has discovered no new facts to add to those presented in the excellent early 1990s biographies of Hopkins by Norman White and Robert Bernard Martin,* and one can only hope, for the sake of the poet he would glorify, that his book sinks without trace.

Ron Hansen, a deacon in his San José Jesuit church and Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor at Santa Clara University in California, specializes in novels on historical figures. (His 1983 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was recently made into a film starring Brad Pitt.) The exiles of this novel’s title are not only the five nuns driven out of Germany by the Falk Laws, but Hopkins as well, for he spent the last five and a half years of his prematurely truncated life in Dublin in great loneliness and misery. Exiles opens, however, in December 1875 with Hopkins at St. Beuno’s, “Away in the loveable west,” in the words of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” “On a pastoral forehead of Wales.”

Hopkins’s three years at St. Beuno’s were probably the happiest of his life, and the poems he wrote there, in the wake, so to speak, of “The Wreck,” are among the most jubilant and exhilarating in the language. “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!” They reveal not only his effervescent delight in the glories of nature, but his barely containable excitement at finding himself at last permitted to unleash his poetic powers. “What is all this juice and all this joy?” they ask. And there seems no limit to their ability to fuse the earthly and the spiritual: in the last of them, “Hurrahing in Harvest,” a late summer walk inspires what is Hopkins’s most dreamily sensuous address to Christ: lifting up “heart, éyes” in order “to glean our Saviour” from the drifting clouds, he demands:

And, éyes, héart, what looks, what lips yet gáve you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

The “azurous hung hills” in the distance become Christ’s “world-wielding shoulder,” a shoulder embodying both power and tenderness—“Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!”

But what of the nuns whose deaths served as the catalyst for this great burst of reciprocated love and elated word-spinning? Hansen’s narrative tacks from Wales to Salzkotten, where the mother superior of the convent is busy assembling her five doomed emigrants. As in any disaster novel or movie, we need a backstory: the future victims have to be distinguished quickly but clearly, which they are, but lest we’ve got them mixed up, he introduces a drunken Russian who dines opposite them on the Deutschland on the eve of its departure, and reels off their salient characteristics: tall one (obviously), short one, pretty one, smart one, and angry one.

For the sections describing the history of the Salzkotten convent and the Deutschland’s voyage and foundering, Hansen draws very heavily on Sean Street’s superb nonfiction account of the disaster, published in 1992. Street’s meticulously researched book comes with pictures and maps, and an illuminating discussion of British and German newspaper responses to the wreck and to the inquest that followed. German commentators inveighed bitterly against the failure of the English to launch a rescue mission, especially since the ship was stranded so close to the mouth of the Thames, while subsequent plundering of the Deutschland’s cargo by joyful Kentish freebooters inflamed anti-English sentiment still further. Hansen’s larger purpose, in contrast, is to suggest an analogy between the wreck of the ship leading to the deaths of the nuns and the wreck of Hopkins’s career leading to his death (of typhoid) in Dublin in 1889.

Hansen’s crosscutting technique works, on the whole, pretty well, and he dramatizes Hopkins’s bewilderment and despair in the run-down, rat-friendly premises of University College on St. Stephen’s Green, where he had been appointed professor of Greek, succinctly and movingly. “AND WHAT DOES ANYTHING AT ALL MATTER?” the newly arrived poet uncharacteristically demands in a letter to Bridges, while in the first poem he wrote in Ireland he figures himself as a stranger exiled from country, family, and friends by a divisive and divided Christ, “my peace/my parting, sword and strife.”

Why, he wonders in the last lines of this bleak sonnet, does “dark heaven’s baffling ban” or “hell’s spell” thwart his every attempt to speak? “This to hoard unheard,/Hear unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.” It was, though, as a “lonely began,” overworked, psychically adrift, prone to insomnia, nervous prostration, and illness after illness, that Hopkins composed “in blood,” as he put it to Bridges, the extraordinary late poems of spiritual torment that are the dark underside to his radiant Welsh celebrations of God and nature: here the sublime “azurous hung hills” are inverted into their phantasmagoric, undappled, desolate, inner antitheses: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

This Issue

January 15, 2009