The Poet and the Wreck


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

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.