With these hammer-sprung words, Gerard Manley Hopkins hurls heavenward his anguished confession of faith. With them, the frail, pale convert and Jesuit scholastic launched a revolution in English poetry. He plunges deeper into his life-long wrestling with “(my God!) my God” – as he will exclaim ten years later in one of his “Terrible Sonnets.”
The occasion for breaking his seven-year poetic fast was, of course, the news of the drowning of five Franciscan nuns exiled from their German homeland. Invited by his Superior to write a brief commemorative poem in their remembrance, Hopkins forged his thirty-five-stanza Pindaric ode. Its first stanza sounds the theme of the “Wreck of the Deutschland ” and seems to presage the dark days and nights which he will come to experience intimately those last years before his death in Dublin at age forty-five.
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
The God whom Hopkins espies with devotion and dread, the “Lord of living and dead,” is no faceless deity (in which an increasing number of his Victorian contemporaries believed), but Christ himself. True to Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which so shaped him, Hopkins confesses Christ’s sustaining and transforming presence in all of creation, especially in the human being, created to praise and glorify the Creator.
In one of the poem’s most lyrical stanzas, he sings:
I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
Pindar’s odes celebrated the triumph of some hero of the great Greek athletic competitions at Olympus or Delphi. Hopkins’ ode chants the victory of Christ, “hero of Calvary,” who triumphs in defeat and reveals the terrible beauty of the Cross. But this paschal mystery must be continually “instressed, stressed.” For as the renowned Hopkins scholar, Paul Mariani , puts it, the mystery is “the stress of Christ’s own love for us in spending himself on the cross.”
If Ignatius provided the method for conforming Gerard Manley Hopkins more closely to Christ’s form, Duns Scotus (whom Hopkins extols in another poem  as “of reality the rarest-veinèd unraveller”) helped him perceive the Christic pattern and depth of all creation. The Word is encoded in every particularity. Every “haecceitas” bespeaks him: “Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head.” All creatures, seen through a Christic lens, display their own unique particularity and infinite worth.
It has often been remarked that “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is structured in eight-line stanzas whose rhyme scheme is: ababcbca. Less commented, to my knowledge, is the theological significance of this choice. Pondering the poem as a whole, the reader comes to realize that what Hopkins heralds is the awe-filled wonder of new creation in Christ. Eight is symbol of the eighth day inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It assumes concrete form in the octagonal shape of ancient baptismal fonts.
Hence, the poem’s heroine, a stalwart Franciscan nun, steadfastly invokes Christ as she submits to the baptism of the flood: “The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.” She shares (as we all are called to do) the defeat and victory of “Our passion-plungèd giant risen.” Like Paul, she makes up in her own flesh “what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the Church.” (Col 1:24) And thus the Word, the Form of forms, once more takes human flesh.
Manifesting still further theological richness, the rhyme scheme propels the poem’s forward movement by its Trinitarian and Incarnational rhythm. Thus the first stanza’s rhymes – me/sea/thee//bread/dead/dread//flesh/afresh – disclose the “double-naturèd name” (flesh, afresh) as “Mid-numberèd he in three of the thunder-throne” (me/see/thee; bread/dead/dread).
Rooted in Ignatian spirituality and illumined by Scotist ontology, Hopkins effectively counters a reductionism prevalent among our present-day “spiritual, but not religious” brethren. Far too often they advocate an “incarnationalism” bereft of the Incarnation; and extol “sacramentality” while eschewing the sacraments. Hopkins gives short shrift to such sentimental and unsubstantial romanticism.
Margaret Ellsberg has recently edited selections from Hopkins’ poems, letters, and journals and provided sensitive commentary in her attractive and accessible, The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins . She perceptively identifies the doctrine of transubstantiation as the pole star of Hopkins’ spiritual journey, the fecund source of his poetry.
Ellsberg writes: “One could say that Hopkins practiced transubstantiation in every poem. By mysterious talent, he changed plain element into reality sublime.” The analogy is alluring, though it inevitably falls short. There is only one salvific sacrifice, that of Christ himself. Still, there is true participation in that sacrifice, whether by exiled nun or exiled poet, that gives God glory. For God’s praises are played even on frail and faulty instruments which become more finely tuned ad majorem Dei gloriam, as the believer time and again flees “with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.”
And so the “Wreck of the Deutschland” builds to its final magnificent crescendo and heartfelt prayer:
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring 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 hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.
Yet, this Easter supplication, in our earthly exile, in hac lacrimarum valle, will always be accompanied by Hopkins’ Lenten plea in his “Terrible Sonnets:” “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.”
*Image: The 1875 funeral of four of the nuns killed in the Deutschland ‘s sinking. The body of the fifth sister was never recovered.