Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

18 September 2012

Reading "The Wreck," Stanza 1

Much as an eager Bible reader starts at Genesis 1:1, unknowingly planning sabotage around Numbers 4:12, even so do I begin my treatment of Hopkins by considering his signature work, Wreck of the Deutschland.

This "signature" is not the "X" of an illiterate; rather it has all the flourish of a John Hancock.  I have long identified with our poet as a sucker for punishment, sincerely motivated by--or at  least intrigued by--divine love.

One of the chief features in GMH's poetry is the use of what he called "sprung rhythm", imitative of natural speech.  Hopkins did not equate sprung rhythm with "free verse" because he used a definite pattern of feet per line, evident throughout "Wreck."  Stressed syllables matter most.

(For a scanned version of the Wreck, kindly seek other shores.)

  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 very first line fittingly presents the dual poles of concern in the speaker's life: God and the self.  I am reminded of the incipit of a prayer of Augustine:
Domine Iesu, noverim me, noverim Te. 
Lord Jesus, that I may know myself, that I may know You.
Consciousness of one's self as always dwelling in God, steeped in Him as a teabag in water.  But who is who?  Perhaps God is the teabag, and everything of Him is to enrich and enflavor us.  Or He is the water, the atmosphere that draws out from us "our best and worst" and provides the medium for our true usefulness and flourishing.  Either way, the result is meant to be savored, consumed.

The connective tissue of God and self, the participle "mastering"--is in the present progressive: ongoing, current action.  Hopkins seemed to experience God (and the disciple's discipline) in terms demanding--nay, violent; nay, (curiously) loving--as the poem will unfurl.  The writer makes God the first and last subject of this work's sentences, addressing Him in the reverent Thou that Buber and others will adopt in time.

"Thou mastering me" could be hyphenated, to form an adjective: GMH describes God as the One who habitually and entirely demands personal subjection.  The relationship of Hopkins to God is established straightaway, forcefully.

The "Giver of breath and bread": such a Being is worthy of Hopkins' subjection, for He is responsible for respiration and nutrition.  Perhaps they'd call this a "hendiadys," a literary device for expressing one reality (the totality of existence) through two items.

How intricately described is the process of creation, simplistic in its components (bones, veins, flesh)!

And how easily His creations can be unraveled!  "Almost unmade" (GMH's scansion calls for accents on the first syllables of each word): It calls to mind the permission that God gave to Satan with respect to His servant Job: "Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand upon his person" (1:12).  Hopkins speaks from the vantage point of a survivor...but his strife may not be o'er.  The same contact ("thy finger") that created him in love, nearly destroyed him once; and now it threatens a repeat performance--whether to recreate, rescind, or both.  Historically, the tempest and the shipwreck are "Thy doing," but the term is subject to untold expansion (what is somehow not His doing?).

In faith we await a time when we can speak freely and gratefully of current treacheries, the better able to see the Lord's providential direction at work throughout.

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