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

12 February 2013

Reading "The Wreck," Stanzas 12-18


            On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
            American-outward-bound,        90
        Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
            Two hundred souls in the round—
    O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
    The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
        Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing        95
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

            Into the snows she sweeps,
            Hurling the haven behind,
        The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
            For the infinite air is unkind,        100
    And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
    Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
        Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

            She drove in the dark to leeward,
            She struck—not a reef or a rock
        But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
            Dead to the Kentish Knock;
    And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
    The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;        110
        And canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

            Hope had grown grey hairs,
            Hope had mourning on,
        Trenched with tears, carved with cares,        115
            Hope was twelve hours gone;
    And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
    Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
        And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.        120

            One stirred from the rigging to save
            The wild woman-kind below,
        With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
            He was pitched to his death at a blow,
    For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:        125
    They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
        Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

            They fought with God’s cold—
            And they could not and fell to the deck        130
        (Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
            With the sea-romp over the wreck.
    Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
    The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
        Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,        135
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

            Ah, touched in your bower of bone
            Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
        Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
            Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.        140
    O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
    Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
        Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

Two hundred persons departed for America on the Deutschland, none of them suspecting how the voyage would end.  Hopkins dares to wonder whether this sorry lot ("the dark side of the bay") might be "thy blessing," an act of divine mercy that might successfully reunite the wayward with their Lord.

Snow and wind assail the ship, creating a horrible experience not unlike Hopkins' earlier description of his own conversion.  This couplet is one of my favorites from the entire work for its sonic value alone: "Wiry and white fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow / Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps."  The sea always has been a place of mystery.  An old chestnut from the St. Gregory Hymnal goes: "Shoreless Ocean, who shall sound Thee? / Thine own eternity is 'round Thee, / Majesty divine, majesty divine!"  Water refreshes and bears life; it tortures and deals death.  Whatever its effects,  it is fluid, characterized by movement, eager to assume the boundaries of its container.

Upon impact the vessel becomes uncontrollable.  The foundering, shivering passengers either climb the sails or begin to drown.  One man's heroics prove futile for those he tried to rescue, but he becomes an effective example for whoever else might feel lucky.  There is no "luck" when the cold is "God's cold."  There is no salvific strategy.

Note how Hopkins depicts the tumult in stanza 17.  His use of parentheses to separate the manners of death (crushing/drowning) preserves the sentence's integrity and metrics while imitating the back-and-forth of a storm-tossed ship.

Women and children may shriek incoherently, but the clearest and most startling of sounds is the "lioness," the nun to be described later.  The first description to be heard is of the narrator himself, Hopkins.  He wasn't on the scene; eventually he will describe the relative luxury he enjoyed during the disaster.  Rather he heard of it from the superior of the community, who read it in the newspaper and off-handedly wished that someone would write a poem about the event.   Hopkins's distance certainly did not forbid empathy.  The effects of original sin do not hamper him from expressing the therapeutic tears of commingled grief and joy, whose confusing coexistence becomes a major theme for the remainder of the work.

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