Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland: Searching for God in Suffering

In The Wreck of the Deutschland, Gerard Manley Hopkins vividly presents the struggle of man to see the hand of God in the midst of apparent evil. Hopkins explores this theme by telling of the wreck of a ship going from Germany to America. The event, which took place on December 6-7 in the same year Hopkins composed the poem (1875), provides the perfect setting for exploring this trying and enduring question.

Hopkins tells of the Deutschland putting out to sea:

On Saturday sailed from Bremen,


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…[1]

A ship with hundreds of people onboard sets out on a voyage and quickly finds itself at the mercy of the seas. The boat, as suggested in the above stanza, is doomed for wreckage, and a quarter of the people for death. Hopkins has no intention of his readers understanding this storm as, for example, the storm caused by the guilt of Jonah in the Old Testament. It is not meant to be understood as God dealing out punishment on a guilty people. Quite the contrary. Hopkins dedicates the poem, “To the happy memory of five Franciscan Nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875.”[2] From the start, an apparent injustice is at work. How could God allow five of his servants, already cruelly treated, indeed banished from their land, to become victims of the sea? It is precisely this apparent injustice, this evil brought against good people, which allows Hopkins to explore, in the light of faith, the question of suffering.

To properly understand this theme within the poem, however, a basic understanding of inscape and instress are necessary. Hopkins himself coined these terms[3], and they are essential to understanding any of his poetry. Inscape refers to “the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity.”[4] It is the most essential and basic nature of a being itself. It is the ‘tree-ness’ of a tree, so to speak, or the ‘water-ness’ of water. Instress is the ability of the human being, “the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe,”[5] to perceive and acknowledge the inscape of another being. This acknowledgment necessarily “leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it.”[6] In light of these terms, one can see what Hopkins was daring to do in The Wreck of the Deutschland. He poses the question: how can a human being acknowledge and rightly honour, through instress, the inscape of something that is seemingly only a cause of destruction? The work is intended to be a tempestuous struggle between the soul and the savagery of a storm.

While the sheer difficulty of exercising instress toward something apparently evil is evident in the poem, Hopkins aids his readers in doing so. He first makes the experience of suffering personal. The first eleven stanzas do not speak specifically of the storm itself. Rather these stanzas are written in the first person, and seem to vaguely yet potently describe agonizing experiences. Hopkins writes for example,

I did say yes

O at lightning and lashed rod;

Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess

Thy terror, O Christ, O God…[7]

Or another example,

The frown of his face

Before me, the hurtle of hell

Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?[8]

These first eleven stanzas certainly seem to foreshadow what is to come later in the poem. However, they also inform the reader that Hopkins has experienced something similar to the suffering of those aboard the ship. Indeed, writing to Robert Bridges, Hopkins mentions the poem and says, “what refers to myself in the poem is all strictly and literally true and did occur; nothing is added for poetical padding.”[9]  Thus, by writing the first portion of the poem in the first person, Hopkins is making the difficulty of finding God in suffering deeply personal. He is inviting readers to insert themselves into the experience that he is about to describe. This poem is not merely meant to be an exploration of an isolated event of suffering, but rather, of the suffering of each one of us. These stanzas thus serve as an effective introduction to those that follow.

Beginning with the twelfth stanza, Hopkins launches into the tale of the Deutschland itself. The terror of the events is forcefully portrayed:

Into the snows she sweeps,

Hurling the haven behind,

The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,

For the infinite air is unkind,

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.[10]

The language is intense and only becomes more and more so:

Hope had grown grey hairs,

Hope had mourning on,

Trenched with tears, carved with cares,

Hope was twelve hours gone…[11]

The frightfulness of the description is driven home by the language and the metre, which create together the sensation of a storm-tossed ship. Thanks to the first eleven stanzas, the reader nearly feels himself to be aboard the ship. The terror is the reader’s terror, the apparent hopelessness, the reader’s hopelessness. This is the power of Hopkins poetry: the intensely personalized struggle for instress in the face of great suffering.

Despite the darkness of the poem, however, Hopkins maintains (and helps his readers to maintain) a beautiful sense of faith. While presenting and struggling with the dreadfulness of the storm, he nonetheless praises and honours God. Indeed, the first lines of the poem read:

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 & veins in me, fastened me flesh…[12]

In the first eleven stanzas, Hopkins wants it to be clear that God is the Lord of all things and has control over all creation. When he begins to describe the wreck itself, moreover, Hopkins maintains this attitude.

The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;

Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?[13]

While certainly acknowledging the brutality of the storm, Hopkins nonetheless insists on God’s presence through his rhetorical question: “Yet did… the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?” It is precisely this struggle between the storm and the presence of God that characterizes the poem. It is this very struggle, which characterizes our lives as people of faith in a world full of evil.

What then is the fruit of this struggle? Are Hopkins and the reader able to exercise instress in order to grasp the inscape of the storm? The answer is ‘yes’ – however a very humble ‘yes.’

One evident and definite good Hopkins finds is the witness of one of the nuns. In stanza seventeen, when the storm is at its peak, Hopkins tells of a nun arising to praise God: “a lioness arose breasting the babble,/ A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.” The sister has courage to pray even while “(n)ight roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble.” She prays even amid “(t)he woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check.”[14] In stanza nineteen, Hopkins describes this prayer further:

Sister, a sister calling

A master, her master and mine…

The rash smart sloggering brine

Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing…

she rears herself to divine

Ears, and the call of the tall nun

To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.[15]

Hopkins presents this sister’s prayer as an act of courage, and furthermore, as a witness to the others. She calls out and her prayer reaches even to the men on higher parts of the ship. This witness is not without gain. In fact, the very presence of the sisters onboard is not without gain. Hopkins brings the reader to see that the apparently tragic presence of the sisters on the ship that night becomes rather a source of grace for many. Referring to the five sisters in stanza twenty-two, he writes:

Five! the finding and sake

And cipher of suffering Christ.

Mark, the mark is of man’s make

And the word of it Sacrificed.

But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,

Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—

Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token

For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.[16]

Hopkins is comparing the five sisters to the five wounds of Christ. He sees the number as the “cipher of suffering Christ.” The sisters thus represent Christ in their death; they are His “own bespoken” and the ones He has marked “in scarlet himself…” What at first glance may have seemed an unfortunate, even cruel coincidence – nuns exiled from their country only to die at sea – is now seen to be the gift of martyrdom. In this poetic and symbolic manner, Hopkins shows the reader that the nuns died for their faith and their religious vocation. However, he goes even further. In stanza thirty-one, referring to the others onboard the ship, he writes:

pity of the rest of them!

Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the

Comfortless unconfessed of them—

No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence

Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the

Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and

Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?[17]

Hopkins begins by mourning the “unconfessed” of those onboard. However, he quickly sees that there is hope for them. He addresses Providence and praises it, saying it is “of a feathery delicacy.” He then goes on to say that “the breast of the/ Maiden could obey” this Providence and could “be a bell to… Startle the poor sheep back!” Hopkins is insisting that the witness of the sister who stood to pray in the storm was the very witness needed to save what were perhaps otherwise lost souls. He confirms this by finishing the stanza asking hopefully: “is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?” Hopkins is suggesting that God allowed this shipwreck for the conversion of souls – a conversion aided by the faithful prayer of a nun.

Beyond this, however, Hopkins proposes one final prize won on that fateful night. He finishes the poem addressing the sister who had courage to pray at the moment of her death:

Dame, at our door

Drowned, and among our shoals,

Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:

Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!

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.[18]

The “dame” who died at the “door” of England undoubtedly refers to the sister who witnessed to those onboard the Deutschland as it sunk off the coast of England. What is beautiful about this stanza (which is the final stanza of the poem) is that Hopkins is now able to invoke the sister as a heavenly patron. Indeed, having acknowledged the sisters as martyrs, Hopkins shows the readers that perhaps the greatest gift won in this tragedy is a band of saints, of new intercessors. Invoking the courageous sister, Hopkins concludes praying for England and praying that Christ may “easter” in the souls of the English and “be a dayspring” for “rare-dear Britain.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins thus brings his readers to find great graces in the tragedy of the storm. His quest to exercise instress in order to communicate with the very essence of the tempest, with its inscape, leads ultimately to a hopeful and moving conclusion. His quest ultimately leads, as all instress necessarily does, back to Christ.

Before concluding, however, it is important to point out the humility that marks this poem. Hopkins does not presume to know or be able to fully understand why God allowed the wreck of the Deutschland. The first stanza after the boat sets out, perhaps best captures this humility:

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

Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?[19]

Hopkins combines a clear understanding of what happened, indeed of what was doomed to happen, with the acknowledgment of God’s presence and mercy. To simply explain away tragedies and evils by drawing the good out of them is far from sufficient. As seen in The Wreck of the Deutschland an exploration for such good is helpful and even powerful. In the end however, as humans, we can never fully understand God or His ways. We do well to rest in Him and to be certain that, even when we struggle to find good amid evil, at the very last, His “love glides/ Lower than death and the dark…”[20] A profound humility must always be the final goal of such exploration.

[1] Hopkins, Gerard Manley, The Wreck of the Deutschland, 1918,, Stanza 12.

[2] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Introduction.

[3] Domestico, Anthony. “Inscape, Instress & Distress.” Commonweal 136, no. 5 (March 13, 2009): 26–27.,ip,cpid&custid=csl&db=f5h&AN=36865635&site=eds-live&scope=site.

[4] Stephen Greenblatt et al., Ed. “Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. p. 2159

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 2.

[8] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 3.

[9] Tobias, R. C., and Richard C. Tobias. “The Year’s Work in Victorian Poetry: 1969.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 8, no. 3, West Virginia University Press, 1970, p. 245,, p. 27.

[10] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 13.

[11] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 15.

[12] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 1.

[13] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 12.

[14] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 17.

[15] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 19.

[16] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 22.

[17] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 31.

[18] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 35.

[19] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 12.

[20] The Wreck of the Deutschland, Stanza 33.