Plot Structure of The Wreck of the Deutschland

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      A close analysis of the poem The Wreck of the Deutschland shows an underlying pattern and a unity in plot structure. As a starting point we should note that the poem is not a narrative of the shipwreck but a new assertion of God’s place in the world, the Wreck serving only as an occasion for and a stimulus to that assertion.

      The central idea from which all the others develop is the Incarnation. In the Bible, we read that the “Word was made flesh”. Hopkins used the concept of the “word” in three senses in the poem: God making the world; His witnesses speaking His message; and the poet expressing His meaning, in stanzas 29—

Ah! there was a heart right!
There was single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth and word of worded by?
The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast
Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

      The poet says that “present and past, heaven and earth are word of, worded by” God: there is a need for a witness to spell out what is there, to “word” it which is what the nun does in the climatic 29th stanza: Further, the nun’s witness has to be explained or “worded”, and this is the job of the poet-priest who, in stanza 8, tells us how he is finally brought to the point of making his statement of affirmation.

Construction of the Poem

      The central feature of the construction of The Wreck of the Deutschland is its division into two parallel parts. There is no rigid parallel, as the different length so the two parts show. Besides, Hopkins was interested not only in parallels but also in the tension between likeness and unlikeness. If we consider the development of the first part side by side with the development of the second, we observe a broad similarity and important distinctions.

      In Part I Hopkins writes two stanzas to widen the subject from his own moment of wreck or crisis to the more general present state, and stanzas 4 and 5 return to the present tense after the past tense of the crisis, just as stanza 18 afterward returns to the present. In stanza 4 Hopkins employs two main images to try to convey the mysterious connection between the individual and God (and this is another parallel on a minor scale). The poet is like sand or water, the one “at the wall/Fast”, the other as in a well reaching “a poise, a pane”. Both images have a pattern within their apparent formlessness: the sand is “mined with a motion, a drift, and it crowds and it comes to the fall”: while the water is connected to the streams on the hillside which are like ropes firstly because they look like strands down the mountain sides and secondly because they tie him to the distant cause of his state Christ. The two images are linked by placing them parallel but they are also mingled, rather as the events of the wreck are mingled with the poet’s experience later in stanzas 18 and 24. The image of the vein is connected in geological terms with the “mine” of the hourglass image, but both are connected with the vein of Christ and his redemptive blood, and the whole stanza serves to convey in physical images the strong connection with grace, “the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.”

      While stanzas 4 and 5 widen the effect and speak of the poet’s relationship with events both pleasant and awful, stanzas 18 to 24 deal with his response to the particular shipwreck including an exploration of the symbols of refusal of grace. These stanzas, 18 to 24 also examine the suffering caused by the refusal, both of the nuns and of Christ, and the mercy that comes from the sacrifice.

      The opening stanzas of the two parts are in strong contrast. Whereas the first part opens with Life, the second part opens with Death and man’s headlessness of it. Yet the connections for Hopkins are clear. He points out in stanza 1 that God is “Lord of living and dead”, and that He almost unmade” His creation. The passage that follows is in both parts of the poem the “unmaking” pressure of the wreck: in stanzas 2 and 3 the poet moves through, the “sweep and the hurl” and the “horror of height” to the moment of vision; and in stanzas 12 to 17 he moves from the “hurling and horrible airs” to the nun’s actions, which are described as “a prophetess towering in the tumult”.

      The most extended parallel of the poem is that between private experience and the experience of the wreck. Hopkins made this apparent when he split the poem into two parts and made them images of each other, the internal and external ship wrecks. But there are lesser parallels too: word becoming flesh, abstract becoming concrete, God becoming man. Even the date of the death of the nuns is significant: on its basis, the poet makes the point, in stanza 30, that this was the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate conception; the date thus becomes another celebration of God becoming man.

      The last line of stanza 24 links that stanza also with stanza 8 where “we lash with the best or worst/word last”. And the notion of sacrifice and the crucifixion likes stanzas 7 and 22. Stanzas 6 to 8, however, have a movement of argument which is matched by that of denials to assertion. Stanzas 6 to 8 insist that the gift of grace, “the stress” comes not from heaven but from Christ’s incarnation and Passion, and it is this moment of extremity which releases the gift and a similar moment of extremity which acknowledges it. Similarly in stanzas 25 to 29 we learn what the nun’s cry did not mean before we learn what it did mean. Her cry did not mean that she was glad to suffer as Christ has suffered, nor that she would feel the rewards more strongly because she had suffered acutely when subject to her humdrum duties and daily toil. What her cry did mean was that she in her extremity understood. Though her case and Hopkins’s own were widely different; she could say what he has told us in stanza 5: “I greet him the days I meet him and bless when I understand”. Like him too in his hourglass comparison, and in many other examples of superficial movement concealing & solid ground like the shoal itself, she is “to the blast / Tarpeian fast, but a blown beacon of light”, combining the qualities of the rock with those of a light which registers and announces the forces acting on it. She is connected with Christ again in stanza 30 by the reference to the immaculate conception and by the reference to both as “light”. So the last part of the poem matches the last two stanzas of the first part. In the last part, the nun acts as shepherd for the others on the wreck, and the poem ends with an address to God and his masterful nature with a prayer that he returns to England, while the last two stanzas of the first part also mix adoration and awe at God’s mastery.

      There is also the repetition of grammatical form used to express the difficulty in both discovering and assenting to the discovery of God in the world. In stanza 3 the poet uses the uncompleted cul-off sentence when he desperately searches for a sanctuary:

Behind, where, where was a,
where was a place?

      The puzzlement and inadequacy expressed in this way is repeated in stanza 28. when the poet finds it difficult to make the reader realize the important thing which he has to say:

But how shall I....make me room there:
Reach me...Faney, come faster—

      Here the difficulty is resolved, as in stanza 3 with references to the poet’s vision of Christ. The poem which at times seems to suggest that it may be narrative is in fact a complex structure of related images and events, each of which clusters round Hopkins’s central priestly theme of God’s message to man and man's acceptance or denial of it. Hopkins’s friend Coventry Patmore, complained that Hopkins had, among other things, added to the difficulty of the poem by following several entirely novel experiments in versification and construction. But there is a fundamental pattern behind the surface complexity, a structure of the rhythm behind the surface variety, and interconnections of words and images behind their surface di-parity. All these reflect the single “who and the why” behind the apparently shapeless world. The poem The Wreck of the Deutschland is Hopkins’s most complete expression of his sense of the order of the world. And yet we can see why some critics have found in it “a certain lack of the architectural unity required in a poem on a grand scale”.

      In The Wreck of the Deutschland Hopkins enters the scene he evokes, the nun enters by anticipation into glory, all things are said to go to Christ. The objective and the subjective, narrative and lyrical, parts of theme are interwoven, so that turns of the action become turns in the poet’s mind, and narrator is transformed to celebrant. Thus the ‘illumination which redeems the catastrophe is Hopkins’s own illumination, it is he who delivers the meaning of the nun’s call to Christ and it is he who labors for it.

Critics on the Wreck of the Deutschland

      The critic K.E. Smith comments that “the poem, which at times, seems to suggest that it may be a narrative, is in (act a complex structure of related images and events, each of which clusters round Hopkins’s central priestly theme of God’s message to man and man’s acceptance or denial of it.” The critic says, “During the opening section we are involved in a vivid, though at first, obscure, psychological and spiritual experience of the poet himself. In the second, longer part, our attention is concentrated on the outward, violently physical drama of the shipw reck and its attendant horrors. To see that these two dramas, one subjective and private, the other communal and public, are not merely linked but analogous, is the key to understanding the poem”.

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