The Wreck of The Deutschland as The First Modern Poem

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      The Wreck of the Deutschland is the first modern English poem. It is also the first great religious poem in English since Milton, with the possible exception of Shelley’s Adonais. Hopkins gives a wonderfully impressive expression to a spiritual experience which is unusual but to him genuine and authentic. He shows a great capacity for capturing complex spiritual states in vividly symbolic pictures, as he does in the following stanza:

I am soft sift
In an hourglass

      Throughout the poem this metaphoric invention enables him to portray completely the spiritual drama which he is describing. And memorable too is the stanza containing a picture of the ship sailing into the snowstorm: We have here a striking example of Hopkins’s new realism and his revolutionary use of language.

      Alliteration, assonance and internal rhymes with new word formations in this stanza and the unusual word order combine to make us not merely see the dim image of a ship in a storm, but feel the stress, the violence, the terror and the strange beauty of the storm. Hopkins creates in such passages a new art of language to rival music and painting, its sensuous effects and to achieve a perfect identification of matter and form.

      In this poem, Hopkins shows a great originality in the use of language. He uses the rhythm the like of which has never been used before. He treats language and grammar with a freedom that appears to be almost disconcerting even today. According to W.A.M. Peters, Hopkins heightened the language of his day, raising the language to a higher level of expressiveness. He makes repeated use of ‘interjection’—such as Oh’s, O’s—in order to depict his true feeling and intense poetic inspiration. Whenever they are used, they depict the poet’s sincerity and seriousness. Again, the poet asks repeated questions in order to reveal his intense feeling: “and dost thou touch me afresh?” or, “where was a, where was a place?” The innovation of the form of address in the poem is noteworthy. The poem starts with a cry to God. Later the poem addresses St. Francis, the drowned nuns, and his own heart. The form of address approaches nearly effectively speech. Hopkins in this poem does not follow the traditional syntax. Sometimes the clauses within a sentence are not joined together. He omits pronouns quite often, making it difficult for the reader to understand the context, when he places facts side by side; the relation is to be apprehended in paradox and juxtaposition. The colon precisely introduces the dependent sentences; it indicates that the reader should attend what immediately follows:

Thou knowest the walls alter and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod...

      The dash is another favorite with Hopkins. It signals attention to the contrast between two sentences: “Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go”. There are as many as twenty-one colons and twenty-four dashes in The Wreck of the Deutschland.

      Hopkins instead of following the rules of grammar, goes by the logic of his experience and convenience. For instance in stanzas 9, 13, 25, he does not follow the rule of grammar. Other grammatical irregularities by Hopkins include the omission of conjunction ‘that, and the omission of the verb’. It is because of these grammatical irregularities that his poems become obscure. Then Hopkins is fond of coining new words, and using compound epithets. Alliteration, assonance, and the internal rhyme are other devices integral to Hopkins’ theory of language for the purpose of learning out the ‘inscape’ of objects.

Sprung Rhythm of Deutschland

      In the poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland Hopkins uses sprung ‘rhythm’ wherein only the stresses of a line are counted, and the line is allowed to have any number of unstressed syllables. This meter, Hopkins thought, would have the flexibility of prose rhythm with a real pattern capable of endless subtleties and varieties. The sprung rhythm was a natural result of Hopkins’s Theory of inscape as the end and aim of poetry. Hopkins uses the sprung rhythm in the Deutschland poem because, as he himself said, “it is the nearest to the rhythm of prose, that is, the native and natural rhythm of speech, the least forced, the most rhetorical and emphatic of all possible rhythms”. This is the rhythm of “affective” speech; it is current rhythm heightened, intensified, elevated:

Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet—
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay...

      Hopkins preferred the sprung rhythm as it offered him all the freedom of Walt Whitman’s “free verse” without its sprawling shapelessness. Hopkins also said that his poetry was less to be read than heard: “it is oratorical; that is, the rhythm is so.” Some critics agree with Hopkins in this respect, saying that at least some of the difficulty of understanding this poetry vanishes if it is read aloud. The voice brings out so much more than the mere sense of the words.

Originality in Hopkins

      There is a great originality and a great daring in the use of language in this poem. A critic has rightly pointed out that the originality of Hopkins’s method in this poem, and in everything that he subsequently wrote is two fold: he uses a rhythm the like of which had never before been heard by Victorian ears; and he treats words with a freedom that is almost disconcerting even today. From the opening words, the language of the poem shows a coiled energy. The vitality and flexibility of the language spring directly from a perception of divine energy at work on the human spirit. The whole poem quite amazingly reveals his great technical skill, deepest insight and packed richness of dramatic utterance. The originality and fertility of language are the cause of the lyric intensity of the poem.

      The first eleven stanzas of the poem are an astonishingly well-sustained lyrical expression of Hopkins’s own knowledge and love of God. In the last lines of the first stanza, there is an unmistakable description of a mystical experience:

and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

      This “touch” of God, expressed in entirely concrete terms is language familiar to readers of mystical literature throughout the ages. The poem continues with an account of the “terror” and “stress” of the poet when confronted by God: the terror is that of awe, not of craven fear. But the poet moves away from this sense of almost unbearable awe to the comfort and simplicity of the Holy Eucharist.

I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the
heart to heart of the Host.

      The soul “flings” itself into the mercy of Christ. Hopkins then acknowledges both his weakness and his strength. He is “soft rift” in an “hourglass”, and also “stready as a water in a well”. The water can easily be stirred but is controlled and kept in balance by grace. What steadfastness he has, Hopkins asserts, springs from his priestly calling; he is one who can offer “a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift”. Whatever he himself possesses is to be handed on to others. The fifth stanza is the beginning of Hopkins’ hymn to creation:

I kiss my hand-
To the stars lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it, and
Glow, glory in thunder.

      God is seen in this part of the poem as both immanent and transcendent, and Hopkins expresses the belief that God can be found in natural things: He is the way of the affirmation of images:

Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendor and wonders,
His mystery must be increased, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when
I understand.

      Hopkins is using the word “Stressed” both in the sense of the individuality of every existing thing and also in the sense that God desires us to stress Him, to speak to Him and for Him. In other words, He wants our love and our willing surrender in order that He may fulfill His own plans for us.

      The poet then goes on to say that this love is not received from some lofty being far removed from mankind but that it begins and “dates from his going in Galilee” (that is, from the date of the Incarnation, or the birth of Christ). This love, which “rides time like riding a river”, demands suffering and submission, both from us and from Christ. It should however be noted that Hopkins is not here denying valid mystical experience to all those visionaries who lived before the coming of Christ; on the contrary, he states definitely: “Though felt before, though in high flood yet”

      From this exalted presentation of the Incarnation, Hopkins moves to a celebration of the Blessed Trinity: “Be adored among men, God, three numbered form”. It is noteworthy also that Hopkins speaks of the abstract idea of God in concrete terms: “Thou are lightning and love, I found it a winter and warm”.

      It should not be forgotten that Duns Scotus is an important influence on Hopkins. Scotus’ theology included the belief that God would have become man even if Adam and Eve had not fallen from grace. This unusual attitude towards the Incarnation, not shared, for example by Aquinas, had a powerful effect on Hopkins's poetry in that it enabled him to see the Incarnation as more than simply the means of man’s redemption. For him, such a doctrine glorified the material world and was, perhaps largely responsible for the lovely, carefree poems of praise such as Pied beauty, God’s Grandeur, The Starlight Night, The Windhover and Hurrahing in Harvest.

      In Stanza 27 while portraying the leader of the group of nuns, Hopkins examines the meaning of the life of prayer:

Then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is
Tenderer in prayer apart.

      And next he depicts the struggle to find words which will embody the experience of union with Christ. Here is an attempt to portray the experience at its very moment of accomplishment and consumption:

“But how shall I .... make me room there....there then ! the Master”. After this, God is shown not simply as “master of the tides” and “of the year’s fall” but also as “ground of being and granite of it” immanent and transcendent, “throned behind Death”.

      In this poem, God is a being who can be refused, wrestled with or surrendered to. There is nothing passive about man’s approach to Him. He is terrible but also merciful; he is to be found, not simply through our sorrow for sin, but also through our immense desire for beauty: “with a mercy that outrides / the all of water.....fetched in the storm of his strides.” This is the Christ of Palm Sunday and of the Resurrection, not the gentle, effeminate being, which so many modern statues and pictures portray. He is a person whom the poet knows through the confrontation of personalities.

      The poem bears the marks both of its Biblical and its contemporary origins. From the newspaper reports of the Deutschland’s misadventure, Hopkins incorporated many factual details of the shipwreck, such as the weather condition, the number of passengers on board, various nautical phenomena, etc. but Hopkins’s purposes were clearly allegorical from the first stanza; and as the ode proceeds, his concatenation of reds, whites and golds emerges as a carefully designed symbolic color pageantry. The sun piercing the drifting snowflakes and lighting up the grim events of the shipwreck with its “all-fire” glances and “all-gold mercies” is an emblem both of the admonitory Wrath and the benevolence of God.

      The three emblematic colors often described in the Apocalypse are red, white and gold. Whenever an angel appears before St. John in his dream, to announce destruction at sea, the prophecy is accompanied by the fire-blood-water imagery of red and white. When gold is combined with the red and white, St. John is indicating the divine clement present in the destructive plan. The first time St. John saw Christ in his vision, the Saviour and Avenger emerged out of the mist of dreams, an apparition of wonder and terror, surrounded by seven golden Candlesticks. He wore a golden girdle and His hair had turned ‘white like Wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as flame of fire’. ‘Christ s thunder and lightning were supposed to be didactic: “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent”, said the Lord of St. John’s vision. This was the way Hopkins interpreted the Deutschland ordeal, as an opportunity for the confessed souls on board to show their spiritual mettle and to reap thereby eternal story and eternal bliss. The comprehensive Christ of The Wreck of the Deutschland is the Christ of Revelation, a didactic Avenger of sin, the Son of man, the Slain Lambe, and the Bridegroom of the new Jerusalem, awaiting the Church and her zealous penitents as His bride.

Deutschland: An Important Poem of the 19th Century

      This particular poem represented a new direction, an entirely new set of possibilities and techniques for English poetry. It is probably the most important poem of the nineteenth century. Though he had been a fine traditional poet and an interesting and contagiously experimental writer before The Wreck of the Deutschland, it is with this poem that he is first seen completely in the curious, breathtakingly original form.

      Because of all these novelties, The Wreck of the Deutschland’ is a modern poem. Hopkins shows a great capacity for capturing complex spiritual states in vividly symbolic imagery. The poem contains Hopkins’s new realism and a revolutionary use of language. The language, the rhythm, the desperate originality of vision, the curious recklessness coupled with the marvelously wrought prosody, the sense of a disciplined outpour.

      The Wreck of the Deutschland introduced into the English literary tradition the idea of a total poetry. Consequently, it represents renewal of language: renewal from the region of the unforeseen, the unforeseeable, the triumphantly personal. Professor Schneider noticed that the ode on the Deutschland possesses “the organic symmetry of a living form”, and that none of Hopkins’s other poems exhibits a “more carefully Wrought structure than the Wreck”. She also noticed that the “primary outline is simple but the detail of the design complex.” Professor Schneider has put her finger on one of the characteristics of works modeled on the Apocalypse (Revelation); they are designed with some of the purity of effect we associate with allegory, since everything must be ‘subordinated to the announcement of the End. Everything leads up to judgment and New Age that follows it’.

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