Reflections on Gerard Manley Hopkins and The Wreck of the
I'm no Bertie Wooster when it comes to singing in the shower. In
fact I don't sing, I mostly read poetry aloud, and I usually don't
shower; I bathe because the book would get wet. The wall tiles in
the bathroom make for theater-like surround sound.
I've read anthologies of sonnets, collected works of individual
poets like Robert Herrick or Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson. I've
done Shakespeare in the tub. For example, I did Macbeth in
about 10 days. Hamlet took longer. Recently, I read
But I also do a few revivals, a couple of long poems that I read
again and again: Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
Keats's On the Eve of St. Agnes,and one of my all-time
favorite poems to read aloud, The Wreck of the Deutschland by
Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Reading Hopkins's poem aloud is a revelation, and I'm convinced
that it's the only way that it should be read. And being submersed
up to your neck in water, upon reflection, adds to the understanding.
Not to be flippant, but Hopkins wrote the poem in memory of five
Franciscan nuns who drowned in the wee hours of the morning of
December 7, 1875. They were passengers in a ship called the
Deutschland that ran aground and broke up in a terrible storm at the
mouth of the Thames River in England.
I tried to read the poem many times because I had to. Right?
It's his most famous, the pinnacle of his poetic achievement, the
consummation of his sprung rhythm theories, the triumph of sound over
sense. And it's a religious poem that even a secular could enjoy,
bad things happening to good people, a theme that atheists use to
deny the existence of God, and Christians ponder to understand the
mystery of suffering.
My first introduction to Hopkins was in a college literature
survey class. I can't remember why I chose the poem Spring and
Fall or if it had been assigned, but my task was to read it aloud
to the class, give a brief bio of the author and analyze it.
This was a secular college and I'd already disavowed my vaguely
Christian upbringing and proclaimed myself an atheist. Yet I learned
that Hopkins had been a priest (which didn't put me off), was a bit
of an eccentric (like me) and was an original, developing his own
unique metrical theories (much like Emily Dickinson, a poet I greatly
And to top it off, reading Spring and Fall is a blast.
It's lilting and lovely and sad and musical. It begs to be read
aloud. This poem led me to read some of his others, particularly his
Spring and Fall
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The next time I heard the name of Hopkins, I was watching an
episode of The Waltons when John Boy reads The Windhover to
his mother on her birthday. I was glued to the TV set every Thursday
(I know that dates me), so John Boy's reading of it gave Hopkins for
me some extra cache.
In retrospect I think John Boy should have been reading this to
his girlfriend and not to his mother but that's a different essay. I
also have to note that I had an Oldsmobile Achieva and I couldn't say
the name of that car without thinking, “the achieve of, the mastery
of the thing,” despite the fact that it could barely make it up a
hill at 30 miles an hour.
To Christ our Lord
this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level
underneath him steady air, and striding
how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on
As a skate's heel
sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big
wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of,
the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh,
air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
My first encounter with The Wreck of the Deutschland occurred
in a modern poetry class. I couldn't penetrate it. I tried, believe
me. It bored me to tears, until the day I broke it open in the tub.
I read it aloud and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It sings.
There's so much sound, so much melody, words sliding into other
words, alliterations, internal rhymes and strong rhythms. And that's
how I took it at first, and maybe that's where Hopkins wanted me to
take it, where he excels or impresses or has influenced modern
poetry. In the delicate balance of sound and sense, Hopkins heavily
tilted to sound. But wow, the achieve of! I'd finally read it from
start to finish, and I enjoyed it, too.
And I read it aloud again and again over the years before, during
and after my conversion to Catholicism, and one day it struck me. In
the same way that this ship gets stuck on the shoal and breaks apart
in a gale-force storm and people begin to drown one by one, I too was
drowning in a sea of words. That's it! Hopkins wanted me to drown,
to become overwhelmed. When you read that poem, particularly the
last half, it's difficult to find a literal reality to cling to. But
every now and again, you'll bubble up to the surface and see the
“jay-blue heavens appearing” or the “moth-soft Milky Way.”
But then back down you'll go, into the raging sea, and as you are
ready to give up the ghost – as those five nuns and others did that
night – Hopkins asks you to contemplate ultimate things, God,
suffering and the Cross.