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The Hopkins Society seventh annual lecture: resources of language & imagery in the wreck of the Deutschland.


NORMAN Mackenzie, it turned out, was the last lecturer in the series of annual Hopkins lectures sponsored by the English Hopkins Society. At the time of his lecture, Mackenzie was Professor of English at Queen's College in Canada and the president of the English Hopkins Society (its last president). He was and continued to become a much published Hopkins scholar. His principal scholarship is the editing of Hopkins's poems. He co-edited the fourth edition of the poetry with W.H. Gardner, and later was the sole editor of the Oxford Clarendon Press edition of the poetry, likely the standard edition of the poems for many years to come. He also produced two volumes of a facsimile edition of the poems and other associated writings, along with other studies of Hopkins. Mackenzie's main scholarly approach to Hopkins is linguistic. His lecture was drawn from this central emphasis on language analysis.

Mackenzie spent most of the lecture demonstrating how he approached Hopkins's manuscript texts in order to discover an accurate linguistic basis in the texts for supporting a particular reading. Mackenzie used passages from The Wreck to show its complicated literal and figurative density by parsing specific passages in the poem. What emerges is an attempt to penetrate the thickets of the ode's language complexity in order to locate the verbal tissue of the poem. This critical perspective might be called reading by establishing a linguistically based textual glossary. Mackenzie certainly demonstrated the rich but complicated verbal character of Hopkins's poetry. Yet Mackenzie admitted that the linguistic fullness of the ode still escaped him: "A great poem, like an intricate mountain range, has an amazing capacity to invite and yet defy full exploration."


MARTIN D'Arcy entered The Society of Jesus in 1906. As his studies progressed, it was apparent that his brilliance as a student offered bright academic and authorial prospects. He did indeed move on to an outstanding priestly and professional career. He lectured at the Jesuit Campion College, Oxford, soon becoming the most notable Roman Catholic personage in Oxford. He went on to be Master of Campion Hall and Provincial of the English Jesuits. In addition to lectures in England and America, he also authored many books and papers. His The Mind and Heart of Love (1945) became an international best seller. Early on in his career, he became acquainted with the poetry of Hopkins. Over many years, he lectured and wrote about Hopkins and celebrated his poetry.

In his sermon, D'Arcy reviewed the story of Hopkins's conversion and his entering The Society of Jesus. Moving into his topic, he took up the question of Hopkins's travail over being a poet and his allowing himself as a priest to write his famous ode, The Wreck of the Deutschland. D'Arcy read the ode as a touchstone of Hopkins's own life experience, and his life-long battle about how to understand suffering and loss, as an insight into the "mastery" of Christ's grace. D'Arcy suggested in the shipwreck ode that Hopkins, early on, revealed his grasp of the spiritual essence of this religious mystery. As his life progressed, he learned its full Christian significance in suffering through the shocks and losses in his own life. Contrasting the nun's dramatic death on the Deutschland's wreck, D'Arcy commented, "... It is one thing to realize this truth in the wondrous incident of the nun calling Christ to her amid the storm, and it is quite another to do so in the undramatic and unheroic miseries of bad health, loneliness and the nerve-racking routine of life."

The topic of this sermon, indeed, was a fitting capstone of the seven sermons delivered under the auspices of the English Hopkins Society. With permission of the English Society of Jesuits, for which I offer the fullest gratitude, here is the full text of Fr. D"Arcy's sermon as later printed by Fr. Alfred Thomas.
 That I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the
 fellowship of his sufferings, being made comfortable unto his
 death; if by means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
 (Phil. 3, 10)

FATHER Gerard Manley Hopkins died in 1889, a youngish man only forty-five years old. He was greatly liked as a priest and religious, but few knew of him as a poet. Hence it was only owing to the efforts of a friend, Robert Bridges the poet laureate, that his poems were published in 1918, nearly thirty years after his death. Bridges, without realising it, edited the poems at a time when fresh forms of literature were in vogue and the quality of Hopkins's verse came to be quickly appreciated. The fifty and more years since then have shown an ever deepening affection for his writing.

Hopkins, after becoming a Catholic and entering The Society of Jesus, foreswore poetry, but the genius in him could not be smothered and after seven years silence as a Jesuit, in a letter to his friend Canon Dixon, he wrote that in the winter of 1875 the Deutschland was wreaked in the month of the Germany, were drowned. This so affected him that he wrote his one major poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, drawing vivid details from The Times newspaper--details such as of one tall nun's cry, "O Christ, come quickly!" The poem had no success at the time, though we can see comparing it with the published volume of his verse that it was the occasion for his expressing what proved a dominant theme of his life. A number of interpretations have been supplied. One critic has claimed that it is concerned to show them God's mastery over mankind and bring men to an acknowledgement that it was aroused by the unpredicted death of so many comfortless and unconfessed. Another critic's verdict is that the poem is not so much an attempt to answer the problem of suffering as an insight into the mastery of grace and Christ's mastery. This last is surely nearer to Hopkins's intent--all these ideas are present but linked up with emotional discovery or new realisation of the significance of the suffering and the death of five nuns. God is the master, and we say "yes--O at lightning and lashed rod"; we "kiss [our] hand to the stars, lovely-asunder starlight, wafting [God] out of it." We recognize his mastery, but there is mystery in his coming, and the mystery is revealed in the death of this "tall nun." God's advent is not in bliss, as we expect. We are often scandalised at the tragedies of the good. "Here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss." What we miss is the mystery and mastery of the passion. Hopkins describe vividly how a new understanding dawns on him, as he comes to see that God is "lightening and love," a "winter and warm," and that he has his "dark descending and most art merciful then."

The new realization then consists in this, that God's ways are unexpected and above all most unexpected, in that suffering and death can manifest his coming and his victorious providence. Death is a natural tragedy, for we dream that we are "rooted in earth," and forget that there "must the sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come." But what is apparently lost is in truth the mode of the passion, the way Christ comes and moves to his resurrection. The scene of the wreck is then described, and Hopkins focuses on the tall nun. She is a Franciscan, and here is another clue; for St. Francis bore the mark and cipher of the suffering Christ, "the seal of his seraph-arrival." It is not surprising, therefore, that the nuns of St. Francis are "sisterly sealed in wild waters, To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances." The climax of the discovery lies in the cry of the tall nun: "she to the black-about air ... was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly': The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best."

This last line is the burden of The Wreck of the Deutschland. The nun had recognized the mastery of God and his providence as it works through the passion to the triumph of the resurrection. She "Read the unshapeable shock night And knew the who and the why." The poem naturally ends then with a reassertion of the mastery of God, who is also "throned behind Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides," This wreck and apparent tragedy must be read by those who know the mystery of Christ as a mercy; it must be seen as a way of love which "glides Lower than death and the dark," and brings hope to those who are "past-prayer, pent in prison, The-last-breath penitent spirits."

On this interpretation Hopkins saw in a flash, on reading of the wreck and of the plight of nuns, what grave glory to an apparent tragedy--answer which "the faithless table and miss." It is "lightening and love." a "winter and warm," a dark descending and thou art most merciful then. Most revealing of all is the all nun's cry; "O, Christ, Christ, come quickly." "The Cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best." This is what the wreck revealed to Hopkins and it became the wrap and woof of his poetry and his own seemingly disappointing end and wreck of life. The thought is there in the well-known sonnet "The Windhover": the natural beauty and perfection of the falcon. But let brute beauty and valor buckle, and the fire that breaks out then is a billion times lovelier. Even the routine rusticated life of a theological student can be made to shine out--like embers, which fall and gash gold-vermilion.

Much more excruciatingly is the image of the tall nun like his own in the last dark sonnets which he wrote, when blown upon by a storm and swimming in dark waters. The truth of her experience must be repeated. When a soul feels lost and "the last strands of manhood are untwisted," when there are "cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed." Then Christ is most "kind, but royally reclaiming his own." Thou ... has thy dark descending and most are merciful then." But it is one thing to realize this truth in the wondrous incident of the nun calling Christ to her amid the storm, and it is quite another to do so in the undramatic and unheroic miseries of bad health, loneliness and the nerve-racking routine of life.
 I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,
 ... And my lament
 Is she cries countless, cries like dead letters send
 To dearest him that lives, alas! away.

 She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
 Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
 Was calling "O Christ, Christ, come quickly."

The nun "christens her wild-worst Best" on the Goodwin Sands: he had to do the same in a stuffy lecture room and in a Dublin Street.
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Author:Mackenzie, Norman H.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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