Suffering and faith in The Wreck of the Deutschland

Three sorts of suffering

There are three sorts of suffering portrayed in The Wreck of the Deutschland:

  • Hopkins' own personal suffering at conversion
  • the sufferings of the shipwrecked people and especially the nuns
  • the sufferings of Christ

Hopkins weaves together all three, not only in his theodicy, but also in his statement of faith in God's mercy.

Hopkins' own suffering

Conversion to faith

Many people who have not had a conversion experience think it must be rather like choosing to buy at supermarket X rather than supermarket Y, or like choosing to join one political party or another. This was not at all Hopkins' experience. More on conversion to faith?

C. S. LewisMore on conversion to faith: Christianity often speaks of it being God who ‘seeks out' human beings, rather than the other way around. Some people describe this as a far from comfortable experience. C.S.Lewis, an eminent Oxford scholar, spoke in his autobiography of being the most reluctant convert in the whole of the country and of God pursuing him as a cat does a mouse. For Lewis and Hopkins, conversion seems to have been a difficult experience, which happened almost against their will, yet led on to a thoughtful commitment to faith and spirituality.

Spiritual and mental anguish

Hopkins' account of his spiritual and mental anguish is to be found in stanzas 2 and 3. He experienced terror, ‘the swoon of the heart' at ‘the hurl of thee trod'; a vertigo, even, as if he were being thrown from a great height. However, having finally submitted to God (‘fled with a fling of the heart'), he experienced mercy (‘but you were dovewinged'), rather than punishment or a sense of entrapment. Indeed, there was a sense of exhilaration (‘tower from the grace to the grace').

Understanding suffering

Besides bringing him to faith, his own experiences seem to have sensitised him to the sufferings of those being shipwrecked. Stanza 1 suggests he is being drawn into the account of their suffering (‘and dost thou touch me afresh?'), through remembering his own.

Investigating suffering and faith in The Wreck of the Deutschland
  • You will find in Hopkins' poetry a number of references to different types of distress he suffered.
    • How would you describe the type or types of his personal suffering described in this poem?
    • What words and images does he use?

The sufferings of those being shipwrecked

Confronting death

This is much more obviously a kind of suffering with which people can identify, as it is sheer physical fear and terror at death. Such happenings are seen on television screens almost daily. Hopkins' dramatic description of the general fear and panic is in stanzas 15-17.

The nun's perspective

Hopkins goes on to focus on just the one person. Her suffering is more complex, since she has been expelled from her native country and so is already suffering for her faith, rather than suffering to bring her to faith. As a Christian, death does not have the same terror for her. Christianity believes that death does not separate believers from God:

‘O death, where is thy victory? O grave! where is thy sting?'

writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55), quoting an Old Testament prophet (Hosea 13:14).

The nun's concern is to make a ‘good death', if that is God's will. In fact, in the crisis, Hopkins believes she has a vision of Christ actually coming over the storm to take her (stanzas 28-29). The other four nuns are not mentioned, but Hopkins would clearly sense they died similar ‘good deaths'.

Hopkins' concern

It is for everyone else on the ship that Hopkins is concerned (stanza 31,33). His faith is that, if they did make last minute repentances, perhaps inspired by the nun's cry, then God's mercy would be extended to them (‘ a mercy that outrides / The all of water').

Investigating suffering and faith in The Wreck of the Deutschland
  • In what ways through his language does Hopkins set the nun apart from all the other sufferers?
  • Summarise what you think her suffering has achieved.

The sufferings of Christ

An account of human suffering would not be complete for Hopkins without tying it back into Christ's suffering (stanzas 7,8). St. Francis is also mentioned here as a type of Christ (stanza 23). Whatever Hopkins may have felt, Christ felt the same but much more so (‘the driven Passion and frightful sweat'). For Christ, too, there is ‘the discharge of it'- it is resolved, through a death experience, into the possibility of faith for others (‘To hero of go' – stanza 8).

Investigating suffering and faith in The Wreck of the Deutschland
  • Can you state from the poem what Hopkins believes that Christ's suffering actually achieved for humans?
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