Stanzas 17-23: Description of the nuns

Stanza 17

The horrors of Monday night are recounted. Numb and cold, the passengers clinging to the mast and rigging fall as they lose their grip. They are either killed by the fall, or washed overboard and drown. The women and children are shrieking with terror and their noise rises above the noise of the waves. Everything seems totally out of control, but then one woman emerges, the leader of the five nuns on board. Hopkins uses the image of a lioness, seeing her as a prophetess, that is, someone who can speak words from God into the situation:

  • ‘virginal' suggests both that she is a virgin (nuns being celibate) and a harmonious voice, the virginals being an early type of keyboard.
Investigating Stanza 17
  • Is Hopkins being provocative in calling it ‘God's cold'?
  • ‘Told' is another play on words.
    • Can you make out the possible meanings?

Stanza 18

Hopkins turns aside from the narrative to address his own heart, which is breaking with the sadness of the scene. Yet his heart can also be ‘unteachably after evil'. As the Bible puts it:

‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?' (Jeremiah 17:9)

This is the human predicament. People can be deeply touched by the reading of such events, and yet go out and commit some evil just after. But at least the tears do show some good. In a conceit akin to another Catholic poet, the seventeenth century Richard Crashaw, Hopkins likens his tears to types of songs, ‘madrigal', ‘glee', ‘revel'.

Investigating Stanza 18
  • Why do you think the heart is described as ‘mother of being in me'?
  • Why should his tears be described in terms of youth?

Stanza 19

Attention is now turned to the nun in a sustained meditation over her action, lasting through to stanza 30. This long section incorporates the climax of the poem in stanza 28, which leads to the resolution of the theodicy.

The nun calls out aloud above the din of the storm, calling, ‘A master.' This echoes stanza 1 and the central image of Christ as master. Certainly the ship's master or captain is nowhere to be seen, in contrast to most shipwreck narratives. Only the divine master is given prominence. The nun is tall and so appears even more dramatic (newspaper accounts suggest she was some six feet tall, most unusual at that time for a woman).

So the ‘prophetess' utters her word. The story of Jesus stilling the storm must have been in Hopkins' mind, as recorded, for example, in Mark 4:36-41. Christ, too, uttered his word: ‘Peace, be still' and showed his mastery of the storm.

  • ‘Has one fetch in her' is an odd phrase.
    • ‘Fetch' means a device or stratagem. So, she sees one thing, has one thing she can do - Hopkins delays telling us what that is, keeping us in suspense
    • 'Fetch' can also mean the distance traveled by wind or waves across open water or the distance a vessel must sail to reach open water - i.e. the Deutschland can go just one last (short) distance.
More on a 20th century echo: At this point, another shipwreck poem may come to mind. Robert Lowell, a leading twentieth century American poet, wrote The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket as a tribute to his cousin drowned whilst in the Navy during World War II and to all the whalers drowned at sea in the previous century. Lowell's vocabulary is very reminiscent of Hopkins' ‘sloggering brine', ‘swirling and hawling', ‘brawling'.
Investigating Stanza 19
  • What is the effect of this diction?
    • How does it affect the way we see the nun?

Stanza 20

This stanza is rather an aside from the main drama, and is perhaps the weakest of all the stanzas. For many readers otherwise sympathetic to Hopkins' religious experiences, the anti-Protestant remarks seem quite gratuitous. He parallels the double-edged associations of ‘Deutschland' with the double-edged associations of Eisleben, a particular town in Germany where both a Catholic saint and a Protestant hero were born.

The name of the ship is the ‘Deutschland', which is the German word for ‘Germany', the country which has expelled the five nuns (or rather Prussia, since Germany was not unified at the time of writing). The foundering ship becomes, thus, a metonymy for the country.

  • the Catholic saint is St. Gertrude (c.1256-c.1302), a mystic who helped create the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in which Hopkins was very interested
  • by contrast, Martin Luther began his religious life as an Augustinian monk, then turned against the Catholic Church and helped begin the Reformation, which turned many parts of Europe Protestant, including England. To Hopkins, the convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, Luther is everything that is bad: ‘beast of the waste wood' and ‘Cain'. More on Cain?
More on Cain: The story of Cain and Abel is told in Genesis 4:1-16. They were two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain murdered his brother in a fit of jealous rage and so became the first recorded murderer and an outcast, doomed forever to remain in exile.
Investigating Stanza 20
  • Can you see any justification for this stanza being included at this point in the poem?

Stanza 21

Hopkins returns to the nuns. They seem to be hit by a double blow: persecuted at home (synecdochally, the River Rhine), and now shipwrecked at the mouth of another river (‘Thames') when they should have been finding a safe-haven. This is the immediate point of theodicy: why is the whole of nature (‘Surf, snow, river and earth') against them, if nature is meant to be a manifestation of God?

Hopkins sketches out an answer in the second half of the stanza. God is above all this noise and din, weighing up whether it would be better for them to become martyrs or to reach dry land. If the former, then the elements actually do become beautiful again, since they are serving his purposes. Thus, the ‘storm flakes' can be seen as ‘scroll-leaved flowers' and ‘lily showers', lilies being both a sign of purity and of death. Such a sentiment may appear shocking, but in any religious faith which believes in an afterlife, death is not seen as the worst tragedy. Damnation is far worse. And to be a martyr is to have an impact on life here on earth, as well as a place of honour in the afterlife.

Here, Hopkins echoes the vision in the Bible of martyrs being received in heaven:

‘I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony they held.....And white robes were given unto every one of them.' (Revelation 6:9-11)
  • God is named ‘thou Orion of light', Orion being the hunter god in Greek mythology, being linked both with storms and martyrdom. A constellation is named after Orion, containing seven very bright stars
  • ‘unchancelling' is one of Hopkins' many newly-coined negative words (cf. ‘unchilding, unfathering deeps' in stanza 13). A chancel is part of a church, perhaps here denoting the sanctuary that traditionally was offered by the church to those on the run. The image of God with palms out flat in the balance goes against the idea of a hand enclosing as in sanctuary, thus ‘unchancelling', or not making sanctuary a priority, as might be expected of him.
Investigating Stanza 21
  • Why should God be called ‘Orion of light' and ‘martyr-master'?
  • In what ways would the nuns be martyrs if they died?
    • Or don't you think they would be?

Stanza 22

Hopkins meditates on the significance of ‘five', the number which also structures the poem:

  • there were five nuns
  • this corresponds for Hopkins with the five ‘marks' or wounds of Christ in his crucifixion. The wounds were man-made (‘the mark is of man's make'), but have become the ‘cipher' or number of the crucifixion
  • ‘sake' (l.1) has a particular meaning for Hopkins, which he explains in a letter, as a manifestation or sign of something
  • ‘the finding' means it is the five of the nuns' number that leads him to think about the wounds of Christ.

As so often, he plays with words:

  • ‘mark' as in ‘take note of' as well as ‘visible sign'
  • ‘scores' as in ‘deeply gouges', but also as four times five
  • ‘Prized and priced' echo each other.

We need to note that, as in Shakespeare, playing with words does not mean emotional disengagement. Far from it: it often means the reason is at the end of its tether under the weight of emotion, throwing up likenesses wherever it can.

The last few lines are heavily symbolic:

  • ‘cinquefoil (literally, five-leaved) token' is referring to the rose of the last line. The red rose is the traditional symbol of martyrdom
  • ‘lettering' means branding, as if the wounds have been branded on to Christ's body
  • Christ is seen as the lamb, a biblical symbol of Christ. More on the image of the lamb?
More on the image of the lamb: The depiction of Jesus as a lamb is used especially in the writing of John in the New Testament: ‘John seeth Jesus coming unto him and saith; Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.'. (John 1:29) ‘After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude....stood before the throne and before the Lamb' (Revelation 7:9) The Lamb refers back to the Passover lamb (‘And the word of it Sacrificed') which was sacrificed in the Old Testament to keep the people of Israel safe from God's judgement. (See Exodus 12:1-50). See also Big Ideas: Sheep, shepherd, lamb.
Investigating Stanza 22
  • Identify the five wounds of Christ.
    • Look up the term Stigma and explore the connection.

Stanza 23

Hopkins is determined to extract every last ounce of symbolism from the nuns' situation before he moves on. In this stanza, he takes the fact that they are Franciscan nuns, that is, from the order founded by St. Francis of Assisi, and goes on to think of Francis as a type of Christ.

Francis had a vision of a seraph carrying the crucified Christ, whereupon he himself began to manifest the ‘stigmata' whilst alive, that is, the five wounds of Christ (‘the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance'), with blood oozing from them- a phenomenon several other people have exhibited in history:

  • ‘Drawn to the Life that died' means at one level that Francis was attracted by the sacrificial life of Christ
  • at a deeper level it means that he entered into a deeper Christian life by ‘putting to death the self', or, as Paul puts it:
‘They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.' (Galatians 5:24)
Investigating Stanza 23
  • Can you explain ‘Lovescape crucified'?
    • Can you link it to Hopkins' idea of inscape?

Having linked the nuns to St. Francis, Hopkins continues the thread of ‘five' by seeing the nuns, holding hands in their extremity, forming a new cinquefoil, which Francis can, metaphorically, wear as a ‘favour'. The nuns, too, are ‘sealed', in ‘wild waters'.

In a bold oxymoron, the waters are thereby fit ‘to bathe in his fall-gold mercies' and the storm fit ‘to breathe in his all-fire mercies'. ‘Bathing' also suggests baptism, and ‘breathing', the giving of the Holy Spirit.

‘He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'' (John 20:22)


‘What seemed like tongues of fire...came to rest on them....and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit' (Acts 2:3-4)
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