Synopsis of The Wreck of the Deutschland

Hopkins' return to poetry

The poem is the first of Hopkins' major poems, and the longest. After his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he had decided to renounce the writing of poetry, though he continued to think about it, even giving a course of lectures on it whilst still in training for the priesthood at Roehampton.

However, in 1875, while he was at St. Beuno's College in North Wales, he was sent an account of the sinking of a German passenger boat off the English coast between Harwich and the Thames Estuary.

Otto von BismarckWhat struck Hopkins was that among the fifty or so people drowned were five German nuns, who had had to leave Germany because of new and repressive laws (the ‘Falck Laws') against the Catholic orders issued by the Prussian Chancellor, Bismarck.

He shared this with the Principal or Rector of the College, Father Jones, who remarked to Hopkins that someone ought to write a poem on it. Hopkins took this as either a request or permission to write poetry once again.

A new poetic style

Hopkins had been forming in his mind a new sort of verse, which he was to call sprung rhythm. He saw this as an opportunity to put into practice what he had been thinking about, and so the poem represents his first effort.

It is a remarkable effort. It is sustained through 280 lines of 35 eight-line stanzas. Each stanza has the same intricate rhyme pattern and number of feet (see scansion), but the style and the rhythm are extremely complicated and quite difficult. It is definitely not the poem to start with if you are just coming to Hopkins!

Public reception

The poem's reception reflected its difficulty. Hopkins sent it to the Jesuit magazine, The Month, for publication. They accepted it at first but then turned it down, probably because it was too difficult for its readers. When he sent it to his friend Robert Bridges, Bridges was just as discouraging, refusing to read it a second time.

Nevertheless, Hopkins felt he had succeeded in doing what he wanted in the poem, both putting his new theory into practice, and writing a poem that was truly a religious one, one that expressed his own faith.

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