Theodicy: understanding evil in a world God rules in The Wreck of the Deutschland

The meaning of disasters

Theodicy is the technical term for the process of trying to understand why evil exists under the rule of a good God.

It is a natural reaction to want an enquiry into any disaster, but Hopkins is not interested in this sort of procedure. He is not out to blame anyone:

  • neither the captain for sailing into a storm
  • nor the rescuers who never came
  • nor the overloading of the boat (if there was overloading).

His concern is to find out what it ‘meant'.

Only occasionally do people think like this. After the devastation of the World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001, a few people thought about what it ‘meant'; most thought about how to stop it happening again.

What was God doing?

Hopkins' mind is particularly concentrated on the meaning of the disaster since five of the drowned people were fellow Catholics, and, what is more, they were only on board because they were forced to leave their own country by discriminatory laws.

  • how had God allowed them to suffer a double blow?

It is on this question that the poem concentrates. Only at the end does he ask what it may have meant to all the others on board. But, even then he is not interested in apportioning blame. ‘Blame' should not be relevant in the search for meaning.

The cry of the nun

Hopkins takes his cue from the leading nun's cry, ‘O Christ, Christ come quickly' (stanza 24), a detail that had caught his eye in the newspaper account. If he can find what she meant, then he may have a clue to theodicy:

  • he proposes possible meanings in stanzas 25-27
  • he rejects them as not fitting the exact circumstances of sudden crisis
  • in stanza 28 he seems to have almost a revelation or epiphany of what really happened: she saw, at least with the eyes of faith, Christ coming to her on or over the water, or through the storm. In a sense, this was her rescue, even if it was in death. It was Christ's moment to take her - and the other nuns - to heaven as martyrs for their faith.

Meaning for others

Hopkins hopes that it was not just the nun's personal salvation that provided meaning. He hopes her cry will have helped some of the others to make some last-minute repentance (stanzas 31,33), and so, too, come to Heaven, just as the dying thief did at Jesus' right hand at the crucifixion:

‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,'

Christ says in Luke 23:43.

So the theodicy resolves itself in Christ coming to take those who are his. It is triumphal, and there is certainly no sense of punishment or anger anywhere, either on Hopkins' part or God's. More on a different approach?

More on a different approach: A non-Christian poet could not have written this. Dylan Thomas probably represents a typical non-believer's anger in his poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, where he writes: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'

Investigating Theodicy in The Wreck of the Deutschland
  • Look at the stories making the headlines today.
    • Which stories seem to demand blaming someone?
    • Which stories need ‘explaining'?
    • Do any seem to need a theodicy?
    • What types of language and questions are used?
  • From this, decide: Is Hopkins' approach to disaster and suffering unusual?
    • If you think it is unusual, can you say what gives him the ability to approach the subject so differently?
    • Look at his philosophical approach, but also at the way he constructs his language of disaster.
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