Hopkins Lectures 2002

Gerard Manley Hopkins and a Nun named Gertrude

Delia Fabborni Giannotti Nisbet, Oxford College at Emory University USA

In the "The Wreck " Gerard Manley Hopkins reconciles his vocation as a Jesuit priest and as a poet bringng to the poem his sense of the presence of God and his spiritual struggle.


In the poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland," Gerard Manley Hopkins reconciles his vocation as a Jesuit priest and as a poet. Writing at the end of the time of his Spiritual Exercises, Hopkins brings to the poem his sense of the immanent presence of God and his spiritual struggle. In the poem Hopkins narrates the fateful event of the sinking of the ship Deutschland during a sea storm, and a nun's heroic actions and call to Christ, which spur a fusion of Hopkins' own religious love for Christ, with Christ's love for him, which represents the culmination of Ignatian spiritual exercises.

The Wreck of the Deutschland

The poem is an ode of thirty-five eight line stanzas, divided in two parts, and it is written in "sprung rhythm." In a note to Canon Dixon on October 1878, Hopkins wrote: "I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm, which I now realized on paper" (www.galenet.co.3). The first part, which consists of ten stanzas, relates to Hopkins's spiritual trials during his religious exercises as a novice prior to his becoming a Jesuit priest. Hopkins relates at length various events through which he felt that God was guiding and comforting him. The second part of the poem tells of the tragedy of the wreck of the German ship Deutschland. This wreck is described in the first seven stanzas. In the next fourteen stanzas, Hopkins relates the heroic acts of one of five German Franciscan nuns who had been exiled from Northern Germany because of the Falck laws and who drowned with many of the other victims of the wreck. In the last four stanzas, Hopkins directly addresses God, and in the true spirit of St. Ignatius, implores God for the conversion of England. A first reading of this poem does not reveal any surprises in reference to the role of this heroic Franciscan nun. A closer reading of the poem shows how, in the same stanza where Hopkins is discussing the Franciscan nun, he suddenly introduces the name of Gertrude juxtaposed to the name of Luther, and ends the poetic configuration proclaiming Gertrud Christ's "lil" and Luther, "a beast of the waste wood"(Hopkins ).

When Hopkins began to compose the ode, he had not written any poetry for seven years. As he mentions in his correspondence, he had burnt his previous poetic writings because he had not found them to be adequate for his new life. Nevertheless, the newspaper accounts of this tragedy had affected him so much that when he talked about it with his superior, the latter encouraged him to write a poem on the subject. Hopkins writes "On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one" (Downes 53).

In this paper I will discuss how the Ode "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is a spiritual meditation according to the rule St. Ignatius. In Gerard Manley Hopkins A Study of his Ignatian Spirit, the critic Downes states that "The Ignatian meditation is made up of three basic elements. The first element consists of 'seeing the spot'" In order to accomplish this element , "the exercitant is directed to re-create in his imagination in rich detail the whole matter/subject of the meditation. Ignatius directs the exercitant over and over again to form concrete images of the matter of the meditation, no matter how abstract." The important aspect is that one has "to imagine oneself in the actual place where the events occurred." The second element is "to dramatize the events as if they happened 'in the very same place where[one] is'" The third element, the most difficult of the three "is to imagine the events taking place within on's sou." (Downes 150). In Hopkin's poem religious meditation and poetic process become one. Not only does Hopkins rely on the factual images of the wreck of the Deutschland, but also, in the poetic figure of the Franciscan nun, he weaves strands of mysticism, which are implied by the cannotative name of Gertrude. At the same time, Hopkins fuses himself with the nun/Gertrude as sharing the mystic vision with Christ, fulfilling all the three elements of Ignatian meditation.

Hopkins prepares the ground for his ultimate fusion with Christ already in the first part of the poem. In the first stanza Hopkins writes: "Thou mastering me….Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh, and after it almost unmade, what with dread, Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee" (Hopkins 12). In the "Further Notes" to Hopkins's Spiritual Exercises," Hopkins expresses in prose what he creates in poetry: "The world then is word, expression, views of God . . . the world, man, should after its own manner give God being in return for the being he has given it" (Hopkins ). In essence, what Hopkins writes is that man and the work that man creates are also God's works. According to the critic Downes, in the rule of St. Ignatius, one believes every event happens to bring man back to God. Therefore, even the tragedy of the Deutschland is for Hopkins an occasion to bring man back to God. It is through God's grace that man becomes aware of his need for God. In the seventh stanza, Hopkins describes this sudden awareness: "When man is wrecked, only the heart, being hard at bay/ is out with it. Then like a ripe sloe bursting in the mouth when it is squashed, so Christ's mysteries are actualized . . . " Hopkins continues "Brim, in a flash full" in men's driven hearts and they rush to the hero of Calvary, Christ's feet." (Hopkins ) Again this idea of the power of grace is also mentioned in his Commentary. There Hopkins states "It is into that possible world that God for the moment moves his creature out of this one or it is from that possible world he brings his creature into this, showing it to itself gracious and consenting; nay more, clothing its old self for the moment with a gracious and contenting self . . . This shift is grace. For grace is any action, activity, on God's part by which in creating or after creating, he carries the creature to or towards the end of its being, which is self-sacrifice to God and its salvation. It is, I say any such activity on God's part, so that so far as this action or activity is God's it is divine stress, Holy Spirit, and, as all is done through Christ, Christ's spirit"( Downes 61). This is Hopkins belief, that grace is an action which takes place only according to God's wishes and which requires self-sacrifice through love to God in order to gain salvation. Therefore the poetic call of the heroic nun to Christ and the example she provides for the other people on the ship facing immanent death represent a divine action by grace to help people to return to God.

Hopkins's Understanding of Grace

I focus at length on Hopkins's understanding of grace in the poem and in his commentary because it is my intention to establish a correspondence of his intention with that of the historical St. Gertrude in her writings. As mentioned, the Ignatian meditation encourages the exercitant to "form concrete images of the matter, no matter how abstract." Hopkins, in my opinion, consciously introduces the specific name of Gertrude into the poem to ascribe to one of the Franciscan nuns the mystic qualities that are associated with St. Gertrude. If he had meant to highlight the actions of the actual Franciscan nuns as German martyrs, he could have established their case by using their real names and explaining the reasons for their expulsion from Germany, namely the Falck laws, which had been very detrimental for the Catholic Church in Germany. However Hopkins makes only brief mention of the Falck laws. He is not interested in historical facts. Rather he creates an analogy by juxtaposing the name of Gertrude, "Christ's lily," Abel to the name of Luther, Cain "Beast of the waste wood"(Hopkins ). He differentiates between evil and good and shows and how a town, in this case, Eisleben, can be the birthplace of both. Hopkins recounts: "She was first of five and came of a coifed sisterhood./ (O Deutschland, double a desperate name! O world wide of its good! But Gertrude, lily and Luther, are two of a town, Christ's lily and beast of the waste wood: From life's dawn it is drawn down, Abel is Cain's brother and breasts they have sucked the same. (Hopkins 19)

Saint Gertrude

Hopkins goes so far as to assign Eisleben as the birthplace of St. Gertrude. In reality, her birthplace and the name of her parents are unknown, but it is recorded that she was committed at the age of five to the care of the nuns at the monastery of Hefta near Eisleben, in Germany, and that she was born on Jan. sixth 1256 and died on Nov. seventeenth either in 1301 or 1302. In reading St. Gertrude's spiritual exercises, we find the same mystical visions, the same states of transport, that highlight the last four stanzas of Hopkins's poem and his spiritual exercises, too. In her biography, it is stated that on January 27th. 1281, Sister Gertrude had her first mystical experience, a living encounter with Christ and a revelation of a bond of love between Christ and herself. This mystical revelation was followed by many more. Like that of other mystics at the monastery of Hefta, her entire spirituality was centered on what many theologians call a "nuptial mysticism." Her Christocentric perspective focused on the union with Christ and her contemplative life progressed toward the life of the "resplendent and completely calm Trinity."

St. Gertrude worked at the monastery as a scribe, but her monastic life included scripture study, spiritual reading, prayer, and choral office. She wrote three works in Latin and they represent her spiritual legacy. Her first work is entitled "Exercitia Spiritualia," and in these spiritual exercises, Gertrude outlines seven effective meditations whose scope is the renewal of the spiritual life accomplished through grace from baptism up to the acceptance and preparation for death. Her second work is entitled "Insinuationes," a text which often is called Revelationes or Legatus divinae pietatis." This work comprises five books. While other religious persons imitating some of her writings compiled four of the books, we know for certain that the second was written by sister Gertrude. In it she recounts her mystical experiences over the span of eight years. The third book is entitled Preces Gertrudianae . It is the most known of her writings. However, other religious scribes transcribed it in the 17th century and only some of the passages represent a faithful reproduction of her actual texts. For my argument, I am drawing from the Exercitia Sipitualia, and from the second book of Insinuationes. As mentioned, both works are authentic.

In the second book of Insinuationes Gertrude writes a prayer, which God inspired after a vision. In the vision, God showed her a golden collar composed of four parts, but since she did not know what these parts meant, we read that "God made known to her in spirit that the first part represented the Divinity of Christ; the second part the Soul of Christ; the third, every faithful soul whom he had espoused in His own Blood; and the fourth, the pure and immaculate Body of Christ." The prayer is a mystic vision of the communion with Christ. Gertrude praises God and Christ and writes "O loving Brother, beautiful Youth, joyful Companion, liberal Host, careful Administrator! I prefer Thee to every Creature; for Thee I renounce all pleasures; for Thee I seek all adversity; and in all this I desire only Thy glory. My heart and lips testify that Thou are the quickener of all good. I unite, by merit of Thy love, the fervor of my devotions to the virtue of Thy prayers, so that by the power of the Divine union I may be raised to the highest perfection, and all rebellious movements may be calmed within me." (Revelationes, 255-56).

Five Nuns: A Cipher for Christ's Suffering

In The Wreck of the Deutschland, in stanza twenty-two, Hopkins tells that the nuns are five, and that this number is also a cipher for Christ's suffering. . He writes "Mark, the mark is of man's make /And the word of it Sacrificed. /But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken, / Before-time-taken, dearest prized and priced- /Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token/ For lettering of the lamb's fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake." (Hopkins 19) Again the reference here is indirectly to St. Gertrude, since she, like St. Francis and other Saints, had received the stigmata. The stigmata are a sign of God's grace and a means by which, as Gertrude writes, "I may be raised to the highest perfection, and all rebellious movements may be calmed within me." In stanza twenty-four Hopkins explains that he was in Wales, at rest, when he heard of the news: "And they the prey of gales; She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly/Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quals/ Was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly': / The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best" (Hopkins 20). Hopkins wonders "Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been? /Breathe, body of lovely Death/ …Or is it that she cried for the crown, then/ The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?" The poetic cries of Hopkins' nun find resonance in Gertrude's "Exercitia Spiritualia". She exclaims: "O death of Jesus, death most dear, thou are my inheritance of bliss. O let my soul find its refuge and shelter in thee, o death. For thou bringest forth fruit of life eternal; let me be buried and lost beneath the torrent of life that is ever gushing forth from thee…. O glorious and most fruitful death, death on which hangeth all my salvation, thou art the sure covenant of love whereby have been redeemed, the inviolable pledge of my reconciliation with God." (Exercitia Spiritualia, 196). In stanza twentyeight, Hopkins sees in the cry of the nun a mystic vision and wants to join in and fuse his words with hers. "But how shall I…make me room there: / Reach me a….Fancy, come faster…./Strike you the sight of it? Look at it loom there/ Thing that she…there then! The Master, Ipse, the only one, Christ, King…Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, dispatch and have done with his doom there." Hopkins fuses his sensuous emotions with the nun's words and in stanza 30 cries out "Jesu, heart's light, Jesu maid's son, What was the feast followed the night Thou hadst glory of this nun?" (Hopkins, 22) Hopkins ends the poem in spiritual dialogue with God, praying "Our King back, oh, upon English souls!" for the return of England to Catholicism.

In conclusion, we can assert that by focusing on Hopkins' Ignatian fervor, a fervor much like that of the historical St. Gertrude, the poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" reveals how Hopkins the priest, the mystic, and Hopkins the poet have become one. Poetic inspiration and Ignatian meditation have become the means, the action of Divine Grace, by which Hopkins reaches God.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources:
Hopkins, Gerald Manley. Poems and Prose of Gerald Manley Hopkins
Selected with an with an introduction and notes by W.H. Gardner, Penguin Books, Baltimore Maryland 1964.

St. Gertrude. The Revelations of St. Gertrude (1850…)

St. Gertrude. The Exercises of St. Gertrude (1850… Candler Library)

Secondary Sources:
Allsopp. Michael E. and Sundermeier Michael W. Gerard Manely Hopkins New Essays on His Life, Writing, and Place in English Literature.

Studies in British Literature Vol. 1. The Edwin Mellen Press. Lewiston/Lampeter /Queenston. 1989.

Bump, Jerome. "Gerald Manley Hopkins" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 35: Victorian Poets After 1850 , in http//www.galanet.com/servlet/Lit…/

Also in A. Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by William Fredeman, University of British Columbia and ira B. Nadel, University of British Columbia. The Gale Group, 1985. pp. 82-105.

Doyere, P. "Gertrude (The Great), St." in Encyclopedia Britannica (pp. 450-51) Encyclopedia Britannica. Falk, (Paul Ludwig) Albert p. 665. (Oxford Library).

Downes, A. David. Gerald Manley Hopkins A Study of his Ignatian Spirit. New York: Bookman Associates, 1959.

Hartmann,, H. Geoffrey. Hopkins . A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs N.J.: 1966.

Milward/Schroder ed. Landscape and Inscape. Vision and Inspiration of Hopkins's Poetry. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Saint Aquinas
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Saint Augustine
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Contemplation
Jean Sulivan and Gerard Manley Hopkins