The Deutschland, a German steamship, ran aground in the North
Sea off the Kentish Knock in the early hours of 7 December 1875.
In North Wales Gerard Manley Hopkins was asleep in his bed at
St Beunos Theological College. He read about the Deutschland disaster
on the 11 December.
57 passengers perished as a result of the ship going off course
in treacherous weather and hitting a sandbank. Eventually rescue
ships led by the Liverpool set out from Harwich 22 miles away.
Among those who lost their lives were five Franciscan sisters
expelled from Germany under anti-Catholic laws. The
Times reported that one of the five nuns was heard to be calling
'O Christ, Christ, come quickly'*.
Hopkins mentioned that the nun's words were
on his mind to a superior who replied that someone ought to write
a poem about the incident. This was enough encouragement for Gerard
and a new period of poetic creativity began for him.
The resulting poem is not primarily a narrative
but rather an ode that takes the wrecked Deutschland as a symbol
of man - fallen and shipwrecked on the sea of life and speaks
of our relationship with Christ, our redeemer and God. Hopkins
experimented with a new rhyming scheme that he termed 'sprung'
rhythm. The Wreck Of The Deutschland
is considered by many to mark the beginning of Modern poetry.
Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling 'O Christ, Christ, come quickly':
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst
The body of Enrica Fassbender, the tall nun whose last words
had been reported in the Times, was never recovered. The bodies
of the four other sisters were taken by train to Stratford and
then in procession down the Mile End Road to be laid out overnight
in the Church of St Francis opposite the house in which Hopkins
grew up. They were buried on 13 December in St Patrick's Cemetry
*Sean Street points out that her
words are a paraphrase of the penultimate words of the Bible:
Their deaths are commemorated annually in a memorial service held
on 6 December by the Wheaton Franciscans in the USA - the destination
of the five sisters before disaster struck.