The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins




Hopkins mentions in the same letter from August 1877 that “what refers to myself in the poem is all strictly and literally true and did all occur; nothing is added for poetical padding.” So how to interpret this stanza?

A rewarding way to read it is as a statement about his own conversion. As when one suddenly understands that there is only One Holy and Apostolic Church… But what does this say about where one is coming from? Where there a place at all? Perhaps God angels carry us in steps, from grace to deeper grace… From the heart found in the High church movement within the Anglican Church to the Church with the heart of the Host… (Isn’t this poem wonderfully Catholic?)

A common interpretation is to group this stanza together with the previous. This would work fine with the quote from an entry in his Journal as well. The entry is dated 18 September 1873, about two years earlier. He describes how he wakes up from a nightmare where something or someone leaped unto him and held him fast. He could not speak and had lost all muscular stress. Hopkins describes how he is trying to get out of this state of cataplexy until he finally “cried on the holy name and by degrees recovered myself” (Compare with “I whirled out wings that spell” from the stanza above)


Then he continues: It made me think that this was how the souls in hell would be imprisoned in their bodies as in prisons and of what St. Theresa says of the ‘little press in the wall’ where she felt herself to be in her vision.”

In St. Teresa of Avila’s horrible vision of Hell she is writing how she sees herself as the paralyzed viewer: “A long time after the Lord had already granted me many of the favors I’ve mentioned and other very lofty ones, while I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell. I understood that the Lord wanted me to see the place the devils had prepared there for me and which I merited because of my sins. This experience took place within the shortest space of time, but even were I to live for many years I think it would be impossible for me to forget it. The entrance it seems to me was similar to a very long and narrow alleyway, like an oven, low and dark and confined; the floor seemed to me to consist of dirty, muddy water emitting foul stench and swarming with putrid vermin. At the end of the alleyway a hole that looked like a small cupboard was hollowed out in the wall; there I found I was placed in a cramped condition. All of this was delightful to see in comparison with what I felt there. What I have described can hardly be exaggerated.



During lent I will publish the stanzas from the Wreck of the Deutschland, one by one. Sometimes with a small commentary or with some aspect about the poem. Hopefully someone will be able to use this as a form of prayer during Lent.