I am soft sift
In an hourglass―at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins




This is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I know. After the previous stanzas on despair and terror, this calm stanza is so restful and soothing. The characteristics of sift and of water is that both always complies and adjust to its surroundings, increasing entropy, calmly, like water in a pane. Like soft sift in an hourglass.

There are some rather unusual words in this stanza that may need to be explained: The noun “Proffer” is something like a promised offer or an offer with a promise. The word “voel” is probably used as Welsh for mountain (spells foel in modern Welsh). Speaking of mountains, “Roped with” (compare with world’s strand in stanza 1) can be seen as a metaphor for a mountain climber clinging to a rope (as we cling to God), while the body is striving downwards. Of course it could also be an image for the streams of water on the mountain side that drifts downwards.

In 1875, when the poem was written, Hopkins was a priest candidate at St. Beuno’s in Northern Wales. Very close by the college is the St Winifred Wells and perhaps he was picturing this very soothing place in the metaphor about the water in a well. One of Hopkins biographists, Norman White, has some interesting thoughts about this. He noted that Hopkins most probably heard about St Winifred’s Well the first time from Kenelm Vaughan, who had been cured from Tuberculosis by drinking its water. They met when Hopkins was received into the Catholic Church and – Martin further suggests – it may have been this day Hopkins – inspired by Vaughan – decided on his priestly vocation. The Wells was most certainly tightly linked to Hopkins impression of Catholicism and to me this stanza may be read as a metaphor for Catholic faith.


So, who was St. Winifred who gave her name to this well? According to the legend she came from a wealthy family and was taught in religious matters by her uncle St. Beuno in early seventh century. She used to sit at St. Bueno´s feet when he preached and her love for God matured over the years and she decided to become a nun. She served God in a small nunnery under the guidance of Saint Beuno. A young Welsh prince named Cradoc had fallen in love with her and when she refused to marry he one day pursued her, she tried to get refuge in a church in Holywell. Cradoc however caught up with her and cut her head of. In the place where her head fell the well sprang up. Then, it is told, the martyr was raised to life by the prayers of Saint Beuno. Ever after she bore the mark of her martyrdom by a red circle on her skin about her neck.

One should remember to read this stanza by the fond of the actual sea disaster where the five nuns met their destiny. (I will write more about them later). Perhaps Hopkins pondered the similarities of this legend about a persecuted nun who searched sanctuary but met her death and water sprang up in a well – And the five (also persecuted) nuns who searched refuge but met their death on the water of the river Thames?



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.