The SS Deutschland


On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round―
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins





At half past three Saturday afternoon, December the 4th 1875, the steamer Deutschland of The Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen company left Bremerhaven heading for Southampton before it would continue towards New York. The weather was still fine, when she left the quay but during Sunday the conditions had deteriorated with bad winds and driving snow.

On Monday the 6th, the ship was heading towards the sandbanks and maelstroms at the northern mouth of the Thames and finally, at Kentish Knock, one of the outermost shoals, the SS Deutschland wrecked.

The exact chain of events that took place this few days is perhaps not always accurate in Hopkins narrative, but neither are exact accuracy that important to the poem and its intentions. Hopkins got his information from newspaper articles as the Times and the London Illustrated News. In a letter to his mother he ask that she will send him further articles, she does so and in his response, dated Christmas eve 1875, he writes the following:

I am obliged for the cuttings, nevertheless you made two oversights. You sent two duplicates, for one thing, and the other was that you omitted the most interesting piece of all, the account of the actual shipwreck: fortunately I had read it but still I should have been glad to have had it by me to refer to again , for I am writing something on this wreck, which may perhaps appear but it depends on how I am speeded. It made a deep impression on me, more than any other wreck or accident I ever read of.

The cuttings he is speaking of is probably the cuttings from London Illustrated News. My son took the picture above on my own copy of one of these cuttings.

In the stanza Hopkins note that the people on board did not guess that the vessel not was under God’s protecting feathers and that their goal would be a shoal, and that the fourth, as in 25 percent, of them would be drowned. (Compare to the heedlessness of people in the stanza before this one). In the two last lines Hopkins asks rhetorically if their death might be God showing them mercy.



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. Click here to get to the first stanza.