She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck―not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins





In this stanza Hopkins continues his play with paradoxes and double meaning. The ship struck the Kentish Knock, but the impact is not hard as stone but smooth as sand and the ship combs into it. This can both be compared with the sentences: sand in an hourglass and combs to the fall from stanza four and/or with how during a storm a wave breaks into a comb.

Furthermore, the SS Deutschland was driven by a steam engine with supporting sails. The whorl and the wheel probably refer to the steam engine and the propeller; to wind her probably to the sails which can be used to steer her. (Shortly after she hit the Knock the Captain ordered to raise the sails so that the wind might help the vessel to steer of the ground, however it had the opposite effect and only drove the Deutschland harder aground.)

In an impressive study conducted by Sean Street (published 1992 by Souvenir Press in the book “The Wreck of the Deutschland”) we can read what happened to the SS Deutschland the very last few moments of its journey: On its way it most probably went very close to the “Edge Knock” light, warning sailors for the Kentish Knock shoal. This warning light most probably was passed at the port side (left), since they where as close to England as they where. However the crew misinterpreted the lights as coming from Hinder, at the Dutch coast. The English Pilot remembered later:

She took the land forward, and slewed round with her port side to the sea. Shortly before she struck, I saw a light which I took to be fixed and not a revolving light. The Captain as well as myself was looking out, and we both saw it, but the snow came, and we lost sight of it. We thought it might be the Hinder and at about three miles distance. When we saw it first, it was about two points at the port bow. The head of the vessel was at this point slewed to port. As we went round we lost sight of it; it was a beam when I last saw it.

When the pilot and the Captain recognized the breakers they tried to steer away but the single screw propeller broke incapacitating the engine. They hit the sandbank with full force. Shortly thereafter the first distress rockets where fired. Life-boats where then launched but this attempt rescuing the crew and passengers proved to be disastrous. One of the boats where immediately lost to the storm and only one boat with three men where overall successfully launched… On a second thought, Successfully might be a bad choice of wording: This single boat where found thirty hours later at the fort at Sheerness with one badly frozen man in it and with two dead bodies blackened by the salt in the water and the cold.



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.