20.

She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

 

 

Nowhere in the poem are any of the nuns called by name, even though their names where published and must have been known to Hopkins. Instead he introduces the name Gertrude as an alter ego especially for the tall nun. St Gertrude is the patron saints of the nuns and is – as Henrica Fassbender and her sisters – from Germany.

In the poem the tall nun is called a prophetess in stanza 17, also St Gertrude had the gift of prophecy. Another interesting aspect is that St Gertrude wrote her own Exercitia spiritualia, (Spiritual Exercises) a book of instructions, meditations and prayers. Hopkins might have felt especially close to the nuns by this connection of the Sisterhoods Spiritual Exercises through St Gertrude with the Jesuit brotherhoods Spiritual Exercises through St Ignatius of Loyola.

By referring to Deutschland as being double desperate Hopkins meant both the ill fortune of the steamer SS Deutschland, but also the state of Bismarck’s German Empire. But the doubleness have more implications. St Gertrude where raised close to the town of Eisleben – as the monk Luther was a couple of hundred years later. Good and evil exists side by side, just as the good Abel and the poor Cain where nursed by the same mother, both the divine saint and the evil Heretic came from the same town. The ultramontane Hopkins saw them as Christ’s lily and the beast of the waste wood.

 

The nuns at the abbey of Helfta took in the orphan Gertrude when she was only five years old. It is said that she from the very first was a very lovable child and she kept this gift of charm throughout her life. Gertrude devoted herself to study (according to her self she studied so hard in her early life that she neglected her spiritual development). She became a nun in her teens but continued her profane studies in Latin and Rhetorics. She had her first vision at the age of 26 when she saw Christ who said to her: “Do not fear. I will save you and set you free“. After this St Gertrude committed herself to spiritual and theological growth. She was exceptionally boundless in her charity and embraced both high and low. And it is said that her humility was so profound that she wondered how the earth could support so sinful creature as herself. She promoted the devotion of the sacred heart and is also famous for her concern for those in purgatory.

St Gertrude died the 17 November 1302 (her feast day is the 16th though). Pope Benedict XIV gave her the title “the Great” to distinguish her from Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn and to recognize the depth of her spiritual and theological insight. You can read more about her here.

 

 

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.
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