Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers―sweet heaven was astrew in them.

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins




I read this particular text as being the stanza of martyrdom, apart from being banned by the land of their birth in the opening line, they are exiles by the Falk Laws – as in the dedication in the beginning of the poem. Here Hopkins also refers to them as being unchancelling. The chancel is the part of the church where the altar stands. Poising palms could mean out of God’s hands, so with unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth he probably means bringing good from the bad and measuring what being martyred (by the martyr-master) and exiled is worth: The metamorphosis is already complete in heaven, In the last line the suffering is transmuted into beauty.

Hopkins must have seen the delayed rescue as that England abandoned the SS Deutschland. Even though the distress rockets where seen, it took 30 hours before helped arrived. Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them. So it easy to see the English betrayal but what about the German equivalent? Why where these German Sisters exiled from their Fatherland?


The second German Empire was formed in 1871. Under Bismarck’s leadership it distanced itself more and more from the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic political party, Zentrumspartei, was the second largest party in Germany in 1871 only superseded by Bismarck’s Liberal party. In the liberals mind the Zentrumspartei was a dangerous enemy in the battle of power between the state and the religious denominations. In the seventies Bismarck set out to destroy this supposedly dangerous party of Catholics, and this struggle came to be known as the Kulturkampf, the struggle of cultures where the Zentrumspartei was seen as running an international agenda (read Roman), whilst the other German parties were fighting for the German nation.

At the very core of this was the newly declared infallibility of the pope. Many nations through out Europe mistook this as that Catholics would be more loyal to the pope than to their own nation in all matters when in fact the infallibility was restricted to Catholic dogma. In many protestant countries Catholics were to be regarded almost as enemies of the state. For instance Bismarck declared the Catholic party as being Reichsfeinde. Windhorst, leader of the Zentrumspartei gave a famous reply: ‘The Chancellor is not the state’.


In his efforts to destroy the political force of the Catholics Bismarck practiced, what he called ‘policy of negative integration’ in which he tried to unite a majority against a common enemy of the people. As this enemy he chooses the Catholics. Fifty years later another German Chancellor in a third German empire, choose the same approach but in a far greater and more inhumane scale.

In 1872 the Reichstag dissolved the Society of Jesus and exiled its members from Germany and the next year was the May laws, (also called the Falk laws) introduced by the Prussian minister Adalbert Falk. All Catholic education and even appointments of priests was supervised by the German state. Catholic weddings did no longer have any legal rights and all religious orders were dissolved, some nursing orders was however allowed under restrictions as they where helpful during wartime. All Prussian Catholics lost their civil and legal rights and had to report monthly to the police. Rebellious clergy, even Bishops were imprisoned or exiled. Between January and April 1875 241 clergy was imprisoned. In May 1875 it was decreed: All religious orders and similar groups are to be excluded from the territories of the Prussian state. New foundations are prohibited; those already existing are to be disbanded within six months. Since Mother Clara’s order was partly devoted to nursing they could still keep some of their organization in Germany but since they also was dedicated to teaching, Mother Clara determined that their work must be carried on elsewhere instead.



On another note, the star constellation Orion is named after a hunter. McChesney suggests that Hopkins is referring to God who dwells apart, yet who pursues the destiny of men. There are other interpretations though.

Some critics have elaborate explanations of that Orion sounds like other words, e.g. Organ. In stanza 18 the word bower, sounds like bowel, and by organ and bowel Hopkins, according to them can be referring to the heart (in John 7:38 the belly is used as a reference to the heart as in out of his heart shall flow rivers of living waters) and the womb. Again in stanza 18 the word Madrigal is etymological derived from Matrix, which means womb in Latin which in its own turn is derived from mater, mother. To me this sounds a bit too imaginative, but then again, in the journals Hopkins made these kinds of play with words himself.

However I have my own odd and personal explanation: Orion is the brightest master of the winter skies and is therefore of better poetic use than Cancer, however it is a phenomenon in Cancer that is in Hopkins mind when he is writing this. In his letter to his mother on Christmas Eve 1875 he seems quite occupied by it, and this must have occurred when he was writing as most intensely. Do you know if anything is said of a comet? I have seen one three nights. It appears to be in Cancer. It is small and pale, but quite visible. If it is not a comet it must be a nebula and then it is strange I should not have noticed it before but its appearance is in all respects that of a comet. At ten o’clock it is well visible in the northeast, not high; later it would be higher.

A few months later in a letter dated March 2 1876, he talks about it again: What I took for a comet (do you remember?) turned out to be a wellknown nebula of great size, Praesepe it is called, in Cancer. Perhaps this is of some relevance for the Orion and the line Starlight, wafting him out of it in stanza 5? Here is a picture of the M44 constellation Praesepe.



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.