During my summer assignment this year at St. Monica’s parish in Coos Bay, Oregon, I was blessed to be able to lead a three-week faith formation class on poetry in the Catholic tradition. If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to learn that I spent all three weeks talking about my “old friend,” Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ—specifically his great masterpiece, the Wreck of the Deutschland.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th-century Englishman, the son of a wealthy insurance broker, who—like most of the respectable and well-to-do in that particular time and place—was raised Anglican, but “fell in with the wrong sort” at Oxford and converted to Catholicism. In fact, not only did he join the Romish Church, but he soon applied to join the Jesuits—then one of the strictest religious orders around!
Nothing could deter Hopkins from his Jesuit vocation: not his family, who disowned him, nor his “secondary” vocation of poetry, which Hopkins felt to be incompatible with the ascetic life of a priest and religious. He did his best to suppress the yearnings of his nature to write, practicing strict custody of the eyes (so as not to be enthralled by the beauty of nature and perhaps spark some “fancy”) and burning all of his poetry after his entrance into the Society of Jesus, an event which he recorded somberly in his diary as the “slaughter of the innocents.”
That resolution changed, however, with the shipwreck of the S.S. Deutschland off the coast of Kent in 1875. Bound for America from Germany, she struck a sandbar in a midnight storm and foundered far enough off the coast that no-body could come to her aid until late the following day. During the night, more than a quarter of the ship’s passengers perished. Among them were five Franciscan nuns.
Hearing of this tragedy soon after in the newspapers, Hopkins’ Jesuit superior remarked to the community at large that somebody ought to write an elegy for these holy souls. Hopkins, for his part, took that comment as a direct order from his superior, and the Wreck of the Deutschland was the result: some 35 stanzas into which he poured all those years of pent-up creative energy and passion. It is an intense, at times lyrical, often quite difficult, but deeply arresting meditation on suffering, vocation, providence, and the presence or even pressure of God in the world. (“Past all,” Hopkins urges his reader, “grasp God, throned behind!”)
Why am I telling you all this? If any of the above has piqued your interest, the second and third classes are available below for your listening pleasure! (The first class was not recorded, but it is not necessary in order to understand the second, since we begin with a brief recap.)
Click here to listen to the second class (02:02:02).
Click here to listen to the third class (02:06:17).
Note: You may also right-click these links to download them to your computer or mobile device for later listening.
Further Links of Interest:
You can read along with the poem by clicking here.
You can also listen to the entire poem read brilliantly by British stage actor Paul Scofield here (just ignore the computer-generated animation which goes along with it!)
Last summer, I spoke on a similar topic at one of my parish’s monthly Philosophy Nights. Rather than a close reading of a poem, that talk was focused more broadly on the intersection of poetry and philosophy, reading an essay by Martin Heidegger and some selections from St. Thomas Aquinas. But you know we also read the Wreck, because—it’s me! The full talk was recorded by a parishioner and made available here.
During the Philosophy Night talk (which I gave before writing my philosophy thesis) as well as these classes (post-thesis), I reference said thesis quite a few times. If you are really interested in poetry and philosophy, especially Hopkins and Aquinas, you can download a copy of my thesis here.
Finally, you can listen to musical settings of many of Hopkins’ poems (including the Wreck) by Sean O’Leary here. Thanks to a parishioner of St. Monica’s for this recommendation.