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Rescued from the wreckage

17 April 2014

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his masterpiece 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' in response to a 19th-century nautical disaster. David Bryant explores the poem's profound Easter themes


Broken: The Wreck of the Deutschland, oil on canvas, by Jane Hargrave, reproduced by kind permission of the artist

Broken: The Wreck of the Deutschland, oil on canvas, by Jane Hargrave, reproduced by kind permission of the artist

SATURDAY 7 December 1875, and five o'clock of the morn-ing watch. The steamship Deutschland, out of Bremen, lies some 20 miles off Harwich, bound for New York.

On board are 70 crew members, and 123 emigrants heading for a new life in America. Accompanying them are five nuns exiled from Germany under the anti-Catholic Falk laws Unbeknown to the Captain, Eduard Brickenstein, a terrible disaster looms ahead. Out of nowhere comes a ferocious gale, and a white-out blizzard. All his attempts at dead reckoning fail, and the ship plunges on into the unknown.

There is a grinding of metal, a shuddering, and a violent shockas the ship strikes a submerged sandbank, the Kentish Knock. She lies there, helpless, her back broken, smashed by the waves.

Despite belated rescue attempts, the shipwreck results in the loss of 55 lives.

Several hundred miles to the west, in the monastery of St Beuno, in Wales, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins reads of the disaster in The Times. The events so horrify him that he is moved to encapsulate them in his poetic masterpiece "The Wreck of the Deutschland". Not only does he describe the foundering in vivid, unforgettable language: he reinterprets it in revolutionary theological terms.

His imagery plunges us into the heart of the storm:

Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind. . .
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind.

As she breaks to pieces on the sandbank, instances of courage abound. A sailor climbs down from the mast, a rope round his waist, in a risky attempt to rescue a terrified child from the flooded deck. He is pitched to his death, and his headless body is seen bobbing in the swell.

Crew members struggle to get passengers up into the rigging, and rockets are fired. "Night roared . . . the woman's wailing, the crying of the child without check."

For Hopkins, this is a re-enactment of Christ's Passion. There is a malevolent darkness over the land and sea - the same inexorable approach of death that faced Jesus, and desperate cries from the drowning passengers. Hope has died. The ship has become the cross. For all on board, it is Good Friday.

Then something totally unexpected and profoundly moving occurs. One of the coifed sisters,tall, gaunt, blinded by the sea drift, staggers to the middle of theflooded deck, and calls to the men in the tops and the panicking passengers.

Her words ride out over "the storm's brawling": "O Christ, Christ, come quickly." Her shout is drowned in a great surge of water and she goes to her Maker.

Here the poet takes over, and ina passionate outpouring asks the dead nun, now in heaven, to pray for all the lost souls and for the entire English nation. Then he pleads with the Lord to return in all his glory: "Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson cresseted east."

The whole thrust of the poem has changed in an instant from despair to hope, from grief to the glory of Easter. To underline that, Christ is now envisioned as "master of the tides". The snow turns to lilies and flowers; heaven lies beyond the dark, stormy night; and the five nuns symbolise the five wounds of the risen Lord.

Yet Hopkins's Easter is subtly different from the paschal celebrations that we are accustomed to. On Easter Day, traditionally we fill the pews and listen with growing wonder, and perhaps a touch of the disciples' disbelief, as the timeless narrative evolves. There are the empty tomb in the half-dawn light, the scurrying women, the angel in white, and the disciples who did not know whether to be joy-filled or scared silly.

We hear again the familiar story of Mary's mistaking Jesus for the gardener, and we tread wearily along the Emmaus road with the disciples as they slowly realise who their companion is. Thomas's bragging doubt and the dramatic showing of the crucified hands never lose their punch. Then come the amazing catch of fish, and the extraordinary breakfast and barbecue on the beach.

All these events are presented to us within the setting of a beautifully decorated church, bursting with spring flowers and lilies. There may well be an Easter garden on display, epitomising the whole scenario, complete with newly gathered moss, an empty rock-tomb, and perhaps plaster-cast figures of the chief players. It is as if we are membersof an audience watching from the stalls as the great spectacle is acted out.

No, says Hopkins. You are missing the point. It is not enough to sit in a pew and hear the gripping narrative read. Easter is more dynamic, more empowering than that. To fathom its true meaning, we need a decisive, attention-clasping verb: "to easter".

Easter is not just a drama enacted out on the bare slopes of Calvary, reaching its climax at the empty tomb. It is not a series of events to be observed, quantified, thought over, questioned, and discussed; nor is it merely a riveting tale with a happy ending and an infusion of the divine. It has a far richer connotation, and a more potent significance than that. It is something that seizes and overpowers us.

"To easter" has a nautical ring. It means to steer a ship towards the light of the dawning day, to set it on an eastward course that causes it to be flooded with the radiance of the sun from the top mast to the water line.

That is precisely what the season of Easter does, or should do, to us.It is the starting point of an inner transformation, a spectacular reshaping that clutches at the depths of our being.

All our desolation, despair, fear, hate, wrongdoing, and uncertainty is encompassed by the light of the risen Christ, and given a positive spin, a rich patina of what is fruit-ful, joyous, and constructive. Easter is an overwhelming event that reshapes our destiny, reorientating our spiritual path and lifting us up into the presence of God.

Hopkins describes it as a total transfiguration whereby God comes to flow through every pore of our being.

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead.

No wonder we emerge from the church on Easter morning with burgeoning joy, our vision sharpened, our compassion rekindled, prayer enriched, and thanksgiving renewed.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony of is full of doom-laden, heart-wrenching chords, heavy with unease, the presentiment of evil, the pain of human living, and the dark misuse of power. In the concluding bars, the music breaks into a triumphant major key, and, as the composer himself describes it, is "resolved in optimism and the joy of living".

Transpose this into Christian terms, and it means that the principle of love woven into the universe has prevailed, not only over the wreck of the Deutschland, but over the whole waiting world. Christ, the "Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest", has brightened the dark universe and eastered in us. That is what this holy season is all about.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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