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A tale of a shipwreck, a priest, and a poet

Writer Ron Hansen tells the story behind his new novel, which weaves together the story of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., and the notorious wreck of the Deutschland—a tragedy that led Hopkins to break years of literary silence.

By Ron Hansen

When Oxford graduate Gerard Manley Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus in 1868, the religious order was still open to persecution in England and was being evicted from Spain. Two years later, the Jesuit curia was expelled from Rome as the papal states were annexed by King Victor Emanuel II. In northern Europe, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck orchestrated the unification of Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, and 20 other states into the Second Reich of Germany, and originated a Kulturkampf, or cultural struggle, that was intended to quash the political power of the country’s Catholic minority, which Bismarck loathed for being more loyal to the papacy than the Reich.

Hopkins was a Jesuit scholastic in philosophy studies at Stonyhurst in 1872 when the Reichstag gave the government license to ostracize the Society of Jesus, and the first contingent of exiled German Jesuits arrived in England. Within the year their Rhineland Theologate was relocated to a village between Manchester and Liverpool, and several of their professors ended up teaching Hopkins at the Saint Beuno’s Theologate in Wales.

In May 1873, Culture Minister Adalbert Falk instituted laws giving the Reich control of Catholic education, making civil marriages obligatory, and ending all financial aid to the Catholic Church while continuing it for Protestant institutions. And in 1875 a series of “May Laws” were decreed, excluding from the territories of the Prussian state all Catholic religious orders not involved in the needed job of nursing, and consigning each congregation’s properties to the management of a board of trustees selected by the government.

So it was that five nuns from the order entitled Sisters of Saint Francis, Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, left their convent in Salzkotten, Germany, for nursing jobs in a Catholic hospital south of St. Louis, Missouri. The five were Sister Barbara Hültenschmidt, age 32, Sister Norberta Reinkober, 30, Sister Henrica Fassbender, 28, Sister Brigitta Dammhorst, 27, and Sister Aurea Badziura, 23. The journey from the port of Bremen to London and then across the Atlantic Ocean was expected to take 13 days.

“Wrecks and Casualties” was a regular department in each issue of The Times of London and among the Victorians there was a general fascination with tales of great tragedies at sea. But more than that, Hopkins’s father was the author of A Handbook of Average and A Manual of Marine Insurance, both standard reference books for negotiating, averaging, and adjusting the liabilities to insurance underwriters of cargo losses and shipwrecks, so Hopkins grew up in a world wet with marine accidents and was especially attentive to them.

Sixteen shipwrecks were recorded in The Times on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 1875, and among them was the first news of the Deutschland, a transatlantic steamer that left Bremen Saturday, Dec. 4, steering toward America. But it ran aground off the east coast of England on an undersea island of sand called the Kentish Knock. Though it did not sink, the Deutschland became a kind of reef that the icy North Sea crashed over throughout the night of Dec. 6. By the time the weather calmed and a rescue came late in the morning on the 7th, more than 60 passengers and crew had been snatched overboard by the great tonnage of waves or overcome by hypothermia in the ship’s sail shrouds or drowned in the flooded saloon below the weather deck.

But what caught Hopkins’ attention was the notice that among those who’d lost their lives were five Franciscan nuns who were exiled from their country because of the Falk Laws. Especially important to him was a Saturday notice in The Times that reported: “Five German nuns, whose bodies are now in the dead-house here, clasped hands and were drowned together, the chief sister, a gaunt woman six feet high, calling out loud and often ‘O Christ, come quickly!’ till the end came. The shrieks and sobbing of women and children are described by the survivors as agonizing.”

Writing to Rev. R.W. Dixon, an Anglican priest and poet and former teacher of his at Highgate School, Hopkins noted that: “You ask, do I write verse myself. What I had written I burnt before I became a Jesuit and resolved to write no more, as not belonging to my profession, unless it were by the wish of my superiors; so for seven years I wrote nothing but two or three little presentation pieces which occasion called for. But when in the winter of ’75 the Deutschland was wrecked in the mouth of the Thames…I was affected by the account and happening to say so to my rector he said that he wished someone would write a poem on the subject. On this hint I set to work and, though my hand was out at first, produced one. I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm which now I realised on paper.”

We don't know when Hopkins actually completed “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” But on June 26, 1876, he was writing his mother that his oldest Jesuit friend, the managing editor of The Month, saw no reason not to print the ode in the August issue if it “rhymed and scanned and construed and did not make nonsense or bad morality.” However, a subeditor at the journal was asked to judge “The Wreck,” and it was that Jesuit’s opinion that the 35 esoteric stanzas were hardly readable and had only managed to give him a headache. And so the handwritten pages were eventually returned to Hopkins with regrets.

That was as close as Hopkins ever got to seeing his glorious and stunningly original poetry published. Sonnets such as “Pied Beauty,” “The Windhover,” and “God’s Grandeur” have since become regular entries in anthologies of English literature, but they were not collected into a book, plainly titled Poems, until 1918, nearly three decades after Hopkins died of typhoid in Dublin at age 44.

My historical novel Exiles braids together a narrative of the five nuns onboard the Deutschland and a narrative of Hopkins’ saintly and somewhat thwarted life as he was increasingly afflicted by overwork and what seems to have been psychological depression. Exiled from his Oxford classmates, his family, and Britain itself by his conversion to Catholicism and his Jesuit vows, Hopkins ended up teaching classics in Ireland, where the English were scorned and where he penned a poem whose first line was “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life.”

I was fascinated by the ways in which a shipwreck that inspired Hopkins’ renewed interest in poetry could become a metaphor for his foundering life. But though family and friends considered his years after Oxford wasted, we know that there was a final victory, and that Hopkins’ works of genius, through God’s grace, were not lost.  

Ron Hansen is the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor of Arts and Humanities at SCU and the literary editor for SCM. His new novel, Exiles, has just been published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
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Ron Hansen

Listen up!
Ron Hansen reads from his new novel, Exiles, in an exclusive podcast for SCM.

Imagining as an act of prayer
Listen to the interview with Ron Hansen from NPR’s “Fresh Air,” broadcast on June 11, 2008.