“The Wreck of the Deutschland,” A Pindaric Ode

            Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is often loosely considered an elegy. Like all elegies, it commemorates a fatal disaster. Yet here its connection with the elegiac tradition ceases. Not only does the poem deviate strikingly from the usual elegiac pattern, but it possesses superabundantly all the characteristics of the Pindaric ode. Defining the elegy will clarify exactly why “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is not elegiac; defining the Pindaric ode will reveal much of Hopkins’ purpose for his poem.

            An elegy is a formal complaint or lamentation for the dead, and by extrapolation any poem centering around human mortality. Elegies usually being by bewailing earth’s desolation after a catastrophe, carefully detailing the response of nature to each ruptured pattern. Tributes to the dead follow in progression, and gradually comfort predominates over sorrow. Finally the poet appeals to a projected future happiness – the Wanderer returns, Lycidas is the genius of a fairer shore, and Gray’s swain reposes still tenderly remembered by his God.

            Since the elegy is contemplative, ideas develop measuredly one from another. Lesser laments precede greater ones, which in turn precede consolation. In “Thyrsis,” written eight years before Hopkins’ own poem, Arnold discusses all the places from which Clough is now absent, asks what meaning is left for himself, and challenges himself to continue striving. The progression is obvious; loss of friend, loss of self-direction, renewal of inspiration through memory of the departed. Each idea is developed thoroughly before the next one is considered, and neither of the last sections would be powerful without the preceding ones. Even “Adonais,” a much more excited lament, follows the sequence of sorrow, appeal to Fame, and final confidence in the Eternal.

            The “Wreck of the Deutschland” exhibits no such measured thought development. The first stanza explodes with a paradox – that the presence of God is both mercy and pain. 

           Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,

            And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

            Thy doing: and doest thou touch me afresh?

            Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

            The remaining thirty-four stanzas refine the content of the first one. Roughly the themes are redemption and suffering. The usual elegy would develop each theme separately, first the “All-fire glances,” then the “fall-gold mercies.” Yet Hopkins presents them “at a flash, …. crash,”("That Nature is a Heralitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection") and thus several times early in the poem his message has been completely stated:

            Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm:

            Father and fondler of heart, thou hast wrung (stanza 9)

He then proceeds to repeat this theme several times more, so that the structure of the poem resembles concentric pebble-ripples in a lake.

            Not only does Hopkins fracture sedate thought sequences, but he ignores another important characteristic of the elegy – its existence within a time sequence. It is a processional; first enters the poet as chief mourner, then his train. Finally the processional stops, only to become dwarfed by the vision of a more perfect, immutable state. Temporal sequence is especially obvious in pastoral elegy, as in “Lycidas”:

            But how my Oate proceeds …

            Next Camus … came footing slow …

            Last came, and last did go …

Such a procession is itself a metaphorical presentation of the Christian conception of history as a temporal line, ultimately to be subsumed into a non-temporal order.

            Even non-pastoral elegy maintains its own measured sequence. Gray’s “Elegy,” for example, passes slowly from one graveyard image to another, as though the poet were gazing and meditating for a long period of time. The time of day, dusk, suggests change and gradually deepening thought. The presentation of objects in progression is thus central to elegy. Not only does it intensify the emotion of transcience which inspired the complaint, but the stateliness of sequential treatment is itself consoling.

            Hopkins has no use for this form of consolation. How inadequate to pretend that the temporal order, once violated, can ever again reinstate itself. Hopkins’ word and thought sequences even seem designed to frustrate the usual chronological ordering.

            Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey (stanza 7)

The resulting paradoxes are but small expressions of the poem’s one great paradox, that God is simultaneously and eternally “lightning and love.” His peace, like that of the eye of a storm, is more perfect because the result of violent tension. Whereas the elegy attempts to restore the ruptured temporal sequence, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” exploits this very rupture.

            A usual elegiac technique is to divert grief into the more pleasing channel of self-pity. In “Thyrsis,” for example, Matthew Arnold laments his own personal bereavement foremost of all the consequences of Clough’s death. He concludes his poem with satisfaction, not because he has discovered any compensation for death, but simply because he has conquered his own purposelessness. Hopkins, on the other hand, devalues all the “softer” emotions – melancholy, nostalgia, self-pity, desire for ritual soothing – and emphasizes the extreme ones – fear, horror, adoration, ecstasy, the sense of the ironic and grotesque. Shockingly enough he mocks his own sorrow:

            Oh, touched in your bower of bone

            Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,

            Have you! (stanza 18)

The normal expression of grief becomes so inadequate that it worsens rather than eases pain. He dwells almost mercilessly on the physical horrors of the catastrophe:

            And lives at last were washing away:

            To the shrouds they took – they shook in the hurling and horrible airs. (stanza 15)

            Former elegies had also ignored or euphemized the manner of death. Milton merely alludes in passing to that “perfidious bark,” and neither Gray, Shelley, nor Arnold mentions any aspect of death more sordid than departure and deprivation. Hopkins, however, does not seek calm through ignoring physical shock and deterioration.

            Elegies use alliteration and other binding devices to soothe; Hopkins uses them rather to intensify emotions, to flash them back upon themselves “like shining from shook foil.” ("God's Grandeur") Usually he alliterates sounds which excite rather than calm, as the st’s and sh’s of stanza eight:

            We lash with the best or worst

            Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe

            Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,

            Gush! — flush the man….

Also, whereas in elegy complex stanzaic structure is sedative, in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” it contributes motion. The stanzas expand like accordions, the number of stresses per line increasing, then decreasing, then spurting forward beyond the original number. The final opening up occurs in the last line of each stanza, where the number both of stressed and extra non-stressed syllables reaches maximum. Simultaneously the emotion heightens:

            And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress, (last line, stanza 2)

            Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ Chivalry’s throng’s Lord. (last line of poem)

Sometimes the violence and irregularity of these last lines causes one to worry that they will run off into prose. They never do, however; the final word catches them back by rhyming with the first line. The jack-in-the-box has snapped into perform again in the next stanza. The kinetic, bursting effect so foreign to elegy has become the basis of the poem’s movement.

            Descriptions of action are rare in elegy, but not in “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

            …she sweeps

            Hurling the haven behind (stanza 13)

            And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:

            The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock …. (stanza 14)

Hopkins adds extra motion by presenting as active states usually considered passive. He concerned himself intensely with the unique patterns of each object, its “inscape,” its translation of God’s energy into form. Such “inscape” is active; for example, “the just man justices; keeps grace … acts in God’s eye….”3 ("As Kingfishers Catch Fire") His descriptions are as a result tremendously vigorous. He replaces static nouns with gerunds:

            And after it almost unmade, what with dread,

            Thy doing (stanza 1)

Even the abstract charity becomes active:

            Our heart’s charity’s hearth’s fire…. (stanza 35)

Charity has been made to possess something, and a hearth’s fire at that. Especially is Hopkins conscious of the motion in God. Whereas Crashaw had described Christ as coming “Lightly as a lambent flame,” Hopkins sees Christ as:

            The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame….

            A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fire hard-hurled (stanza 34)

            Hopkins’ concept of pattern as action is also seen in his delight in “Sprung” rhythms. He names the Greek and Anglo-Saxon rhythms “Sprung” because they varied continuously in the number of slack syllables per foot.

Such variation produces syncopation, the sense of a strong “springing.” Hopkins constantly varies the number of syllables per foot; the analysis of even one phrase reveals four different feet:

          /       u   u        |   /   u  u   u     u        |     /       u        |    /

(1) Death with a   (2) sovereignty that   (3) heeds but    (4) hides….

At times he even runs two separate rhythms side by side for several phrases. Such marked rhythm novelty contrasts with the usual measured pace of elegies. The smooth iambics of “Adonais” –

            And thou, sad hour, selected from all years

            To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers…. (stanza 1) --

for example, are far less differentiated than Hopkins’ striking logodaics. The elegists saw pattern in repetition and even release of emotion; Hopkins perceived pattern as movement, variety, and even surprise.

            The elegy is a complaint. Adonais, Lycidas, and Thrysis are not worthy of death; their passing implies failure in God or nature. Not so in “The Wreck of the Deutschland”; responsibility is clearly human:

            Not out of his bliss

            Springs the stress felt

            Nor first from heaven (and few know this)

            Swings the stroke dealt.

            But it rides time like riding a river (stanza 6)

When Hopkins does complain, it is not of God’s harshness but of “man’s malice”:

            O Deutschland, double a desperate name!

            O world wide of its good! (stanza 20)

            Loathed for a love men knew in them,

            Banned by the land of their birth…. (stanza 21)

Far from a complaint against God, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is a hymn of adoration. Elegies mourn the passing of a spirit from nature (Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, 1967, 36); this poem celebrates an epiphany. The poem’s central fact is not catastrophe but incarnation. The poet does not wish God to ease human pain, only to assume tight control.

            With an anvil-ding

            And with fire in him forge Thy will

            Or rather, rather then, stealing as spring

            Through him, melt him but master him still….

            but be adored, but be adored king. (stanza 10)

“Lycidas” also borders occasionally on worship, as when Milton describes the “dear might” of Christ. But death, even though God’s permissive will, remains irrevocably mournful. In “Lycidas,” the subtitle states, “the author bewails a learned friend, unfortunately drown’d,” whereas Hopkins dedicates him poem, “To the happy memory….” Hopkins especially notes that the nun drowned “between mid-night and morning,” a detail suggesting hope.

            Elegies lament the cutting-off of a noble life. Hopkins introduces a completely foreign element when he celebrates noble death. The drowning becomes an occasion for victory, the prelude to a feast of joy in heaven:

            What was the feast followed the night

            Thou hadst glory of this nun? (stanza 30)

If the tall nun had not died, the “poor sheep” on board might never have passed from the category of the “comfortless unconfessed.” (stanza 31) The entire Deutschland horror becomes “a vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,” (stanza 33) a means of grace.

            Elegies assuage the pain of one individual’s death by considering it as a symbol of all mortality. Of course the death of the tall nun is representative. Yet because sacrificial, it represents not the death of all mankind but the death of Christ. As the wine representing Christ’s death is also a symbol of joy, so the nun’s death is joyful because redemptive. Elegists have consistently sought redemption from death; Hopkins sees death as itself redeeming.

            When a specific bereavement becomes part of a larger pattern, it loses its particular and individual sting. The traditional elegy mourns for the departed on the basis of qualities – nobility, talent, and uprightness – which they share with other men. The names “Wanderer,” “Lycidas,” “Adonais,” and “Thyrsis” suggest mythological or representative figures. Hopkins’ delight in the distinctive quality of each person and event makes him ignore this tradition. He clearly differentiates the Deutschland disaster from all others.

            On Saturday sailed from Bremen,

            American outward-bound,

            Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,

            Two hundred souls in the round…. (stanza 12)

            Into the snows she sweeps,

            Hurling the haven behind,

            The Deutschland, on Sunday….

            Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;

            Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow…. (stanza 13)

Similarly the nun’s individual “pattern” extends into her death. Her sacrifice is unique, and its special, individuated glory is insured.

            Another characteristic of the elegy is its extreme solemnity. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is also solemn. Yet the elegy attains solemnity through moderation, while “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is solemn only through intensity of passion. At times it borders on inspired delirium – sublime but not sober. Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon elegies had used sound-echoing to produce stateliness; Hopkins often uses it for perverse and tortured comic effects:

            Or is it that she cried for the crown then,

            The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen? (stanza 25)

            Why, tears! is it? tears: such a melting, a madrigal start!

            Never eldering revel and river of youth,

            What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own? (stanza 18)

Indeed, jesting is by definition the opposite of sobriety. Here again Hopkins has cut himself off from the elegy.

            Yet perhaps certain parts of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” are elegiac even if others are not. One stanza seems at first especially to resemble elegy. Hopkins paraphrases the Biblical comment on mortality, “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth” (Psalm 103:15):

            But we dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!

            Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,

            Wave with the meadow, forget that there must

            The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come. (stanza 11)

The Biblical passage simply laments the passing of human life. Hopkins changes the emphasis to that of reproving man’s failure to reckon with death by introducing the idea of failure. His central complaint is not against death but against men’s astounding indifference towards it. Thus even this stanza is concerned only peripherally with recognizing the power of death.

            No matter how we examine it, Hopkins’ “Wreck of the Deutschland” does not seem to be elegy. Rather than lamenting death, it hails it as a means through which God may “be adored King.” Neglecting the poet’s personal grief, it concentrates upon the catastrophe itself. Specific “inscaped” detail gives the explosive, immediate quality which elegy avoids. The romantic, melancholic, subjective tradition has been exchanged for an active, concrete one; complaint has become battle cry.

            Hopkins was a master-precisionist in literary classification. It would have been highly aberrant of him to write a formless or ill-defined poem. “The Wreck of the Deutschland”’s almost bizarre individuality does not result from unprecedented form. Rather than creating a strange, induplicable private genre, Hopkins superbly exploits an ancient one, the Pindaric ode.

            Since of Pindar’s works only one highly homogeneous collection remains, it is early to define the Pindaric ode. All of Pindar’s odes were direct addresses. While an elegy may contain several apostrophes, it is not addressed to a specific person. It is a general lament, with its emotional intensity muted and diffused because directed towards the entire cosmos. By contrast, the ode achieves immediacy and intensity through using direct address. Hopkins begins, “Thou mastering me God…,” a boldness of address which raptures him immediately and fully into God’s presence.

            Pindaric odes flow like torrents; Pindar refused to belabor any topic or comparison. Likewise is Hopkins’ style concentrated; he is an unparalleled binder-together of words and stanzas. Gardner diagrams a few of the intricate interlacings within stanza eight:

(-capped) --------------------------- (-kept)      flesh

   lash                                                       best

last lush gush                                  being  burst  worst

      plush                                                  last



William Gardner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, London, 1949, II, 142

            Other binding devices contribute to the concentration of effect. Hopkins uses the same word with two meanings, considered a great feat in Anglo-Saxon poetry:

            Mark, the mark is of man’s make (stanza 22)

He uses adjectives predicatively, that is, simultaneously as adverbs and adjectives:

            Thou heardest me truer than tongue confess (stanza 2, emphasis added)

Often he uses more than one meaning of a word simultaneously (syllepsis):

            A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told. (stanza 17, emphasis added)

            Assonance, interior rhyme, half-rhyme, the running over of words into the next line, the vocalic scales further bind stanzas together. The resulting tightness and swiftness is like that of Pindar’s odes.

            Greek odes were written to be chanted and danced, and are highly musical, that is, strongly stressed. In this respect “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is the ode par excellence! No English poet has ever come closer than Hopkins to the character of Greek melic verse. (Gardner, 33) Furthermore, the poem’s extremely complex, regular stanza form and its wildly varied line length now have more than eccentric significance; they are also characteristic of the Pindaric ode.

            Pindar’s odes achieved unity through emotional intensity, not argument. There is no series of connected thoughts or sustained meditation. Likewise in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” Hopkins presents no arguments to support his thesis that God’s wrath is also mercy. Instead he simply successfully restates the thesis—but in contexts so emotionally overpowering that it becomes acceptable.

            The Pindaric ode always celebrates an event of public significance. First it recounts specific details of the event, next alludes to related myths and significant happenings, and finally returns to the specifics. Hopkins’ poem also celebrates a public event, although the order of parts is reversed. The first part speaks of the soul’s experience with God, the second of the wreck’s particulars, while the end is again a prayer common to all Christians. In this way spiritual rather than physical harrowing receives emphasis.

            Pindaric odes were also encomiastic, celebrating the merits of an individual or the triumph of a hero. This the continuous praise and adoration which made difficult “The Wreck of the Deutschland”’s classification as elegy are appropriate to the ode. The poem’s hero is Christ,

            …the Master,

            Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head: (stanza 28)

            Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high priest,

            Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord. (stanza 35)

and the poem itself a celebration of his mastery over man. The almost frenzied drama of Hopkins’ alliteration, rhythm, and abrupt word patterns are fitting characteristics, not of a poem mourning death, but of the celebration of a hero.

            Pindaric odes had varied stanza forms for different parts. Likewise “The Wreck of the Deutschland” has a slight difference between the stanzaic indentation of the first and second parts. The first lines of stanzas of part one are more indented than the second lines:

                 It dates from the day

            Of his going in Galilee…. (stanza 7)

The first lines of the stanzas in the second part have the same indentation as the second lines:

            Hope had grown grey hairs,

            Hope had mourning on…. (stanza 15)

            One final comparison is in vocabulary. Pindar loved lights; he exhausts the Greek words for radiance – shine, shimmer, glitter, glister, flame, flash, gleam, glow. (Gildersleeve in Robert Shafer, The English Ode to 1660, Princeton, 1918, 23) Hopkins has the same passion for light and bright; even Christ is to him “Orion of light.” (stanza 21) Pindar was also given to personification, precisely that quality which in Hopkins resulted from his perception of inscape.

            “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is thus definitely an ode. An elegy would have been a historical progression of mourners; this ode is the heart-song of those whom sudden death has brought to the realization of eternity. An elegy would have been directed towards Hopkins’ fellow men, and would have included descriptions both of their sorrow and his own. Instead Hopkins neglects ritual mourning and concentrates upon the theological significance of the sinking. An elegy would have shown this disaster’s resemblance to all others; Hopkins shows through violently unique word, stanza, and fact patterns in what way the disaster is individuated and special. Like Pindar he structures intense emotions into disciplined form to yield lyric of sustained exultation. Thus Hopkins has presented in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” not the leethe which washes away the memory of death, but the explosive, immediate sorrow-joy which to him was redemptive.


Bailey, J.C., ed. English Elegies. New York, 1900.

Draper, John W., The Funeral Elegy and the Rise of English Romanticism. New York, 1929.

Ford, Boris, ed. From Dickens to Hardy. Baltimore, 1958.

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, 1957.

Gardner, William, “The Wreck of the Deutschland” in Essays and Studies. Oxford, 1936.

Gardner, William, Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889): A Study of Poetic Idiosyncrasy in Relation to Poetic Tradition, 2 Vols. London, 1957.

Martin, Philip M., Mastery and Mercy: A Study of Two Religious Poems. London, 1957.

Patrides, C.A., ed. Milton’s Lycidas: The Tradition and the Poem. New York, 1961.

Peters, W.A.M., S.J., Gerald Manley Hopkins: A Critical Essay Towards the Understanding of His Poetry. New York, 1948.

Sickels, Eleanor M., The Gloomy Egoist: Moods and Themes of Melancholy from Gray to Keats. New York, 1932.

Shafer, Robert, The English Ode to 1660: An Essay in Literary History. Princeton, 1918.

Winters, Ivor, On Modern Poets. New York, 1959.