The great Catholic priest, convert, and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., was so affected by the sinking, in 1875, of a German ship, the Deutschland, in a storm off the coast of Bremen, and the heroism of five Franciscan sisters on board who died in the tragedy, that he wrote what he considered his best poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, to honor them and the other victims.
In his short life of forty-four years, Hopkins did not compose a very large number of poems, but those he did write were profound, intense, and extremely evocative of the inner dimensions of the fallen nature’s struggles to preserve peace and the grace of God. After his conversion, and entry into the Jesuit order, he voluntarily ceased writing verse altogether, and even burned all of his past manuscripts. It was seven years before he picked up his pen to paint the eschatological and prophetic moral lessons that were aroused in his visionary mind in the wrenching episode of heroic acceptance of these terrifying deaths at sea. The five Franciscans, who perished in the tempest, had fled their country to escape the anti-Catholic injustices of Germany’s Falck laws only to meet their God by drowning. It was the valiant fortitude of the six-foot-tall superior of the sisters — who, according to the survivors’ accounts, kept encouraging the others not to fear — that inspired Hopkins so much. The final words of the superior, to whom he gave the name Gertrude, rang hauntingly in his ears as he put them to verse: “Christ, O Christ, come quickly!” In the last four stanzas Hopkins directly addresses God, and, in the true spirit of St. Ignatius, implores the Almighty for the conversion of his native England.