Suffering and Doubt in G. M. Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland"

By Heather Renee Oldham

And God said to me, Go forth:
For I am king of time.
But to you I am only the shadowy one
who knows with you your loneliness
and sees through your eyes.
He sees through my eyes
in all the ages.
-R. M. Rilke, Book of Hours

Upon arriving at Auschwitz as a young boy, Elie Wiesel questioned God’s justice for the first time since he began studying the Torah. After observing the suffering around him and hearing his pious father mechanically say, “May His Name be blessed and magnified,” Elie responds with credulous doubt: “For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank him for?”[1] Wiesel writes little about his first night in the death camp—most likely, the experience was too terrible to recount. Yet, he concludes his description of that cruel encounter by saying, “Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.”[2] Although Wiesel suffered near-death and cruelty at the hands of inhumane humans (including Christians), his last words about that first night of suffering recall Job’s vow in the midst of suffering at the hands of God: “O earth, cover not thou my blood and let my cry have no resting place” (Job 16:18). Indeed, both Wiesel and Job were stripped of their families, their integrity and their selfhood, without warning or explanation.

In both Wiesel and Job’s sufferings, God’s silence is perhaps the largest and longest-lasting tormentor, even when compared against their great losses. Throughout history, when man has encountered inexplicable suffering, great works of literature pour forth, particularly in poetry. Poetry is an art form that lends itself to expressing the inexplicable and to revealing one’s suffering while still respecting silence and the inability of the writer to cope completely. It is, as one American poet noted, what is not said in poetry that articulates its greatest depth—that which the poet omits from the poem can still be perceived by a diligent reader, who will find holes in the poet’s work and, alerted by such gaps, will try to decipher the poet’s motivations and ends. Poetry, being a means of indirect expression of topics which the writer either explicitly or implicitly does not discuss, can also be a catharsis for pain. Paradoxically, writing poetry is a compulsion for those who cannot keep silent—who, like the mariner in Coleridge’s famous poem, are tormented to retell their story, again and again. Because of the pain involved in such expression, poetry written after personal suffering usually has an austere tone and sparse style, as though the writer were removing himself from the experience. In addition to discussing poems by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, which are rendered from personal suffering, this paper will mainly address Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” an important theological work that echoes many themes and frustrations expressed by others weighed down by suffering.[3] In this work Hopkins expresses his grief at the shipwreck deaths of four nuns as well as his personal struggle with questions of divine silence and divine justice. [4]

While Hopkins’ experience of suffering is on a different order from the horror faced by Holocaust survivors Wiesel and Levi, all three authors nevertheless raise similar questions and, despite these questions, maintain their belief in an immanent God who, though sometimes silent, is worthy of our dialogue, our questions, our pain and our love.[5] This dialogue with God is best expressed in verse, with its meaningful gaps and poignant silences (the American poet Wallace Stevens is a good example), but which yet gives historical suffering a stage upon which the reader might analyze and more clearly define the gray, murky areas of ethics and faith. As a participant in the poet’s work, particularly if the work has a sparse style, the reader can ask questions that the author may only evoke, and extend metaphors and images the author explicitly omits or does not fully develop. Rainer Maria Rilke, the great lyric poet, has probably best mastered this sparse modern style: “God, give us each our own death,/the dying that proceeds/from each of our lives:/ the way we loved,/the meanings we made, our need.”[6] What is not said is most relevant to the poem’s depth: questions of theodicy, how one dies, and why the things we loved and our justification for them must die on a daily basis.

While Hopkins, Wiesel and Levi all express many frustrations, their modernist style admits an absence of certain explanations so that the reader feels the burden of interpretation and feels driven to find (and is indeed, responsible for) the poem’s completion and full meaning. What Hopkins does not include in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is how he finally reconciles his faith in God’s justice with the death of the nuns. The entire poem seems to be a logical contradiction to the reader: “bad things have happened to me, bad things have happened to others, therefore, let God be praised” is not a leap of logic lightly made. The reader has the heavy burden of wondering why Hopkins came to this conclusion and why he prays, like Rilke, to have a “dying that proceeds from each of our lives.” In order to understand how Hopkins used silence in his poetry and throughout his life as a Jesuit priest, some biographical foundations must be laid.

Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is an important work because it was written after a nine-year period of silence, in which he gave himself completely to the monastic life of the Jesuits. Entering this period, Hopkins had burned his early poems, believing it was vain for a man of God to seek success through poetry—indeed, Hopkins’ poems were published posthumously by Robert Bridges, Hopkins’ good friend and England’s Poet Laureate, in 1918. The modern poetic form and modern expression of existential and theological angst that Hopkins embodies in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” were unique in the Victorian time period. Hopkins’ progressive expression is more compatible with the modern period (and perhaps this was one reason Bridges published Hopkins thirty years after his death), and it prefigures the response of many Holocaust writers—a response of doubt, accusation, and extreme turmoil. With wrenching language that comes out of the recesses of their inmost ponderings and sufferings, Hopkins and these Holocaust survivors, Wiesel and Levi, also require their readers to enter the poem and ask and answer universal questions of pain and suffering.

The circumstances surrounding Hopkins’ poem are important to note, since it is largely an autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness work, as well as one of the only depictions of the Deutschland’s fate (with the exception of articles in the London and New York Times). The Deutschland sank in the English Channel off the east coast of England on Dec. 7, 1875. It mainly carried cargo, but a few passengers as well; among these were four nuns exiled from Germany for rebelling against the Falck Laws, which were issued to expel Catholics from Germany. The total party of the ship was about sixty people, including sailors.[7] The tragedy of the Deutschland was not completely a natural accident, although the weather was ferocious and played a significant part. During Hopkins’ time, it was common for locals in coastal towns to direct ships to land with fake lights so they would crash onto rocks and the goods off the ship could be stolen once everyone drowned. This cruel practice took a more subtle form in the case of the Deutschland—the ship, caught in a storm in the bay and then stuck in the low sandbanks, was most likely identified by local townspeople who made no rescue attempt until the next morning, possibly in hopes of gaining any goods aboard or out of an anti-Catholic prejudice. [8] Hopkins may or may not have known of the townspeople’s apathy, but his poem focuses on the seemingly apathetic nature of God, as well as his own struggle for faith. The modern reader, in taking such history into account, may struggle even more with the incongruity between God’s munificence and human suffering.

Since the nuns’ death prompted Hopkins’ own experience of suffering, it is also important to note the circumstances in his life which compelled him to write not only a probing account of their death, but also a soul-searching work. John Henry Newman, his mentor at Balliol College, Oxford, influenced the young Hopkins to join the Jesuit order in 1866. This estranged Hopkins from his Anglican family for the rest of his life. Moreover, a small sample of Hopkins’ poetry reflects homosexual sentiments, and some such poems speak of a great turmoil or sin which he feels he must keep secret.

Hopkins turned this self-inspection into theological ponderings in his “terrible sonnets,” which comprise the main body of his later work (noted to be terrible not for their quality, but their subject matter: doubt in God). Hopkins also struggled with depression and ill health most of his life, which most likely contributed not only to his personal frustrations but also to his decision to burn great verse as an act of sacrifice to God. After nine years of silence, Hopkins began to read the writings of a medieval theologian, Duns Scotus, whose work made Hopkins want to write again. His renewal of poetic vigor came to fruition when the Deutschland sank. That same year, Hopkins wrote the thirty-five-stanza poem in a frenzy of philosophical and personal engagement with the scene, as though he had suffered through the wreck himself. The poem not only encompasses his struggle for faith, his praise of God, and his empathy with the nuns, but also his expression of emotions long suppressed by extreme humility and piety, which otherwise might have been made into art during this long period of silence. As Paul Mariani states, Hopkins’ poem “generates the reaction one associates with the kind of intense, subjective religious response one might make in the midst of a long and serious spiritual retreat.”[9]

 The first part of the poem, “Part the First,” is Hopkins’ account of searching his own soul for faith in God amidst a seemingly meaningless and cruel world racked with pain. He makes many references that prefigure “Part the Second,” even from the poem’s opening: “Thou mastering me/God! giver of breath. . . ./sway of the sea;/Lord of living and dead.” It is evident from the first stanza not only that Hopkins identifies with the nuns’ suffering, but that he suffers through their experience. Even from the poem’s first part, Hopkins’ ethical concerns are directed towards the Other—he sees in the nuns’ faces his own struggles with theodicy, as well as possible answers to the problem of evil. In addition, he laments the nuns’ suffering by recreating the scene in garish detail and by drawing attention to a disaster that would otherwise have been passed over as a historical footnote. Hopkins based his reflections of theodicy on the book of Job, and despite his doubt Hopkins comes to the positive conclusion that God must, nevertheless, be sovereign. As soon as Hopkins begins to doubt God’s sovereignty and justice, he says “I feel thy finger and find thee,” a line which connects the poem’s beginning with the beginning of Creation by alluding to the Sistine Chapel’s crowning glory: God’s touching the finger of Adam.[10]

In the second stanza, Hopkins makes an interesting transition to suffering—not only has God created him, but Hopkins admits that “he did say yes” to such domination by the Creator, despite how he is thrown “from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to/the grace.” What is meant by these repetitions of terms becomes clearer in the fifth stanza when Hopkins compares his body to sand in an hourglass “mined with a motion, a drift.” This imagery is not only consistent with the waves’ movements (which pulled sand back and forth), but with the sailor who tied himself fast to the rigging to lean into the water and save those who were drowning; for his effort, he swayed back and forth like a pendulum until he was decapitated by the pressure.[11] This parallel between a pendulum swaying, which is also marked also by the parallel syntax of “the to and the fro,” and sand in an hourglass shows how deeply Hopkins identifies with the victims of the Deutschland’s drowning.[12] The nuns’ experience is also a vehicle for Hopkins’ metaphysical revelation in the first part of the poem—prefiguring their suffering, Hopkins becomes the strand of beach, “water in a well,” a “Carrier-witted,” and other similar images. In this way, the poet and reader elevate themselves above the scene, but still participate in the suffering of the nuns. Hopkins also makes interesting plays on words, such as in “the faithful waver,” which connotes that faithful people depart from God in suffering, but this might also be read as “the faithful who are in the waves.” The poem’s first part, which is the shorter section of the poem, ends Hopkins’ personal musings on suffering under God’s hand by praising God: “Make mercy in all of us, out of us all/Mastery; but be adored, but be adored King.”[13]

The crux of Hopkins’ poem is “Part the second,” which focuses exclusively on the wreck of the ship—Hopkins recreates the scene with vivid imagery and focuses on some key characters, one being the previously mentioned sailor, and the other being a nun who reportedly cried out for God to hurry his plan to drown them. The nuns, it is reported, drowned below deck, holding hands in a circle as they drowned. The nuns faced death together, in community, and with the hope that they were returning to God, not entering a doom-filled unknown abyss. Hopkins resonates with their acceptance of death and the confusion of the waters pouring around them, as well as their struggles as they “fought with God’s cold,” which seems a particularly flippant way of describing the torment of those on the ship—it is fortunate Hopkins expands on this phrase and shows the terribleness of the wreck.[14]  His poetry here, while largely mechanical and descriptive in its nature, is also heart-wrenching, both for his apt descriptions and for his complicity in accepting the nuns’ fate as being deemed by a just and divine Creator. Both “grace and grace,” love and suffering, are from God, and can be doubted by believers who must nevertheless reconcile themselves to God’s omnipotence throughout time and to their inability to understand his ways. Hopkins echoes not only Job, but also Ecclesiastes 3 in several parts of his poem, where man must trust “life’s dawn” that is “drawn down,” the yin and the yang, the good and the bad. There truly is, for Hopkins, a season for everything, and even stormy seasons are caused by a just Creator. Despite the nun’s piety and their dearness to Christ, Hopkins declares: “Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same,” which can be either an encouraging or discouraging thought, depending on whether one is comfortable with such impartial dispensation of suffering and grace.

In response to the tall nun’s cry, “O Christ, Christ, come quickly,” Hopkins struggles once again with the appropriateness of her death, having “a heart right” with God.[15] He still concludes, despite all this, that Jesus “hadst glory of this nun” and called her home.[16] Here the poem transcends the autobiographical theme and even the experience of the nuns, and is lifted to a plea for God to save “English souls” and let Jesus “Easter in [them]”.[17] In this last portion, Hopkins implies that God’s ways are not only just, but should be desired by all to bring the full number of souls to glory. From a post-Holocaust point of view, such a leap sounds ludicrous. For a Jesuit priest in the Victorian era, Hopkins’ questions are bold, but his answers to them seem abrupt or unearned to the reader. There is little development of how one comes to trust in God. How one resolves to submit oneself to suffering (as the nuns did, according to Hopkins) is completely omitted from his account. Perhaps Hopkins, who spent many years in silence as a priest, and who certainly stifled all poetic expression until this work, now quite easily is silent on questions the 20th- or 21st-century reader must raise. What is the method for finding such faith? Is it fair to ask those suffering souls to submit to pain as they would submit to God’s will? Such questions are raised by our Jewish writers, who come to a starker conclusion regarding matters of faith and justice.

Hopkins’ conclusions on suffering and theodicy are extremely different from those arrived at by Wiesel and Levi. Hopkins’ slow development of thought throughout “The Wreck of The Deutschland” neither seems logical, nor is it compatible with the conclusions of Wiesel and Levi. For Holocaust survivors, God is almost certainly removed from human experience, if not completely dead. God also does not cause suffering—humans cause suffering when they do not look in each other’s faces and see the ethical responsibility placed on them by relationship with the Other. In noting this difference between Hopkins’ view and Wiesel’s and Levi’s views on who causes others to suffer, Hopkins’ readers must be gracious towards his greater hesitancy to challenge God; indeed, his “terrible sonnets” were daring enough for the context in which they were written. Hopkins is not abstruse in his reconciliation of suffering in the world. His response to his own turmoil in the poem’s first part is not, “bad things happen, and God allows them,” but is rather a humbled acknowledgment that somehow suffering is a form of “grace,” God’s inscape (his essence) instressed (expressed) throughout the world in various men. Hopkins believes in a completely pervasive, active, responsible God. This sort of God would more than likely terrify Wiesel and Levi, who argue throughout their works that men are the responsible, active agents of suffering and grace.

Wiesel’s poem, “Never Shall I Forget,” is quoted in part in his autobiographical work, Night. This is the full text:

Never shall I forget that night,
the first night in the camp
which has turned my life into one long night,
seven times cursed and seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the little face of the children
whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke
beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames
which consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence
which deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments
which murdered my God and my soul
and turned my dreams to dust.
Never shall I forget these things,
even if I am condemned to live
as long as God Himself.

This poem has a message and tone that is very distinct from Hopkins’ conclusions on suffering. God is not to be praised for or in spite of the torture Jews like Wiesel and countless other minority groups suffered under the Nazi Party. Wiesel’s poem, like Hopkins’ poem is beautiful for what is not said; the silence it embodies in sparseness and somberness of language allows the author to develop the snapshots in each line into some coherent representation of Wiesel’s memories. Wiesel says just enough in these lines for the reader to decipher a scene, but he does not synthesize these into his own reaction, or into a full story. Instead of an eloquent, theological conclusion like that Hopkins offers in “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Wiesel’s resolve is to never forget the suffering, to implant it firmly in his mind—all other questioning, outside of this personal experience, is superfluous and futile. For Wiesel, silence becomes an unsettling foundation for all further belief, or even a lack of any belief; it is what is left after human questioning of God and man becomes futile, unproductive, and impossible.  Wiesel makes no Kierkegaardian leaps of faith like Hopkins; rather he refuses to accept that God desires suffering in any circumstances. Wiesel comes to the exact opposite conclusion to that of Hopkins: the Holocaust not only killed many innocent human beings and believers in God, but killed faith itself. The Holocaust was no isolated incident of persecution or a natural disaster become a tragedy because of apathetic bystanders—it was an intentional “drowning” of millions. If Hopkins sees the Deutschland’s fate in terms of a divine captain guiding the helm, Wiesel believes God drowned along with his loved ones.

In this sense, both Wiesel and Levi take the existential implications of Hopkins’ philosophy to its logical conclusion: if God is seen “in people’s faces” and works through their actions, then when men kill one another, God is either an apathetic bystander or God is killed along with the innocents. This takes God’s essence and its expression to a whole new level—not only is God in people, but God is only approachable through the face of the Other, and when the Other is desecrated and erased, God cannot be found. In this sense, “my God” and “my soul” are dependent upon one another for Wiesel. In Wiesel’s fiction his inability to live and his doubt in God’s existence is juxtaposed with his long life and an enduring innate respect for the sacred name of God. This is evident in the last line of the poem, in which he acknowledges that “God Himself” has lived a long time, and the reader might conclude that he continues to live, all evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, Wiesel’s desire to live is evidently not completely destroyed, since he continues to write and share his experience of suffering with others.

Why Holocaust survivors like Wiesel feel compelled to share their experiences is beautifully articulated by Primo Levi in the following poem, “Shemá”:

You who live secure
In your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or no.

Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.

Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you. 

In Levi’s poem, theological questions are subordinated to humanistic ones—his prayer is issued to his contemporaries, who must be the ones to prevent hatred from developing into persecution. His demand for humans to “[c]onsider whether this is a man,” can be answered either way—a man defaced by hatred may no longer be a man, or he might be a man who is not irreparably deprived of his humanity. Levi reinforces this line with, “Consider that this has been.” Levi’s sparse and poignant language suggests that there have been times in history when men have subjugated one another so much that the things that make them human, that give them a face, that compel us to treat them with compassion and love as we would want to be treated, are gone.

In comparison with Wiesel’s and Hopkins’ poems, “Shemá” is a further evolution in that it does not petition God nor address him as a factor in human suffering. His humanistic ethic is stark and demanding—humans must learn to treat one another “with friendly faces,” or be defaced altogether. Levi’s ethic is closer to that of Levinas, who not only agrees with Wiesel and Hopkins that God is found through people, but takes it one step further—God is made known only through people, and when they cease to act in just ways, justice is an impossibility, regardless of divine providence.

As a post-Holocaust Christian, I am torn between these conceptions of theodicy and suffering—on one hand, I want to say that God’s hand is in all things, since as Creator he sustains his creation and brings his glory about through them, as Hopkins articulates. However, in a post-Holocaust world, we must ask Hopkins—“Had the onlookers on the beach actually helped those stranded on the ship, would the nuns have been saved? Should they have been saved?” Such an important question must be asked, more than “What did God do?” or “What does this imply about God?” In this sense, I am more inclined to affiliate myself with Levi’s complete omission of God in “Shemá”—for all practical purposes, we are responsible for one another, whether God is present or absent. This sort of ethic has Christian roots as well, in the example of Jesus himself. In one parable, Jesus says that those self-conscious followers who had proper religious beliefs and practices, but who neglected their neighbors, will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven. In contrast, he then states that those unself-conscious individuals who helped their neighbors will enter the kingdom of heaven—they always looked to the face of the Other.

Hopkins approaches such an ethic, but cannot embrace it whole-heartedly. One telling passage, however, best embodies the doubt that seeks faith in a storm-tossed, unjust world: “His mystery must be instressed, stressed;/ For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I/ understand.”[18] It seems impossible for humans to completely understand God’s role in the cosmos, whether he is merely a caring onlooker, apathetic bystander, or an active Father who will mercifully call his children home. However, I hope to pragmatically embody the ethic that Levi expresses, while continually struggling with questions of doubt that Wiesel and Hopkins both raise. In spite of my doubts and philosophical questioning, I hope to nevertheless “greet [God] the days I meet him,” whether it be in the face of the Other or in more spiritual, esoteric encounters with my Creator and Lord. 

[1] The Night Trilogy, pg. 42.

[2] The Night Trilogy, pg. 43.

[3] Hopkins’ poetry was not published until the 20th century, when the literary climate was more receptive to his poetic style and philosophy; thus closer comparisons can be made between Hopkins’ work and modern poetry than can be made between Hopkins’ work and Victorian poetry. I will focus on the work of these three authors with respect to theodicy, and will not make grand comparisons between their time periods or biographies.  

[4] A fifth nun had already drifted out to sea. See Readings of the Wreck, 33.

[5] “Love” might be going too far in the case of Wiesel. His work tends to be more cynical than Hopkins’ and Levi’s.

[6] “O Herr, gib jedem seinen eignen Tod,” The Book of Hours.

[7] The Readings of The Wreck, pg. 33.

[8] This interpretation is conjectural: snowy weather might also have made it difficult for distant sailors to see the ship (Readings of The Wreck, pg. 25).

[9] Readings of The Wreck, pg. 35.


[10] This allusion was drawn out in a class lecture on Hopkins by Dr. Stephen Prickett, April 20, 2004.

[11] This is referred to in stanza 16.

[12] Stanza 16. This is a strange syntactical structure, which Hopkins uses instead of “to and the fro” or “to and fro.” Hopkins most likely put equally beats on this part of the line to show the equal relationship of waxing and waning, as well as the equal relationship between the pendulum’s upward and downward swings.

[13] Stanza 10.

[14] Stanza 17.

[15] Stanza 29.

[16] Stanza 30.

[17] Stanza 35.

[18] Hopkins coined “instress.” It typically means “to be expressed in.” God’s instress would be how he manifests his particular essence (which Hopkins called “inscape”) in the world, mainly through men.


Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Wreck of the Deutschland. Boston: D. Godine, 1971.

Levi, Primo. “Shemá.” Holocaust Poetry. Ed. Hilda Schiff. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 256.

Mariani, Paul. “ ‘O Christ, Christ, Come Quickly!’: Lexical Plenitude and Primal Cry at the Heart of The Wreck.”  Readings of the Wreck: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of G. M. Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland. Ed. Peter Milward. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1976. 32-41 

Martin, Philip. “ ‘Christens Her Wild-Worst Best’: The Experience of the Nuns and the General Significance of The Wreck.” Readings of the Wreck: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of G. M. Hopkins’ The Wreck of the Deutschland. Ed. Peter Milward. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1976. 22-31.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Book of Hours. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 

Wiesel, Elie. The Night Trilogy. NY: Hill and Wang, 1990.