Death on Drum: Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Mystery of Suffering

Why did these five Franciscan sisters, the victims of Bismarck’s anti-Catholic persecution which had forced them into exile, have to die, apparently so senselessly?

An illustration of the wreck of the SS Deutschland, from the 1887 book, ‘The Sea: its stirring story of adventure, peril & heroism’
An illustration of the wreck of the SS Deutschland, from the 1887 book, ‘The Sea: its stirring story of adventure, peril & heroism’ (photo: Flickr / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The mystery of suffering, or the problem of pain as C. S. Lewis called it, has puzzled people since time immemorial, for as long, in fact, as people have been asking fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of life. In one of the earliest works of literature known to man, Homer’s Odyssey, the Father of the Gods offers the divine perspective of the problem. “For shame,” says Zeus, “how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given.”

Let’s look a little closer at what Homer is telling us through the words of Zeus. He is saying that most of the suffering in the world is caused by man’s own recklessness, or what Christians would call sin. Evil actions have evil consequences and we should not blame the gods, or God, for the suffering we bring upon ourselves through our own recklessly selfish actions. So far, so good. But what of the innocent victims of the sins of others? What about the victims of domestic violence, or sexual abuse, or those who are the victims of theft or other acts of injustice? Zeus might respond that he is not responsible for the sins of men and that those who are the victims of human sin should blame the sinners and not the gods. 

This might also seem fair enough until we start thinking a little more deeply about what Zeus is saying. The problem lies in the power of God to prevent evil from happening. If God is omnipotent, why does he permit the innocent to suffer at the hands of the wicked? Why doesn’t he prevent the evil from happening? If God is able to stop the suffering but chooses not to do so, is he not a party to the evil itself, a partner in crime? This, in a nutshell, is the real heart of the mystery of suffering.

A reading of The Odyssey illustrates that Homer had not only asked these difficult questions but had offered answers. His epic is a meditation on how suffering “is given” to Odysseus as the means by which he learns humility and grows in the virtue necessary to make progress on the path of wisdom that leads him home. This is why some suffering “is given” by the gods as a gift, as Zeus states in the passage from The Odyssey which we’ve quoted. Without such a gift, progress on the path of wisdom and virtue is not possible.  

One of the most profound meditations on the mystery of suffering is given by the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his marvelous tour de force, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” A Jesuit priest, as well as being possibly the finest poet of the Victorian age, Hopkins was prompted to write the poem after reading the report of a shipwreck off the coast of England in December 1875. The poem is dedicated “to the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns, exiles by the Falck Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of December 7.”

Why did these five Franciscan sisters, the victims of Bismarck’s anti-Catholic persecution which had forced them into exile, have to die, apparently so senselessly? Inspired by reports in the newspapers that one of the nuns, the tallest of the group, had called her fellow passengers to prayer and penance on the ship as they faced imminent death, Hopkins set about writing one of the deepest and most penetrating meditations on the problem of pain ever written, doing so in the form of a true poetic masterpiece.  

The poem is divided into two parts. The first part, consisting of 10 stanzas, is a meditation on suffering itself; the second part, consisting of 25 stanzas, is a narrative of the shipwreck itself, focusing specifically on the tall nun, seen in the mystical light established in the very first stanza.

The scene is set in the very opening lines, which are addressed to “Thou mastering me God!” who is “giver of breath and bread” and “Lord of living and dead,” as well as being “sway of the sea,” the commander of the waves. There is no doubt that Hopkins wants us to see God’s presence in the natural disaster we are about to witness and that we are meant to discern his permissive will in the deaths of the five Franciscan sisters and the other passengers. This is made all the more apparent by the allusion to the Book of Job in the opening lines. 

The second stanza professes the poet’s own acceptance and embrace of suffering in his own life and vocation, “I did say yes / O at lightning and lashed rod,” and his acceptance of God’s willingness to see the priest-poet suffer: “Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess / Thy terror, O Christ, O God.” 

We know, therefore, from the opening stanzas that what follows is not for the fainthearted, nor for fair-weather Christians.

The choice that the poet faces is “the frown of his face before me, the hurtle of hell behind,” a choice between moving towards the face of God purgatorially or fleeing from him toward the hell, which is the only alternative. Purgatorial suffering or infernal suffering: this is the only choice facing the Christian. Such knowledge is itself a gift given, a grace, making the heart “dovewinged.”

Stanza four begins with one of the most succinct definitions of who we are as human persons made in the image of God and understood in the light of the memento mori. “I am soft sift in an hourglass,” says the poet, speaking for all of us, in the person of Everyman.

The following stanzas offer astonishing insights into the fact that the mystery of suffering does not begin in Heaven, in which suffering will not be present, but in the mystery of the Incarnation:

  It dates from day
  Of his going into Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life gray;
  Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat...

   And then, in stanza nine, he raises a prayer calling upon God’s wrath to descend on men that he might be adored:

  Be adored among men,
  God, three-numberèd form:
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
  Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.

Evoking the imagery of the smithy, and the hammer striking red-hot metal “with an anvil-ding,” he calls for God to forge his will: “Make mercy in all of us, out of us all / Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.” 

Thus ends the first part of the poem, which serves as the preparatory preamble for the narrative about the real-life shipwreck that follows.

The second part begins with the voice of “Death on drum,” with storms bugling his fame, reminding us that we are dust and that to dust we are destined to return. With this Ash Wednesday carrion-clarion cry, or carillon call, the story of the shipwreck begins.

The ship sails from Bremen, the German port, bound for the United States, with around 200 people on board, passengers and crew, braving the storm, “the sea flint-flake” and the “wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow,” which, ominously, “spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.”

The following stanzas depict the horrors of the wreck as the ship runs aground on a sandbank, with descriptions of people drowning or falling to their deaths, and “the woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check.” It is then that that the tall nun enters the picture: “A lioness arose breasting the babble, / A prophetess towered in the tumult…”

In mystical terms, awash with numerological significance, the five Franciscan sisters are joined with the five wounds of Christ and the stigmata of St. Francis, sharing in the sacrifice of “father Francis, drawn to the Life that died” and with that of Christ himself. As for the death of the tall nun, her final moments are depicted as being the night of her wedding in which, as a bride of Christ, her love is consummated with the Bridegroom’s taking her into his arms:

  Jesu, heart’s light,
    Jesu, maid’s son,
  What was the feast followed the night
  Thou hadst glory of this nun?

All’s well that ends well for the faithful and courageous sister but what of the miserable sinners who shared her fate in the wreckage? “Well, she has thee for the pain, for the / Patience; but pity of the rest of them!” Surely our hearts should bleed for the “comfortless unconfessed of them,” those sorry souls who were unprepared for sudden death. What of them?

The tall nun was herself their comfort and their hope, and the presence of God himself in their midst, who would “startle the poor sheep back.” It is in this light, which is the light of Christ, that we should see the suffering which “is given” in the natural disasters and the storms of life, both real and figurative. Seen in this light, which is nothing less than the light of heaven, we can see, as the poet tells us, echoing the words of Shakespeare in The Tempest, that the shipwreck is a harvest and the storm carries the grain to God.  

This essay first appeared in Catholic World Report and is republished with permission.