And then the tale, at long last, begins.
A real story, a true story, like that of the Titanic. “On Saturday . . .”sings stanza 12. The true tale of the voyage and wreck of the Deutschland. And the origin and goal of the voyage—from Bremen to America—have their won romantic significance: it is the journey, the quest, the westward expansion, the “American-outward-bound” of the European nations and peoples for four hundred years before Hopkins’ own time. And even with all the details, facts, acts, events of European history, the one Big Story since about 1500 is “American-outward-bound”—a story also synonymous with the break-down of Christendom.
While the passengers believe they are going to America—to newness, to expansion, to freedom perhaps, to the new horizon of “American-outward-bound”—they little know they are doomed, that a fourth of the passengers would die and the others be irrevocably marked, like the survivors of the Titanic, by the forever-altered awareness, in horror, of mortality. Telling this tale as the symbolic meaning of modern European history is fitting, because the ideologies of the modern era—materialism, secularism, capitalism, communism, atheism,--all not only deny God but also deny Death, or rather, not deny Death but ignore Death even while promoting Death.
The chug-chugging along, full ahead, of a big modern engine-powered ship in westward transatlantic crossing is a terrific symbol of the spiritual condition of modern Europe. Of course, we don’t mean, nor did Hopkins, that there’s anything wrong about sea-travel; after all, Dante used the image of a boat all through his Comedy as the image of the soul, the human reality, the Church, and the spiritual life. But the modern powered-ship is rather like an airplane or a rocket—the wonder, near-divine, of modern Man; and something like September 11th or the Space Shuttle disaster, which reminds us of our mortality and fallibility, all the more strikingly glaring in the context of our arrogance. Though modern man be modern, he is no more divine than medieval or ancient man or even cave-man. Man is Man, or “dust!” Yet, yet once we admit Death, then we can start to see the reality of God’s love and blessing.
The 1875 voyage of the Deutschland was as real as the voyage of the Titanic—and on board were those nuns, fleeing the anti-Catholic laws of the newly united Germany (“Deutschland”, by the way, soon to be wrecked!). Thus Hopkins has set up, in this telling of the tale, a real thing which can carry the spiritual significance of the boat in Dante. What magic and what blessing will be in its telling!
On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?