So now Hopkins gives us a long meditation on that Tall Nun, from stanza 19 through stanza 31. This is very much the climax of The Wreck of the Deutschland.
Stanza 19 introduces the theme: “Sister, a sister calling/A master, her master and mine!”
Here the Tall Nun is identified, and she calls out even against the storm. Thus our life of Faith is often opposed by the world; it doesn’t take a storm for us to know persecution, though it may take a storm to remind us. Saints and Martyrs provide us, by the romantic, sublime exaggeration of extreme and heroic virtue against the storms of this world’s life, a drama of inspiration. So too does this Tall Nun. And she is pure of heart, authentically directed, well-oriented: “But she that weather sees one thing, one;/ Has one fetch in her.” One fetch!
Stanza 20—“She was first of a five”—gives us the Religious Order of the nuns but at once meditates on the name of the ship and the homeland—“Deutschland”—by ironically juxtaposing St Gertrude & Martin Luther. So here we have a slam broadminded ecumenists would avoid and Lutherans should resent! But while we don’t want to do cartoon history and do to the Protestants what Schiller did to Catholics in Don Carlos, yet we can perhaps see in the juxtaposition of the two Germans, the “lily” and the “beast” a comment on two ways of life—the former, the committed & authentic & vowed life of the Evangelical Counsels, a true Gospel life; and the latter, the renegade, the rebel, the revolutionary. “Lily”, of course, reminds us of both Easter and virginity. “Beast”, beyond the obvious, reminds us of the three beasts “of the waste wood” of darkness and error at the start of Dante’s Comedy—three bestial roots of sin, to be compared to and countered by the three Evangelical Counsels of the Gospel lifestyle of Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience. Here, again, Hopkins is reminding us that his poem is also about the journey of modern Europe—the voyages to America and the revolt of Luther being flipsides of the same story, the breakdown of Christendom. And Hopkins sees this modern story for what it is in theological terms—sin. “From life’s dawn it is drawn down . . .Abel . . .Cain.” Then there is a final image of sucking on breasts. Yes, I know it means Cain & Abel were both babies of Eve, but we cannot help but see the sucking on breasts as an odd, deliberately evocative image in a stanza focused on the authenticity of the Nun. It is a healthy reminder too that the Evangelical life of the Nun does not reject the body, sex, breast-sucking, baby-making, or human culture as bad in themselves—quite the contrary.
Stanza 21—“Loathed for a love”—traces the event of the nuns’ exile in terms both historical and theological. Hopkins links the Hun’s experience of Bismark’s persecution of the Church to the Passion and Sacrifice of Christ. Again, Hopkins theologically sees the whole thing in terms of Love: “Loathed for a love men knew in them” . . .and . . .”They unchancelling poising palms.” And while human eyes would see the sstorm as a storm, Hopkins sees the snow and ice and wind as “scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers.” Once again, God is termed, as before for both the poet’s heart and the Tall Nun, as “Master”, but now “Martyr-master.”
And this theme continues in stanza 22—“Five!”—in identifying the Five Nuns with the Five Wounds of Christ. This stanza is particularly beautiful, especially in the litany—“Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token for lettering . . .ruddying.” No comment can improve the beauty of these lines, but one ritual perhaps reveals them—the stabbing of the Paschal Candle with the five grains of incense signifying Christ’s “holy & glorious wounds”. The phrase “and the word of it Sacrificed” has a direct parallel in form and position to a phrase in the next stanza: “Lovescape crucified.” This next stanza, #23, continues the whole theme with a meditation on the Stigmata of St Francis.
Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.
She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)
Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them. Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.
Five! the finding and sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.
Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the Life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.