The Wreck of the Deutschland: An Essay and Commentary

The Wreck of the Deutschland: An Essay and Commentary

The Wreck of the Deutschland: An Essay and Commentary

The Wreck of the Deutschland: An Essay and Commentary

Excerpt

The experience of Robert Bridges with The Wreck of the Deutschland offers a parallel to the experience of many later readers of the poem. Bridges first saw the Deutschland in 1876, a little more than forty years before he published it in his 1918 edition of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1876 he told Hopkins -- partly, no doubt, in outrageous humor -- that he would not read it again for any money. The poet's reply was characteristic, "Nevertheless I beg you will. Besides money, you know, there is love" (I, 46). By 1918 Bridges had reached at least the motivation which Hopkins desired; all of his friend's poems had become for him a "lov'd legacy" ( Poems, p. [4]). Nevertheless, he was candid in admitting that his admiration for them, especially for the Deutschland, was still qualified. Placing it "logically as well as chronologically in the front of his [ Hopkins'] book," Bridges in his notes used the oft-quoted comparison of the Deutschland to "a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance" ( Poems, 2nd ed., p. 104). The scales of the dragon were resistant not only because of Bridges' unresponsiveness to the thought and style of the poem, but also, as the meagerness of his notes indicates, because of his lack of understanding even at the verbal level.

Other readers have now had the Deutschland for a little more than forty years. Changes in the critical climate and increased knowledge of Hopkins' mind and art have made reading the Deutschland less a project for a literary St. George. However, review of the analysis and comment that have grown up around the poem inclines one to think that understanding has not altogether kept pace with increasing responsiveness.

This disparity is not wholly objectionable; Hopkins himself counseled Bridges not to bother with the meaning but to "pay attention to the best and most intelligible stanzas" (I, 46). He hoped, presumably, that sympathetic familiarity with the poem as a whole would lead Bridges into some understanding of the obscure lines and stanzas. In a subsequent letter, Hopkins actually expanded his counsel more or less to the purport suggested:

Granted that it needs study and is obscure, for indeed I was not over-desirous that the meaning of all should be quite clear, at least unmistakeable, you might, without the effort that to make it all out would seem to have required, have nevertheless read it so that lines and stanzas should be left in the memory and superficial impressions deepened, and have liked some without exhausting all (I, 50).

Something of what Hopkins wished has happened for many readers; at least, whatever their difficulties with individual lines and stanzas, they respond to much of the poem. Yet it is no doubt desirable to . . .

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