What he meant by happiness

Patricia Beer

  • The Wreck of the Deutschland by Sean Street
    Souvenir, 208 pp, £15.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 285 63051 2
  • Hopkins: A Literary Biography by Norman White
    Oxford, 531 pp, £35.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 812099 0

Time brings many surprises, as I have long known, but I never imagined being excited by the news that the nun’s famous cry in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ was almost certainly not uttered by Sister Henrica Fassbaender. But in fact Sean Street’s book The Wreck of the Deutschland, which makes much of this incident, is engrossing from start to finish. It has the further appeal of sounding sympathetic. The author’s motivation throughout the fifteen years he devoted to assembling and deploying his material has clearly been an affectionate anxiety to tell the story fully and accurately rather than to expose people and call down vengeance upon them. His attitude to his chosen wreck is highly possessive, which naturally makes him very selective. Other appalling naval disasters, the blowing up of the Mosel at Bremerhaven, for example, affect him only in so far as they have some connection with the Deutschland. In this case, the Mosel is mentioned as being a sister-ship of the North German line which perished at about the same time.

One cannot say that the book has nothing to do with Hopkins’s poem, for the poem was Street’s original stimulus and the provider of the long-distance stamina he needed for his research. But one can say that his account throws no light whatever on Hopkins’s poetry as such; it is not intended to. Neither does it give any background information which might lead to greater appreciation of this particular poem. In Hopkins’s judgment, all that anybody needs to know about the shipwreck is contained in his dedication: ‘To the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns, exiles by the Falk Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of December 7th, 1875’.

It would be ungrateful, however, to deny the intrinsic interest of Street’s material, extraneous though it is to the poem which inspired it: the chapter on Bismarck, for example. I am not qualified to judge its scholarship but it gives a gripping and suitably menacing account of the Kulturkampf by which he set out to undermine the Catholic Central party; in which enterprise he was supported by Adelbert Falk, the Minister of Religion and Education, whose laws effectively destroyed such religious communities as Salzkotten which was forced to send these five nuns to America, as a place where they could pursue their vocations.

Street writes knowledgeably about naval matters. As a sea-story his book is as riveting as any of C.S. Forester’s and at first we might expect to meet Hornblower shinning down a rope in the nick of time. But Street’s characters develop as the recognisable human beings they actually were, some brave and resourceful, others not. And his situations are all too convincing: people fall out of the rigging and are never seen again, and Hornblower does not shin. The terror conveyed by Hopkins’s poem is inevitably the more insidious but Street can make our blood run cold too, in his own way. The possibility of being off-course is one of the great atavistic fears, and both poet and prose-writer bring our ancestors out in full force.

Hopkins does not name his five nuns. Street does, starting with the tombstone in the Catholic cemetery at Leytonstone which records all of them, though only four were in fact buried there, or anywhere else; beside the name of Henrica Fassbaender somebody has added ‘Not found’. In the course of his narrative Street, with skill and patience, addresses the mystery of what happened to her and exactly when, and whether or not she was ‘the tall nun’ whom Hopkins exalts as the heroine of the wreck who with her dying cry ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’ became the inspiring focus of those terrible hours. He was up against a mass of reports, eye-witness and second-hand, professional and amateur, Protestant and Catholic. One journalist, presumably Protestant, describes how the nuns made it all much worse by their hysterical behaviour; Cardinal Manning, on the other hand, in his funeral oration went over the top with his eulogy of their tranquillity and holy calm. As to the widely-reported final cry, it became debased in the telling and also in the translation from German, so that the ultimate version was ‘My God, make haste’ which might have been anybody, not a nun, shouting at a dilatory lifeboat.

Another difficulty was that apparently there were two tall nuns, one six feet two, another five feet ten. One of the many eloquent photographs shows four open coffins in the church hall awaiting burial and one certainly is longer than the others. The fact that tall nuns need long coffins can be accepted without too much distress, but to spend time pondering on whether the nun was tall or very tall requires ghoulish concentration and in any case leads nowhere very much. Through all this labyrinth of evidence Street picks his way nimbly and does not bully us into accepting anything. We are left with the possibilities that the relevant cry did not come from a. Sister Henrica, b. any of the nuns, c. anybody at all.

The book is quite shamelessly padded. The author, not content with telling us that Sister Henrica was born in Aachen, gives us a detailed history of the town and for good measure quotes two whole verses of ‘How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix’. Not that I am complaining; I could hear these verses with pleasure at any time. We also get a biography of Mary Broadbent, the laundress, later to be a nun herself, who washed and ironed the habits of the drowned Sisters and laid them out in their coffins; but there again, it is interesting. He is far too fertile with his suppositions, suggesting that perhaps as the nuns boarded the Deutschland ‘they reflected on the fact that the River Weser, about to bear them to the open sea was a Westphalian river that flowed through towns and villages not far from Salzkotten.’ It’s better than even money that they reflected on no such thing. But Sean Street’s suppositions do not interfere with his facts; we might as well enjoy them.

After all this it is quite startling, though no doubt salutary, to find the facts of the shipwreck so briskly dealt with in the two recent biographies of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Robert Bernard Martin’s book, published last year, summarises the information in two competent pages. In Norman White’s Hopkins: A Literary Biography his comments on what happened, scattered passim through the relevant chapter, are even more cursory. Obviously neither of them is of the school which thinks, say, that a knowledge of what Maud Gonne put into the picnic basket that afternoon on the beach is necessary to a full understanding of Yeats’s ‘The White Birds’. On the other hand, neither is so inflexibly pure as to deny that background facts can sometimes, if used judiciously, really illuminate poetry.

Norman White does not always pursue this matter as far as he might. When he tells us, for example, that Felix Randal, the farrier, one of Fr Hopkins’s parishioners during his time in Liverpool (1880-81), was actually called Felix Spencer, he is simply making the mild point that Hopkins found subject-matter for his poetry in his parish work. He does not go on to suggest what bearing the name change might have on our reading of ‘Felix Randal’ the poem; and if it has no bearing at all it is hardly worth mentioning. It is clear that the name had to be altered, for at that time, as he rallied from the rejection of ‘The Wreck’, Hopkins was thinking of publishing some of his shorter poems. But why to Randal? He was going to use it as an importantly rhyming word, and though it is not the most difficult two-syllabled surname in the language to find a valid rhyme for, it is not particularly easy either. Is there something about its sound? White does not say.

But if he loses the opportunity, Professor Martin does not. He cuts right across speculations such as these and in doing so gets to the heart of Hopkins’s strenuous way with rhyme. Many of us, including myself, have always supposed that the word ‘sandal’ in the last line, ‘Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal’, exemplifies his extraordinary ability to use as rhymes two or even three-syllabled words, essentially suitable to comic verse, in passages of the utmost seriousness, and that the choice of ‘sandal’ was a daring gamble that brilliantly came off. Martin maintains, with convincing references to Hopkins’s other poems, that ‘sandal’ was not chosen as a rhyme for ‘Randal’ at all, but that it was the word he wanted all along, for itself alone, and that ‘Randal’ was selected for the sole purpose of providing something that rhymed with it.

This comparison between the two biographies does not indicate any sort of sustained judgment. They are both exemplary works. Their appearance within months of each other would make even a congenital sceptic believe in the Zeitgeist. In their differences they complement rather than oppose each other and can usefully be read as parallel texts.

Norman White is more expansive than Robert Martin about the influence the Welsh language may possibly have had on Hopkins’s poetry. From 1874 to 1877 he was studying theology at St Bueno’s College in North Wales at the end of which time he was ordained priest. During these years the Deutschland was wrecked and the poem written. As he says in the key verse which speaks of the nun’s cry, on the night the ship foundered he was

Away in the lovable west
On a pastoral forehead of Wales.

It was obviously important to him to state this. When he first went to St Bueno’s he asked if he could learn Welsh. His request was courteously and not unreasonably turned down, on the grounds that the sacrifice of so much time and energy would hardly be justified unless he was aiming at the conversion of Wales. He could not say that he was and the matter dropped.

In what circumstances it was taken up again is not clear, but we later find him studying the language with a Miss Jones whose Welsh may have been immaculate but whose grasp of English was frail though imaginative: she insisted that a female fairy was called a fairess. What with Miss Jones and the demands which his orthodox studies made on his strength he could not master the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of Welsh, but he went far in his receptivity of its sounds and rhythms as was plain when he came to write ‘The Wreck’. This is doubly interesting because of the connection with Ezra Pound who, thirty years later would in the same way use Anglo-Saxon as a means of developing the rhythms and the sound of his own verse. Hopkins and Pound were clearly at one on this point: the needs of poetry must have priority over the claim of any language to be learned accurately. The difference between them was that whereas Hopkins would probably have been worried by having to make such a choice, it is highly unlikely that Pound, with his fine insouciance on such matters, would have given a damn.

In his preface Robert Martin expresses a fear that his book ‘will not satisfy all those lovers of Hopkins with a specialised interest in his art’. Possibly not, but he gives an excellent short account of Hopkins’s innovatory sprung rhythm to which these specialists might well direct their students or with which they might even refresh themselves. Norman White discusses sprung rhythm at much greater length, though, again, passim. A particularly enlightening passage is about the reaction of Robert Bridges to ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ and the new techniques it employed. As a friend of some years, he wrote directly to Hopkins. He had grasped what sprung rhythm was sufficiently to parody it, but demanded rhetorically if such an invention was really necessary, adding that not for any money would he read the poem again. Hopkins pointed out with dignity that there was, famously, an alternative inducement to money and begged him to try it again, suggesting, quite nastily for him, that Bridges need not bother himself with the meaning. Bridges’s attitude is dismally prophetic of what the Modernist poets at the turn of the century were to encounter. Much more congenial was the first response of R.W. Dixon, the Anglican clergyman who had taught Hopkins in his schooldays at Highgate. He must have been totally confused by the tortuous explanation of sprung rhythm that Hopkins sent him but the poem itself which soon followed he received with a ‘delight, astonishment and admiration’ which he could but poorly express; and he kept off the subject of sprung rhythm altogether.

The tale of Hopkins’s life does not permit much diversity in the telling; it has chiefly to record the long stages of a Jesuit training and the successive appointments of the individual priest once he has been ordained. Both biographies do this scrupulously. But there are of course varieties of emphasis. Martin makes a great deal more of the Digby Dolben affair than White does. Dolben was a religiose, poetical and dreamily charming youth, a bit of a goose, whom Hopkins met at Oxford in 1865, and to whom he became strongly and painfully attracted. They corresponded: that is to say, Hopkins wrote a great many letters only a few of which Dolben answered. They never met again. The poor boy drowned two years later. Of these basic facts Martin makes, without strain, a lengthy account which is shrewd, affectionate and at appropriate moments very funny. White confines himself to a relatively few passages about Dolben and even they are fragmentary and sketchy. Digby’s aren’t-I-gorgeous photograph does not adorn his book.

When it comes to Hopkins’s years in Dublin (1894-9) Norman White’s account is much the fuller of the two – very naturally, as he is currently teaching at University College Dublin, a foundation which in Hopkins’s day was being vigorously developed as a Catholic university to rival Trinity College. ‘There was an Irish row over my election,’ reported Hopkins when he was appointed professor of Greek to the aspiring new college, and he was putting it mildly. At first glance, he might seem to have been a suitable choice: a well-qualified academic and a Jesuit, fully trained and by this time fairly experienced, with the bonus that, as Jesuits were not allowed to possess money, his salary would go straight into the windy spaces of the College coffers. But given the ramifications of the situation – political, religious, nationalistic and parochial – many more glances than the first were needed. From the beginning Hopkins was cynically exploited. White gives us all the details. They are distressing.

The mental sufferings of Hopkins in these last five years of his life have, both then and now, been received with a degree of scepticism in certain quarters. At the time some of his colleagues tended to be bracing when he lamented his excessive workload of marking at examination times and the ignorance and insensitivity of his students. Even today we might reflect that he was not the first to make such complaints, nor will he be the last. Nobody can blame the Jesuits for his pain; people do, but in fact, as Martin in particular stresses throughout, the Order consistently made intelligent allowances for his health and temperament. Furthermore, his superiors never questioned the reality of his vocation – indeed, neither did he. In ordinary human terms, as White abundantly and sympathetically makes clear, he could be awkward, and he certainly provoked some of his own discomfort. His judgment of situations and people was faulty, and not steadily but erratically so: one day he said that a fellow Jesuit, Père Mallac, had a face which reminded him of the Devil, and the next day described him as ‘a dear old French Father, very clever and learned’; it is obviously the same person.

The poems he was writing in these years show that his agony of mind was something more terrible and incomprehensible than could be caused by everyday frustration and misery. Into them he poured the torments of his whole life. Even thoughtless young Digby Dolben, who did not write back, appears in them; as God, moreover, who likewise did not answer those

‘cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives, alas away’.

To understand the unhappiness that permeated so much of his life on earth one has, I think, to consider what he meant by happiness. He clearly meant something precise by it. When as a student I came across his dedication to ‘the happy memory’ of the five nuns, I assumed that he had met them before, in some pleasant carefree situation, and I was startled to find that he knew them only against the background of that horrifying night. Later, but before I realised that Felix Randal started life as Felix Spencer, I felt that Felix was an inappropriate name for him, and when I did, that it could usefully have been changed at the same time as his surname; his illness sounds so dreadful in spite of the ‘heavenlier heart’ that he achieved before the end. I have come to wonder if perhaps he was chosen for the poem (after all, Fr Hopkins must have ministered to many dying men) because he was called Felix. In speaking of Hopkins’s own deathbed, Norman White refers to a tradition held by the Jesuits that the dying man’s last words were: ‘I am so happy.’ His biographer is wisely cautious about this anecdote, remarking that it is suspiciously in keeping with Victorian conventions. I think he probably was happy and said so.