How and Why to Memorise |1| The Wreck of the Deutschland

There are reasons to learn off by heart; even if it’s mindless, even if you’re not an actor, even if you’re not a poet, even if you’re not Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada.  I say so because over the summer of 2014 I memorised The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins (GMH), and it was mindless and interesting all at once.

Deutschland is a (very) long poem about the sinking of a ship with five nuns onboard.  GMH, as a very-religious-but-very-conflicted-and-gay man himself, uses it as a way into all kinds of thought about faith, fear, religious terror and wonder.    [pullquote] You can say it all in about the time it takes to cycle from the city centre to Santry.  It’s also amazing. [/pullquote]

Why did I do this?  I like Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I’m a massive dweeb.  I was working long hours in a theatre and the lights were off, so I couldn’t read.  Does it matter?  Regardless, this piece documents some of the things I probably never would have thought about the Deutschland if I hadn’t spent a lot of time mindlessly repeating it out loud; out of the mindlessness comes the interest.

The first stanza of Deutschland establishes the form of the 34 to follow.  Each is eight lines long, and the rhyming scheme is ABABCBCA.

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

This first verse is a single stretched-out sentence.  Within that, though, it’s broken into two sections of four lines each.  GMH does this a lot; as in the above, he uses the first to establish a subject and the second to say something about it (the subject’s argument).    There’s a nice paradox in the fact that GMH’s writing is very polished, the sounds are rigorously worked out and densely connected, but its tone is very conversational.  It muses, it digresses, it adds and qualifies, it corrects itself.  He takes four lines to decide what he means.

-You aren’t just giver of breath and bread, you’re also the world’s strand.  You aren’t just the world’s strand, etc.


-When I say you’ve bound bones and veins in me, I suppose I mean you’ve fastened me flesh.  (yes, that’s better!)

Practically speaking, those first four lines are sayable in a breath and I find it the most natural way to do it.  Each clause is an attempt at an answer to the same question:

 Who’s this God guy?

Dramatically speaking, you could say that the poet – and by extension the speaker of the poem – has one goal throughout the first four lines.

Or, alternatively, you could treat each image as being worthy of consideration in its own right; you could say each line slowly with a ruminative pause after.  Doing so, though, blurs the sense of how they all relate to one another.  More, it blurs a listener’s sense of why you’re speaking.  You’re no longer clarifying, adding detail to make the aggregate picture more adequate, you’re just listing for listing’s sake.  Most, it means the poem takes even longer to say, you won’t be finished when you get to your Nana’s house.  Awful.

The second half of the verse, then, answers the followup question:

 Yeah, God.  I know him.  What about him?

The final line of the stanza ends with an A-rhyme, same as the first line, neatly reminding us of where this thought started off. Good way to open the poem: tell us who God is, give us a situation in which his finger upon you has almost undone you with dread, premonitory shivers of all the ship-sinking to come.