During a three year stay in Wales which was a great blessing to him, Hopkins was commissioned by his superiors to write a poem regarding a disaster in the Thames estuary in 1875 where a ship floundered and about a quarter of the passengers including five Franciscan nuns were drowned.
The poem of 35 densely packed stanzas named The Wreck of the Deutschland, reflects on the mystery of suffering and God’s presence in this disaster. It explores how God is present in the darkness of life’s experiences as much as God is present in the beauty of nature. In the later poems arising out of his personal experience of abandonment and desolation Hopkins maintains this faith. He does not lose sight of God, even as he takes God to task.
Being sent to teach in Newman’s University in Dublin put this openness to God’s presence in both joy and suffering, to the test of experience. Abandonment by the Comforter (Holy Spirit) and Mary, mother of us, to whom he had great devotion was ‘pitched past pitch of grief’. Whatever the circumstances of his times of misery, this was the keenest cut of all. People who have not experienced depression find it hard to understand those who have:
‘Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there’. [ By extension, maybe those who have will be better able to understand the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus who felt abandonment at his crucifixion].
There is always an underlying hope in even the bleakest of Hopkins poems of desolation: these are like the desolate psalms in the OT. Like Jesus: it is MY GOD why have you abandoned me: not: why does this happen to me, or why do I feel abandoned? In fact, even in the desolation, where despair leading to suicide could threaten, hope clings by a slim but real thread of trust in God, which was spun during a life of commitment. If despair ever lurked in his consciousness, he emphatically rejected this course of action:
‘Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee’.
This poem continues with painful questions about why God would subject him to such pain and anguish and ends with ‘…I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God’.
The most bleak of the ‘terrible sonnets’ begins with a line of poetry which people suffering from depression could well understand:
‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’.
Always trying to make sense of what feels without meaning, Hopkins says:
‘God’s most bleak decree bitter(ness) would have me taste’.
If his suffering was due to his commitment to God, it was this same commitment which offered him consolation, which was often a very bleak consolation. But it is clear from the poems that he embraces the darkness and the desolation, indicating that hope has been suppressed but not destroyed. There is no glorification of suffering, but a questioning of why God would have him feel such pain, and ultimately an acceptance of God’s decree.
In stanza 5 of The Wreck of the Deutschland, there is a statement of his stance before God:
‘His mystery must be stressed. / For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand. How ironic that it is in the times of greatest suffering that it is a lack of understanding from God and man which compounds the pain.