“Some find me a sword, some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood” goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dream we are rooted in earth – Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.
The words of Death begin the second half of the poem. Indeed, there will be much death in this section. All must come to die, each by different routes. The sword, the flame, fang, and flood are obvious. A flange is an overhanging rim or piece—perhaps the reference is to falling off a ledge where the rim did not hold? I can’t be certain . . . it was probably chosen more for alliteration than clarity. In any event, storms are one way people die, and the howling of the mighty winds speak of death.
Yet we don’t imagine death will come for us. We’re so sure of our securities and plans—yet all these things are dust. Think of the landowner who built bigger barns for himself, sure this would bring him security, and that very night his soul was required of them. All is dust. The suddenness of that word reminds us of the suddenness of it.
Flesh falls within sight of us—see how often we are aware of those we know dying. Nowadays death is so often sterile; we don’t see it with our own eyes, and yet we know it happens. We read on the news of people who walked out of their front doors in the morning, confident in the security of their lives, and met their death the same day unawares. Yet having heard this, we are not moved to think of our own death. We know we are made of the same mortal material, and yet we tend to forget that death will come to us too.
The metaphor of farming fits the stanza well: think of the book of Isaiah: “All flesh is grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of the field.” So when the scythe and the plowshare come to us, bitter as they are, it should not be a surprise. A limited growing season was in our nature to begin with.
On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, take men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the millions of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?
Finally we get down to the actual story of the Deutschland. It sailed out on Saturday from Bremen for America. On board were passengers as well as sailors, women as well as men—two hundred altogether. After that brief bit of fact, Hopkins returns to mysticism, considering the fate of those who died.
The fifth line used to confuse me: I thought it was saying that the Father didn’t know the goal was a shoal. Now I’m pretty certain it was the two hundred souls who, not being “under thy feathers,” i.e. within the heart of God, could not guess what their journey would come to. A fourth of those on board were fated to drown. Doom, by the way, means both fate and judgment—the dooms of a king were his judgments, often his punishments. So when we hear that these people were doomed to drown, we need not think of a faceless fate, but simply of the fact that God had decided this would be the moment of their death.
God chose for them to die—does that mean they are beyond His mercy? No, the wide bay of God’s goodness, His “millions of rounds of” infinite mercy had room for them, even them, who seemed to have been rejected by God in the manner of their death. After all, who could be blamed but God for the storm? Think of Turnbull’s accusation of God in Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross:
"A man died yesterday in Ealing. You murdered him. A girl had the toothache in Croydon. You gave it her. Fifty sailors were drowned off Selsey Bill. You scuttled their ship. What have you got to say for yourself, eh?"
This is a major point—perhaps the major point—of the poem. It has been answered in stanza six and it will be continued to be answered throughout the poem. The partial answer this stanza offers is that God is not allowing their death to damn them when they die—He has mercy saved for them as well.
(Reeve means to gather, especially to bring together the gathers of a dress, but I suppose it works for gathering souls as well.)