Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky she keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.
The first two lines are nicely descriptive of a ship sweeping out into the snowy ocean. She is leaving the safe haven behind her—what ships do, and yet it would have been so much better if she had stayed. I like the description of the sea spray as “the sea flint-flake”—it’s as black as a flake of flint, and also stingingly hard like flint. You can almost see the waves streaking black beneath the snowy sky.
“Cursed quarter,” to me, suggests yet again the hint that Hopkins makes that God is not the author of the storm, as He is not the author of evil. Instead, the storm is part of the “curse”—one of the ways sin has broken the created world.
The last four lines all use alliteration and other Hopkins-favored sound techniques to show us the harshness of the sea. The snow is like wires, like white fire, but those repeated w’s also force our lips to echo something of the sound of the wind. And “widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps” is a strong description of the mercilessness of the sea—how it takes husbands, children, fathers, and leaves the survivors of these relationships mourning their untimely loss.
She dove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvas and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.
Again Hopkins shows us the detail he possesses about the wreck: it was at night, the ship struck a sandbar, it was pulled toward the Kentish Knock. (Wikipedia tells me this is an area of the ocean off the coast of Kent and Essex.) But, though he reports these details with a journalistic accuracy and compactness in the first four lines, he expands on them with the insight of an eyewitness in the last four. The ship is beating on the sand now, as if to conquer it, but the rolling of the breakers are destroying the ship: they will win. The apparatus of the ship—sails, compass, coils of rope, the wheel—are not necessarily destroyed, but they are useless here. The line gives me an instant image of the wheel turning idly with no one standing by it, because steering is pointless when the ship has run aground.
Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.
Skip ahead twelve hours (or perhaps twenty-four? We have gone from night, to day, to night again) and hope is beginning to fade. It’s too late for hope; hope is getting old. Day was bad, but night is much worse. The lights the survivors see in the darkness are only their own flares. Up to now there hasn’t been much death—apparently the ship was sufficiently undamaged for people to survive on it—but after all this time they are dying of cold. The icy wind is still blowing and the waves are still washing over the ship.
One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild womankind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece; what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?
Ah, a hero! A sailor is coming down from the rigging to help the panicked women passengers in the hold. For a moment we are excited and proud—something is being done. But he is thrown down into the sea by the wild motion of the ship. His courage and strong sinewy arms are useless here. The worst of it is in the sixth line: that rope that he had tied around himself to keep from falling has kept him attached to the ship. The survivors have to see his body bobbing through the waves for hours. The hero is no good against the forces of nature.