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Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 26-36

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G. M. Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland" and Christopher Okigbo's "Lament of the Silent Sisters":
A Comparative Study

Romanus N. Egudu

It should be expected that African writers who have inherited the English language as a colonial legacy, and who are therefore using this language as their creative medium, will manifest in their work some evidence of their contact not only with the language but also with some English writers. For example, the work of some African novelists reflects the influence of some English and European novels; the drama of some African playwrights points to some links with English and even Greek dramatic tradition; and similarly some African poets have reflected in their work the influence of certain English and European poets, as well as such literary movements as romanticism, symbolism, and surrealism. And all this is without prejudice to the natural and essential influence which African traditional oral literature has on these same African writers.

But the specific nature of the foreign influences and the degree of their impact vary greatly from writer to writer in accordance with their imaginative and creative capabilities. In other words, what should be of interest to the critic of African literature in this regard is, perhaps, not simply the mere fact of the English/European influence, but more importantly the use the African writer has made of that influence, that is, without compromising his/her creative originality and emotional as well as cultural identity. And Nigerian Christopher Okigbo's contact with Gerard Manley Hopkins appears to be a fruitful case for this kind of investigation.

Christopher Okigbo (d. 1967), a renowned poet, had, with reference to his poem "Lament of the Silent Sisters," said that "the 'Silent Sisters' are [. . .] sometimes like the drowning Franciscan nuns of Hopkins's 'The Wreck of [End Page 26] the Deutschland'." 1 On the surface this statement implies that there are significant points of convergence between Okigbo's poem and Hopkins's, and that possibly Okigbo imitated Hopkins in some ways, since he was almost a century younger than Hopkins.

On the issue of literary influence, Hopkins himself had written to Robert Bridges, saying, "I must read something of Greek and Latin letters and lately I sent you a sonnet, on the Heraclitean Fire, in which a great deal of early Greek philosophical thought was distilled; but the liquor of the distillation did not taste very Greek, did it? The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise. So it must be on every original artist to some degree, on me to a marked degree."2 Against the backdrop of this statement, it may be worthwhile to see the nature and degree of the effect on Okigbo of his reading of Hopkins's poem, or in other words, to investigate the areas and extent of convergence and/or divergence between the two works under study.

In the first instance, there is the event of a shipwreck in both poems. It is literal and historical (though it later becomes metaphorical and anagogical) in Hopkins's poem, for it is dedicated "To the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns, exiles by the Falck Laws, drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th, 1875." 3 And in the poem itself we are informed that

On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men and with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—(stanza 12).

We next learn that "Into the snows she sweeps, / Hurling the haven behind, / The Deutschland, on Sunday," a day on which the "air is unkind," the "sea flint-flake" and "black-backed," and the "wind" sits "Eastnortheast in cursed quarter," with "Wiry white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow" spinning and sending the ship to the "widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps" (stanza 13).

The depiction of the ship's tragic journey continues with the same historical factuality and emotional intensity in subsequent stanzas. After...


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