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  • Hopkins and Hardy:Shipwreck, Knowing, and Not Knowing
  • Tom Docherty (bio)

But the boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking upon the sea. And they seeing him walk upon the sea, were troubled, saying: It is an apparition. And they cried out for fear. And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying: Be of good heart: it is I, fear ye not.

—Matthew 14:24–27

Doth not interpretation belong to God?

—Genesis 40:81

It would be of great interest and worth, not least for the purposes of this essay, had Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy met or corresponded. They did not, but they came tantalizingly close. Hopkins's brother, Arthur, was hired to make the illustrations for the serialization of Hardy's novel The Return of the Native in 1878; Hardy wrote to Arthur Hopkins to discuss the works.2 Despite this, there is no evidence that Hardy ever came to know of Gerard Manley Hopkins or his poetry. The latter, for his part, certainly read Hardy's novels. Hopkins wrote two letters to Robert Bridges, admonishing him for a presumed failure to esteem Hardy: "How admirable are Blackmore and Hardy! … Do you know the bonfire-scenes in the Return of the Native and still better the sword-exercise scene in the Madding Crowd, breathing epic? or the wife-sale in the Mayor of Casterbridge (read by chance)?" And elsewhere: "Perhaps you are so barbarous as not to admire Thomas Hardy—as you do not Stevenson; both, I must maintain, men of pure and direct genius."3

As an admiring spectator, Hopkins discusses Hardy's novels in the way one might discuss plays; Hardy's novels are commended by the quality of individual "scenes." There is something of a frustrated dramatist in Hopkins, which could explain his affection for Hardy—a wish to emulate in poems the theatrical effects Hardy achieved in novels. There are several dramas among [End Page 477] Hopkins's unfinished projects: Floris in Italy, Castara Victrix, St. Winefred's Well. But his finest, finished drama is his longest poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (begun in 1875 and published posthumously in 1918). Apart from telling a tragic story, it has a cast of characters who relate and converse in various ways: God the Father, Hopkins himself, the ship, the tall nun, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary. Hardy's poem "The Convergence of the Twain" (1912), subtitled "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic," is another much shorter drama, which nonetheless involves three central personae: the ship, the iceberg, and the Immanent Will that brings them ineluctably together.

That Hopkins and Hardy should both have written poems about shipwreck is not in itself surprising. (Hopkins wrote another long poem on "The Loss of the Eurydice"; there are fragments and suggestions of the theme of shipwreck elsewhere in his work.4) Shipwreck is a perennial literary theme, a staple of the ancient literature in which both Hopkins and Hardy were well versed: the Odyssey's narrative begins immediately after a shipwreck; the Aeneid begins in the midst of one; so too Ovid's Tristia. The motif has long since traveled into English: some of the language's most famous ballads, from "Sir Patrick Spens" to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," are stories of shipwrecks; seven of Shakespeare's plays involve them.5

This essay considers how Hopkins and Hardy treat the drama of shipwreck and, most crucially, how their poems of shipwreck think about, or are in themselves, ways of knowing. Though these poems are peculiarly alike in some ways, they differ perhaps most of all in their epistemologies, in what they perceive knowing to be. The purpose of this essay is not to provide a comprehensive comparison of the two poems but rather to consider in each poem questions of knowing and not knowing: what each poem purports to know; how and when (particularly in relation to its shipwreck) it arrives at what it purports to know; what, in its view, remains not known or not knowable; and...