Monday, December 7, 2020

The year was 1875. We remember the epic 35 stanza poem, "Wreck of the Deutschland." The reading is from Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Moonless darkness stands between."

It is the 7th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The Year Was 1875.

When we talk about "Germany" before 1871, we are not referring to one country but rather a region. What was once part of the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved into several small states. In 1871 Germany unified under Kaiser Wilhelm. This was the so-called "Second Kingdom" after Charlemagne's "First Kingdom"… also called the First and Second Reich… you can see what Hitler would do with this language.

One of the Kaiser's critical programs was the creation of a singular "German" culture. The "kulturkampf" or "culture wars" were legislative attempts to quell dissent. The New York Times reported that a German cultural minister warned of a "Red Republic" of atheism and communism. The recently enacted "Falk Laws" were part of this Kulturkampf and had crippled the Catholic Church's autonomy and banned various Catholic religious orders from the empire.

Five Franciscan nuns, Barbara Hultenschmidt, Henrika Fassbender, Norbeta Reinkobe, Aurea Badziura, and Brigitta Damhorst, arranged to flee to America. They boarded a Scottish built passenger ship called the Deutschland to New York via Southampton, England. On the 6th of December, close to midnight, the Deutschland struck a shoal off the English coast. The weather muffled their distress signals, and the boat languished for hours. It was early in the morning on this, the 7th of December in 1875, that those five nuns and 25 others perished at sea.

News spread of this tragic event, and James Jones, the rector at St. Beuno's College in North Wales, thought a poetic ode might be composed. He knew one of his students was once a poet before he abandoned verse for the ministry. Jones asked the onetime amateur poet Gerard Manley Hopkins if he might consider the challenge. The result was the epic 35 stanza "Wreck of the Deutschland." Like all his poetry, the Victorian Hopkins was not published or known in his lifetime. This poem was published in the era of modernism and T.S. Eliot. And one could mistake elements of the sprawling poetry for Eliot's own work. It is considered by some to be his greatest poem. The first stanzas lay the foundation of Hopkins own relationship with God, culminating with:

"It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden's knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat"

The second part takes up specifics from the story of the Deutschland:

"On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—"

Hopkins's renown would be based on his imaginative rhyme structure, the "sprung rhyme," and his prolific use of alliteration and assonance. From "The Windhover" to "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" and "God's Grandeur," Hopkins would become one of the most famous posthumous poets of all time, and his return to poetry was inspired by the events of this, the 7th of December in 1875 when the Deutschland tragically sunk killing five exiled nuns.

The reading for today comes from Hopkins, "Moonless darkness stands between."

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and always:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose own "Falk Law" requires that he end all cross-examinations with a misleading conclusion only to ask then "just one more thing." The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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