The Common Good
July 2008

The Poetry of Exclusion

by Dale W. Brown | July 2008

Ron Hansen’s Exiles delicately displays the conjoining of the literary with the historical, biographical, philosophical, and even the theological.

Ron Hansen’s Exiles delicately displays the conjoining of the literary with the historical, biographical, philosophical, and even the theological. Once again Hansen’s imaginative range surprises and entertains. The author of such diverse novels as The Assassi­nation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus, Hitler’s Niece, Isn’t it Romantic?, and a collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, Hansen this time strikes a rich vein with the story of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his fascination with the story of the five young German nuns who died in the sinking of the Deutschland in December 1875. The novel is at once the story of Hopkins’ dazzling poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a report of the historical circumstances that led to the tragedy at sea, a meditation on lives given over to the service of God, an inspired take on the days of agony as the foundered ship gave up 60 lives, and the story of Hopkins’ own life of sacrifice, regret, failure, and hope.

Readers of Hopkins’ poetry will find in this novel a fascinating rendition of the life of a poet who thought himself “Fortune’s football.” Drawing on Paul Mariani’s biography of Hopkins, the work of various Hopkins scholars, and Hopkins’ own correspondence and notebooks, Hansen paints a portrait of a poet beset by doubts about his poetic gifts. Shortly before his untimely death in 1889, Hopkins felt that he may well have been guilty of “shutting off the grace of inspiration by not paying enough attention to his poetic gift.” Hansen is particularly strong in his depiction of Hopkins’ sense of calling and the price of his conversion to the Catholic faith. In a time when many thoughtful people regarded God as “an interesting uncertainty,” Hopkins wrote of a God who is, instead, “an incomprehensible certainty.” Under Cardinal John Henry Newman’s influence, Hopkins’ move toward Rome culminated in his ordination in 1877. Hansen notes that “in their hostility to his faith no family members attended” the ceremonies and imagines Hopkins’ thoughts: “This is my wedding and they aren’t here.”

HANSEN FOLLOWS HOPKINS’ career as a Jesuit and includes the dramatic black moods that haunted the poet all his life. In an 1878 letter, Hopkins speaks of fame as “a great danger in itself.” He was intermittently fearful that his poetic pursuits might be at odds with his calling to humility and faith. At the same time, Hansen captures the sense that Hopkins may have had of being undervalued as he endured rejections and misunderstanding in those moments when he attempted to publish his daringly original verse. Even his principal defender, the eventual poet laureate Robert Bridges, “was never wholly at ease with his friend’s work”—surely the general public would not warm to this sprung rhythm, this new sort of poetry. Hansen draws heavily on Bridges to register the general neglect of Hopkins’ work during his own lifetime.

If Hopkins, then, was an exile from family and fame, he was not unlike the five sisters who boarded the Deutsch­land in 1875 as a result of Bismarck ostracizing their church. On their way to Missouri to minister “to every need of the poor in America, especially in hospitals and orphanages,” the five nuns died in the slow sinking of the ship that had foundered on a reef in the Thames River. When he read of the tragedy in The Times, Hopkins spoke of “the deep impression” the story made on him. The account left him “close to tears.” Hansen uses those same newspaper reports to imagine the horrors of their deaths at sea.

Much of the novel, in fact, belongs to the nuns. Much as he imagined cloistered life in Mariette in Ecstasy, Hansen here traces the backgrounds of the five sisters. Using scant historical materials, he fleshes out impressive portraits of the paths that may have led to holy orders, the painful farewells at the convent, and the questions and convictions that emerged in their final hours on the doomed ship. The story led Hopkins to break his seven-year silence and give the world his astounding poem, stanzas of which appear throughout the novel.

Did the event offer Hopkins the moment to consider his own bewilderments about “the incomprehensible certainty?” Hansen allows the nuns the phrase, “We sometimes seem God’s playthings.” But in the end, there is something like trust in the mystery of God’s providence—both for the sisters and for the poet. Hopkins’ childhood motto was “To be rather than seem,” and he was apparently unsure to the end about whether he had reached that dream. What Hansen achieves here is rendering both the drama of the lost ship as well as the drama of lives longing to be known, willing to be exiled, given in service to God.

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