Godless, Dangerous…Homoerotic?: Tragic Shipwrecks and ‘Liquid Waists’ in GM Hopkins’s Poetry
by Tyler Clark
The ocean is a dangerous place. The Victorians certainly knew this, if their widespread artistic accounts of shipwrecks tell us anything at all. Indeed, The Victorian Web has an entire article on how frequently people throughout the nineteenth century died off-shore, citing:
Such sea disasters occurred frequently enough during the past two centuries that many artistic and literary figures not only could have encountered them in newspaper accounts and other published shipwreck narratives but also could have been acquainted with them more intimately. (“The Reality of Shipwreck”)
Novels and poetry in particular explore shipwrecks almost exhaustively, especially in Gothic fiction; one thinks of the ending of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, where the love interest dies in an oceanic tempest just after admitting his love to the heroine, or William Black’s A Daughter of Heth, where interestingly enough the same exact thing occurs. This comparison isn’t merely coincidental, but rather an example of a cultural view of water in the nineteenth century: tragedy, particularly of an amorous bent, is deeply wedded to shipwreck, drowning, and the Godless expanses of the ocean.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is no stranger to this phenomenon, as his most famous poem is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” which has the unique perspective of pertaining to a real historical sinking where five Franciscan nuns drowned aboard in 1875. In a horrifying account using his signature rhyming style, Hopkins writes:
They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told. (57)
“The Wreck of the Deutschland” mirrors traditional Victorian artistic renditions of tidal tragedy. Death, while off-shore, is near hellish in its intensity; a paradigm forms, in a way, where God’s ground is good and God’s seas are diabolical. The narrator of the poem positions themselves as safe away on shore, hearing of the tragedy through a news report:
Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales; (59)
The deaths abroad haunt the narrator, and Hopkins, like many of his contemporaries, would have been well-versed in the centuries’ old tales of ghoulish oceans and the many souls that they have claimed.
However, when considering many of Hopkins’s later poems, a more interesting relationship with water and the oceans emerges. Water is often written about longingly, almost lovingly, as a space for respite. For Hopkins, perhaps subversively, water is also communal, divine, and most importantly homoerotic. Hopkins converted to Catholicism when he was only twenty-two years old, and he served as a Jesuit priest for the rest of his life. On top of this, according at least to his surviving letters and journals, he also struggled to accept his same-sex attraction that he at times felt rather intensely. What emerges, especially for those intimate with Hopkins’s biography, is a strange concoction of homoerotic Catholic imagery that hangs in the background for much of his poetry. Take, for instance, this sermon he preachedat the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Bedford, Leigh of Greater Manchester in 1879:
There met in Jesus Christ all things that can make man lovely and loveable. In his body he was most beautiful… They tell us that he was moderately tall, well built and slender in frame, his features straight and beautiful, his hair inclining to auburn, parted in the midst, curling and clustering about the ears and neck as the leaves of a filbert. (271)
His attraction towards other men is often sublimated into his love for Jesus Christ. God is ever-present in his religious sermons and poetry – and so too is a homoerotic aesthetics of longing.
What then does this have to do with water and the ocean? As I mentioned previously, water throughout Hopkins’s poetry is a communal space, and he often wrote of its ability to bring people together. Perhaps the most notable example of this is in “Epithalamion,” where Hopkins writes of a scene of nude men bathing in a lake, which he intended as a gift for his brother’s wedding. The poem is unfinished, and the rather strange euphoric descriptions of young men bathing intermingles awkwardly with Hopkins’s attempts to bring his brother’s marriage into view towards the final lines. Regardless, it exists as an interesting subversion of many Godless descriptions of water:
We are there, when we hear a shout
That the hanging honeysuck, the dogeared hazels in the cover
Makes dither, makes hover
And the riot of a rout
Of, it must be, boys from the town
Bathing: it is summer’s sovereign good. (197)
More than merely communal, water is a homoerotic space for men to group together to experience what the narrator here refers to as summer’s sovereign good. The segregation of gender is an important theme throughout much of Hopkins’s religious materials, as he often writes about nuns and monks, aspiring from a young age as well to live only amongst men, and the homoerotic implications of this were not lost on contemporary or modern scholarship.
The ocean in particular at large returns in another subversive, homoerotic expression. In “Harry Ploughman,” Hopkins rhapsodically describes a sailor’s body as he works on a dock. The poem, at first glance, seems to serve no purpose beyond detailing what was, for Hopkins at least, a sexually invigorating scene.
HARD as hurdle arms, with a broth of goldish flue
Breathed round; the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank
Rope-over thigh; knee-nave; and barrelled shank—
Head and foot, shoulder and shank—
By a grey eye’s heed steered well, one crew, fall to;
Stand at stress. Each limb’s barrowy brawn, his thew
That onewhere curded, onewhere sucked or sank—
Soared or sank— (104)
What is noteworthy here is how Hopkins’s description evokes the imagery of the sea and ocean without outright depicting a man off-shore. In a later verse, Hopkins writes of Harry’s “liquid waist” and the “fountain’s shining-shot furls” of his hair (104). “Harry Ploughman” exemplifies a lot of Hopkins’s subversive descriptions of the ocean, where erotic beauty can be found instead of violent death. Rather than using the shipwreck to convey tragedy, he uses a man’s body to depict the movement of water; rather than a waterlogged corpse floating in the sea, Hopkins writes of the ceaseless tides found within a living, breathing human.
I find in general that Hopkins is often critically underexamined beyond religious interpretations of his poetry, and that such subversive displays of undermining the Victorian artistic ethos points to how much more of his work and life that deserve to be revisited. Though dying when he was only forty-five, Hopkins left behind an extensive oeuvre of poetry and writings for others to enjoy, often from a Catholic point of view, but perhaps it is time we take a closer look at how queer re-readings might deepen our understandings of such an enigmatic poet.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley, et al. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Second edition, With an appendix of additional poems, And a critical introduction by Charles Williams., Oxford University Press, 1937
“The Reality of Shipwreck.” The Victorian Web, 2015.
Tyler Clark is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a concentration in Victorian literature and Queer theory. His focus lies primarily on gender deviance found in the sensation novel genre and its contemporary readership, as well as the homoerotic discourse of the Cambridge Apostles. Currently, he is researching “camp” as an underground, ritual expression of sexual deviance in late-nineteenth-century British men.