Torment of the pious

The wreck of the passenger ship Deutschland in 1875 claimed, among dozens of casualties, five young Franciscan nuns exiled from Bismarck's Germany. Ron Hansen's fictional description of the gale-battered scene makes "Titanic" seem serene. The contrast between the suffering nuns and the response of the faith-battered poet Gerard Manley Hopkins frames "Exiles," like Hansen's earlier novel "Mariette in Ecstasy," as a shifting, sympathetic depiction of piety -- and piety's torments.

The novel is a parable of religious style. On the one hand we track Hopkins' cramped version of faithfulness. An utterly original Victorian poet, Hopkins stutters artistically toward the modern but suspects that his gifts are distractions from serving God. On the other hand are the imagined stories of the doomed nuns, who are pious and ascetic but still fully in the world. Their lives are modest chapels of need, whereas Hopkins' mind is a catacomb of self-scrutiny and mortification.

"Exiles" begins with the news of the shipwreck that wakes the young poet from his artistic slumber. A nature-loving student at a Jesuit seminary in Wales, Hopkins is moved by the tragedy and, after a seven-year, self-imposed hiatus from verse, is prompted by an older priest to write about it. The resulting ode, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (reprinted as an appendix), is a mixed blessing for the aspiring priest. For though it returns him to the poetic vocation he sensed as an Oxford student, his ambivalence and what one of his instructors called "the pestering originality of his intellect" obscure his vocational clarity. After failing his theology exams, he finds himself serially exiled as a bursar and a teacher, first in England, then in a Dublin college that couldn't have been bleaker if Dostoevsky himself had moved in to take inventory.

While Hopkins' growing self-severity seems disproportionate to his dilemma, the severity of the nuns suits their circumstances. Living at a time when choices and expectations for women are narrow, the cloister becomes an empowering, strangely feminist refuge. They are "healthy females hot with love," Hansen writes, who "sought a safe object of affection." Surprisingly young -- the oldest 32, the youngest 23 -- the nuns are strict but human, teasing one another, bickering, nervous about the journey, giddy at the extravagance of a first-class meal, capable of both sarcasm and selflessness, and disconsolate when one of their own is swept overboard at sea. They love the world even as they separate themselves from it.

Among them is Thecla, 6 feet tall, athletic, and out of kilter with her femininity: she "felt hideous when she danced," and yet "in the hushed company of women she found her height and masculinity not just tolerated by admired." Another of these propertyless sisters "savored the excruciation" of a hot bath on the Deutschland, "deeply inhaling the hedonism of its lilac scent." It is hard to imagine Hopkins in this mode -- he who loves nature but not life and finds in religious faith a correction to the "triviality" of the world. Meanwhile, aboard the ship, Sister Henrica rescues broken porcelain dolls, glues the trivialities together, then leaves them in her sisters' shoes as gifts.

The nuns function almost as a single character -- an alternative to Hopkins -- and they are at times too iconic, too sweet in their faults. The human side of the nuns' piety is given full expression when the squall that lashes the Deutschland is about to take their lives: "We sometimes seem God's playthings," Sister Barbara says. "The dice he rolls. But even though he can seem the source of our miseries, our faith tells us that God is good. Always." How different is the pitch of "our faith tells us" from the more confident "we know" or "I believe."

But where the five nuns are simultaneously ambivalent and devout, Hopkins remains tranquilized in his quest for purity. Ahead of his age artistically, he is estranged from it spiritually, a burden to himself. Hansen describes him as a "gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher, etymologist, cartoonist, and nature artist who recorded his surveillance in journals." He is increasingly depressed and refers in his journal to loathing he feels for his life. Hopkins' late works, what he called "melancholy sonnets," are confessions of tremendous desolation. "What is my wretched life?" he writes. "All my undertakings miscarry." Part of the problem is that the very thing his art aspires to -- idiosyncrasy -- is considered suspect by his church.

In an essay from his book "A Stay Against Confusion" (2001), Hansen is fulsome in his praise of Hopkins. The poet was "being purified in his suffering," he writes, "and was being taught to desire God for God's sake alone. We see him being transformed as he truly encounters himself in the pathos of his humanity." His admiration leads to this burst of hyperbole: "Who among our finest poets has lived as sane and honorable a life?" The novelized version of the poet's life suggests something else. We can follow Hansen in praising Hopkins for his piety and integrity, or we can join Hopkins' friend and literary executor Robert Bridges who complained that he had been "lost and destroyed by those Jesuits." Or we could say that the quest for a uniform purity pursued by Hopkins dams the world, like insisting that a river become a lake. The nuns drift with the currents; in this view, they are more honorable and sane. For all his celebrations of the natural world, Hopkins' sense of exile is problematic because he sees suffering as ultimately good and not just necessary.

Toward the end of the novel, Hansen scripts a different ending: "Imagine it otherwise," he writes, imagine that Hopkins recovers himself and thrives, writing "sonnets of consolation," becoming well known and at peace. This is a jolting, compassionate gesture of an author toward a subject he both loves and batters -- like Hopkins' God. "Exiles" is a brave meditation on religious experience as neither quaint nor fanatical, but deadly earnest.