Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
Critical Introduction by Edward Dowden
William Falconer (1732–1769)
 
[Born 11th of February, 1732; lost with the crew of the Aurora, last heard of on 27th December, 1769, at the Cape of Good Hope. The Shipwreck was published in 1762.]  1
 
IN the Gentleman’s Magazine for December, 1755, appeared a versified complaint, On the Uncommon Scarcity of Poetry, by a Sailor. The scarcity still prevailed when seven years later a sailor—the same perhaps who had written the complaint—startled English readers by his discovery of a new epic theme. The Muse, as Falconer imagines her, visits him in no olive-grove, or flowery lawn, but in a glimmering cavern beside the sea; his lyre is tuned to
 ‘The long surge that foams through yonder cave,
Whose vaults remurmur to the roaring wave.’
  2
  There was largeness, and freedom and force in the subject he had chosen; and what is best in his treatment of it was learnt direct from the waves and winds. No one before Falconer had conceived or told in English poetry the long and passionate combat between the sea, roused to fury, and its slight but dexterous rival, with the varying fortunes of the strife. He had himself, like his Arion, been wrecked near Cape Colonna, on the coast of Greece; like Arion, he was one of three who reached the shore and lived. For the material of his brief epic he needed but to revive in his imagination the sights, the sounds, the fears, the hopes, the efforts of five days the most eventful and the most vivid of his life. The Shipwreck is not a descriptive poem; it is a poem of action; each buffet of the sea, each swift turning of the wheel is a portion of the attack or the defence; and as the catastrophe draws near, as the ship scuds past Falconera, as the hills of Greece rise to view, as the pitiless cliffs of St. George grow clear, and the sound of the breakers is heard, the action of the poem increases in swiftness and intensity.  3
  Falconer was a skilful seaman; unhappily he was not a great poet. The reality, the unity, the largeness of his theme lend him support; and he is a faithful and energetic narrator. But the spirits of tempest and of night needed for their interpreter one of stronger and subtler speech than Falconer. Nor was it possible to render into orderly couplets after Pope the vast cadences, the difficult phrases of ocean. The poet’s diction is the artificial diction of eighteenth-century verse, handled with none of that exquisite art shown by some cultured writers of the time. And into the midst of the commonplace poetic vocabulary bounces suddenly a rattling row of nautical terms suitable only for the Marine Dictionary. Phœbus and Clio must lend a hand to brail up the mizen, or belay the topping-lift.  4
  The persons—Albert prudent and bold, the rough Rodmond, the tender Arion—are drawn in simple outlines. ‘Some part of the love-story of Palemon,’ says Campbell, ‘is rather swainish.’ But Falconer’s love-sentiment is as genuine as any other part of the feeling of his poem; and a sailor writing on gentle themes becomes perhaps naturally a swain. The seal of fidelity was set upon Falconer’s sea-poem by death—an unknown death in some unknown sea.  5
 
 
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