IN the Gentlemans 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 sailorthe same perhaps who had written the complaintstartled 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
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.
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 poets 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. Phbus and Clio must lend a hand to brail up the mizen, or belay the topping-lift.
The personsAlbert prudent and bold, the rough Rodmond, the tender Arionare drawn in simple outlines. Some part of the love-story of Palemon, says Campbell, is rather swainish. But Falconers 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 Falconers sea-poem by deathan unknown death in some unknown sea.