Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
William Ray (17711826)
WILLIAM RAY was born at Salisbury, in the county of Litchfield, Connecticut, December 9th, 1771. He wrote verses at about ten years of age, which the minister of his parish pronounced wonderful, and flattered the young author with the hopes of becoming as great a poet as Dr Watts. His father removed to the state of New York, and in the remote and solitary spot which he occupied, the youth had little chance to pursue his inclination for letters. At the age of nineteen, he went to reside in Dover, in Dutchess county, where he taught a school. This occupation he soon abandoned, and betook himself to trade, which he pursued for a few years, when he became bankrupt, and finding it impossible to obtain a release from his creditors, or support himself at home in any manner, he was forced to leave his wife, and set off for another quarter. He reached Philadelphia, with the prospect of finding a situation as an editor, but meeting with disappointment in this and every other attempt he made to provide for himself, and destitute of resources, he entered in a low capacity on board the frigate Philadelphia, according to his own statement, without either inquiring or caring where she was bound. She sailed in July, 1803, for the Mediterranean.
The Philadelphia was destined to join our squadron against Tripoli. After cruising in several ports of the Mediterranean, she fell in with an enemys ship off the harbor of Tripoli, on the 31st of October, and while giving her chase four or five miles from the town, the frigate struck on a rock, and in spite of all the efforts made to save her, was obliged to surrender to the Tripolitan gunboats. The crew were stripped, marched on shore, and set to hard labor. In their captivity, which endured more than a year and a half, they suffered great miseries, of which Ray has given us a very striking picture in his narrative. One hundred and fifty of our men, myself among the rest, were sent to raise an old wreck of a vessel, deeply barred in the sand under water, eastward from the town. It was now the coldest season of the year,we were almost naked, and were driven into the water up to our armpits. We had to shovel the sand from the bottom, and carry it in baskets to the banks. The chilling waves almost arrested the flow of life for ever, and the Turks seemed more barbarous than usual, beating us with their bamboos, and exulting in our sufferings. They kept us in the water from about sunrise, until two oclock P. M., before we were permitted to come out, or to taste a mouthful of food for that day. When we had snatched a short repast, we were driven again into the water, and kept there until sunset. We had no clothes to change, but were obliged to sleep in our wet ones, on the damp earth the following night. With such usage, life became almost insupportable, and every night, when I laid my head on the lap of earth, I most sincerely prayed that I might never experience the horrors of another morning. February, 17th, early in the morning, and much earlier than usual, our prison doors were unbolted, which had been doubly guarded the night before, and the keepers rushed in amongst us, like so many fiends, and fell to beating and cursing every one they could see, spitting in our faces, gnashing their teeth, and hissing like dragons. Word was soon brought, that the wreck of the frigate Philadelphia lay smoking in the rocks, at a point where she had drifted, burned down to the water. We could not disguise our joy at this event, which exasperated the Turks still more, so that every boy we met in the streets, took the liberty to spit on us as we passed, not forgetting to pelt us severely with stones. Our tasks were also redoubled, our bread withheld for three days, and every driver exercised cruelties over us tenfold more rigid than before. We were so hungry, that for my part, I was glad to pick up the peels of oranges in the dirty streets and eat them, filth and all . Many of us had to drag a heavy wagon, (left by Bonaparte, in his expedition to Egypt) five or six miles into the country, over the burning sands, barefoot and shirtless, and back again, loaded with timber, before they had anything to eat, except perhaps, a few raw carrots. The Tripolitans began to be frightened, (during the bombardment of the city by the American fleet,) and some of their principal officers treated us with more respect than before the attacks, but the low wretches continued to abuse and insult us, and some of the keepers, who had lost friends in the engagements, were more savage than ever. The management of the prisoners was in a great manner confided to these inhuman villains, and they almost starved us to death. December 10thstarving again. Our keepers opened the prison doors in the morning, and ordered us tota fora (all out.) Not a man moved, and we unanimously resolved, that if death should be the consequence, not to turn out another day without food, and this brought the Turks to terms for that time.
In June, 1805, a peace was concluded with the Tripolitan government, and Ray, on regaining his liberty, entered as captains clerk on board the frigate Essex, and the next year returned home. In 1809, he settled in Essex county, New York, and resumed his occupation of trading, but with no better success than before. On the declaration of war in 1812, he was made a major in the detached militia, which was stationed at Plattsburgh. After a short term of service in that quarter, he resided in several parts of the state of New York, and finally settled in Onondaga, holding the office of a Justice of the Peace, and commissioner in courts of record. He died at Auburn, in 1827.
His volume of poems was published in 1821. They cannot be allowed any very high praise, but a claim upon our attention is put forth in their favor, after a manner not to be resisted, in the closing couplet of the writers Exordium.