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May I, through life's uncertain tide,
Be still from pain exempt !
And yet above contempt!
But should your providence divine
A greater bliss intend;
Be center'd in a friend!
BORN 1730.-DIED 1769.
William Falconer was the son of a barber in Edinburgh, and went to sea at an early age in a merchant vessel of Leith. He was afterwards mate of a ship that was wrecked in the Levant, and was one of only three out of her crew that were saved, a catastrophe which formed the subject of his future poem. He was for some time in the capacity of a servant to Campbell, the author of Lexiphanes, when purser of a ship. Campbell is said to have discovered in Falconer talents worthy of cultivation, and when the latter distinguished himself as a poet, used to boast that he had been his scholar. What he learned from Campbell it is not very easy to ascertain. His education, as he often assured Governor Hunter, had been confined to reading, writing, and a little arithmetic, though in the course of his life he picked up some acquaintance with the French, Spanish, and Italian languages. In these his countryman was not likely to have much assisted him; but he might have lent him books, and possibly instructed him in the use of figures. Falconer published his Shipwreck in 1762, and by the favour of the Duke of York, to whom it was dedicated, obtained the appointment of a midshipman in the Royal George, and afterwards that of purser in the Glory frigate. He soon afterwards married a Miss Hicks, an accomplished and beautiful woman, the daughter of the surgeon of Sheerness-yard. At the peace of 1763 he was on the point of being reduced to distressed circumstances by his ship being laid up in ordinary at Chatham, when, by the friendship of Commissioner Hanway, who ordered the cabin of the Glory to be fitted up for his residence, he enjoyed for some time a retreat for study without expense or embarrassment. Here he employed himself in compiling his Marine Dictionary, which appeared in 1769, and has been always highly spoken of by those who are capable of estimating its merits. He embarked also in the politics of the day, as a poetical antagonist to Churchill, but with little advantage to his memory. Before the publication of his Marine Dictionary he had left his retreat at Chatham for a
less comfortable abode in the metropolis, and appears to have struggled with considerable difficulties, in the midst of which he received proposals from the late Mr. Murray, the bookseller, to join him in the business which he had newly established. The cause of his refusing this offer was, in all probability, the appointment which he received to the pursership of the Aurora, East Indiaman. In that ship he embarked for India, in September 1769, but the Aurora was never heard of after she passed the Cape, and was thought to have foundered in the Channel of Mozambique; so that the poet of the Shipwreck may be supposed to have perished by the same species of calamity which he had rehearsed.
The subject of the Shipwreck, and the fate of its author, bespeak an uncommon partiality in its favour. If we pay respect to the ingenious scholar who can produce agreeable verses amidst the shades of retirement, or the shelves of his library, how much more interest must we take in the “ ship-boy on the high and giddy mast,” cherishing refined visions of fancy at the hour which he may casually snatch from fatigue and danger. Nor did Falconer neglect the proper acquirements of seamanship in cultivating poetry, but evinced considerable knowledge of his profession, both in his Marine Dictionary and in the nautical precepts of the Shipwreck.
be said to have added a congenial and peculiarly British subject to the language; at least, we had no previous poem of any length of
In that poem
which the characters and catastrophe were purely naval.
The scene of the catastrophe (though he followed only the fact of his own history) was poetically laid amidst seas and shores where the mind easily gathers romantic associations, and where it supposes the most picturesque vicissitudes of scenery and climate. The spectacle of a majestic British ship on the shores of Greece brings as strong a reminiscence to the mind, as can well be imagined, of the changes which time has wrought in transplanting the empire of arts and civilization. Falconer's characters are few ; but the calm sagacious commander, and the rough obstinate Rodmond, are well contrasted. Some part of the lovestory of Palemon is rather swainish and protracted, yet the effect of his being involved in the calamity, leaves a deeper sympathy in the niind for the daughter of Albert, when we conceive her at once deprived both of a father and a lover. The incidents of the Shipwreck, like those of a well wrought tragedy, gradually deepen, while they yet leave a suspense of hope and fear to the imagination. In the final seene there is something that deeply touches our compassion in the picture of the unfortunate man who is struck blind by a flash of lightning at the helm. I remember, by the way, to have met with an affecting account of the identical calamity befalling the steersman of a forlorn vessel in a similar moment, given in a prose and veracious history of the loss of a vessel on the coast of America. Falconer
skilfully heightens this trait by shewing its effect on the commiseration of Rodmond, the roughest of his characters, who guides the victim of misfortune to lay hold of a sail.
“ A flash, quick glancing on the nerves of light,
The effect of some of his sea-phrases is to give a definite and authentic character to his descriptions; but that of most of them, to a landsman's ear, resembles slang, and produces obscurity. His diction too generally abounds with common-place expletives and feeble lines. His scholarship on the shores of Greece is only what we should accept of from a seaman; but his poem has the sensible charm of appearing a transcript of reality, and leaves an impression of truth and nature on the mind.
CHARACTER OF THE OFFICERS.
FROM THE SHIPWRECK.
O'er the gay vessel, and her daring band,