Falconer, William

, an ingenious poet, was born about 1730, and was the son of a poor but industrious barber at Edinburgh, all of whose children, with the exception ofour author, were either deaf or dumb. William received such common education as might qualify him for some inferior employment, and appears to have contracted a taste for reading, and a desire for higher attainments than his situation permitted. In the character of Arion, unquestionably intended for his own, he hints at a farther progress in study than his biographers have been able to trace

"On him fair Science dawn’d in happier hour,

Awakening into bloom young Fancy’s flower

But soon Adversity, with freezing blast

The blossom wither‘d, and the dawn o’ercast,


Forlorn of heart, and by severe decree

Condemn’d reluctant to the faithless sea."

It must indeed have been with reluctance that a boy who had begun to taste the sweets of literature, consented to serve an apprenticeship on board a merchant vessel at Leith, which we are told he did when very young. He was afterwards 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 repeat with some pride, that he had once been his scholar.

Falconer, probably by means of this friend, was made second mate of a vessel employed in the Levant trade, which was shipwrecked during her passage from Alexandria to Venice, and only three of the crew saved. The date of this event cannot now be ascertained; but what he saw and felt on the melancholy occasion made the deepest impression on his memory, and certainly suggested the plan and characters of his celebrated poem. Whether before this time he had made any poetical attempts we are not informed. The favours of a genuine muse are usually early, and it is at least probable that the classical allusions so frequent in “The Shipwreck,” were furnished by much previous reading.

In 1751 he appeared among the poets who lamented the death of Frederick prince of Wales, in a poem published at Edinburgh, which probably gratified the humble expectations of a friendly circle, without procuring him much encouragement. He is said, however, to have followed up his first effort, by some small pieces sen to that accustomed repository of early talent, the Gentleman’s Magazine. Mr. Clarke has pointed out “The Chaplain’s petition to the Lieutenants in the ward-room,” the “Description of a ninety-gun Ship,” and some lines “On the uncommon scarcity of Poetry.” Mr. Clarke has likewise presented his readers with a whimsical little poem, descriptive of the abode and sentiments of a midshipman, which was one of Falconer’s early productions; and offers some reasons for being of opinion that he was the author of the popular song “Cease, rude Boreas.

Our author is supposed to have continued in the merchant service until he gained the patronage of his royal highness Edward duke of York, by dedicating to him | The Shipwreck,” in the spring of 1762; and it is mucti to the honour of his highness’ s taste that he joined in the praise bestowed on this poem, and became desirous to place the author in a situation where he could befriend him. With this view, the duke advised him to quit the merchant service for the royal jiavy; and before the summer had elapsed, Falconer was rated a midshipman on board sir Edward Hawke’s ship, the Royal George, which at the peace of 1763, was paid off; but previously to that event, Falconer published an “Ode on the Duke of York’s second departure from England as Rear-Admiral.” His highness had embarked on board the Centurion with commodore Harrison, for the Mediterranean; and Falconer composed this ode “during an occasional absence from his messmates, when he retired into a small space formed between the cable tiers and the ship’s side.” It is a rambling, incoherent composition, in which we discover little of the author of the Shipwreck.

As Falconer wanted much of that complementary time of service, which might enable him to arrive at the commission of Lieutenant, his friends advised him to exchange the military for the civil department of the royal navy; and accordingly, in the course of 1763, he was appointed purser of the Glory frigate of 32 guns. Soon after he married a young lady of the name of Hicks, the daughter of the surgeon of Sheerness Yard. With this lady, who had considerable taste, he appears to have lived happily, although his circumstances were reduced for want of employment. That this was the case appears from a whimsical incident related by his biographer. “When the Glory was laid up in ordinary at Chatham, commissioner Hanway, brother to the benevolent Jonas Hanway, became delighted with the genius of its purser. The captain’s cabin was ordered to be fitted up with a stove, and with every addition of comfort that could be procured; in order that Falconer might thus be enabled to enjoy his favourite propensity, without either molestation or expence.

Here he employed himself, for some time, in various literary occupations. Among others he compiled an “Universal Marine Dictionary,” a work of great utility, and highly approved by professional men in the navy. In 1764, he published a new edition of the Shipwreck, in 8vo, corrected and enlarged, with a preface which indicates no great facility in that species of composition. In the | following year, appeared “The Demagogue,” a political satire on lord Chatham, Wilkes, and Churchill, and intended as an antidote to the writings of the latter. It contains a sufficient proportion of the virulent spirit of Churchill, but lord Chatham and Wilkes were not at this time vulnerable, and “The Demagogue” was soon forgotten.

The Marine Dictionary was published in 1769, before which period he appears to have left his naval retreat at Chatham for an abode in the metropolis of a less comfortable kind. Here, depressed by poverty, but occasionally soothed by friendship, and by the affectionate attentions of his wife, he subsisted for some time on various resources. In 1768 he received proposals from the late Mr. Murray, the bookseller, to be admitted a partner in the business which that gentleman afterwards established.

No reason can be assigned with more probability for his refusing this liberal offer, than his appointment, immediately after, to the pursership of the Aurora frigate, which was ordered to carry out to India, Messrs. Vansittart, Scrofton, and Forde, as supervisors of the affairs of the Company. He was also promised the office of private secretary to those gentlemen, a situation from which his friends conceived the hopes that he might eventually obtain lasting advantages. Dis aliter msum. The Aurora sailed from England on the 30th of September, 1769, and after touching at the Cape, was lost during the remainder of the passage in a manner which left no trace by which the cause of the calamity could be discovered. The most probable conjecture is, that she foundered in the Mosambique channel.

In person,” says Mr. Clarke, “Falconer was about five feet seven inches in height of a thin light make, with a dark weather-beaten complexion, and rather what is termed hard-featured, being considerably marked with the small-pox his hair was of a brownish hue. In point of address, his manner was blunt, awkward, and forbidding but he spoke with great fluency and his simple yet impressive diction was couched in words which reminded his hearers of the terseness of Swift. Though he possessed a warm and friendly disposition, he was fond of controversy, and inclined to satire. His observation was keen and rapid; his criticisms on any inaccuracy of language, or expression, were frequently severe; yet this severity was always intended eventually to create mirth, and not by any means | to show his own superiority, or to give the smallest offence. In his natural temper he was cheerful, and frequently used to amuse his messmates by composing acrostics on their favourites, in which he particularly excelled. As a professional man he was a thorough seaman; and, like most of that profession, was kind, generous, and benevolent. He often assured governor Hunter, that his education had been confined merely to reading English, writing, and a 4ittle arithmetic; notwithstanding which he was never at a loss to understand either French, Spanish, Italian, or even German.

As a poet, Falconer’s fame must rest entirely on “The Shipwreck.” His other pieces could never have survived the occasion which produced them, and could have ranked him only among the versifiers of a day^ while the Shipwreck bids fair for immortality. In the powers of description, he has scarcely a superior, and has excluded comparison by choosing a subject with which accident only can make a poet acquainted, a subject which may be described, for he has described it in all its awful dignity, but which surpasses the common reach of imagination. The distant ocean, and its grand phenomena, have often employed the pens of the most eminent poets, but they have generally produced an effect by indefinite outlines and imaginary incidents. In Falconer, we have the painting of a great artist taken on the spot, with such minute fidelity as well as picturesque effect, that we are chained to the scene with all the feelings of actual terror.

In the use of imagery, Falconer displays original powers. His Sun-set, Midnight, Morning, &c. are not such as have descended from poet to poet. He beheld these objects under circumstances in which it is the lot of few to be placed. His images cannot, therefore, be transferred or borrowed; they have an appropriation which must not be disturbed, nor can we trace them to any source but that of genuine poetry. Although we may suspect that he had studied the Æneid, there are no marks of servile imitation, while he has the high merit of enriching English poetry by a new train of ideas, and conducting the imagination into an undiscovered country.

The principal objection to this poem is the introduction of sea-terms; and although it must be confessed that he has softened these by an exquisite harmony of numbers, some of his descriptions must ever remain unintelligible to | indolent readers. But Falconer did not need to be told of this objection, and in his introduction, he deprecates what he had full reason to expect. If, however, we attend to his design, it will become evident that the introduction of sea-terms was absolutely necessary. “The Shipwreck” is didactic, as well as descriptive, and may be recommended to a young sailor, not only to excite his enthusiasm, but to improve his knowledge of the art. Mr. Clarke, whose judgment on this subject may be followed with safety, and whose zeal for the reputation of the British navy does honour both to his head and heart, says, that, the Shipwreck “is of inestimable value to this country, since it contains within itself the rudiments of navigation; if not sufficient to form a complete seaman, it may certainly be considered as the grammar of his professional science. I have heard many experienced officers declare, that the rules and maxims delivered in this poem, for the conduct of a ship in the most perilous emergency, form the best, indeed the only opinions which a skilful mariner should adopt.

With such views it was impossible to exclude a language which is uncouth only where it is not understood, and which as being the language of those heroes who have elevated the character of their country beyond all precedent and all comparison, merits higher veneration than the technical terms of common mechanics; nor, upon this account, ought the Shipwreck to involve the blame which attaches to the “Cyder” of Philips, or the “Fleece” of Dyer. No art can give dignity to such subjects, nor did they demand the aid of poetry to render them more useful or more pleasing. Falconer’s subject was one of the most sublime inflictions of Providence. He described it for those who might be destined to behold it, and he knew that if among sailors he found no acute critics, he would find intelligent and sympathizing readers. When therefore we consider his whole design, the objection may admit of some apology even from those who will yet regret that a poet of such genuine skill should have narrowed his fame by writing for a class. 1

1 Johnson and Chalmers’s English Poets, 1810, Clarke’s edition of the Shipwreck, Irving’s Life of Falconer.