Monday, January 21, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE SHIPWRECK – A poem in Three Cantos” by William Falconer (first published in 1762)
Are you a bibliophile? If so then, like me, you must have multitudes of books on your shelves that you have never read, but that you mean to “get around to” some day. One such sat for years on my shelves, doing nobody any harm. It is an 1870 hardback edition, in the “Aldine Poets” series, of an eighteenth century poem, William Falconer’s The Shipwreck. A couple of years ago, I took it off the shelf and read it. Having read it, I put it back and let it sit between an unread edition of Ossian and a much-read Everyman volume of minor eighteenth-century poets.
There it remains.
I do not think I will ever read it again.
William Falconer (1732-69) was a sailor first and a poet second. Edinburgh born, he had little formal education and became an officer in the merchant marine. The Shipwreck is based on an event in which he was involved in 1750 when, as a teenager, he was one of the few survivors of a shipwreck on the Greek coast. Later he became a (very junior) naval officer. He composed a dictionary of marine terms. His only other poetic works are few and very routine. Ironically, he died at the age of 37 in another shipwreck, when he was on a naval ship bound for India.
The Shipwreck was very popular in its day and went through three editions (with the poet’s revisions) in Falconer’s lifetime and a number more after his death. But it never seems to have been approved of by the most highbrow critics. Reading the introduction to this 1870 Aldine edition, I found one of the most amusing things was to contrast the quoted hyperbolic praise of some of Falconer’s contemporaries (Falconer as the new Vergil etc. etc.) with the fact that the Aldine editor clearly thought the poem quite second-rate.
In three cantos we follow the voyage of the merchant ship “Britannia” in the last six days of its life. It is en route from Alexandria to Venice, but the poem confines itself to the leg of the voyage from Candia (in Crete) to the shipwreck off Cape Colonna on the Greek coast, the ship having passed close to the island of Falconera. In the first canto we are introduced to the main characters. The captain is Albert. Rodmond is a no-nonsense and rough first mate. The young man Palemon is the son of the ship’s owner, who was in love with the captain’s daughter but threatened with disinheritance by his father. And then there is young Arion, who is apparently based on Falconer himself. These are virtually the only people who survive the wreck. Most of the sailors are hurled overboard by the sea and drown in the waves. At the end of the last canto Palemon dies in Arion’s ams on the beach, and Arion swears to memorialise him.
Falconer wants to give tragic dignity to his long narrative poem, but he often does this by trying to instruct us in obvious ways. In the first canto, for example, we are instructed in the use of a compass and the other instruments of navigation. In the second we are instructed in how to reef sails. And in the third, delaying the account of the final shipwreck, there is a long description of Greece, dwelling on the ancient glories of its city-states, which is so non-specific that it seems to have been plucked from a school history book. Falconer is precise to the point of pedantry in his use of marine terms, reinforced by the notes, which he himself supplied for the poem.
Reading The Shipwreck, I almost felt that I had found the archetypal 18th. century popular poem. It walks in conventional vocabulary through rhyming couplets in iambic pentameters. This is very much Keats’ “rocking horse” which they thought was Pegasus. William Falconer, the amateur and self-educated poet, is writing in the style which then was deemed to be dignified and elevated. The name of the ship and the nationality of the crew allow him to blow the patriotic trumpet occasionally. The apostrophes to Poetry and to Fame are as conventional as the vocabulary, and the final pathos is so overdrawn that it feels insincere. Having said this, though, there are some good moments in the description, marmoreal though they may be (or rather, like a tapestry) and certainly much credible detail in the climactic storm, with the mast splitting and the sail dragging and the toll of the dead. Besides all this, something within me responds favourably to the notion of a sailor willing himself to write a poem, which he thinks will have dignity and let his dead friends live once again. Falconer was on the fringes of literature at best, and it says something about his culture’s assumptions that this was the way he sought fame.
After reading this antique oddity, I tried to find critical commentary on it. I turned up a brief study by a New Zealand academic, the late M.K.Joseph (thirty pages in Studies in Philology in 1950), but it was largely confined to minute biographical matters, verifying which ships Falconer served on, the variety of his sailing experience etc. Among other things, it did, however, show the accuracy of Falconer’s descriptions of naval matters, especially in his prose acounts of sailors’ and midshipmen’s quarters. An American academic, George Landlow, reasonably argues that the chief defect of The Shipwreck is that Falconer ascribes no meaning to the shipwreck. He employs some of the epic machinery without realizing that epic implies a certain relationship between events and gods/fate etc. The few other things that you can find about the poem on-line echo this view.
Beyond this, there is little more I can do for this once-popular piece than to quote it.
For the typical eighteenth-century apostrophe, consider these lines on Memory from the Introduction:
“Pensive her look; on radiant wings that glow
Like Juno’s birds , or Iris’ flaming bow,
She sails; and swifter than the course of light
Directs her rapid intellectual flight;
The fugitive ideas she restores,
And calls the wandering thought from Lethe’s shores;
To things long past a second date she gives,
And hoary time from her fresh youth receives;
Congenial sister of immortal fame,
She shares her power, and memory is her name.”
(apostrophe to Memory in “Introduction” ll.93-102)
Then there is this rather defensive couplet from a man who had little formal education:
“Such Rodmond was; by learning unrefined,
That oft enlightens to corrupt the mind” (“Canto 1” ll.106-107)
The following 18 lines, describing a landscape at sunset, could almost be a parody of eighteenth century pastoral verse, so conventional are they in thought and diction – and yet this may be part of their real charm:
“The sun’s bright orb, declining all serene,
Now glanced obliquely o’er the woodland scene;
Creation smiles around; on every spray
The warbling birds exalt their evening lay;
Blithe skipping o’er yon hill, the fleecy train
Join the deep chorus of the lowing plain;
The golden lime, and orange, there were seen
On fragrant branches of perpetual green;
The crystal streams that velvet meadows lave,
To the green ocean roll with chiding wave.
The glassy ocean hushed forgets to roar,
But trembling murmurs on the sandy shore;
And lo! his surface lovely to behold
Glows in the west, a sea of living gold!
While, all above, a thousand liveries gay
The skies with pomp ineffable array.
Arabian sweets perfume the happy plains;
Above, beneath, around, enchantment reigns!”
( “Canto 1” ll. 639-656)
When the shipwreck comes, there are some moments of sharp psychological truth. Falconer deserves credit, in a scene where survivors watch some comrades drown, for noting that the survivors’ sorrow is likely to be overridden by fear for themselves:
“Bereft of power to help, their comrades see
The wretched victims die beneath the lee,
With fruitless sorrow their lost state bemoan,
Perhaps, a fatal prelude to their own!”
(“Canto 2” ll.360-363).
This description of the battered, de-masted ship is convincing:
“Awhile the mast, in ruins dragged behind
Balanced the impression of the helm and wind;
The wounded serpent agonized with pain
Thus trails his mangled volume on the plain;
But now the wreck dissevered from the rear,
The long reluctant prow began to veer.”
(“Canto 3” ll.59-64)
And a tour through any old graveyard will convince you of the truth of the following:
“Full oft the flattering marble bids renown
With blazoned trophies deck the spotted name;
And oft, too oft, the venal Muses crown
The slaves of vice with never-dying fame.”
(from the concluding “Elegy” ll.69-72)
But I think in quoting these lines, I really have quoted the best The Shipwreck has to offer. On the basis of this, you can decide whether it’s worth retrieving from an archive or from the most forgotten corner of a very big library.