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William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Castaway


              1Obscurest night involv'd the sky,
              2      Th' Atlantic billows roar'd,
              3When such a destin'd wretch as I,
              4      Wash'd headlong from on board,
              5Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
              6His floating home for ever left.

              7No braver chief could Albion boast
              8      Than he with whom he went,
              9Nor ever ship left Albion's coast,
            10      With warmer wishes sent.
            11He lov'd them both, but both in vain,
            12Nor him beheld, nor her again.

            13Not long beneath the whelming brine,
            14      Expert to swim, he lay;
            15Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
            16      Or courage die away;
            17But wag'd with death a lasting strife,
            18Supported by despair of life.

            19He shouted: nor his friends had fail'd
            20      To check the vessel's course,
            21But so the furious blast prevail'd,
            22      That, pitiless perforce,
            23They left their outcast mate behind,
            24And scudded still before the wind.

            25Some succour yet they could afford;
            26      And, such as storms allow,
            27The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
            28      Delay'd not to bestow.
            29But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
            30Whate'er they gave, should visit more.

            31Nor, cruel as it seem'd, could he
            32      Their haste himself condemn,
            33Aware that flight, in such a sea,
            34      Alone could rescue them;
            35Yet bitter felt it still to die
            36Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

            37He long survives, who lives an hour
            38      In ocean, self-upheld;
            39And so long he, with unspent pow'r,
            40      His destiny repell'd;
            41And ever, as the minutes flew,
            42Entreated help, or cried--Adieu!

            43At length, his transient respite past,
            44      His comrades, who before
            45Had heard his voice in ev'ry blast,
            46      Could catch the sound no more.
            47For then, by toil subdued, he drank
            48The stifling wave, and then he sank.

            49No poet wept him: but the page
            50      Of narrative sincere;
            51That tells his name, his worth, his age,
            52      Is wet with Anson's tear.
            53And tears by bards or heroes shed
            54Alike immortalize the dead.

            55I therefore purpose not, or dream,
            56      Descanting on his fate,
            57To give the melancholy theme
            58      A more enduring date:
            59But misery still delights to trace
            60  Its semblance in another's case.

            61No voice divine the storm allay'd,
            62      No light propitious shone;
            63When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
            64      We perish'd, each alone:
            65But I beneath a rougher sea,
            66And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

Notes

1] This, the last of Cowper's original poems, is based on a passage in Anson's Voyage Round the World, 1740-44 (1748), chapter VIII: "But in less than twenty-four hours we were attacked by another storm still more furious than the former; for it proved a perfect hurricane, and reduced us to the necessity of lying-to under bare poles .... And as we dared not venture any sail abroad, we were obliged to make use of an expedient, which answered our purpose: this was putting the helm a-weather, and manning the foreshrouds. But though this method proved successful for the end intended, yet in the execution of it, one of our ablest seamen was canted overboard; and notwithstanding the prodigious agitation of the waves, we perceived that he swam very strong, and it was with the utmost concern that we found ourselves incapable of assisting him, and we the more grieved at his unhappy fate, since we lost sight of him struggling with the waves, and conceived from the manner in which he swam, that he might continue sensible, for a considerable time longer, of the horror attending his irretrievable situation."

7-8] Lord George Anson (1697-1762), commander of an expedition against the Spanish ports in the Pacific, sailed around the world 1740-44.

60] Cowper is quoted as saying (in 1773): "My sin and judgment are alike peculiar. I am a castaway, deserted and condemned." He was haunted by a conviction that he was predestined to damnation.

61] There is an allusion to the stilling of the storm narrated in Matthew 8: 23-6.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Hayley, Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper (Chichester: J. Seagrave; for J. Johnson, London, 1803-04) E-10 3766 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1803
RPO poem editor: G. G. Falle
RP edition: 3RP 2.262.
Recent editing: 4:2002/2/10

Composition date: 1799
Rhyme: ababcc


Other poems by William Cowper