O first-born daughter of primeval Time!
By whom transmitted down in every clime,
The deeds of ages long elaps'd are known,
And blazon'd glories spread from zone to zone;
Whose breath dissolves the gloom of mental night,
And oser th'obscued idea pours the light!
Whose wing unerring glides thro' time and place,
And trackless scours th immensity of space;
Say, on what seas, for thou alone canst tell,
What dire mishap a fated ship befel,
Assail'd by tempests, girt with hostile shores?
Arise! approach! unlock thy treasur'd stores!

— William Falconer, The Shipwreck, canto 1,11. 10920

After the mariner's vessel has drifted hopelessly, there comes the feared moment when it crashes upon a hidden reef or founders in raging seas — the moment of actual shipwreck. This is the moment one encounters in Poe's 'MS. Found in a Bottle," Tennyson's "The Wreck," Baudelaire's "Le Voyage," and Stanfield's The Wreck of the 'Avenger'. This is also the moment that William Falconer, himself a survivor of sea disaster, presents at length in his autobiographical poem The Shipwreck:

The ship hangs hovering on the verge of death,
Hell yawns, rocks rise, and breakers roar beneath! — ....

Uplifted on the surge, to heaven she flies
Her shatter'd top half-buried in the skies,
Then headlong plunging thunders on the ground,
Earth groans! air trembles! and the deeps resound!
Her giant bulk the dread concussion feels
And quivering with the wound in torment reels.
So reels, convuls'd with agonizing throes,
The bleeding full beneath the murd'rer's blows
Again she plunges! hark! a second shock
Tears her strong bottom on the marble rock:
Down on the vale of Death, with dismal cries,
The fated victims shuddering roll their eyes
In wild despair; while yet another stroke
With deep convulsion, rends the solid oak:
Till like the mine, in whose infernal cell
The lurking demons of destruction dwell,
At length asunder torn, her frame divides;
And crashing spreads in ruin o'er the tides. [bk 3,11. 612- 13, 632-49]

Immediately after thus describing the moment the vessel strikes the rocks that cause its final destruction, Falconer turns away from the action and wishes that he had Vergil's poetic skill, so that he could "wake to sympathy the feeling heart," present his subject in all the "pomp of exquisite distress," and "deplore/ Th'impervious horrors of a leeward shore" (11.651, 653, 656-7). Both Falconer's choice of poetic model and his statement of his poetic purposes reveal much about the intensely problematic nature of the shipwreck and similar situations of disaster and crisis for Western culture. Falconer's once extraordinarily popular poem, which first appeared in 1762, does not fully present the shipwreck as the modern situation of man's essential isolation and helplessness, but at the same time it does not convincingly present it as an instance of divine punishment either. In fact, the poet's major difficulties in endowing his narrative of maritime disaster with a proper significance — with a meaning, that is, which will satisfy him can serve as a type of the problems such crises occasion for the artist in an age of transition.

To begin with, Falconer, like so many poets of the following century, wishes to find modern equivalents for epic subject, and, again, like many of the Romantic and post-Romantic generations, he wishes to find that subject in his own life and experience. Unfortunately, unlike Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Hopkins, he does not realize that an epic subject requires the poet to use it as part of something very like a theogony, for what makes the subject important is precisely that it permits, or rather requires, the poet to justify the ways of God to man or otherwise propound a view of the human condition. Characteristically, although Falconer employs epic devices frequently to endow his subject with epic dignity, the Muse he invokes is not Calliope, the epic Muse, but memory. Such a procedure characterizes his poem because, having set out to memorialize the events of which he had been a victim, he never knows quite what to make of them. Part of the difficulty arises in the fact that this barber's son who went to sea as a purser was not all that skilful as a poet, and yet his occasional patches of satisfying verse show that his problems derive from more than lack of poetic technique.

Falconer's poem takes the form of three cantos, each of which has more than nine hundred lines. Although he describes the stages of the sea disaster in considerable detail, this narration still takes up a fairly small proportion of the entire work, and therefore all the other material in the poem must lead up to this maritime disaster and make us sympathize more with its victims. The first canto sets the scene and presents the cast of characters, which in Falconer's narrow class-bound view consists entirely of the officers of the merchant ship Britannia and their families at home; the poet briefly mentions the rest of the crew as "th' inferior naval train" (bk I, l. 420) and swiftly consigns them to deepest oblivion. Once the officers have been introduced and the vessel described, Falconer devotes the remainder of the canto to narrating the tale of the love of Palemon, the youngest officer, for Anna, the daughter of the captain. This love interest, which occupies considerable space in the poem, is obviously intended to make us feel more sympathy for the sea's victims, and to create it the poet draws upon pastoral convention for Palemon's name and both pastoral and fiction for the tale of young love. At the same time, the first canto also repeatedly compares man's battlewith the sea to sieges and other episodes in war. Such traditional means of poetic aggrandizement serve to suggest that Falconer's subject, the shipwreck of a merchant vessel, possesses epic dignity.

The poem's second canto begins with everyone thinking of home. A storm comes up and then clears, after which Rodmond, the crude first mate, kills a dolphin for no apparent reason. A second storm then overtakes the ship, and Falconer describes it in detail while also providing elaborate, awkward instruction on seamanship. As the third canto opens, the ship, which has narrowly avoided drifting onto the rocks at Falconera, drifts helplessly towards Greece. Falconer interrupts the narrative to provide a political history of Greece, after which he presents the ship's final moments and the deaths of many in its crew. Falconer, who had lived through one such disaster and was to perish in another, describes the final slaughter effectively and in detail. For example, he explains that, knowing they were about to crash upon the rock-bound shore, the crew climbed the rigging in the hopes that they would there better their chances of survival:

As o'er the surge the stooping main-mast hung,
Still on the rigging thirty seamen clung;
Some, struggling, on a broken crag were cast,
And there by oozy tangles grappled fast,
Awhile they bore th'o'erwhelming billows'rage,
Unequal combat with their fate to wage;
Till all benumb'd and feeble they forego
Their slippery hold, and sink to shades below.
Some, from the main-yard-arm impetuous thrown
On marble ridges, die without a groan. [Bk 3,11. 658-67]

Thomas Stothard, engraved by J. Neagle, illustration to William Falconer, The Shipwreck, 11th ed., London: T. Cadell, 1802, facing page 134. The accompanying lines, which do not occur until p. 159, read "Lo! her bright image, pendent [sic] on my neck,/Is all Paelmon rescu'd from the wreck." Note the melodramatically placed hands in the picture's lower left corner.

At last Arion, the character who represents Falconer himself, makes it safely to the shore but discovers that his friend Palemon has been severely injured by being thrown against the rocky shores. After a long death speech Palemon dies, and Arion promises to memorialize his death and that of the ship and its crew.

The intensely problematic nature of his task appears in the poem's final inability to provide any final meaning for the shipwreck. Falconer's lack of intellectual or philosophic focus appears with particular clarity in those many places where he assigns a significance to something and then apparently forgets it. For instance, early in the poem he speaks of his life as one afflicted by a "vindictive Fate" (bk 1, l. 73), but it soon appears only that he had had a hard time of it. He does not, in other words, seem to believe that any greater plan or fate pursued him, and therefore this supposedly "vindictive Fate" does not play any role in the destruction of the vessel and those on board. Similarly, when Falconer describes the ocean in the manner of hymnwriters as "the faithless main" (bk 1, l. 714), he not only neglects to amplify this notion but he also does not make clear how or with whom the sea could conceivably have broken faith. Again, when he mentions "the faithless tides" (bk 2, l. 23) upon which the ship sails for home from Candia, he does not show the reader how tides, which are a natural force and certainly follow (and "keep faith") with natural law, could be faithless, for the mere fact that they do not suit the needs of men does not seem enough to make them thus "faithless."

A major part of Falconer's problems with his subject arise from his attempting to do something with a literary form, diction, verse form, and allusiveness not entirely appropriate to them. His basic attempt to endow their experienced shipwreck with epic (or tragic) grandeur thus leads him to use forms, particularly epithets, that may at first strike one as appropriate but which, upon consideration, have implications that ill accord with what he is apparently trying to communicate. His characteristic difficulties in attempting to achieve epic dignity appear, for example, in the long description of the Britannia which closes the first canto. After describing the ship's beauties at length, Falconer ends with a characteristically ambiguous mention of the Union Jack:

High o'er the poop the flattering winds unfurl'd
Th'imperial flag that rules the watery world.
Deep blushing armors all the tops invest;
And warlike trophies either quarter drest:
Then tower'd the masts, the canvass swell'd on high,
And waving streamers floated in the sky.
Thus the rich vessel moves in trim array,
Like some fair virgin on her bridal day.
Thus, like a swan, she cleaves the watery plain,
The pride and wonder of th'Ægean main! [Bk 1,11. 93241]

In fact, neither England's flag nor that of any human power rules the "watery world" — something we are to learn from Falconer at great length. Falconer gives no indication that he writes ironically, and he apparently means only that of all naval powers his nation is the greatest. To state that Britain rules the naval and merchant vessels of other nations in this form suggests, however, that it rules the ocean itself. In other words, Falconer's desire to employ usual means of poetic compliment leads him to ironies of which he seems unaware.

One such potentially ironic passage appears in the poem's closing pages when Arion looks at Palemon's corpse and, transfixed by the sight, renews his earlier oath to tell his friend's beloved Anna all that has happened, for at this point in the action he essentially forgoes any attempt to understand the meaning of what has just happened to Palemon, himself, and the rest of the ship's company:

Disastrous day! what ruin hast thou bred!
What anguish to the living and the dead!
How hast thou left the widow all-forlorn,
And ever doom'd the orphan child to mourn;
Thro' life's sad journey hopeless to complain!
Can sacred Justice these events ordain?
But, O my soul! avoid that wondrous maze
Where Reason, lost in endless error, strays!
As thro' this thorny vale of life we run,
Great CAUSE of all effects, Thy will be done! [Bk 3, 11. 899-908]

By simply accepting the will of God and yet by abandoning any attempt to demonstrate the presence of God in this terrible event, Falconer obviously declares his own inability to explain either for himself or the reader the value, the meaning, of what has just occurred. Upon encountering events and an external nature too difficult to decipher, the poet simply turns away from this source of puzzlement and throws himself upon the bosom of God.

By failing to derive any metaphysical, moral, or religious value from this sea disaster, Falconer has none the less been true to his original commitment to his Muse, which is memory, since he has presented what happened as he saw it. His frequent citations of epic convention, however, demonstrate that he has not just preserved traces of these terrible deaths in his memory, for he has tried to endow the entire event with dignity and high seriousness and he has continually suggested, moreover, that it possesses importance for the audience. Furthermore, he also draws the reader's attention to the event's significance, and to effect a successful poetic closure he must resolve some of the problems he has raised. Had Falconer never in the poem made any attempt either to open such questions or to provide answers, his final resignation might conceivably have ended the poem successfully. But, in fact, he has offered so many contradictory partial explanations in the course of The Shipwreck that the final stance of unquestioning humility violates all that has preceded it.

His lack of poetic control over this crucial issue of the shipwreck's meaning and relevance also appears in his own response to this speech about accepting God's will and abandoning his own judgment, for after promising Palemon that he would tell his end to Anna, he has written a poem that does not focus upon the ill-fated lover. Indeed, immediately after recalling his promise to memorialize these tragic events, Falconer's speaker proceeds in true neo-classical fashion to generalize. Rather than elaborate upon all the sad implications of his friend's death and Anna's consequent unhappiness, he immedately turns his attention to unnamed other sufferers. Having shown that he conceives of his task of memorialization as more than just the tale of Palemon's fate, he raises an issue that he cannot answer.

Such basic difficulties in ending The Shipwreck would not have arisen at all, one suspects, if Falconer had not permitted himself to hint so many times and in so many ways that he knew the meaning of the sea disaster. The poem several times suggests that the sea or tides were faithless and that in some way these natural forces are to blame in some way, that is, more than the one of purely physical causation. Falconer's use of inappropriate epithets thus forces the reader's attention to issues that might otherwise have remained dormant. He also applies such inappropriate epithets to the ship itself, for shortly after mentioning that the wind "betray'd" the unwilling vessel, he describes the ship "caparison'd in gaudy pride" (canto 2, ll. 228, 237), as if to suggest that it or, by implication, its officers are guilty of pride; but nothing else in the poem makes such an assignment of value seem in the slightest convincing. His similar comparison of the plunging ship to Satan, which demonstrates that Falconer is a good eighteenth-century Miltonist, also strikes one as singularly inappropriate:

As that rebellious angel who, from heaven,
To regions of eternal pain was driven;
When dreadless he forsook the Stygian shore,
The distant realms of Eden to explore;
Here, on sulphureous clouds sublime upheav'd,
With daring wing th'infernal air he cleav'd;
There, in some hideous gulf descending prone,
Far in the rayless void of night was thrown.
Even so she scales the briny mountain's height,
Then down the black abyss precipitates her flight. [canto 3, 11. 97-106]

The major difficulty in assigning blame for the deaths of so many people either to the supposedly faithless sea or the pride of the vessel and its men is that nothing else in the poem makes such explanations seem appropriate or convincing. In fact, as the obvious opposition of the two contrasting explanations suggests, they seem to cancel each other out; and if one wished to employ some more complex explanation, say, in which the vessel's pride allowed it to destroy itself within the faithless waves, one would have to make a far greater effort to establish an explanation than does Falconer.

He several times does make attempts to explain the meaning of this sea disaster in traditional terms. For example, near the opening of the poem, he suggests that the shipwreck to come will be caused by greed and that the victims therefore will be punished by their own allegiance to Mammon. But even as he obliquely makes such a suggestion, he characteristically manages to undercut it, thus making this assignment of value problematic and hence intensely puzzling to the reader:

The watchful mariner, whom Heaven informs,
Oft deems the prelude of approaching storms.
True to his trust when sacred duty calls,
No brooding storm the master's soul appals;
Th' advancing season warns him to the main:
A captive, fetter'd to the oar of gain!
His anxious heart, impatient of delay,
Expects the winds to sail from Candia's bay;
Determin'd from whatever point they rise,
To trust his fortune to the seas and skies. [canto 1, ll. 206-15]

As this representative passage suggests, Falconer holds two potentially contradictory views of the merchant seaman's life and does not have any governing idea that might permit him to reconcile them or subordinate one to the other. On the one hand, he firmly believes that the sailor's dangerous calling, his obedience to duty, and his willingness to take personal risks as part of his occupation make him truly heroic. The seaman's battles with natural forces of current, sea, and storm, Falconer repeatedly demonstrates, deserve epic, heroic treatment as much as do the siege of Troy and similar mythic struggles; and that, of course, explains why he so frequently uses epic similes to aggrandize his subject. On the other hand, the poet also seems to believe that the need to make money, whether for oneself or the ship's owners, leads to terrible disaster, and that, moreover, the shipwreck comes in part as punishment. Unfortunately, when looked at closely, this explanation does not make much sense, for the men who perish on the ship and upon whose deaths Falconer concentrates in the poem's long climactic scenes — do not themselves seem liable to the charge of greed; they are only earning their livings, and hard, dangerous livings they are. In contrast, the ship's owners, the economic system that prompts such mercantile adventuring, or Britain as a whole might be guilty of such greed, but none of these perishes in this shipwreck.

Another intriguing, but equally unconvincing, reason for the shipwreck appears when the unsympathetic first mate Rodmond kills a dolphin. This cruel, essentially absurd act does not finally explain anything, both because it seems out of keeping with what follows in the poem and because it is never again mentioned. Unlike Coleridge's fable of sin against nature and expiation, Falconer's The Shipwreck takes place in a realistically conceived universe; and whereas "The Ancient Mariner," which takes the form of a fantasy, continually emphasizes that human reason cannot understand the magical connections between events, Falconer's poem remains, despite its epic pretensions, completely in a very ordinary world.

What is so intriguing about Falconer's The Shipwreck is the way it offers so many possible explanations, fails to integrate them into any larger one, and finally turns away from the task of explanation altogether. The poet offers so many oblique, implicit, hinted interpretations of the shipwreck that one can easily imagine a skilful assembler of interpretations who would claim to locate the "meaning" of the poem in its statements about pride and greed. The experience of reading the poem, however, shows clearly that although Falconer makes some game attempts to offer a meaning for the events he describes, no interpretation commands his imagination enough to dominate the poem. The emphasis of the poem, therefore, rests upon his carefully narrated scenes of disaster at sea, which remain too large for the poet's intellect. He can relive them, but he cannot explain them. Unfortunately, such explanation proves to be essential to this kind of subject, in part because it had so long served as a cultural code or paradigm that provided religious explanations for disasters.

Furthermore, The Shipwreck also seems to demand such metaphysical or spiritual explanations because Falconer, having no other mode into which to cast his painful experience, sought to aggrandize it, to give it poetic dignity and importance, by casting it in epic and tragic modes, modes which traditionally offer some sort of fundamental explanations. As the Australian poet A. D. Hope has the epic Muse inquire in "Conversation with Calliope,"

since society has ended Its ancient pact with the divine,
The public actions which depended
On common faith to make them shine
Once gone, what use is left the splendid
Impetus of the epic line?

Falconer, who attempts to use epic devices to aggrandize his subject, does not realize that such devices themselves function as signals or codes. Although he remains unaware of the spiritual and poetic crisis described by Hope, Falconer none the less serves as an excellent instance of it, for although traditional interpretations of the nautical disaster do not attract him enough to make them the centre of his poem, he has no alternative ones to offer.


Victorian Web Homepage Literary Technique Next

Last modified 14 July 2007