William Cowper (1731-1800)

William Cowper

William Cowper was the elder son of the rector of Great Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire; his mother died when he was six. He was educated at a private school, where he was bullied, and at Westminster. He was called to the bar in 1754. Sensitive and hypochondriac by nature, he began to suffer from severe depression, and when called for examination for a disputed clerkship in the House of Lords he broke down completely and attempted suicide. His illness may have been aggravated by the failure of his hope of marrying his cousin, Theodora Cowper. From this time he was subject to periods of acute melancholia which took a religious form; he felt himself cast out of God's mercy and wrote later in his moving autobiographical 'Memoir': 'conviction of sin and expectation of instant judgement never left me'.

He wrote 'The Castaway' shortly before his death; like many of his poems it deals with man's isolation and helplessness. Cowper depicts with tragic power the suffering of a seaman swept overboard and awaiting death by drowning. Storms and shipwrecks recur in his work as images of the mysterious ways of God, and Cowper's search for a retired and quiet life of simple domestic and rural pleasures gave him little sense of permanent security. Yet his poems have been highly valued for their intimate portrait of tranquillity and for their playful and delicate wit. The poem is based upon an incident in Richard Walterís 'A Voyage round the world by George Anson' (1748). Anson, later an admiral, led the expedition against the Spanish. While they were rounding Cape Horn in a storm, one of the seamen was carried overboard.

The Castaway

Obscurest night involved the sky,
The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
Washed headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home forever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albionís coast,
With warmer wishes sent.
He loved them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
Expert to swim, he lay,
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
Or courage die away;
But waged with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had failed
To check the vesselís course,
But so the furious blast prevailed,
That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
Delayed not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whateíer they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seemed, could he
Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives who lives an hour
In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent power,
His destiny repelled;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried, ĎAdieu!í

At length, his transient respite past,
His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in every blast,
Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
Of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Ansonís tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in anotherís case.

No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

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