Chetwood, William Rufus. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Ben Jonson, Esq. 1756. Facsimile, New York: Garland, 1970.
McKuen, Katharine Anderson. Classical Influence upon the Tribe of Ben: A Study of Classical Elements in the Non-Dramatic Poetry of Ben Jonson and His Circle. New York: octagon, 1968.
"CASTAWAY, THE" William Cowper (1803)
Not published until 1803, William Cowper's "The Castaway" was written during his final year of life, 1799. It reflects his state of mind, as he had become a mental and physical invalid several years previously. With undeniable power and admirable beauty, Cow-per portrays the desolation felt by a sailor eventually abandoned at sea when his crew could not reverse course in a storm to rescue him. While any death causes sadness, the thought of witnessing the slow death of a friend one is helpless to rescue is especially chilling. Although he based his poem on a true incident, Cowper adopted the drowning as a metaphor for his own debilitating condition, which became hopeless after the loss of his longtime companion, Mary Unwin. Despite the attempts of Cowper's friends, he eventually found himself isolated by a constant foreboding and sense of despair that those friends could not understand, leaving them unable to support him, a situation that mirrored that of a man lost at sea.
"The Castaway" focuses on a publication titled Voyage (1748) written by Lord Anson George (16971762), which Cowper had read decades before writing his poem. George told of the horrors of watching die a sailor who had been washed overboard during a storm. In 11 six-line verses with the rhyme scheme ababcc, dedeff, and so on, the reader experiences through Cow-per's skill the rocking rhythm from three vantage points, that of the sailor himself, that of his mates on the ship, and that of the poet. He begins, obscurest night involved the sky, The Atlantic billows roared, When such a destined wretch as I, Washed headlong from on board.
The speaker does not spend much energy describing how the sailor happened to fall into the sea, instead devoting all his attention to a description of death. The immediate comparison of the sailor to the "I" of the poem signals readers that the poet also felt close to death. The initial stanza concludes: "of friends, of hope, of all bereft, / His floating home forever left," describing Cowper's own situation, as well as that of the hapless sailor.
The second verse praises Lord George as a brave chief and makes clear the boat set sail "With warmest wishes" from the sailor's home of "Albion," another name for England. Rather than proving positive, these facts only intensify the lost man's sorrow, because "He loved them both, but both in vain, / Nor him beheld, nor her again." Despite the power of the sailor's love, he would never again see his captain or his homeland. Cowper employs alliteration with the b sound and repetition of the term nor for heightened effect. In the third verse the reader learns the sailor did not stay long "beneath the whelming brine," as he was an expert swimmer, filled with courage and strength, so that he "waged with death a lasting strife, / Supported by despair of life." Not willing to give in easily because he loved life, the sailor takes on death's challenge, as Cowper must have done with his mental illness. Part of the sailor's strategy is to call attention to himself, so he shouts at his "friends," a term indicating that he had more than a working relationship with others on board. Those friends had attempted "To check the vessel's course," but the elements prove too strong, exerting a "pitiless perforce," a brilliant phrase, designed so the ship "scudded still before the wind."
In the next stanza the sailor's mates try a different "succor," throwing against the wind into the water devices designed to keep their mate afloat, "The cask, the coop, the floated cord." However, not only the mates on board, but also the sailor, understand nothing will help him survive the storm. Cowper makes a statement regarding the desperation felt by humans who will continue to attempt rescue of a person or a situation, when all the while they know their efforts will prove fruitless.
In the sixth verse Cowper reflects on the abandoned man's thought process, in which he determines that his mates could do nothing else, "Aware that flight, in such a sea, / Alone could rescue them." He did not judge them cruel to save the many rather than have all perish in an attempt to save one, "Yet bitter felt it still to die /
Deserted, and his friends so nigh." enjambment after the word die takes the reader immediately to Deserted, emphasizing the nature of the lonely death through alliteration and placement. While at first the sailor's courage and desire to survive prove admirable, they at last become pitiful. He survives an hour, a feat the speaker emphasizes as incredible, holding himself up, repelling his destiny. But as each minute "flew" by, he "Entreated help, or cried, 'Adieu!'" His sense of isolation grows, made even worse by having his friends so near.
By the eighth verse, in which the attention switches again to those on board, his voice could no longer be heard, because "For then, by toil subdued, he drank / The stifling wave, and then he sank." His disappearance is sudden even though expected, leaving the reader with a true sense of loss. Cowper notes next that "No poet wept him" but reminds readers that George's "narrative sincere" does tell the sailor's "name, his worth, his age." It is a narrative "wet with Anson's tear." Such tears, whether by "bards or heroes shed / Alike immortalize the dead."
Cowper's 10th verse comments on his act of reflecting in verse on the sailor's death so many years later. He writes,
I therefore purpose not, or dream, Descanting on his fate, To give the melancholy theme A more enduring date.
Readers might wonder at those lines, as it seems the poet intends to do exactly what he denies. He explains in the final couplet of that verse, writing, "But misery still delights to trace / Its semblance in another's case." In other words, Cowper undertakes this task for himself. The sailor's condition mirrors his own, also predicting Cowper's fate. He accepts that fate, unhappily, as the sailor had to accept his. With a final verse Cowper is completely honest with his readers, as well as with himself, admitting he expects no miracle to intervene and save him. He determines that
No voice divine the storm allayed, No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone.
He includes all humankind in the ship of life, which will, by necessity, eventually leave them behind, struggling to survive. However, some deaths are more horrible than others, Cowper clearly concludes, as he writes his last couplet: "But I beneath a rougher sea, / And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he."
Cowper renders his story without self-pity, although he does mourn its necessity. He suggests that while all humans perish, those deaths are not necessarily equal. The loss of his mental faculties formed a terrible prelude to his physical death, clearly seen when he recovered them long enough to describe his predicament to the world.
Was this article helpful?