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Significant Scots
William Falconer


FALCONER, WILLIAM, author of "The Shipwreck, a poem," was born in Edinburgh about the year 1730. His father was a barber and wig-maker, in a well-known street called the Netherbow, where he ultimately became insolvent. A brother and sister of the tuneful Falconer—the only individuals who stood in that relation to him—were born deaf and dumb; and the latter, on account of her infirmities, was a constant inmate of the royal infirmary of Edinburgh, some time after the beginning of the present century. The father of the poet was a cousin-german of the Rev. Mr Robertson, minister of the parish of Borthwick; so that this humble bard was a very near relation of the author of the History of Scotland, and also of lord Brougham and Vaux. Old Falconer being reduced to insolvency, was enabled by his friends to open a grocer’s shop; but being deprived of his wife, who was a prudent and active woman, his affairs once more became deranged, and he terminated his life in extreme indigence.

The education of young Falconer was of that humble kind which might have been expected from his father’s circumstances. A teacher of the name of Webster gave him instructions in reading, writing, and arithmetic. He used to say that this was the whole amount of his school education. It appears that he possessed, even in early youth, an ardour of genius, and a zeal in the acquisition of knowledge, which in a great measure supplied his deficiences. In his poem of the Shipwreck, he evidently alludes to his own attainments, in the following lines: -

On him fair science dawned in happier hour,
Awakening into bloom young fancy’s flower;
But soon adversity, with freezing blast,
The blossom withered and the dawn o’ercast;
Forlorn of heart, and, by severe decree,
Condemned, reluctant, to the faithless sea;
With long farewell, he left the laurel grove,
Where science and the tuneful sisters rove."

When very young, he was torn from his self-pursued studies, and entered as an apprentice on board a merchant vessel belonging to Leith. He afterwards became servant to Mr Campbell, the author of Lexiphanes, who was purser of the ship to which he belonged, and who, finding in him an aptitude for knowledge, kindly undertook to give him some instructions in person. He subsequently became second mate in the Britannia, a vessel in the Levant trade, which, on her passage from Alexandria to Venice, was shipwrecked off Cape Colonna, on the coast of Greece. Only three of the crew were saved, and Falconer was of the number. The event furnished him with the material of a poem, by which it is probable his name will be for ever remembered.

The poet was at this time about eighteen years of age. In 1751, when two or three years older, he is found residing in his native city, where he published his first known work, a poem, "Sacred to the Memory of his Royal Highness, Frederick, Prince of Wales." He is said to have followed up this effort by several minor pieces, which he transmitted to the Gentleman’s Magazine. Mr Clarke, the editor of a respectable edition of his poems, points out "The Chaplain’s Petition to the Lieutenants in the Ward-room," the "Description of a Ninety Gun Ship," and some lines "On the Uncommon Scarcity of Poetry," as among these fugitive productions. Mr Clarke has likewise presented his readers with a whimsical little poem, descriptive of the abode and sentiments of a midshipman, which was one of the poet’s early productions; and offers some reasons for supposing that he was the author of the popular song, "Cease, rude Boreas."

Little is known of Falconer during this period of his life, except that he must have been making considerable additions to his stock of knowledge and ideas. His poem, "The Shipwreck," was published in 1762, being dedicated to Edward, duke of York, brother of George III. This composition displays a degree of polish, and an array of classical allusions, which could only have been acquired by extensive reading. It was at once placed in the first rank of descriptive poetry, where it has ever since continued. "The distant ocean," says an eminent critic, "and its grand phenomena, have employed the pens of the most eminent poets, but they have generally produced an effect by indefinite outlines and imaginary incidents. In Falconer, we have the painting of a great artist, taken on the spot, with such minute fidelity, as well as picturesque effect, that we are chained to the scene with all the feelings of actual terror. In the use of imagery, Falconer displays original powers. His sunset, midnight, morning, &c., are not such as have descended from poet to poet. He beheld these objects under circumstances in which it is the lot of few to be placed. His images, therefore, cannot be transferred or borrowed; they have an appropriation which must not be disturbed, nor can we trace them to any source but that of genuine poetry." Another writer remarks, "The Shipwreck is didactic as well as descriptive, and may be recommended to a young sailor, not only to excite his enthusiasm, but improve his knowledge of the art. It is of inestimable value to this country, since it contains within itself the rudiments of navigation if not sufficient to form a complete seaman, it may certainly be considered as the grammar of his professional science. I have heard many experienced officers declare, that the rules and maxims delivered in this poem, for the conduct of a ship in the most perilous emergency, form the best, indeed, the only opinions which a skilful mariner should adopt." Against such a poem it forms no proper objection, that much of the language, being technical, is only perfectly understood by a class.

By his dedication, the poet gained the notice and patronage of the duke of York, who, it will be recollected, was himself a seaman. Almost immediately after the poem was published, his royal highness induced Falconer to leave the merchant service, and procured him the rank of a midshipman in Sir Edward Hawke’s ship, the Royal George. In gratitude, Falconer wrote an "Ode on the duke of York’s second departure from England as rear-admiral," which was published, but displays a merit more commensurate with the unimportance of the subject than the genius of the author. It is said that Falconer composed this poem "during an occasional absence from his messmates, when he retired into a small space formed between the cable tiers and the ship’s side."

In 1763, the war being brought to a close, Falconer’s ship was paid off;—long before he had completed that period of service which could have entitled him to promotion. He then exchanged the military for the civil department of the naval service, and became purser of the Glory frigate of 32 guns. Either in the interval between the two services, or before his appointment as a midshipman, he paid a visit to Scotland, and spent some time in the manse of Gladsmuir, with Dr Robertson, the historian, who, we are told, was proud to acknowledge the relationship that existed between him and this self-instructed and ingenious man.

Soon after this period, Falconer married a Miss Hicks, daughter of the Surgeon of Sheerness Yard. She has been described as "a woman of cultivated mind, elegant in her person, and sensible and agreeable in conversation." It is said that the match was entered into against the will of her parents, who, looking only to the external circumstances of the poet, thought her thrown away upon a poor Scottish adventurer. Notwithstanding this painful circumstance, and, there is reason to fear real poverty besides, the pair lived happily. Falconer endeavoured to support himself by literature. He compiled a "Universal Marine Dictionary," which, from its usefulness as a book of reference, soon became generally used in the navy. Like most other literary Scotsmen of that period, he was a zealous partisan of the Bute administration, and endeavoured to defend it against the attacks of its jealous and illiberal enemies. For this purpose, he published a satire, called "the Demagogue," which, was more particularly aimed at lord Chatham, Wilkes, and Churchill. We have not learned that it was attended with any particular effect. Falconer, at this time, lived in a manner at once economical, and highly appropriate to his literary character. "When the Glory was laid in ordinary at Chatham, commissioner Hanway, brother to the benevolent Jonas Hanway, became delighted with the genius of its purser. The captain’s cabin was ordered to be fitted up with a stove, and with every addition of comfort that could be procured; in order that Falconer might thus be enabled to enjoy his favourite propensity, without either molestation or expense."—Clark’s Life of Falconer.

In 1769, the poet had removed to London, and resided for some time in the former buildings of Somerset house. From this place he dated the last edition of the Shipwreck published in his own life-time. That Falconer must have possessed the personal qualities of a man of the world, rather than those of an abstracted student or child of the muses, seems to be proved by Mr Murray, the bookseller, having proposed to take him into partnership. He is supposed to have been only prevented from acceding to this proposal by receiving an appointment to the pursership of the Aurora frigate, which was ordered to carry out to India, Messrs Vansittart, Scrofton, and Forde, as supervisors of the affairs of the company. He was also promised the office of private secretary to those gentlemen, a situation from which his friends conceived hopes that he might eventually obtain lasting advantages. It had been otherwise ordered. The Aurora sailed from England on the 30th of September, 1769, and, after touching at the Cape, was lost during the remainder of the passage, in a manner which left no trace by which the cause of the calamity could be discovered. It was conjectured that the vessel took fire at sea; but the more probable supposition is that she foundered in the Mosambique channel. The widow of Falconer (who eventually died at Bath,) resided for some years afterwards in his apartments at Somerset house, partly supported by Mr Miller, the bookseller, who, in consideration of the rapid sale of the Marine Dictionary, generously bestowed upon her sums not stipulated for in his contract with the author. Mr Moser, whom we have already quoted, mentions that he once met her walking in the garden, near her lodging, and, without knowing who she was, happened, in conversation, to express his admiration of "the Shipwreck." She was instantly in tears. "She presented me," says Mr M. "with a copy of the Shipwreck, and seemed much affected by my commiseration of the misfortunes of a man, whose work appears in its catastrophe prophetic." They had never had any children.

"In person," says Mr Clarke, "Falconer was about five feet seven inches in height; of a thin light make, with a dark weather-beaten complexion, and rather what is termed hard-featured, being considerably marked with the small pox; his hair was of a brownish hue. In point of address, his manner was blunt, awkward, and forbidding; but he spoke with great fluency; and his simple yet impressive diction was couched in words which reminded his hearers of the terseness of Swift. Though he possessed a warm and friendly disposition, he was fond of controversy, and inclined to satire. His observation was keen and rapid; his criticisms on any inaccuracy of language or expression, were frequently severe; yet this severity was always intended to create mirth, and not by any means to show his own superiority, or to give the smallest offence. In his natural temper, he was cheerful, and frequently used to amuse his messmates by composing acrostics on their favourites, in which he particularly excelled. As a professional man, he was a thorough seaman; and, like most of that profession, was kind, generous, and benevolent."


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