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LIFE OF FALCONER.
BY MR. CHALMERS.
V Or the principal part of the information contained in this account of Mr. Falconer, I am indebted to the Biographical Memoir prefixed by the Rev. James Stanier Clarke, F. R. S. to his very splendid and accurate edition of The Shipwreck, published in IS03. In a few instances I have subjoined, in the notes, some differences in point of fact which occur in a Life of Falconer published by Mr. David Irving, of Edinburgh, in 1801.
William Falconer wag born about the year 1730', and was the son of a poor but industrious barber at Edinburgh, all of whose children, with the exception of our author, were either deaf or dumb'. William received such common education as might qualify him for some inferior employment, and appears to have contracted a taste for reading, and a desire for higher attainments than his situation permitted. In the character of Arion, unquestionably intended for his own, he hints at a further progress in study than his biographers have been able to trace:
On him fair Science dawn'd in happier hour,
It must indeed have been with reluctance that a boy who had begun to taste the sweets of literature consented to serve an apprenticeship on board a merchant vessel at Leith, which we are told he did when very young. He was afterwards in the capacity of a servant to Campbell, the author of Lexiphanes, when purser of a ship. Campbell is said to have discovered in Falconer talents worthy of cultivation, and when the latter
'Mr. Irving says, about the year 1735, which is not very consistent with the other dates in Falconer's life.
1 " He had a brother and sister, both of whom were born deaf and dumb. The sister is still living, fa Uuj city, (Edinburgh, 1801): she ii a constant residentiary in the Royal Infirmary." Jrvinjr.
distinguished himself as a poet, used to repeat with some pride, that he had once been his sch olar.
Falconer, probably by means of this friend, was made second mate of a vessel employed in the Levant trade, which was shipwrecked during her passage from Alexandria to Venice, and only three of the crew saved. The date of this event cannot now be ascertained, but what he saw and felt on the melancholy occasion made the deepest impression on his memory, and certainly suggested the plan and characters of his celebrated poem. Whether before this time he had made any poetical attempts we are not informed. The favours of a genuine muse are usually early, and it is at least probable that the classical allusions, so frequent in The Shipwreck, were furnished by much previous reading.
In 1751 he appeared among the poets who lamented the death of Frederic prince of Wales, in a poem published at Edinburgh, which probably gratified the humble expectations of a friendly circle, without procuring him much encouragement3. He is said, however, to have followed up his first effort, by some small pieces sent to that accustomed repository of early talent, the Gentleman's Magazine. Mr. Clarke lias pointed 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. The two last, on such authority, have been added to the present edition of his works. The Chaplain's Petition, professedly in imitation of Swift, is too much in the manner of the indelicate pieces attributed to that author, for insertion in a modern collection. 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 Falconer's early productions: and offers some reasons for being of opinion that he was the author of the popular song, Cease rude Boreas.
Our author is supposed to have continued in the merchant service until he gained the patronage of his royal highness Edward duke of York, by dedicating to him The Shipwreck, in the spring of 1762; and it is much to the honour of his highness's taste that he joined in the praise bestowed on this poem, and became desirous to place the author in a situation where he could befriend him. With this view, the duke advised him to quit the merchant service for the royal navy, and before the summer had elapsed, Falconer was rated a midshipman on board sir Edward Hawke's ship, the Royal George4.
At the peace of 1 76.3, this ship was paid off, but previously to that event, Falconer published an Ode on the Duke of York's second Departure from England as Rear- Admiral. His highness had embarked on board the Centurion with commodore Harrison, for the Mediterranean; and Falconer composed this ode " during an occasional absence from his messmates, when he retired into a small space formed between the cable tiers and the ship's side." It is a rambling, incoherent composition, in which we
J According to Mr. Irving, this poem was published before Falconer was shipwrecked, "upon h» revisiting Edinburgh in 1751."
* Mr. Irving informs us, that, "after the publication of The Shipwreck he paid a final visit to Scotland. He resided for some time at the manse of Oladsmuir, which was then possessed by his illustrious kinsman Dr. Robertson. This great historian, whose father was cousin-gcrman of Mr. Falconer, seems to have been proud to acknowledge his relation to the ingenious self-taught poet" Dr. Robertson may have been thus related to Falconer, but he had certainly left Gladsmuir for Edinburgh long before the publication of The Shipwreck.
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discover little of the author of The Shipwreck; Mr. Clarke adds, that a severe criticism on it, written by Falconer himself, appeared in the Critical Review. I know not how to reconcile this to the separate professions of author and critic, but of the severity of the criticism the reader may judge. The Reviewer says, "This poem is more than tolerable, and just falls short of excellency. We know not what the author might have produced, had he consulted the conflict of Hercules between Virtue and Vice, as described by the ancients: he would then have represented it less poetically than he has done: but the contour of the hero's body, and the attemptive inclinations of his head, would have been more natural, more just, and more exquisitely sensible." If Falconer wrote this, we hope he understood his meaning; but I am informed, on authority which I cannot doubt, that Falconer never wrote a line in the Critical Review.
As Falconer wanted much of that complementary time of service, which might enable him to arrive at the commission of Lieutenant, his friends advised him to exchange the military for the civil department of the royal navy; and accordingly, iu the course of the year 1763, he was appointed purser of the Glory frigate of 32 guns. Soon after he married a young lady of the name of Hicks, the daughter of the surgeon of Sheerness Yard. With this lady, who had considerable taste, he appears to have lived happily 5, although his circumstances were reduced from want of employment. That this was the case appears from a whimsical incident related by his biographer. "When the Glory was laid up 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."
Here he employed himself, for some time, in various literary occupations. Among others he compiled an Universal Marine Dictionary, a work of great utility, and highly approved by professional men iu the navy. In 1764, he published a new edition of The Shipwreck, in 8vo. corrected and enlarged, with a preface which indicates no great facility in that species of composition. In the following year, appeared The Demagogue, a political satire on lord Chatham, Wilkes, and Churchill, and intended as an antidote to the writings of the latter. It contains a sufficient proportion of the virulent spirit of Churchill, but lord Chatham and Wilkes were not at this time vulnerable, and The Demagogue was soon forgotten.
The Marine Dictionary was published in 176"96, before which period he appears.
5 She died at Bath, within these few years. In consideration of the success of the Marine Dictionary, she was liberally supplied with sums of money, from time to time, by the late Mr. Cadell, the proprietor of that work, nor did his liberality cease with the expiration of the usual period of copyright. This circumstance, which is mentioned by Mr. Irvine, has been delicately confirmed to me by Jlr. Cadell's successors.
'Iu this work he introduces a compliment to the British navy, which subsequent events have sa »roply justified, that no apology seems requisite for its insertion here.—" Rbtreat, the order or disposition in which a fleet of French men of war decline engagement, or fly from a pursuing enemy. The reader, who wishes to be expert in this manoeuvre, will find it copiously described by several ingenious French writers, particularly L'Hote, Saverien, Morogues, Bourde, and Ozanc j who have given accurate instructions, deduced from experience, for putting it in practice when occasion requires. As it is not properly a term of the British Marine, a more circumstantial account of it might bo considered foreign to our plan. It has been observed in another part of this work, that the French have