William Cowper – The Castaway


This is a ballad with an unusual and distinctive subcurrent of introspection – a movement that is glimpsed at the start but surfaces fully in the final stanzas. The performative, distancing tone and perspective of the ballad form collapses and the terror and isolation of the striken sailor are traced to their source in the emotions of the speaker. This overwhelming sadness is all the more terrible for its namelessness, the profound personal loss that even to the end hides behind the allegory of the drowning sailor. One could read in this internalized ballad the heralding of the Romantic era and the cult of Self, yet the real ache of the poem is felt most strongly in the reticence it maintains to the end.

The strength of a ballad is in its ability to transport the reader into the world it describes. Such is the case in the opening stanzas of this poem, where sparse but evocative descriptions of the scene complement the main focus on the emotions and actions of the sailor. In the first line the verb ‘involved’ conveys the sense of being consumed and overwhelmed, reflecting both on the sailor’s plight but also the speaker’s struggle with his own narrative to which I will return. Atmosphere is created without large passages of purple verse, maintaining the pace and action of the ballad for which the tone is set by a tripping rhythm and rhyme scheme. Stanza 3 is typical in this, the phrase ‘whelming brine’ is sufficient to evoke the violent ocean, producing something of the sound of howling wind in ‘whelm’ and suggesting bitterness with ‘brine’. Hence outward description stops there and the rest of the stanza internalizes the ‘strife’ as a psychological battle between ‘courage’ and ‘despair’. At the same time something of the melancholy of the speaker comes through in the persistent negative constructions of the opining stanzas, ‘Nor soon he felt, his strength decline’. These seem to imply helplessness from the beginning, in the quoted example it allows that his strength will inevitably decline even as it praises his endurance.

The internalization of drama in the ballad prepares the way for the speaker’s turn of introspection at the end of the poem. A ballad’s narrator tends to be aloof and omniscient or else the protagonist themself. This narrator hesitates between the two, as shown by the personal pronoun suspended awkwardly in the first stanza, ‘such a destined wretch as I’. Already the speaker sees an allegory for himself in the story, which accounts for the intense realisation of the sailor’s anguish. Yet this is an uncomfortable bond between the two. The horror of the sailor’s death is the isolation of it, ‘his friends so nigh’. Clearly some parallel is inferred with the narrator’s own desperation. It is a self-imposed isolation for the speaker, enforced by neither committing to complete identification with the sailor, nor able to stand completely away. The delight of his ‘misery’, in the penultimate stanza, is to ‘trace / Its semblance in another’s case’. The verb ‘trace’ suggests careful, meticulous study, almost obsessively contemplating tragedy. It also implies a physical touch, a desire to reach out with fingers and connect with another’s life, however ephemeral the connection. Such is the desire created for the speaker that commits him to feeling the terror of the situation he describes while keeping him in isolation at arm’s length.

The shadow of a profound personal loss or failure hangs over the final stanzas, all the more fearful for its lack of form. Lines 61 and 62 are a bald rebuke to insensible divine will, and the focus of these last stanzas is certainly the fact of being ‘alone’. We feel that there are moments when the speaker’s passion inhabits the portrayed emotion of the sailor, ‘Yet bitter felt it still to die / Deserted’. The tone might even be read as petulant and vain on the part of the speaker, certainly the final lines are questionable hyperbole that risk losing the faith of the reader. The speaker boasts, ‘But I beneath a rougher sea’. Whether our sympathy remains in tact after these lines – nonetheless unquestionably a powerful end to the poem – we can feel profoundly the woundedness and isolation of the speaker.

With an ostensible purpose in commemorating the lost sailor, the poem’s motives are deliberately left questionable after this has been refuted. Early lines sound at times like eulogy, ‘No braver chief could Albion boast’ yet the speaker takes pains to deny that purpose, ‘I therefore purpose not, or dream / Descanting on his fate’. There is something in the morbid interrogation of one’s own failings, but it is significant that the narrative should light upon this notion of commemoration only to discard it. It is a suggestion I think that the speaker voices some of the poet’s own fears about being forgotten, with the products of his ‘toil’ lost without a trace.

This is a poem that enters into and makes full use of the pathetic powers of the ballad form. A the same time it puts pressure on those areas of the style that are usually taken as given – the position of the narrator in relation to the subject matter, and the motives for elucidation and reticence in different areas. What emerges is a complex picture of a troubled speaker trying to identify with someone else without losing a sense of his own uniqueness, and an indistinct but lasting impression of profound loss.

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