William Cowper

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The Castaway

Obscurest night involved the sky,
   The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
   Washed headlong from on board,
5 Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
     
No braver Chief could Albion boast
   Than He with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast
10    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;
15 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 fail’d
20    To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
   That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.
       
25 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,
30 Whate’er 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;
35 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 pow’r,
40    His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried ’Adieu!’
     
At length, his transient respite past,
   His comrades, who before
45 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
50    Of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
   Is wet with Anson’s tear,
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalise the dead.
     
55 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
65 Its semblance in another’s case.
     
No voice divine the storm allay’d,
   No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
    We perish’d, each, alone;
65 But I, beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.

First published 1799.

Contributed by Robert Clark.