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The Castaway by William Cowper



Full Prose Translation:

While out at sea a man falls overboard during a terrible storm. He and his crew were all brave men, their ship strong and sturdy. When life destines death, it will come. No human power could withstand the onslaught of undulating wave upon wave beating their ship. In attempting to save their lost crew-member, the men threw over all manner of objects from casks to ropes. But nature shot their ship away from the lost man like a cannon scudding through the stormy night—farther and farther from the man. Despite railing against his fate, he does not condemn his fellows, for he knows they have no choice.

Every moment staving off fate is an eternity when stranded at sea, but his fate is sealed nonetheless. The men aboard mourn him as they listen to his cries fade over the roiling waves; until he is heard no more.

In all accounts he was a hero, but no poet speaks of this lone man. Instead, Cowper speaks of him as like each of us in our lives. And most wretched of all, Cowper himself.

The Castaway


Obscurest night involv'd the sky,

Th' Atlantic billows roar'd,

When such a destin'd wretch as I,

Wash'd headlong from on board,

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,

With warmer wishes sent.

He lov'd them both, but both in vain,

Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,

Expert to swim, he lay;

Nor soon he felt his strength decline,

Or courage die away;

But wag'd with death a lasting strife,

Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail'd

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.

Some succour yet they could afford;

And, such as storms allow,

The cask, the coop, the floated cord,

Delay'd not to bestow.

But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,

Whate'er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem'd, could he

Their haste himself condemn,

Aware that flight, in such a sea,

Alone could rescue them;

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,

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

Had heard his voice in ev'ry 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

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 immortalize the dead.

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

Its semblance in another's case.

No voice divine the storm allay'd,

No light propitious shone;

When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,

We perish'd, each alone:

But I beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.


From Stanza I:

  • Billows - Large Sea wave. OR: Large undulating mass of something, typically cloud, smoke or steam.

Stanza II:

  • Albion - Poetic term for Britain or England (often used in referring to ancient or historical times)

Stanza III:

  • Brine - Salt Water

Stanza IV:

  • Furious Blast - The strength of the waves

  • Perforce - used to express necessity or inevitability

  • Amateurs, perforce, have to settle for less expensive solutions.

  • Origin - Old French 'par force" meaning "By Force."

  • Scudded - Move fast in a straight line because or as if driven by the wind.

  • Perhaps in this context this is a more apt definition: "the action of moving fast in a straight line when driving by the wind"

Stanza V

  • Succour - Assistance and support in times of hardship and distress

  • Cask - Large barrellike container (alcohol)

  • Floated Cord - Rope

  • Bestow - Confer or present

Stanza VI

  • Nigh - Near

Stanza VII

  • Entreated - Ask earnestly or anxiously for someone to do something

  • Adieu - Goodbye or farewell (meaning "to-God")

Stanza VIII

  • Transient - lasting only for a short time

  • Respite - a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant

Stanza IX

  • Anson - George Anson (commodore Anson) He led a squadron of ships in a war against Spain. It was from an account of Anson's voyage where a man is thrown overboard that Cowper writes his poem.

Stanza X

  • Descant - Talk tediously or at length

Stanza XI

  • Allay'd - Diminish or put at rest (fear, suspicion, or worry)

  • Propitious - Giving or indicating a good chance of success, favorable

  • Archaic: favorably disposed towards someone