William Falconer - Encyclopedia

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FALCONER, WILLIAM (1732-1769), British poet, was born in Edinburgh on the 11th of February 1732. His father was a wig-maker, and carried on business in one of the small shops with wooden fronts at the Netherbow Port, an antique castellated structure which remained till 1764, dividing High Street from the Canongate. The old man became bankrupt, then tried business as a grocer, and finally died in extreme poverty. William, the son, having received a scanty education, was put to sea. He served on board a Leith merchant vessel, and in his eighteenth year obtained the appointment of second mate of the "Britannia," a vessel employed in the Levant trade, and sailed from Alexandria for Venice. The "Britannia" was overtaken by a dreadful storm off Cape Colonna and was wrecked, only three of the crew being saved. Falconer was happily one of the three, and the incidents of the voyage and its disastrous termination formed the subject of his poem of The Shipwreck (1762). Meanwhile, on his return to England, Falconer, in his nineteenth year, printed at Edinburgh an elegy on Frederick, prince of Wales, and afterwards contributed short pieces to the Gentleman's Magazine. Some of these descriptive and lyrical effusions possess merit. The fine naval song of "The Storm" ("Cease, rude Boreas"), reputed to be by George Alexander Stevens, the dramatic writer and lecturer, has been ascribed to Falconer, but apparently on no authority. The duke of York, to whom The Shipwreck had been dedicated, advised Falconer to enter the royal navy, and before the end of 1762 the poetsailor was rated as a midshipman on board the "Royal George." But as this ship was paid off at the peace of 1763, Falconer received an appointment as purser of the "Glory" frigate, a situation which he held until that vessel was laid up on ordinary at Chatham. In 1764 he published a new and enlarged edition of The Shipwreck, and in the same year a rhymed political tirade against John Wilkes and Charles Churchill, entitled The Demagogue. In 1769 appeared his Universal Marine Dictionary, in which retreat is defined as a French manoeuvre, "not properly a term of the British marine." While engaged on this dictionary, J. Murray, a bookseller in Fleet Street, father of Byron's munificent publisher and correspondent, wished him to join him as a partner in business. The poet declined the offer, and became purser of the "Aurora" frigate, which had been commissioned to carry out to India certain supervisors or superintendents of the East India Company. Besides his nomination as purser, Falconer was promised the post of private secretary to the commissioners. Before sailing he published a third edition of his Shipwreck, which had again undergone "correction," but not improvement. The poet sailed in the "Aurora" from Spithead on the 20th of September 1769. The vessel arrived safely at the Cape of Good Hope, and left on the 27th of December. She was never more heard of, having, as is supposed, foundered at sea. The Shipwreck, the poem with which Falconer's name is connected, had a great reputation at one time, but the fine passages which pleased the earlier critics have not saved it from general oblivion.

See his Poetical Works in the "Aldine Edition" (1836), with a life by J. Mitford.

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