Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Falconer, William (1732-1769)

FALCONER, WILLIAM (1732–1769), poet, was born 11 Feb. 1732 (Carruthers). His father was a poor barber in Edinburgh. A brother and sister were deaf and dumb; the sister was living in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh in 1801. Falconer appears to have had an early taste for literature, which was checked by a ‘freezing blast of adversity’ (see description of ‘Arion’ in Shipwreck, canto 1). He joined a merchant ship at Leith. He was afterwards servant, according to Currie (Burns, 1801, ii. 283), to Archibald Campbell (fl. 1767) [q. v.], then purser on a man-of-war, who discovered and encouraged his literary tastes. He became second mate to a ship in the Levant trade, which was wrecked on a voyage from Alexandria to Venice, when only three of the crew were saved. In 1751 he published a poem on the death of Frederick, prince of Wales—which is about as good as the subject requires. He contributed a few poems to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and Clarke guesses, on very slight grounds, that he wrote the popular song ‘Cease, rude Boreas!’ generally attributed to George Alexander Stevens [q. v.] In 1762 he published his chief poem, the ‘Shipwreck,’ founded on his own experience and dedicated to the Duke of York, then rear-admiral. The duke advised him to enter the royal navy, where there would be opportunities for patronage. He was rated as a midshipman on Sir E. Hawke's ship the Royal George. When the duke sailed with Sir Charles Hardy in November 1762, Falconer celebrated the auspicious event in an ode, according to his friend Hunter, ‘composed in a small space between the cable tiers and the ship's side.’ The duke is elaborately compared to ‘Alcmena's warlike son,’ tearing himself from pleasure to seek virtue. The Royal George was paid off on the peace of 1763, and Falconer became purser of the Glory frigate. He soon afterwards married Miss Hicks, daughter of the surgeon of Sheerness yard. The Glory was laid up in ordinary at Chatham, and Commissioner Hanway, brother of Jonas, had the captain's cabin fitted up as a study for the literary purser. Here, in 1764, he wrote the ‘Demagogue,’ a political satire, attacking Wilkes, Churchill, and Lord Chatham, and showing much loyalty and some power of vituperation. In 1767 he was appointed purser to the Swiftsure. In 1769 he published ‘The Universal Marine Dictionary,’ a book well spoken of, in which ‘retreat’ is described as a French manœuvre, ‘not properly a term of the British marine.’ There were later editions in 1771, 1784, 1815, and 1830. By this time Falconer is said to have been living in poverty in London, though the dates of his appointments seem to imply that he cannot have been long unemployed. Chalmers contradicts upon authority Clarke's statement that he had ‘a small pittance for writing in the “Critical Review.”’ Hamilton, the proprietor of the Review, received him hospitably, but did not employ him as a writer. In 1768 John Murray, the first publisher of the name, was starting in business by the purchase of Sandby's bookselling shop opposite St. Dunstan's Church. He offered a partnership in his enterprise to Falconer in a letter dated 16 Oct. 1768 (in Nichols, Lit. Anecd. iii. 729). The offer seems to prove that Falconer was favourably known to publishers. He declined it, apparently in consequence of an offer of the pursership of the Aurora frigate, which was about to take Messrs. Vansittart, Scrafton, and Ford to India as supervisors of the company's affairs. Falconer was promised the secretaryship. He sailed in the Aurora 20 Sept. 1769. After touching at the Cape the ship was lost. Clarke mentions but disbelieves a report that she was burnt by an accident caused by the supervisors' passion for ‘hot suppers.’ The à priori probability of such a catastrophe is small, he thinks, and is certainly not sufficient to command assent in the absence of all direct testimony. Falconer's widow died 20 March 1796, and was buried at Weston, near Bath (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xi. 322). Cadell, the proprietor of the ‘Marine Dictionary,’ supplied her liberally, even after the ‘expiration of the usual period of copyright.’

A third edition of the ‘Shipwreck’ was prepared by Falconer just before his departure. It contained many alterations, which appear from the preface to have been his own, though Clarke, who thinks them injurious, attributes them to Mallet, who died in 1765. It reached an eleventh edition in 1802, and has since appeared separately and in many collections. Falconer's ‘Shipwreck’ resembles most of the didactic poems of the time, and is marked by the conventionality common to them all. But it deserves a rather exceptional position from the obvious fidelity with which he has painted from nature; and though his use of technical nautical terms is pushed even to ostentation, the effect of using the language of real life is often excellent, and is in marked contrast to the commonplaces of classical imitation which make other passages vapid and uninteresting. In this respect the poem made some mark, and Falconer had certainly considerable powers of fluent versification.

Clarke describes Falconer as five feet seven inches in height, slight in frame, weather-beaten, and pock-marked. His manners were ‘blunt, awkward, and forbidding;’ he talked rapidly and incisively; he was cheerful, kindly, and a good comrade, and seems to have been a thorough seaman, with all the characteristics of his profession. His education had been confined to English and a little arithmetic; but he understood French, Spanish, Italian, and ‘even German.’

[Lives prefixed to editions of ‘Shipwreck:’ anonymous in 1803; by James Stanier Clarke [q. v.] in 1804; by Alexander Chalmers in ‘English Poets,’ vol. xiv., 1810; by R. Carruthers in 1858; and life in David Irving's ‘Lives of Scotish [sic] Authors,’ 1801. Clarke had information from Falconer's friend, Governor Hunter.]

L. S.