William Falconer and the empire of the deep
Falconer was extremely interested in the use to which literature might be put in enabling sailors to navigate national politics. The Shipwreck , his critically acclaimed hybridization of the georgic with the nautical manual, aimed at representing to land-based Britons the concerns of their nautical brethren. In the 1762 version, The Shipwreck ’s overt mission was a linguistic one: the poem aimed, through extensive footnotes and a labeled diagram of a ship, to educate Britons in the language of the sea. In his 1764 and 1769 revisions, Falconer made his poem’s ambassadorial ambitions more explicit, including, for example, an appeal for more vigorous prosecution of wreckers, and enhancing, as I will argue in this essay, his poem’s critique of
in its day, The Shipwreck went on to leave a significant footprint in British popular culture: much-loved, oft-cited, and reprinted well into the twentieth century, Falconer’s poem also continued to have a political purchase in later decades and was cited, for example, in nineteenth-century petitions to increase the number of lighthouses in Britain. 7
During the last decade, Falconer’s (1762) Shipwreck has attracted the attention of scholars interested in the class politics of Falconer’s poem and the degree to which it illuminates the linguistic politics of nation formation. 8 Most recently, Margaret Cohen has positioned Falconer’s poem as a significant anomaly in the evolution of representations of the ocean, a work that attempts to “retain the sea as the theater of craft” even as it anticipates Romanticism’s conversion of the ocean to a sublime site of artistic inspiration. 9 But while these studies have gone some way towards correcting a scholarly perception of Falconer’s poem as merely the bathetic exertions of a minor writer – G.P. Landow, for example, dismissed Falconer in 1982 as a barely competent poet grappling with a subject “too large for the poet’s intellect” 10 – many of the political resonances of this influential representation of the sea have been left unexplored. In particular, the poem’s engagement with imperialism has been neglected, an examination of which, I believe, would do much to address Landow’s charge that no “interpretation commands [Falconer’s] imagination enough to dominate the poem.” 11 When Landow writes, of Falconer’s repeated references to “faithless tides,” that Falconer “does not make clear how or with whom the sea could conceivably have broken faith,” 12 he omits the significant role that the ocean played in Britain’s national mythology. Falconer’s poem, which depicts the ship Britannia being devoured by the ocean it risked in the pursuit of Indian, African, and American profits, uses the idea of the ocean as a providential guarantor of Britain’s safety to question the wisdom of the nation’s overseas entanglements. Falconer’s ocean is both the space on which maritime empire relies and the space that can undo that empire; in its furious rebellion against British pretensions to maritime sovereignty, the ocean subsumes the unacknowledged discontents of the sailors and colonists on whom Britain’s overseas ambitions rely.