William Cowper (26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) wrote this poem, The Castaway, in 1799. Simply put, it’s about a sailor who’s washed overboard during a storm. It begins like this:
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.
Stanza seven, in the midst of the poem, offers this sentiment:
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.
And then the poem ends like this:
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 gulphs than he.
Cowper’s tight rhyme scheme and short lines are incongruous with his theme of hopelessness and despair. What is Cowper trying to say, anyway? Is he attempting to teach his readers they need to rely on God in order that despair not consume them? I don’t know. Maybe he’s after his audience understanding what it will be like on the day of reckoning.
Cowper doesn’t see a way out of judgment, and for that he’s “whelmed in deeper gulphs” than the sailor and, perhaps, all mankind. His poem ends in an unsettling manner. He believes God could intervene, that there is a God, and, yet, that very fact tears him apart. All men must die alone, and God can save us–but will he? Cowper won’t die a bleaker death than the sailor. No, definitely not, because that’s not the point. Instead, Cowper will die consumed by his own doubts. That, I suspect, is the meaning of this poem.
Click the link above for all twelve stanzas.
I feel badly for Cowper, for the way he lived his life in bleakness, but his soul must be settled by now. Thank God.