1801
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Spirit of Navigation and Discovery. Canto the First.

Poems by the Rev. William Lisle Bowles. Vol. II.

Rev. William Lisle Bowles


Twenty Prior stanzas, dedicated to Dr. Vincent Hind, master of Westminster School. The "Spirit of Navigation" is a heroic ode of sorts, describing the advent of civilization as the result of Mediterranean commerce. The poem opens with a description of the state of mankind prior to the advent of navigation: "No cheerful sounds were wafted on the gale, | Nor humm'd the shores with early industry; | But mournful birds in hollow cliffs did wail, | And there all day the cormorant did cry, | While with sunk eye, and matted dripping locks, | The houseless savage slept beneath the foam-beat rocks" p. 116. It then proceeds to the early days of discovery, imagining the superstition-beset crew of a Tyrian trader: "The purple streamers fly, the trumpets sound, | Th' advent'rous bark glides on in tranquil state, | The voyagers, with leafy garlands crown'd, | Draw back their arms together, and elate | Sweep o'er the surge" p. 120. There is a storm at sea before the ship arrives exultingly in port.

These stanzas appear to have been the genesis of Bowles's The Spirit of Discovery (1804) written in blank verse; Miltonic turns of phrase are already evident in this early version. The decision to adopt the Spenserian measure may have been suggested by the subject matter. Glocester Ridley had used Spenserians for his imaginative reconstruction of early civilization in Melampus, or the Religious Groves, and "The Spirit of Navigation" would appear to be part of the progress-of-genius series inspired by Beattie's The Minstrel. One might compare William Gillespie's The Progress of Refinement (1805), which handles material similar to Bowles's poem in a different variation of the Spenserian stanza, as does Richard Polwhele's Grecian Prospects (1799) in regular Spenserians.

Author's note: "The following is the Introduction to a large Poem intended to have been written on the subject of Naval Discovery, from the earliest period to our own times, to consist of ten books or cantos; but considering the greatness and extent of the theme, I found the metre, as adopted in the present essay, too confined; I have, however, published it as it is, reserving the subject for a different mode of treating it, unless it should be thought by better judges than myself that the present stanza might, with propriety, be employed; — the following is therefore offered to the publick merely as a specimen" p. 112.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge to William Lisle Bowles: "I should very much wish to see your Spirit and Progress of Discovery before it is printed. You might be sure I would shew it to no human being, except my wife" 16 October 1797; in Garland Greever, A Wiltshire Parson and his Friends (1926) 33.

Critical Review: "Of the pieces now first published, the most important is that entitled The Spirit of Navigation and Discovery. It is the introductory canto to a long work, in which Mr. Bowles designs to trace the subject from the earliest period to the present times. The metre of this specimen he has found too confined. As it has been sufficiently proved that stanzas weary a reader less through a long work than the regular couplet, we wonder the example of Wieland [as translated by William Sotheby] has not been followed: His Oberon is written in stanzas of the same length; but the disposition of the rhymes is regulated by the will of the poet" NS 32 (August 1801) 424.

Christopher Lake Moody: "Having repeatedly paid our compliments to Mr. Bowles, we shall hope to be excused if, pleading the privilege of old acquaintance, we treat him less ceremoniously on the present occasion, than we should do on a first introduction.... Here, as in other places of our journal, we have so fully appreciated Mr. Bowles's rank as a poet, that little more is requisite for us now than to announce this second volume of his works; and to assure the many lovers of his Muse that they will find in it those specimens, sometimes of bold description and at others of elegant simplicity, which their knowledge of the powers of his mind and the character of his genius will have taught them to expect" Monthly Review NS 38 (August 1802) 437.

British Critic: "The fragment, on the spirit of Navigation and Discovery, dedicated, with peculiar propriety, to the learned and able commentator on Nearchus and the Periplus (Dr. Vincent) is full of admirable poetry; and the Monody on Dr. Warton is a well-deserved compliment, rendered more interesting by the account of his own progress in life and learning, which the author has interwoven" 18 (August 1801) 151.

British Critic: "The present subject of Naval Discovery, was first taken up by the author in the lyric strain, and commenced with great spirit and vigour; but he afterwards judged, and we think rightly, that it was better suited to the didactic style" 26 (November 1805) 527.

Walter Scott: "Some of Mr. Lisle Bowles's sonnets, connected with the remarkable and melancholy circumstances from which they had their origin, are of this affecting and interesting kind. This amiable and elegant writer greatly mistook his own genius, when he departed from a style of composition in which he had acquired well-earned laurels, to write his poem upon the 'Spirit of Discovery,' which is, to say the best, a very heavy production" "Living Poets" in Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:442.

Even as Bowles was praising the spirit of navigation, however, the tide in Spenserian poetry was beginning to turn, at least in the mind of Samuel Egerton Brydges: "But how long we shall keep off the baneful effects which commerce never fails at least to produce, I dare not inquire! My imagination at least will never fail to be best pleased with the manners of ages approaching nearer to those of chivalry!" Censura Literaria 4 (1807) 96.

Garland Greever: "In 1804 Bowles expanded an earlier canto on The Spirit of Navigation under the new title of The Spirit of Discovery. This was the first and least successful of his long poems; more than anything else he wrote perhaps it shows how much he retained of the ideals and methods of the eighteenth century in verse; its purpose is didactic" A Wiltshire Parson and his Friends (1926) 13.

Shortly after this period Samuel Rogers began work on a long poem called Columbus (1810), which proved in the event little more successful than the effort by his friend Bowles.



Stern Father of the storm! who dost abide
Amid the solitude of the vast deep,
For ever listening to the sullen tide,
And whirlwinds, that the billowy desert sweep;
Thou at the distant death-shriek dost rejoice,
The rule of the tempestuous main is thine,
Outstretched and lone; thou utterest thy voice,
Like solemn thunders, "These wild waves are mine,
Mine their dread empire, nor shall man profane
Th' eternal secrets of my ancient reign."

The voice is vain! secure, and as in scorn,
The gallant vessel goes before the wind—
Her parting sails swell stately to the morn—
She leaves the green earth and its hills behind—
Gallant before the wind she goes, her prow
High bearing, and disparting the blue tide
That foams and flashes in its rage below:
Meantime the helmsman feels a conscious pride,
And while far onward the long billows swell,
Looks to the lessening land, that seems to say "farewell!"

Father of Storms! then let thy whirlwinds roar
O'er seas of solitary amplitude:
Man, the poor tenant of thy rocky shore,
Man, thy terrific empire hath subdued;
And though thy waves toss his nigh-founder'd bark
Where no dim watch-light gleams, still he defies
Thy utmost rage, and in his buoyant ark
Speeds on, regardless of the dark'ning skies;
And o'er the mountain-surges as they roll,
Subdues his destined way, and speeds from pole to pole.

Behold him now, far from his native plain,
Where high woods shade some wild Hesperian bay,
Or green isles glitter in the southern main,
His streaming ensign to the morn display.
Behold him, where the North's pale meteors dance,
And icy rocks roll glimm'ring from afar,
Fearless through night and solitude advance;
Or where the pining sons of Andamar
(When dark eclipse has wrapt the lab'ring moon)
Howl to the demon of the dread monsoon!

Time was, like them, poor Nature's shivering child,
Wand';ring the beach, and by the salt spray beat,
He watch'd the melancholy surge, or smil'd
To see it burn and bicker at his feet;
In some rude shaggy spot, by fortune plac'd,
He dreamt not of strange lands, and empires spread,
Beyond the rolling of the wat'ry waste;
He saw the sun shine on the mountain's head,
But knew not, whilst he hail'd the orient light,
What myriads bless'd his beam, or sicken'd at the sight.

From some dark promontory, that o'er-bent
The flashing waves, he heard their ceaseless roar;
Or carol'd in his light canoe content,
As bound from creek to creek it graz'd the shore;
Gods of the storm the dreary space might sweep,
And shapes of death, and gliding spectres gaunt,
Might flit, he thought, o'er the remoter deep;
And whilst strange voices cried, "Avaunt, avaunt!"
Uncertain lights, seen through the midnight gloom,
Might lure him sadly on to his cold wat'ry tomb.

No city, then, amid the calm clear day,
O'er the blue waters' undulating line,
With battlements, and fans that glitter'd gay,
And piers, and thronging masts, was seen to shine.
No cheerful sounds were wafted on the gale,
Nor humm'd the shores with early industry;
But mournful birds in hollow cliffs did wail,
And there all day the cormorant did cry,
While with sunk eye, and matted dripping locks,
The houseless savage slept beneath the foam-beat rocks.

Thus slumb'ring long upon the dreamy verge
Of instinct, see, he rouses from his trance!—
Faint, and as glimmering yet, the Arts emerge,
One after one, from darkness, and advance
Beauteous, as o'er the Heav'ns the stars' still way.
Now see the track of his dominion wide
Fair smiling as the day-spring; cities gay
Lift their proud heads, and o'er the yellow tide,
Whilst sounds of fervent industry arise,
A thousand pennants float bright-streaming in the skies!

Genius of injur'd Asia! once sublime
And glorious, now dim seen amid the storm
And melancholy clouds of sweeping time,
Who yet dost half reveal thine awful form,
Pointing, with sadden'd aspect and slow hand,
To vast emporiums, desolate and waste;
To wrecks of unknown cities, sunk in sand;
'Twas at thy voice, Arts, Order, Science, Taste,
Upsprung, the East adorning, like the smile
Of spring upon the banks of thy own swelling Nile.

'Twas at thy voice huge Enterprise awoke,
That, long on rocky Aradus reclin'd,
Slumber'd to the hoarse surge that round her broke,
And hollow pipings of the idle wind;
She heard thy voice — upon the rock she stood
Gigantick — the rude scene she mark'd — she cry'd,
"Let there be intercourse, and the great flood
Waft the rich plenty to these shores denied!"
And soon thine eye delighted saw aspire,
Crowning the midland main, thy own Imperial Tyre.

Queen of the Waters! who didst ope the gate
Of Commerce, and display in lands unknown
Thy vent'rous sail, e'en now in ancient state
Methinks I see thee on thy rocky throne;
I see their massy piles thy cothons rear,
And on the deep a solemn shadow cast;
I traverse thy once-echoing shores, and hear
The sound of mighty generations past:
I see thy kingly merchants' thronged resort,
And gold and purple gleam o'er all thy spacious port.

I mark thy glitt'ring gallies sweep along—
The steady rowers to the strokes incline,
And chaunt in unison their choral song—
White through their oars the ivory benches shine—
The fine-wrought sails which looms of Egypt wove,
Swell beautiful beneath the bending mast,
Hewn from proud Lebanon's immortal grove;
The oaks of Bashan brave the coecian blast!
So o'er the western wave thy vessels float,
For verdant Egypt bound, or Calpe's cliffs remote.

Queen of the waters! throned upon thy seat
Amid the sea, thy beauty and thy fame
The deep, that rolls low-murmuring at thy feet,
And all the multitude of isles, proclaim!
For thee Damascus piles her woolly store;
To thee their flocks Arabia's princes bring;
And Sheba heaps her spice and glittering ore;
The ships of Tarshish of thy glory sing:
"Queen of the waters! who is like to thee,
Replenished in thy might, and throned on the sea?"

The purple streamers fly, the trumpets sound,
Th' advent'rous bark glides on in tranquil state,
The voyagers, with leafy garlands crown'd,
Draw back their arms together, and elate
Sweep o'er the surge; the spray amusive flies
Beneath the stroke of their unweary'd oars;
To their loud shouts the circl'ing coast replies;
And now, o'er the deep ocean, where it roars
They fly — till slowly less'ning from the shore,
Beneath the haze they sink — sink, and are seen no more.

When Night descends, and with her silver bow
The Queen of Heaven comes forth in radiance bright,
Surveying the dim earth and seas below;
Why from afar resounds the mystick rite
Hymned round her uncouth altar? Virgins there
(Amid the brazen tymbal's hollow ring)
And aged priests the solemn feast prepare;
To her their nightly orisons they sing;
That she may look from her high throne, and guide
The wand'ring bark secure along the trackless tide.

Her on his nightly watch, the pilot views
Careful, and by her soft and tranquil light,
Along the uncertain coast his track pursues;
And now he sees great Carmel's woody height,
Where nightly fires to grisly Baal burn;
Round the rough cape he winds — meantime far on
Thick eddying scuds the hollow surf upturn;
He thinks of the sweet light of summer gone!
He thinks, perhaps, dashed on the rugged shore,
He never shall behold his babes' lov'd mother more!

Slow comes the morn — but ah! what daemon form
(While pealing thunder the high concave rends)
Rises more vast amid the rushing storm!
With dreadful shade his horrid bulk ascends
Dark to the driving clouds — beneath him roars
The deep — his troubled brow is wrapt in gloom;
Ah, it moves onwards; see! more huge it soars!
Who shall avert the poor sea-farer's doom?
Who now shall save him from the spectre's might
That treads the rocking waves in thunder and in night?

Dread phantom! art thou he whose fearful sway,
As Egypt's hoary chronicles have told,
The clouds, the whirlwinds, and the seas obey,
Typhon! of aspect hideous to behold?
O spare the wretched wanderers, who, led
By flattering hopes, have left the peaceful shore!
Behold they shrink — they bend with speechless dread—
From their faint grasp drops the unheeded oar!
It answers not, but mingling seas and sky
In clouds, and wind, and thunder, rushes by.

Hail to thy light, lord of the golden day,
Who, bursting through the sable clouds again,
Dost cheer the seaman's solitary way,
And with new splendour deck the lucid main;—
And lo! the voyage past, where many a palm,
Its green top only seen, the prospect bounds,
Fringing the sunny sea-line, clear and calm—
Now hark! the slowly-swelling human sounds!
Meantime the bark along the placid bay
Of Tamiatis keeps her easy-winding way.

Here rest we safe from scenes of peril past,
No danger lurks in this serene retreat;
No more is heard the roaring of the blast,
But past'ral sounds of scatter'd flocks that bleat,
Or evening herds that o'er the campaign low;
Here citrons tall and purple dates around
Delicious fragrance and cool shade bestow;
The shores with murmuring industry resound;
While through the vernal pastures where he strays,
The Nile, as with delight, his mazy course delays.

[pp. 113-23]