The Spirit Of Discovery By Sea: A Descriptive And Historical Poem. - Introduction.

A poem by William Lisle Bowles

I need not perhaps inform the reader, that I had before written a Canto on the subject of this poem; but I was dissatisfied with the metre, and felt the necessity of some connecting idea that might give it a degree of unity and coherence.

This difficulty I considered as almost inseparable from the subject; I therefore relinquished the design of making an extended poem on events, which, though highly interesting and poetical, were too unconnected with each other to unite properly in one regular whole. But on being kindly permitted to peruse the sheets of Mr Clarke's valuable work on the History of Navigation, I conceived (without supposing historically with him that all ideas of navigation were derived from the ark of Noah) that I might adopt the circumstance poetically, as capable of furnishing an unity of design; besides which, it had the advantage of giving a more serious cast and character to the whole.

To obviate such objections as might be made by those who, from an inattentive survey, might imagine there was any carelessness of arrangement, I shall lay before the reader a general analysis of the several books; and, I trust, he will readily perceive a leading principle, on which the poem begins, proceeds, and ends.

I feel almost a necessity for doing this in justice to myself, as some compositions have been certainly misunderstood, where the connexion might, by the least attention, have been perceived. In going over part of the same ground which I had taken before, I could not always avoid the use of similar expressions.

I trust I need not apologise for having, in some instances, departed from strict historical facts. It is not true that Camoens sailed with De Gama, though, from the authority of Voltaire, it has been sometimes supposed that he did. There are other circumstances for which I may have less reason to expect pardon. The Egyptians were never, or but for a short time, a maritime nation. In answer to this, I must say, that history and poetry are two things; and though the poet has no right to contradict the historian, yet, if he find two opinions upon points of history, he may certainly take that which is most susceptible of poetical ornament; particularly if it have sufficient plausibility, and the sanction of respectable names.

In deducing the first maritime attempts from Thebes, so called from Thebaoth, the Ark, founded by the sons of Cush, who first inhabited the caves on the granite mountains of Ethiopia, I have followed the idea of Bruce, which has many testimonies, particularly that of Herodotus, in its favour. In making the ships of Ammon first pass the straits of Babelmandel, and sail to Ophir, I have the authority of Sir Isaac Newton. But still these points must, from their nature, be obscure; the poet, however, has a right to build upon them, whilst what he advances is not in direct contradiction to all historical admitted facts. He may take what is shadowy, if it be plausible, poetical, and coherent with his general plan. Having said ingenuously thus much, I hope I shall not be severely accused for having admitted, en passant, some ideas (which may be thought visionary) in the notes, respecting the allusion to the ark in Theocritus, the situation of Ophir, the temple of Solomon, and the algum-tree.

I must also submit to the candour of the critic, the necessity I sometimes felt myself under of varying the verse, and admitting, when the subject seemed particularly to require it, a break into the measure. He will consider, as this poem is neither didactic, nor epic, that might lead on the mind by diversity of characters, and of prospects; it was therefore necessary (at least I thought myself at liberty so to do) to break the uniformity of the subject by digression, contrast, occasional change of verse, et cet. But after all, at a time so unfavourable to long poems, I doubt whether the reader will have patience to accompany me to the end of my circumnavigation. If he do, and if this much larger poetical work than I have ever attempted should be as favourably received as what I have before published has been, I shall sincerely rejoice.

At all events, in an age which I think has produced genuine poetry, if I cannot say "Ed Io, anchi, sono pittore;" it will be a consolation to me to reflect, that I have no otherwise courted the muse, than as the consoler of sorrow, the painter of scenes romantic and interesting, the handmaid of good sense, unadulterated feelings, and religious hope.

It was at first intended that the poem should consist of six books; one book being assigned to De Gama, and another to Columbus. These have been compressed. I was the more inclined to this course, as the great subject of the DISCOVERY OF AMERICA is in the hands of such poets as Mr Southey and Mr Rogers.

DONHEAD, Nov. 3, 1804.

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