Alexander Selkirk was a real person – a hot-headed Scottish privateer who, after an altercation with a young captain, begged to be dropped ashore on an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile. He immediately regretted his decision, but his captain never returned for him, leaving him to fend for himself for four years before he was rescued by a British vessel sailing through. In this poem, Cowper draws from several written accounts of Selkirk’s predicament to interpret how the Scotsman must have felt during his time on the island.
The piece is permeated with bitter regret, as in the final lines of the first verse: “Better dwell in the midst of alarms,/ Than reign in this horrible place.” Selkirk reflects with sadness and despair on the simple pleasures of life among other humans, the “sweet music of speech,” and “Society, Friendship, and Love,” capitalized, you’ll notice, to emphasize their newfound importance in the mind of the castaway. In the fourth verse he begs the winds to send him a rescue, and yet none arrive. The hopelessness of his solitude settles around him.
The poem is, as a whole, an interpretation of the mental trials faced by Selkirk on his island, doomed and desperate with loneliness. In the final verse, however, we are also reminded that man is strong enough to fight through these trials, and to yet survive, because “mercy…Gives even affliction a grace,/And reconciles man to his lot.” Despite his bouts of despair Selkirk managed to survive on his island for years – he was, after all, most likely the inspiration of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He did not let himself wither away to nothing for lack of companionship, for lack of hope – he persevered, and his story stands as an inspiration for more than just poets and writers.