The second quatrain of William Cowper's poem "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk" is:

O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place.

This poem is well known for giving rise to the common English phrase "monarch of all I survey", but the lesser-known phrase "in the midst of alarms" has also inspired the titles of at least two other works: Robert Barr's novel and Dianne Graves's historical study.

Why was this particular phrase used? What about this choice of words appealed to the writer or made the poem more impactful? Specifically, the word "alarms" seems like a strange choice from a modern point of view: nowadays, it gives an impression of cacophonous noise (alarm clocks, car alarms, burglar alarms), but at the time of Cowper's writing, perhaps it was more commonly used, even as a count noun, in the sense of a feeling of danger. What exactly does "alarms" mean here, and why was this word chosen (apart from rhyme and metre) rather than something like "fear" or "danger" etc.?

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: William Cowper’s “dwell in the midst of alarms” is a re-working of William Wilkie’s “dwell amidst alarms”.

Wilkie’s Epigoniad (1757) was an epic poem in heroic couplets telling the story of the Epigoni, the sons of the Seven against Thebes. The phrase “dwell amidst alarms” appears twice. In book III, the Argive hero Diomedes has challenged Leophron, eldest son of Creon, king of Thebes, to single combat, and boasted that he will send the Theban prince “to mingle with the dark infernal gloom.” Leophron replies:

Your fear in vain, by boasting, you disguise;
Such vulgar art a novice oft confounds,
To scenes of battle new and martial sounds;
Tho’ lost on me, who dwell amidst alarms,
And never met a greater yet in arms.

William Wilkie (1757). The Epigoniad, p. 59. Edinburgh: Hamilton, Balfour, & Neill.

Leophron means that Diomedes’ boasts have no effect on him, as he is well-accustomed to battle. “Alarm” is used here in one of these senses (both are appropriate to the context):

alarm, n. B.I.1. The call to arms sounded when battle is imminent, either by calling out ‘alarm’ (see sense A.), or by some other signal.

alarm, n. B.II.7.b. A moment of emergency or crisis, (in early use) esp. in which a group of soldiers, citizens, etc., are under attack and must rally to defend themselves.

Oxford English Dictionary.

In book IV, Nestor, king of Pylos, appeals for a truce to hold funeral rites for the slain, and employs the phrase with a similar meaning:

Well have you heard the various ills that wait
On strife prolong’d, and war’s disastrous state:
And they who choose to dwell amidst alarms,
The rage of slaughter and the din of arms,
Know little of the joys, when combats cease,
That crown with milder bliss the hours of peace.

Wilkie, p. 111.

Cowper’s ‘Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk During His Solitary Abode in the Island of Juan Fernandez’ was first published in 1782, some 25 years after the Epigoniad. Cowper had to re-work the phrase for metrical reasons: the Epigoniad is in iambs, but ‘Alexander Selkirk’ is in anapests.

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