1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Drummond

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:302-12.



This gentleman was a native of Scotland, and a poet of no inconsiderable rank. We had at first some doubt whether he fell within our design, as being no Englishman, but upon observing that Mr. Langbaine has given a place to the earl of Stirling, a man of much inferior note; and that our author, though a Scotchman, wrote extremely pure and elegant English, and his life, that is fruitful of a great many incidents, without further apology, it is here presented to the reader.

He was born the 13th of November, 1585; his father was Sir John Drummond of Hawthornden, who was Gentleman Usher to King James VI. but did not enjoy that place long, being in three months after he was raised to his new dignity, taken away by death. The family of Drummond in the ar[ti]cle of antiquity is inferior to none in Scotland, where that kind of distinction is very much regarded.

The first years of our author's youth were spent at the high school at Edinburgh, where the early promises of that extraordinary genius, which afterwards appeared in him, became very conspicuous. He was in due time rent to the university of Edinburgh, where after the ordinary stay, he was made Master of Arts. When his course at the university was finished, he did not, like the greatest part of giddy students, give over reading, and vainly imagine they have a sufficient stock of learning: he had too much sense thus to deceive himself; he knew that an education at the university is but the ground-work of knowledge, and that unless a man digests what he has there learned, and endeavours to produce it into life with advantage, so many years attendance were but entirely thrown away. Being convinced of this truth, he continued to read the best authors of antiquity, whom he not only retained in his memory, but so digested, that he became quite master of them, and able to make such observations on their genius and writings, as fully shewed that his judgment had been sufficiently exercised in reading them.

In the year 1606 his father sent him into France, he being then only twenty-one years old. He studied at Bourges the civil law, with great diligence and applause, and was master not only of the dictates of the professors, but made also his own observations on them, which occasioned the learned president Lockhart to observe, that if Mr. Drummond had followed the practice, he might have made the best figure of any lawyer in his time; but like all other men of wit, he saw more charms in Euripides, Sophocles, Seneca, and other the illustrious ancients, than in the dry wranglings of the law; as there have been often instances of poets, and men of genius being educated to the law, so here it may not be amiss to observe, that we remember not to have met with one amongst them who continued in that profession, a circumstance not much in its favour, and is a kind of proof, that the professors of it are generally composed of men who are capable of application, but without genius. Mr. Drummond having, as we have already observed, a sovereign contempt for the law, applied himself to the sublimer studies of poetry and history, in both which he became very eminent.

Having relinquished all thoughts of the bar, or appearing in public, he retired to his pleasant seat at Hawthornden, and there, by reading the Greek and Latin authors, enriched the world with the product of his solitary hours. After he had recovered a very dangerous fit of sickness, he wrote his Cypress Grove, a piece of excellent prose, both for the fineness of the stile, and the sublimity and piety of the sentiments; In which he represents the vanity and instability of human affairs; teaches a due contempt of the world; proposes consolations against the fear of death, and gives us a view of eternal happiness. Much about this time he wrote the Flowers of Sion in verse. Though the numbers in which these poems are wrote are not now very fashionable, yet the harmony is excellent, and during the reign of King James and Charles I. we have met with no poet who seems to have had a better ear or felt more intimately the passion he describes. The writer of his life already mentioned, observes, that, notwithstanding his close retirement, love stole upon him, and entirely subdued his heart. He needed not to have assigned retirement as a reason why it should seem strange that love grew upon him, for retirement in its own nature is the very parent of love. When a man converses with but few ladies, he is apt to fall in love with her who charms him most; whereas were his attention dissipated, and his affections bewildered by variety, he would be preserved from love by not being able to fix them; which is one reason why we always find people in the country have more enthusiastic notions of love, than those who move in the hurry of life. This beautiful young lady, with whom Mr. Drummond was enamoured, was daughter of Mr. Cunningham of Barnes, of an ancient and honourable family. He made his addresses to her in the true spirit of gallantry, and as he was a gentleman who had seen the world, and consequently was accomplished in the elegancies of life, he was not long in exciting proper returns of passion; he gained her affections, and when the day of the marriage was appointed, and all things ready for its solemnization, she was seized with a fever, and snatched from him, when his imagination had figured those scenes of rapture which naturally fill the mind of a bridegroom. As our author was a poet, he no doubt was capable of forming still a greater ideal feast, than a man of ordinary genius, and as his mistress was, as Rowe expresses it, "more than painting can express, or youthful poets fancy when they love," those who have felt that delicate passion, may be able in some measure to judge of the severity of distress into which our poetical bridegroom was now plunged: After the fervours of sorrow had in some measure subsided, he expressed his grief for her in several letters and poems, and with more passion and sincerity celebrated his dead mistress, than others praise their living ones. This extraordinary shock occasioned by the young lady's death, on whom he doated with such excessive fondness, so affected his spirits, that in order as much as possible to endeavour to forget her, he quitted his retirement, and resided eight years at Paris and Rome; he travelled through Germany, France and Italy, where he visited all the famous universities, conversed with the learned men, and made an excellent collection of the best ancient Greek, and of the modern Spanish, French, and Italian books. Mr. Drummond, though a scholar and a man of genius, did not think it beneath him to improve himself in those gay accomplishments which are so peculiar to the French, and which never fail to set off wit and parts to the best advantage. He studied music, and is reported to have possessed the genteel accomplishment of dancing, to no inconsiderable degree.

After a long stay of eight years abroad, he returned again to his native country, where a civil war was ready to break out. He then found that as he could be of no service by his action, he might at least by his retirement, and during the confusion, he went to the seat of his Brother-in-law, Sir John Scott, of Scotts Tarvat, a man of learning and good sense. In this interval it is supposed he wrote his History of the Five James's, successively Kings of Scotland, which is so excellent a work, whether we consider the exact conduct of the story, the judicious reflections, and the fine language, that no Historian either of the English or Scotch nation (the lord Clarendon excepted) has shewn a happier talent for that species of writing, which tho' it does not demand the highest genius, yet is as difficult to attain, as any other kind of literary excellence. This work was received in England with as much applause, as if it had been written by a countryman of their own and about English affairs. It was fist published six or seven years after the author's death, with a preface, or introduction by Mr. Hall of Grays-Inn, who, tho' not much disposed to think favourably of the Scotch nation, has yet thus done justice to Mr. Drummond: for his manner of writing, says he, "though he treats of things that are rather many than great, and rather troublesome than glorious; yet he has brought so much of the main together, as it may be modestly said, none of that nation has done before him, and for his way of handling it, he has sufficiently made it appear, how conversant he was with the writings of venerable antiquity, and how generously he has emulated them by a happy imitation, for the purity of that language is much above the dialect he wrote in, his descriptions lively and full, his narrations clear and pertinent, his orations eloquent, and fit for the persons who speak; and his reflections solid and mature, so that it cannot be expected that these leaves can be turned over without as much pleasure as profit, especially meeting with so many glories, and trophies of our ancestors." In this history Mr. Drummond has chiefly followed bishop Elphiston, and has given a different turn to things from Buchanan, whom a party of the Scotch accuse of being a pensioner of Queen Elizabeth's, and as he joined interest with the earl of Murray, who wanted to disturb the reign of his much injured sister Mary Queen of Scots, he is strongly suspected of being a party writer, and of having misrepresented the Scotch transactions of old, in order to serve some scheme of policy.

In the short notes which Mr. Drummond has left behind him in his own life, he says, that he was the first in the island that ever celebrated a dead mistress; his poems consist chiefly of Love-Verses, Madigrals, Epigrams, Epitaphs, &c. they were highly esteemed by his contemporaries both for the wit and learning that shone in them. Edward Philips, Milton's nephew, writes a preface to them, and observes, "that his poems are the effects of genius, the most polite and verdant that ever the Scots nation produced, and says, that if he should affirm, that neither Tasso, Guarini, or any of the most neat and refined spirits of Italy, nor even the choicest of our English poets can challenge any advantage above him, it could; not be judged any attribute superior to what he deserves; and for his history he says, had there been nothing else extant of his writings, consider but the language how florid and ornate it is; consider the order and prudent conduct of the story, and you will rank him in the number of the best writers, and compare him even with Thuanus himself: Neither is he less happy in his verse than prose, for here are all those graces met together, that conduce any thing towards the making up a compleat and perfect poet, a decent and becoming majesty, a brave and admirable height, and a wit flowing." Thus far the testimony of Mr. Philips.

In order to divert himself and his friends, he wrote a small poem which he called Polemio-Middinia; 'tis a sort of Macronic poetry, in which the Scots words are put in Latin terminations. In Queen Anne's time it was reprinted at Oxford, with a preface concerning Macronic poetry. It has been often reprinted in Scotland, where it is thought a very humorous performance.

Our author, who we have already seen, suffered so much by the immature fate of his first mistress, thought no more of love for many years after her decease, but seeing by accident one Elizabeth Logan, grandchild to Sir Robert Logan, who by the great resemblance she bore to his first favourite, rekindled again the flame of love; she was beautiful in his eyes because she recalled to his mind the dear image of her he mourned, and by this lucky similarity she captivated him. Though he was near 45 years of age, he married this lady; she bore to him several children; William, who was knighted in Charles II's time; Robert, and Elizabeth, who was married to one Dr. Henderson, a physician at Edinburgh.

In the time of the public troubles, Mr. Drummond, besides composing his history, wrote several tracts against the measures of the covenanters, and those engaged in the opposition of Charles I. In a piece of his called Irene, he harangues the King, nobility, gentry, clergy and commons, about their mutual mistakes, jealousies and fears; he lays before them the dismal consequences of a civil war, from indisputable arguments, and the histories of past times. The great marquis of Montrose writ a letter to him, desiring him to print this Irene, as the best means to quiet the minds of the distracted people; he likewise sent him a protection, dated August, 1645, immediately after the battle of Kylsyth, with another letter, in which he highly commends Mr. Drummond's learning and loyalty. Besides this work of Irene, he wrote the Load Star, and an Address to the Noblemen, Barons, Gentlemen, &c. who leagued themselves for the defence of the liberties and religion of Scotland, the whole purport of which is, to calm the disturbed minds of the populace, to reason the better sort into loyalty, and to check the growing evils which he saw would be the consequence of their behaviour. Those of his own countrymen, for whom he had the greatest esteem were Sir William Alexander, afterwards earl of Stirling, Sir Robert Carr, afterwards earl of Stirling, from whom the present marquis of Lothian is descended, Dr. Arthur Johnson, physician to King Charles I. and author of a Latin Paraphrase of the Psalms, and Mr. John Adamson, principal of the college of Edinburgh. He had great intimacy and correspondence with the two famous English poets, Michael Drayton, and Ben Johnson, the latter of whom travelled from London on foot, to see him at his seat at Hawthornden. During the time Ben remained with Mr. Drummond, they often held conversation about poetry and poets, and Mr. Drummond has preserved the heads of what passed between them; and as part of it is very curious, and serves to illustrate the character of Johnson, we have inserted it in his life: though it perhaps was not altogether fair in Mr. Drummond, to commit to writing things that passed over a bottle, and which perhaps were heedlesly advanced. It is certain some of the particulars which Mr. Drummond has preserved, are not much in Ben's favour, and as few people are so wise as not to speak imprudently sometimes, so it is not the part of a man, who invites another to his table, to expose what may there drop inadvertently; but as Mr. Drummond had only made memorandums, perhaps with no resolution to publish them, he may stand acquitted of part of this charge. It is reported of our author that he was very smart, and witty in his repartees, and had a most excellent talent at extempore versifying, above any poet of his time. In the year 1645, when the plague was raging in Scotland, our author came accidentally to Forfar, but was not allowed to enter any house, or to get lodging in the town, though it was very late; he went two miles further to Kirrimuir, where he was well received, and kindly entertained. Being informed that the towns of Forfar and Kirrimuir had a contest about a piece of ground called the Muirmoss, he wrote a letter to the Provost of Forfar, to be communicated to the town-council in haste: It was imagined this letter came from the Estates, who were then sitting at St. Andrew's; so the Common-Council was called with all expedition, and the minister sent for to pray for direction and assistance in answering the letter, which was opened in a solemn manner. It contained the following lines,

The Kirrimorians and Forforians met at Muir-moss,
The Kirrimorians beat the Forforians back to the cross,
Sutors ye are, and sutors ye'll be
T—y upon Forfor, Kirrimuir bears the gree.

By this innocent piece of mirth he revenged himself on the town of Forfar. As our author was a great cavalier, and addicted to the king's party, he was forced by the reformers to send men to the army which fought against the King, and his estate lying in three different counties, he had not occasion to send one entire man, but halves, and quarters, and such like fractions, that is, the money levied upon him as his share, did not amount to the maintaining one man, but perhaps half as much, and so on through the several counties, where his estates lay; upon this he wrote the following verses to the King.

Of all these forces, rais'd against the King,
'Tis my strange hap not one whole man to bring,
From diverse parishes yet diverse men,
But all in halves, and quarters: great king then,
In halves, and quarters, if they come, 'gainst thee
In halves and quarters send them back to me.

Being reputed a malignant, he was extremely harassed by the prevailing party, and for his verses and discourses frequently summoned before their circular tables. In the short account of his life written by himself, he says, "that he never endeavoured to advance his fortune, or increase such things as were left him by his parents, as he foresaw the uncertainty and shortness of life, and thought this world's advantages not worth struggling for." The year, 1649, remarkable for the beheading of Charles I. put likewise a period to the life of our author: Upon hearing the dismal news that his Sovereign's blood was shed on a scaffold, he was so overwhelmed with grief, and being worn down with study, he could not overcome the shock, and though we find not that he ever was in arms for the King, yet he may be said, in some sense, to have fallen a sacrifice to his loyalty. He was a man of fine natural endowments, which were cultivated by reading and travelling; he spoke the Italian, Spanish, and French languages as well as his mother tongue; he was a judicious and great historian, a delicate poet, a master of polite erudition, a loyal subject, a friend to his country, and to sum up all, a pious christian.

Before his works are prefixed several copies of verses in his praise, with which we shall not trouble the reader, but conclude the life of this great man, with the following sonnet from his works, as a specimen of the delicacy of his muse,

I know, that all beneath the moon decays,
And what by mortals in this world is brought,
In times great period shall return to nought;
That fairest states have fatal nights and days;
I know that all the Muses heavenly lays,
With toil of spirit, which are so dearly bought,
As idle sounds, of few or none are sought,
That there is nothing lighter than vain praise.
I know frail beauty like the purple flower,
To which one morn, oft birth, and death affords,
That love a jarring is, of minds accords.
Where sense, and will, bring under reason's power:
Know what I list, all this cannot me move,
But, that alas, I both must write and love.