1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Drummond

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 194.



This poet was born at Hawthornden, his father's estate in Mid-Lothian, took a degree at the university of Edinburgh, studied the civil law in France, and, returning home, entered into possession of his paternal estate, and devoted himself to literature. During his residence at Hawthornden he courted, and was on the eve of marrying, a lady of the name of Cunningham. Her sudden death inspired him with a melancholy which he sought to dissipate by travelling. He accordingly visited France, Italy, and Germany, and during a stay of eight years on the continent, conversed with the most polished society, and studied the objects most interesting to curiosity and taste. He collected at the same time a number of books and manuscripts, some of which are still in the library of his native university.

On his second return to Scotland he found the kingdom distracted by political and religious ferment, and on the eve of a civil war. What connection this aspect of public affairs had with his quitting Hawthornden, his biographers have not informed us, but so it was, that he retired to the seat of his brother-in-law, Sir John Scot of Scotstarvet, a man of letters, and probably of political sentiments congenial with his own. At his abode he wrote his History of the Five James's, Kings of Scotland, a work abounding in false eloquence and slavish principles. Having returned at length to settle himself at his own seat, he married a lady of the name of Logan, of the house of Restalrig, in whom he fancied a resemblance to his former mistress, and repaired the family mansion of Hawthornden, with an inscription importing his hopes of resting there in honourable ease. But the times were little suited to promote his wishes; and on the civil war breaking out he involved himself with the covenantors, by writing in support of the opposite side, for which his enemies not only called him to a severe account, but compelled him to support the cause which he detested. His estate lying in different counties, he contrived halves and quarters of men to the forces that were raised; and on this occasion he wrote an epigram, bitterly wishing that the imaginary division of his recruits might be realized on their bodies. His grief for the death of Charles is said to have shortened his days. Such stories of political sensibility may be believed on proper evidence.

The elegance of Drummond's sonnets, and the humour of his Scotch and Latin macaronics, have been at least sufficiently praised; but when Milton has been described as essentially obliged to him, the compliment to his genius is stretched too far. A modern writer, who edited the works of Drummond, has affirmed, that, "perhaps," if we had no Drummond, we should not have seen the finer delicacies of Milton's Comus, Lycidas, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso. "Perhaps" is an excellent leading-string for weak assertions. One or two epithets of Drummond may be recognized in Milton, though not in the poems already mentioned. It is difficult to apply and precise idea to this tautology of "fine delicacies;" but whatever the editor of Drummond meant by it, he may be assured that there is no debt on the part of Milton to the poet of Hawthornden, which the former could be the least impoverished by returning. Philips, the nephew of Milton, edited and extolled Drummond, and pronounced him equal to Tasso himself. It has been inferred from some passages of the Theatrum Poetarum that Milton had dictated several critical opinions in that performance; and it has been taken for granted that Philips's high opinion of Drummond was imbibed from the author of Paradise Lost. But the parallel between Drummond and Tasso surely could not have been drawn by Milton. Philips had a turn for poetry, and in many of his critical opinions in the Theatrum Poetarum, showed a taste that could not be well attributed to his uncle — in one more than in this exaggerated comparison of a smooth sonneteer to a mighty poet. It is equally improbable that he imbibed this absurdity from Milton, as that he caught from him his admiration of Drummond's prose compositions and arbitrary principles.