1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hamilton of Bangour

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 13:97-99.



WILLIAM HAMILTON of Bangour, an ingenious poet, was the son of a man of fortune and family in Airshire, where be was born in 1704. He received a liberal education, to which he joined the accomplishments of the man of the world, and amidst the lighter dissipations of society, cultivated a taste for poetry, of which he exhibited frequent specimens for the amusement of his friends. In 1745 he joined the unfortunate cause of the Pretender, and conceived great hopes from the temporary success of the rebels at Preston-pans; but after the battle of Culloden, which terminated the struggle, was obliged to provide for his safety in flight, and after many narrow escapes, reached the continent, where he remained until he received a pardon, and was enabled to visit his native land. To recruit his health, however, he was obliged to return to the more genial climate of France, where he died in 1754.

Among the revivers of his fame, professor Richardson, and lord Woodhouslee, are entitled to the highest respect. The latter, in his elaborate life of lord Kames, says, "With the elegant and accomplished William Hamilton of Bangour, whose amiable manners were long remembered with the tenderest recollection by all who knew him, Mr. Home (lord Kames) lived in the closest habits of friendship. The writer of these memoirs has heard him dwell with delight on the scenes of their youthful days; and he has to regret, that many an anecdote to which he listened with pleasure, was not committed to a better record than a treacherous memory. Hamilton's mind is pictured in his verses. They are the easy and careless effusions of an elegant fancy and a chastened taste; and the sentiments they convey are the genuine feelings of a tender and susceptible heart, which perpetually owned the dominion of some favourite mistress; but whose passion generally evaporated in song, and made no serious or permanent impression. His poems had an additional charm to his contemporaries, from being commonly addressed to his familiar friends of either sex, by name."

It appears from Hamilton's letters, that he communicated his poems to his friends for their critical remarks, and was easily induced to alter or amend them by their advice.

He had sent the piece entitled Contemplation, one of the most laboured of his productions, to Mr. Home, who suggested some alterations. In a letter from Hamilton, in July 1739, he says, "I have made the corrections on the moral part of Contemplation, and in a post will send it to Will. Crawford, who has the rest, and will transmit it to you. I shall write to him fully on the subject." It is pleasing to remark, that the Will. Crawford here mentioned, was the author of the beautiful pastoral ballad of Tweed-side, which, with the aid of its charming melody, will probably live as long as the language is understood. Hamilton may be reckoned among the earliest of the Scotch poets who wrote English verse with propriety and taste, and with any considerable portion of the poetic spirit. Thomson, Mallet, and he, were contemporaries. — "The poems of Hamilton," says professor Richardson, "display regular design, just sentiments, fanciful invention, pleasing sensibility, elegant diction, and smooth versification. His genius was aided by taste, and his taste was improved by knowledge. He was not only well acquainted with the most elegant modern writers, but with those of antiquity. Of these remarks, his poem entitled Contemplation, or the Triumph of Love, affords sufficient illustration."

Some of Hamilton's poems were first published at Glasgow in 1748, and afterwards reprinted, not only without the author's name, but without his consent, and even without his knowledge. He corrected, however, many errors of that copy, and enlarged some of the poems, though he did not live to make a new and complete publication. The improvements he made were carefully inserted in the edition published at Edinburgh in 1760, with the addition of many pieces taken from his original manuscripts. Since that time, although they have been inserted in the new edition of the English Poets, there has been no demand for a separate edition. It would be of importance, but it is seldom easy, to account for the various fates of poets. Hamilton, if not of the first class, and in whom we find only those secondary qualities which professor Richardson has so ably pointed out in the Lounger, surely excels some whose works are better known and more current. The neglect which he has experienced may be partly attributed to his political principles, and partly to the local interest which his effusions excited, and to which they were long confined. Verses of compliment and personal addresses must have extraordinary merit, if they attract the notice of distant strangers. Prejudice, however, is now at an end, and the friends of Scottish genius, who have lately called the attention of the public to this writer, have proved that he deserves a higher rank than has yet been assigned to him. He is perhaps very unequal, and the blemishes in his verse and diction to which professor Richardson has alluded are frequent, yet it is no inconsiderable merit to have been one of the first of his countrymen who cultivated the purity and harmony of the English language and exhibited a variety of composition and fertility of sentiment that are rarely to be found in the writings of those whose poetical genius is of the second degree.