1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hamilton Reid

Mrs. Reid, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 96 (August 1826) 184-86.



June 3. Mr. William Hamilton Reid. There is perhaps no subject which excites a more lively interest in the human mind than the detail of the efforts made by unaided genius to surmount those obstacles which may have been opposed to its developement. In few instances, if in any, have these efforts of nature been so purely spontaneous, so little excited by friends, or assisted by circumstances, as in the case of the subject of the present memoir. He was the son of persons occupying no higher station than domestics in the Duke of Hamilton's family. In his early childhood he lost his father, and his mother, after struggling a few years with poverty, sunk to the grave, and left her only child an unprotected orphan. He had previously, through the Duke of Hamilton's interest, been placed in St. James's parochial school, and here, under the discipline of a merciless pedagogue, he received the first rudiments of education. His favourite amusement was repairing to the different churches, to admire their internal and external distinctions, and he received many severe floggings from his schoolmaster, in consequence of thus absenting himself.

After the death of his mother he was humanely taken charge of by one of the parish officers, and treated by him with paternal kindness. This gentleman, struck, perhaps, by his superiority of appearance to the other boys of his rank, for "Our Edwin was no vulgar boy," took him home, and declared his intention of bringing him up to assist him in his counting-house; but a female servant, whose anger he excited by ridiculing her deformed lover, found means to blight his prospects, and in the end, by lies and artful insinuations, procured his dismissal.

He was subsequently apprenticed to a silver-buckle-maker near Soho, and from that period he commenced his literary studies. All his pocket-money was expended in books, and, after a long day of severe labour, half the short period allotted for his repose was frequently spent in reading, particularly history and poetry. Mr. Law's writings fell in his way, and he was long bewildered in the labyrinths of mystical divinity.

After the expiration of his apprenticeship he supported himself by working at his trade, occasionally writing various poetic trifles, which, by the advice of some friends who discerned their merit, he sent for insertion to the papers and magazines of the day. These productions were mostly of a pensive cast, full of a plaintive sweetness, though some were of a humourous description. They attracted the attention of several literary characters, whose letters attest their opinion of the author, and a literary lady of no mean rank, in her Letters recently edited by Sir Walter Scott, speaks of him by name as the child of nature and unaided genius. Thus receiving praise, and in some instances pecuniary remuneration, he was encouraged in his literary career, and he next turned his attention to the acquirement of the French language, and from the peculiar construction of his mind was rapidly successful. About this period he undertook to supply various light articles to a daily paper. He quitted his trade, which, from the change of fashion, was no longer productive; and from this time till the end of his life he supported himself respectably by the labours of his pen. Having procured an engagement as French translator to a daily paper, he successively mastered the Italian, Spanish, and German tongues, without receiving a single lesson or assistance of any kind, except from books. He now extended his engagement to the translation of the whole of these languages, and in a very short time the Portuguese was added. This employment necessarily confined, him at home to await the arrival of the different mails. To fill up these intervals of leisure he commenced the study of the learned languages; the Greek and Hebrew he read so as to consult any author he wished to examine, and the Latin he could read and translate with accuracy.

The speedy acquisition of a knowledge of Languages appeared to be a natural gift. The mode he adopted was that recommended by Mr. Locke, and which is indeed the path marked out by Nature. He first attained a knowledge of the primary words, and then by means of a New Testament, or any easy and literal translation, acquired the particles, and thus, having gained some insight into the construction of the language, ended with the Grammar, the acquisition of which was now comparatively easy. Nor did he till the day of his death totally cease from adding occasionally to his vast store of learning; only a short time since he was busily engaged in an examination of the Northern dialects. When the Post-office refused to supply the Newspapers with the Foreign Journals, except in their own translations, he was consequently deprived of his employment. He soon afterwards proposed to publish a volume of poems by subscription; they were accordingly collected, but owing to different circumstances they did not appear, and they still remain in the hands of his widow.

He however now produced his first prose volume, entitled The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies, which, if it did not possess much merit in a Literary point of view, was certainly of great service to the community, by calling the attention of Government to a set of desperate enthusiasts, whose sole aim was to bring about a subversion of civil order and tranquillity. This work, and some communications which he made to Government, when shortly after engaged as Editor to a daily paper, procured him the notice of Mr. Canning, and of the then Bishops of London and Durham; letters from whom now lie before the writer of this memoir. From the former gentleman he received a present of five pounds, all that, in the form of patronage, he ever received. The Bishop of London made him an offer of Ordination in the Church, which his objection to subscribe to the Articles of Faith, and a strong inherent love of independence, induced him, contrary to his interest, to refuse.

He now turned his mind to the study of Topography, Biography, and General Literature. London and its antiquities afforded him ample scope for investigation; and not a nook nor corner did he leave unexplored. A great mass of information which he had thus collected and designed to form a volume, remains in the hands of the present writer.

In the latter end of 1810, about a year and a half after his marriage with the writer of this sketch, pecuniary losses induced him to apply to the Literary Fund, and he then received a handsome donation. His Literary labours were afterwards more successful, and, though he had rather a large family, his circumstances remained comfortable till within the last year or two of his life, when various occurrences conspired to depress his spirits, and to cloud the evening of his days. He now again applied to the Literary Fund, and by that excellent Institution was again relieved from difficulties that pressed heavily upon him.

Still his habitual cheerfulness, which had even extended to playfulness, returned no more; and, although he appeared in tolerable health, those about him perceived a marked difference in his manner; he, however, only complained of a cold and cough for about a week prior to his decease, the night preceding which he went to bed apparently well, having been out twice during the day. He slept uninterruptedly till about one in the morning. About five his speech failed; and at half-past seven he calmly breathed his last, having exceeded the period of life commonly allotted to mankind.

In his manners he was affable and unassuming, but avoiding general society, it was only by the few who knew him intimately that his merits could be appreciated. Of the most inflexible integrity himself, he was ever indulgent towards the faults of others. Even and placid in his temper, rational in his enjoyments, and moderate in his wishes, though never a rich man, he may be classed, if we except perhaps the last year or two of his life, among the number of happy men, and that entirely because his pleasures were those of intellect, and consequently dependent only on himself.