Of this poet so little is upon record that an apology would be necessary to the reader, if the blame did not rest with those who, with every opportunity to collect information, neglected his personal history while it was within reach. Part of his life appears to have been spent in gaiety, and part in the dangers of civil war; and as he became an exile for an unpopular cause, and passed his latter days in a foreign country which he visited in quest of health, and where he died about half a century ago, little remains among the descendants of his admirers, if we except the information lord Woodhouslee has given, but an indistinct remembrance of a man of a polished mind, of social virtues, and elegant mariners.
His father was a man of fortune and family in Airshire, where he was born in 1704. He received a liberal education, to which he joined the accomplishments of the man of the world; and amidst the higher 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, he 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 furnishes what, it is hoped, will atone in some measure for the present scanty article.
"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. There are few minds insensible to the soothing flattery of a poet's record. I question whether his friend Home was ever more highly gratified by the applause he gained for his talents on the success of a legal argument, than by the elegant lines addressed by Hamilton, To H. H. in the Assembly.
"Hamilton's letters are, like his verses, the transcript of his feelings. Mr. Home had sent him a few remarks on Horace; of the same tenour, as it would seem, with those observations which, many years afterwards, he gave to the world in his Elements of Criticism. In a letter dated Sept. 1738, to Mr. Home, then passing the autumn vacation at Kames, Hamilton thus writes—'I am entirely of your opinion with respect to your observations on Horace. He certainly wanders from his text — but still they are the wanderings of Horace. Why we are never contented with our lot, but still envy the condition of others, was a noble subject, and it were to he wished he had adorned it, as well he could, from his own experience: satisfied, as he seems to have been, with his own pursuits, and the fame they had acquired him. Let me put Horace's question to myself, Why don't I acquiesce in the determination of Heaven, to which I have myself so much contributed? Why don't I rest contented with that, small perhaps indeed, but sincere portion of happiness furnished by my poetry, and a few kind friends? Why concern myself to please Jeanie Stewart, or vex myself about that happier man to whom the lottery of life may have assigned her? 'Qui fit, Mecenas, qui fit?' Whence comes it? Alas, whence indeed?
Too long by love, a wandering fire, misled,
My better days in vain delusion fled:
Day after day, year after year withdrew,
And beauty blest the minutes as they flew.
Those hours consum'd in joy, but lost to fame,
With blushes I review, but dare not blame:
A fault which easy pardon might receive,
Did lovers judge, or could the wise forgive!
But now to Wisdom's healing springs I fly,
And drink oblivion of each charmful eye;
To love revolted, quit each pleasing care,
Whate'er was witty, or whate'er was fair.
"To seek the aid of wisdom for the cure of love, is no doubt a prudent resolution, but here the question may be put (as of Glendower's spirits), will Wisdom come when the lover calls for her? His friend Home, who had a deeper knowledge of human nature, saw a better cure for a frivolous and idle passion. The lady mentioned in the letter above quoted had complained to Mr. Home, that she was teased with Hamilton's dangling attentions, which she was convinced had no serious aim, and hinted an earnest wish to get rid of him: 'You are his friend,' said she, 'tell him he exposes both himself and me to the ridicule of our acquaintance.' 'No, madam,' said Mr. Home, 'you shall accomplish his cure yourself; and by the simplest method. Dance with him at to-night's assembly, and show him every mark of your kindness, as if you believed his passion sincere, and had resolved to favour his suit. Take my word for it, you'll hear no more of him.' The lady adopted the counsel, and the success of the experiment was complete.
"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 3 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 folly on the subject.' It is pleasing to remark, that the Will. Crawford here mentioned was the author of the beautiful pastoral ballad of Tweedside, 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.
"The design of this poem is regular. The poet displays in it the struggles, relapses, recoveries, and final discomfiture of a mind striving with an obstinate and habituated passion. It has, in the language of the critics, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It exhibits an action in its rise, progress, and termination. The poet represents himself as wishing to withdraw his thoughts from inferior subjects, and fix them on such as he holds better suited to a rational, and still more to a philosophical spirit. He must he aided in this high exercise by Contemplation, and the assistance of this august personage must be duly solicited. Accordingly, the poem opens with a fine address to the 'Voice divine,' the power of poetry:
Go forth, invok'd, O Voice divine!
And issue from thy sacred shrine;
Go, search each solitude around
Where Contemplation may be found, &c.
But Contemplation must not only be duly solicited, but properly received and attended; and therefore a company of various but suitable associates are invited;
Bring Faith, endued with eagle eyes,
That join, this Earth to distant skies, &c.
Devotion, high above that soars,
And sings exulting, and adores, &c.—
Last, to crown all, with these be join'd
The decent nun, fair Peace of Mind,
Whom Innocence, ere yet betray'd,
Bore young in Eden's happy shade;
Resign'd, contented, meek, and mild,
Of blameless mother, blameless child.
"In like manner, such passions as are adverse to Contemplation are very properly prohibited; and in this catalogue are included, among others, Superstition, Zeal, Hypocrisy, Malice, and all inhuman affections. The poet seems chiefly solicitous to prohibit Love. Of him and his intrusion he appears particularly apprehensive. Yet, in the confidence of his present mood, he would disguise his apprehensions, and treats this formidable adversary not only with defiance, but with contempt,
But chiefly Love, Love, far off fly,
Nor interrupt my privacy;
'Tis not for thee, capricious power,
Weak tyrant of a fev'rish hour,
Fickle, and ever in extremes,
My radiant day of reason beams,
And sober Contemplation's ear
Disdains thy syren tongue to hear.
Speed thee on changeful wings away
To where thy willing slaves obey;
Go, herd amongst thy wonted train,
The false, th' inconstant, and the vain
Thou hast no subject here; begone;
Contemplation comes anon.
"The action proceeds. The poet attends to solemn objects: engages in important inquiries; considers the diversified condition of human life; dwells on the ample provision made by nature for human happiness; dwells on the happiness of social affections; is thus led imperceptibly to think of love; mentions Monimia, and relapses.
Ah me! what, hapless, have I said, &c.
"He makes another effort, but with equal success; he makes another and another: he will exalt his mind by acts of devotion, or plunge into the gloom of melancholy. But the influences of the predominant passion still return to the charges and restore their object: on the heights of devotion, or in the shades of melancholy, he still meets with Monimia. Such is the progress of the poem; and in the conclusion we have an interesting view of the poet, yielding to his adversary, but striving to be resigned:
Pass but some fleeting moments o'er,
This rebel heart shall beat no inure, &c.
"The justness of the poet's sentiments is next to be mentioned. He illustrates the power of habituated passion over reason and reflection. Farther, he illustrates, that, though the attention be engaged with objects of the most opposite kind to that of the reigning passion, yet still it returns. He shows too, that this happens notwithstanding the most determined resolutions and purposes to the contrary. All this he does not formally, but by ingenious and indirect insinuation. He also illustrates a curious process in the conduct of our intellectual powers, when under the dominion of strong emotion. He shows the manner by which prevailing passions influence our thoughts in the association of ideas; that they do not throw their objects upon the mind abruptly, or without coherence, but proceed by a regular progress: for that, how different soever ideas or objects may be from one another, the prevailing or habituated passion renders the mind acute in discerning among them common qualities, or circumstances of agreement or correspondence, otherwise latent or not obvious: that these common qualities are dexterously used by the mind, as uniting links, or means of transition; and that thus, not incoherently, but by the natural connection most commonly of resemblance, the ruling passion brings its own object to the fore ground, and into perfect view. Thus our poet, in the progress of his action, has recourse to friendship. He dwells on the happiness that connection bestows; he wishes for a faithful friend; his imagination figures such a person,
On whose soft and gentle breast
My weary soul may take her rest:
and then, by easy transition, invests this friend with a female form, with the form of Monimia:
Grant, Heaven, if Heaven means bliss for me,
Monimia such, and long may be.
"In like manner, having recourse to devotion, in a spirit of rational piety, he solicits the aid of Heaven to render him virtuous. He personifies Virtue; places her in a triumphal car, attended by a suitable train; one of her attendants, a female distinguished by high preeminence, must also be distinguished by superior beauty, must resemble the fairest of human beings, must resemble Monimia:
While chief in beauty, as in place,
She charms with dear Monimia's grace.
Monimia's still, here once again!
O! fatal name; O dubious strains &c.
Far off the glorious rapture flown,
Monimia rages here alone.
In vain, Love's fugitive, I try
From the commanding power to fly, &c.
Why didst thou, cruel Love, again
Thus drag me back to earth and pain?
Well hop'd I, Love, thou wouldst retire
Before the bless'd Jessean lyre,
Devotion's harp would charm to rest
The evil spirit in my breast;
But the deaf adder fell, disdains
Unlistening to the chanter's strains.
"The whole poem illustrates the difficulty and necessity of governing our thoughts, no less than our passions.
"In enumerating the most remarkable qualities in Hamilton's poetical works, besides regularity of design, and justness of thought or sentiment, I mentioned fanciful invention; and of this particular I shall, in like manner, offer some illustration.
"Fanciful invention is, in truth, the quality that, of all others, distinguishes, and is chiefly characteristic of poetical composition. The beauties of design, sentiment, and language, belong to every kind of fine writing; but invention alone creates the poet, and is a term nearly of the same signification with poetical genius. A poet is said to have more or less genius according to his powers of fancy or invention. That Hamilton possesses a considerable portion of this talent is manifest in many of his compositions, and particularly so in his Contemplation. This appears evident from some passages already quoted. But, though our poet possesses powers of invention, he is not endowed with all the powers of invention, nor with those of every kind. His genius seems qualified for describing some beautiful scenes and objects of external nature, and for delineating with the embellishments of allegory some passions and affections of the human mind.
"Still, however, his imagination is employed among beautiful and engaging, rather than among awful and magnificent, images; and even when he presents us with dignified objects, he is more grave than lofty, wore solemn than sublime, as in the following passage: 'Now see! the spreading gates unfold,' &c.
"It was also said, that our poet possessed pleasing sensibility. It is not asserted that he displays those vehement tumults and ecstacies of passion, that belong to the higher kinds of lyric and dramatic composition. He is not shaken with excessive rage, nor melted with overwhelming sorrow; yet when he treats of grave or affecting subjects, he expresses a plaintive and engaging softness. He is never violent and abrupt, and is more tender than pathetic. Perhaps the Braes of Yarrow, one of the finest ballads ever written, may put in a claim to superior distinction. But even with this exception, I should think our poet more remarkable for engaging tenderness, than for deep and affecting pathos. Of this, his epitaph, beginning with. 'Could this fair marble,' affords illustration.
"In like manner, when he expresses joyful sentiments, or describes scenes and objects of festivity, which he does very often, he displays good-humour and easy cheerfulness, rather than the transports of mirth or the brilliancy of wit. In one of the best of his poems, addressed to lady Mary Montgomery, he adorns sprightliness of thought, graceful case, and good-humour, with corresponding language and numbers. In this performance, a number of female characters are described in the liveliest Manner, characterised with judgment, and distinguished with acute discernment. Thus, in the following indirect description, we have the dignity of female excellence:
—Heavenly Charlotte, form divine,
Love's universal kingdom's thine:
Anointed queen! all unconfin'd,
Thine is the homage of mankind.
"In another passage we have a fine picture of the gentler and livelier graces:
In everlasting blushes seen,
Such Pringle shines of sprightly mien;
To her the power of love imparts,
Rich gift! the soft successful arts, &c.
"Elsewhere we have a melodious beauty:
Artless divine to her belong,
The heavenly lay and magic song, &c.
"The transitions in this poem are peculiarly happy. Such are the following.
Strike again the golden lyre,
Let Hume the notes of joy inspire, &c.
But who is she, the general gaze
Of sighing crowds, the world's amaze,
Who looks forth as the blushing morn,
On mountains of the cast new born, &c.
Fair is the lily, sweet the rose,
That in thy cheek, O Drummond, glows, &c.
"I have dwelt so long, and I could not avoid it, on the preceding particulars, that I have not left myself room for illustrations of our poet's language and versification. I observed, in general, that these were elegant and melodious; and so every reader of genuine taste will feel them. They are not, however, unexceptionable; and if in another letter I should give farther illustration of our author's poetical character, I shall hold myself bound, not only to mention some excellencies, but also some blemishes in his verse and diction."
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 errours 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 there has been no demand for a new 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, 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.