1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hamilton of Bangour

Richard Alfred Davenport, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 57:5-16.



It is remarked, by Dr. Anderson, with reference to the subject of this imperfect memoir, that "the life of a private gentleman, devoting part of his time to polite literature, is held by his acquaintance to be little deserving transmission to posterity. He rises to eminence by exertions which to ordinary discernment, do not distinguish him from other men." This remark, inapplicable to the present times, is strictly correct when applied to a period which is not long gone by. Attention is now on the stretch to catch every anecdote which relates to a person who has the slightest claim to public notice. But our forefathers were unaccountably careless in transmitting to its information respecting the feelings, habits, and actions of distinguished characters, especially those connected with literature; and the consequence is, that of the personal history of many authors, whose works are our boast and delight, we know nothing more than that they were born, that they wrote, and that they died. Were this not the case, I should be able to lay before the reader something better calculated to satisfy his curiosity, as to Hamilton of Bangour, than a few barren dates, and a few particulars gleaned from Lord Woodhouselee's life of Lord Kames, and from a narrative, seemingly authentic, and bearing the title of Culloden Anecdotes, which recently appeared in a periodical publication.

William Hamilton, born in 1704, was the second son of a gentleman of large fortune and ancient family, of Bangour, in Ayrshire. The talents with which he was gifted by nature were carefully improved and expanded by an education of the most liberal kind. His genius for poetry was manifested at an early period. That he eminently possessed all the social virtues, that he was, in the best sense of the word, a polished gentleman, and that he was the ornament and delight of elegant society, is proved by unexceptionable evidence.

"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 (says Lord Woodhouselee) 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 which 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 tenor, 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 September, 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 be 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, Mecaenas, 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 bless'd the minutes as they flew.
Those hours consumed 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.
Yours, &c'

"To seek the aid of reason 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, 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 Tweedside, which, with the aid of its charming melody, will probably live as long as the language is understood.

"Hamilton may be ranked 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 preceding writers of English verse among the Scotch, are scarcely entitled to the name of poets."

Hamilton, however, though in the instance above mentioned he might deserve the character, was not always a mere dangler. He was twice married into families of distinction. His first lady was the daughter of Sir James Hall, of Dunglas, and by her he had an only son. At what period of his life be entered into the matrimonial state, or who was his second wife, I am unable to say.

The "merry meetings" in which Hamilton had hitherto borne so conspicuous a part, were "changed to stern alarms" by the daring and ill-starred attempt of the young pretender, in the year 1745. Though a sincere Protestant, Hamilton was an enthusiastic partisan of the exiled Stewarts. He joined the standard of Prince Edward, and his joy and exultation were raised to the highest pitch by the deluding success of the insurgents at Preston Pans. The defeat of the royal troops be celebrated in an ode, which has at least the merit of being highly poetical. That a man of such superior intellect as Hamilton could look upon the restoration of a bigoted and tyrannical race as a deliverance, and as ensuring to his country "the sweets of union, liberty, and love," affords one more melancholy proof how far prejudice and party madness can overcloud the noblest mind.

The battle of Culloden extinguished in blood all the visionary hopes of the rebellious Scotch. Hamilton escaped from the field of slaughter with a severe contusion of the head, which at times produced fever and delirium, till a copious effusion of blood from the nostrils relieved, but extremely weakened him. The pursuit of the wretched fugitives was kept up, throughout the country, with all the perseverance of hatred and revenge; and those who were fortunate enough to evade their pursuers, were compelled to endure hardships of the most painful kind.

It is recorded by Ledyard, the traveller, that in every clime, however brutal man might be, woman was still prompt to pity and relieve his woes. But never did the humanity of the softer sex shine in brighter perfection than at this period. The females of Scotland were, indeed, ministering angels to the miserable beings who were now closely dogged at the heels by Death, in some of his most appalling forms. They concealed, and fed, and warned, and attended, with indefatigable care, the proscribed insurgents, many of whom were severely wounded. Had this protecting kindness been displayed only by those who were bound to the objects of it by a community of interest and feeling, even then, the courage which braved the penalties of the law would have been worthy of praise. This, however, was not the case. The most loyal females in Scotland were among the most active in exposing themselves to imminent danger, that they might snatch from the scaffold men whose political principles they abhorred, and against whom their husbands, and sons, and brothers, had lately contended in arms.

In company with John Roy Stewart, who had been a colonel in the rebel army, Hamilton found an asylum under the hospitable roof of Mrs. Gordon, the wife of the minister of Alvey. This lady and her husband were among the warmest adherents of the Brunswick family. The two wanderers did not long remain at Alvey: they resigned their places to others, who, wounded and unable to travel, were in even greater distress than they themselves were. In the woods of Glenmore, near the dwelling of a friend, one of the clan of the Grants, Roy Stewart had marked, under the roots of a fallen fir, a cavern in the earth, which he hoped would afford them a secure shelter. He had agreed with the females of the neighbouring family, who were to supply the means of subsistence, that the signal of his arrival with his companion should be the sending of an old woman, to inquire whether Mag Molach had lately been seen at Tullochgorum. "Mag Molach, or the woman with the hairy hand, was the tutelary genius of that branch of the Grants, and so many stories of her extraordinary performances were current, that to ask about her would seem a very natural curiosity."

The friends set forward on their way, by a circuitous route, but were soon compelled to separate. Ignorant of the Gaelic language, a stranger to the country, unused to hardships, and surrounded by dangers, Hamilton, after having wandered for a considerable time, became at last careless of life, and sought a refuge in the first house to which he came. It fortunately happened to be the hiding place of Roy Stewart, and while the fugitives embraced each other they shed tears of joy. In this instance, too, a female was their preserver. In a few days, however, they were driven from this retreat, by the activity of the militia men, who were in pursuit of Lord Lewis Gordon, and they would have fallen into the hands of the enemy, had they not been saved by the presence of mind of their benevolent protectress.

Beset as every pass was by eager foes, it was impossible for Hamilton and Stewart at present to reach the cavern, and they suffered much from hunger, fatigue, and cold. The hardy mountaineer bore toil and privations with comparative ease; but nursed in the lap of luxury, Hamilton was deficient in physical powers, and his strength and patience were tasked almost beyond endurance. Their clothes and shoes were worn out, they were daily under the necessity of swimming over rivers, and climbing precipices, and, like birds of the air, their nights were frequently passed in the holes of the rocks. Often, not daring to venture forth to fill their pockets with the standing corn, their food was the roots of wild liquorice, or the tender shoots of fir. A more palatable repast was now and then provided by the ingenuity of Roy Stewart. He had been a good archer when a boy, and he now made a bow and arrows, with which he procured some game. "He imitated the call of the doe to her fawn, and of the heath-fowl to its young, and seldom did all the creatures he designed to inveigle escape from his well-aimed darts. They dared not strike up a fire, but sometimes in a shealing (a Highland hut) they got their game broiled. The report of a gun would have been a signal for the soldiers to pursue them."

At length they reached Glenmore, and were received by their friends, who for some weeks had been anxiously expecting them, and who now brought for them provisions, bedding, and linen. The trunk of the tree was removed, and they descended into the cave. A wide black dish, filled with water, collected the scanty rays of light, which passed through an aperture among the roots of the fir, and reflected them around, so as a little to break the darkness of their dreary habitation. At the dead of night they emerged to breathe the fresh air, while the women watched in various directions, ready to give the alarm on the approach of any hostile footstep. But at last even this indulgence became unsafe, and they were continually immured.

"Mr. Grant came home. He approved of all his wife and sister had done, and went out daily to get information. A fortnight satisfied the soldiery that all their search for Lord Lewis Gordon would be ineffectual. Mr. Grant invited Mr. Hamilton and John Roy to tea, and with Finlay M'Donald released them from confinement. The writer never shall forget the impression made by Mr. Grant's description of their haggard looks and threadbare tattered garments, covered with, and perforated by, maggots. Their loathsome state was not immediately perceived. Their eyes could not support the light. The blaze of a wood fire was lowered by water, and the candle extinguished. Mr. Hamilton's health was impaired, and John Roy affected high glee, to amuse his pensive confederate. He composed, in Gaelic, an extempore oration to the cherishing heat, so long a stranger to their frames, and Mr. Grant translated it to Mr. Hamilton. Shivering with cold and agitation, Mr. Hamilton threw himself into a chair. The candles were returned, and Finlay M'Donald appeared with new suits of clothes and linen for the guests. Mr. Hamilton observed his horrible retinue.

"'Great God! (he cried), my friend and I, in our premature inhumation, were also the prey of worms!"

"A short hysterical spasm succeeded, but two glasses of wine, and Mr. Stewart's forced merriment, removed the symptoms. Mrs. Grant and her sister came to make tea. A chair was placed for Mr. Hamilton, and as he did not rise to take it, Mr. Grant led him to the table. Mrs. Grant wished to engage him in conversation, but in place of a direct answer, he muttered—

Johannes Rufus Stewart,
With brawny limb and true heart,
Bold as the mountain lion,
And of liberty the scion.
Dens, caves, caverns, dungeons, worms, vermiculi—

"Mr. Stewart looked earnestly at the speaker. His eyes were fixed. His senses were locked in sleep. He was carried to bed, and when he awoke next morning, recollected nothing, except the hideous reptiles.

"This fact is not without a parallel. It will be found in the life of Dr. Blacklock, relating the perturbed state of his feelings at Dumfries, after being insulted by the rabble, when inducted to the parish of Kircudbright.

"After Mr. Hamilton was laid in bed, John Roy informed Mr. Grant and the ladies, that the lines recited by him were a part of a doggerel poem be composed in his dungeon."

Hamilton and his companion shortly after contrived to reach a seaport, at which they embarked for France. In that country and in Italy Hamilton resided for some years, keeping aloof from politics, and devoting himself wholly to retirement and the Muse. A pardon was at length obtained for him by his numerous friends, and he returned to Scotland, to take possession of the family estate, which devolved to him on the death of his brother. The remainder of his history may be told in a few words. His health, naturally delicate, was much impaired by the sufferings which he had endured, and, in the hope of restoring it, he revisited the continent. It was, however, too late, and he died at Lyons on the 25th of March, 1754, whence his body was conveyed to Scotland, where it was interred in the Abbey Church of Holyrood House.

The late Professor Richardson, of Glasgow, to whose talents as a poet and a critic, and to whose worth as a friend, I gladly embrace this opportunity of paying a public tribute, has drawn the poetical character of Hamilton with such nice discrimination, and his sentiments on the subject are so accordant with mine, that, instead of clothing his meaning in other words, I will copy his own; omitting only the analysis of the poem of Contemplation; a poem deserving of all the praise which Richardson has bestowed on its plan and execution.

"The poems of Hamilton 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 of the modern writers, but with those of antiquity. * * *

"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. 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, more 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 ecstasies 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 ease, and good humour, with corresponding language and numbers. In this performance, a number of female characters are described in the liveliest manner, characterized with judgment, and distinguished with acute discernment. The transitions in this poem are peculiarly happy."