1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hamilton of Bangour

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:24.



WILLIAM HAMILTON of Bangour, a Scottish gentleman of education, rank, and accomplishments, was born of an ancient family in Ayrshire in 1704. He was the delight of the fashionable circles of his native country, and became early distinguished for his poetical talents. In 1745, struck, we may suppose, with the romance of the enterprise, Hamilton joined the standard of Prince Charles, and became the "volunteer laureate" of the Jacobites, by celebrating the battle of Gladsmuir. On the discomfiture of the party, Hamilton succeeded in effecting his escape to France; but having many friends and admirers among the royalists at home, a pardon was procured for the rebellious poet, and he was soon restored to his native country and his paternal estate. He did not, however, live long to enjoy his good fortune. His health had always been delicate, and a pulmonary complaint forced him to seek the warmer climate of the continent. He gradually declined, and died at Lyons in 1754.

Hamilton's first and best strains were dedicated to lyrical poetry. Before he was twenty, he had assisted Allan Ramsay in his "Tea-Table Miscellany." In 1748, some person, unknown to him, collected and published his poems in Glasgow; but the first genuine and correct copy did not appear till after the author's death, in 1760, when a collection was made from his own manuscripts. The most attractive feature in his works is his pure English style, and a somewhat ornate poetical diction. He had more fancy than feeling, and in this respect his amatory songs resemble those of the courtier poets of Charles II.'s court. Nor was he more sincere, if we may credit an anecdote related of him by Alexander Tytler in his life of Henry Home, Lord Kames. One of the ladies whom Hamilton annoyed by his perpetual compliments and solicitations, consulted Home how she should get rid of the poet, who she was convinced had no serious object in view. The philosopher advised her to dance with him, and show him every mark of her kindness, as if she had resolved to favour his suit. The lady adopted the counsel, and the success of the experiment was complete. Hamilton wrote a serious poem, entitled "Contemplation," and a national one on the Thistle, which is in blank verse:—

How oft beneath
Its martial influence have Scotia's sons,
Through every age, with dauntless valour fought
On every hostile ground! While o'er their breast,
Companion to the silver star, blest type
Of fame, unsullied and superior deed,
Distinguished ornament this native plant
Surrounds the sainted cross, with costly row
Of gems emblazed, and flame of radiant gold,
A sacred mark, their glory and their pride!

Professor Richardson of Glasgow (who wrote a critique on Hamilton in the "Lounger") quotes the following as a favourable specimen of his poetical powers:—

In everlasting blushes seen,
Such Pringle shines, of sprightly mien;
To her the power of love imparts,
Rich gift! the soft successful arts,
That best the lover's fire provoke,
The lively step, the mirthful joke,
The speaking glance, the amorous wile,
The sportful laugh, the winning smile.
Her soul awakening every grace,
Is all abroad upon her face;
In bloom of youth still to survive,
All charms are there, and all alive.

Others of his amatory strains are full of quaint conceits and exaggerated expressions, without any trace of real passion. His ballad of "The Braes of Yarrow" is by far the finest of his effusions: it has real nature, tenderness, and pastoral simplicity. As the cause of the composition of Wordsworth's three beautiful poems, "Yarrow Unvisited," "Yarrow Visited," and "Yarrow Revisited," it has, moreover, some external importance in the records of British literature. The poet of the lakes has copied some of its lines and images.