William Hamilton Reid

John Nichols, "Anecdotes of Reid and his Progress in Poetry" Gentleman's Magazine 58 (July 1788) 593-95.

Speenhill, June 13.


Being secluded in retirement remote from the capital, will, I presume, in some degree, plead for this intrusion. The information given in your Magazine of a volume of Poems publishing by your very ingenious correspondent W. Hamilton Reid, by subscription, has induced the following enquiry, from a demonstration of his native forcible genius; convinced it must give popularity, and, I am happy to add, much profit to the indigent Son of Nature, as every admirer of animated and natural description must allow. Yes, I repeat it, his genius, Mr. Urban, has excited the enquiry, with the bosom-wish to assist in rendering his ungenial circumstances more easy. Concerning the real truth, I beg your information; and also, if a very warm recommendation appeared about a twelvemonth past in a reputable morning-print, with specimens of his poetry, as the paper is conducted by a gentleman of literary abilities, and an elegant taste? And was his situation accidentally discovered? Has he no knowledge of prosody but that of the ear?

It is, however, certain that he has eccentric abilities, unequaled by any of the modern untutored bards, except Robert Burns; yet Reid has the greatest variety, equally executed, and that variety is the strongest criterion of poetic powers.

I read only your Magazine, and from that my partiality is eminently justified. If ideas as strongly conceived as expressed; if living description, bold imagery, and fine pathos, are estimated only by the cold critical decisions; is not his Moon-light, his Sonnet upon the Vestiges of a Roman Camp, grand and solemn? Is not his thought, in the latter, of Albion's covering nations with the sun-broad shield, truly sublime and beautiful? Indeed, all his painting speaks no small share of that genuine [Greek characters] that Art never attains to. His Elegy on the unknown Author of Chevy Chase, though founded on a mistake, his Athenia, &c. speak his noble pathos in the elegiac. What a character he gives of the Deity! His philosophy, without dryness — the dryness of systematic writing — has a logical climax and perspicuity that does credit to the understanding and the philanthropy of the author.

How different is the effect of this method of treating the attributes of the First Cause, than to be informed a thousand times that,

Principio coelum, ac terras, composque liquentes,
Lucentemque globum Lunae, Titani acque astia
Spiritus intus alit, totamque, infusa per artus
Mens agitat molem, & magna se corpora miscet.

I presume, the moral character of the "Bard of Nature" is accordant with the expectation naturally resulting from his tuneful numbers. As to a certain degree of poetic genius, there is, I apprehend, such a portion of principle and pride, as to render it incapable of sinking to a sphere productive of contempt.

Bath has rendered her poetical writer independent; Bristol has provided for a female; Scotland has been more liberal still for her superior bard: and will London then, the emporium of our isle, pay less regard to this "rapt enthusiast." Let liberality anticipate better things.

But, Sir, I shall intrude so far on your kindness, supposing you can procure his address, as by your means to remit the inclosed trifling gratuity (two guineas) as a consideration for the pleasure I have received from W. H. Reid's performances. If productive of more liberal notice of distressed merit in the expanded bosom, I shall be happy.

Yours, &c.


*** In addition to the notices of the poetry of W. Hamilton Reid, in the Gazetteer for Jan. 7, 1787, it appears, from authentic information, that his situation as a laborious mechanic, ignorance of prosody, want of reading, &c. are equally true. The latter, however, must be confined to poetry only, as he is known to have been a mere book-worm in divinity since the age of 16, which was never diverted to a poetical channel, till, contrary to the generality of bards, he manifested abilities for metrical composition! It is remarkable that, upon his first disposition for reading, after producing a few thoughts in verse, every idea of writing, of any kind, vanished till the year 1781; when he produced some letters in the Gazetteer, signed Philo-Veritas, against a methodistical adventurer, who, in the same print, had abused the Established Church by the most illiberal insinuations; and these letters, though extremely inaccurate in their orthography, were published without any alteration of their sense. But the discovery of his poetical abilities, in 1785, was by a circumstance which which, as it were by collision, excited the flame of this natural poet. A person of the same business had just produced an Ode to Masonry. Surprize, emulation, shame, &c. instantaneously vivified all the dormant seeds of poesy in Reid, and a similar disposition was communicated to him by a kind of electrical contact; which, in fine, produced those effusions so well received by the most respectable prints, and whose rapidity, diversity, harmony, &c. soon left him without a rival, in the humbler walks of life. His discovery by the Editor of the Gazetteer was as accidental as his sudden impulse by the poetical furor. He purchased a paper whenever any poetry appeared he furnished it with. Want of employ, fatally the case every winter, had rendered this inconvenient. He requested, by a note, that a paper, on those occasions, might be allowed him, stating the want of employ. This was followed in a few days by a notice from the Editor, expressing, that if W. H. R. would call at the office, he would find a letter from him. By which it appeared, he had mentioned him to the proprietors, who, in consideration of his merit, had begged his acceptance of a handsome acknowledgement, &c. This was succeeded by an interview, and a private gratuity from the editor; and a subscription was afterwards opened, which, unfortunately, has not yet answered the expectation of this genuine son of the Muses. The fairness of his moral character can be attested by Mr. P—s, silversmith, in Hosier-lane, Smithfield, for whom he has worked nine years, and other reputable persons, who can justify him from the too common charge of neglect of business. Candour will readily grant, that the means of adding distress to a wife and small family would be too insupportable to be indulged by a mind of sensibility. Besides, it is well known that Reid's productions were not the offspring of leisure, and its concomitant, want, where daily labour was depended upon, but were mostly written in the height of business, at those intervals of rest too often devoted by the vulgar to sottish stupidity. So true it is that ease (of mind at least) is the parent of Poetry.