1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Drummond

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 4:623-25.



The character of Drummond has little indulgence to demand for his age or country. His manners were as polite and amiable, as his talents were elegant and respectable. His heart was eminently the seat of the Graces. Tenderness, in every sense of the word, was his peculiar characteristic. His piety was fervent, unaffected, and cheerful. He was a sincere friend and an easy companion. He heartily loved his country, with a passion, that was strengthened perhaps, but not exasperated, by political prejudice. Throughout his whole life, he was fond of literature and retirement, and had little inclination for riches or honours. He sometimes amused himself with playing at chess, and was a skilful player on the lute.

Among his friends, he numbered every man eminent for literature at that time in his own country. Principal Adamson, Dr. Arthur Johnston, and Sir Robert Kerr, afterwards Earl of Ancrum, encouraged his poetical studies by their approbation and example; but one of his most intimate friends appears to have been Sir William Alexander, afterwards Earl of Stirling, a distinguished statesman, courtier and poet. His works are printed in folio, under the title of The Recreations of the Muses, the chief of which, are four "Monarchic Tragedies" in alternate rhyme. He is a masculine writer, and greatly superior to the style of his age. His "Aurora" and "Paraenesis" are almost classical performances, and well merit republication.

He spent very little time in England, though he corresponded with Drayton and Jonson, the latter of whom had a high respect for him. Their attachment, however, does not appear to have been quite reciprocal; for the character given by Drummond of Jonson, which has been inserted in his life, is a very unfavourable one; owing probably to his having made memorandums of expressions, imprudently or inadvertently uttered by Jonson in the unsuspecting freedom of familiar intercourse, or the wantonness of convivial gravity. In committing these to writing, however, he appears to have had no intention to publish them; and therefore he cannot be fairly accused, in this instance, of violating the rights of friendship or hospitality.

The character of Drummond, as a prose writer, is given with ostentatious praise, which is always to be suspected of some degree of partiality. "The Cypress Grove," says the writer of his life, "is a piece of excellent prose, both for the sublimity and piety of his thoughts, and for the fineness of the style." It is perhaps the best of his prose works; and though the style is quaint and affected, is worth reading for its dignified vein of morality.

The able and ingenious Mr. Pinkerton, calls it "a poor piece of tinsel," and says of Drummond, that, "like other great poets, he could not write prose." He is perhaps more mistaken in his general position, than even in the particular instance specified. Many of our best poets have rivalled, and some have exceeded the professional prose writers of their time. Spenser, Daniel, Davenant, Cowley, Dryden, and Goldsmith, are unrivalled by any contemporary prose writer.

His History of the James's has been praised at least as much as it deserves. Phillips "ranks him in the number of the best writers, and scruples not to compare him with Thuanus himself." "Drummond," says Mr. Granger, "stands in the first rank of modern historians. He, for his excellence in telling a story, and interesting his reader in what he relates, is thought to be comparable to Livy."

The Earl of Orford calls him, "one of the best modern historians, and no mean imitator of Livy." Mr. Pinkerton, on the contrary, speaking of this work, says, that it is "the most deplorable performance that ever aspired to the name of history, full of false orations, false brilliancy, false sense, and false facts." The general opinion of his countrymen is much more favourable, and probably more just; for it is, upon the whole, an eloquent and masculine performance. Setting panegyric aside, there does not appear much resemblance between Livy and Drummond as historical writers. His style is too elaborate and ornamented for historic narrative. He has certainly given a very partial account of the reigns of the Princes he writes upon, and has vindicated or palliated some of the most atrocious actions. The history also contains very servile and absurd political sentiments and observations.

The poetry of Drummond amply established his fame; and it is but doing justice to the ability and erudition of Mr. Pinkerton, to acknowledge, that his endeavours to extend the fame and honour of Drummond's poetry, which is so closely allied to the fame and honour of the nation, merit the gratitude of his countrymen; and of none more than the compiler of this collection, who recognizes, in the learned editor of the "Ancient Scottish Poems," and the Historian of Scotland, the companion of his youthful and classical studies, and a pupil of the Lanark school, that rivals the genius and literature of Graeme, the pride of that once flourishing seminary, the boast of its late respectable master, and "The lost companion of his youth's gay prime!" It is in vain the readers of English poetry lament the fate of many of our obscure writers, who have undeservedly fallen victims to a premature oblivion, when the studied productions of Drummond are neglected, and their excellencies not half enough praised or acknowledged.

Among all the writers of that age, who flourished after Spenser and Shakespeare, there is not one who deserves more attention from the general readers of English poetry, than Drummond.

In a survey of Drummond's poetry, the consideration of his country need not be offered to extenuate faults, but to increase our admiration. It is characterised by an exquisite of expression. His thoughts are generally bold, and highly poetical: He follows nature, but sometimes indulges in metaphysical subtleties, unsuitable to the language of passion: His diction is classical and elegant, and his versification is exquisitely polished, and delicately harmonious.

Petrarch seems to have been his model, in his Sonnets, the most perfect of his pieces; and he has shown, in some of these compositions, nearly the spirit of Petrarch himself.

Drummond and Petrarch had this in common, that each lamented, first the cruelty, and then the loss of his mistress: So that their sonnets are alike naturally divided into two parts; those before, and those after their several mistresses deaths.

Drummond himself has told us, "that he was the first in the isle that did celebrate a dead mistress, and Englished the madrigal;" and it may be justly doubted, that among all the sonnetteers in the English language, any one is to be preferred to him.