The interest of Drummond lies chiefly, for a modern reader, in the circumstances of his life. He is one of the earliest instances in our literature of the man of letters pure and simple; of the man who writes neither for his bread, like the great dramatists his contemporaries, nor to adorn the leisure moments of an active life, like Chaucer and Sir Philip Sidney, but who, when his fortune allows him to choose his career, elects to write for the sake of writing. It is true he travelled, both as a very young man and later; he corresponded regularly with his Scottish friends as the courts of James and Charles, especially with Sir William Alexander Earl of Stirling, the poet and statesman; he took part in such royal festivities as a rare chance might bring to Edinburgh; he keenly felt and sharply criticised the course of public affairs; but for all this his centre and his home was the beautiful house on the bank of the Esk, into the solitudes of which even the din of Bishops' Wars could scarcely penetrate. Other poets are known by their names alone; we talk of Jonson and Herrick, of Dryden and Addison; but Drummond is for all time Drummond of Hawthornden.
His countrymen did not till lately do much honour to Drummond. As the end of the seventeenth century that by which his name was chiefly kept alive was a macaronic poem, Polemo-Middinia, which modern criticism hesitates to attribute to his hand. In 1711 Bishop Sage and the Scottish antiquary Thomas Ruddiman published Drummond's works in prose and verse, but this volume, though it still remains the only edition that contains his prose as well as his poetry, is uncritical, and is a tribute to Drummond rather as a politician than as a poet. Fifty years ago, however, Mr. David Laing, to whom Scottish literature and history owe so much, analysed and set in order the mass of manuscript which the last representative of the poet had given to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, forty years before. Then followed the Maitland Club edition of his poems (1833); and then, in our own day, came Professor Masson with a characteristic volume, doing for Drummond after his kind what the same biographer had long been doing for Milton after his kind — setting him against a rich background of the circumstances of his time. The dominant impression which we derive from Professor Masson's book is an impression of Drummond in his relation to public events; of the royalist and episcopalian born to "unhappy times and dying days"; writing pamphlets, satires, letters at intervals: turning his skill in verse to the service of the Court when occasion served, but brooding in discontent, for the most part silent, over the slow but certain triumph of Argyle and his presbyterians. Yet though this element is essential to our understanding of Drummond, there are other elements in him that have also to be taken into account. He has had a love story, as sweet while it lasted and as pathetic in its end as any that ever inspired a poet; it is the memory of the fair Mary Cunningham of Barns, who died on the eve of their wedding, that keeps him unmarried till nearly fifty and, at least till the political clouds close round him, he is, as we said, a man of letters, the friend of Drayton and Sir William Alexander, and the entertainer of Ben Jonson.
Drummond is a literary and even learned poet. With Alexander, he deliberately preferred to write English, as it was spoken in England, rather than his native Scotch. His wealth and his leisure enabled him so surround himself with books; he was familiar with both ancient and modern literature. An interesting gift of his to the newly founded University of Edinburgh has preserved for us a selection of the very volumes that he read; English poetry and prose, including works of Bacon and Selden, of Drayton and Donne, of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare; Latin, French, Italian volumes in great numbers. Moreover, among the "excerpta" from his papers which Mr. Laing printed we find exact lists of the books that he read from period to period, the year's task sometimes extending to forty or fifty separate writers, some of them of the dimensions of Knox's History of the Reformation, and Sidney's Arcadia, and Lyly's Euphues, and Rabelais, and Amadis de Gaule. Like every other cultivated man of his day, he had read Marini; and his copy of Montaigne is extant. His favourite forms of verse are the sonnet, of the Shakespearian rather than the true Italian type, and a short song or madrigal, combining the six-syllabled and the ten-syllabled lines in a very happy way; but he also uses other metres, such as the heroic couplet, and now and then ventures upon a difficult foreign experiment, as in his two Sextains and his one attempt in terza rime. The matter of his verse is described by himself on the title-page of his first miscellaneous volume of Poems — "Amorous, Funerall, Divine, Pastoral" — the Pastoral being of little account, and the Funeral neither better nor worse than the average of their class. What are really interesting in the poetry that he published during his life are the sonnets and songs directly inspired by Mary Cunningham — sonnets and songs that ring true, and contrast with the cold conventionality of such poems as the Aurora of Drummond's friend Lord Stirling — and the grave Flowers of Sion. Among the posthumous poems also are some that are noticeable; one or two genuine cries of anguish at what the author thought to be the evil of the times, and a few hymns (such as the "hymns for the week," following the order of the days of Creation) fit to rank with many of those that have become classical.
Good as are some of the love-sonnets and madrigals, Drummond is best where he is most serious. His deepest interests are metaphysical and religious; he is for ever taking refuge from the ills of the present in meditations on Death, Eternity, the Christian Doctrine. The Universe, "this All" as he calls it, — that conception of the earth with its concentric spheres which belonged to the older astronomy, — is an idea on which he dwells in almost monotonous fashion. The finest of all his writings, the prose tract called The Cypresse Grove, is a discourse upon Death, reminding us, at Mr. Masson well says, of the best work of Sir Thomas Browne; the most striking of his poems are certainly those where, as in the sonnet "For the Baptist," he presents in his own rich language the severer portions of the Christian history, or the inexhaustible theme of the shortness and the mystery of life. What saves him from becoming wearisome is partly the nobility of his verse at its best, its stateliness and sonorous music; partly his evident sincerity, and his emancipation, speaking generally, from the evil influences that were creeping in to corrupt English poetry at that time. His conceits, where he indulges in them, are bad indeed; the sun to him is
Goldsmith of all the stars, with silver bright
Who moon enamels, Apelles of the flowers;
the waves that toss the boat that holds his love have their ready explanation:—
And yet huge waves arise; the cause is this,
That ocean strives with Forth the boat to kiss.
But these are the accidents of his poetry, and his theory and practice are better learnt from such words as chose he sent at an uncertain date to Dr. Arthur Johnston, a writer of Latin verse well known in his day. "Poesy," he says, "subsisteth by herself, and after one demeanour and continuance her beauty appeareth to all ages. In vain have some men of late, transformers of everything, consulted upon her reformation, and endeavoured to abstract her to metaphysical ideas and scholastical quiddities, denuding her of her own habits, and those ornaments with which she hath amused the world some thousand years. Poesy is not a thing that is yet in the finding and search, or which may be otherwise found out." Such is the mature view of Drummond; the view of a man who has read the best that the poets of all ages have made, has enjoyed it, has assimilated it, and will not allow himself so be drawn away from the main current by the fashion of the day. It is difficult to withhold admiration from a poet who in the first half of the seventeenth century had studied Marini and yet kept himself for the most part free from conceits; and, if we turn from his poetry to his life, it is difficult to withhold sympathy from a man whose private happiness was ruined by a fatal blow, and whose public hopes were wasted in witnessing the steady upward progress of a cause which he regarded with abhorrence.