1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hamilton Reid

Crito Sceptic, "To the Editor of the Gazetteer" Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (8 January 1787).



SIR,

To assist the distrest, and raise the fallen, forms the rational dignity and pleasure of the man of sentiment; and when want is united to genius, it must have the most forcible claim to his warmest exertion. Thus convinced of philanthropy and its residence, an essay to exalt modest merit must appear in your impartial paper, which has ever befriended it; it is likewise instigated by the late representations relative to Burns, the Scots Ploughman.

I beg leave to offer a few hints on a more than similar phenomenon: lately returned from the North, I confess I heard but little of Burns at Berwick, and several places in Scotland, but what transpired through the channel of your Gazetteer; but with many respectable circles that read the London prints, I was witness to a general approbation and liberal acknowledgments to the poetical performances of William Hamilton Reid, (in the periodical publications) supposed to be an obscure illiterate person. However, Sir, if this is the same person who signed W. Hamilton, day-labourer, in the Gentleman's Magazine for June, 1786, I must say, that his painting of a Suicide and Modern Fanaticism equally deserve the public attention with Burns, or any happier candidate. Can such lines as these, Sir, in his address to Humanity, be read without the most sensible emotions from their fine pathos:

What discordant sounds I hear,
Rudely bursting on my ear?
Sure they speak the God of War,
Rolling in his iron car,
Thrills the sound in ev'ry vein,
Pregnant language big with pain,
All the grief that mortals know,
All the sorrow, all the woe,
Each deluded subject feels,
Ecchos to his thund'ring wheels.
Fairest daughter of the sky,
Dove-ey'd soft Humanity,
Sweetest of celestial race,
Tears shall veil thy beauteous face;
Vain's thy soft persuasive pow'r,
In the passion-clouded hour;
Grief shall heave thy snowy breast,
Grief, that cannot be exprest.

The piece throughout is not inferior to this citation. — This, Sir, is not the style of a Plebeian, nor an uncultivated mind. I must incline to scepticism; yet how far I may be impartial, I leave to the discrimination of the public: but from an immediate retrospective view, whilst I am turning over your papers for the last year, I am the more confirmed in my sentiments, finding many descriptive effusions highly poetic, and this last (Gazetteer, December 28) Elegy stands unequalled in any other daily print; but, Sir, there is so much caprice in the human system, that I must doubt these as the product of a day-labourer. Such a signature may be intended as a satire upon the credulity of such as can admit the possibility of a composition of elegant verses, by a man with a strong propensity to reading in a polished city. If this should not eventually be the case, every man of taste and sentiment must conclude with me, that W. H. Reid may claim the precedence of all the unlettered poets existing, and from the elevated taste of the age rise to the consequence his merit deserves. I hope, through the medium of your paper, for a gratification of this enquiry, which will oblige many, as well as your humble servant,

CRITO SCEPTIC.

*** We are happy that Crito Sceptic has noticed the productions of W. Hamilton Reid, as in resolving his doubts, we shall make known to the public this extraordinary man. W. H. Reid has communicated gratuitously to the Gazetteer various pieces of poetry, which, though not highly finished nor correct, had something better than the mere polish of art — they had warm passion and natural imagery. He described himself to us as an untutored writer, and submitted with extreme diffidence his effusions to the public eye. We have lately seen him, and we find that he is what he represents, a day labourer in the lowest circumstances. He has read no poet save Thompson, nor any other poetry except the fugitive productions of the day — and yet with a mind unstored by reading — with no knowledge of even the rudiments of Grammar, and with no corrector but his ear — he has produced stanzas burning with the genuine flame of poetry. Our correspondent Crito Sceptic has not done justice to the talents of this natural poet in the selection he has made. There are many more beautiful passages to be found in his late efforts. For instance, would it be believed that a description of night so truly poetical as the following could come from an undisciplined pen. The reader will find them in the Gazetteer of the 11th of November last.

The moon, emerging from the noiseless deep,
O'er ocean's bosom flings her silver veil;
Still Eccho sits on yonder craggy steep,
And seems the sleep of nature to bewail.

The mystic raven to his lonely bower
In dreary silence wings his secret flight,
Whilst slow and sullen, from its unseen tower,
The distant clock proclaims the noon of night.

No foaming billows lash the passive shore,
Nor urge their fury on th' unyielding rocks;
The rude northwind tempestuous blast no more
Yells through the gloom, and man's resentment mocks.

But all is solemn stillness! not a breath,
Nor aught disturbs, or breaks the vast profound;
Save when the moon-beams, gleaming o'er the heath,
With paly radiance skirt the distant bound.
W. H. R.