William Hamilton, a scholar and a gentleman, was one of our first lyric poets who sought to communicate a classic grace and courtly decorum to Scottish song. Not that equal grace and as finished courtliness had not been exhibited before, but they were beauties rather of accident than design; rather the natural or vagrant flowers of the soil than the production of settled thought and deliberate judgment. But the continual wish to be polished and polite interferes with passionate thought and the onward flow of emotion; and we have felt, in the sparkling lines of Hamilton, the absence of a ruder, but more expressive poetry, which made its way to the heart without much assistance from the head.
Prudence will always speak in character; she will be wise — she may be witty — she will utter nothing which is not pure and perhaps instructive: but passion is beyond all petty restraints; she will speak with vigour and with warmth; and as she speaks with the tongue of nature, her words will be happy, and her thoughts akin to inspiration. With the former of these dames, the Muse of Hamilton is content to dwell: she is ever graceful and ever neat; always wearing the dress which the reigning fashion has established; and all that she sings has been measured out with caution, and examined with a fastidious delicacy. The heart of the poet was more susceptible than ardent; he seemed, indeed, to be poetically under the influence of beauty, and continually suffering from the caprice or the scorn of some reigning despot, whose charms were equal to the destruction of a whole dynasty of pastoral bards. But he pleased himself, perhaps, with the lovely fictions of his own fancy, and never carried his homage farther than the harmless speculations of elegant verse.
He has, indeed, been charged with complaining of cruelty which he never felt, and of the influence of loveliness, for which he had no regard. If he obtained inspiration from beauty on such moderate terms, he is one of the luckiest of all lyrists: he would have been unwise had he scorched himself, when he only wished for heat; and he might have been charged with folly had he purchased the tree for the sake of the apple. If he formed an idol from the resources of his own fancy, and clothed it in beauty, and endowed it with all the graces that could captivate and enslave, and then fell down and worshipped it, he only did what poetic genius has ever done, when, like the touched imagination of Don Quixote, it creates a goddess out of a very ordinary mortal.
Amid all the elegance and happy flow and delicate turn of language which distinguish his songs, he fails to make the impression which far less polished works make: he has little from nature; most from art: there are no unstudied turns of thought — no unsought happinesses of expression. His flow is not the spontaneous motion of the stream; and polish is communicated to his verse, like brightness to a key, by repeated handling. Yet though far from the native truth of Crawford, and wanting the clear original images and vivid portraiture of life and manners which distinguish Ramsay, he excels them both in the exquisite richness of his flattery, the delicacy of his compliments, and the neatness of his praise. He has far more chivalry than any of our earlier poets, but it is a fire which rather smoulders than burns; and the submission and courtesy, with which he makes his approaches to woman, proceed less from a natural consciousness of her beauty, or a reverence for her person, than from a sense of etiquette, and a conformity to polished manners. And this may perhaps explain the charge which has been made against him of being insensible in his heart to woman's beauty, even while her praise was on his lips. The language of courtesy was mistaken for that of love; and when an open declaration of true passion, in plain prose, was expected, the lady was petrified by verse — she snatched at a husband, and filled her arms with bays.
This awe and submission in the presence of woman, so beautiful and holy when mingled with sincere tenderness and honest passion, is cold and courtly when it only personates politeness and education. Our older ballads and songs make the charms and the chastity of the fair too subservient to the interest of the story, and are full of unwedded mothers and dames of dubious fame, who wander in the greenwood and cheer nocturnal lovers under the light of the moon. Of this easy system of morality Hamilton has retained no traces; but neither has he retained much of the peculiar character of Scottish song. It was the fashion of his day to choose out a mistress, real or imaginary, and to pursue her through vale and over hill with the wail and supplication of pastoral verse. This visionary sort of love led often to something purer perhaps, but far less natural, than the love of flesh and blood: we cannot help looking at the shape on which the poet has conferred so many attractions, as we would gaze on an allegory; and we contemplate her rather as the beau ideal of pastoral sensibility or affectation than as the living hope and joy of man's heart.