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Significant Scots
William Hamilton


HAMILTON, WILLIAM, of Bangour, a poet of considerable merit, was the second son of James Hamilton, Esq. of Bangour, advocate, and was born at Bangour in 1704. He was descended from the Hamiltons of Little Earnock in Ayrshire; his great-grandfather James Hamilton, (second son of John Hamilton of Little Earnock,) being the founder of the family of Bangour. On the death of his brother (who married Elizabeth Dalrymple) without issue, in 1750, the subject of this memoir succeeded to the estate. Born in elevated circumstances and in polished society, Mr Hamilton received all the accomplishments which a liberal education, with these advantages, could afford; and although exposed, as all young persons of his rank usually are, to the light dissipations of gay life, he resisted every temptation, and in a great measure dedicated his time to the improvement of his mind. The state of his health, which was always delicate, and his natural temperament, leading him to prefer privacy and study to mixing frequently in society, he early acquired a taste for literature, and he soon obtained a thorough and extensive acquaintance with the best authors, ancient and modern. The leaning of his mind was towards poetry, and he early composed many pieces of distinguished merit. Encouraged by the approbation of his friends, as well as conscious of his own powers, he was easily induced to persevere in the cultivation of his poetic powers. Many of his songs breathe the true spirit of Scottish melody, especially his far=famed "Braes of Yarrow."

Thus in calm retirement, and, in the pursuit of knowledge, his life might have passed serenely, undisturbed by the calls of ambition or the toils and alarms of war, had it not been for the ill-judged but chivalrous attempt of an adventurous prince to recover the throne of his ancestors from what was considered the grasp of an usurper. At the commencement of the insurrection of 1745, Mr Hamilton, undeterred by the attainder and exile of his brother-in-law the earl of Carnwath, [The earl married, as his third wife, Margaret, the poet’s sister.] for his share in the rebellion in 1715, took the side which all brave and generous men of a certain class in those days were apt to take; he joined the standard of prince Charles, and celebrated his first success at Prestonpans in the well-known Jacobite ode of "Gladsmuir." After the battle of Culloden, so disastrous to the prince and his followers, he fled to the mountain and the glen; and there for a time, endured much wandering and many hardships. Finally, however, he succeeded, with some others in the same proscribed situation, in escaping into France. But his exile was short. He had many friends and admirers among the adherents of king George, and through their intercession his pardon was speedily procured from government. He accordingly returned home, and resumed possession of his paternal estate. His health, however, at all times weak, by the hardships he had endured, as well as from his anxiety of mind, had now become doubly so, and required the benefit of a warmer climate. He therefore soon afterwards returned to the continent, and for the latter years of his life, took up his residence at Lyons, where a slow consumption carried him off, on the 25th March, 1754, in the fiftieth year of his age. His corpse was brought to Scotland, and interred in the Abbey church of Holyrood.

Mr Hamilton was twice married, into families of distinction, and by his first lady, a daughter of Sir James Hall of Dunglass, baronet, he had issue one son, James, who succeeded him.

Though Mr Hamilton’s works do not place him among the highest class of Scottish poets, he is fully entitled to rank among those of a secondary order. What was much in his favour, certainly not in furtherance of his facility of composition, but as an advantage to his fame, is, that for a whole century previous to the time he began to write, few names of any consequence were known in Scottish poetry. From 1615 till 1715 no poet of any note—except only Drummond and Stirling—had appeared.

From the days of Buchanan, the only other poets we could then boast of, following the example of that leading intellect, had composed in a language utterly opposite to their own, in construction, copiousness, and facility—we mean the Latin: and inferior poets as well as inferior scholars to Hamilton, in compliment to the reigning fashion, continued to use that didactic and difficult language for the expression of their sentiments. Hamilton, therefore, had much to overcome in entering the lists as an original writer in his own language, the elegance, the purity, and the freedom, though perhaps not the force nor the energy, of which he understood so well. He was convinced that the greater part, if not the whole, of those authors who preferred composing in a dead language would be utterly unknown to posterity, except perhaps to a few of the literati and the learned. But at the dawn of the eighteenth century the scholastic spell was at length broken, and Hamilton and Ramsay were among the first who gave utterance to their feelings, the one in English and the other in his native Scottish dialect; and this perhaps, even to the present day constitutes the principal cause of their fame. It may safely be asserted that in the works of Hamilton and Ramsay there is more genuine poetry, than in the works of the whole century of Latin poets who preceded them; though this may be denied by those classic readers, who are still in the habit of poring into the lucubrations of those authors, the greater part of whom have long ceased to be known to the general reader, while the works of Hamilton and Ramsay are still read and admired.

Mr Hamilton’s poems were first published by Foulis, at Glasgow, in 1748, 12mo and afterwards reprinted; but this volume was a pirated publication, and appeared not only without his name, but without his consent, and even without his knowledge; and as might have been expected, it abounded in errors. He was then abroad, and it was thought the appearance of that collection would have produced from him a more perfect edition: but though on his return he corrected many errors, and considerably enlarged some of the poems, he did not live to furnish a new and complete edition. It remained therefore for his friends, after his death, to publish from his original manuscripts the first genuine and correct collection of his works. It appeared in one volume small 8vo, at Edinburgh, in 1760, with a head by Strange, who had been a fellow adventurer with him in the cause of prince Charles.

This volume did not at first attract any particular notice, and his poems were rapidly fading from public remembrance, when an attempt was made by the late professor Richardson of Glasgow, to direct the attention of the public to his merits. In a very able criticism from the pen of that gentleman which appeared in the Lounger, among other observations no less just, the following formed one of his principal remarks: "The poems of Hamilton display regular design, just sentiments, fanciful invention, pleasing sensibility, elegant diction, and smooth versification." Mr Richardson then enters into an analysis of Hamilton’s principal poem of "Contemplation," or "the Triumph of Love." He descants chiefly on the quality of fanciful invention, as being the principal characteristic of poetical composition. He says "that Mr Hamilton’s imagination is employed among beautiful and engaging, rather than among awful and magnificent images, and even when he presents us with dignified objects, he is more grave than lofty, more solemn than sublime."—"It is not asserted," continues Mr Richardson, in illustrating the ‘pleasing sensibility’ he ascribes to Hamilton, "that he displays those vehement tumults and ecstasies of passion that belong to the higher kind of lyric and dramatic composition. He is not shaken with excessive rage, nor melted with overwhelming sorrow; yet when he treats of grave or affecting subjects, he expresses a plaintive and engaging softness. He is never violent and abrupt, and is more tender than pathetic. Perhaps ‘The Braes of Yarrow,’ one of the finest ballads ever written, may put in a claim to superior distinction. But even with this exception, I should think our poet more remarkable for engaging tenderness than for deep and affecting pathos. In like manner, when he expresses the joyful sentiments, or describes scenes and objects of festivity, which he does very often, he displays good humour and easy cheerfulness, rather than the transports of mirth or the brilliancy of wit."

Mr Richardson, in illustration of these characteristics, quotes some passages which convey the most favourable impression of Mr Hamilton’s poetical powers.

Mr M’Kenzie, the ingenious editor of the Lounger, enforced the judgment pronounced by Mr Richardson, in a note, in which he not only fully agrees with him, but even goes farther in Mr Hamilton’s praise. Lord Woodhouselee was also among the first to acknowledge his excellence and vindicate his fame. He thus speaks of Mr Hamilton in his life of lord Kames, "Mr Hamilton’s mind is pictured in his verses. They are the easy and careless effusions of an elegant fancy, and a chastened taste; and the sentiments they convey are the genuine feelings of a tender and susceptible heart, which perpetually owned the dominion of some favourite mistress: but whose passion generally evaporated in song, and made no serious or permanent impression. His poems had an additional charm to his contemporaries, from being commonly addressed to his familiar friends of either sex, by name. There are few minds insensible to the soothing flattery of a poet’s record."

These authorities in Hamilton’s favour are high and powerful, and it might have been expected that, with his own merits, they might have obtained for him a greater share of popularity than has fallen to his lot: but notwithstanding these and other no less favourable testimonies, the attention of the public was never steadily fixed upon his works. And although they have been inserted in Johnson and Chalmers’ edition of the English poets, there has been no demand for a separate edition; nor is Hamilton among those writers, whom we often hear quoted by the learned or the gay.

As a first adventurer in English literature, rejecting altogether the scholastic school of poetry, Mr Hamilton must be allowed to have obtained no ordinary success. In his language he shows nearly all the purity of a native; his diction is various and powerful, and his versification but rarely tainted with provincial errors. He delights indeed in a class of words, which though not rejected by the best English writers, have a certain insipidity which only a refined English ear, perhaps, can perceive; such as beauteous, dubious, duteous, and even melancholious! The same peculiarity may be remarked of most of the early Scottish writers in the English language. In Thomson it is particularly observable. We also sometimes meet in Hamilton with false quantities; but they seem oftener to proceed from making a Procrustian of a poetic license, than from ignorance or inadvertence, as in the following verse:

"Where’er the beauteous heart-compeller moves,
She scatters wide perdition all around:
Blest with celestial form, and crown’d with loves,
No single breast is refractory found."

If he had made the "refractory" precede the "is," so as to have rendered the latter the penultimate in this line, the euphony and the rhythm would have been complete: but in his days, we believe, this word was accented on the first syllable.

Lord Woodhouselee calls Hamilton’s poems the "easy and careless effusions of an elegant fancy, and a chastened taste." This does not quite agree with the "regular design," which Richardson discovers in them; nor indeed with what his lordship himself tells us elsewhere, that "it appears from Hamilton’s letters that he communicated his poems to his friends for their critical remarks, and was easily induced to alter or amend them by their advice. "Contemplation," for instance, he sent to Mr Home (lord Kames), with whom he lived in the closest habits of friendship, who suggested some alterations, which were thus acknowledged in a letter from Hamilton, dated July, 1739: "I have made the corrections on the moral part of ‘Contemplation,’ and in a post I will send it to Will Crawford, who has the rest." Mr Hamilton had evidently too passionate a devotion to the muses, to be careless of his attentions to them. The writing of poetry, indeed, seems to have formed the chief business of his life. Almost the whole of his poems are of an amatory cast; and even in his more serious pieces, a tone of love, like a thread of silver, runs through them. It would seem, however, that to him love, with all its pangs, was only a poet’s dream. Perhaps the following is the best illustration of the caprice and inconstancy of his affection. In a letter to Mr Home, dated September, 1748, in answer to one from that gentleman regarding some remarks on Horace, of the same tenor, it would appear, as those which he afterwards published in his Elements of Criticism, Mr Hamilton after alluding to these remarks thus questions himself: "Why don’t I rest contented with the small, perhaps, but sincere portion of that happiness furnished me by my poetry, and a few friends? Why concern myself to please Jeanie Stewart, or vex myself about that happier man, to whom the lottery of life may have assigned her. Qui fit, Maecenas, qui fit? Whence comes it. Alas! whence indeed?

‘Too long by love, a wandering fire, misled,
My better days in vain delusion fled:
Day after day, year after year, withdrew,
And beauty blest the minutes as they flew;
Those hours consumed in joy, but lost to fame,
With blushes I review, but dare not blame;
A fault which easy pardon might receive,
Did lovers judge, or could the wise forgive:
But now to wisdom’s healing springs I fly,
And drink oblivion of each charmful eye:
To love revolted, quit each pleasing care,
Whate’er was witty, or whate’er was fair.’
I am yours, &c."

The "Jeanie Stewart" above alluded to complained to Mr Home, that she was teased with Mr Hamilton’s continually dangling after her. She was convinced, she said, that his attentions to her had no serious aim, and she hinted an earnest wish to get rid of him. "You are his friend," she added, "tell him he exposes both himself and me to the ridicule of our acquaintance."—"No, madam," said Mr Home, who knew how to appreciate the fervour of Mr Hamilton’s passion, "you shall accomplish his cure yourself, and by the simplest method. Dance with him to-night at the assembly, and show him every mark of your kindness, as if you believed his passion sincere, and had resolved to favour his suit. Take my word for it, you’ll hear no more of him." The lady adopted the counsel, and she had no reason to complain of the success of the experiment, ["Bonnie Jean Stewart of Torsonce," as she was here fully described in ordinary parlance, married the earl of Dundonald, and was mother of the late ingenious earl, so distinguished by his scientific investigations, and by the generally unfortunate tenor of his life.]

In poetry, however, no one could paint a warmer love, or breathe a fiercer flame. In some rather conceited lines, "upon hearing his picture was in a lady’s breast," he chides it for

"Engrossing all that beauteous heaven,
That Chloe, lavish maid, has given;"

And then passionately exclaims, that, if he were the lord of that bosom—

"I’d be a miser too, nor give
An alms to keep a god alive."

A noble burst of fancy and enthusiasm! A most expressive image of the boundless avarice of love.

Of Mr Hamilton’s poems not devoted to love, the most deserving of notice is "The Episode of the Thistle," which appears intended as part of a larger work never completed, called "The Flowers." It is an ingenious attempt, by a well devised fable, to account for the selection of the thistle, as the national emblem of Scotland. The blank verse which he has chosen for this incomplete poem, does not seem to have been altogether adapted to his powers; yet, on reading the piece, we were equally surprised and pleased with the felicity and modulation of its language.

The only poem which Mr Hamilton wrote in his native dialect was the "Braes of Yarrow," which has been almost universally acknowledged to be one of the finest ballads ever written, But Mr Pinkerton, whose opinion of the ancient ballad poetry of Scotland has always had considerable weight, has passed a different judgment on it. "It is," says he, "in very bad taste, and quite unlike the ancient Scottish manner, being even inferior to the poorest of the ballads with this title. His repeated words and lines causing an eternal jingle, his confused narration and affected pathos, throw this piece among the rubbish of poetry." The jingle and affected pathos of which he complains are sometimes indeed sickening.

"Lang maun she weep, lang maun she, maun she weep,
Lang maun she weep with dule and sorrow," &c.
"Then build, then build, ye sisters, sisters sad,
Ye sisters sad, his tomb with sorrow," &c.

On the other hand, the isolated condemnation of Mr Pinkerton must be allowed to have little weight against the interest with which this poem has so signally impressed Mr Wordsworth, as appears from his beautiful poems of "Yarrow Unvisited" and "Yarrow Visited."

There exists in manuscript another fragmentary poem by Mr Hamilton, called the "Maid of Gallowshiels." It is an epic of the heroic-comic kind, intended to celebrate the contest between a piper and a fiddler for the fair Maid of Gallowshiels. Mr Hamilton had evidently designed to extend it to twelve books, but has only completed the first and a portion of the second. Dr Leyden, who owns himself indebted to the friendship of Dr Robert Anderson for his knowledge of this MS., gives the following account of it in his preface to the " Complaynt of Scotland." "In the first (book) the fiddler challenges the piper to a trial of musical skill, and proposes that the maid herself should be the umpire of the contest.

‘Sole in her breast, the favourite he shall reign
Whose hand shall sweetest wake the warbled strain;
And if to me th’ ill-fated piper yield,
As sure I trust, this well-contested field;
High in the sacred dome his pipes I’ll raise,
The trophy of my fame to after days;
That all may know, as they the pipes survey,
The fiddler’s deed, and this the signal day.
All Gallowshiels the darling challenge heard,
Full blank they stood, and for their piper fear’d:
Fearless alone he rose in open view,
And in the midst his sounding bagpipe threw,’

The history of the two heroes is related with various episodes; and the piper deduces his origin from Colin of Gallowshiels, who bore the identical bagpipe at the battle of Harlaw, with which his descendant resolves to maintain the glory of the piper race. The second book, the subject of which is the trial of skill, commences with the following exquisite description of the bagpipe:

‘Now, in his artful hand the bagpipe held,
Elate, the piper wide surveys the field;
O’er all he throws his quick discerning eyes,
And views their hopes and fears alternate rise;
Old Glenderule, in Gallowshiels long fam’d
For works of skill, this perfect wonder fram'd;
His shining steel first lopp’d, with dexterous toil,
From a tall spreading elm the branchy spoil;
The clouded wood, he next divides in twain,
And smoothes them equal to an oval plain;
Six leather folds in still connected rows
To either plank conform’d, the sides compose;
The wimble perforates the base with care,
A destin’d passage opening to the air:
But once inclosed within the narrow space,
The opposing valve forbids the backward race;
Fast to the swelling bag, two reeds combin'd,
Receive the blasts of the melodious wind;
Round from the twining loom, with skill divine,
Embost, the joints in silver circles shine;
In secret prison pent, the accents lie,
Untill his arm the lab’ring artist ply:
Then, duteous, they forsake their dark abode,
Felons no more, and wing a separate road;
These upward through the narrow channel glide,
In ways unseen, a solemn murmuring tide:
Those through the narrow part their journey bend,
Of sweeter sort, and to the earth descend;
O’er the small pipe at equal distance lie,
Eight shining holes, o’er which his fingers fly;
From side to side the aerial spirit bounds,
The flying fingers form the passing sounds,
That, issuing gently through each polish’d door,
Mix with the common air, and charm no more.’

"This poem, however, does not seem ever to have been corrected, and the extracts we have given are from the first rude draft of it. It would be unfair, therefore, to consider it as a test of Mr Hamilton’s powers, though had he lived to complete it, we do not doubt, from the germs of excellence it evinces, but that it would have been a fitter criterion than any other of his works."

Mr Hamilton’s poems, notwithstanding the melody of his numbers and the gayety of his fancy, bear all the marks of studious productions; and the ease which they undoubtedly possess, is the ease resulting from elaboration and art. To this, in a great measure, his circumstantiality of painting is to be attributed.

The measure which Mr Hamilton was most partial to, is the octo-syllabic; and certainly this being the smoothest and most euphonious, it best suited the refinement of his mind. He sometimes, however, attempted the deca-syllabic measure; but here, as in his soaring to a greater height in his subjects, he did not succeed so well. His blank verse, like his conception, is without grandeur—without ease—without dignity: it is surcharged, rugged, and verbose. Of this he was himself aware, for he seldom attempted to clothe his sentiments in the style which was perfected by Milton and Shakspeare.

Mr Hamilton’s amatory poetry abounds with "quaint conceits," and pleasing fancies: for example, in dedicating "Contemplation" to a young lady, speaking of the effects of unsuccessful love, he says,

"Gloomy and dark the prospect round appears;
Doubts spring from doubts, and fears engender fears,
Hope after hope goes out in endless night,
And all is anguish, torture, and affright.
Oh! beauteous friend, a gentler fate be thine;
Still may thy star with mildest influence shine;
May heaven surround thee with peculiar care,
And make thee happy, as it made thee fair."

Again, speaking of mutual affection, he calls it

"A mutual warmth that glows from breast to breast,
Who loving is belov’d, and blessing blest."

Can any thing be finer than the following couplet, with which he concludes an ardent aspiration for her happiness! "Such," he says, "be thy happy lot," is the fond wish of him,

"Whose faithful muse inspir’d the pious prayer,
And wearied heaven to keep thee in its care."

The poem of "Contemplation" itself is full of beauties. Among his odes there is one "to fancy," in which his lively imagination and exquisite delicacy of sentiment, shine out to the greatest advantage. His descriptions of female loveliness are worthy of the subject—they are characterized by sweetness, beauty, and truth. What can surpass this image?

"Her soul, awak’ning every grace,
is all abroad upon her face;
In bloom of youth still to survive,
All charms are there, and all alive."

And in recording in his verses the name and the beauty of another of his mistresses, he says that "his song" will "make her live beyond the grave:"

"Thus Hume shall unborn hearts engage,
Her smile shall warm another age."

But with all this praise of his quieter and more engaging style, we must admit that his poems, even the most perfect, abound in errors. Many of his questions are very strange, nay some of them ludicrous:

"Ah! when we see the bad preferr’d,
Was it eternal justice err’d."

"Or when the good could not prevail,
How could almighty prowess fail?"

"When time shall let his curtain fall,
Must dreary nothing swallow all?"

"Must we the unfinish’d piece deplore,
Ere half the pompous piece be o’er."

What is the meaning of these questions, or have they any?

Mr Hamilton’s correspondence with his friends was varied and extensive, but seldom very important. He wrote for writing’s sake, and his letters, therefore, are just so many little pieces of friendly gossip. Of those poets who were his contemporaries, or who immediately succeeded him, some have taken notice of him in their works. The most distinguished of those is the unfortunate Fergusson, who in his "Hame Content," thus alludes to Hamilton on his death:

"O Bangour! now the hills and dales,
Nae mair gie back thy tender tales;
The birks on Yarrow now deplore,
Thy mournful muse has left the shore;
Near what bright burn, or chrystal spring,
Did you your winsome whistle hing?
The Muse shall there, wi’ wat’ry e’e,
Gie the dank swaird a tear for thee;
And Yarrow’s genius, dowy dame!
Shall there forget her blood-stain’d stream,
On thy sad grave to seek repose,
Wha mourn’d her fate, condol’d her woes."

Mr Hamilton of Bangour is sometimes mistaken for and identified with another poet of the same name, William Hamilton of Gilbertfield in Lanarkshire, a lieutenant in the navy, who was the friend and correspondent of Allan Ramsay, and the modernizer of Blind Harry’s poem of Wallace. The compositions of this gentleman display much beauty, simplicity, and sweetness; but he is neither so well known, nor entitled to be so, as the "Bard of Yarrow."

Mr Hamilton’s private virtues were no less eminent than his poetical abilities. His piety, though fervent, was of that quiet and subdued cast that "does good by stealth, and blushes to find it fame." His manners were accomplished - indeed so much so, as to earn for him the title of "the elegant and amiable William Hamilton of Bangour."


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