The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. The Successors of Spenser

§ 1. Drummond of Hawthornden

IT will be remembered that John Pietro Pugliano commended the art of horsemanship to Sir Philip Sidney with such warmth that, “If I had not beene a piece of a Logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished my selfe a horse.” In like manner, Sidney’s famous apology for poetry and the English language worked upon his successors so greatly that they one and all wished themselves poets; and a surprising number were poets. Influence cannot be confined to one man or two men, still less to a pamphlet. But there can be no doubt that the pamphlet of Sidney, and the poetry of Sidney and Spenser, gave impetus and direction to the work of succeeding poets. For through all the work of these men, varied as it is in subject and in value, runs the golden thread of sincerity. Each wrote about that which interested him most deeply, and, considering the manifold affectations of speech that were the fashion, wrote with remarkable directness. There was little affectation of language and manner; and no affectation in the actual choice of subject. The personality of each poet makes itself clearly felt in his work. Spenser and Sidney did much to remove the misconceptions which were beginning to throw out their life-killing feelers—that poetry must be kept apart from life, that poetry must borrow dignity for its subject from what was called learning, instead of lending dignity to any subject by its own graciousness, that things could exist which were too sacred or too commonplace to be treated in poetry. “Foole, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart and write,” might have been the “word” of each of these poets. It is the keynote of all their work. Even in adulatory addresses to king James, there is sincerity, because, in those addresses, the personal character of the king (where it was known) was easily lost in the love of the place which he held at the head of the country the writers loved. So they wrote and no subject was considered unfit for poetry. Fulke Greville, lord Brooke, was inspired by statecraft; George Wither by the puritan spirit; Browne and Basse celebrated the joys of country life; Sir John Davies and Drummond of Hawthornden explored the realm of the spirit; Phineas Fletcher took for his subject the whole construction of man; his brother Giles, the Christian faith.

Certain literary forms or conventions were prevalent at the time, especially the sonnet sequence, the pastoral and the allegory, which Sidney and Spenser had taken from French and from Italian models and by their superb use had established in English. But these forms were not dominant. The poets who used them inspired them with life, and in their hands, the forms are as fresh as the love of the country side or of their mistress, or the beliefs in the possibilities of life, which were expressed in them. At no other time, perhaps, was poetry so little an exercise of imitative wit, and so much and so generally an honest expression of personality.

William Drummond of Hawthornden was born on 13 December, 1585. His father, Sir John Drummond, was of a good Scots family. He was educated at the academy and the university of Edinburgh. In comparison with the lives of other poets of his day, his life was unremarkable. The spirit of adventure and exploration was not alien to him, but the world into which he was constrained to adventure was not the material, but, as was beginning to be more generally the case, the spiritual, world, into which he journeyed further than his contemporaries, and from which he brought back richer results of thought. He realised at an early age the scope of his possible kingdom and, unlike his many-sided contemporaries, was steadfast and undistracted in the pursuit of his object. Circumstances doubtless furthered, so far as circumstances may, the metaphysical bent of his disposition. In the year 1610, when William Drummond was twenty-five years of age, his father died, and the only reason for the continuance of his studies in law was, by this event, removed. He returned to Scotland immediately, and lived the remainder of his life in quiet seclusion at the place which lent its gracious peace to his retirement, and which is indissolubly connected with his name.

His life, though not eventful, was not without event, and its records are pleasantly detailed and full. The death of Elizabeth in the year 1603 interrupted his studies at Edinburgh, for Sir John Drummond accompanied James VI of Scotland on his royal progress to ascend the throne of England and, three years later, William Drummond journeyed south to join his father in London on his way to France to study jurisprudence. He had taken his degree at Edinburgh, and his intelligence was alive to absorb in its own way the sights which awaited him in London. The early years of king James’s reign were days of pageant, and they stirred the boy’s imagination. The descriptions which he wrote to his friend of the festivities in honour of the queen’s brother, king Christian of Denmark, read like passages from a medieval romance. These letters, six in number, the first of which is dated 1 June and the last 12 August, are printed in bishop Sage’s folio of Drummond’s works, published in 1711.

Drummond appears to have remained two or three years in France, and, according to bishop Sage, worked diligently. But the list of books which he read during those years, a list which is extant in his own handwriting, is that of a literary epicure, and contains but one work of jurisprudence, namely the Institutes of Justinian. A valuable letter which he wrote to Sir George Keith of Cowburn gives an account of his life abroad, and of the vivid impression which the beauty of certain pictures made upon his mind. “A stately diction, recalling the language of his favourite romances; a love of beauty … a fanciful vein of moralising: these are the marked features of the young student’s letters, and not less of the maturer writings of the poet.”

He returned in 1609 to Scotland, and, in the following year, he again came to London. His father died in London the same year. William Drummond returned at the age of twenty-five to Hawthornden and, as has been said, did not henceforth swerve from his resolution to adventure into the unknown kingdom of thought.

The circumstances of his life brought him into singular touch with the shape of death, and the great mystery of death seems to have inspired his early life with a strange attractiveness. His first published poems were written to commemorate the death of prince Henry, who had died on 6 November, 1612. In 1613, appeared Drummond’s pastoral elegy Tears on the Death of Moeliades, with a sonnet and two epitaphs. The poem was published by Andro Hart, and a second edition was printed in the following year.

Of all the elegances which were the fashion of his day, he makes use, and, though they cannot but seem artificial to a modern ear, they came so naturally to Drummond that they do not for a moment obscure the deep sincerity of the poem. Especially was he pleased at such play on words, as “O hyacinths, for aye your AI keeps still” or “Raise whom they list to thrones, enthron’d dethrone,” and subtle illustrations drawn from the classis. Sir William Alexander, a Scots poet of some distinction, wrote a complimentary sonnet to the poem. He was some seventeen years senior to Drummond, and a friendship, which had lately begun by a chance visit, lasted between the two until Sir William’s death.

In 1616, the Tears on the Death of Moeliades was reprinted, but the chief place in the volume was given to a sequence of sonnets, songs and madrigals in which the poet sings the praises of his lady and mourns her untimely death. For again and most darkly had the shadow of death fallen across his path. Just before his intended marriage with Mary Cunningham in 1615, the lady died. He had sought seclusion when worldly honours lay within his grasp, and the disaster did not send him to the world for distraction: it helped him to become more deeply contemplative. A continued consciousness of the end of things, noticeable in all his works, did not afflict him, but, rather, lifted him gently a little above the quiet world in which he chose to live, and filled his songs and poems with that sad sweetness to which they owe their peculiar charm. The lines which end with “Death since grown sweet, begins to be desir’d,” seem to have a faint foreshadowing of the idea which turned Shelley’s Adonais into a triumph song. There is no bitterness in the moods to which these poems give expression. His large nature was too enamoured of death’s scope and mystery to feel small bitterness. But, for him, the quiet beauty of the country possessed a deeper meaning, of memory and, in some sort, of anticipation.

  • … … and she is gone, O woe!
  • Woods cut again do grow,
  • Bud doth the rose and daisy, winter done,
  • But we, once dead, no more do see the sun.
  • The elegances of his manner, which were so part of him that they never left him, put into abrupt relief the simplicity of such lines as these; and it is this sudden simplicity which shows that, in mind, Drummond was more akin to Sidney, whose very phrases he weaves into his verse, than to any other English poet.

    His next published work was a poem of very different calibre and of small value. Its elegance is unalloyed, and, as an exercise in verse, it is almost perfect. In May, 1617, king James visited Scotland, and Forth Feasting is the felicitous title of the verses which Drummond’s courtly instinct bade him compose to celebrate the king’s visit. The verses are not memorable. But in the following year an incident both memorable and characteristic occurred. Joseph Davis arrived at Hawthornden bearing an introduction from Michael Drayton, for whose work Drummond cared greatly. He wrote to Drayton and, though the two poets never met, they began a correspondence which continued to the year of Michael Drayton’s death in 1631. This was a kind of friendship which would appeal strongly to Drummond and to which his nature responded. Ben Jonson, who, on his northern tour, visited Hawthornden the same year, would have had greater sympathy with Drummond, if Drummond had not been disturbed by the man’s vigorous actual presence. The world of letters, however, is the richer for their meeting, although many of their arguments must have been distasteful to Drummond’s sensitive nature. “He dissuaded me from poetry, for that she beggared him when he might have been a rich lawyer, physician or merchant,” writes Drummond, whose own opinion of riches is beautifully put in The Cypress Grove—“They are like to thorns which, laid on an open hand, are easily blown away and wound the closing and hard-gripping.” The two men were at fundamental odds. Ben Jonson was a great poet almost in spite of himself: Drummond used all the forces at the command of his exquisite nature to become a better poet than he ever could be.

    Flowers of Sion appeared in 1623, and to the poems was appended a prose essay on death, The Cypress Grove, in which Drummond reaches his highest sustained level. The poems are religious in the widest and best meaning of that word. Like Shelley, Drummond, beyond all the narrow limits of dogma, gave voice to the spirit of Christ’s teaching, the ultimate spirit of all religion, namely, that God is love. He saw and sang the truth less clearly, and, therefore, less beautifully, than Shelley, but there is much in them of surprising similarity. In Drummond’s poems, witness especially the Hymn of the Fairest Fair, the idea remained a beautiful theory, whereas Shelley applied the idea to human life and worked it out in amazing detail, helped by his profound knowledge of human nature. Drummond is a link, as it were, between Spenser’s great conception of Beauty, as the informing spirit of life, and Shelley’s greater application of that idea to human affairs. To have reached such a point of view amid the fierce religious quarrels of that day shows the strong independence of Drummond’s mind. But he was inspired by his personal griefs, by his personal difficulties in finding an answer to great problems; he was not at all a reformer; he had no passionate wish to alleviate the sorrow of humanity. Therein lies at once his strength and his limitation.

    He found at length a personal answer; and, having created his faith and won through to a certain tranquillity, he no longer wrote poetry, except as an occasional exercise, or to lament a friend’s death. He lived twenty-six years after the appearance of Flowers of Sion and, from one point of view, his life in that year began. He took interest in the stirring events that followed the death of James I; he wrote a history of Scotland; he married and had many children; he wrote topical prose pamphlets; he travelled; he rebuilt his house.