William Drummond Essay - Critical Essays


In an undated letter to Arthur Johnston, court physician to Charles I and himself a poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden expressed his theory of poetic composition. Conservative in his literary as in his political philosophy, Drummond objected to the innovations of John Donne and his followers: “What is not like the ancients and conforme to those Rules which hath been agreed unto by all tymes, maye (indeed) be some thing like unto poesie, but it is no more Poesie than a Monster is a Man.” Thus, Drummond valued imitation over invention. He would not seek to create new poetic forms or to develop original themes. For Drummond, as for Pope, the aim of poetry was to give fresh expression to old ideas. The result in Drummond’s case is a body of work adapted from classical and Renaissance sources, elegantly phrased and carefully crafted but lacking the emotion and invention that elevate excellent versifying to the level of first-rate poetry.

Teares, on the Death of Moeliades

Drummond’s first published piece, Teares, on the Death of Moeliades, exemplifies the poet’s lifelong habits of composition and reveals his skill as a craftsperson and his techniques of adaptation. According to L. E. Kastner in his 1913 edition of Drummond’s poetry, the model for this elegy is one for Basilius in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590, 1593, 1598). Kastner also points out various specific borrowings from Sidney’s poem. Thus, Sidney writes, “O Hyacinth let AI be on thee still”; Drummond changes this line only slightly: “O Hyacinthes, for ay your AI keepe still” (line 127). Drummond’s lines “Stay Skie thy turning Course, and now become/ A stately Arche, unto the Earth his Tombe” (lines 137-138) echo Sidney’s “And well methinks becomes this vaulty sky/ A stately tomb to cover him deceased.” Other lines are drawn from Astrophel and Stella (1591) and from Sonnet 16 of Aurora (1604) by Sir William Alexander. The poem is full of classical allusions, and the consolation, beginning with line 143, suggests Socrates’ vision of heaven in Plato’s Phaedn (399-390 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675).

Despite all these borrowings, however, the poem is decidedly Drummond’s rather than Sidney’s or Alexander’s. Drummond has transposed Sidney’s lament into iambic pentameter couplets, a verse form which he handles effectively. Aware of the dangers of falling into singsong monotony, Drummond repeatedly alters the position of the caesura; in the first three lines it occurs after the third, sixth, and fourth syllables respectively. He also alters the iamb. The poem begins with a spondee (“O Heavens!”), as do lines 9 and 19; line 23 begins with a trochee. A potentially monotonous emphasis on the rhyme-words is overcome through frequent enjambment: “That (in a Palsey) quakes to finde so soone/ Her Lover set” (lines 33-34); “A Youth more brave, pale Troy with trembling Walles/ Did never see” (lines 61-62).

Another characteristic evident in this poem is Drummond’s musicality. Some of his poetry is clearly intended to be sung, and he was a competent lutanist. Here the refrain—apparently original—repeats the liquid l and r and combines these with the long e and o sounds to infuse an appropriately watery sound (since the poet is addressing water spirits) as well as a gentle melancholy tone: “Moeliades sweet courtly Nymphes deplore,/ From Thuly to Hydapses pearlie Shore.” (Less happily, this refrain reveals Drummond’s fondness for inversion, which occasionally renders a line difficult to decipher.)

Even when he borrows, Drummond frequently improves a verse. He turns Sidney’s “I never drank of Aganippe well;/ Nor never did in shade of Tempe sit” into “Chaste Maides which haunt fair Aganippe Well,/ And you in Tempes sacred Shade who dwell” (lines 97-98). The long u sounds here, coupled with “haunt,” do indeed suggest the “doleful Plaints” that the poet is requesting of the nymphs. Again, Sidney’s line about the hyacinths is not much altered, but Drummond does pun on the “AI” that the hyacinth supposedly spells. The sky is to serve as a tomb for both Basilius and Moeliades, but Drummond enriches his couplet by introducing the Copernican worldview of a turning rather than a stationary heaven. (Drummond’s awareness of the New Science is evident again in A Cypresse Grove.)

Drummond’s love of natural beauty is evident even as he asks for that beauty to be lessened in mourning: “Delicious Meades, whose checkred Plaine foorth brings,/ White, golden, azure Flowers, which once were Kings” (lines 121-122); “Queene of the Fields, whose Blush makes blushe the Morne,/ Sweet Rose” (lines 125-126); “In silver Robe the Moone, the Sunne in Gold” (line 160). The language is lush, suggesting Edmund Spenser and Sidney. At the same time, the description is general; here is no Romantic nature worship, no minute Wordsworthian observation.

The immortality that Drummond anticipates is decidedly Christian, but it is also Neoplatonic. In Teares, on the Death of Moeliades Drummond portrays Heaven as the abode of perfection, where “other sumptuous Towres” excel “our poore Bowres” (lines 171-172), where songs are sweetest, where all is immutable; he describes God as the supreme exemplar of love and beauty, which those on earth can never truly experience. This Platonism, too, recurs throughout Drummond’s poetry.

Teares, on the Death of Moeliades is a tissue of allusions, adaptations, and direct borrowings of phrases and ideas. Still, the poem as a whole is distinctly Drummond’s in its techniques and themes. Hence, when Drummond turned from an elegy to a sonnet sequence, the poetry did not assume very different characteristics. One might be hard pressed to find the author of “The Extasie” in “Death Be Not Proud,” but one would have no difficulty in recognizing the author of Teares, on the Death of Moeliades in Poems, despite their disparate subjects.


Teares, on the Death of Moeliades is as characteristic of Drummond in its themes as in its technique. Drummond’s last published poem, like his first, deals with death. He boasted of being the first to write a sonnet sequence in English on the death of a mistress, and the only prose piece he published during his lifetime is an extended meditation on death. The early seventeenth century was obsessed with this subject; yet even those who wrote most eloquently on the theme published on other subjects as well. Not so Drummond—even his love poems are full of the imagery of graves, grief, and death. Clearly the subject was congenial to him.

Related to Drummond’s love of death is a contempt for this world. This theme, too, is conventional, yet even before Drummond was imitating and adapting poetry, he wrote from France to Sir George Keith (February 12, 1607), “And truly considering all our actions, except those which regard the service and adoration of God Almighty, they are either to be lamented or laughed at.” In his lament for the death of Prince Henry, he presents the moral that he will repeat in numerous poems: “O fading Hopes! O short-while-lasting Joy!/ Of Earth-borne Man, which one Houre can destroy!” (lines 9-10). In his elegy on the death of Jane, countess of Perth, he laments that “fairest Thinges thus soonest have their End” (line 10). Even in The Entertainment, a splendid celebration of temporal power and magnificence, Drummond tells Charles I, “On gorgeous rayments, womanising toyes,/ The workes of wormes, and what a Moth destroyes,/ The Maze of fooles, thou shalt no treasure spend,/ Thy charge to immortality shall tend” (iv,...

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