William of Hawthornden Drummond Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Drummond of Hawthornden 1585-1649

Scottish poet, prose writer, and historian.

Drummond, a contemporary of such literary giants as John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, is regarded as one of Scotland's foremost seventeenth-century poets. A Scottish aristocrat, Drummond engaged in the easy life of a gentleman-poet, writing and circulating verses among his friends and publishing his own poetry collections. He was also renowned for building and maintaining a remarkable library of books in various languages. Since many of his verses are loose translations or paraphrases of original English, French, and Italian poems, Drummond has been dismissed by some critics as a derivative artist whose works are unoriginal and conventional. However, Drummond's admirers contend that he possessed a rare talent for translating and recreating the poetry of such artists as Petrarch, Torquato Tasso, and Giambattista Marini into well-crafted and highly original works.

Biographical Information

Drummond was born on December 13, 1585, at Hawthornden, the family estate near Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of John Drummond, Gentleman-Usher to the Scottish King James VI, and Susannah Fowler Drummond. Drummond's mother also had royal connections; her brother, poet William Fowler, was the private secretary to Queen Anne. After receiving his early education at Edinburgh High School, Drummond entered the University of Edinburgh in 1600 to study the humanities. Upon graduating from the university in 1605, he went to France to study law. Though he spent two years studying in Bourges and Paris, Drummond never completed his legal education. Instead, he attended many plays and read extensively from works in Latin, Italian, and French. Over the next eight years, Drummond kept a log of all the books that he read; he also began collecting books, which would become the basis for his extensive library. After the death of his father in 1610, Drummond inherited the Hawthornden estate. Though relatively small, it provided enough income for Drummond to support himself and indulge in the life of a gentleman-poet. In 1613, Drummond published his first poem, Teares on the Death of Meliades, a tribute to King James's heir, Prince Henry, who had died the previous year. In 1615, Drummond's mistress of several years, Mary Cunningham, died unexpectedly. After this event, Drummond eschewed writing uplifting love poetry and turned his attention to spiritual and religious concerns. He also began to demonstrate an interest in social and political issues. Drummond's Forth Feasting. A Panegyricke to the Kings Most Excellent Majestie (1617), written from the point of view of a loyal subject, celebrates King James's return visit to his Scottish homeland. The next year, Drummond personally received another distinguished visitor from England—Ben Jonson. During his famous walk from London to Scotland in 1618, Jonson stayed with Drummond at Hawthornden for several weeks. Drummond recorded his discussions with Jonson, which were later published as Notes of Ben Jonson's Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1842). Five years later, Drummond published his last major poetry collection entitled Flowres of Sion (1623). During this period, Drummond became increasingly more active in politics, advocating his support for the monarchy in such works as The Entertainment of the High and Mighty Monarch Charles into his Auncient City of Edinburgh (1633) and The History of Scotland, from the Year 1423 until the Year 1542 (1655), which was published several years after his death. Drummond's later years were occupied by domestic activities. In 1632, he married Elizabeth Logan; their union yielded nine children. In part to accommodate his growing family, Drummond devoted a significant amount of time to overseeing some extensive renovations of the Hawthornden estate. His final years were marked by increasing disillusionment with the changing state of religion and politics as Britain edged closer to rebellion and the execution of Charles I. During this time, Drummond wrote and circulated several anonymous poems defending the monarchy and condemning civil unrest. He died on December 4, 1649.

Major Works

Many critics have pointed out that Drummond's first poem, Teares on the Death of Meliades, is a good example of both his imitative style and his skill as an embellisher. Scholars note that although the pastoral style and structure of Meliades demonstrates a clear literary debt to Sir Philip Sidney, Drummond was able to recreate his source material in such a way that he fashioned his own unique perspective on such themes as the pain of loss, grieving, and what might have been. While Sidney has been identified as a principal influence on Drummond, literary scholars have also noted his debt to such poets as Petrarch, Tasso, and Marini. From his translations of these poets, Drummond modeled his sonnets, madrigals, and songs that appeared in Poems (1614?), a collection that focuses on the themes of love, beauty, and other common conceits. In 1616, Drummond published a revised and expanded version of Poems entitled Poems: Amorous, Funerall, Divine, Pastorall, in Sonnets, Song, Sextains, Madrigals. Critics have determined that a marked shift occurred in Drummond's poetic style after the death of his mistress Mary Cunningham, an event that is the focus of the sonnet “In Pious Memorie of The right Worthie and Vertuous Evphemia Kyninghame, Who in the Prime of Her Youth Died the 23. of Iulie, 1616” (1617). Indeed, it has been posited that the poem exhibits a striking shift from passion and joy to bereavement and gravity, a shift that was carried over to Drummond's next work, Forth Feasting. The poem, which begins as a happy panegyric welcoming King James back to his homeland, concludes somberly with the realization that the monarch cannot remain in Scotland. Drummond's last major poetry collection, Flowres of Sion, is considered to be the culmination of the artist's poetic maturation. Scholars have suggested that through the various religious motifs in his sonnets, hymns, and madrigals, Drummond undertook an inherently spiritual investigation of the frailty of human life. The collection contains a prose treatise on death entitled Cypresse Grove and an unfinished allegorical poem on the Apocalypse entitled “The Shadow of Ivdgement.”

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Drummond's poetry met with general approbation from a small audience that was generally limited to friends and literary peers. He also earned such prestigious admirers as Sir William Alexander of Menstrie and Michael Drayton. Although it has been debated, some critics believe that John Milton was influenced by Drummond, and claim that Milton's “Nativity Ode” (1629) is imitative of Drummond's poetic style. Conversely, literary scholars have shown evidence that some Scottish contemporaries disdained Drummond's works for being written in English rather than in the Scottish dialect. Modern critics have been divided on Drummond's stature as a poet. Although a number of commentators have dismissed him as imitative and unoriginal, Drummond's supporters have maintained that despite his penchant for borrowing from his sources, Drummond possessed a unique technical acumen that enabled him to deftly recreate his sources into original and transcendent works. This debate has led some modern scholars to undertake a thorough textual analysis of Drummond's manuscripts in an effort to determine how much Drummond borrowed from other writers and how much is his own work. While it is unlikely that Drummond will ever overcome his reputation as an imitative and conventional poet, he has earned at least grudging admiration as a master of translation and verse technique. As French Rowe Fogle has observed: “The appeal of Drummond is not to be explained by mere charm and well-nigh impeccable form. In his best poetry he achieves a purity of diction and an elevation of thought that place him clearly in the first rank of poets of the imitative school.”