William Drummond of Hawthornden, poet, pamphleteer and Laird, was born on the 13th of December, 1585.
William Drummond was more frequently called by the name of the place where he lived than by his own name so he appears in history as ‘Drummond of Hawthornden’. Between the era of Drummond and his contemporaries, such as William Alexander of Menstrie, and that of Alan Ramsay in the Enlightenment Century, there was a bit of a hiatus in Scottish poetry and literary culture. In fact, it was more of a crisis as it lasted a century or so, from the Union of the Crowns in 1603, until the beginning of the 18th Century. Drummond of Hawthornden was the last significant figure in 17th Century Scottish poetry and the cause of the prolonged interval was his Grace, James VI, himsel’ a wee bit poet. When James became James VI & I, the Scottish court, including Hawthornden, flitted to London and oor Wullie became one of the first notable Scots poets to write exclusively in English. You can easily excuse him if you believe he had no choice but to write for an English audience; less so if you see him as a sycophantic toady. You might lean towards the latter if you also believe the stories that he died of ‘grief’ at the execution of Charles I in 1649. Drummond revealed his own leanings – he was a fervent Royalist – in his last sonnet, published posthumously, which reflected on his King’s death.
Actually, Drummond was a man of principle, but he was a realist as well as a Royalist. In those troubled times after the ascension of Charles I, it paid not to stick your head too far above the parapet. As he said himself, “Put a bridle on thy tongue; set a guard before thy lips, lest the words of thine own mouth destroy thy peace ...on much speaking cometh repentance, but in silence is safety.” Drummond was involved in speechifying and versifying for Charles’ triumphal procession through Edinburgh during his solitary visit to Scotland in 1633. And as he strongly preferred Episcopacy to the Presbyterianism of the Covenanters, he supported the King’s general policy, but gie him his due, he ‘doth protest’ against Charlie’s enforcers’ methods. Nevertheless, in 1639, Drummond was a reluctant signatory of the National Covenant; for his self-protection. He didn’t lie down quietly, though, and in 1643, he published a political pamphlet subtitled ‘a Defence of a Petition tendered to the Lords of the Council of Scotland by certain Noblemen and Gentlemen’, which was critical of the Covenanters and supported Scottish Royalists who wished to espouse the King’s cause against the English Parliament. Good for him, it was an invective on the intolerance of the then dominant Presbyterian clergy.
Drummond was called ‘the Scottish Petrarch’ after Francesco Petrarca, the 14th Century Italian scholar and poet whose sonnets became a model for lyrical poetry. Hawthornden’s sonnets have been described as “of genuine passion” and “far above most of the contemporary Petrarcan imitations”. Drummond was also influenced by Spenser as in his first poem, from 1613, an elegy on the death of Prince Henry, the heir of James VI. It was called ‘Teares on the Death of Meliades’ by William Drummond of Hawthornedenne. In 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, he published melancholy poems and sonnets, many of which were related to Mary Cunningham of Barns, his fiancé who had died the previous year. His work had no significant Scottish characteristics, rather an English and Italian influence; some poems from the latter of which he translated. Next up, in 1617, was a poem written in heroic couplets to mark the visit of James VI & I to Scotland; it was called ‘Forth Feasting: A Panegyricke to the King's Most Excellent Majestie’. You can see why he was popular at Court.
In 1623, he wrote perhaps his most well known prose, ‘The Cypress Grove’, a philosophic essay on the contemplation of mortality with an “extraordinary command of musical English”. “This globe of the earth,” wrote Drummond, “which seemeth huge to us, in respect of the universe, and compared with that wide pavilion of heaven, is less than little, of no sensible quantity, and but as a point.” Later, he was moved to write a ‘History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses’, chiefly due to his resentment of the assertion that Robert III, husband of Annabella Drummond, was illegitimate. His interest in Scottish history stemmed solely from his investigation of his family’s genealogy and the result, which was published in 1655, after his death, is noted more for its excellent literary style than its historical accuracy.
William Drummond was born at Hawthornden Castle, near Roslin in mid-Lothian, on the 13th of December, 1585. He was educated at the Royal High School and then the ‘Tounis College’ (the recently founded University of Edinburgh) from where he graduated in 1605, before going to France to study law, which he did at Bourges and then Paris. He came back home in 1609, to become Laird of Hawthornden on the death of his father. Finding himself his own master, Drummond abandoned law for the muses, according to his 1711 biographer because “the delicacy of his wit always ran …on the fame and softness of poetry”. The sudden death of his Mary contributed to his isolation and application to the study of European poetry and literature. He amassed a wonderful collection of books, about a third of which he gifted to the ‘Tounis College’ between 1626 and 1636 and which now form the finest of treasures in the library of the University of Edinburgh. The collection spans literature, history, geography, philosophy, theology, science, medicine and law, and contains many first editions from Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Spenser, Drayton and Sir Philip Sidney.
Curiously for a man of letters, Drummond appears as the holder of a patent for the construction of military machines, entitled ‘Litera Magistri Gulielmi Drummond de Fabrica Machinarum Militarium, Anno 1627’. On the 29th of September 1626 he received sixteen patents for, amongst other things, ‘Glasses of Archimedes’, which were ship’s fire bombs, and an early machine gun. It seems to have been a forerunner of the Gatling gun as it had “a number of musket barrels fastened together in such a manner as to allow one man to take the place of a hundred musketeers in battle”. There is no evidence that the man who carefully avoided any part in the Bishop’s War actually produced or manufactured any of those devices. William Drummond of Hawthornden died peacefully, on the 4th of December, 1649, and was buried at Lasswade.