Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by William S. MCormick
William Drummond of Hawthornden (15851649)
[William Drummond (15851649) was educated at the High School, and at the recently founded University of Edinburgh. After some years of law study on the Continent, he in 1610 succeeded his father as laird of Hawthornden. There he spent a life of quiet seclusion, in study and in composition, at first mainly poetical. His notes, and the catalogue of his library, show that he was a student of Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, and a diligent reader of the English writers of his time. In 1618 he was visited by Ben Jonson, of whose conversations he took careful notes. In 1623, after a serious illness, Drummond published A Cypress Grove, a philosophical meditation on Death. The popularity of this work is proved by the publication of a second edition in 1630. It was probably the connection of his family with the Stuarts, by the marriage of Robert III. with Annabella Drummond, that impelled him to take up the History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses. The troubles which preceded the Civil War drew from him a number of contributions, advocating a mediating policy from the royalist side. The best of these are Irene, or a Remonstrance for Concord, Amity, and Love (1638), and [Greek] (1643); but they were not allowed more than a MS. circulation. In spite of his reputation as a malignant, Drummond did not suffer seriously at the hands of the later Presbyterian tyranny. The defeat of his friend Montrose at Philiphaugh (1645) crushed his last hope of a settled government, and his remaining years were clouded by despondency and failing health. He died in December 1649.
A Cypress Grove is Drummonds only prose work that was published in his lifetime. The History of the Jameses was printed in 1655, with several Memorials of State, and a few letters; his royalist tracts were first included in the collected edition of 1711. Extracts from Drummonds unpublished manuscripts were printed by Laing in the Archæologia Scotica, iv. 57110, 224270.]
A Cypress Grove is a remarkable, and in some respects unique, example of sonorous poetic prose. Detached passages of similar eloquence are to be found in the prose of Drummonds contemporaries and immediate successors; none of them has maintained the same height of imaginative contemplation throughout a piece of equal length. A Cypress Grove is the first original work in which an English writer has deliberately set himself to make prose do service for poetry. It is a dignified Meditation upon Death, tinged with melancholy; and the whole has unity of tone and conception. Opening with a picture of his fears as in the quiet solitariness of the night he thinks on the last of human terrors, the author reflects upon the necessity and universality of death; upon the vexations, disasters, indignities, and meanness of lifewhere beauty, greatness, knowledge, are but vanity, on so small a round as is this earth, and bounded with so short a course of time; where to die young is to leave the feast before satiety; where fame is defeated by oblivion. Then, from these purely mundane views, he breaks into a train of idealistic thoughts which are put into the form of an apostrophe to his soul. Having at last fallen asleep, he sees in a dream the vision of a lost friend who reveals to him the meaning of death and the joys of eternity. A Cypress Grove is, therefore, not a series of dispersed meditations, as Bacon defines his Essay; nor is its argument intended as a chain of connected reasoning. The meditation is imaginatively conceived; it is presented as the expression of an individual mood, rising to a natural climax, and placed in an artistic setting.
This essential character of the work has been neglected by some of its critics. It has been objected that its argument is one-sided; that the author has not given a more wholesome and bracing view of life as the scene of joyous and passionate endeavour. This is no doubt true; yet the objection is beside the mark. For it applies an alien standard to what is not an essay, but a reverie. It blames what is practically a poem on resignation to death for not depicting the joys of life. One might as reasonably complain that Milton had not mingled the moods of LAllegro and Il Penseroso. The critic is not called upon to refute poetical reflections by formal logic. His true criterion is congruity. And it is part of the success of A Cypress Grove that no dissonant note mars its pensive melancholy.
The most characteristic qualities of Drummonds style are wealth of imagery, variety of sentence-structure, and rhythmic flow. His metaphors are apt and pregnant; he uses similes less frequently than the writers of his age, and seldom draws them out beyond a line. The antithesis of some of the apophthegms which break the continuity of his periods is not over-strained. Two cases of word-play occur, but they are venial. The composition, though carefully elaborated, is seldom laboured or overcharged with ornament; and his ear is rarely, if ever, betrayed into a preference of sound to sense. The even pitch of subdued eloquence at which the style is maintained would prove monotonous but for the ever-changing and contrasting formation of the sentences. This skilful variation of construction, by diversifying the length and cadence of the clauses, gives to the pages of A Cypress Grove the peculiar charm of richly modulated music.
Drummonds idealistic bent is seen in the recurrence of certain ideasat times of phrases and allusions. The pettiness of earthly life is a constant refrain. The earth is a mote of dust encircled by a pond; another time, an anthill, and men as many pismires and grasshoppers. Again, This globe of the earth, 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. He returns more than once to the image of the Ptolemaic cosmos for his conception of the All.
On a theme so common among the Elizabethan writers, it is not strange that Drummonds treatment should occasionally echo theirs. In the Platonic apostrophe to his soul one is reminded of Spensers Hymn to Beauty, and his stanzas on Mutability. Passages here and there seem to be paraphrases or expansions of the monologues of Hamlet and of Prospero. There is even at times a similarity of phrase, as in The goodly fabric of this world, This fair and admirable frame, The rank weeds in this garden of the world, and in the recurring comparisons of the world to a stage, of life to a dream, and of death to sleep. Drummond was, as his library shows, a diligent reader of the English literature of his time; yet these parallels may be accidental. But the exact reproduction of some of Bacons phrases in his Essay on Death proves that this at least had been closely studied. In the followingSo do little children fear to go in the dark, and their fear is increased with tales; Death nor painful is, nor evil, except in contemplation of the causethe parts italicised are transcripts of the words in Bacons two opening sentences. When Drummond speaks of death as being of itself as indifferent as birth, and of the marble colours of obsequies, weeping and funeral pomp, adding much more ghastliness unto it than otherwise it hath, he paraphrases Bacon more loosely. But Bacons sentence (in the 1612 edition), There is no passion in the mind of man so weak, but masters the fear of death, is copied as literally as Drummonds context will allow. It must not be supposed, however, that these coincidences detract from the originality of A Cypress Grove. The contrast between Drummonds and Bacons works has been already emphasised.
Mr. Massons comparison of A Cypress Grove with Hydriotaphia has been repeated by later critics. Beyond the similarity of subject there is little or nothing upon which to base it. No resemblance is traceable between the learning and wit of Sir Thomas Brownes reflections on ancient burial rites, and the poetic melancholy of Drummond. Had Browne read A Cypress Grove he might have applied to the author words from his Urn-Burial: Many are too early old; Pious spirits who pass their days in raptures of futurity, make little more of this world than the world that was before it. The idealistic creed common to both writers affords some parallels of thought among the concluding pages of the Religio Medici. But the healthy zest in life of the busy physician is a contrast to the relaxing introspection of the recluse of Hawthornden; and their styles, where it is possible to compare them, reflect the difference between their characters.
A Cypress Grove was written under the inspiration of affliction and depression, when, as we learn from a letter to Sir William Alexander, The loss of friends had estranged him from himself, and after he had
Twice been at the doors of death,
And twice found shut those gates which ever mourn.
It was published with his Flowers of Zion, its counterpart in verse. We have no previous prose of his except some notes and letters, and his later writings are disappointing. The History of the Five Jameses, much the longest of his works, is a dull and commonplace chronicle, of no historical and small literary value. His Irene and [Greek] contain some trenchant pages; but, with the rest of his tracts, their main interest consists in their revelation of Drummonds attitude during the political and ecclesiastical troubles through which he lived. He longed, like the saner spirits of his time, for tolerance and peace; and, though a royalist, he did not scruple on occasion to criticise the policy of Charles.
Though Drummonds life, except for a few short intervals, was spent in Scotland, his work belongs properly to English literature. The pure Scots dialect had in his time almost fallen out of literary use. Even Knoxs prose is anglicised, and the Union of the Crowns had completed what the Reformation had begun. Drummonds friend, Sir William Alexander, with the other Scottish poets who had followed James to his English court, had taken English models for their verses. But Drummond may be regarded as the earliest prose writer in Scotland who uses English as a mother-tongue; for James, even in his later work, occasionally falls back on a northern word or idiom. As in his sonnets he attaches himself to the school of Spenser, so his prose has its place alongside that of Sidney, Raleigh, and Bacon. He was the one star in the [Greek] Scotorum of his age: a late survival of the Scottish renaissance which had already disappeared before the reforming zeal of presbyteries.