Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
William Alexander, Earl of Stirling (1567?1640)
[Born of a family which had for some time owned Menstrie in Clackmannan. In early life he travelled, and on his return, or during his absence, wrote Aurora, First Fancies of the Authors Youth, a small volume of sonnets and songs to a real or imaginary lady called Aurora. He became a courtier in 1603, and followed James to London. In 1603 he published at Edinburgh The Tragedie of Darius; in 1604 he reprinted it, adding The Tragedie of Crsus and The Parænesis to Prince Henry; in 1607 he reprinted the two tragedies and added The Alexandrean Tragedy and Julius Cæsar, under the joint title of Four Monarchicke Tragedies. He helped King James in his version of the Psalms. Knighted in 1621, and made Secretary of State for Scotland in 1626, he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Canada in 1630, and created Earl of Stirling 1633. He printed a folio edition of his tragedies and of the religious poem of Domesday in 1637.]
MR. MASSON in his life of Drummond pronounces a severe judgment over the grave of Drummonds friend, Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling. There he lies, I suppose, to this day, vaguely remembered as the second-rate Scottish sycophant of an inglorious despotism, and the author of a large quantity of fluent and stately English verse which no one reads. He certainly played no very glorious part in the attempts of James and Charles to impose episcopacy on Scotland; unconscious all the while that he was one of those who were preparing the way for a Monarchicke Tragedie as terrible as any of the four that he had put into verse. That the bulk of his poetry deserves that neglect which, as Mr. Masson truly says, has befallen it, is not likely to be disputed by those who have tried to read it. The precocious solemnity of his tragedies, all written before his thirtieth year, is too much for the modern reader, however successfully it may have commended the poet to the literary confidences of his pedantic master. With all the sonorousness and wave-like beat of their stanzas, they are mere rhetoric; they miss the genuine philosophic note of the somewhat similar plays of Alexanders older contemporary, the Mustapha and Alaham of Lord Brooke. Still, Lord Stirling was an interesting man both in his life and in his writings, and he deserves to be not quite excluded from a collection of English poems. His time admired his work; his books sold; Habington, Daniel, Drayton, and many other poets praised him; above all, he was the close friend of Drummondthe Alexis to the Damon of Hawthornden. His century of sonnets lack indeed the reality and the music of the best of Drummonds, and his Aurora is a vague and shadowy goddess. But the two sonnets that we quote will show that Drayton had reason for calling him that most ingenious knight; and the ode that follows, though defaced by one or two blemishes, deals with the commonplaces of the tragic chorus in a way that is not altogether commonplace.