Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



William Alexander, [note] afterwards Earl of Stirling, was born about the year 1580. He was a younger son of Alexander Alexander, proprietor of the estate of Menstrie in Clackmannanshire. From his infancy he is said to have been distinguished for the quickness of his parts; and, when but a very young man, was selected, on account of his accomplishments, to accompany the then Earl of Argyle on his travels on the continent, as tutor, or rather companion. On his return to Scotland, he lived, for some time, a retired life, and sighed away his time in composing love-sonnets to a mistress, who proved both unkind and obdurate. She was his first love. She had, it appears, excited the tender passion in his breast, when he was as yet but in his fifteenth year, and neither travel nor study had been able to efface the impression of her charms from his heart. He now pressed his suit with all the ardour of manhood, and enthusiasm of poetry; but though he actually penned upwards of a hundred songs and sonnets in her praise, the fair enslaver was not to be moved. It is due, however, to the credit of female sensibility to observe, that from one of the songs which we subjoin, as a pleasing specimen of these lyrical effusions, there appears to have been less of boldness in the lover's observances, than is usually supposed to justify the
capitulation of beauty. It is an old proverb, that “a faint heart never won a fair lady.”

O would to God a way were found,
That by some secret sympathie unknowne,
My faire my fancie's depth might sound,
And know my state as clearly as her owne.
Then blest, most blest, were I,
No doubt beneath the skie
I were the happiest wight:
For if my state they knew,
It ruthlesse rockes would rue,
And mend me if they might.
But as the babe before the wand,
Whose faultlesse part his parents will not trust,
For very feare doth trembling stand,
And quakes to speake, although his cause be just:
So, set before her face,
Though bent to pleade for grace,
I wot not how I faile:
Yet minding to say much,
That string I never touch,
But stand dismaid and pale.
The deepest rivers make least din,
The silent soule doth most abound in care;
Then might my brest be read within,
A thousand volumes would be written there.
Might silence shew my mind,
Sighes tell how I were pin'd,
Or lookes my woes relate:
Then any pregnant wit,
That well remarked it,
Would soon discern my state.
No favour yet my fair affoords,
But looking haughtie, though with humble eyes,
Doth quite confound my staggering words.
And as not spying that thing which she spies,
A mirror makes of me,
Where she herselfe may see:
And what she brings to passe,
I trembling too for feare,
Move neither eye nor care,
As if I were her glasse.
Whilst in this manner I remaine,
Like to the statue of some one that's dead,
Strange tyrants in my bosom raigne,
A field of fancies fights within my head:
Yet if the tongue were true,
We boldly might pursue
That Diamantine hart;
But when that it's restrain'd,
As doom'd to be disdain'd,
My sighes show how I smart.
No wonder then, although I wracke,
By them betray'd in whom I did confide,
Since tongue, heart, eyes, and all gave backe,
She justly may my childishnesse deride.
Yet that which I conceale
May serve for to reveale
My fervencie in love.
My passions were too great
For words t' expresse my state,
As to my paines I prove.
Oft those that do deserve disdaine,
For forging fancies get the best reward;
Where I, who feele what they do faine,
For too much love am had in no regard.
Behold my proofe, we see
The gallant living free,
His fancies doth extend;
Where he that is orecome,
Rein'd with respects stands dumbe,
Still fearing to offend.
My bashfulnesse when she beholds,
Or rather my affection not of bounds,
Although my face, my state unfolds,
And in my hue discovers hidden wounds:
Yet jeasting at my wo,
She doubts if it be so,
As she could not conceive it.
This grieves me most of all,
She triumphs in my fall,
Not seeming to perceive it.
Then since in vaine I plaints impart
To scornfull cares, in a contemned scroule;
And since my toung betrayes my hart,
And cannot tell the anguish of my soule;
Hencefoorth I'll hide my losses,
And not recompt the crosses
That do my joyes orethrow:
At least, to senselesse things,
Mounts, vales, woods, flouds, and springs,
I shall them onely show.
Ah! unaffected lines,
True models of my heart,
The world may see, that in you shines
The power of passion more than art.

The object of Alexander's passion, at last, gave her hand to another; and as the poet himself poetically tells us, “the lady, so unrelenting to him, matched her morning to one in the evening of his age.” Alexander sustained his disappointment with great philosophy; he neither drowned himself nor burnt his sonnets; but, reserving the latter for future use, became again a wooer. In his next attachment, he was more fortunate, and, after a brief courtship, obtained in marriage the hand of Janet, the daughter and heiress of Sir William Erskine.


Shortly after his marriage, he became a frequent attendant at the court of James VI., where his accomplishments, and especially his poetical talents, speedily raised him into a high degree of favour with his sovereign. James loved flattery, and was surrounded by poetical flatterers; but Alexander did not make his court by adding to their number. The themes to which he chose to string his lyre were such as are rarely heard in courts; not the grandeur but the vanity of ambition; not the pleasures of wealth, but the sweets of virtue; not the pride of conquest, but the glory of making nations and individuals happy. It does credit to the good sense of James, that amidst the clouds of incense in which he was constantly enveloped, he could discern any merit in truths so
valuable, yet lowly and unobtruding, as these. His masjesty characterised Alexander well, by calling him his “philosophical poet.”


The first work which he published was a tragedy, called “Darius,” printed at Edinburgh in 1603. It was dedicated in a poetical epistle to the king, and preceded by two complimentary sonnets from two individuals, of whom we now know little, John Murray and Walter Quin: it was also recommended by the following ingenious anagram in indifferent Latin.

Eiusdem in nomem Authoris
Gulielmus Alexander,
J. Largus Melle exunda.
Cum tibi det Genius, Musa, Ingeniumque, Poësis
Floribus è variis Attica mella legas;
i, largus melle exunda, mellit atque funde
Carmina: sic facias nomine Fata jubent.

On the accession of James to the English throne, Alexander followed the court to London, and there, in 1604, he published a quarto volume of poems. It contained,—1. Darius, printed at Edinburgh the year before; 2. Another tragedy, called Crœsus; 3. Some verses, congratulating His Majesty on his arrival in England; 4. The “Aurora,” or “first fancies of his youth,” dedicated to “the Right Honorable and Virtuous Ladye, the Lady Agnes Douglas, Countess of Argyle,” including one hundred and two sonnets, and ten songs, besides several elegies and madrigals; and, 5. A “Perænesis to the Prince,” in which he
gives some excellent instructions for the education a prince; points out the use of history, and shews how the lives of great men are to be read with most advantage. The prince for whom the last piece was designed was Prince Henry,
[note] so celebrated for his early promise of talents, and then heir apparent to the throne; but, in consequence of the death of that interesting youth, in 1612, the work came afterwards to be applied to Prince Charles, [note] (afterwards Charles I.) and in a folio edition of 1637, we accordingly find it dedicated to that Prince.


In 1607, Alexander reprinted the Darius and Crœsus, with the addition of two new tragedies, one called “The Alexandræan Tragedy,” and the other “Julius Cæsar;” the whole forming what have been since called “The Monarchic Tragedies” of the author. In this publication he styles himself “William Alexander, gentleman of the Prince's Privy Chamber, ” which is the first notice we have of his being promoted at court. He dedicated this collection to the king in a poem of thirteen stanzas; and also prefixed a copy of verses by Sir Robert Ayton, which declared that his majesty himself had graced the author's labours with his illustrious name, “so that patron, subject, style, and all, made him the Monarchick Tragedian of the Island.”


On the lamented death of Prince Henry in 1612, Alexander wrote an Elegy on his death, which is not, however, to be found in any of the collections of his works.*

* There is a copy of this Elegy in the University Library of Edinburgh, which is supposed to be the only one extant. A. S.

In 1613, he published a completion to the third part of Sir Philip Sidney's [note] celebrated Arcadia, which may be found in the genuine fourth edition of that work, as well as in the subsequent editions, with the initials W. A.


In July of the same year, Alexander was appointed one of the gentlemen ushers of the presence to Prince Charles. [note]


The occupations of a court did not, however, repress the ardour of his muse. In 1614, he produced a sacred entitled “Doomesday; or, The Great Day of the Lord's Judgment.” It is divided into twelve parts as the author calls them, each hour containing upwards of a hundred stanzas. Prefixed were some complimentary verses by the celebrated Drummond of Hawthornden, which thus conclude:

“Thy phœnix muse still wing'd with wonder flyes
Praise of our brookes, staine to old Pindus' springs,
And who thee follow would, scarce with their eyes
Can reach the sphere where thou most sweetly sings,
Though string'd with starres, heavens, Orpheus' harpe enrolle,
More worthy thine to blaze about the Pole.”

Shortly after the publication of this work, the king appointed him Master of the Requests and conferred upon him the honour of knighthood. From this date we lose sight of Alexander as a poet; but find him very busily engaged in a succession of worldly projects and employments. Although now only in his thirty-fourth year, it does not appear that between that and the end of a pretty long life, he made any addition to
his poetical productions beyond the first book of an intended heroic poem, to he called
“Jonathan,” which he added to an edition of his works printed in 1637.


The object which first drew aside his attention from the muses, was a project for the settlement of a colony in Nova Scotia. He proposed to embark his own fortune in the speculation, and was joined by a number of other adventurers, who were willing, on the same terms, to seek this way to aggrandizement. The king favoured the design, and by royal deed the 21st of September, 1621, gave Sir William a grant of Nova Scotia, to be apportioned at his own discretion, and for his own profit, among his followers, In consequence, however, of the factious broils which began to disturb the latter years of James's reign, the execution of the design stood over till the succeeding reign.


Immediately on the accession of Charles I., Sir William published a pamphlet under the title of “Encouragement to Colonies;” the object of which was to state the progress which had been made in the scheme of colonizing Nova Scotia, to point out the advantages which would accrue from it to the nation, and to invite new adventurers. Charles, [note] who had inherited from his father the most favorable dispositions towards the scheme and its projector, was powerfully confirmed in them by the arguments of this tract. To promote its success, he not only made Sir William his Lieutenant of Nova Scotia, with the power of coining small copper money, but founded an order of knights baronets, of Nova Scotia, which was to be conferred on any number of individuals, not exceeding one hundred and fifty, who would embark with sufficient
means in the settlement of a specified portion of the new colony. The order was besides endowed with many extraordinary privileges; the title was to be hereditary; the knights were to take precedence of all knights, called equites aurati, all lesser barons, called lairds, and all other gentlemen except Sir William Alexander, his Majesty's Lieutenant of Nova Scotia; they were also to have place in all his Majesty's and his successors' armies near the royal standard for its defence, and to enjoy other honorable distinctions of title and precedency for themselves, their wives, and their heirs.


It may at first be thought singular, that such an accumulation of honours and privileges should have been deemed necessary to attract adventurers to an undertaking in itself sufficiently promising; but wonder will cease when it is recollected how cheap, may, almost contemptible, the order of knighthood had been rendered by the disgraceful profusion in which it had been conferred during the preceding reign. “At this time,” says Osborn, [note] in his Traditional Memoryes of the reign of King James, 1658, “the honour of knighthood, which antiquity reserved sacred is the chepest and readiest jewel to present virtue with, was promiscuously laid on any head made addle, that had but a court friend and money to purchase the favour of the meanest, able to bring him into an outward roome when the king, the fountaine of honour, came downe, and was uninterrupted by other businesse. In which care it was then usual for him to grant a commission for the Chamberlaine, or some other lord, to do it. But experience soon informed him that this
airy treasure was inexhaustible, so it might be turned to great profit, seeing the shoales of base and ignorant troutes that gaped after it. By this, rendering the temple of honour a common theatre, into which the basest were suffered to enter for their money.*”—Hence we see that to give value to the title of knights baronets, of Nova Scotia, it was made one of their special privileges, that they should take precedence of all knights called equites aurati, all lesser barons, &c.


Notwithstanding, however, all these extraordinary circumstances of encouragement, the plan did not succeed. It became an object of jealousy with a considerable portion of the public, and was severely attacked through the press by Sir Thomas Urquhart, and other writers. After many unavailing attempts to carry it into effect, Sir William at last gave it up as a hopeless adventure; but he appears subsequently to have received a sum of money for resigning his claims under the grant of Nova Scotia from King James, on that territory being ceded to the French by a treaty between Charles I. and Lewis XIII.


The order of knights baronets, to which this abortive enterprize gave birth, was still kept up, and became afterwards an honorable distinction in Scotland, conferred at the king's pleasure, without any limitation of numbers. In all the patents posterior to the abandonment of the scheme of colonization, the

* Virgil [note] appears to have anticipated the rise of such a tinsel tribe:
“Surget gens aurea.”
A. S.
original considerations, for which the order was instituted, were of course omitted, and the more ordinary style of preamble substituted in their place.


Sir William, himself, found ample compensation for his disappointment, in the undiminished regard which his sovereign continued to evince towards him. In 1626, his majesty appointed him to fill the very important situation of Secretary of State for Scotland; in 1630, he created him a peer of that kingdom, by the title of Viscount Canada, Lord Alexander of Menstrie; and in 1630, advanced him to the title of Earl of Stirling.


On his accession to honours so rare in a poet's history, he was thus happily complimented by a brother poet, Dr. Arthur Johnston, in his Epigrammata.

Confer Alexandros! Macedo victricibus armis
Magnus erat; Scotus carmine: major uter?

The Earl continued in the office of Secretary for the long period of fifteen years. It was a period rendered of peculiar delicacy, by the struggle for pre-eminence, which was then waged with no ordinary bitterness between episcopacy and presbytery; but his lordship is allowed to have acquitted himself with so much ability and discretion, as to be respected if not esteemed by all parties. From a poetical authority we farther learn, that in the discharge of his official duties he was singularly indefatigable, and in all his views of policy actuated by an earnest desire for the improvement and prosperity of his native country. The tribute to these victors occurs in the Parerga of the same poet, whom we have just quoted, Dr. Arthur Johnston.

Sæpe tuos poscit nox intempesta labores,
Et dare te somno publica cura vetat.
Ut Vetus exercet, Nova sic te Scotia curis
Distrahit, ignoto quæ plaga sole tepet.
Hæc tibi servit humus, te dignum, et principe munus;
Teque pharetratus nuncupat Indus herum:
Hanc opibus, populisque novis, hanc instruis armis,
Accipit et leges barbara terra tuas.
Hic delubra Deo surgunt et civibus urbes
Hic mare navigiis, frugibus arva reples.
Hæ tibi sunt artes: urget nova cura priores
Semper, et antiquam sollicitudo recens.

In 1637, Lord Stirling superintended a republication of all his poetical works, the Aurora excepted, and added the specimen of Jonathan, an epic poem, before alluded to, as being the only offspring of his muse, during the latter part of his life. The whole collection was published under the title of “Recreations with the Muses, by William, Earl of Stirling.” Some copies of this edition, supposed to have been presents to particular friends, were embellished with a portrait of the author, engraved by Marshal, [note] in his best style; but so rarely are any of these copies to be met with, that they command no less a price in the market than 50 l.


His lordship survived this publication only three years. He died on the 12th of February, 1640, in his sixtieth year. He left by his lady two sons and two daughters; but the title of Earl of Stirling has since become extinct.


The place which Stirling holds among the elder poets of our country is one of very enviable eminence.
His works, along with those of his contemporary
Drummond, are all that Scotland has to sustain its poetical reputation for nearly a century, which elapsed between the time of Montgomery and Ramsay. After James had transferred his court to England the Scottish tongue had ceased to be court language, the learned of Scotland, too disdainful of the task of writing for the mere people, would compose no more in the language of the people; and for a long and dreary period we had, with the two splendid exceptions of Stirling and Drummond, nothing of poetry to boast of but a mass of indifferent sentiment in still more indifferent Latin. It is true, that neither Stirling nor Drummond wrote in their native tongue, but they wrote in what was so much akin to it, that every Scotsman could read, understand, and appreciate their compositions. The Darius of Stirling, indeed, according to the edition first published at Edinburgh, was more Scottish than English; and it was not till his removal to England that it was stripped of its native dress, and presented in that Anglicised form in which we meet with it in the later editions.


The title by which King James was pleased to distinguish Stirling is as expressive as any one that could he employed, of his quality as a writer. He was a “philosophical poet.” All his works, with the exception of his Aurora, were in fact treatises of philosophy in verse; distinguished by vigour of thought, depth of feeling, and richness of expression, but not very remarkable for their share of fancy or ornament.


His tragedies appear evidently to have been de-
signed only for the closet; they neither present any thing of stage effect, nor any effort to produce it. Sentiment predominates over action too much to allow them to possess much interest; and yet they are far from being without it; that of
Crœsus is affecting. The most regular of the pieces, in respect to the unity of the plot, is Julius Cæsar, but Stirling has fallen into the same error as Shakspeare, [note] of not closing his piece with the death of his hero.


Chalmers, [note] in his Apology for a celebrated error, charges Shakspeare with some “adoptions” from Stirling; but the adoptions seem limited to one passage in the Tempest, rendered memorable by the choice which has been made of it for a motto to Shakspeare's monument; and the merit of first pointing out its resemblance to a parallel passage in Stirling is due to Mr. Steevens. [note] It is to be found in the play of Darius:

Let greatnesse of her glassie scepters vaunt,
Not sceptours, no, but reeds, soon bruised, soon broken:
And let this worldly pomp our wits enchant,
All fades, and scarcely leaves behind a token.

The imitation turns chiefly on the two last lines, where it is evident enough.

And like this insubstantial pageant, faded,
Leave not a wreck behind.

A new edition of Stirling's works was begun to be edited in 1720, by A. Johnston, [note] but never completed. The editor in his preface states, that he had submitted the whole of them to Mr. Addison [note] for his opinion of them, and that, that very competent judge
was pleased to say, he had read them over with the greatest satisfaction, and found reason to be convinced that the beauties of our ancient English poets were too slightly passed over by the modern writers, “who, out of a peculiar singularity, had rather take pains to find fault with, than endeavour to excel, them.”

D. B.