Smith the Poetby Rae
Smith seems to have dreamed of becoming a poet when he was young.
- Smith referred to a variety of poetical passages occasionally.
- He could repeat them correctly.
The tradition of Smith’s early ambition to be a poet is only preserved in an allusion in Caleb Colton’s “Hypocrisy” below:
Smith’s own confession is in a report of some conversations given in the Bee for 1791.
He was speaking about blank verse which he always disliked.
We know this from an interesting incident mentioned by Boswell.
Boswell attended Smith’s lectures on English literature at Glasgow College in 1759.
He told Johnson 4 years later that Smith had pronounced a strong opinion in these lectures:
- against blank verse and
- in favour of rhyme
Smith’s principle was that the greater the difficulty, the greater the beauty.
- This delighted Johnson.
20 years later, Smith again expressed to the Bee’s anonymous interviewer his unabated contempt for all blank verse except Milton’s. He said:
The critic appears here again to have been the poet who has failed. But in this case, he discovered the failure without tempting the public’s judgment.
He had already begun to discover his true vocation. He delivered his lectures on English literature for three successive winters. He also delivered at least one winter a course on economics. This course was written in 1749 and delivered from 1750-51. In it, Smith advocated the doctrines of commercial liberty on which he was nurtured by Hutcheson, and which he was afterwards to do so much to advance. He states this in a paper read before a learned society in Glasgow in 1755. This paper later fell into the hands of Dugald Stewart. Stewart extracts a passage from it, which I shall quote in a subsequent chapter. They contain a plain statement of the doctrine of natural liberty. Smith says in 1749 that most of the opinions in the paper were “treated of at length in some lectures which= I still have and were written in the hand of a clerk who left six years ago” . “all of them had been the subjects of lectures which I read at Edinburgh the winter before I left it. I can show innumerable witnesses from here and there who will prove them to be mine." These ideas of natural liberty in industrial affairs were actively at work in Smith’s mind and in the minds of others in his immediate circle in Scotland in 1749 and 1750. David Hume and James Oswald were then corresponding about it. Smith probably had not seen anything of Hume personally then. (Hume had been abroad with General St. Clair part of it, and did not live in Edinburgh after his return) Though it was in those and the two previous years that Smith was first brought into real intellectual contact with his friend and townsman, James Oswald.
Oswald was still a young [Pg 37]man, only eight years older than Smith. He had already made his mark in Parliament where he= sat for their native burgh, and had been made a Commissioner of the Navy in 1745. He had made his mark largely by his mastery of economic subjects for which Hume said that he had a “great genius,” and “would go far in that way if he persevered.” He said that after visiting him at Dunnikier for a week in 1744, He later became= commissioner of trade and plantations, Lord of the Treasury, and Vice-Treasurer of Ireland. He would have gone further had it not been for his premature death in 1768 at the age of 52. Lord Shelburne once strongly advised Lord Bute to make him Chancellor of the Exchequer. Smith thought as highly of Oswald as Hume. Oswald’s grandson heard Smith saying that= Smith used to “dilate with a generous and enthusiastic pleasure on Mr. Oswald’s qualifications and merits. Smith candidly avowed at the same time how much information he had received on many points from Oswald’s= enlarged views and profound knowledge." Dugald Stewart saw a paper written by Smith describing Oswald as a man who= had extensive knowledge of economic subjects and, had a special taste and capacity for discussing their more general and philosophical aspects. That paper is the same 1755 document which I have just mentioned where Smith proved his early attachment to the doctrines of economic liberty It naturally shows the circumstances connected with the growth of his opinions. Smith and Oswald must have been in communication on economic questions around that time. Oswald’s views are contained in that correspondence.
Early in 1750, David Hume sent Oswald the manuscript of his well-known essay on the Balance of Trade. It was afterwards published in his Political Essays in 1752. Hume was asking [Pg 38]for his views and criticisms. Oswald replied on October 10 in a long letter, published in the Caldwell Papers,. It shows him to have= been already entirely above the prevailing mercantilist prejudices, and very clear conceptions of economic operations. He declares jealousies between nations of being drained of their produce and money to be quite irrational. It could never happen as long as the people and industry remained. He held that the prohibition against exporting commodities and money had always produced effects directly contrary to it intended. It had reduced cultivation at home instead of increasing it. It really forced the more money out of the country the more produce it prevented from leaving. Oswald’s letter was sent on by Hume, together with his own essay, to Baron Mure. Mure was also interested in such discussions. Thus, the new light was breaking in on inquirers in Scotland and elsewhere. Smith was within its play from his earliest days.
Amid the more serious labours of these literary and economic lectures, it would be an agreeable relaxation to collect and edit the scattered poems, published and unpublished, of Hamilton of Bangour.
Wordsworth called Hamilton the “exquisite ballad” of “The Braes o’ Yarrow,” beginning=
Busk ye, busk ye, my bonny, bonny bride, Busk ye, busk ye, my winsome marrow, Busk ye, busk ye, my bonny, bonny bride, And think no more on the Braes o’ Yarrow.
This ballad appeared in Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany in 1724. It was followed by Hamilton’s most ambitious effort, the poem “Contemplation,” in 1739. But the general public of Scotland only appreciated it after Hamilton espoused the Jacobite cause in 1745. He celebrated the [Pg 39] victory of Prestonpans by his “Ode to the Battle of Gladsmuir”—the name the Jacobites preferred to give the battle. This ode had been set to music by M’Gibbon. It became a great favourite in Jacobite households. It created so much popular interest in Hamilton’s other works that imperfect versions of some of his unpublished poems, and even of those which were already in print, began to appear. Hamilton was himself an outlaw, and could not intervene. The ode which had lifted him into popularity had at the same time driven him into exile. He was then= living with a little group of young Scotch refugees at Rouen. completely shattered in bodily health by his three months’ hiding among the Grampians. His friends advised him to forestall the pirated and imperfect collections of his poems. He thought of publishing them as the most complete and correct edition possible of them in Hamilton’s absence. This edition was issued from the famous Foulis press in Glasgow in 1748. In the preface, they said that they acted “not only without the author’s consent, but without his knowledge.” But it is absurd to call an edition published under those circumstances, as The new Dictionary of National Biography calls it a “surreptitious edition.” It was published by Hamilton’s closest personal friends= to protect his reputation, and perhaps as a plea for his pardon.
David Laing tells us that the task of collecting and editing the poems was entrusted to Adam Smith. Smith was with Hamilton when Hamilton lived in Scotland between 1750 and 1752. Hamilton received the royal pardon in 1750 and left in 1752 from the fatal malady of consumption. It is a more relentless enemy than kings.
He died two years later from it at Lyons.
Sir John Dalrymple, the historian, wrote to Robert Foulis, the printer of “the many happy and flattering hours which Smith had spent with Mr. Hamilton.”
When Hamilton’s friends proposed to print a second edition of the poems, they come to Smith for assistance. This edition was published in 1758. It is dedicated to the memory of William Craufurd, merchant, Glasgow, a friend of Hamilton mentioned in the preface to the first edition. He supplied many of the previously unpublished pieces which it contained. Craufurd was an uncle of Sir John Dalrymple, Sir John asks Foulis to get Smith to write this dedication. In December 1757, he says= “Sir, I have changed my mind about the dedication of Mr. Hamilton’s poems. I would have it stand ’the friend of William Hamilton,’ but I assent to your opinion to have something more to express Mr. Craufurd’s character. I know none so able to do this as my friend Mr. Smith. I earnestly beg that he will write the inscription with all the elegance and all the feelingness which he is able to express. This is a thing that touches me very nearly. Therefore I beg a particular answer as to what he says to it. The many happy and the many flattering hours which he has spent with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Craufurd makes me think that he will account his usual indolence a crime upon this occasion. I beg you will make my excuse for not writing him this night. But then I consider writing to you upon this head to be wryting to him." It is unlikely that Smith would resist an appeal like this.
The dedication bears some internal marks of his authorship.
It describes Mr. Craufurd as:
- the friend of Mr. Hamilton
Hamilton had exact frugality, downright probity and pliancy [Pg 41]of manners so suitable to his profession. Craufurd added= - a love of learning and of all the ingenious arts, - an openness of hand and a generosity of heart that was far both from vanity and from weakness, - a magnanimity that would support a most torturing pain of body with an unalterable cheerfulness of - temper, under the prospect of inevitable death, and - the most manly and vigorous activity of business uninterrupted to his last hour.” This William Craufurd is confounded by Lord Woodhouselee with Robert Crauford. Robert was=
- the author of “The Bush aboon Traquair,” “Tweedside,” and other poems, and
- also an intimate friend of Hamilton of Bangour, but died in 1732.
Another link in the circumstantial evidence corroborating David Laing’s statement is the fact that Smith was then in communication with Hamilton’s personal friends, at whose instance the volume of poems was published. Kames was then interesting himself so actively in Smith’s advancement. He was the closest surviving friend of Hamilton. They had been=
- constant companions in youth,
- leading spirits of that new school of dandies called “the beaux” The beaux were young men of fashion and of letters They adorned Scotch society between the Rebellions They continued to adorn many after-dinner tables in Edinburgh until the present century. Hamilton owns that it was Kames who= first taught him “verse to criticise,” and wrote to him the poem “To H.H. at the Assembly”; Kames for his part used in his old age, as his neighbour Ramsay of Ochtertyre informs us, to have no greater enjoyment than recounting the scenes and doings he and Hamilton had transacted together in those early days. Hamilton writes about it as the time when they “kept friendship’s holy vigil” in the subterranean taverns of old Edinburgh “full many a fathom deep.”