Janet Hamilton: Biography (1795-1873)

Janet Hamilton is an exemplary representation of a working class women poet in Scotland during the nineteenth century. Her life as a child and as an older women was not an overly privileged one, as she was always part of a working class family. She writes about a lot of issues that affect the working class and even dedicated one of her volumes of poetry to “her brothers/ The Men of the Working Classes”. Her character, as recalled by her son James in his book Poems, sketches and essays, gives a great impression of Hamilton asa  women and as a poet. She asserts her identity through her poetry and writes wholehearted  Scottish poetry that is a fair representation of working class women of that time.

Hamilton, Janet

(Scottish Poetry Library)

Hamilton was born as Janet Thomson in October 1795,  in the parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire, to a Christian working class family. Her father was initially a shoe maker, and when she was two years old her father moved the family to Hamilton. They lived there until she was about seven years old, and they then moved to Langloan where her parents worked as field laborers. Janet learned to look after herself at a young age because while her parents were working she tended to the house. After her parents stopped working the fields, Janet was taught to work at the tambour frame (embroidery) which was a respectable trade for a women to be employed in. (Murdoch 334)

Janet did not attend school but was taught to read by her mother, Mary Brownlee. In the introduction to her son’s compilation of her works, Alexander Wallace recalls a story that Hamilton had read the contents of the entire library in their little town when she was younger (Hamilton 16). She had a passion for reading and was widely read (including Shakespeare), and her mother made her read from the Bible every day. Evidently, Janet became passionate about literature at a young age.

Janet’s father went back to work as a shoe maker, where he employed a young man named John Hamilton. John and Janet married him in 1809 when she was just thirteen, and they moved to Langloan and had ten children (Hamilton 8). By the time Janet was between seventeen and nineteen years old, she began to compose religious verses. However, her husband would transcribe them for her. (Hamilton 11)

Hamilton eventually became literate and taught all her children how to read and write as well. (Hamilton 11) This demonstrates great dedication as Janet clearly saw the importance of education despite being a working class family, and she worked hard to educate her children and herself. Because of her large family, she did not start writing again until she was fifty-four (1849), and continued to develop as a writer. She published several volumes of poetry, was published in a few periodical, and wrote in both English and Scots. She wrote poems on public events, person deaths, descriptive pieces, or tales and legends (Hamilton 12). She was always aware of the social problems and progress going on in her community and country, as this is the main theme that runs throughout her all her writing. She empathizes with the oppressed and the suffering and addresses the wrongs in the world (Hamilton 12).

She represented Scotland well through her poems, such as her poem called “The Power and Beauty of Scottish Song”, which demonstrates her love for her homeland.

“Wake every chord, strike every string,

Diffuse harmonious raptures round;

Ye foreign songsters warbling breathe

The Sweetest strains of vocal sound.” (Hamilton)

But she was also politically aware and wrote about issues beyond scotland and her own experiences, such as her poem called “Night Scene at the Fall of Sebastopol”

“The toils, the flames, the thunders of the siege

Are the quench’d and hush’d. Night shrouds in funeral pall

The fallen fortress, and her shattered mounds

Each rent and ruined fort, and crumbling wall.” (Hamilton)

Janet was a self-taught poet, and she credits Shakespeare as her teacher for giving her the knowledge of grammar an her love of poetry (Hamilton 16). Her son, James, remembers her as having high morals and distinguished sense of honor, and is also know for being a remarkable singer (Hamilton 17). In his Introductory Paper to the compilation of her works, George Gilfillan says of Hamilton “We have called her a remarkable women; and she is so, because she combines many of the characteristics of a heroine and an author in humble life…” (Hamilton 7)

Are the quench’d and hush’d. Night shrouds in funeral pall

The fallen fortress, and her shattered mounds

Each rent and ruined fort, and crumbling wall.” (Hamilton)

Janet was a self-taught poet, and she credits Shakespeare as her teacher for giving her the knowledge of grammar an her love of poetry (Hamilton 16). Her son, James, remembers her as having high morals and distinguished sense of honor, and is also know for being a remarkable singer (Hamilton 17). In his Introductory Paper to the compilation of her works, George Gilfillan says of Hamilton “We have called her a remarkable women; and she is so, because she combines many of the characteristics of a heroine and an author in humble life…” (Hamilton 7)

Janet was blind for the last 18 years of her life and her son, James, and daughter, Marion, would read to her and take care of her. She died in October ,1873 at seventy eight years old. In the summer of 1880 a memorial Fountain was put up in Langloan in her memory. In her son James’ preface to the book he complied of her works, he says “During all her long years of severe pain and blindness, I never heard her utter a word of complaint or murmuring for herself.” (Hamilton viii). Despite her blindness in the later years of her life, it is evident that Janet did not let it affect her spirit or her love of literature and writing.

640px-JanetHamiltonFountainDetail

Janet’s Memorial, in the park across from her house where she spent her whole life. (Wikimedia Commons)

A quote from Gilfillan about Janet overall as a poet, which I think is a good representation of her:

“Belonging, though she does, to the softer sex, she displays a man-like purpose, a rugged independence of spirit, and a contempt for all “mealy-mouthedness” and gilded humbug, which make her seem almost an incarnation of the better nature of Burns”  – George Gilfillan

Works Cited

Hamilton, Janet. Poems, sketches and essays. Ed. James Hamilton, George Gilfillan, Alexander Wallace. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. 1880. Digital file.

Murdoch, ALexander G. Recent and Living Scottish Poets. Glasgow:Hay Nisbet and Co. 1883. Pages 334-337. Digital File.

Information complied by : M.McParland

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