However gratifying it may be to obtain some account of an author, whose works have attracted admiration and acquired celebrity, we find it often difficult to extend our enquiries much beyond a certain period of the present century. Before the appearance of those regular periodical publications, which allow no man of merit to "escape the world unnoticed," any information to be obtained is exceedingly scanty. Of this, the object of the present article is a remarkable instance. No poem was ever so popular in the kingdom of Scotland as the Gentle Shepherd; yet of the author we have found it almost impossible to learn those few particulars which, without going into the Boswellian niceties of biography, it would be very agreeable to know.
Allan Ramsay was born about the year 1686. It is generally agreed that he followed the business of a barber in Edinburgh, a situation which in those days may be believed to be of the lowest. His taste in poetry, however, has justly raised him to a degree of fame that may, in some measure, be considered as a recompence for the frowns of fortune. His songs are in considerable esteem; but, in the common collections, being mixed with other productions, it is not easy to ascertain what are really his productions. Mr. Baker attributes to him the Nuptials, a masque, printed in 1723; but his fame rests chiefly upon the pastoral comedy of Patie and Roger, or the Gentle Shepherd.
Of all poets in the Scottish dialect, says a critic, the best and greatest, beyond all comparison, is Allan Ramsay. He appears to have studied Dryden's style with much attention, since his verses flow with the most pleasing volubility. His provincial phrases are few, when compared with those of some of his imitators, and he has selected them with such happy dexterity, that they are almost equally familiar in every part of the kingdom. But this is only a secondary part of his praise. A vein of solid good sense, a nice discrimination, of character, a nervous elegance, and a pathetic simplicity of expression; in a word, the genuine language of nature, of passion, and of poetry, place his pastoral comedy almost beyond our praise. It has been said, that Ramsay did not write this poem; and when that story was no longer tenable, it has been loudly affirmed, that at least a great part of it was written by somebody else, and the whole corrected by gentlemen who were the author's patrons. But all this is little better than conjecture; Ramsay had no patrons; he might have had officious friends, who might indulge their own vanity by altering or supplying a line; but Ramsay died a bankrupt, and it does not therefore appear that he escaped the fate of other geniuses who have been countenanced by patrons without generosity.
What his literary acquirements were, it is difficult to ascertain. He was, however, the first who established a circulating library in Scotland, and having then relinquished his former business, it may be supposed that a genius like his would not he confined to the "mechanical" services of a library keeper.
The time of his death is so variously related, that we find the dates differ so widely as 1758 and 1743; the latter appears to us the most probable. One of his family, Allan Ramsay, esq. his son, the celebrated painter, died a few years ago, on his return from the Continent. He was principal portrait-painter to their majesties. By his death, the polite and literary world sustained an irreparable loss, as few men exceeded him in correctness of taste, brilliancy of wit, or soundness of understanding. His writings bear the stamp of all these excellencies, and his merit as an artist has been long acknowledged.
The following letter was written by the pastoral poet to Mr. John Smibert, a portrait-painter, who left England, with dean Berkely, to settle in Bermudas. It is dated Edinburgh, May 10, 1736.
"My dear old friend,
Your health and happiness are ever ane addition to my satisfaction. God make your life ever easy and pleasant — half a century of years have now row'd o'er my pow, that begins now to be lyart; yet, thanks to my author, I eat, drink, and sleep as sound as I did twenty years syne (ago) yes, I laugh heartily too, and find as many subjects to employ that faculty upon as ever; fools, fops, and knaves grow as rank as formerly, yet here and there are to be found good and worthy men, who are ane honour to humane life. We have small hopes of seeing you again in our old world; then let us be virtuous and hope to meet in heaven. My good auld wife in still my bed fellow; my son Allan has been pursuing your science since he was a dozen years auld — was with Mr. Hyssidg, at London, for some time, about two years ago; has been since at home painting here like a Raphael — sets out for the seat of the beast, beyond the Alps, within a month hence — to be away about two years. I'm sweer (loth) to part with him, but canna stem the current which flows from the advice of his Patrons and his own inclinations — I have three daughters, one of seventeen, one of sixteen, and one of twelve years old, and no rewayled dragle among them, all fine girls. These six or seven years past I have not written a line of poetry. I e'en gave over in good time, before the coolness of fancy, that attends advanced years, should make me risk the reputation I had acquired.
Frae twenty-five to five and forty
My muse was neither sweer nor dorty;
My Pegasus wad break his tether,
E'en at the shagging of a feather.
And throw ideas scour like drift,
Streaking his wings up to the lift;
Then, then my saul was in a low;
That gart my-numbers safely row;
But eild and judgment gin to say,
Let be you sangs, and learn to pray.
I am, sir, your friend and servant,
Few works have undergone publication more frequently than the Gentle Shepherd. It is also very popular on the Scotch stage, but there, as well as on the English stage, where it appeared in 1791, it is almost impossible to collect a set of performers capable of doing justice to the language; and in England it has been found as difficult to collect an audience capable of understanding it when properly spoken. For these reasons the chief pleasure it affords has been in the closet, and that reader has little taste, and less knowledge of poetry, who does not relish its simple beauties.