The personal history of Allan Ramsay is marked by few circumstances of striking interest; yet, independently of his poetry, he cannot be reckoned an insignificant individual who gave Scotland her first circulating library, and who established her first regular theatre. He was born in the parish of Crawford Moor, in Lanarkshire, where his father had the charge of Lord Hopeton's lead-mines. His mother, Alice Bower, was the daughter of an Englishman who had emigrated to that place from Derbyshire. By his paternal descent the poet boasts of having sprung from "a Douglas loin;" but, owing to the early death of his father, his education was confined to a parish school, and at the age of fifteen he was bound apprentice to the humble business of a wig-maker. On this subject one of his Scottish biographers refutes, with some indignation, a report which had gone abroad, that our poet was bred a barber, and carefully instructs the reader, that in those good times, when a fashionable wig cost twenty guineas, the employment of manufacturing them was both lucrative and creditable. Ramsay, however, seems to have felt no ambition either for the honours or profits of the vocation, as he left in on finishing his apprenticeship. In his twenty-fourth year he married the daughter of a writer, or attorney, in Edinburgh. His eldest son rose to well-known eminence as a painter. Our poet's first means of subsistence after his marriage, were to publish small poetical productions in a cheap form, which became so popular, that even in this humble sale he was obliged to call upon the magistrates to protect his literary property from the piracy of the hawkers. He afterward set up as a bookseller, and published, at his own shop, a new edition of Christ's Kirk on the Green, with two cantos of his own subjoined to the ancient original, which is ascribed to James I. of Scotland. A passage in one of those modern cantos of Ramsay's describing a husband fascinated homewards from a scene of drunkenness by the gentle persuasions of his wife, has been tastefully selected by Wilkie, and been made the subject of his admirable pencil.
In 1724 he published a collection of popular Scottish songs, called the Tea-Table Miscellany, which speedily ran through twelve impressions. Ruddiman assisted him in the glossary, and Hamilton of Bangour, Crawford, and Mallet were among the contributors to his modern songs. In the same year appeared his Evergreen, a collection of pieces from the Bannetyne MSS. written before the year 1600. Here the vanity of adorning what it was his duty to have faithfully transcribed led him to take many liberties with the originals; and it is pretty clear that one poem, viz. the Vision, which he pretended to have found in ancient manuscript, was the fruit of his own brain. But the Vision, considered as his own, adds a plume to his poetical character which may overshade his defects as an editor.
In 1726 he published his Gentle Shepherd. The first rudiments of that pleasing drama had been given to the public in two pastoral dialogues, which were so much liked that his friends exhorted him to extend them into a regular play. The reception of this piece soon extended his reputation beyond Scotland. His works were reprinted at Dublin, and became popular in the colonies. Pope was known to admire The Gentle Shepherd; and Gay, when he was in Scotland, sought for explanations of its phrases, that he might communicate them to his friend at Twickenham. Ramsay's shop was a great resort of the congenial fabulist while he remained in Edinburgh; and from its windows, which overlooked the Exchange, the Scottish poet used to point out to Gay the most remarkable characters of the place.
A second volume of his poems appeared in 1728; and in 1730 he published a collection of fables. His epistles in the former volume are generally indifferent; but there is one addressed to the poet Somervile, which contains some easy lines. Professing to write from nature more than art, he compares, with some beauty, the rude style which he loved and practiced, to a neglected orchard.
I love the garden wild and wide,
Where oaks have plum-trees by their side,
Where woodbines and the twisting vine
Clip round the pear-tree and the pine;
Where mixt jonquils and gowans grow,
And roses midst rank clover blow,
Upon a bank of a clear strand,
Its wimplings led by nature's hand;
Though docks and brambles here and there,
May sometimes cheat the gard'ner's care,
Yet his to me's a Paradise,
Compared to prime cut plots and nice,
Where nature has to art resign'd,
And all looks stiff, mean, and confined.
Of original poets he says, in one expressive couplet:
The native bards first plunged the deep,
Before the artful dared to leap.
About the age of forty-five he ceased to write for the public. The most remarkable circumstance of his life was an attempt to which he made to establish a theatre at Edinburgh. Our poet had been always fond of the drama, and had occasionally supplied prologues to the players who visited the northern capital. But though the age of fanaticism was wearing away, it had not yet suffered the drama to have a settled place of exhibition in Scotland; and when Ramsay had, with great expense, in the year 1736, fitted up a theatre in Carubber's Close, the act for licensing the stage, which was passed in the following year, gave the magistrates of Edinburgh a power of shutting it up, which they exerted with gloomy severity. Such was the popular hatred of playhouses in Scotland at this period, that, some time afterward, the mob of Glasgow demolished the first playhouse that was erected in their city; and though the work of destruction was accomplished in daylight by many hundreds, it was reckoned so godly, that no reward could bribe any witness to appear and inform against the rioters. Ten years from the date of this disappointment, Ramsay had the satisfaction of seeing dramatic entertainments freely enjoyed by his fellow citizens; but in the mean time he was not only left without legal relief for his own loss in the speculation (having suffered what the Scotch law denominated a "damnum sine injuria,") but he was assailed with libels on his moral character, for having endeavoured to introduce the "hell-bred playhouse comedians."
He spent some of the last years of his life in a house of whimsical construction, on the north side of Castle-hill of Edinburgh, where the place of his residence is still distinguished by the name of Ramsay garden.
A scurvy in his gums put a period to his life in his seventy-second year. He died at Edinburgh, and was interred in Grey Friar's church-yard. Ramsay was small in stature, with dark but expressive and pleasant features. He seems to have possessed the constitutional philosophy of good-humour. His genius gave him access to the society of those who were most distinguished for rank and talents in his native country; but his intercourse with them was marked by no servility, and never seduced him from the quiet attention to trade by which he ultimately secured a moderate independence. His vanity in speaking of himself is often excessive, but it is always gay and good-natured. On one occasion he modestly takes precedence of Peter the Great, in estimating their comparative importance with the public. — "But ha'd, proud Czar (he says) I wad no niffer fame." Much of his poetry breathes the subdued aspirations of Jacobitism. He was one of those Scotsmen who for a long time would not extend their patriotism to the empire in which their country was merged, and who hated the cause of the Whigs in Scotland, from remembering its ancient connection with the leaven of fanaticism. The Tory cause had also found its way to their enthusiasm by being associated with the pathos and romance of the lost independence of their country. The business of Darien was still "alta mente repostum." Fletcher's eloquence on the subject of the Union was not forgotten, nor that of Belhaven, who had apostrophied the Genius of Caledonia in the last meeting of her senate, and who died of grief at the supposed degradation of his country. Visionary as the idea of Scotland's independence as a kingdom might be, we must most of all excuse it in a poet whose fancy was expressed, and whose reputation was bound up, in a dialect from which the Union took away the last chance of perpetuity.
Our poet's miscellaneous pieces, though some of them are very ingenious, are upon the whole of a much coarser grain than his pastoral drama. The admirers of the Gentle Shepherd must perhaps be contented to share some suspicion of national partiality, while they do justice to their own feeling of its merit. Yet as this drama is a picture of rustic Scotland, it would perhaps be saying little for its fidelity, if it yielded no more agreeableness to the breast of a native than he could expound to a stranger by the strict letter of criticism. We should think the painter had finished the likeness of a mother very indifferently, if it did it bring home to her children traits of indefinable expression which had escaped every eye but that of familiar affection. Ramsay had not the force of Burns; but neither, in just proportion to his merits, is he likely to be felt by an English reader. The fire of Burns' with and passion glows through an obscure dialect by its confinement to short and concentrated bursts. The interest which Ramsay excites is spread over a long poem, delineating manners more than passions; and the mind must be at home both in the language and manners, to appreciate the skill and comic archness with which he has heightened the display of rustic character without giving it vulgarity, and refined the view of peasant life by departing in the least degree from its simplicity. The Gentle Shepherd stands quite apart from the general pastoral poetry of modern Europe. It has no satyrs, nor featureless simpletons, nor drowsy and still landscapes of nature, but distinct characters and amusing incidents. The principal shepherd never speaks out of consistency with the habits of a peasant; but he moves in that sphere with such a manly spirit, with so much cheerful sensibility to its humble joys, with maxims of life so rational and independent, and with an ascendancy over his fellow swains so well maintained by his force of character, that if we could suppose the pacific scenes of the drama to be suddenly changed into situations of trouble and danger, we should, in exact consistency with our former idea of him, expect him to become the leader of the peasants, and the Tell of his native hamlet. Nor is the character of his mistress less beautifully conceived. She is represented, like himself, as elevated, by a fortunate discovery, from obscure to opulent life, yet as equally capable of being the ornament of either. A Richardson or a D'Arblay, had they continued her history, might have heightened the portrait, but they would not have altered its outline. Like the poetry of Tasso and Ariosto, that of the Gentle Shepherd is engraven on the memory of its native country. Its verses have passed into proverbs; and it continues to be the delight and solace of the peasantry whom it describes.