No Scottish poet, probably, has been subjected at once to praise so much beyond his merits and to detraction so grossly unjust to his deserts, as Allan Ramsay. While by some it has been averred that he was merely a time-serving manufacturer of verse, who wrote what would sell, by others he has been extolled as not only the first but is one of the greatest of the singers of a new era. Burns himself spoke of Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd as the "most glorious poem ever written." Neither the eulogy nor the disparagement perhaps has been exactly just; but if indeed, as has been said of him, he appears to some to have been less a poet born than one made by circumstances, it must also at least be said that by what he did for the muse of his country he merits a place in Scottish poetic history little behind that of the greatest makars, Barbour, Henryson, Dunbar, Lyndsay, and Burns.
Fourth in direct descent from a laird of Cockpen who was brother to Ramsay of Dalhousie, the poet was born at Leadhills, in the uplands of Lanarkshire on October 15, 1686. His father was manager of Lord Hopetoun's lead mines on Crawford Muir, and his mother, Alice Bower, was the daughter of an Englishman who had been brought thither from Derbyshire to introduce improved methods of mining. While Ramsay was still an infant his father died, and his mother married again. In the house of his stepfather, a small laird of the neighbourhood, of the name of Crichton, the poet grew up till the age of fifteen, about which time he lost his mother. Apparently the best was done for him that his stepfather could do when he was apprenticed to what was then the thriving trade of wig-making in Edinburgh. At this business Ramsay must have thrived, for in 1712 he married the daughter of an Edinburgh writer, Christian Ross by name, by whom he became the father of a numerous family. About the same time he became a member of one of the literary and political coteries which were then the vogue in Edinburgh. To the members of this society — a set of young gallants of suspected Jacobite leanings — the poet composed a humorous address, and they in turn dubbed him a gentleman and a good fellow. The Easy Club, as it was called, was suppressed, with other Jacobite societies, after the outbreak of the Rebellion in 1715.
Ramsay's connection with this club secured him a more or less sympathetic audience for his poetical compositions, and to that connection he owed his acquaintance with the valuable but then unknown repository of ancient Scottish poetry, the Bannatyne MS. of 1568. From this in 1716 he printed James V.'s humorous poem Christ's Kirk on the Green, with an added canto of his own; and the publication was so well received that in 1718 he was encouraged to add a third part. By 1722 this work reached a fifth edition. Meanwhile Ramsay's fame had been growing. Pieces like his Elegy on the Death of Maggie Johnston and Elegy on Lucky Wood were hawked on broadsheets; and it became a fashion with the burgesses' wives to send out for "Allan's last piece" to discuss over their dish of tea. In 1721 he collected these pieces and published them by subscription, netting some four hundred guineas by the transaction, and obtaining recognition at once as a distinguished poet. Three years later, in 1724, he published the collections which, perhaps as much as his own original poetry, were the means of recalling the muse of the country to native and natural themes.
The Tea-Table Miscellany, of which the first volume was published then, and the third in 1727, remains one of the best collections of songs which have ever been issued; while the Evergreen, containing many poems from the Bannatyne MS., was the immediate means of directing popular attention to the rich but neglected stores of ancient Scottish poetry.
The latter publication was stated to consist of poems "wrote by the ingenious before 1600;" but among other modern contents it included Lady Wardlaw's Hardyknute, and a poem The Vision, stated to have been "compylit in Latin anno 1300," and signed "Ar. Scot.," which is agreed to be Ramsay's own composition. In the following year, 1725, the poet published his finest and greatest work, The Gentle Shepherd. He had previously, on the model of Henryson's Robene and Makyne, written a couple of pastoral dialogues, one of which, Patie and Roger, was included in the volume of 1721; and it is said to have been suggested to him by friends that the public would be likely to welcome a complete pastoral on the model of these, substituting real peasants and real scenery for the conventional shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs and swains, and their artificial surroundings, of the fashionable "pastorals" of his time. This suggestion Ramsay carried out, and the success of The Gentle Shepherd justified his attempt.
The pastoral drama thus written was the first of the greater voices of the new natural poetry which was to supersede the work of the artificial school then in vogue. Its immediate successor and imitator was The Fortunate Shepherdess of Alexander Ross; but even more vitally is its influence to be felt in the poetry of Fergusson, Burns, and Wordsworth.
It is to be regretted that the poet did not confine himself to this natural vein, in which he proved himself so exquisite a craftsman. But the vogue of Pope and his school exerted a strong influence upon him. So early as 1718, when the Iliad of the Twickenham poet appeared, Ramsay had written to the translator a eulogistic epigram, and in imitation, and perhaps in emulation, of his English contemporary, he composed several elaborate pieces, like his Morning Interview, Health, a satirical poem, and a series of Elegiacs. In 1728 were published his later poems, and in 1730 appeared his last book of verse, a collection of thirty fables, part original and part translated.
The poet was now forty-five years of age, and he devoted the rest of his days to business and the enjoyment of the position which fame had brought him. Till 1726 he had carried on his business of wig-making in a shop at the sign of the Flying Mercury, on the north side of High Street, opposite Niddry's Wynd. Gradually, however, he had added bookselling to his occupation, and in the year mentioned he threw up wig-making, removed to a second-floor shop overlooking the market cross, and at the sign of the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden, established, with a full-fledged bookselling business, the first circulating library in Scotland. Here, close by the Law Courts, his shop became the literary lounge of Edinburgh, and, numbering among his real friends many of the foremost Scotsmen of the day, Ramsay throve and was happy.
The single worldly misfortune which befell the poet occurred in 1737. Up to that time there was no theatre in Edinburgh. Ramsay at his own sole expense built one in Carrubber's Close, and it was about to be opened when the Licensing Act placed a new power in the hands of the magistrates. A majority of the "city fathers," inheritors of the narrow and illiberal spirit of some of the early reformers, refused the license, and the poet was all but ruined. Thenceforth he kept to his proper business, and presently, recovering from his loss, he built himself a house which still stands, though now merged in the Students' Hostel, on the face of the Castle Hill. Two years earlier, in 1743, to his great grief, his wife had died, but the last thirteen years of his life he spent in his new romantic abode, gladdened by the growing fame of his son Allan, the portrait-painter to George III., and the society of his two fine daughters; and a great favourite with the young people who continually frequented his house. He retired from business in 1755, and on January 7, 1758, he died. He was buried quietly in Greyfriars Churchyard.
Perhaps as good an idea as any, of the personal appearance of the poet, is to be got from his statue by Sir John Steel which stands close by the monument to Scott in Princes Street Gardens; but references to his short, active figure, his round humorous face, dark twinkling eyes, and mouth ever ready with a merry epigram, live in all the Edinburgh reminiscences of his time. Of all the great personages, indeed, who at that day came and went on the plainstones of Edinburgh, none is remembered more pleasantly and affectionately than the genial bookseller-poet.
Ramsay's collected works were published during his lifetime at London in 1731, and at Dublin in 1733. Later editions were produced at London in 1760, Glasgow in 1770, and London again in 1800; but probably the most ample was that edited by the late Charles Mackay, and published by Virtue & Co., London. A complete edition of his poems was also published by Gardner, Paisley, in 1877.
Like most other poets, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Burns and Tennyson, Ramsay owed the suggestion of much of his work to poetic predecessors. His humorous tale of The Monk and the Miller's Wife is merely a modernising of The Freirs of Berwick, which has sometimes been attributed to Dunbar. His Vision again is distinctly a reproduction of the sentiment and something of the machinery of Sir David Lyndsay's Dreme. His additions to Christ's Kirk on the Green stand avowed as to their initiative. His elegies follow the verse and spirit of Semple's Piper of Kilbarchan. And his Morning Interview borrows closely both the manner and substance of Pope's Rape of the Lock. Even his Gentle Shepherd, as has been seen, owed its first suggestion to Henryson's pastoral, with which Ramsay was acquainted in the Bannatyne MS. Notwithstanding this fact, the real merit of Ramsay remains above all question. His humour, and his sympathy with the humours of actual life, were all his own. His songs, especially the humorous ones, remain, though not now much sung, typical of the gayer Scottish muse. His poetical correspondence with men like Hamilton of Gilbertfield revived and added new lustre to a traditional exercise of the makars. And to say nothing of the influence of his Evergreen in reawakening interest in the stores of ancient national poetry, his Gentle Shepherd, with its simple and exquisite charm, gives him a unique place among the pastoral poets of all time.