1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 519.



This unfortunate young man, who died in a mad-house at the age of twenty-four, left some pieces of considerable humour and originality in the Scottish dialect. Burns, who took the hint of his Cotter's Saturday Night from Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle, seems to have esteemed him with an exaggerated partiality, which can only be accounted for by his having perused him in his youth. On his first visit to Edinburgh, Burns traced out the grave of Fergusson, and placed a head-stone over it at his own expense, inscribed with verses of appropriate feeling.

Fergusson was born at Edinburgh, where his father held the office of accountant to the British Linen-hall. He was educated partly at the high school of Edinburgh, and partly at the grammar-school of Dundee, after which a bursary, or exhibition, was obtained for him at the university of St. Andrew's, where he soon distinguished himself as a youth of promising genius. His eccentricity was, unfortunately, of equal growth with his talents; and on one occasion, having taken part in an affray among the students, that broke out at the distribution of the prizes, he was selected as one of the leaders, and expelled from college; but was received back again upon promises of future good behaviour. On leaving college he found himself destitute, by the death of his father; and after a fruitless attempt to obtain support from an uncle at Aberdeen, he returned on foot to his mother's house at Edinburgh, half dead with the fatigue of the journey, which brought on an illness that had nearly proved fatal to his delicate frame. On his recovery he was received as a clerk in the commissary's clerk's office, where he did not continue long, but exchanged it for the same situation in the office of the sheriff clerk, and there he remained as long as his health and habits admitted of any application to business. Had he possessed ordinary prudence, he might have lived by the drudgery of copying papers; but the appearance of some of his poems having gained him a flattering notice, he was drawn into dissipated company, and became a wit, a songster, a mimic, and a free liver; and finally, after fits of penitence and religious despondency, went mad. When committed to the receptacle of the insane, a consciousness of his dreadful fate seemed to come over him. At the moment of his entrance, he uttered a wild cry of despair, which was re-echoed by a shout from all the inmates of the dismal mansion, and left an impression of inexpressible horror on the friends who had the task of attending him. His mother, being in extreme poverty, had no other mode of disposing of him. A remittance, which she received a few days after, from a more fortunate son, who was abroad, would have enabled her to support the expense of affording him attendance in her own house; but the aid did not arrive till the poor maniac had expired.