1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 2:203-07.



ROBERT FERGUSSON, a poet of considerable merit, was born at Edinburgh, September 5, 1750, the third son of William Fergusson, who came originally from Tarland, Aberdeenshire, and Elizabeth, his wife, youngest daughter of John Forbes, tacksman of Templeton, Hillockhead, and Wellhead in the same county, a cadet of the family of Tolquhon. His father was first a clerk to a haberdasher, afterwards to a company of upholsterers, subsequently to a namesake, a writer to the signet, and ultimately he became managing clerk in the linen department of the British Linen Company, now one of the wealthiest banking establishments in Scotland. After being for about six months at the school of a Mr. Philp, a teacher of English in Widdry's Wynd, of his native city, the poet was removed to the High School, in 1756, where he remained for four years, his attendance being occasionally interrupted by ill health. While yet a mere child, he took great delight in reading the Bible, and as a proof of the impression which at this period its precepts made on his susceptible mind, one of his biographers (Peterkin) relates that one day, after perusing a portion of the Proverbs, he entered his mother's apartment in tears, calling on her to "whip him." On his mother asking him why? He answered, "O mother! he that spareth the rod, hateth the child." Through the influence of the earl of Findlater, the chancellor of Scotland, to whom his uncle Mr. Forbes, was factor, a presentation was procured for him by his father, to a bursary, (or exhibition, as it is called in England,) by the Rev. David Fergusson of Strathmartine, which provided for "the maintenance and education of two poor male children," of the name of Fergusson, at the Grammar school of Dundee and the college of St. Andrews, and he was accordingly removed in 1762 to Dundee, at the school of which town he remained for two years. At the age of fourteen he was transferred, in terms of the bursary, to the university of St. Andrews, and entered in the united colleges of St. Salvator and St. Leonard, with an allowance of ten pounds sterling yearly. He was originally intended for the church, and on matriculating in February 1765, he became a student in the Latin and Greek classics, but although his attainments were respectable, he had no great predilection for the classics. Possessing an inexhaustible fund of wit and good nature, with a natural talent for mimicry, he indulged, whilst at college, in many youthful frolics, one of which caused him to be "extruded" for four days, (not "formally expelled," as inconsiderately stated by one of his biographers) from the university. From his excellent voice, he was required frequently to officiate as precentor in the college chapel, and to get rid of this to him distasteful employment, he had given up the name of a person to be prayed for, in the following very indecorous terms: "Remember in prayer, a young man (then present) of whom, from the sudden effects of inebriety, there appears but small hope of recovery." He had also taken part in a riot. It was while at college that he first began to rhyme, and certain Macaronic satires against some of the masters were early ascribed to him. His biographers generally have agreed that none of the college productions of his muse are among his published pieces. The author, however, of his life prefixed to the edition of his poems published by A. Fullarton and Co. in 1851, thinks the Elegy on the death of Dr. Gregory one of these early pieces, written when Fergusson had not attained his fifteenth year, and he has accordingly placed it first in the poems. His superior abilities, playful disposition, and turn for poetry, recommended him to the favour of Dr. Wilkie, author of the Epigoniad, then professor of natural philosophy at St. Andrews, who occasionally employed him to translate his lectures. While at the university, it seems, that mathematics was his favourite study, and he had made considerable progress in natural philosophy.

At the close of the session 1767-8, his bursary course being concluded, Fergusson left St. Andrews, and his father having died the previous year, he returned to his widowed mother in Edinburgh. He had abandoned the design of becoming a minister, and after some time spent at home undecided what to do, he paid a visit early in 1769 to his uncle (a brother of his mother), Mr. John Forbes, at Round Lichnot, near Aberdeen, who was in good circumstances, in the hope of procuring some employment through his influence. He had previously during a college vacation spent several weeks with him, and he now, in consequence of a renewed invitation, remained with him six months. Much unmerited obloquy has been thrown by Fergusson's biographers on this uncle for his treatment of the poet. According to Dr. Irving, who seems to have received very incorrect information on the subject, his clothes beginning to assume a shabby appearance, he received a hint that he was no longer considered a proper guest at his uncle's table, on which, in a highly indignant mood, he retired to a public-house in the neighbourhood, and wrote a letter of remonstrance to his relative, which induced the latter to send him a few shillings to assist him on his return to Edinburgh, which journey he performed on foot. The author (A. B. G.) of the Life of Fergusson published in 1851, deriving his information from Mr. John Forbes, writer, Old Meldrum, grandson of the poet's uncle, gives the following account of the real circumstances attending the departure of the poet from his uncle's house, on the occasion in question: "The earl of Findlater, having occasion to travel north to Mr. Forbes' residence, wrote to him that he intended to pass his house on a given day, and that he should dine with him. Mr. Forbes, in consequence, invited Keith Urquhart, Esq., of Meldrum, his nearest employer, to meet his lordship; and on the day appointed he instructed Fergusson to dress himself, and to be in waiting to come into the dining-room, along with his own sons, one of whom was the father of the present Mr. Forbes, and my narrator, when he should sent for them after dinner, as he was very desirous to introduce his nephew to his guests, who might, from their high station and influence, materially forward his future prospects. Fergusson timeously appeared in his 'best suit;' but finding the intervening hours hang heavily on his hands, he proceeded to the Wood of Lichnot at about a quarter of a mile's distance, and there consumed the time in climbing trees and swinging on the branches. He returned in the nick of time to answer the summons to the dining-room, but without having had leisure either to brush the 'green' and soil from his clothes, or to get some unseemly 'rents' repaired. Seeing him appear in such a sorry plight, Mr. Forbes was greatly irritated, and from his disreputable appearance, to a certain extent lost his 'temper,' and sharply ordered Fergusson out of the room. On the party rising from table some hours afterwards, it was found that the poet had disappeared. On inquiry being made, a servant remembered seeing him, 'with a bundle under his arm,' on the road which led to Aberdeen. His uncle at once surmising, from his peculiarly sensitive nature, that he had 'left,' despatched a messenger on horseback after him, to 'entreat his return;' or, at all events, his acceptance of the means to carry him comfortably to Edinburgh, which he sent with the servant. The messenger overtook him, a dozen of miles or so on his journey: but he peremptorily declined coming back, nor would he accept the proffered supplies." It is farther stated that no inn or public-house existed within miles of Round Lichnot, and no letter of remonstrance or otherwise from Fergusson was ever received by Mr. Forbes. "As a proof," continues the biographer, "that the mother of the poet entertained no ill feeling against her brother for the (apocryphal) ungenerous treatment of her son, it may be mentioned that, after his death, she was accustomed to visit the north, when she invariably resided with her brother at Forresterhill." He relates, on the authority of his informant above mentioned that while at Round Linchnot, the poet was accustomed to assemble the servants who had been detained from publish worship on the Sabbaths; and, taking his stand at the mouth of the peat-stack, he would address them for more than an hour at a time, in language so eloquent and fervid, that Mr. Forbes (the uncle) distinctly remembers to have often seen them bathed in tears [Life, 1851, p. lxxi].

Shortly after his return to Edinburgh he obtained an inferior situation in the commissary clerk's office, his sole occupation being the copying of law papers at so much per page. This he soon relinquished, and, after some months' idleness, he accepted a similar situation in the office of the sheriff-clerk, where he continued for the remainder of his life. Before he had reached his twentieth year, many of his poems had made their appearance in Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine. The great merit of his productions soon began to be acknowledged; he became a knight or member of the famous "Cape club," and as his powers of song and convivial qualities rendered him at all times an attractive companion, his society was eagerly sought after, and he was thus led into habits of excess and dissipation, which impaired his feeble constitution, and brought on, first, religious melancholy, and ultimately insanity. Having experienced a temporary relief from this dreadful malady, he resumed his visits to his friends, but had one night the misfortune to fall down a stair, when he received a severe contusion on the head. He was carried home insensible, but at length in his delirium became so outrageous, that it was not without difficulty that the united force of several men could restrain his violence. The humble circumstances of his mother compelled her to remove him to the public lunatic asylum, or Bedlam. Two of his most intimate friends called and induced him to go into a sedan-chair, as if he had been about to make an evening visit. When they reached the place of their destination, and stopped within the porch, the poor youth discovered instantaneously the deception. He looked with a strange, wild, questioning glance all around: and with choking agony raised such a piteous and fearful cry as never departed from the memory of those who accompanied him. He was restless and desperate the whole of the first night; but in the morning when his mother and sister visited him he was calm and resigned. He had at first imagined himself a king, and had placed on his head a crown of straw neatly plaited with his own hands. This delusion, however, had vanished. He thanked his mother and sister for their kindness. He reminded them of his presentiment of the calamity that was now upon him. He entreated his sister to bring her 'seam' and sit beside him. To all which they could only reply with tears. He checked their grief; told them he was well cared for; and expressed a hope that he should soon be restored to them. At other times, however, he was greatly and painfully excited, exclaiming that he 'should be a minister of the glorious gospel,' that they 'should all see him a burning and a shining light.' Frequently too he would sing with a beauty and pathos and tremulous tenderness the 'Birks of Invermay,' and other favourite Scottish melodies, such as before he had never reached. At the end of two months he died in the asylum, October 16, 1774, aged only twenty-four. The circumstances of his death are peculiarly touching. "The evening was chilly and damp. His feet felt very cold. He asked his mother to gather up the bed-clothes and sit upon them. She did so. He looked wistfully at his mother, and said, 'Oh! mother, this is kind indeed: ' but again be complained that his feet were 'cold, cold.' When they prepared to leave he entreated them to remain. 'O do not go, mother, yet, — do not leave me.' It was the time however for 'shutting up.' They parted. And in the silence of that night, and alone, he died."

He was buried in the Canongate churchyard, and his grave remained without a stone to tell the place, till the kindred spirit of Robert Burns led him, in 1787, to erect one at his own expense, with the following inscription:

No sculptur'd marble here, nor pompous lay,
No stoned urn, nor animated bust!
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way,
To pour her sorrows o'er her poet's dust.

One of Fergusson's early associates of the name of Burnet, belonging, it is understood, to the Burnets of Kenney, having prospered in the East Indies, had sent a pressing invitation to Fergusson to go out to India, enclosing a draft of a hundred pounds to defray the expenses of his outfit, but it arrived a few days after the poet's death. The relatives in Scotland of the generous donor ordered the amount to be retained by his afflicted mother.

The first edition of Fergusson's Poems, being a collection of such pieces as had appeared in the Weekly Magazine, with the addition of a few others, was published in 1773, the year before his death, and they have often been reprinted. It is gratifying to know that the belief that Fergusson never reaped any pecuniary benefit from his poems, is not founded in fact. According to a statement made by Miss Ruddiman to his biographer of 1851, for his contributions to the Weekly Magazine the poet received from the proprietors thereof, W. and T. Ruddiman, "not large but regular payment, and two suits of clothes, an everyday and Sabbath suit every year." Moreover, his volume of 1773 was published by a subscription obtained the previous year, and "he sold upwards of five hundred copies, many of them at an advanced price. He had a balance remaining of at least 50; a sum which was to him a little fortune." [Life of 1851, p. lxxxv.] An edition of his poems published at Glasgow in 1800, contains an account of his life by Dr. Irving. A Life by Peterkin is also prefixed to the London edition of his Poems, which appeared in 1807.

Fergusson is represented by all his biographers as being of a humane and amiable disposition. To the most sprightly fancy, we are told, he joined the more engaging qualities of modesty, a gentle temper, and the greatest goodness of heart; and such was the benevolence of his disposition that he would often bestow the last farthing upon those who solicited his charity. His poems are admired by all who are capable of appreciating true poetry, and he is justly considered the third of Scotland's national poets, Burns and Ramsay only being classed before him.

Of his personal appearance, Sommers, one of his biographers, who knew him personally, has left the following account: — He was about five feet six inches high, and well-shaped. His complexion fair, but rather pale. His eyes full, black, and piercing. His nose long, his lips thin, his teeth well set and white. His neck long, and well-proportioned. His shoulders narrow, and his limbs long, but more sinewy than fleshy. His voice strong, clear, and melodious. Remarkably fond of old Scots songs, and the best singer of the 'Birks of Invermay' I ever heard. When speaking, he was quick, forcible, and complaisant. In walking he appeared smart, erect, and unaffected. "Fergusson's manners," says the author of the Life prefixed to his Works published in 1867, "were always accommodated to the moment: he was gay, serious, set the table in a roar, charmed with his powers of song, or bore with becoming dignity his part in learned or philosophical disquisition." "In short, he had united," remarks Alexander Campbell (Life, p. 300), "the sprightliness and innocence of a child, with the knowledge of a profound and judicious thinker."

The poet had a brother, Henry, who was at one time a teacher of fencing and sword exercise in Edinburgh. His class book, entitled, 'A Dictionary, explaining the terms, guards, and positions, used in the art of the small sword. By Henry Fergusson,' was printed at Edinburgh in the year MDCCLXVII. Tract, pp. 23, with the motto,

Ah me! what perils do environ,
The man who meddles with cold iron.

Not meeting, it appears, with anything like adequate success as a teacher, he became a sailor, and served as master-at-arms on board the Tartar man-of-war, on the breaking out of hostilities with America. He procured his discharge from the Tartar on 12th Feb. 1776, and it is believed that be settled in America, where he is supposed to have died. One sister, Barbara, was married to Mr. David Inverarity, cabinetmaker, Edinburgh, whose son was father of Miss Inverarity, afterwards Mrs. Martyn, a vocalist of some eminence in her day, who died at Newcastle in 1846, and was considered to bear a striking resemblance to her unfortunate grand-uncle. Margaret, another sister of the poet, married a Mr. Alexander Duval, purser in the navy. She also had a taste for poetry.