While History employs her peculiar powers in developing the intrigues of statesmen, in adjusting the disputes of nations, and in narrating the events of war, Biography busies her analogous pen in tracing the progress of letters, in ascertaining the influence of manners, and in appreciating literary characters. The pursuits of History must be allowed to be most dignified; the employment of Biography is most pleasing. It is the business of History to record truth and to inculcate wisdom; it is the duty of Biography to pay just tributes of respect and praise to genius, to knowledge, and to virtue.
In every age and in every nation individuals have arisen whose talents and labours merited the notice and the remembrance of the biographer; although in some periods, and among some tribes, the tumults of barbarity allowed little leisure or security for collecting anecdotes and arranging documents, had learning existed to record and detail them. Among other civilised nations, North Britain has produced her full share of genius to be admired, of knowledge to be learned, and of virtue to be imitated. It has, however, been conceived by ignorance, and asserted by dogmatism, that Scotland did not produce in the century which elapsed in 1715 any person, except Burnet, who is worthy of biographical notice; although, in fact, she did produce, in that period, men who were distinguished for their jurisprudence, for their science and learning, for their bravery, and for their wit. It was also in that century, which was thus branded by malignity for its infertility of talents, Scotland produced, during a happy moment, ALLAN RAMSAY, her Doric poet, who claims the notice of biography, because be raised himself to distinction by his talents and pleased others by the perusal of his poetry, while he derived a benefit to himself by his powers of pleasing.
A zealous genealogist could easily trace RAMSAY to the family of the Earl of Dalhousie. His father was Robert Ramsay, who inherited, as it were, the management of Lord Hopetoun's lead mines in Crawford-moor; his grandfather was Robert Ramsay, a writer in Edinburgh, who had the management of the same mines; his great-grandfather was Captain John Ramsay, the son of Ramsay of Cockpen, who was brother of Ramsay of Dalhousie. Of this genealogy our poet speaks proudly, when he recollects
Dalhousie of an auld descent,
My chief, my stoup, my ornament.
His mother was Alice Bower, whose father had been brought from Derbyshire to instruct Lord Hopetoun's miners in their art; his grandmother was Janet Douglas, a daughter of Douglas of Nuthil; and our bard was careful to remember, with the exultation of genius, that "He was a poet sprung from a Douglas loin."
He was born on the 15th of October, 1686, in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire. RAMSAY has himself described the place of his birth with picturesque minuteness:
Of Crawford-moor, born in Lead hill,
Where mineral springs Glengonir fill,
Which joins sweet flowing Clyde,
Between auld Crawford-Lindsay's towers,
And where Deneetnie rapid pours
His stream through Glotta's tide.
The learned minister who writes the account of the parish of Crawford-moor, claims no peculiar honour from the birth of RAMSAY in that mountainous district. In these wilds did our bard remain during fifteen years, deriving from the parish schoolmaster such lore as he possessed, and learning from experience,
How halesome 'tis to snuff the cawler air,
And all the sweets it bears, when void of care.
But this felicity did not last long. His first misfortune consisted in losing, while he was yet an infant, his father, who died before he had himself passed his five-and-twentieth year; and his next unhappiness arose from the marriage of his mother, soon after the death of his father, to Mr. Chrighton, one of the very small land-holders of the country, which is occupied by the great families of Hamilton and Douglas. These sad events left RAMSAY without property or the means of procuring any. And while Scotland was not yet busied with manufactures, nor enriched by commerce, the best resource which occurred to his relations, who had other objects of affection, was to bind him an apprentice to a wig-maker.
With this design, RAMSAY was sent to Edinburgh in 1701, during the fifteenth year of his age. Had he behaved amiss as an apprentice we should have heard of his misconduct when he was attacked, as a writer, by those who spared none of the asperities of reproach. The silence of a satirical enemy an author may well enjoy as praise.
RAMSAY was now to enter into life with an honest trade, and a fair character, for his livelihood. And he was induced, as much by his sociability of temper as by the example of other citizens, to marry, in 1712, Christian Ross, the daughter of an inferior lawyer in Edinburgh. In the subsequent year she brought him his eldest son Allan, who inherited his father's genius, and rose to eminence both as a painter and a scholar. For several years, she brought him a child every twelvemonth, — a fruitfulness this of which the poet delighted to boast. The same disposition for sociability prompted him to court the society of clubs during a clubical period. Among his Poems, he has left a petition for admittance into the Whin-bush Club, — a society of gentlemen of Lanarkshire, who met partly to enjoy the pleasure of mirth, perhaps, as much to exercise the beneficence of charity to indigent persons of the same shire. The petitioner founds his claim on the place of his nativity,
By birth my title's fair,
To bend wi' ye, and spend wi' ye
An evening, and gaffaw.
Our poet's passion for gaffaw, or social laughter, has induced malignant witticism to speak of RAMSAY as "a convivial buffoon."
It was an age of clubs, when RAMSAY began to enter into life with a strong desire to give and to receive the pleasures of conviviality. In May, 1712, there was established at Edinburgh the Easy Club, consisting of young men who possessed talent and vivacity, and who wished to pass stated evenings in free conversation and social mirth. Of this club, RAMSAY appears to have been an original member; and as the fundamental constitution of it required that each member should assume some characteristic name, he chose (though I know not with what propriety) the well-known appellation of Isaac Bickerstaff. After a while the Easy Club, affecting great independence, resolved to adopt Scottish patrons in place of English names. RAMSAY now chose for his new denomination the more poetical name of Gawin Douglas. Our representative of the learned Bishop of Dunkeld, the Scottish translator of Virgil, occasionally amused the Club with appropriate poetry; and on the 2nd of February, 1715, be was chosen Poet-Laureate to the Club, whose hilarity, however, was suppressed by the Rebellion of 1715. One of its last acts, on the 12th of May, was to declare "that Dr. Pitcairn and Gawin Douglas [RAMSAY], having behaved themselves three years as good members of this Club, were adjudged to be gentlemen." From this declaration we may easily perceive what is indeed apparent on their recorded transactions, that RAMSAY regarded his attendance on the Club as part of the business of life; while his associates, as they were young, had their studies to prosecute and their establishments to form.
As a juvenile poet, RAMSAY has left nothing which could bring to our recollection the infantine performances of Cowley, Milton, or Pope, who lisped in numbers at the dawn of life. RAMSAY only began to read poetry in his twentieth year, to feel the influence of emulation, and to lay the foundation of his fame and fortune. He first began to write in 1711; for in his letter to Simbert, the painter he says,
Frae twenty-five to five-and-forty,
My muse was neither sweer nor dorty.
Yet, his earliest production which is at present known, was presented by him, in 1712, to "The most happy members of the Easy Club":—
Were I but a prince or king,
I'd advance ye, I'd advance ye;
Were I but a prince or king,
So highly's I'd advance ye.
Great sense and wit are ever found
'Mong you always for to abound,
Much like the orbs that still move round,
No ways constrain'd, but easy.
Were I, &c.
Most of what's hid from vulgar eye,
Even from earth's centre to the sky,
Your brighter thoughts do clearly spy,
Which makes you wise and easy.
Were I, &c.
Apollo's self unknown attends,
And in good humour re-ascends
The fork't Parnassus, and commends
You for being blythe and easy.
Were I, &c.
All faction in the church or state,
With greater wisdom still you hate,
And leave learn'd fools these to debate;
Like rocks in seas ye're easy.
Were I, &c.
May all you do successful prove,
And may you never fall in love
With what's not firm for your behoof,
Or may make you uneasy.
Were I, &c.
I love ye well — O! let me be
One of your blythe society,
And, like yourselves, I'll strive to be
Ay humorous and easy.
Were I, &c."
While he was yet unknown to fame, and unpractised in the art of book-making, our Poet-Laureate made use of the Easy Club as a convenient place of publication. In this familiar society he produced his satirical elegy on Maggy Johnston; which, with similar poems, he soon after revised, and published. In the club too, he read an elegy on the death of the celebrated Dr. Pitcairn, who died in 1713; which, though printed by the club, was rejected by the author when he re-published his poems, because it was at once political and personal; and he perhaps regarded it merely as—
—the moanings of an infant muse,
Who wants its muse; tie's gone who did infuse
In us the principles of wit and sense.
From the year 1715, our poet seems to have paid less attention to his amusement and more regard to his interest. He wrote many petty poems, which from time to time he published, at a proportionate price. In this form, his poetry was at that time attractive; and the women of Edinburgh were went to send out their children with a penny to buy "RAMSAY'S last piece." After a while, he attracted, by his facility and naturalness, the notice of persons of higher rank and better taste. He was, indeed, diligent to gain friends by panegyrics, and attentive to lose none by his satire, — as his Satiric Muse properly confined her reprehensions to crimes and not to persons.
On those principles, he published about the year 1716 the "Christ's Kirk on the Green," — a ludicrous poem of James I. of Scotland, — "from an old manuscript collection of Scots Poems wrote an hundred and fifty years ago." This allusion is obviously to the well-known collection of Scottish Poetry by Bannatyne. RAMSAY had confidence enough in his own powers to add a second canto; and "this second part having stood its ground, he was induced to keep a little more company with those comical characters," by adding a third canto. The three cantos were by RAMSAY published together in 1718. Such was their popular reception that the fifth edition of them was published in 1722. Whether RAMSAY critically understood the poetical language of the Royal poet, I know not; but he certainly published without a commentary what has puzzled all the commentators, though King James's ludicrous language may have been understood by the vulgar, who did not fetch their knowledge from so distant a source.
On the same principles, RAMSAY entered with several persons into a poetical intercourse of letters, which will be seen under the head of his Epistolary Poems. He found in William Hamilton of Gilbertfield a genius analogous to his own, who, having congenial propensities, readily entered into a reciprocation of metrical epistles. This gentleman, who was a son of Hamilton of Ladylands, went early into the army, and became distinguished during his latter days by the title of "the Lieutenant." He was one of the chief contributors to Watson's Choice Collection. After amusing himself with RAMSAY, he produced in 1722 a new edition of The Life of Wallace, wherein the old words were modernised and the original narrative was paraphrased. By this performance, which was published by subscription, he lost much of his character with persons of taste, — he vitiated the facts by his paraphrase, and perverted the language of Blind Harry by his alterations. From Gilbertfield, whence he sent out this injudicious work, he removed to Letterick in Lanarkshire, where he died in August, 1751, at a very advanced age. This person must be distinguished from Hamilton of Bangour, a contemporary poet of a higher quality, who was also connected by his good offices with RAMSAY.
Meantime, our poet busied himself in collecting into one volume his various poems, which he published in the dignified form of a quarto during the year 1721, when the poet was thirty-five. This volume began with "The Morning Interview;" and ended with "The Conclusion," after the manner of Horace "Ad Librum suum:"
—Gae spread my fame;
Away, and fix mean immortal name:
Ages to come shall thee revive,
And gar thee wi' new honours live.
His popularity at this epoch may be inferred from the numerous list of subscribers, which consisted of all who were either eminent or fair in Scotland. It is supposed that by this volume, which Ruddiman printed, the poet acquired four hundred guineas. Several copies of recommendatory verses which were prefixed, necessarily tended to promote his profit and spread his praise. Among those panegyrists, the most prominent was Josiah Burchet, who died in October, 1746, after he had sat in six parliaments, and been Secretary of the Admiralty for almost half a century. By Sir William Scot of Thirlestone, Baronet, who was a contemporary Latin poet of no inconsiderable powers, RAMSAY was placed in the temple of Apollo.
Buoyed up by such flattery from friends, our poet seems to have disregarded his enemies as unworthy of his notice: "I have been honoured with three or four satires, but they are such that several of my friends allege I wrote them myself to make the world believe I have no foes but fools."
To this volume was prefixed a print of RAMSAY, by Smibert, who drew his first breath in the Grass Market of Edinburgh, the son of a dyer, and was bred a coach-painter; but travelling into Italy for instruction, he painted portraits on his return at London, till he was induced, by the fascination of Bishop Berkeley, to emigrate with him to Bermudas, and thence to New England. Smibert was born in 1684, and died at Boston in 1751.
The success of RAMSAY, we may easily suppose, did not lessen his desire of profit, nor diminish his emulation of fame. He produced his Fables and Tales in 1722; his Tale of Three Bonnets in 1722; and his Fair Assembly in 1723; his poem on Health in 1724, while he still lived at the sign of the Mercury, in the great street of Edinburgh, opposite to the Cross Well. He, in the meantime, projected a publication which promoted his interest and spread his celebrity. Having already published Scots Songs, which were so well received as to pass through a second edition in 1719, in January, 1724, he published the first volume of The Tea-Table Miscellany, a collection of songs, Scotish, and English. This little miscellany was dedicated
To ilka lovely British lass,
Frae lady Charlotte, Anne, and Jean,
Down to ilk bonny singing Bess,
Wha dances barefoot or, the green.
This volume was soon followed by a second. "Being assured," says the collector, "how acceptable new words to known good tunes would prove, I engaged to make verses for above sixty of them, in these two volumes; about thirty were done by some ingenious young gentlemen who were so well pleased with my undertaking that they generously lent me their assistance." The third volume of "Celebrated Songs" appeared in 1727, when the collector of them had commenced a bookseller by trade. Several years afterwards, a fourth volume was added to the Tea-Table Miscellany, though I know not if it were also collected by RAMSAY. He complained, indeed, that Thomson, the publisher of the Orpheus Caledoneus, made use of his songs, without asking his consent, or acknowledging his obligations. The Tea-Table Miscellany ran through twelve editions, in a few years, owing to the great demand from general approbation.
RAMSAY had now felt the facility, and found the benefit of compilation: and he took advantage of an opinion which in those days prevailed in both the ends of our island, that none but poets could be the editors of poets. Rowe published an edition of Shakspeare in 1709; and not long afterwards Pope undertook, with more confidence than judgment, to give an edition of the same immortal dramatist. Thus incited and encouraged, RAMSAY published, in October, 1724, The Evergreen, being a Collection of Scots Poems, wrote by the ingenious before 1600. It seems to be universally agreed that RAMSAY failed in this difficult undertaking, as Pope also failed in a still more difficult work. "In making his compilation from the Bannatyne MS" says the late Lord Hailes, "RAMSAY has omitted some stanzas, and added others; has modernized the versification, and varied the ancient manner of spelling." Neither Watson the printer, who published, in 1706, A Choice Collection of Scots Poems, nor Hamilton of Gilbertfield, when he re-published Blind Harry's Wallace; nor RAMSAY, when he published his Evergreen, sufficiently adverted that if they changed the orthography and modernized the verse, the state of the language and the nature of the poetry during former times could no longer be discovered. It may, I think, be allowed, that RAMSAY was not skilled in the ancient Scottish dialect, as Lord Hailes has suggested. He did not, indeed, understand the language of his country as an antiquary; yet, as a poet, he acquired, by the performance of his task, a knowledge of ancient versification. He learned old words and he habituated himself to peculiarities of phrase. From another imputation of Lord Hailes that RAMSAY, in compiling his Glossary, "does not seem to have consulted Ruddiman's Glossary to Douglas's Virgil," I think our editor may be defended by showing that his Lordship spoke without authority, without comparing the Glossaries of RAMSAY with the Glossary of Ruddiman.
It is a remarkable coincidence, that the first poem in Watson's Choice Collection was "Christ's Kirk on the Green," which he attributed to King James V.; and the first in the Evergreen of RAMSAY was "Chryst's Kirk on the Grene," which he attributed to King James I.; the second in RAMSAY'S Evergreen is "The Thistle and the Rose of Dumbar; " the first in Lord Hailes's collection is "The Thistle and the Rose," which was written in 1503.
If we compare the two versions we shall be able to judge how far RAMSAY departed from his duty as an editor to maintain his character as a poet.
Quhen Merch with variand winds was overpast,
And sweet Apryle had with his silver showers
Tane leif of Nature with an orient blast,
And lusty May, that mudder is of flowrs,
Had maid the birds begin the tymous hours
Amang the tendir odours reid and quhyt,
Quhois harmony to heir was grit delyt.
Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past,
And Appryll had with her silver shouris
Tane leif at Nature with ane orient blast,
And lusty May, that muddir is of flouris,
Had maid the birdis to begyn thair houris
Amang the tendir odouris reid and quhyt,
Quhois harmony to heir it wis delyt.
Such are the variations of RAMSAY from the standard of the original manuscript. He not only varied, but he also added; to Dumbar's "Lament for the Deth of the Makkaris," our editor superinduced three stanzas, in the form of a prophecy, by the original author, wherein he introduced the editor as "a lad frae Hether-muirs:"—
Suthe I forsie, if spaecraft bad,
Frae Hether-muirs sall rise a lad,
Aftir two centries pas, sall he
Revive our fame and memorie:
Then sal we flourish Evirgrene;
All thanks to careful Bannatyne,
And to the patron kind and frie
Quha lends the lad baith them and me.
Far sall we fare baith eist and west,
Owre ilka clime by Scots possest;
Then sen our warks sall. never die,
"Timor mortis non turbat me."
I strongly suspect that RAMSAY wittingly inserted in his "Evirgrene" several poems which were written by the ingenious subsequent to the year 1600, and even to the year 1700. In the first volume is printed "The Vision," which, although it is said to have been "compylit in Latin anno 1300, and translatit in 1524," is obviously modern, more modern than the union, and more recent than the accession of George I.; the versification indeed is ancient, and is written in imitation of what King James calls the "tumbling verse," according to the royal revlis and cavtelis, "to be literal [alliterative] so far as may be." Thus The Vision" abounds in alliterations:
Bedoun the bents of Banquo brae
Milane I wandert waif and wae,
Musand our main mischance;
How be thae [those] faes we are undone,
That staw the sacred stane frae Scone,
And leids us sic a daunce.
Quhile Ingland's Edert taks our tours,
And Scotland ferst obeys,
Rude ruffians ransakk ryal bours,
And Baliol homage pays:
Throch feidom our freedom
Is blotted with this skore,
What Romans' or no Dian's
Pith culd eir do befoir.
Yet the sentiments and the style are modern, and even the orthography is recent, although it is affectedly old; nor did "The Vision" appear in any publication or manuscript before it came forth in The Evergreen, with appropriate signatures, AR. Scot, but not A. Scot, as it is printed in the Ancient Scots Poets; neither was there any poet in Scotland of the name of AR. Scot, nor Archibald Scott; though there had been indeed an Alexander Scot, during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. From the epoch of the publication of "The Vision," RAMSAY has been in possession of what the tradition of his family has always said was originally his own. "The Vision" is declared to be "a capital poem," by the same editor [John Pinkerton, in Ancient Scots Poems] who treats RAMSAY as a writer, "shewing no spark of genius."
In "The Evergrene" was also first printed "The Eagle and Robin Redbreist," with the same signature of AR. Scot; and it was republished in The Union, as the production of Archibald Scott, and among the Ancient Scotish Poems, 1786, as "an elegant fable" by Sir John Bruce. Yet this is merely one of RAMSAY'S usual fables, in which he introduced himself as a poet discountenanced by Royal neglect, under the fiction of the Robin, who
Resolvit again nae mair to sing,
Quhair princelie bountie is supprest,
By sic with quhome they ar opprest.
In The Evergreen, was published, in the last place, "Hardyknute, a fragment." The inquiry and the acuteness of recent times have discovered this fragment to be also a modern composition. It was first printed at Edinburgh, in 1719, in a separate folio; it was adopted into The Evergreen, in 1724; and it was republished by Dodsley, in 1740. But the author of this imposing imitation of Ancient Poetry has not hitherto been distinctly ascertained. A writer of discernment and elegance has justly remarked, "that some of the finest lyric compositions of Scotland have been produced by the fair sex." It is to a lady that the world is indebted for "Hardyknute;" although it was not to Mrs. Halkyt, nor to Mrs. Wardlaw; but it was to a lady of a knightly family, — as Wood or Hearne would have written. The accomplished authoress of "Hardyknute" was Lady Wardlaw of Pitrevie, in Fife, who was born in 1677, was married to Sir Henry Wardlaw in 1696, and died in 1726 or 1727, and was buried in the family vault in the church of Dunfermline. The minute inquiries which I have made on this curious subject have perfectly satisfied me that Lady Elizabeth Wardlaw was the authoress of "Hardyknute."
It was intended by RAMSAY, if his knowledge had been equal to his inclination, to give an account of the authors who wrote the poems which were published in The Evergreen; but he delayed his laudable design till the publication of the third or fourth volume, which, however, was never given, though such a purpose was thus announced. Considering into whose hands such undertakings were to fall, it is not much to be regretted that RAMSAY never executed what he was unfit to perform. There seems never to have been but a second edition of The Evergreen, which was printed at Edinburgh for Alexander Donaldson, in 1761, without any amendment or addition.
RAMSAY undertook in the meantime a task which was more congenial to his talents. Our poet had plainly a strong propensity to pastoral poetry; he wrote a pastoral entitled Richy and Sandy, on the death of Addison; he wrote a pastoral on the death of Prior; he wrote a pastoral ode on the marriage of the Earl of Weemys; he wrote a pastoral masque on the nuptials of the Duke of Hamilton in 1723. And he published in his 4to of 1721, Patie and Roger, a pastoral, inscribed to Josiah Burchet, one of his first patrons. This was followed, in 1723, by Jenny and Meggy, a pastoral, being a sequel to Patie and Roger. Nothing now remained for RAMSAY but to adopt the intimations which he received from his friends, and to throw his two pastorals into a more dramatic form, with appropriate songs.
This project he happily executed in 1725, by the publication of his Gentle Shepherd, which is one of the finest pastoral comedies in any language; and which could have been only produced by art, co-operating with genius, in a propitious moment for shepherdish poetry. The name he probably adopted from "the gentle shepheard" in the twelfth aegloge of Spenser. This pastoral comedy, as RAMSAY called his Doric drama, the poet dedicated, in plain prose, to Susannah, the Countess of Eglinton, in June, 1725. There was, at the same time, a poetical dedication of more elaborate praise, by Hamilton of Bangour, an amiable man and accomplished poet, who finished his short career at Lyons, in 1754, at the age of fifty. This is the same dignified lady to whom, at the age of 85, Johnson and Boswell offered their homage; whose powers of pleasing continued so resplendent as to charm the fastidious sage into a declaration that in visiting such a woman he had spent his day well. This celebrated patroness of poets was the accomplished daughter of the noble house of Kennedy, who having married, in 1708, Alexander, the Earl of Eglinton, by whom she had three sons, two of whom succeeded to the earldom, and seven daughters, who married into honourable families, died on the 18th of March, 1780, at the patriarchal age of ninety-one.
The second edition of this pastoral comedy was printed by Ruddiman, in 1726, for the author, who still resided at his shop, as a bookseller, opposite the Cross at Edinburgh. The tenth edition of it was reprinted by the elegant types of R. and A. Foulis, at Glasgow, in 1750. It has since passed through many editions, some of them with greater and some with less elegance and accuracy. What has thus pleased many and pleased long it would be useless to praise and idle to censure; yet has hypercriticism [John Pinkerton], with as much dullness as absurdity, declared The Gentle Shepherd "to be more barbarous and stupid than the Beggars' Opera!" When this captivating drama was first acted cannot be easily ascertained; but it certainly was represented after The Orphan, in January, 1729, when the author of it contributed an epilogue.
It has been the fate of RAMSAY, as it was indeed of Terence, to have his fame lessened by detraction, which has attributed to others his dramatic powers: Scipio and Laelius are said to have had a great share in the composition of Terence's plays. Sir John Clerk and Sir William Bennet are alleged, oil less authority, to have assisted RAMSAY in his Gentle Shepherd; but it has been well observed by the late Lord Hailes, "that they who attempt to depreciate his fame by insinuating that his friends and patrons composed the works which pass under his name ought first to prove that his friends and patrons were capable of composing The Gentle Shepherd.
RAMSAY showed also his dramatical propensities by writing prologues and epilogues for occasional dramas. He began this congenial practice in 1719, and concluded it in 1729. Some of these may vie with the finest in the English language for propriety of satire and happiness of point, delicacy of wit, and neatness of phrase. This commendation is amply justified by his prologue, which was spoken by one of the gentlemen who acted at Edinburgh The Orphan, and The Cheats of Scapin, for their diversion, on the last night of the year 1719.
The celebrity of RAMSAY was attended, however, like the other felicities of life, with circumstances of mortification. He had to struggle with contemporary contenders for poetic fame. There were published, about that time, some stanzas entitled, A Block for ALLAN RAMSAY'S Wigs, or, the famous Poet fallen in a trance. There were also printed some verses, called, ALLAN RAMSAY metamorphosed to a Heatherbloter Poet: in a pastoral, between Aegon and Melibiae. RAMSAY was thus induced to give his Reasons for not answering the Hackney Scribblers:—
These to my blyth indulgent friends:
Dull foes nought at my hands deserve;
To pump an answer's a' their ends;
But, not a line, if they should starve!
By the attacks of such scribblers RAMSAY seems not to have been much moved. He continued to please his numerous readers by publishing successively popular poems. He printed his Fables and Tales in 1722; his Tale of Three Bonnets in the same year; The Fair Assembly in 1723; his poem On Health, which he addressed to the celebrated Earl of Stair and he was thus enabled to publish, in 1728, a second volume of his poems in quarto, including The Gentle Shepherd, and his Masque on the Nuptials of the Duke of Hamilton, which brings to our recollection the familiar madrigals of Ben Johnson. Of this quarto an octavo edition was published in 1729; both the volumes were republished at London for the booksellers during the year 1731. The poetry of RAMSAY met with a flattering welcome, not only in Scotland and in England, but also in the colonies, and in Ireland; and there was published at Dublin an edition of his poems in 1733. Of this universality of reception our bard delighted to sing in grateful strains, both as a poet and a bookseller.
In 1730, RAMSAY published A Collection of Thirty Fables. In this species of poetry he appears to have greatly indulged, because what he easily found he readily delivered; yet about this time he seems to have ceased writing for the public at the age of forty-five, having diligently tried, during twenty years, to please his countrymen and benefit himself. In his letter to Smibert, he says in 1736 — "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." RAMSAY had now obtained by his poetry all the fame which was to be had; and he was incited by his love of profit to busy himself not in writing but in selling and circulating books. In 1726 he removed from his original dwelling at the Mercury, opposite the Cross-well, to a house which had been the London Coffee-House, in the east end of the Luckenbooths. With this change of situation he altered his sign; and instead of the original Mercury, he now adopted the heads of two poets — Drummond of Hawthornden and Ben Johnson. Here he sold and lent books till a late period of his life; here the wits of Edinburgh used to meet for amusement and for information. From this commodious situation, Gay, a congenial poet, was wont to look out upon the Exchange of Edinburgh in order to know persons and to ascertain characters.
It was in this society and in that station that RAMSAY'S passion for the drama returned on him. In 1736, at the age of fifty, he undertook to build "a playhouse new, at vast expence." This house he built in Carrubber's Close. He boasts of having
— Kept our troop, by pith of reason,
Frae bawdy, atheism and treason.
In vain did RAMSAY and his troop
Only preach, frae moral fable,
The best instruction they were able.
The act for licensing the stage, which was passed in 1737, crushed the poet's hopes of conveying "the best instruction," and calmed the scrupulosity of those who feared that amusement and religion could not exist together.
At Edinburgh, the magistrate had not yet considered, like the ministers of Elizabeth, that, in well-regulated society, public amusements may produce advantages without any other evils than can be easily corrected. The rulers of Edinburgh thinking very differently from our dramatist as to the mode and the matter of the instruction which was thus given to the citizens who were entrusted to their care shut up his playhouse, leaving the under-taker without relief for what the law considered as a damage without an injury. Our dramatist had on this occasion other mortifications to suffer. There was soon published a poetical pamphlet containing The Flight of Religious Piety from Scotland, upon the account of RAMSAY'S lewd books and the hell-bred playhouse comedians, who debauch all the faculties of the soul of our rising generation. There also appeared A Looking-Glass for ALLAN RAMSAY; The Dying Words of ALLAN RAMSAY. The lampooners left intimations of what must have given considerable consolation to our adventurous dramatist; that "he had acquired wealth;" that "he possest a fine house;" that "he had raised his kin to high degree:" all those advantages, we may easily suppose, were merely comparative. This puritanical poet, like other satirists, did not advert that his topics of censure did more honour than hurt to RAMSAY, who was only low by accident, and had, by fair means, raised himself to competence and his family to distinction.
The obscure history of the public amusements of Scotland still requires much illustration. Before the accession of King James, who merits commendation for protecting the drama, histrionic representations stood upon the same principle in Scotland as in England, of allowing the use, yet correcting the abuse of such exhibitions. A century of fanaticism ensued, with her agitations and her bloodshed, which obstructed improvement by depressing genius and perverting effort. Merriment began to move on light fantastic toe during the reign of Charles II. But the union of the two kingdoms forms the epoch of melioration, though not so much from any positive provision as by consequential results. When fanaticism was repressed the desire of theatrical amusements began soon to revive. As early as the summer of 1715, a year of agitation, a regular company of comedians acted plays at the Tennis-court in Holyrood-house. In the subsequent winter the scene was shifted from the Tennis-court to "the old Magazine-house at the back of the foot of the Canongate." On this occasion the lovers of the drama were informed "that several parts would be performed by some new actors just arrived from England." From this epoch, Edinburgh was frequently exhilarated by scenic representations which were sometimes diversified "by entertainments of singing and dancing by gentlemen for their diversion." On the last night of the year 1719, RAMSAY supplied a prologue, which is remarkable at once for elegant raillery and healthful merriment. He again furnished a prologue, in 1726, when Anthony Aston entertained the citizens of Edinburgh with theatrical amusements. Ten years afterwards, our dramatist undertook in an unlucky hour for his own interest to be the proprietor of a playhouse, which, as we have seen, was shut up by the magistrate. In 1739, the parliament was moved for legal authority to establish a playhouse at Edinburgh, which was refused, because the spirit of certain classes of the people was not yet sufficiently prepared to endure salutary mirth. They were protected in the enjoyment of their gloom by the licensing act, which was ere long circumvented. It was in 1741 that Thos. Este established a theatre in the Taylors' Hall, under the pretence of giving a concert of music. The passions of the people, which were sharpened by opposition, supported this evasion of law. In 1746 a theatre was built in the Canongate, where plays were acted, at stated times, under a similar evasion. Thus RAMSAY had the satisfaction to see, at the age of sixty, dramatical entertainments enjoyed by the citizens whose theatrical wishes he had rekindled and inflamed.
Our Poet, as he had now ceased to write for the public, was only attentive to his shop and his family. He sent his son to Rome, in 1736, in order to acquire, at that illustrious seat of knowledge, the art of painting, by which he rose to eminence. His wife, who died in 1743, seems to have passed to her grave without an elegy; because the loss was too afflicting for loquacity to deplore. She left him three daughters, who, as they were advanced to womanhood in some measure supplied her society and superintendence. He spent much of his time during his latter years with Sir John Clerk of Pennycuik and Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield, who courted his company because they were delighted by his facetiousness. He probably relinquished his shop in 1755. For some years he lived in a fantastical house of an octagon form which he had built on the north side of the Castle-hill, and which he thought a paragon. This house he was induced, by his vanity, to shew to the late Lord Elibank, who had both acuteness and wit, telling his lordship, at the same time, that the cits say it resembles a goose-pye; to which my Lord readily replied: "Indeed, Allan, now that I see you in it, I think the term is very properly applied."
We may learn some important circumstances with regard to our poet's mature years and advanced fortune from an unpublished copy of verses which he wrote to James Clerk, Esq., of Pennycuik, on the 9th of May, 1755:—
Born to not e'en ae inch of ground,
I keep my conscience white and sound;
And tho' I ne'er was a rich keeper,
To make that up, I live the cheaper,—
By that ae knack, I've made a shift
To drive ambitious cares adrift,
And now, in years and sense grown auld,
In ease I like my limbs to fauld.
Debts I abhor, and plan to be
Frae shackling trade and danger free,
That I may, loose frae care and strife,
With calmness view the edge of life;
And, when a full ripe age shall crave,
Slide easily into my grave.
Now seventy years are o'er my head,
And thirty mae may lay me dead."
When RAMSAY talked thus familiarly of life and death he was much afflicted with the scurvy in his gums; which had deprived him not only of his teeth, but even of a part of the jaw-bone. While he jocosely counted upon thirty years to be added to seventy he much miscalculated the chances of life; for he died at Edinburgh on the 7th of January, 1758, when he had passed the age of seventy-two, and was buried in the churchyard of the Greyfriars.
Christian Ross, the wife of ALLAN RAMSAY, brought him many children. Two daughters, Christian and Janet, and a son, Allan, survived him. This son, who appears to have received an excellent education, was born with a genius both for poetry and for painting. He studied the imitative art at London and at Rome, which he practised as a profession, and having risen to distinction as a scholar and a painter, he died on the 10th of August, 1784, at Dover, on his return from France. Allan Ramsay, the painter, was twice married, first to Miss Bayne, the daughter of Mr. Professor Bayne of Edinburgh, and the sister of the late gallant Captain Bayne of the navy, by whom he had a daughter who died under age. He married for his second wife the eldest daughter of Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, Baronet, by Emilia, the daughter of the Viscount of Stormont, and niece to the great Earl of Mansfield. She was also the sister of the late Sir David Lindsay and Sir John Lindsay; she died in 1782, leaving by Allan Ramsay a daughter who married the late General Sir Archibald Campbell, K.B.; a daughter who married Colonel Malcolm; and a son who is the male representative of our poet, Lieutenant-Colonel John Ramsay, of the third regiment of Foot Guards.
RAMSAY, the poet, left behind him so many intimations with regard to his person and his character that the diligent biographer has more to compile than to conjecture. Of himself his vanity delighted to speak:
Imprimis, then, for tallness, I
Am five foot and four inches high
A black-a-vice dapper fellow,
Nor lean, nor 'overlaid with tallow.
As he advanced in years his appearance no doubt changed. He is described by those who remember him as a squat man with a big belly and a smiling countenance, who wore a fair round wig which was rather short. He described himself at a different period, when his vanity was studious to tell—
—I the best and fairest please;
A little man that lo'es my ease;
And never thole these passions lang,
That rudely mint to do me wrang.
With all his socialness and conviviality he never indulged to excess in the pleasures of the table:
I hate a drunkard or a glutton,
Yet I'm nae fae to wine and mutton.
Then, for the fabrick of my mind,
'Tis mair to mirth than grief inclin'd;
I rather choose to laugh at folly,
Than shew dislike by melancholy.
As to his religion, he honestly avowed his creed:—
Neist, Anti-Toland, Blunt, and Whiston,
Know positively I'm a Christian,
Believing truths and thinking free,
Wishing thrawn parties would agree.
With regard to his politics, he confessed to Arbuckle:—
Well then, I'm neither Whig nor Tory,
Nor credit give to purgatory.
But there was another party, the Jacobites, for which RAMSAY had a predilection whatever neutrality he might affect. As a poet he naturally loved freedom and arrogated independence, as all the poets are fond of courting the mountain nymph, sweet Liberty. Of the great propensities of his lengthened life he declares:—
I never could imagine't vicious
Of a fair fame to be ambitious,
Proud to be thought a comic poet,
And let a judge of numbers know it;
I court occasion thus to show it.
He avowed also, in plain prose, "That I have expressed my thoughts in my native dialect, which was not only inclination, but the desire of my best and wisest friends; and most reasonable, since good imagery, just similes, and all manner of ingenious thoughts, in a well-laid design, is poetry; then, good poetry may be in any language."
About his learning he is equally explicit in making his acknowledgments. He declares without blushing, that "I understand Horace but faintly in the original, and yet can feast on his beautiful thoughts dressed in British [English]; and perhaps it had been no worse for the great 'Lyric' if Doctor Bentley had understood the Latin tongue as little as I." He is equally explicit as to his ignorance of the Greek: "The Scoticisms which perhaps may offend some over-nice ear, give new life and grace to the poetry, and become their places as well as the Doric dialect of Theocritus, which is so much admired by the best judges; when I mention that tongue, I bewail my own little knowledge of it." Yet RAMSAY, like other half-learned men, was studious at times to show his erudition. He cultivated the acquaintance of Ruddiman, who was always ready to spare to the needy and helpless a part of his own stores of classic lore. From this fountain of learning RAMSAY easily drew the Latin and Greek mottos which he frequently prefixed to his separate pamphlets, and which, as unsuitable to such poems by such a bard, have been excluded front these volumes. Scholars did not want such mottos, and the unlearned wish such obstructions out of their way.
Our poet, whatever might be the humility of his pretensions, had his maligners and competitors. I greatly suspect that Alexander Pennecuik, citizen of Edinburgh, who was called "that famous and learned poet," wrote The Flight of Religious Piety from Scotland, upon account of RAMSAY'S lewd books. This Alexander Pennecuik must be distinguished from Dr. Alexander Pennecuik, a physician in Tweeddale, who published a topographical description of that pastoral district in 1715, and who was also ambitious of public fame as a poet and topographer. The rival of RAMSAY was a much younger person, who resided in Edinburgh, where he published Streams from Helicon, and other miscellanies, from time to time, while RAMSAY rose into notice notwithstanding his rivalry.