Allan Ramsay

Charles MacKay, "Life of Allan Ramsay" in Burns, Ramsay, and the earlier Poets of Scotland (nd, 1860 ca.) 1:i-vii.

No apology is needed to launch before the British public another edition of the works of Allan Ramsay. He was the poet of a time, if not of all time; and his "Gentle Shepherd" (not to specify some others of his works) entitles him to a distinguished place among the eminent men of his country.

It is hardly possible to ignore the fact that Allan Ramsay is by no means so highly esteemed at present as he was in the eighteenth century. The greater brilliancy of Burns has thrown his glory into the shade. He is no longer, as he was a hundred and fifty years ago, the national poet of Scotland. Many good and true Scotsmen know little about him but his name; and scholars south of the Tweed think it quite sufficient to have dipped into his chef-d'oeuvre with the assistance of a dictionary. But Allan Ramsay has become, if not a popular, at any rate a classic author, and no student of literature can be said to have fairly finished his education who has not read the "Gentle Shepherd."

Without claiming for our author as high a pedestal as that occupied by the poet whose "Pastor Fido" he to some extent imitated, we cannot deny that he is entitled to a place in the same sanctuary. No admirer of Guarini will refuse his tribute of admiration to the pastoral dramatist of Scotland. It should be borne in mind by those who depreciate the works of this author, that there is an aristocracy of genius as well as of descent, and that all members of an aristocracy are to a certain extent equals. Dukes, Earls, and Barons are alike peers of the realm, and some baronets exist who have as good blood in them as the heir to the throne. So with Allan Ramsay. Whatever his relative position in the aristocracy of talent, he is still a poet, and as such requires the attention of the biographer.

Allan Ramsay first saw the light on the 15th of October, 1686, at a place called Leadhill, in Lanarkshire. He was the son of one Robert Ramsay, who superintended the lead-mills of Crauford Moor for Lord Hopetown, and the grandson of Robert Ramsay, a writer in Edinburgh. Captain John Ramsay was his great grandfather, and it is from this worthy that he derived some portion of that gentle blood of which he was so prone to boast, the captain being related in some remote manner to the Earls of Dalhousie. Ramsay's mother was one Alice Bower, who claimed connection with the famous family of Douglas. Biography informs us, with a sort of triumph, that his grandmother was a Douglas, and moreover a Douglas of Muthill! This fact may not be interesting to English readers, but there can be little doubt that it was eminently so to our author, as well as to that numerous class of persons who imagine that a man of genius must necessarily have a pedigree, if you only search far enough and with sufficient zeal. "He was a poet sprung from a Douglas loin" are the poet's own words, and one can imagine the pride with which they were written. Pride of ancestry is indeed a failing from which neither poets nor philosophers are exempt. They who are their own ancestors appear to take particular pleasure in depriving themselves of that crowning honour, and to accept of fame at second-hand rather than to acknowledge that they are descended from nobody! When Napoleon said that he was his own grandfather, he said what few great men have been bold enough to say before or since; and Ramsay must be pardoned if he shared what is after all a common weakness. Perhaps as there are Buccleuchs who look with peculiar pleasure on their relationship (real or supposed) with the author of the "Waverley Novels," so there may be Douglases of Muthill, and elsewhere, who may rejoice at the thought of being related to the author of the "Gentle Shepherd." At any rate there are Dalhousies who, if report speaks truly, find a particular charm in those lines of Ramsay in which he alludes to his paternal ancestry.

Dalhousie of an auld descent,
My chief, my steep, my ornament,

are words not likely to give offence to any member of the Dalhousie family.

Ramsay had the misfortune to lose his father while he was yet a child, and this loss was quickly followed by the comparative loss of his mother, who married again. Biographers — Ramsay had a host of biographers — are not quite certain whether this last was a bona-fide calamity, or whether it was not better for the future author to have a father of some sort rather than no father at all, even if that father took from him some of the maternal tenderness. At any rate it is certain that he received an early notice to quit from Mr. Crighton — such ws the name of his second parent — and became, at the age of fifteen, apprentice to a wig-maker in Edinburgh, where, with his head moderately stocked with what knowledge he had picked up at the parish school, he set to work "decorating" the heads of others. He appears to have got on pretty well at this business, and to have remained in it a considerable time with some credit as well as profit to himself.

It was at twenty-six, namely in the year 1712, that he embarked in what must ever be considered a most serious undertaking for a young man entering life. He married — and all for love, as it appears — a young woman named Christian Ross, the daughter of a lawyer in Edinburgh, who promptly brought him a "strong, healthy child" — a nine months' gift — who grew up to inherit his father's genius. Each year for a considerable time did Mrs. Ramsay thus give proofs of her affection, and our author soon found himself the sire of a large family. It ought to be mentioned that this circumstance afforded him the liveliest satisfaction.

About the time of his marriage Ramsay became a member of the "Easy Club," a society which he has immortalised in his writings, and whose sittings lasted till the Rebellion of 1715, when it was suppressed, not, however, before it had declared that Gawin Douglas (the "Club" name of Allan Ramsay) "having behaved himself well for three years, was adjudged to be a gentleman." Other distinction, however, had been conferred upon him, for a few months previously he had been chosen poet-laureate of the club. It may readily be conceived that this honour was not bestowed before he had given some proofs of his poetical ability. In fact he had read before the society several of his compositions, of which the earliest is a sort of ode dedicated to the "Most Happy Members of the Easy Club," and supposed to be his first attempt at versification. The "Elegy on Maggy Johnston" — a humorous piece in which the author laments the shutting up of a favourite haunt in which he and his cronies used to meet for convivial purposes — is likewise one of his club poems. Others which he did not allow to be printed have since been brought to light; thanks to the zeal of some literary admirers who did not discover, till too late, that they were conferring a very questionable honour on the poet of their predilection.

It was about the period of the Rebellion that Ramsay first directed his attention towards the publication of his poems. His habits of business made him look upon the Muse as a sort of stock in trade, which he was justified in putting out at interest. If he was favoured with celestial visits, he determined to make his visitor pay for her board and lodging. Other poets — Otway, Savage, Chatterton, Poe — have been starved out of house and home in their attempts to make a similar arrangement. But with Ramsay the main object in life was to get on, and it is presumable (from his peculiar tone of mind) that if he had found rhyming a bad business, he would have paid less attention to it.

Ramsay's first publications were a series of penny and halfpenny sheets, which were sold separately, and which seem to have partaken of the nature of street ballads. "In this form," says Mr. Chalmers, "his poetry was at that time attractive, and the women of Edinburgh were wont to send out their children with a penny to buy 'Ramsay's last piece.'" Herein consisted in a great measure the success of Allan Ramsay; he suited his genius to his audience. He did not write epics, because he had doubtless discovered that there was no demand for epics. Probably if there had been a demand for them, he would have done his best to supply it.

Meantime Pegasus was paying for his keep, and the pennies of the good people of Edinburgh were helping to feed the little mouths that no amount of epics would have appeased, even if their progenitor had been as great a man as Homer. Allan Ramsay, junior, the painter of future years, was now a little lad of two summers, the eldest of three children.

Our author appears to have been occupied about this time in rummaging up some of the old literature of Scotland, and in the course of his researches came upon a humorous poem by James I. of Scotland,. entitled "Christ's Kirk on the Green." This he published in 1716 (while he was yet carrying on the business of a wig-maker), with an original canto of his own, in the shape of a sequel. The publication met with so decided a success that Ramsay was induced, in 1718, to add a third part. These "modern antiques" were generally allowed by contemporary criticism to be at least equal to the original. How much praise that is, can only be ascertained by those who have the courage to wade through the two poems. Speaking of the modern work, Mr. Chalmers says that "it has puzzled all the commentators," while he expresses a strong doubt whether Ramsay himself thoroughly understood the language of the poet whose work he was imitating. All things considered, it is better, perhaps, to be satisfied with the original verdict.

Ramsay was now encouraged to make a collection of his fugitive pieces. He published them in 1721, under the auspices of a long and fashionable list of subscribers, the volume being a handsome quarto, printed by Ruddiman. By this enterprise our author cleared four hundred guineas, a large sum, and which at once placed him in a foremost position among fortunate poets. It will be seen that Ramsay had a shrewd eye for business, and was far from endorsing the popular belief that a poet should necessarily be out at elbows. Meantime his "Christ's Kirk on the Green" reached (1722) its fifth edition, and obtained for him the applause of many persons of wit and position. Among his eulogists were Sir William Scott, of Thirlstane, a contemporary poet, and Josiah Burchet, Secretary of the Admiralty, both of whom indited verses to him, which have been faithfully preserved by the lovers of Scottish minstrelsy.

Ramsay's next works were his "Fables and Tales," and a "Tale of Three Bonnets" (1722), his "Fair Assembly" (1723), and his poem on "Health" (1724). These works were very favourably received at the time, but they do not appear, as a rule, to have fascinated the critics. Lord Woodhouselee speaks very flatteringly of the "Monk and the Miller's Wife," a humorous poem of considerable merit, and even claims for Ramsay a place by the side of Chaucer and Boccacio. He speaks less enthusiastically of the "Fables," which, with few exceptions, he observes are entitled to "no high commendation." Perhaps, however, it will be found that Ramsay has as much right to be placed side by side with Aesop as to incur the odium of a comparison either with Chaucer or Boccacio. There is no surer way of depreciating a writer than by awarding him too much honour.

In 1724 our author made his first large attempt at compilation, and published in one volume the first part of his "Tea-Table Miscellany," a collection of Scottish and English songs, gallantly dedicated to "ilka lovely British lass wha dances barefoot on the green." This volume met with great success, and was quickly followed by a second, which contained nearly a hundred original compositions, of which sixty were contributed by Ramsay himself, the rest being composed by some "ingenious young gentlemen," tyros at the art of numbers who appear never to have reached Parnassus. However, this second volume was successful, and in 1727 Ramsay was induced to publish a third, he having at that time abandoned his trade of a wig-maker to adopt that of a bookseller. This congenial change no doubt contributed largely to his literary advancement, as he was thus enabled as a bookseller to propagate the fame he he had acquired as a poet. An additional volume of the "Miscellany" was subsequently published, but whether edited by Ramsay is not determined. Ramsay's collection ran through twelve editions, and is deservedly considered, at the present day, one of the best of the kind that has appeared in any country.

Ramsay was now (1727) a man of some years and experience. He was not old, it is true, but as the French say, his "forty years were well counted." He had established a reputation as a bookseller, and was on the high road to that competence which awaited him at the end of his career. But we must go back some years, namely to 1724, in order to follow his genius through its chronological development. He was already preparing at this period for the legitimate publication and extension of those two poems, "Patie and Roger: a Pastoral" (included in his quarto of 1721), and "Jenny and Meggy" (published in 1723 with the "Fair Assembly"), which were destined under the title of the "Gentle Shepherd" to confer so much glory on the Scottish bard. But he was also engaged on a less successful work — a work which at the same time challenges and even provokes attention. No biography of Ramsay would be complete without a reference to the "Evergreen," that curious compilation of "Scots Poems" which gave rise to so much controversy after the death of the compiler.

The "Evergreen" was published in the October of 1724. It purported to be a collection of Scotch pieces written "by the ingenious before 1600." The "ingenious," however, are found to have contributed to it not only after 1600, but after 1700, and even after 1715. The most ingenious of these contributors was Allan Ramsay himself; who published in this collection his fine poem of the "Vision," which his enemies were apt to say was better than anything of Allan Ramsay's! The "Vision" was stated to have been "compylit in Latin, anno 1300," and was signed AR. SCOT, which turns out on inspection to be a feigned name made up partly of the initials of the poet and partly of the word "Scot," signifying Scotchman. The certainty of this deception at once places Ramsay in the category of such writers as Chatterton and Macpherson. There is no mincing the matter: Allan Ramsay was, to a certain extent — a very limited one, it must be allowed — a literary impostor. He inserted in his collection of "Scots Poems, wrote by the ingenious before 1600," poems which he knew very well were written after 1700. But for the publication of the "Evergreen," the world might never have learnt to doubt the veracity of Allan Ramsay. On the other hand, had the "Evergreen" not come down to us, the "Vision" — its principal attraction — would have been wanting, and the poet would have lost one of the noblest of his laurels. It is better, perhaps, as it is. At any rate it is certain, that what Ramsay has lost in character, he has gained in poetic fame. The world deals mercifully with literary frauds, the more so, perhaps, as the world is likely to be a gainer by them. On the other hand, who does not feel for those gentlemen who spent years of their lives in fruitless researches, all because a Ramsay would not own that he was the author of the "Vision," or a Chatterton that he wrote the "Rowley Manuscripts"? Perhaps the less we say on the matter the better for our author, who certainly deserves enough at our hands to be spared any unnecessary reproaches. There are spots on the sun; our author was not without his. His gravest fault was that he was a dishonest editor. We must not forget, however, that he wrote one of the finest pastorals in any language, and that the authorship of the "Gentle Shepherd" is a passport to immortality as good as any that has been signed of late years.

The "Gentle Shepherd" was first published in the year 1725, with a dedication to the Right Honourable Susanna, Countess of Eglintoun. Ramsay was very fond of attracting the rich. However lowly his Muse on some occasions (and on this occasion she was a buxom Highland lass), he lost no opportunity of introducing her into the best circles. The genesis of the "Gentle Shepherd" has been traced by some critics — and among others by Mr. Chalmers — to a passage in the "Faerie Queen," where a gentle shepherd is casually alluded to. But at most this derivation can concern the name only. The true origin of the poem, besides being in itself obvious, is well authenticated by no less an authority than Allan Ramsay himself, who pleads guilty to a gentle plagiarism of the "Faithful Shepherd," a work which he has imitated as well in dramatic construction as in poetical treatment. A year before the publication of his famous Pastoral, our author gave some account of it in a letter to his friend William Ramsay, of Templehall, which letter is still extant. "This vacation," he says, "I am going through with a dramatic pastoral, which I design to carry the length of five acts, verse a' the gate [all the way]; and if I succeed according to my plan, I hope to cope with the authors of 'Pastor Fido' and 'Aminta.'" No small pretension this, one would think, on the part of any poet!

For what writer would venture now-a-days, even in his most elated mood, to throw down a challenge to such authors as Guarini and Tasso! Ramsay, however, was well backed by his friends, and one of his critics (Lord Woodhouselee) distinctly asserts the superiority of the "Gentle Shepherd" over the two works which inspired it, more especially over the "Aminta." After an elaborate inquiry into the relative claims of each, he descants — in terms that must be as flattering to the patriotism of a Scotchman as they must be unpalatable to his scholarship — on the superior claims of the Scottish poet. "If we compare him," he observes (meaning Tasso), "where the similarity of the subject allows a comparison with our author, how poor does the Italian appear in the competition!" This questionable verdict has been repeated by others, who are doubtless ratified on so good an authority to exalt their favourite bard without the preliminary trouble of examining the rival claimant. But no one indeed but a very partial Scotchman would have thought of instituting such a rivalry; and it is the best kindness as well as the truest wisdom to remember how much has been said about the odiousness of such comparisons. If Ramsay provoked them by his confidential letter to his friend, it must be remembered that that letter was confidential. Had he dreamed that it would have been published, it is more than probable that he would never have penned it; and we ought never to blame a man for what has been raked up about him after his death. Let the "Gentle Shepherd" stand on its own merits. It has too many of these to require any propping up by collateral circumstances; and this its admirers will discover if, setting aside the verdict of Lord Woodhouselee, they judge it in connection with that society and that natural scenery of which it is the poetical embodiment. No opinion of any single man should be taken on such a subject. For who is better entitled to an opinion than Ramsay's own son, a painter, and to some extent a follower of the Muses? And yet Ramsay the Younger had a poor opinion of his father's masterpiece. Nay, Ramsay himself, at a late period of his life, regretted that half of his works had not been burnt before going to press; and Guarini much deplored that he could not have an opportunity of rewriting the whole of the "Pastor Fido!" The world forms its own opinion on these matters in spite both of author and critic; and will neither concede to Ramsay the merit of having eclipsed his predecessors, nor sanction any destruction of his verses which shall include the "Gentle Shepherd." It has worthily stood the test of generations resisting at once the attacks of foes and the flatteries of friends, whose kindness is oftentimes more damaging than the shafts of enmity. On the whole, its place is well marked; and without agreeing with Burns that it is the "most glorious poem ever written" (which would be doing injustice, by the way, to Burns's own productions of "Tam o' Shanter" and the "Cotter's Saturday Night"), we must agree with Mr. Chalmers in saying that it is one of the finest pastoral comedies in any language," and honour its author to the end that he may in no wise be excluded from the glorious fraternity of poets. No congress of bards would be complete without him, and though neither a Guarini or a Tasso, he is yet (in royal parlance) the "very good brother" of Shakspere himself, who only excelled him, as he excels others, by his superabundance of that fire without which no such poem as the "Gentle Shepherd" could have been penned. It must be mentioned of this "Pastoral" that it was written for dramatic representation as well as for the field and the study, and that it held honourable and successful possession of the stage. It has gone through many editions, almost as many as any secondary work in the language. It is immensely popular in certain parts of Scotland, where persons gifted with the power of Lady Strange are by no means uncommon. It is to the Scottish peasantry what the "Jensalem Delivered" is to the boatmen of Venice. It is sung and recited at their wakes, on festive and on homely occasions. Though Ramsay has been in a measure dethroned by Robert Burns, his chief work has not been cast down. Burns did it notable honour, and took it with him to the pedestal of his predecessor.

Ramsay's next work was a "Collection of Thirty Fables," published in 1730, a species of composition in which he delighted, but which was hardly the most successful of his minor efforts. He was now forty-five years of age, having, during twenty of those years, as is quaintly observed by one of his biographers, endeavoured to "please his countrymen and to benefit himself." He now appears to have rested from his labours, for in a letter dated 1736, he says, "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."

In the meantime he had been devoting himself with increased energy to his business, which was now in a flourishing condition. He had removed from his original shop in Niddry's Close to one in the High Street, where he changed his sign of the "Mercury" for one comprising the heads of Ben Jonson and William Drummond. He now began to let out books as well as to sell them, and to him belongs the honour of having established the first circulating library in Scotland. He was the Mudie of his day, and his shop, like that of the barber's of Spain, was the resort at once of wits and dandies and those who had secrets to learn or to divulge. He was, in fact, a sort of literary Figaro, esteemed and required by all who had a enchant for literature, or whose flirtations with the Muses required a sponsor or a confidant. He was a "crony" of many persons of distinction, among whom was the poet Gay, and had the satisfaction of being admired by Alexander Pope. Among his intimate friends may be cited Lord Lyon Brodie, Sir John Clerk, Sir William Bennet, Sir Alexander Dick, Sir William Scott, and, if report speak truth, the Duke of Hamilton and the Earl of Loudoun, at whose houses he assuredly visited, and that on more than one occasion. The wig-maker's apprentice had thus, in a comparatively short period, elevated himself to a place of high social distinction, and compelled society to do him honour both as a bard and a bookseller. But an evil hour was in store for him. He was destined at one blow to lose much of his well-acquired fortune, and to see the blighting of his hopes from a quarter whence he expected encouragement.

It was at the age of fifty, namely in the year 1736, that his passion for the stage led him to commit the only blunder that has been recorded of him. He built a large theatre in Carruber's Close at his own expense, and brought together and superintended a troop of actors. He had his own notions about the drama, which were peculiar enough in his age, but which would hardly, perhaps, distinguish a man in this. He thought dramatic representation a happy medium for instructing and purifying the masses. Doubtless a more selfish motive operated on his conduct, and as poetry had been a trade, so philanthropy was, to some extent, a speculation with him. He did not build his theatre from motives of sheer benevolence. He expected — and reasonably enough — a good return for his money. But in this he was disappointed; for in less than a year his theatre was shut up, consequent on the passing of a law for stage licences, and our author was nearly reduced to bankruptcy. He bore up bravely, however, against his adversity, and in ten years' time, after having repaired his shattered fortunes, he had the satisfaction of seeing the drama re-established in Edinburgh on a permanent if not on altogether a legitimate footing.

Previous to this time his wife died (1743), plunging him into intense grief, but eliciting no elegy from her poet-husband. Ramsay's gifts were the reverse of Byron's; he could not sing on a home-sorrow; and partly on this account, and partly on account of his vow (he had pledged himself to write "no more poetry"), grubbers up of literary scandal have no opportunity of peering into the secret heart of Allan Ramsay. There can be no doubt that he was deeply attached to his wife, whose three daughters can but indifferently have supplied her place. He retired from business in 1755, and built a house of retreat on the Castle Hill, in which he lived till the end of his days. This arrived sooner than he expected, for after having at the age of seventy infringed his own law, and written rhyme if not "reason" to foretell his own death thirty years after date, he expired — in some degree shattered by a violent scurvy that had affected his gums — on the 7th day of January, 1758. So died, at the venerable age of seventy-two, this remarkable man, who is one of the few poets who have made a competency out of their writings, and who enjoyed in his lifetime a celebrity but too often only accorded to the dead.