Robert Fergusson

Charles MacKay, "Memoir of Robert Fergusson" in Burns, Ramsay, and the earlier Poets of Scotland (nd, 1860 ca.) 1:503-06.

ROBERT FERGUSSON — one of those unfortunate men of genius whose very virtues and geniality of disposition are made the causes of their social overthrow, and whose melancholy history points the ancient moral, that no talents are available, however great, to make their possessor happy, without worldly prudence, and cautious self-control — was born in Edinburgh on the 5th of September, 1751. His father, William, was a native of Aberdeen, whence he removed to Edinburgh in 1746 in search of employment as a mercantile clerk. After a series of struggles, he obtained a situation in the service of the "British Linen Company," by when, he was employed as accountant. By his wife, Elizabeth Forbes, he had two sons, of whom Robert was the younger, and two daughters. Robert was so weakly and delicate a child, that until he had attained his fifth year his parents scarcely conceived it possible to rear him. At the too early age of six he was sent to a day school in Niddy's Wynd, where he soon attracted the attention of his teachers by his extraordinary aptitude for learning, and his passion for books of romance, of poetry, and of adventure. His parents, with a feeling that was then, as it is now, widely spread among the humbler classes of the Scottish people, no sooner observed the cleverness of the child than they destined him for the Church, and at the age of thirteen — after some preliminary schooling at the High School of Edinburgh, and at Dundee — he entered as a student at the University of St. Andrew's, where his father had influence enough to procure him a "bursary," or exhibition, endowed by a gentleman of the name of Fergusson, for the benefit of poor persons of the same clan or patronymic. "At St. Andrew's," says his friendly biographer, Mr. Peterkin, "he became conspicuous for the respectability of his classical acquirements, and for those uncommon powers of conversation which, in his more advanced years, fascinated the associates of his convivial hours. The study of poetry seems also to have attracted his regard, more than the scholastic and mathematical branches of science. It was during his residence at St. Andrew's that he first 'committed the sin of rhyme.' His juvenile verses were thought to possess considerable merit; and even the professors, it is said, took particular notice of them. It has not been ascertained what was the first object that awakened his fancy, and gave a poetical impulse to his genius; but it is believed the first inspirations of his muse were poured forth in satirical castigation of his instructors, and in the commonplace trifles such as a boy usually writes. The abilities of young Fergusson secured him the regard of Dr. Wilkie, author of the 'Epigoniad,' and at that time professor of natural philosophy in the University." Some censure passed upon him by his academical superiors for a youthful frolic, led in after times to the publication of a statement that he had been actually expelled; but such does not appear to have been the case, for he enjoyed his bursary to the full period of four years for which it was granted. His father had died two years previously, leaving his mother in poverty; and when the little income of his bursary was no longer available for his support at college, he had no resources left by which to continue his studies, and no alternative but to return to his mother, and renounce the cherished idea of entering the Church. But he did not return to be a burden upon her poverty, and to pass a life of hopeless inactivity, and had scarcely paid her the tribute of his filial respect, when he set out on foot from Edinburgh to Aberdeen to pay a visit to her brother — one John Forbes — who had acquired a considerable fortune in trade, and was reputed to be a man of literary taste, and of some learning. To him Fergusson looked for some help, either to procure him immediate employment suitable to the education he had received, or to enable him to tide over the probationary period of struggle through which youthful poverty is doomed to pass ere a footing can be obtained in the world's good opinion. The uncle received him with kindness, was amused with his conversation, and gave him bed and board in his house for several months. But bed and board were the limits of his generosity, and when the clothes and shoes of the young man were worn out, he never offered to give him a new outfit, but took advantage of the general shabbiness of his attire to tell him that he was unfit to sit at the table of a gentleman.

"Deeply wounded in his spirit by such unworthy treatment," says Mr. Peterkin, "he retired from the inhospitable dwelling to a petty alehouse in the neighbourhood. In a letter to his uncle from this place, he gave vent to the feelings of his heart, in a strain of reproach, indignation, and independence, worthy of the pride and sensibility of a poet. He had scarcely left the house, when his uncle felt the qualms of compunction: a messenger was despatched after the exiled Fergusson, with a few shillings to defray his expenses on the homeward road. This peace-offering the poor boy was constrained to accept, in order to avoid the more terrible alternatives of begging, or of perishing for want."

After a fatiguing journey on foot from Aberdeen, which he had accomplished under the united tortures of mortification, resentment, and despondency, he reached his mother's house in Edinburgh. His bodily fatigue, and the chagrin arising from disappointed hopes, confined him to bed for several days after his arrival. On his recovery from the shock which his feelings had received, he found a temporary alleviation of his sufferings in writing verses, "On the Decay of Friendship," and "Against repining at Fortune." How long he remained in compulsory idleness in Edinburgh after this sore disappointment is not stated by his biographers; but he managed after an interval to procure the appointment of assistant or supernumerary clerk in the office of the Commissary Clerk of Edinburgh, in which he continued during the remainder of his short life, with the exception of a few months, during which he found more lucrative but less congenial employment in the office of the Sheriff Clerk.

Like the youth immortalised by Pope,

Condemned his father's soul to cross,
Who penned a stanza when he should engross,

Fergusson's heart was in poetry, and not in his business. He meditated a great poem on the life and exploits of the Scottish hero, Sir William Wallace, and became a constant contributor to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine — a popular and respectable miscellany of the day — for which he received much praise, but no pay, and became well known to the leading literati of Edinburgh. As time wore on, his dislike to business and his love of literature increased. He sang, as well as wrote, Scottish songs, and sang so sweetly and so readily that his society was courted by all the wit, wealth, and fashion of the Scottish metropolis. Upon the fatal rock of conviviality he at last made shipwreck. "His unassuming manners, his wit, and his convivial talents, gave pleasure to all, but chiefly to the young and the gay. He was ingenuous, affable, manly, and generous. His conversation was that of a gentleman and a scholar; his wit the spontaneous and captivating offspring of genius; his song was that simple but powerful melody which, as its energies are directed, arouses, or ravishes, or subdues. Tavern parties and clubs were the spheres which his wit and song too frequently enlivened; and these at length undermined his constitution, sullied his respectability, and disordered his reason."

For nearly six years be led this life, and men who had it in their power to befriend him, and push his literary fortunes, were contented to enjoy his society, and to do nothing for him but to pay for the drink which excited his imagination, added pungency to his wit, and breadth to his humour, and made him fox the time more capable of administering to their selfish amusement. And one vice, as is but too common, brought others in its train, and poor Fergusson experienced the first premonitory symptoms of "delirium tremens." But the waiting was in vain and too late. A deplorable accident, the consequence of his own excess, expedited the final catastrophe. On returning home from a tavern party, where his wit and vocal powers had charmed the selfish circle that had congregated to feast him, he fell down a stone staircase, and received so serious an injury on his brain that he never recovered from it. The incipient insanity became fully developed. When carried to his mother's house, he could give no account of the manner in which the accident had befallen him, and seemed totally insensible of his deplorable condition. He soon arrived at a state of the most frantic madness, and his poor mother, neither having the means to nurse him at home nor to pay for him elsewhere, procured his admission, after two months of difficulties, to the pauper lunatic asylum, where he shortly afterwards expired.

Let us draw the pitying veil over the melancholy details of his last hours, and let he who is without sin, and he only, dare to throw a stone or a slur at his memory, or do other than heave a sympathetic sigh after the perusal of the short, sad story of a life that might have been so happy if it had been cast in a time when intoxication was not fashionable, and in a state of society less coarse than that of Edinburgh in the latter portion of the eighteenth century. Fergusson died on the 15th of October, 1774, a few weeks after he had completed his twenty-fourth year, and was buried in the churchyard of the Canongate. His sad story made a deep impression on one youthful mind. Robert Burns, then in his fifteenth year, pondered the fate of Fergusson, and thirteen years afterwards (1787), in the full flush of his own genius and popularity, made a pilgrimage to the undistinguished grave of his brother poet, uncovered his head reverently, and kneeling down upon the sod, kissed the earth that concealed the sacred dust of a man of genius, in whose history he saw something like the foreshadowing of his own. He had obtained possession of a considerable sum of money by the fortunate issue of his one poetical venture — an advantage that had never befallen Fergusson — and obtained permission to erect at his own expense a simple monument over the grave. On one side of the stone is engraved, from Burns' own pen, the following lines:—

No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay,
'No storied urn nor animated bust,'
This simple stone directs pale Scotia's way,
To pour her sorrows o'er her Poet's dust.

And on the other:—


Fergusson published a small collection of his poems the year before he died; and after his death, a fuller collection, including some posthumous pieces, was published; but it was not until 1807, when Peterkin's edition appeared, that adequate justice was done to his literary character. More need not be said of him—

For shall the bard alone
Have all his follies known,
Dug from the misty past to spice a needless book?
That Envy may exclaim,
At mention of his name,
The greatest are but small, however great they look.

The following verses were written under a portrait of Fergusson by Robert Burns, in a copy of that writer's works, presented to a young lady in Edinburgh, in March, 1787:—

Curse on ungrateful man, that can be pleased,
And yet can starve the author of the pleasure!
Oh thou, my elder brother in misfortune,
By far my elder brother in the Muses,
With tears I pity thy unhappy fate!
Why is the bard unpitied by the world,
Yet has so keen a relish of its pleasures?

The evil that there may be in poets' lives should be interred with their bones, if the good that is done by their writings survives to shed a glory upon literature. Fergusson's writings testify to his genius, and it is almost enough to secure him affectionate remembrance that his fate should have inspired such a poet as Burns with sympathy, and left such a monument, as ennobling to the memory of the one poet to receive as to that of the other to bestow.