1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

James Gray, "The Life of Robert Fergusson" in Poems of Robert Fergusson (1821) vii-xvi.



"Teachers best of moral wisdom": With the utmost truth is this remark applied by Milton to the poets. Works of philosophy and science are only the study of a few superior minds, but the productions of imagination are perused by men of every description. The learned and the ignorant, the grave and the gay, the young and the old, find something attractive in the varied pages of the inspired bard. Hence is the tendency of such effusions of the utmost importance, in forming the taste, and cultivating the moral perceptions, especially of the youthful mind. A heroic spirit has been roused by a patriotic song, a hard and proud mind softened to sympathy by a powerful representation of fictitious distress. The distant wanderer, restored to his native scenes by a lively description, has blest the poet's pen; the solitary thoughts of the invalid have been transported to green fields and cooling streams, and his languid or charmed with the woodland song; even the pious soul is awakened to a more exalted feeling of devotion by the divine strains of the inspired minstrel.

The pleasure we derive from the works of the poet naturally leads us to reflect on his character; we feel more acquainted with him than with authors of a different description; and it is only in him that we not only allow egotism, but perhaps feel most interested when he speaks of himself. We feel the deepest sympathy in Milton's blindness. In reading Cowper, we delight in the sweet shades of Olney, and wish we could take a seat on the sofa, and participate in the intellectual conversation of its drawing-room. Can a Scotsman think of Burns repeating the Cottar's Saturday-night to his brother Gilbert, when returning from a hard day's labour at the plough, without a proud feeling that he belongs to a country that could produce such peasants? Can we read his pathetic lamentation, when he, thought he had lost the affections of the woman he loved, without being convinced of the tenderness of his heart? or the manly sentiments of his independent spirit, without regretting that that spirit, was broken, though not to be overcome by "stern ruin's ploughshare?" How much do we lament that we know so little of Shakspeare, who knew so much of us all; whose living scenes could depict every human heart, and lay open its inmost feelings; whose portraits represent the concealed villain in his native colours, till the resemblance awakens the anguish of remorse; whose wild imagery transports us to a different region of existence; whose tenderness softens the hardest, whose sublimity exalts the lowest, and whose humour rouses the most torpid mind.

The poet, in whose page we perceive the most of nature's impulses, creates in us the deepest interest, and we peruse, with peculiar pleasure, a description of scenes, and a delineation of feelings and sentiments, that are familiar with our own associations. If misfortune be the attendant of so gifted a being, his idea is accompanied in our minds with a tender regret, and all earnest wish that we had known him in his days of sorrow, and contributed our aid to lighten the burden. The union of misfortune and genius has long been proverbial; a subject of lamentation to the generous and the enlightened, and of scoffing and exultation to the stupid and illiberal. To what extent it prevails, or the various causes from which it may originate, it is not my intention to inquire; but it is too true, that ROBERT FERGUSSON, the individual whose character and history I am about attempting to describe, is a melancholy instance of it.

He was the son of William Fergusson, who held the office of an accountant in the British Linen Company's Bank, and who died early, leaving a widow, two sons, and two daughters, unprovided for. Henry, the eldest son, went to sea. Our poet, the youngest, only 15 years old, was then at St. Andrews, a student of divinity, having obtained a bursary in that university. He was born at Edinburgh, 5th September 1751, and had received the early part of his classical education during a four years' attendance at the High School of Edinburgh, under the tuition of Mr. Gilchrist, and two years more at the grammar school of Dundee. He made superior progress, though he was frequently absent from bad health. At those times he acquired a love of reading, and the Bible was his favourite book. During his residence at St, Andrews, his poetical talents began to appear on several local subjects, in pieces in which he satirized the professors.

He even attempted the drama, having produced two acts of a piece entitled Sir William Wallace. He had the good fortune to obtain the favour of Dr. Wilkie, author of the Epigoniad, for which he was not ungrateful, but felt for that eminent man a warm regard and high respect, and afterwards wrote an Eclogue as a tribute to his memory. To the powerful exertions of this friend he was indebted for being reinstated in the privileges of the university, after a temporary expulsion for being a party in a foolish encounter with some of the other students, on the evening succeeding the distribution of the Earl of Kinnoul's prizes.

When the term of his bursary expired he found it necessary to relinquish his clerical studies, and try to obtain some more immediate means of subsistence; to which he was farther induced by filial duty, being anxious to assist his mother, for whom he felt the most tender attachment. For this various plans were suggested, which, alas! proved abortive. His mother and he were only the companions of sympathy; they felt how difficult it is, even to enter on the road to independence, without some powerful hand to aid them. Proud of the talents of her son, she saw them unavailing; she felt the pang of receiving the desponding look, without being able to return a glance that conveyed one enlivening ray of hope. Under these circumstances, he was induced to visit a maternal uncle in Aberdeenshire, from whose wealth and influence he might expect some advantage; but disappointment was the result. This man was of a narrow and contracted mind, and afforded him no assistance. After wasting several months in fruitless expectation, and the humiliations of neglect, he left the house of his unfeeling relation in disgust; stopped at a lively in not far off, and gave vent to the overflowings of his wounded spirit in a manly and reproachful letter, expressive of his resentment. His uncle only gave him a few shillings to defray the expenses of his journey to Edinburgh. He proceeded on foot: the way was long and wearisome — he was solitary and desponding. Overcome by exhaustion and fatigue, he arrived at his mother's house, and fell into a severe illness. All her efforts were exerted for his recovery — his mind in a short time regained its former energy, and he amused himself by composing a poem on the Decay of Friendship, and also one against the repining at Fortune.

He now became a regular contributor to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine; and his pieces excited a considerable degree of attention, though they afforded him little pecuniary aid. His mind seems to have been completely imbued with the love of rhyme; every circumstance that occurred seems to have suggested a poem — but it does not appear that he derived any important advantage from these local effusions, or attracted the smallest notice from any man of genius or literature, though there must have been many in Edinburgh at that period. In this respect he was less fortunate than Burns. No refined or enlightened mind seems to have taken any interest in the youthful Poet. No Blacklock, no Mackenzie, no Dugald Stewart "fanned the flame," or rather purified its source, and directed its progress by that intellectual conversation which is the best means of improving the taste, and correcting the moral principle. His associates were chiefly the young and the gay, whose greatest enjoyment is the convivial party, the living spirit of which Fergusson seems to have been, and the subjects he too frequently chose for his Muse were those most calculated to promote the amusement of the evening. This is the more to be regretted, as he possessed very superior and various powers of conversation. Among these unprofitable companions, however, he obtained one faithful friend in a Mr. Burnet, who went to India, and who, when his own fortunes were established, formed the generous resolution of providing for his friend. He invited him to India, and sent a remittance to defray his expenses; but, alas! this act of kindness came too late to relieve the distresses, or soothe the broken-down mind of the un fortunate object of it. This is the only instance of friendship that occurs in his short life. Of love there is no record whatever. Had his mind received a deep impression in favour of an amiable object, it might have saved him from the excesses which, there is too much reason to apprehend, accelerated his death.

Soon after his return from Aberdeenshire, he obtained a subordinate situation in the Commissary-clerk's office, but was obliged to relinquish it. He was then for some time without employment, a most perilous state for one of his sanguine temperament. At last he got an appointment in the Sheriff-clerk's office, a humble station for a young man of talents and education; but the fatal crisis of his fate approached before he experienced any further promotion.

The derangement of his mental powers was first evinced by casual imbecility. His mind had been, in common with those of keen sensibility and fine toned feeling, originally impressed with a deep sense of religion. The scriptures, during his frequent fits of indisposition, when but a child, were his constant and favourite study. One day at this, time he entered his mother's apartment in tears, calling to her to whip him; upon, her inquiring why, he cried out, O mother, he that spareth the rod, hateth the child. It is no wonder, then, that these feelings gained strength at this unhappy period. It is only to be regretted that they did not resume their power, when his mind was in a state that they could have restrained his excesses — produced uprightness of conduct, steadiness in virtue, and consolation in sorrow.

But in the soul of the unhappy maniac, it was only the horror of despair. One or two striking anecdotes are told, which prove the wildness of his ideas on that subject.

Before his confinement he was met, by Mr. Woods of the Theatre, walking with a hurried pace. On his stopping him, he cried, "I have discovered one of the reprobates that crucified our Saviour, and I am going with the information to Lord Kames, that he may bring him to punishment."

It has also been said, that his religious thoughts were rendered more gloomy, by a conversation he accidentally held with an eminent divine, in the church-yard of Haddington, on the mortal state of man. Deep impressions of religion seem to have belonged to the family; for his sister Mrs. Duval, a woman of superior intellect, was extremely eloquent upon that subject, using arguments when she encountered its foes, that "tore the Sceptic's bays."

When some hopes of his mind regaining its former powers began to dawn upon his friends, they were suddenly, blasted by his meeting with a fatal accident. He fell from a stair-case, and received a violent contusion on the head. When carried home, he was completely insensible, and soon after became so outrageous as to resist all moderate restraint. Then came the awful trial to the afflicted mother, whose limited circumstances deprived her of the power of providing proper attendance for him in her own house. In this state of deepest suffering to a maternal heart, she was compelled to part with the child of her love, the son of her pride and of her hope; she not only saw his fine talents obscured by the most humiliating malady that proud man is liable to, but she bitterly felt, that she must commit him to the care of men hardened by such sights. The unhappy patient, as is usual in such cases, was conveyed to the public asylum by a stratagem. When he arrived there, he had sufficient reason to discover his situation, and his soul was plunged into the deepest agony; he gave aloud shriek, and cast a wild and unsettled glance around the gloomy mansion. He became afterwards in some degree reconciled to his situation; his genius was not dormant; his wandering thoughts, even in his lonely cell, took a form, and one evening, while writing by moonlight, some thin clouds shaded his paper; he looked up, and with a voice of authority cried out, "Great Jupiter, snuff the moon;" a black cloud almost entirely darkening the moon, he started up, and with great vehemence of tone and gesticulation exclaimed, "Thou stupid god, thou hast snuffed it out." It is curious to remark this anecdote, (which is given on good authority), so similar to the well-known one of Nathaniel Lee, and to inquire whether it could be a coincidence of thought, or the recollection of it floating in Fergusson's mind, even in his deranged state.

It was not long before he was visited by his mother and sister; they found him calm and collected: he conversed with them in the most endearing manner, saying to the former, "O mother, this is kind indeed;" and turning to his sister, added, "Might you not come and sit by me thus? you can't imagine how comfortable it would be." He reminded them of his presentiment that he should be overwhelmed by this fatal calamity; but assured them, that he was humanely treated. All the fearful illusions of his disordered brain seemed to have subsided, and his anxious parent bade him farewell, cherishing a sanguine hope that he might be finally restored to reason. She had a remittance from her elder son, which she considered the blessed means of removing the younger from his dismal abode. Animated with this thought, she determined to bring him to her home, and immediately began preparations for his reception.

But alas! this plan of maternal love was not to be realised. Nature was exhausted; and Robert Fergusson expired in the asylum, on the 16th of October 1774, in the 24th year of his age. He was interred in the Canongate churchyard: no stone marked his grave, till Burns, actuated by a generous admiration of similar talent, erected a simple monument, on which he inscribed the following epitaph:—

ROBERT FERGUSSON, POET.
No sculptur'd 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.

By special grant of the Managers
To ROBERT BURNS, who erected this Stone,
This Burial-place is ever to remain sacred to the
Memory of
ROBERT FERGUSSON.

Previous to his confinement be had burned his manuscripts: when doing so, he observed, "I am satisfied — I feel some consolation in never having written any thing against religion." His genius must be judged by his works; his dispositions were amiable; his affections warm and generous; his manners lively and engaging; his powers in conversation entertaining and diversified. He had a fine voice, and a superior taste in music. His figure was genteel, and well-formed; his countenance possessed considerable beauty, particularly his eyes, which were dark and brilliant.