1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:581-84.



The Scottish muse had been silent for nearly a century, excepting when it found brief expression in some stray song of broad humour or simple pathos, chanted by the population of the hills and dales. The genius of the country was at length revived in all its force and nationality, its comic dialogue, Done simplicity and tenderness, by ALLAN RAMSAY, whose very name is now an impersonation of Scottish scenery and manners. The religious austerity of the Covenanters still hung over Scotland, and damped the efforts of poets and dramatists; but a freer spirit found its way into the towns, along with the increase of trade and commerce. The higher classes were in the habit of visiting London, though the journey was still performed on horseback; and the writings of Pope and Swift were circulated over the North. Clubs and taverns were rife in Edinburgh, in which the assembled wits loved to indulge in a pleasantry that often degenerated to excess. Talent was readily known and appreciated; and when Ramsay appeared as an author, he found the nation ripe for his native humour, his "manners-painting strains," and his lively original sketches of Scottish life. Allan Ramsay was born in 1686, in the village of Leadhills, Lanarkshire, where his father held the situation of manager of Lord Hopeton's mines. When he became a poet, he boasted that he was of the "auld descent" of the Dalhousie family, and also collaterally "sprung from a Douglas loin." His mother, Alice Bower, was of English parentage, her father having been brought from Derbyshire to instruct the Scottish miners in their art. Those who entertain the theory, that men of genius usually partake largely of the qualities and dispositions of their mother, may perhaps recognise some of the Derbyshire blood in Allan Ramsay's frankness and joviality of character. His father died while the poet was in his infancy; but his mother marrying again in the same district, Allan was brought up at Leadhills, and put to the village school, where he acquired learning enough to enable him, as he tells us, to read Horace "faintly in the original." His lot might have been a hard one, but it was fortunately spent in the country till he had reached his fifteenth year; and his lively temperament enabled him, with cheerfulness—

To wade through glens wi' chorking feet,
When neither plaid nor kilt could fend the weet;
Yet blythely wad he bang out o'er the brae,
And stend o'er burns as light as ony rae,
Hoping the morn might prove a better day.

At the age of fifteen, Allan was put apprentice to a wig-maker in Edinburgh — a light employment suited to his slender frame and boyish smartness, but not very congenial to his literary taste. His poetical talent, however, was more observant than creative, and he did not commence writing till he was about twenty-six years of age. He then penned an address to the "Easy Club," a convivial society of young men, tinctured with Jacobite predilections, which were also imbibed by Ramsay, and which probably formed an additional recommendation to the favour of Pope and Gay, a distinction that he afterwards enjoyed. Allan was admitted a member of this "blythe society," and became their poet laureate. He wrote various light pieces, chiefly of a local and humorous description, which were sold at a penny each, and became exceedingly popular. He also sedulously courted the patronage of the great, subduing his Jacobite feelings, and never selecting a fool for his patron. In this mingled spirit of prudence and poetry, he contrived

To theek the out, and line the inside
Of mony a douce and witty pash,
And baith ways gathered in the cash.

In the year 1712 he married a writer's daughter, Christiana Ross, who was his faithful partner for more than thirty years. He greatly extended his reputation by writing a continuation to King James's "Christ's Kirk on the Green," executed with genuine humour, fancy, and a perfect mastery of the Scottish language. Nothing so rich had appeared since the strains of Dunbar or Lindsay. What an inimitable sketch of rustic life, coarse, but as true as any by Teniers or Hogarth, is presented in the first stanza of the third canto!—

Now frae the east nook of Fife the dawn
Speeled westlins up the lift;
Carles wha heard the cock had craw'n,
Begoud to rax and rift;
And greedy wives, wi' girning thrawn,
Cried lasses up to thrift;
Dogs barked, and the lads frae hand
Banged to their breeks like drift
By break of day.

Ramsay now left off wig-making, and set up a bookseller's shop, "opposite to Niddry's Wynd." He next appeared as an editor, and published two works, "The Tea Table Miscellany," being a collection of songs, partly his own; and "The Evergreen," a collection of Scottish poems written before 1600. He was not well qualified for the task of editing works of this kind, being deficient both in knowledge and taste. In the "Evergreen," he published, as ancient poems, two pieces of his own, one of which, "The Vision," exhibits high powers of poetry. The genius of Scotland is drawn with a touch of the old heroic Muse:—

Great daring darted frae his ee,
A braid-sword shogled at his thie,
On his left arm a targe;
A shining spear filled his right hand,
Of stalwart make in bane and brawnd,
Of just proportions large;
A various rainbow-coloured plaid
Owre his left spaul he threw,
Down his braid back, frae his white head,
The silver wimplers grew.
Amazed, I gazed,
To see, led at command,
A stampant and rampant
Fierce lion in his hand.

In 1725 appeared his celebrated pastoral drama, "The Gentle Shepherd," of which two scenes had previously been published under the titles of "Patie and Roger," and "Jenny and Meggy." It was received with universal approbation, and was republished both in London and Dublin. When Gay visited Scotland in company with his patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, he used to lounge in Allan Ramsay's shop, and obtain from him explanation of some of the Scottish expressions, that he might communicate them to Pope, who was a great admirer of the poem. This was a delicate and marked compliment, which Allan must have felt, though he had previously represented himself as the vicegerent of Apollo, and equal to Homer! He now removed to a better shop, and instead of the Mercury's head which had graced his sign-board, he put up "the presentment of two brothers" of the Muse, Ben Jonson and Drummond. He next established a circulating library, the first in Scotland. He associated on familiar terms with the leading nobility, lawyers, wits, and literati of Scotland, and was the Pope or Swift of the North. His son, afterwards a distinguished artist, he sent to Rome for instruction. But the prosperity of poets seems liable to an uncommon share of crosses. He was led by the promptings of a taste then rare in Scotland to expend his savings in the erection of a theatre, for the performance of the regular drama. He wished to keep his "troop" together by the "pith of reason;" but he did not calculate on the pith of an act of parliament in the hands of a hostile magistrate. The statute for licensing theatres prohibited all dramatic exhibitions without special license and the royal letters-patent; and on the strength of this enactment the magistrates of Edinburgh shut up Allan's theatre, leaving him without redress. To add to his mortification, the envious poetasters and strict religionists of the day attacked him with personal satires and lampoons, under such titles as — "A Looking-Glass for Allan Ramsay;" "The Dying Words of Allan Ramsay;" and "The Flight of Religious Piety from Scotland, upon the account of Ramsay's lewd books, and the hell-bred playhouse comedians," &c. Allan endeavoured to enlist President Forbes and the judges on his side by a poetical address, in which he prays for compensation from the legislature—

Syne, for amends for what I've lost,
Edge me into some canny post.

His circumstances and wishes at this crisis are more particularly explained in a letter to the president, which now lies before us:—

"Will you," he writes, "give me something to do? Here I pass a sort of half idle scrimp life, tending a trifling trade, that scarce affords me the needful. Had I not got a parcel of guineas from you, and such as you, who were pleased to patronise my subscriptions, I should not have had a gray groat. I think shame (but why should I, when I open my mind to one of your goodness?) to hint that I want to have some small commission, when it happens to fall in your way to put me into it."

It does not appear that he either got money or a post, but he applied himself attentively to his business, and soon recruited his purse. A citizen-like good sense regulated the life of Ramsay. He gave over poetry "before," he prudently says, "the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I had acquired."

Frae twenty-five to five-and-forty,
My muse was nowther sweer nor dorty;
My Pegasus wad break his tether
E'en at the shagging of a feather,
And through ideas scour like drift,
Streaking his wings up to the lift;
Then, then, my soul was in a low,
That gart my numbers safely row.
But eild and judgment 'gin to say,
Let be your sangs, and learn to pray.

About the year 1743, his circumstances were sufficiently flourishing to enable him to build himself a small octagon-shaped house on the north side of the Castle hill, which he called Ramsay Lodge, but which some of his waggish friends compared to a goose pie. He told Lord Elibank one day of this ludicrous comparison. "What," said the witty peer, "a goose pie! In good faith, Allan, now that I see you in it, I think the house is not ill named." He lived in this singular-looking mansion (which has since been somewhat altered) twelve years, and died of a complaint that had long afflicted him, scurvy in the gums, on the 7th of January 1758, at the age of seventy-two. So much of pleasantry, good humour, and worldly enjoyment, is mixed up with the history of Allan Ramsay, that his life is one of the "green and sunny spots" in literary biography. His genius was well rewarded; and he possessed that turn of mind which David Hume says it is more happy to possess than to be born to an estate often thousand a-year — a disposition always to see the favourable side of things.

Ramsay's poetical works are sufficiently various; and one of his editors has ambitiously classed them under the heads of serious, elegiac, comic, satiric, epigrammatical, pastoral, lyric, epistolary, fables and tales. He wrote trash in all departments, but failed in none. His tales are quaint and humorous, though, like those of Prior, they are too often indelicate. "The Monk and Miller's Wife," founded on a poem of Dunbar, is as happy an adaptation of an old poet as any of Pope's or Dryden's from Chaucer. His lyrics want the grace, simplicity, and beauty which Burns breathed into these "wood-notes wild," designed alike for cottage and hall; yet some of those in the "Gentle Shepherd" are delicate and tender; and others, such as "The last time I came o'er the Moor," and "The Yellow-haired Laddie," are still favourites with all lovers of Scottish song. In one of the least happy of the lyrics there occurs this beautiful image:—

How joyfully my spirits rise,
When dancing she moves finely, O;
I guess what heaven is by her eyes,
Which sparkle so divinely, O.

His "Lochaber no More" is a strain of manly feeling and unaffected pathos. The poetical epistles of Ramsay were undoubtedly the prototypes of those by Burns, and many of the stanzas may challenge comparison with them. He makes frequent classical allusions, especially to the works of Horace, with which he seems to have been well acquainted, and whose gay and easy turn of mind harmonised with his own. In an epistle to Mr. James Arbuckle, the poet gives a characteristic and minute painting of himself:—

Imprimis, then, for tallness, I
Am five feet and four inches high;
A black-a-viced snod dapper fellow,
Nor lean, nor overlaid wi' tallow;
With phiz of a Morocco cut,
Resembling a late man of wit,
Auld gabbet Spec, who was sae cunning
To be a dummie ten years running.
Then for the fabric of my mind,
'Tis mair to mirth than grief inclined:
I rather choose to laugh at folly,
Than show dislike by melancholy;
Well judging a sour heavy face
Is not the truest mark of grace.
I hate a drunkard or a glutton,
Yet I'm nae fae to wine and mutton:
Great tables ne'er engaged my wishes,
When crowded with o'er mony dishes;
A healthfu' stomach, sharply set,
Prefers a backsey piping het.
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.

Ramsay addressed epistles to Gay and Somerville, and the latter paid him in kind, in very flattering verses. In one of Allan's answers is the following picturesque sketch, in illustration of his own contempt for the stated rules of art:—

I love the garden wild and wide,
Where oaks have plum trees by their side;
Where woodbines and the twisting vine
Clip round the pear tree and the pine;
Where mixed jonquils and gowans grow,
And roses 'midst rank clover blow
Upon a bank of a clear strand,
In wimplings led by nature's hand;
Though docks and brambles here and there
May sometimes cheat the gardener's care,
Yet this to me 's a paradise
Compared with prime cut plots and nice,
Where nature has to art resigned,
Till all looks mean, stiff; and confined. * *
Heaven Homer taught; the critic draws
Only from him and such their laws:
The native bards first plunge the deep
Before the artful dare to leap.

The "Gentle Shepherd" is the greatest of Ramsay's works, and perhaps the finest pastoral drama in the world. It possesses that air of primitive simplicity and seclusion which seems indispensable in compositions of this class, at the same time that its landscapes are filled with life-like beings, who interest us from their character, situation, and circumstances. It has none of that studied pruriency and unnatural artifice which are intruded into the "Faithful Shepherdess" of Fletcher, and is equally free from the tedious allegory and forced conceits of most pastoral poems. It is a genuine picture of Scottish life, but of life passed in simple rural employments, apart from the guilt and fever of large towns, and reflecting only the pure and unsophisticated emotions of our nature. The affected sensibilities and feigned distresses of the Corydons and Delias find no place in Ramsay's clear and manly page. He drew his shepherds from the life, placed them in scenes which he actually saw, and made them speak the language which he every day heard — the free idiomatic speech of his native vales. His art lay in the beautiful selection of his materials-in the grouping of his well-defined characters — the invention of a plot, romantic yet natural — the delightful appropriateness of every speech and auxiliary incident, and in the tone of generous sentiment and true feeling which sanctifies this scene of humble virtue and happiness. The love of his "gentle" rustics is at first artless and confiding, though partly disguised by maiden coyness and arch humour; and it is expressed in language and incidents alternately amusing and impassioned. At length the hero is elevated in station above his mistress, and their affection assumes a deeper character from the threatened dangers of a separation. Mutual distress and tenderness break down reserve. The simple heroine, without forgetting her natural dignity and modesty, lets out her whole soul to her early companion; and when assured of his unalterable attachment, she not only, like Miranda, "weeps at what she is glad of," but, with the true pride of a Scottish maiden, she resolves to study "gentler charms," and to educate herself to be worthy of her lover. Poetical justice is done to this faithful attachment, by both the characters being found equal in birth and station. The poet's taste and judgment are evinced in the superiority which he gives his hero and heroine, without debasing their associates below their proper level; while a ludicrous contrast to both is supplied by the underplot of Bauldy and his courtships. The elder characters in the piece afford a fine relief to the youthful pairs, besides completing the rustic picture. While one scene discloses the young shepherds by "craigy bields" and "crystal springs," or presents Peggy and Jenny on the bleaching green — "A trotting burnie wimpling through the ground" — another shows us the snug thatched cottage, with its barn and peat-stack, or the interior of the house, with a clear "ingle" glancing on the floor, and its inmates happy with innocent mirth and rustic plenty. The drama altogether makes one proud of peasant life and the virtues of a Scottish cottage. By an ill-judged imitation of Gay, in his "Beggar's Opera," Ramsay interspersed songs throughout the "Gentle Shepherd," which interrupt the action of the piece, and too often merely repeat, in a diluted form, the sentiments of the dialogue. These should be removed to the end of the drama, leaving undisturbed the most perfect delineation of rural life and manners, without vulgar humility or affectation, that ever was drawn.