1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:129-30.



ROBERT FERGUSSON was the poet of Scottish city-life, or rather the laureate of Edinburgh. A happy talent of portraying the peculiarities of local manners, a nice perception of the ludicrous, a vein of original comic humour, and language at once copious and expressive, form his chief merits as a poet. He had not the invention or picturesque fancy of Allan Ramsay, nor the energy and passion of Burns. His mind was a light warm soil, that threw up early its native products, sown by chance or little exertion; but it had not strength and tenacity to nurture any great or valuable production. A few short years, however, comprised his span of literature and of life; and criticism would be ill employed in scrutinising with severity the occasional poems of a youth of twenty-three, written from momentary feelings and impulses, amidst professional drudgery or midnight dissipation. That compositions produced under such circumstances should still exist and be read with pleasure, is sufficient to show that Fergusson must have had the eye and fancy of a true poet. His observation, too, for one so young, is as remarkable as his genius: he was an accurate painter of scenes of real life and traits of Scottish character, and his pictures are valuable for their truth, as well as for their liveliness and humour. If his habits had been different, we might have possessed more agreeable delineations, but none more graphic or faithful. Fergusson was burn in Edinburgh on the 17th of October 1751. His father, who was an accountant in the British Linen Company's bank, died early, but the poet received a university education, having obtained a bursary in St. Andrews, where he continued from his thirteenth to his seventeenth year. On quitting college, he seems to have been truly "unfitted with an aim," and he was glad to take employment as a copying clerk in a lawyer's office. In this mechanical and irksome duty his days were spent. His evenings were devoted to the tavern, wherever "caller oysters," with ale or whisky, the choice spirits of Edinburgh used to assemble. Fergusson had dangerous qualifications for such a life. His conversational powers were of a very superior description, and he could adapt them at will to humour, pathos, or sarcasm, as the occasion might require. He was well educated, had a fund of youthful gaiety, and sung Scottish songs with taste and effect. To these qualifications he seen added the reputation of a poet. Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine had been commenced in 1768, and was the chosen receptacle for the floating literature of that period in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh. During the two last years of his life, Fergusson was a constant contributor to this miscellany, and in 1773 he collected and published his pieces in one volume. Of the success of the publication in a pecuniary point of view, we have no information; but that it was well received by the public, there can be no doubt, from the popularity and fame of its author. His dissipations, however, were always on the increase. This tavern life and boon companions were hastening him on to a premature and painful death. His reason first gave way, and his widowed mother being unable to maintain him at home, he was sent to an asylum for the insane. The religious impressions of his youth returned at times to overwhelm him with dread, but his gentle and affectionate nature was easily soothed by the attentions of his relatives and friends. This recovery was anticipated, but after about two months' confinement, he died in his cell on the 16th of October 1774. His remains were interred in the Canongate churchyard, where they lay unnoticed for twelve years, till Burns erected a simple stone to mark the poet's grave. The heartlessness of convivial friendships is well known: they literally "wither and die in a day." It is related, however, that a youthful companion of Fergusson, named Burnet, having gone to the East Indies, and made some money, invited over the poet, sending at the same time a draught for £100 to defray his expenses. This instance of generosity came too late: the poor poet had died before the letter arrived.

Fergusson may be considered the poetical progenitor of Burns. Meeting with his poems in his youth, the latter "strung his lyre anew," and copied the style and subjects of his youthful prototype. The resemblance, however, was only temporary and incidental. Burns had a manner of his own, and though he sometimes condescended, like Shakspeare, to work after inferior models, all that was rich and valuable in the composition was original and unborrowed. He had an excessive admiration for the writings of Fergusson, and even preferred them to those of Ramsay, an opinion in which few will concur. The forte of Fergusson lay, as we have stated, in his representations of town-life. "The King's Birthday," "The Sitting of the Session," "Leith Races," &c., are all excellent. Still better is his feeling description of the importance of "Guid Braid Claith," and his "Address to the Tron-Kirk Bell." In these we have a current of humorous observations, poetical fancy, and genuine idiomatic Scottish expression. "The Farmer's Ingle" suggested "The Cotter's Saturday Night" of Burns, and it is as faithful in its descriptions, though of a humbler class. Burns added passion, sentiment, and patriotism to the subject: Fergusson's is a mere sketch, an inventory of a farm-house, unless we except the concluding stanza, which speaks to the heart:—

Peace to the husbandman, and a' his tribe,
Whase care fells a' our wants frae year to year!
Lang may his sock and cou'ter turn the glebe,
And banks of corn bend down wi' laded ear!
May Scotia's simmers aye look gay and green;
Her yellow hairsts frae scowry blasts decreed!
May a' her tenants sit fu' snug and bien,
Frae the hard grip o' ails and poortith freed—
And a lang lasting train o' peacefu' hours succeed!

In one department — lyrical poetry — whence Burns draws so much of his glory — Fergusson does not seem, though a singer, to have made any efforts to excel. In English poetry be utterly failed, and if we consider him in reference to his countrymen, Falconer or Logan (he received the same education as the latter), his inferior rank as a general poet will be apparent.