ALLAN RAMSAY, one of the extraordinary instances of the power of uncultivated genius, was born at Leadhills, Oct. 13, 1685. His father, John Ramsay, descended of the Ramsays of Cockpen, an ancient and respectable family in Mid-Lothian, was factor to the earl of Hopeton, and superintendant of his lead-mines. His mother, Alice Bower, was daughter of Allan Bower, a gentleman of Derbyshire, who, on account of his great skill in mining, had been invited by sir James Hope of Hopeton to set his valuable mines in motion.
When Allan Ramsay was about a year old his father died, and his mother being but ill provided for, soon after married a second husband in the neighbourhood, by whom she had several children. In this situation young Ramsay could not he supposed to have much care or expence bestowed upon him: he had, however, access to all the learning a village-school could afford, and it was during this period, the first fifteen years of his life, that he had an opportunity of storing his mind with those rural images which were afterwards so agreeably exhibited in his writings.
About the year 1700, his mother died: he was now completely an orphan; but was come to an age when it was proper for him to do something for his own subsistence. His own wish, as he was often heard to say, was to have been bred a painter, and he had even attempted to copy prints he found in books, before he left the country. What were the particular causes which prevented this wish from being gratified, have not come to our knowledge; but his step-father, being exceedingly desirous of getting rid of him at any rate, carried him to Edinburgh, and bound him apprentice to a wig-maker, probably believing it to be the most profitable trade of the two.
But, although young Ramsay was of that happy temper which readily accommodates itself to accidental circumstances, yet, poor as he was, he could not heartily reconcile himself to an occupation in which his active and liberal mind found no exercise that was fit for it. He therefore thought how he might procure for himself a decent maintenance by some means more connected with his poetical genius and growing passion for literary, knowledge. All this he accomplished by turning bookseller, in which employment be succeeded very much to his satisfaction, publishing sometimes his own works, sometimes those of other authors, as they occasionally presented themselves.
The first of his own writings were given to the pubic in detached pieces; but upon finding that these met with approbation from people of the best taste, both in Scotland and England, it encouraged him to open a subscription for a volume in quarto, which came out in 1721, and produced him a very considerable sum of money.
In 1728, he published a second volume in quarto; and these two volumes, which have been often reprinted in octavo, contain all his printed works which he has thought fit to acknowledge. The longest piece among them, and the one which has been the most universally read and admired, is a pastoral comedy, called the "Gentle Shepherd," which, though it presents only that mode of country life which belongs to the corner of Scotland where he himself was born, yet is every where filled with such just sentiments and general imagery as will insure it approbation in every country where its language can be either understood or translated.
The first scene, between Patie and Roger, of this drama, was written early, and published first by itself, and afterwards in his first volume in 1721, as an independent eclogue. In that volume is likewise to be found the dialogue song between Patie and Peggie, afterwards introduced into the second act. After the publication of this first volume, he put forth another eclogue between Jenny and Peggy, as a sequel to Patie and Roger, and which now stands the second scene in the "Gentle Shepherd." At what particular time between 1721 and 1728 he conceived the idea of forming a complete drama, of which those two were to serve as the opening, is not precisely known; but it was not, probably, till after publishing the last mentioned eclogue; for he had more skill than to weaken the effect of a complete work, by giving it to the public in detached scenes, and at such different periods.
Soon after the first edition, in octavo, of this pastoral was published, and about the time of the publication of his second volume in quarto, the "Beggar's Opera" made its appearance, with such success that it soon produced a great number of other pieces upon the same musical plan. Amongst the rest, Ramsay, who had always been a great admirer of Gay, especially for his ballads, was so far carried away by the current as to print a new edition of his pastoral, interspersed with songs adapted to the common Scotch tunes. He did not reflect at the time than the "Beggar's Opera" was only meant as a piece of ironical satire, whereas his "Gentle Shepherd" was a simple imitation of nature, and neither a mimickry nor mockery of any other performance. He was soon, however, sensible of his error, and would have been glad to have retracted those songs; but it was too late; the public was already in possession of them, and as the number of singers is always greater than that of sound critics, the many editions since printed of that pastoral have been almost uniformly in this vitiated taste. He comforted himself, however, with the thought that the contagion had not infected his second volume in quarto, where the "Gentle Shepherd" is still to be found in its original purity.
He had made himself very much master of the French language; and his imitations of the Fables of La Motte are excellent. He much lamented his deficiency in the Latin, of which, however, he had picked up so much, as by the help of Dacier, to catch the spirit of the Odes of Horace, which, even by this twilight, he above all writings admired, and supplying, by congenial fancy, what he wanted in erudition, has imitated some of them with a truly Horatian felicity.
Before he left Leadhills he had no opportunity of reading any books but such as were in the hands of the country people all over Scotland. Amongst those were the history in verse of king Robert the Bruce, the exploits of. sir William Wallace, and the poems of sir David Lindsey, a favourite of king James V. which coming at an early period to one not distracted by a variety of studies, made a deep impression upon his mind, and gave a cast to all his after sentiments, particularly with regard to the dignity and independence of Scotland, in the history and antiquities of which he became very knowing. In the "Ever Green," a collection of old Scottish poems, published by him in 1724, there are two pieces of his own, one of them called "The Vision," said to have been written in Latin, about 1300, and translated in 1524, and which has for its, subject the sufferings of Scotland under Edward I. and the Baliol faction. It consists of twenty pages, and is full of poetical imagery. What were his motives for writing so long a poem without reaping any fame from it, is not easy to guess. Perhaps it was only for the sake of amusing himself with the profound remarks of learned critics and antiquaries upon it; perhaps some political ideas not very orthodox had their share in the concealment. But whatever might be, his reason for concealing himself at this time, he certainly did not mean that this should continue always a secret, as appears by his communicating it to his son, from whom the writer of this article had the information; and by his putting, by way of name to the end of it, A R. Scot. which, though it appears at first sight to mean Archibald Scot, is no other than the two initials of his own name, with his country added to them. His notions about the independency of Scotland had made him, for some time, consider the union of the two crowns as a hardship: an opinion which he held in common with many worthy men and sincere friends of their country in those days; and there is a poem of his in print called "The Tale of the Three Bonnets," in which the manner of bringing about that treaty is handled with a great deal of satirical humour: but his is good sense and observation getting, at length, the better of those early prejudices, this poem never obtained a place in any of his two volumes, and is now difficult to be met with.
To those who look upon poetry as an affair of labour and difficulty, it must appear very strange that any man should compose so much of it, with so little view either to fame or profit. But the fact is, that writing verse cost Ramsay no trouble at all, and as it lightly came it lightly went. In the "Ever Green," already mentioned, there is what is called a "Fragment of Hardiknute," of which almost one half made its first appearance in that publication. But, this was a forgery which could not be supposed to be very heavy upon his conscience, as he knew that the original "Fragment" so justly admired, was not of above ten or fifteen years greater antiquity than his own additions to it. For it had been ushered into the world by a lady Wardlaw, who produced it, by two or three stanzas at a time, saying she had taken them down in writing from an old woman, who sung them while she was spinning at her distaff. But as lady Wardlaw had given sufficient proofs, of her poetical genius, by several smaller compositions, and as this spectre of an old woman had never appeared to any body but herself, none of her acquaintance ever doubted of her being the true author. What parts of this pretended fragment, as printed in the "Ever Green," were lady Wardlaw's, and what were Ramsay's, his son, from whom we likewise had this anecdote, could not precisely remember, and said, that they were all too much of the same texture for his critical skill alone to make the distinction: but that it was a point which might be easily ascertained by comparing what is in the "Ever Green" with the copies of "Hardiknnte," printed before 1724. In the "Ever Green," the whole of this poem is printed in the spelling of the 15th century, which, though the flimsiest of all disguises, has a wonderful effect in imposing upon the bulk of readers.
As to his person, be was of a middle stature, or somewhat less, but well shaped and active, and enjoyed perpetual health, except that in his latter years, he was now and then troubled with the gravel. His disposition was cheerful and benevolent; and what is not often the lot of men of lively imaginations, he was blessed with an equality of mind, free from impatience or anxiety, and little elevated or cast down with any thing prosperous or adverse that befell him.
Having acquired by business, what he reckoned a sufficient fortune, that is, an independent subsistence of the plainest kind, he retired, about 1739, to a small house he had built in the midst of a garden on the north side of the Castle-hill of Edinburgh. There he passed the last twenty years of his life in the conversation of his friends, in reading a few chosen books, in the cultivation of his little garden, and in other innocent and healthful amusements. Although he had no further desire of attracting the notice of the public, he continued to write epistles, and other occasional pieces of poetry, for the entertainment of his private friends. When urged by one of them to give some more of his works to the press, he said, "that he was more inclined, if it were in his power, to recall much of what he had already given; and that if half his printed works were burnt, the other half, like the Sybill's books, would become more valuable by it." He had even formed a project of selecting as many of his principal pieces as would fill one volume; leaving the rest to perish by neglect. But this was never executed.
Great part of every summer he passed with his friends in the country, but chiefly with sir John Clerk of Pennycuik, one of the barons of the Exchequer, a gentleman eminent for his learning and, taste in the polite arts, and who had known and esteemed Mr. Ramsay from the time of his first appearance. The death of this valuable friend, in 1756, was a great grief to him; which was, however, much alleviated by the continuation of the same friendship in his son and successor, sir James, who, upon Mr. Ramsay's death, which happened Jan. 7, 1758, erected near his seat of Pennycuick, a stately obelisk of hewn stone to his memory, with this inscription:
Alano Ramsay Poetae egregio,
Qui fatis concessit VII Jan. MCDDLVIII.
Amico paterno inscribi jussit
D. Jacobus Clerk,