1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

Alexander Campbell, in Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland (1798) 288-300.



In 1773, [Ruddiman] published a small volume of poems, than the person alluded to, ROBERT FERGUSSON. Dissatisfied with the slender and imperfect account prefixed to the three last editions of Fergusson's poems, I resolved, if possible, to procure materials for a more circumstantial account of the life and writings of this favourite poet; whose early productions are a splendid earnest of a fruitful genius, which, had it pleased heaven, to have spared him to riper manhood, one day, in all probability, would have shone forth in the highest sphere of poetical excellence. But, alas! all his gay prospects vanished in an untimely grave.

Having applied to Mrs. Invererity the eldest sister of our poet, for materials to make a sketch of her brother's life, she, with much candour and politeness, made the following communication.

ROBERT FERGUSSON was the son of William Fergusson, by his wife Elizabeth Forbes, (a woman of great worth and piety.) Our poet was born at Edinburgh, September 5, 1751. His father, who, it is said, was in his earlier years a poet, abandoned the wanderings of the imagination, for the more solid occupations of a mercantile life, and was articled to a merchant at Aberdeen. Having served his time, he left that city, and came up to Edinburgh, in the year 1746, much about the time the troubles of that period had ceased. On the third day after his arrival, he made application to Mr. Bailie, the only person established at that time as a haberdasher in Edinburgh, for employment. On security being found by Mr. Fergusson for good principles, Mr. Bailie, who was one of the magistrates of the city, engaged him as one of his clerks, where he remained for some time. The company of Upholsterers in Edinburgh requiring an experienced accountant, applied to the father of our poet to take the charge of their affairs, who accordingly agreed with this company, and proved to them most useful, in conducting their business with fidelity and correctness. In this situation he composed a book of rates with great accuracy and judgment, which I have looked over with much benefit and pleasure. With this company he remained till falling in with a gentleman of his own name, connected with the law, he became one his clerks, and continued till the breaking out of the war before last, when he was appointed clerk to the prisoners of war, in the castle of Edinburgh. In this capacity he was of the utmost service to the government, as well as to the unfortunate sufferers. From this charge, he removed to a more permanent, and less urgent employment in the British Linen Company's Office, in which he was, when the subject of this memoir was born.

Our poet, from his cradle, was, in his constitution, rather sickly. This untoward circumstance, which accompanied him to the day of his death, peculiarly endeared him to his mother. He had an only brother, Hary, who shall be noticed in the course of this narrative. He had two sisters, Barbara and Margaret; the former is the wife of Mr. David Invererity, already noticed; the latter is married to Mr. Duval, who was lately a grocer in Edinburgh, now a purser on board a man of war.

When our poet had escaped the maladies that assail our tender years, his mother taught him his letters; by degrees, he began to read, and soon discovered a fondness for books, that grew daily into passion. So rapid was his progress in acquiring a knowledge of his mother tongue, that, at the age of seven, he was sent to the high-school of Edinburgh, where he made such progress, as surprised even those who had formed the highest ideas of his uncommon aptitude. From the grammar school of Edinburgh, he was removed to that of Dundee, where he remained, till he came over to the university of Edinburgh. Here he studied the various branches of literature and philosophy, with great diligence and success. But, the necessary charges of a University course, bore heavy on the slender income of our poet's father, who was advised to remove him to the university of St. Andrews, where his merit soon procured him his education gratis. Meantime, his father died. On his return home, his mother, unable to support her son, was advised to put him to Mr. Abercromby, a writer in Edinburgh, where he might qualify himself in that profession, so as to be enabled to gain a genteel livelihood, with as little mental, or bodily labour, as any situation he could have been placed in, except one other, which had now been totally abandoned by by our poet as, in his mind, too sacred a function for any one, save he can walk according to the rules of that gospel, he is bound in duty to maintain and propagate.

Religion had made an early impression on the warm imagination of Fergusson, Even in infancy, it shewed itself in a variety of instances, which, were it to any purpose, might be pleasing to relate. Among others, the following may suffice as an example. His delight was in reading the bible. He there found the richest fund of entertainment. It would seem, that the book of Solomon's proverbs had attracted his particular attention. One day he came running into his mother's chamber, all bathed in tears, calling to her, in the most earnest manner imaginable, to whip him. The good woman alarmed at this unusual behaviour of her boy, enquired the cause, when he told her with all the simplicity of innocence, "O mother! he that spareth the rod, hateth his child."

His vein for poetry made its appearance at a very early period of his life. While at the university of St. Andrews, his gaity of manners and the flashes of his wit delighted and astonished his companions and fellow collegians. He was constantly engaged in some humour or other. My lamented friend Dr. Charles Webster, whom I have mentioned in a former page, and he were fellow students at both universities. St. Andrews was the scene of their juvenile frolicks; and many a prank have I heard him relate of our poet and himself, with all that glow of fancy and description, for which he was so eminently qualified. A circumstance of this sort very nearly proved of serious consequences to the academic reputation of young Fergusson. He was considered the best singer at the university, of consequence, he was oftener than he inclined, requested to officiate as clerk at morning and evening prayers. In order to get quit of this drudgery, he meditated the following scheme. It is usual, according to the Scotish mode of Presbyterian worship, to mention the names of persons, who are recommended in prayer; our poet, who, as usual, was in the precentor's desk, rose up with great composure, and with an audible voice, as if reading from a paper he held in his hand, said "Remember in prayer — a young man, (who was in the hall at the very instant) who, from the sudden effects of inebriety, there appears but small hope of recovery." This, as might be expected, threw the whole students into a sudden fit of laughter. The professors wist not what to do, and the assembly, in no wise disposed to prayer, broke up, and dismissed in peals of convulsive merriment. This indecorous behaviour had nearly cost young Fergusson h is gown; and had not Dr. Wilkie (the ingenious author of the Epigoniad) stept in between him and the displeasure of the rest of the professors, it may easily be conjectured what would have been the consequences.

FERGUSSON left the university, without any academic distinction, and soon after was placed in the law line, as before mentioned. It was during the leisure which those in any way connected with this profession enjoy, in a degree beyond any other, that he became celebrated as a poet. He could now rankk among his friends, the first characters of his time, in the metropolis of Scotland. His heart was open and sincere; he was modest, but not reserved; good natured, but not to excess; full of vivacity, and vigour of intellect, and in short, he was the most joyous and covetable companion Sociality had to boast. Is it any wonder then, so rare, so precious a gem, whose lustre was so brilliant, should have been sought after, and prized according to its value? But, alas! the casquet which contained this jewel, by repeated handling, became unable to hold it any longer. The delicate frame of our youthful bard, was but ill calculated for the orgies of the midnight revel, or the joys of the overflowing bowl. His health, much about the time he made his appearance in the gay world, began visibly to decline, and while languishing in this state, he received the following letter from his brother, who had changed his profession from that of a mercantile, to a sea-faring life.

"Tartar, in Rappahanock River,

VIRGINIA, 8th Octobber, 1773.

DEAR ROB,

"Since the beginning of last month, when I was favoured with your's of the 1st February, 1773, I have been in most rivers in this province and Maryland: our business was to look out after smugglers, and had we been as active in that duty as others on the American station, I might have been enabled to make my appearance in a brilliant manner: but, alas! only a sloop of eighty tons, from the West Indies, laden with coffee and sugar, fell to our lot. I had sixteen dollars for my share, three of which I gave towards buying a tender, and every fore-mast-man paid one.

"The tender is now manned, armed, and cruising Chesapeak bay, and I am convinced cannot fail of taking prizes, if the officers appointed for that duty are attentive. We had the most severe winter at Halifax, ever experienced in that country; the harbour, though three miles across, was frozen over for three weeks; the ship's company walked aboard and ashore, nay, all our provisions wore got aboard on the ice (which in many places was thirty-six feet in thickness) notwithstanding the strong north-west winds which blow most of the winter. When we arrived at Boston, we were ordered to this country, which has been as hot this summer as the former was cold in winter: such a change of climate could not fail to create sickness in the ship's company, but thank God, only three have died, one a natural death, and the other two drowned.

"I had a very severe fit of sickness at our first coming here; but being so much given to sweating, it proved an effectual cure, although I am very weak through that means. I never lived so badly, as aboard here in point of provisions, every species being the worst of their kinds, and neither butter nor flour to be had.

"I desire you will write by the pacquet on receipt, for if you lay hold of any other opportunity, your letter will be too late; the ship being positively ordered home early next spring, to my great satisfaction, being quite tired of a life that my past follies drove me to, and to which I have served too long an apprenticeship. If every thing does not succeed to my satisfaction, on my arrival in England, I am fully bent to return and settle in this country; having had the fairest offers imaginable, could my discharge have been procured. In Virginia and Maryland, in particular, I could do best by acting in a double capacity, by learning (teaching) the small sword, and the exercise of the small arms, there being no regular forces in either province, and the officers of the militia being quite ignorant themselves of that part of their duty.

"I desire it as a favour, you would often examine your poetical pieces before you commit them to the press; this advice I hope you will the more readily take, as most young authors are apt to be more criticised, than those who have had a little experience. Pope himself, was one of the most careful in this respect, and none as yet ever surpassed him.

When I arrive in England, I shall give you the necessary directions how to send your works, and make no doubt of selling them to advantage, when the ship is paid off.

"I am sorry to bear of J. Wright's death, he was a worthy young lad, and one I had a true regard for.

"Thick Peter, by this time I hope, is recovered. I should be glad to hear of Robertson and Addison's success, the latter, if in Edinburgh, I desire to be kindly remembered to: I should also be happy to hear how Sandie Young, and John Cummins do, having often experienced their kindness, and been happy in their company.

"In our passage from Boston to Hampton we had a very narrow escape with our lives, being surrounded with one of the largest water spouts ever seen, which blackened the sky for some leagues, and, had we not barely weathered it, would have sunk the ship and every soul aboard.

"Remember me, in the strongest manner, to my mother, Peggy, Raraties, father, Parker, &c. &c. If you want either to succeed, or gain esteem, be very careful of what company you keep; this advice I hope you will take, as it comes from one who has lost himself merely through inattention in that respect. Believe me it is impossible to write you as I would chuse, being environed with twenty thousand noisy plagues, not to mention execrations so horrid, that would make the greatest blackguard's (in Edinburgh) hair stand erect.

"I hope you will make it your particular care, to study such branches of education, as may prove most conducive to your future happiness, and appear at least once every Sunday in church, (I mean the church of Scotland) for how can you spend your time better. I was, like many, fond of the church of England's forms, &c. &c. but having been in many Romish churches since, find these forms are merely the — of laziness, and differ but very little from one another; this you can be convinced of, in perusing a Romish mass book in English.

I am, with the greatest regard,

Dear Rob, your affectionate, Br.

(Signed)

HARY FERGUSSON."

Here then, we behold the kind solicitude of one brother for the welfare of the other, not only anxious to warn him of the danger inattention to moral rectitude exposes one to, but also feeling the warmest interest in his literary pursuits. Besides, the above letter exhibits other traits of character, not unworthy of remark, such as his desire of distinguishing himself in arms, for which his predilection had been the cause of that situation he so feelingly deplores. Moreover, it shews the offer made him by the Virginians, to become among them as a teacher of the art of defence, at what a low ebb their knowledge in military affairs was, immediately prior to the breaking out of the last war in America; and what a spirit of freedom, roused from repose, can achieve, when suddenly called forth in a just and glorious cause. But to return — scarcely had our poet received this affectionate letter, when, the wreath of public approbation had but just been bound on his temples; and while he was made drink deep of the cup of pleasure, in all the variety of voluptuous indulgence, a circumstance occurred, that gave a new and fatal turn to his imagination

It happened in the Autumn of 1774, while on a visit to a friend in the neighbourhood of Haddington, that one day, as young Fergusson was sauntering near the church yard of that town, that a person of a sudden joined him, who accosted him in a polite, and familiar manner. The solemnity of the scene naturally suggested a conversation, rather of a moral cast, which, by degrees, became abstract and gloomy. This stranger turned out to be a pious divine of the sect called Seceders from the church of Scotland; his name was Brown, author of several works in divinity, well known among the true believers of that sect. Mortality and a judgment to come were the topics our divine chose to expatiate on; and bring home to Fergusson. These topics seemed to sink deep into the mind of our poet, and they parted; the one, convinced he had found a lost sheep, the other, that he had been led too far astray, to find favour with the sight of the chief Shepherd of Israel. He returned to his mother's house, in all the agonies of religious horror; and soon sunk into a state of complete despondency, which at times was contrasted with smiles, mixed with contempt and scorn: his malady had now made so rapid a progress, the confirmed derangement was but too evident; nights and days passed in total abstinence and want of sleep. His mother, who protracted the period of his confinement to the last moment, was now obliged to give up her darling son to the care of a public asylum. About the fall of night, two or three of his most intimate friends came with a chair, to the door of his mother's house. He enquired, in his usual way, of their welfare, and, after some conversation, one of them proposed that he should go with them to a friend's house, to spend the evening, to which he readily consented; he was placed in the chair, in which he went, very peaceably, till he entered the great hall, off which, the cell appointed to receive him, was prepared. All was silent — he looked in wild amazement around him — he sent up the holloo of hopeless misery — it was repeated in the instant from every cell in the house — thrilled with horror, his friends departed, and left the wretched Fergusson to his fate. But here he was not, as some suppose, neglected; on the contrary, his friends were permitted to see him in his lucid intervals. A few days previous to his dissolution, his mother, and sister (my informant) were admitted to his cell, where he lay on his bed of straw, calm, and seemingly collected. The evening was chill and damp; he requested his mother to gather the bed-cloaths about him, and sit on his feet, for he complained much of their being cold, and insensible to the touch, she did so, and his sister sat by his bed-side; he looked wishfully in his mother's face, and said, "O mother, this is kind indeed;" then turning to his sister, "Might you not frequently come, and sit by me thus? — you cannot imagine how comfortable it would be — you might fetch your seam, and sew beside me;" to this, no answer was returned; an interval of silence was filled up with sobs and tears. "What ails ye? — wherefore sorrow for me, sirs? — I am very well cared for here — I do assure I want for nothing — but it is cold — it is very cold — you know I told you it would come to this at last — yes, I told you so — O do not go yet — mother! I hope to be soon — O do not go yet — do not leave me. The keeper approaches, and whispers them, "It is time to depart." This was the last time our poet, his mother, and sister saw each other. Mrs. Fergusson had meditated taking her son home, hopeful that his recovery might be permanent. Having received a remittance from her son Hary, who had been promoted, and who at all times behaved in the most dutiful manner, she was enabled to provide matters in a decent manner for Robert's reception. But, while she was pleasing herself with this fond idea, on the evening of the 16th of October, 1774, a message was brought her, that her son was no more; that he had breathed his last without a groan.

Thus, was ROBERT FERGUSSON relieved from the miseries attendant on what is deemed the most woeful of human calamities, as a true poetical genius, an amiable, and affectionate young man, cut off in the bloom of youth.

I have often witnessed the tribute of a tear, when his name has been mentioned by those who knew him. I remember, in the year 1780, six years after his decease, TENDUCCI, with whom I was then a pupil, talking of poor Fergusson, burst into a flood of tears, and repeated his name with the tenderest emotion; indeed he never mentioned him but with the liveliest regret.

Dr. Anderson informs me he first met Fergusson at one Stuart's (a bookseller's shop, in the Candle-maker-row) in 1771, that he frequently met him in private parties, in the apartments of students, then at the Edinburgh college; that he often accompanied him to the theatre, of which amusement he was passionately fond, as appears from many of his pieces, particularly an epilogue of great merit, "spoken by Mr. Wilson, at the theatre-royal, in the character of an Edinburgh buck," beginning,

Ye who oft finish care in Lethe's cup,
Who love to swear, and roar, and keep it up,
List to a brother's voice, &c.

It would appear he had formed some respectable connections at the theatre of Edinburgh, among the number, Mr. Woods, whom he mentions in his last will and testament, (among his poems) in the lines following:

To WOODS, whose genius can provoke
His passions to the buskin or sock,
For love to thee, and to the Nine,
Be my immortal Shakespeare thine:
Here may you through the alleys turn,
Where Falstaff laughs, where heroes mourn,
And boldly catch the glowing fire
That dwells in rapture on his lyre.

Others of his friends, some of whom are alive, are mentioned in this whimsical piece; among those, poor Oliphant, who disappeared some years ago, and was never heard of; he also was a poet. His poems, so far as I know, were never collected for publication.

Mrs. Fergusson, on the death of our poet, wrote to her only surviving, and dutiful son, Hary. His answer, dated "Tartar, in Halifax harbour, 6th May, 1775," lies before me; he writes,

"It is beyond the power of human invention to describe how I was affected by the loss of an only brother, who always had my interest at heart, and with whom I was in great hopes to have spent many agreeable days. But that there is no certainty on this side the grave, is a truth that we daily experience, and plainly prove, so that to repine is weakness to the highest degree. I earnestly desire you will take care of such papers and writings as he has left, (for my perusal) for I shall be more pleased in being possessed of them than riches; as the former may serve to perpetuate his memory, which the latter cannot do.

"We are now actually at war with the Americans, &c.

"I am glad the money you got, came so opportunely: whenever a remittance is made, you shall not be forgot. My greatest desire is to get home, and to settle for the remainder of my days, being greatly tired of this way of life. Remember me in the strongest manner," &c.

So far as I can learn, our poet, previous to the attack of his malady, burnt every scrap with his own hand; and while in the act of so doing, he was heard to say, "I am satisfied — I feel some consolation in never having written anything against religion." Soon after the religious horror had seized him, he got hold of a bible, and kept constantly reading it. In this, he seems to have resembled poor Collins, who, according to the writer of his life (Johnson) had withdrawn from study, and travelled (through France) with no other book than an English testament, such as children carry to school; when his friend took it into his hand out of curiosity, to see what companion a man of letters had chosen, "I have but one book, said Collins, but it is the best." Thus we see, that of all others, religious madness is the most incurable. Fergusson was in his person, rather slender; his countenance expressed the vivacity of penetrative genius, yet, modesty was mingled in his glance. His manners were accommodated to the moment; he was gay, serious, set the table in a roar, charmed with his powers of song, or bore with becoming dignity his part in learned, or philosophical disquisition. In short, he had united in him the sprightliness and innocence of a child, with the knowledge of a profound and judicious thinker.

Of his poetical works, the public have long given the amplest testimony of their merit. In the Scotish language, his pieces are stamped with genius. His English poetry is certainly inferior to his Scotish: yet, the lines "written at the hermitage of Baird, near Edinburgh," will ever be acknowledged as inferior in beautiful description, and elegant versification, to none in any language. His "Odes to Horror, Disappointment, a Dirge," are in his best manner, and possess an uncommon glow of feeling and fancy. "Ode to Pity, Ode to Hope," are also beautiful compositions, and shew, how chaste, and appropriate he made his studies, and arrangements, from the rich storehouse of nature, and classical learning.

It ought not be passed over in silence, the lustre it reflected on Burns, his having erected a monument to the memory of Fergusson, in the Canongate church-yard.