1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:697-98.



1757, Jan. 7. Died, ALLAN RAMSAY, a celebrated poet, and for many years a respectable bookseller in the city of Edinburgh. He was born at the village of Leadhills, in Lanarkshire, Oct. 15, 1686. His parentage was respectable, and his ancestry even dignified. He had the benefit of the parish school till he was in his fifteenth year, but of the progress he had made in his studies, we have no particular account; it certainly made him acquainted with Horace, as is abundantly evident in his poems. In 1701 he was apprenticed to a periwig maker, in Edinburgh, which appears to have been at that time a flourishing profession. There can be no doubt that Allan Ramsay served out his apprenticeship honourably, and afterwards for a number of years practised his trade as a master successfully: he possessed independence; and, while, in the company of respectable fellow-citizens, he indulged and improved his social qualities, he, by taking to wife an excellent woman, Christian Ross, the daughter of a writer in Edinburgh, laid the foundation of a lifetime of domestic felicity. It was in the year 1712, and in the twenty-sixth year of his age, that he entered into the state of matrimony; and the earliest of his poetical productions that can now be traced, is an epistle to the most happy members of the Easy Club, dated the same year. This club originated, as he himself, who was one of its members, informs us, "in the antipathy we all seemed to have at the ill humour and contradiction which arise from trifles, especially those that constitute Whig and Tory, without having the grand reason for it." This club was in fact formed of Jacobites, and the restoration of the Stuarts was the grand reason here alluded to. In the presence of this club Ramsay was in the habit of reading his first productions, which, it would appear, were published by or under the patronage of the fraternity. But the rising of Mar put an end to its meetings; and Ramssy, though still a keen Jacobite, felt it for his interest to be so in secret. It was now, however, that be commenced in earnest his poetical career, and speedily rose to a degree of popularity, which had been attained by no poet in Scotland since the days of sir David Lindsay. For more than a century, indeed, Scottish poetry had been under an eclipse, while such poetical genius as the age afforded chose Latin as the medium of communication. Semple, however, and Hamilton of Gilbertfield, had of late years revived the notes of the Doric reed; and it seems to have been some of their compositions, as published in Watson's collection in 1706, that first inspired Ramsay. Unlike the greater number of men of poetical talent, Ramsay had the most perfect command over himself; and the blind groping of the cyclops of ambition within, led him to no premature attempts to obtain distinction. Though he must have entertained daydreams of immortality, he enjoyed them with moderation; and, without indulging either despondency or dejection, he waited with patience for their realization. An elegy on Maggy Johnston seems to have been one of the earliest of his productions, and is highly characteristic of his genius; this was speedily followed by that on John Cowper, quite in the same strain of broad humour. The exact time when, or the manner how he changed his original profession for that of a bookseller, has not been recorded; but it was previously to 1718, when he published a second edition of king James's Christ Kirk on the Green, that Allan Ramsay had commenced the bookselling business, for it was "printed for the author, at the Mercury, opposite to Niddry's Wynd." At the Mercury, he seems to have prosecuted his business as an original author, editor, and bookseller, with great diligence, for a considerable number of years. His poems he continued to print as they were written, in single sheets or half sheets, in which shape they are reported to have found a ready sale, the citizens being in the habit of sending their children with a penny "for Allan Ramsay's last piece." In 1720, he issued proposals for publishing the whole of his poems, in one volume 4to. The estimation in which the poet was now held, was clearly demonstrated by the rapid filling up of a list of subscribers, containing the names of all that were eminent for talents, learning, or dignity in Scotland. The volume, handsomely printed by the Ruddimans, ornamented with a portrait of the author, was published in the succeeding year, and the fortunate poet realized four hundred guineas by the speculation. This volume was, according to the fashion of the times, prefaced with several copies of recommendatory verses. In 1725 appeared his dramatic pastoral, under the title of the Gentle Shepherd, which met with instant and triumphant success. In this year he removed from Niddry's Wynd to a house at the east end of the Luckenbooths, which had formerly been the London coffee house. Here, in place of Mercury, he adopted the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden, and in addition to his business as a bookseller, established a circulating library, which was the first in Scotland. In this shop the wits of Edinburgh continued daily to meet for information and amusement during the days of Ramsay and his successors in trade. He had now risen to wealth and respectability, numbering among his familiar friends the best and the wisest men in the nation. With cotemporary poets his intercourse was extensive and of the most friendly kind. The two Hamiltons of Bangour and Gilbertfield, were his most intimate friends. He addressed verses to Pope, to Gay, and to Somerville, the last of whom returned his poetical salutations in kind. In the year 1755, he is supposed to have relinquished his business. His wife, Christian Ross, seems to have brought him seven children, three sons and four daughters. He died at Edinburgh, and was buried without any particular honours, and with him for a time was buried Scottish poetry, there not being so much as one poet in Scotland to sing a requiem over his grave.