1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

Anonymous, in British Critic 34 (1809) 687-88.



Of modern pastoral poets of any eminence, it is sufficient to say in general, that they have written their pastorals, not amidst woods and mountains, or in the view of shepherds and shepherdesses tending their flocks; but in their closets, amidst the smoke and noise of populous cities: from which it is an unavoidable consequence that their descriptions are far-fetched, affected, and unnatural; and the manners which they delineate, not a faithful transcript of the simplicity of nature, but the fantastic offspring of their own imaginations. We have, however, a remarkable exception in the case of the Scotch pastoral poets, who are generally true to nature, not only in the ruder lays of dark and unlettered times, but in the more finished productions of periods of comparative refinement. Ramsay, in some of his best performances, is a faithful describer of the manners of a pastoral people; and infuses into his readers all the enthusiasm for the simple and innocent employments of rural life, which the encomiasts of the fabulous Arcadia vainly labour to excite. His Gentle Shepherd may, perhaps, be accounted the best pastoral poem in any language; and is no less interesting in its fable than just in its delineation of the manners and employments of the people among whom the scene is laid. Fergusson was no unworthy successor of Ramsay in the list of Scotch pastoral poets; and Burns has, in many particulars, surpassed all his predecessors and competitors in this peculiar department of poetry.  We consider his Cottager's Saturday night, his Halloween, and some other of his minor poems, and almost all his exquisite ballads as genuine pastorals; since they entirely relate to the manners and pursuits of simple swains, whose sole occupation, if not the tending of a flock, is at least the ruder employments of agriculture, and what is strictly called a country life. The pastorals of Burns are, perhaps still more than those of Ramsay, faithful and lively transcripts of actual life; and they have the very peculiar charm of being the productions of a man, the best years of whose life were spent among those very swains whose manners he describes; and who was by birth the very clown in whose pursuits he so warmly interests us.