1768 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Ross

James Beattie to Thomas Blacklock, 1 July 1768; Forbes, Life of James Beattie (1806) 1:118-20.



I have at last found an opportunity of sending you the Scottish poems which I mentioned in a former letter [The Fortunate Shepherdess etc.]. The dialect is so licentious (I mean so different from that of the south country, which is acknowledged the standard of broad Scotch), that I am afraid you will be at a loss to understand it in many places. However, if you can overlook this inconvenience; together with the tediousness of some passages, and the absurdity of others, I doubt not but you will receive some amusement from the perusal. The author excels in describing the solitary scenes of mountainous country, and the manners and conversation of the lowest sort of our people. Whenever he attempts to step out of this sphere, he becomes absurd. This sphere is indeed the only one of which he has had any experience. He has been for these forty years a schoolmaster in one of the most sequestered parishes in the HIghlands of Scotland, where he had no access either to company or books that could improve him. His circumstances and employment confine him at home the whole year long; so that his compositions, with all their imperfections, are really surprising. My personal acquaintance with him began only two years ago, when he had occasion to come to this town, on some urgent business. He is a good-natured, social, happy old man; modest without clownishness, and lively without petulance. He put into my hands a great number of manuscripts in verse, chiefly on religious subjects: I believe Sir Richard Blackmore himself is not a more voluminous author. The poems now published seemed to me the best of the whole collection: indeed, many of the others would hardly bear a reading. He told me he had never written a single line with a view to publication; but only to amuse a solitary hour. Some gentlemen in this country set on foot a subscription for his Scottish poems, in consequence of which they were printed, and he will clear by the publication about twenty pounds, a sum far exceeding his most sanguine expectations; for I believe he would thankfully have sold his whole works for five. In order to excite some curiousity about his work, I wrote some verses in the dialect of this country, which, together with an introductory letter in English prose, were published in the Aberdeen Journal; and the bookseller tells me, he has sold about thirty copies since they appeared. I have sent you inclosed a copy of the verses, with a glossary of the hardest words. Having never before attempted to write any thing in this way, I thought I could not have done it, and was not a little surprised to find it so easy. However, I fear I have exhausted my whole stock of Scottish words in these few lines; for I endeavoured to make the stile as broad as possible, that it might be the better adapted to the taste of those whose curiosity I wished to raise. You will observe, that Mr. Ross is peculiarly unfortunate in his choice of proper names. One of his heroes is called by a woman's name, Rosalind. The injurious mountaineers he called Sevitians, with a view no doubt to express their cruelty; but the printer, not understanding Latin, has changed it into Sevilians. The whole is incorrectly printed.