Robert Fergusson

Thomas Enort Smith, "A few Remarks on the neglected Poet Fergusson" European Magazine 65 (February 1814) 93-94.


It is a most honourable trait in the character of Burns, the Homer of Scotch poetry, that he was the first among his countrymen that duly appreciated the genius of this unfortunate and highly-gifted youth, and even carried his veneration so far, as to furnish out of his slender circumstances the means of raising that monument, which now stands over his grave. The first time he visited the shrine of his tuneful predecessor, he felt his mind glow with all that unmixed divine bardic enthusiasm which Nature so peculiarly planted in his sensitive soul; and flinging himself inn holy trance of admiration upon the grassy heap that covered poor Ferguson's remains, he clasped it, "his bonnet reverently laid aside," with the most ardent, purified, and mind-devoted affection: and had a Mackensie, a Yorick, a Zimmerman, or a Rousseau, been present at this exalted ebullition of feeling on his part, they would have witnessed an existing counterpart to one of those characters they have often so delightfully and fictitiously drawn; namely, that of a being joining to the utmost worthiness and tenderness of heart the more rare endowments of a superior and powerful mind.

It is clearly evident, from the perusal of the Ayrshire Bard's delightful poems, that his Muse, high and self-taught as she was, and gifted with the "inspiring mantle" from her birth, did not disdain to walk in the same track as Ferguson's equally-inspiring teacher had led him before; and whoever attentively peruses the productions of these twin stars of genius, will perceive, that Burns was not only an ardent admirer, but likewise a close transcriber, of Fergusson's peculiar original mode of writing. He looked on Nature with the same ardent eye, caught her various shiftings as they glanced before him; and whether to paint her silent scenes, or her contrasting characters in real life, he adopted the same pencil, used the same colouring, and exhibited the same exquisite pictures to his delighted readers.

To illustrate the truth of the above remarks, I beg leave to make an extract from the poem entitled "Lelth Races," by the Bard of Edina, and to contrast it with a corresponding extract from the "Hallow Fair" of Burns.

And wha are ye my winsom dear,
That taks the Gate sae early?
Where do ye win, gin ane may spear,
For I right meikle ferly,
That sic braw buskit laughing lass
Thir bonny blinks should gie,
And loup like Hebe o'er the grass,
As wanton and as free
Frae dole this day?

"I dwell among the caller springs
That weet the land o Cakes,
And after tune my canty strings
At bridals and late wakes:
They ca' me Mirth; I ne'er was kend
To grumble or look sour,
But blithe wad be a lift to lend
'Gin ye wad sey my power
An pith this day."

With Bonnett aff, quoth I "Sweet lass,
I think ye seem to ken me;
I'm sure I've seen that bonny face,
But where I canna name ye."
Quo' she, an', laughing as she spak,
An' taks me by the hanns,
"Ye fur my sake have gi'en the feck
Of a' the ten Commands
A screed some day.

"My name is Fun — your cronie dear,
The nearest friend ye hae," &c.

On comparing these two extracts, it will be seen, that Ferguson's happy idea of meeting the goddess Mirth has been transcribed by Burns, who has likewise copied the lively and suitable measure of verse adopted by his brother Bard.

There is another effusion of Ferguson's which Burns had fresh in his mind when he set about writing his inimitable "Cotter's Saturday Night;" namely, "The Farmer's Ingle." I will just sketch the principal outlines of the latter, and leave the reader of discernment to consult Burns on the score of imitation. — The thresher comes home tired, and sees his cottage, although meanly, clean, with a cheerful fire; his "old Huswife sits at her wheel," the praise of Caledonia; the conversation about "Kirk and Market" the mother's love for her "wee things," and the master's good counsel to the lads, then ensue.

Far be it from sue to attempt to decrease the popularity of Burns: his monument stands upon an imperishable Basis, for the real hand of Genius has contributed to its erection: his Poems are my delight. But I feel indignant at the neglect and harsh treatment experienced by poor Ferguson. Mr. Irving, with the cold heart of a scholar, has ungenerously commented on the failings of this Youth, who was only twenty-four years of ago when he died, and who wrote his Poems in an obscure Magazine, without any of those cheering smiles of popular favour which animated Burns in the labours of his Muse. Mr. Walter Scott, has likewise advanced Mr. John Mayne, author of "The Siller Gun," as a Poet above him. But the prejudices and partialities of Literary characters are sometimes wonderful — Milton contemned Dryden as a mere Rhymster, and Dr. Johnson ridiculed the now popular Poems of Ossian; and that most tremblingly jealous of all mortals to another's literary merit, Dr. Goldsmith, preferred Dr. Parnell's "Night Piece" to Gray's immortal "Elegy on a Church yard;" and, owing to the like jaundiced spirit, the productions of several of our tamer Bards have found a niche in Mr. Chalmers's edition of the British Poets, to the exclusion of the pure-paged Patriotic Andrew Marvel.


Newcastle on Tyne, Oct. 8, 1813.