1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:107-10.



Crawford Muir, in Lanarkshire, was the birthplace of this true poet. His father was manager of the Earl of Hopetoun's lead-mines. Allan was born in 1686. His mother was Alice Bower, the daughter of an Englishman who had emigrated from Derbyshire. His father died while his son was yet in infancy; his mother married again in the same district; and young Allan was educated at the parish school of Leadhills. At the age of fifteen, he was sent to Edinburgh, and bound apprentice to a wig-maker there. This trade, however, he left after finishing his term. He displayed rather early a passion for literature, and made a little reputation by some pieces of verse, — such as An Address to the Easy Club, a convivial society with which he was connected, — and a considerable time after by a capital continuation of King James' Christis Kirk on the Green. In 1712, he married a writer's daughter, Christiana Ross, who was his affectionate companion for thirty years. Soon after, he set up a bookseller's shop opposite Niddry's Wynd, and in this capacity edited and published two collections, — the one of songs, some of them his own, entitled The Tea-Table Miscellany, and the other of early Scottish poems, entitled The Evergreen. In 1725, he published The Gentle Shepherd. It was the expansion of one or two pastoral scenes which he had shewn to his delighted friends. The poem became instantly popular, and was republished in London and Dublin, and widely circulated in the Colonies. Pope admired it. Gay, then in Scotland with his patrons the Queensberry family, used to lounge into Ramsay's shop to get explanations of its Scotch phrases to transmit to Twickenham, and to watch from the window the notable characters whom Allan pointed out to him in the Edinburgh Exchange. He now removed to a better shop, and set up for his sign the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond, who agreed better in figure than they had done in reality at Hawthornden. He established the first circulating library in Scotland. His shop became a centre of intelligence, and Ramsay sat a Triton among the minnows of that rather mediocre day — giving his little senate laws, and inditing verses, songs, and fables. At forty-five — an age when Sir Walter Scott had scarcely commenced his Waverley novels, and Dryden had by far his greatest works to produce — honest Allan imagined his vein exhausted, and ceased to write, although he lived and enjoyed life for nearly thirty years more. At last, after having lost money and gained obloquy, in a vain attempt to found the first theatre in Edinburgh, and after building for himself a curious octagon-shaped house on the north side of the Castle Hill, which, while he called it Ramsay Lodge, his enemies nicknamed "The Goosepie," and which, though altered, still, we believe, stands, under the name of Ramsay Garden, the author of The Gentle Shepherd breathed his last on the 7th of January 1758. He died of a scurvy in the gums. His son became a distinguished painter, intimate with Johnson, Burke, and the rest of that splendid set, although now chiefly remembered from his connexion with them and with his father.

Allan Ramsay was a poet with very few of the usual poetical faults. He had an eye for nature, but he had also an eye for the main chance. He "kept his shop, and his shop kept him." He might sing of intrigues, and revels, and houses of indifferent reputation; but he was himself a quiet, canny, domestic man, seen regularly at kirk and market. He had a great reverence for the gentry, with whom lie fancied himself, and perhaps was, through the Dalhousie family, connected. He had a vast opinion of himself; and between pride of blood, pride of genius, and plenty of means, lie was tolerably happy. How different from poor maudlin Fergusson, or from that dark-browed, dark-eyed, impetuous being who was, within a year of Ramsay's death, to appear upon the banks of Doon, coming into the world to sing divinely, to act insanely, and prematurely to die!

A bard, in the highest use of the word, in which it approaches the meaning of prophet, Ramsay was not, else he would not have ceased so soon to sing. Whatever lyrical impulse was in him speedily wore itself out, and left him to his milder mission as a broad reflector of Scottish life — in its humbler, gentler, and better aspects. His Gentle Shepherd is a chapter of Scottish still-life; and, since the pastoral is essentially the poetry of peace, the Gentle Shepherd is the finest pastoral in the world. No thunders roll among these solitary crags; no lightnings affright these lasses among their "claes" at Habbie's Howe; the air is still and soft; the plaintive bleating of the sheep upon the hills, the echoes of the city are distant and faintly heard, so that the very sounds seem in unison and in league with silence. One thinks of Shelley's isle 'mid the Aegean deep:—

It is an isle under Ionian skies,
Beautiful as the wreck of Paradise
And for the harbours are not safe and good,
The land would have remained a solitude,
But for some pastoral people, native there,
Who from the Elysian clear and sunny air
Draw the last spirit of the age of gold,
Simple and generous, innocent and bold....
The winged storms, chanting their thunder psalm
To other lands, leave azure chasms of calm
Over this isle, or weep themselves in dew,
From whence the fields and woods ever renew
Their green and golden immortality.

Yet in the little circle of calm carved out by the magician of The Gentle Shepherd there is no insipidity. Lust is sternly excluded, but love of the purest and warmest kind there breathes. The parade of learning is not there; but strong common sense thinks, and robust and manly eloquence declaims. Humour too is there, and many have laughed at Mause and Baldy, whom all the frigid wit of Love for Love and the School for Scandal could only move to contempt or pity. A denouement of great skill is not wanting to stir the calm surface of the story by the wind of surprise; the curtain falls over a group of innocent, guileless, and happy hearts, and as we gaze at them we breathe the prayer, that Scotland's peerage and Scotland's peasantry may always thus be blended into one bond of mutual esteem, endearment, and excellence. Well might Campbell say — "Like the poetry of Tasso and Ariosto, that of the Gentle Shepherd is engraven on the memory of its native country. Its verses have passed into proverbs, and it continues to be the delight and solace of the peasantry whom it describes."

Ramsay has very slightly touched on the religion of his countrymen. This is to be regretted; but if he had no sympathy with that, he, at least, disdained to counterfeit it, and its poetical aspects have since been adequately sung by other minstrels.