1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:207-08.



This unfortunate Scottish bard was born in Edinburgh on the 17th (some say the 5th) of October 1751. His father, who had been an accountant to the British Linen Company's Bank, died early, leaving a widow and four children. Robert spent six years at the grammar schools of Edinburgh and Dundee, went for a short period to Edinburgh College, and then, having obtained a bursary, to St. Andrews, where he continued till his seventeenth year. He was at first designed for the ministry of the Scottish Church. He distinguished himself at college for his mathematical knowledge, and became a favourite of Dr. Wilkie, Professor of Natural Philosophy, on whose death he wrote an elegy. He early discovered a passion for poetry, and collected materials for a tragedy on the subject of Sir William Wallace, which he never finished. He once thought of studying medicine, but had neither patience nor funds for the needful preliminary studies. He went away to reside with a rich uncle, named John Forbes, in the north, near Aberdeen. This person, however, and poor Fergusson unfortunately quarrelled; and, after residing some months in his house, he left it in disgust, and with a few shillings in his pocket proceeded southwards. He travelled on foot, and such was the effect of his vexation and fatigue, that when he reached his mother's house he fell into a severe fit of illness.

He became, on his recovery, a copying-clerk in a solicitor's, and afterwards in a sheriff-clerk's office, and began to contribute to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine. We remember in boyhood reading some odd volumes of this production, the general matter in which was inconceivably poor, relieved only by Fergusson's racy little Scottish poems. His evenings were spent chiefly in the tavern, amidst the gay and dissipated youth of the metropolis, to whom he was the "wit, songster, and mimic." That his convivial powers were extraordinary, is proved by the fact of one of his contemporaries, who survived to be a correspondent of Burns, doubting if even he equalled the fascination of Fergusson's converse. Dissipation gradually stole in upon him, in spite of resolutions dictated by remorse. In 1773, he collected his poems into a volume, which was warmly received, but brought him, it is believed, little pecuniary benefit. At last, under the pressure of poverty, toil, and intemperance, his reason gave way, and he was by a stratagem removed to an asylum. Here, when he found himself and became aware of his situation, he uttered a dismal shriek, and east a wild and startled look around his cell. The history of his confinement was very similar to that of Nat Lee and Christopher Smart. For instance, a story is told of him which is an exact duplicate of one recorded of Lee. He was writing by the light of the moon, when a thin cloud crossed its disk. "Jupiter, snuff the moon," roared the impatient poet. The cloud thickened, and entirely darkened the light. "Thou stupid god," he exclaimed, "thou hast snuffed it out." By and by he became calmer, and had some affecting interviews with his mother and sister. A removal to his mother's house was even contemplated, but his constitution was exhausted, and on the 16th of October 1774, poor Fergusson breathed his last. It is interesting to know that the New Testament was his favourite companion in his cell. A little after his death arrived a letter from an old friend, a Mr. Burnet, who had made a fortune in the East Indies, wishing him to come. out to India, and enclosing a remittance of 100 to defray the expenses of the journey.

Thus in his twenty-fourth year perished Robert Fergusson. He was buried in the Canongate churchyard, where Burns afterwards erected a monument to his memory, with an inscription which is familiar to most of our readers.

Burns in one of his poems attributes to Fergusson "glorious pairts." He was certainly a youth of remarkable powers, although "pairts" rather than high genius seems to express his calibre. He can hardly be said to sing, and he never soars. His best poems, such as The Farmer's Ingle, are just lively daguerreotypes of the life he saw around him-there is nothing ideal or lofty in any of them. His "ingle-bleeze" burns low compared to that which in The Cottar's Saturday Night springs up aloft to heaven, like the tongue of an altar-fire. He stuffs his poems, too, with Scotch to a degree which renders them too rich for even a Scotchman's taste, and as repulsive as a haggis to that of an Englishman. On the whole, Fergusson's best claim to fame arises from the influence he exerted on the far higher genius of Burns, who seems, strangely enough, to have preferred him to Allan Ramsay.