1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

Edmund Gosse, in "Essay on Pastoral Poetry" Complete Works of Spenser, ed. Grosart (1882-84) 3:xlvi-vii.



Swift proposed to Gay that he should write a Newgate pastoral, in which the swains and nymphs sloud talk and warble in slang. This Gay, never did attempt; but a Northern admirer of his and Pope's achieved a veritable and lasting success in lowland Scotch, a dialect then considered no less beneath the dignity of verse. Allan Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd, published in 1725, was the last, and remains the most vertebrate and interesting bucolic drama produced in Great Britain. It is the one pastoral play which has enjoyed real popularity; it is the only one which has actually reflected the genuine sentiments and expressions of the rural poor. The literary value of this unique piece has been exaggerated. Were it all written in so fine a style as are the opening lines of the second scene of Act I., it would demand for its author a place above Tasso and Guarini. But only Scottish patriotism can hold that it is sustained at this high level of excellence. Its merits are those of simplicity, humour, an adroit handling of common sentiments, and a treatment of the natural affections which is not too refined to come home to every, rustic reader. The drama is well-constructed, and in this respect stands alone among English dramatic pastorals. If the lyrics were as good as the dialogue the piece would have a greater charm for poetical students. It is a very clever essay; it is the masterpiece of its author, and the best proof of its success as a painting of bucolic life is that it is still a favourite, after a hundred and fifty years, among lowland reapers and milkmaids.