Ramsay had an influence upon the growth of the peasant poetry of Scotland which must be taken account of quite apart from the qualities of his own song, and perhaps constitutes a better title to remembrance. He did not create the movement which reached its full volume and intensity in the poetry of Burns, but it was concentrated its him for a generation, and passed on with a mighty impulse. It must always be hazardous work guessing at the beginnings of things, but if one were asked to name the great seminal work of the Scotch poetry of the eighteenth century, one would have little hesitation in pitching upon Watson's Choice Collection of Scots Songs, Ancient and Modern. Ramsay himself tells us that his inspiration, or at least his ambition to write, came from this source. It was to the Scotch poetry of the eighteenth century what Tottel's Miscellany was to the English poetry of the sixteenth, only much more powerful in its influence, owing to the fact that fewer influences were at work in the field. Ramsay carried out on a larger scale and with more abundant resources the plan adopted by this pioneer, collecting, adapting, and publishing "ancient" poems, and getting "ingenious" friends to assist him in the production of "modern" poems. His shop at the sign of the Mercury in the High Street of Edinburgh, thus became the headquarters of a school, in which he was the acknowledged master, and the productions of this school, written in the dialect of a peasantry among whom it was a disgrace not to be able to read, and coming home to their "business and bosoms," were popular as no literature had ever been before. It was not without some reason that austere moralists lamented the flight of godliness from the land before Ramsay's "licentious muse." The Gentle Shepherd, with its pagan summons to lads and lasses to "pu the gowan in its prime," found its way into the cottages, though as forbidden fruit wherever the authority of the Kirk was respected, almost as freely as the Bible.
To get a correct conception of the general character of Ramsay's poems, we must look at the audience for whom they were written. They were read by peasants, by shepherds, ploughboys, and milkmaids, but they had first passed under the critical eyes of a more lettered circle. It may seem a paradox to call Ramsay's poems "vers do societe," yet such in effect they were, though the society for which they were written had not much of the culture which we now associate with the name. Ramsay was a convivial soul — he has been called a "convivial buffoon" — and he and his friends had formed themselves into an "Easy Club," in imitation of the famous literary clubs of the London coffee-houses. It was for this society that he began to write verses, for a knot of young lawyers, doctors, lairds, and tradesmen, who had a liking for literature and good fellowship, who read the Spectator, Pope, Dryden, and the poets of the Restoration, and met of an evening to sup, crack jokes, and exchange literary essays and small talk. Ramsay's poems smack of this convivial atmosphere. Through the medium of the "Easy Club," with such admixture as it could not fail to receive from the vigorous individuality of the members, the spirit of the Restoration passed to do battle among the Scotch peasantry with the austere spirit of the Kirk. The rugged passion and rude pathos, the intense sympathy with the joys and sorrows of a hard existence, which found voice among a people awakened to the charm of song, did not come from "renowned Allan," the "canty callan" who was the laureate of the Easy Club. Broad fun, sly touches of satire at the expense of local fashions and local characters, compliments to reigning beauties, humorous descriptions of local life, were the subjects with which Ramsay sought the applause of his boon-companions, and appealed with success to a wider public.
The Lass o' Patie's Mill, and Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, are examples of the light lyric in which the genial mirth-loving poet was at his ease. When he tried serious themes he soon got beyond his depth. Farewell to Lochaber is the only serious lyric of his that has kept its hold, and even that is not without traces of artificiality of sentiment, such as the departing warrior's explanation that he weeps not because he is going to battle, but because he is leaving his sweetheart.
These tears that I shed they are a' for my dear,
And so for the dangers attending on weir.
The humorous imp that was Ramsay's true familiar must have guided his pen when he wrote these lines. The lover's agonies were not within reach of his art, although he could paint the lover's delights with genuine lyric rapture; his gay science was summed up in the lines:—
Then I'll draw cuts and take my fate
And be wi' ane contented.
It is as a painter of manners with keen, sly, humorous observation, and not as a lyrist, that Ramsay deserves to be remembered. We can well understand Hogarth's admiration for him. His elegies on Maggie Johnstone and Lucky Wood, and his anticipation of the "Road to Ruin" in the Three Bonnets were after Hogarth's own heart. But the life that he painted in the Scotch capital as he saw it with his twinkling eye, broad sense of fun, and "pawky" humour, was too coarse to have much interest for any but his own time. In a happy hour for his memory, he conceived the idea of describing the life which he had known in his youth in the country. From writing pastoral dialogues after the manner of Spenser, such as that in which Pope and Steele, as Sandy and Richie, are made to lament the death of Adie in broad Scotch, he took to making real Scotch shepherds and shepherdesses discuss in verse their loves and all the concerns of their daily life. In The Gentle Shepherd, Ramsay brought back real pastoral poetry to literature. The Scotch critics of the last century delighted in comparing Ramsay's masterpiece with the pastorals of the Italian masters, and giving him the palm over these competitors. But the kind of composition is so different that a fair basis of comparison can hardly be said to exist. The Gentle Shepherd must be judged on its merits as a picture of real rustic life. Its fidelity to nature is accessed by the welcome it received from the people whose life it described, and who saw themselves reflected there as they wished that others should see them — the harshness of their struggle for existence forgotten, and all their simple joys gathered up in the poet's imagination.