Robert Fergusson

John Service, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:501-03.

Fergusson is an interesting figure in the literary history of his country as an instance of precocious poetical talent, and as a link between his predecessor Ramsay and his mightier successor Burns. His fame is indissolubly associated with that of Burns, not only because Burns erected a monument over his grave, and inscribed on it one of those rapturous eulogies which the mention of Fergusson's name always called forth from him, but still more because of the extraordinary flattery which Burns bestowed upon him by imitating him almost as often and as much as he surpassed him. Specimens of Burns' "prentice hand" are preserved in the larger editions of his works. But they are few in number as well as of slender significance in regard to the possibilities of his genius. It was the reading of Fergusson's poems, he himself tells us, which moved him to resume his "wildly sounding lyre," when in his early manhood he had for a time laid it aside. The same influence which recalled him to the service of the Muses dictated to a surprising extent the choice and the treatment of his themes throughout his poetical career, and certainly during its most fertile period. So many of his best-known pieces, like The Holy Fair, The Cotter's Saturday Night, his epistles and satires, bear obvious traces of having been suggested by his youthful predecessor's slender volume of song, that it is as if Burns, solitary genius in other respects, were solitary also in this respect — that his juvenilia were not written by his own hand, but by a poetical predecessor still more precocious than himself. Fergusson's achievements in verse are the starting-points of Burns' triumph. He who opens Fergusson's volume in the expectation of finding another Burns is destined to be disappointed. But he is likely to be consoled for this disappointment by the discovery that not a few of the marked qualities of the poetry of the later singer characterise, as if in immature form, the verse of his predecessor. There are present in the poems of each the same easy artless versification, the same love of nature and of human nature, the same humour, the same philosophy of common sense applied to social life, the same lively imagination; only what is ripe incomparable genius in the one is no more than precocious and surprising talent in the other. In this light it is fair to Fergusson as well as to Burns, and not injurious to the reputation of the younger poet, to compare Braid Claith (p. 505) with The Epistle to a Young Friend, or the Ode to the Gowdspink with The Mouse or The Mountain Daisy. Between Burns and his predecessor too there is this link of connection — the English poems of the one are of as little account as those of the other.

Precocity, which is usually a disease accompanying other diseases and symptomatic of them, from the first marked Fergusson for its own. All through his school and university course he was sickly, gentle and amiable, surprisingly quick and clever, a prodigy destined to an early grave. At twenty-one he is the most famous Scotch poet of his day, and his poems, apart from some pastorals which had served the purpose of poetical exercises, are chiefly short pieces in which he celebrates the life which he knows best, that of an Edinburgh clerk, and the life which he loves best, that of country swains. It is with much of the grace and gaiety of Horace growing old and mellow, secure of fame and wine and friendship and mastery of his art, that the starved young Edinburgh clerk sings of scenes of gaiety and mild dissipation, in which his part was more fatal to his health than discreditable to his character, and from these noctes ambrosianae turns to the farmer's ingle, and the frolic and innocent and healthy life of the denizens of meadows and uplands remote from towns. As if he were old before his time, he is little inspired by the passion from which the Greek dramatist was happy to be delivered by age, and from which Burns had no wish ever to escape. Similarly he is a city spark and a satirist of the city magistrates and the city guard, rather in the genial, reflective, humorous mood of the decline of life than with the passionateness of youth. His range of subjects is narrowed by the narrow space of a career which began at twenty-one and was finished at twenty-four. He had a keen enjoyment of city life, with its clubs for a little dissipation, and its bailies and its "black banditti" for a constant occasion of laughter. Still more keen on his part was that enjoyment of the country, the pleasures of which he seldom tasted except in imagination, but which supplies the inspiration of some of his most touching verses, as well as of some of his admirable mock heroics. We alternate in his verse between these two sets of themes, and in his treatment of both we meet with the same vein of pure pathos, and its almost unfailing accompaniment of genuine humour.