1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

Anonymous, "Robert Fergusson" European Magazine 41 (June 1802) 451-52.



The name of Fergusson has long been celebrated in the different walks of astronomy, politics, and jurisprudence. Robert Fergusson, of whom it is here attempted to give some account, has been hitherto little known on this side of the Tweed. But the few poems he has left behind him prove that his talents were considerably above mediocrity, and that had he lived in times more favourable to poetry, he would have risen to higher excellence, and acquired greater fame.

He was born of parents who, though in a humble line of life, had it in their power to give him a liberal education. He spent six years at the schools of Edinburgh and Dundee, and several years at the universities of Edinburgh and St. Andrew's. He was at one time destined for the Scottish Ministry; but as he advanced towards manhood, he renounced that intention, and at Edinburgh entered the office of a writer to the Signet, a title which means a separate and higher order of Scottish attorney. Fergusson had a sensibility of mind, a warm and generous heart, and talents for society of the most attractive kind. To such a man, no situation could be more dangerous than that in which he was placed. The excesses into which he was led impaired his feeble constitution, and he sunk under them in his twenty-fourth year. Burns, a kindred genius, and who ever regarded the memory of Fergusson with the most affectionate admiration, erected a monument over his grave.

Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, have revived in their country a taste for the old style of Scottish poetry. Their poems, remarkable only for beautiful simplicity and unadorned imagery, have yet a pathos, and excite an interest more pleasing than all the splendid fictions of ancient mythology. Though certainly inferior to Burns in point of genius, Fergusson possessed higher powers of imagination than Ramsay, and more learning than either. His poems written in pure English, in which he follows the classical models, though superior to the English poems of Ramsay, seldom rise above mediocrity. But in those composed in the Scottish dialect he is often very successful. However, the subjects of his poems are in general less happy than those of his brother poets. As he spent the great part of his life in Edinburgh, and wrote for his amusement in the intervals of business and dissipation, his Scottish poems are chiefly founded on the incidents of a town life, which, though they are susceptible of humour, do not admit of those delineations of scenery and manners which vivify the rural poetry of Ramsay and Burns, and which so agreeably amuse the fancy and interest the heart. In appreciating the genius of Fergusson, let it be recollected that his poems are the careless effusions of an irregular, though amiable, young man, who wrote for the periodical papers of the day, and who died in early youth. Had his life been prolonged, under happier circumstances, he would probably have attained greater excellence.

It is impossible to contemplate unmoved the fate which has attended many of the neglected bards of Scotland, nor can the few and melancholy particulars which compose the lives of Graeme, of Michael Bruce, of Fergusson, and Burns, be read without the most painful feelings of regret. The two first lived and died in the obscurity of a country village, known only to a few, who loved their amiable disposition, and admired their uncommon genius. Both fell the early victims of a consumption; both led an innocent and virtuous life, debarred by their situation and poverty from the usual pursuits and pleasures of mankind. It has been seen that Fergusson was launched on a wider theatre, and his early death was perhaps hastened by his own follies. Of Burns, who has not heard? and who that has heard of him has not lamented that he had not been born in a higher station, that a better system of education had left him less to himself, and corrected the native wildness of his genius. Over his misfortunes, his failings, his early and almost self-intended death (for what is the continued indulgence of a pernicious and destructive vice but a species of suicide), humanity would fain draw a veil; but posterity, which exacts the strictest truth respecting every author whose fame descends to her, permits no virtue to be concealed, nor errors to be palliated, the knowledge of which may contribute to the improvement of others, or deter them from vice. Dr. Currie has executed the delicate task of writing the life of Burns with infinite credit to himself, and, we really think, with justice to the man whose virtues and defects it was his duty to point out. The memoirs are entitled to every praise, for the undoubted veracity of the facts, the just and impartial reflections to which they give rise, and the uncommon neatness of style which prevails throughout. In the second volume, some of the letters ought, perhaps, to have been rejected, as they were not intended, and are certainly not calculated, for general perusal. Many of the letters, also, of Burns's correspondents might have been omitted without injury to the writers.