1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Fergusson

James Gray, "Remarks on the Writings of Fergusson" Poems of Robert Fergusson (1821) xvi-xxv.



There can be no more striking proof of the degradation of Scotland, after the transference of the seat of government to the capital of England, than that her native tongue fell into disrepute, and the majestic stream of her poetry, that had come down in one uninterrupted tenor from Barbour to James VI. absolutely ceased to flow. Edinburgh sank into the station of a provincial town. All the enterprising spirits of Scotland were attracted to London — the grand emporium of preferment, and as they valued success there, they were at pains to forget, not only the pronunciation, but even the vocabulary of their early years. Till that eventful period, Scotland had produced a race of poets, who contested the palm with the contemporary bards of the south. Barbour, James I., Dunbar, Gawin Douglas, and Drummond of Hawthornden, were, in their peculiar way, equal to the English poets of their own day. But from the time that the Scottish sovereigns ceased to hold their court in Scotland, the Scottish muse was not only neglected, but any commerce with her was deemed disgraceful. She indignantly stretched her wing, and fled the ungrateful country, and in her train the patriotic virtues departed; or if she lingered, it was in some lone glen, where she raised her voice in ancient song. There is between the love of country, and the cultivation of national poetry, a more intimate connexion than may at first sight appear; for a great national achievements furnish the best subjects for the native muse, she in turn inflames the spirit of the patriot to glorious deeds. The Stewarts were not merely lovers and patrons literature, some of their were its brightest ornaments; and it would be difficult to name any English poet of his own age possessed of more poetical genius than James I. But when they were transplanted to England, they either forgot Scotland, or the troubles of the times furnished them other employment than the cultivation of literature; and to them succeeded a race, who not only knew her not, but even looked upon her with a jealous eye.

From that period, the degradation of Scottish poesy was complete, and in that state it remained, till Allan Ramsey arose from the lower class of the people, to restore the Scottish language, and to vindicate the honours of Scottish Song. It was from this source alone, that the revival of our national learning could be reasonably expected. The gentry, who looked to court for preferment in another country, or were ambitious of passing for men of fashion in their own, and the scholastic pedant, who had never cast his eye beyond the heavy walls of schools and colleges, alike affected to consider the Scots a barbarous jargon, unworthy either to be spoken or written; and the great glory of Ramsay is, that he was the first, who, for the long period of a century, had the courage to use his native language as the vehicle of poetic imaginations. Bred among the remotest and the wildest mountains of his country, and acquainted only with its language, his sole ambition was to delineate Scottish manners in the Scottish dialect; and in the Gentle Shepherd he has succeeded in both. Nature had denied him the sublimity that elevates the mind, or the pathos that melts it into sorrow, but she had endowed him with an acuteness of observation, that enabled him to execute a faithful portraiture of the pastoral manners of Scotland, and a correctness of taste that led him to seize their most beautiful and interesting features. The likeness is withal so striking, and the colouring so fresh and vivid, and so obviously laid on by Nature's own pencil, that while we look upon it, we feel a conviction that the whole is as much the growth of Scotland, as the rose of her rocks, or the thistle of her mountains. It is general Nature modified by the peculiar habits of the pastoral hills and valleys of Scotland, and the actions and the language of Ramsay's shepherds have an individuality that cannot be mistaken. Little can be said in praise of his lyrics: He has not left one song that rises far above mediocrity; but the glory of creating a series of lyric poetry, worthy of the heart-thrilling music of Scotland, was reserved for a greater man.

To Ramsay succeeded Fergusson, a man distinguished alike by the errors and the misfortunes of his life, and the strength and originality of his genius; yet there is reason to believe, that his failings have been exaggerated: but I have already attempted to delineate his virtues and his vices, and to tell the melancholy tale of his misfortunes, and my business is now with the character of his genius, as it appears in his writings. He has deservedly obtained a great name in Scottish poetry, yet I should be disposed to consider him rather as the child of hope than performance. His English poems are, with a few exceptions, below criticism. It is extraordinary, that a mind gifted like Fergusson's should have been capable of stringing so many hundred rhymes, in which there is scarcely to be found one original idea, or one felicitous expression; and while we read, this question forces itself upon us, — Are these the effusions of a man of genius? Had he preferred no other claim to the favour of his contemporaries, or the admiration of posterity, he would never have obtained a place among the poets of Scotland: they are miserable imitations of a wretched model, deficient in every poetical quality. We submit to the drudgery of reading these poems, only because they are Fergusson's; and the only sentiment that arises in the mind during the perusal, is wonder at the inequalities of genius. "The Canongate Playhouse in Ruins," and the "Epilogue spoken by Mr Wilson in the character of an Edinburgh Buck," have been praised, rather, it is believed, from their local allusions, than from any great intrinsic merit. Some of these poems are entitled burlesque, but it is only from the title that we discover the author's design in writing them; for they are altogether destitute of those grotesque fancies, and that droll humour that places the grave in contrast with the ludicrous, exalting the trivial and depressing the dignified, and constitutes the very essence of this species of writing.

It is in the Scots Poems, then that we are to look for proofs of that genius which has been so highly and so justly celebrated; and when we pass from the one to the other, we feel that we are removing from a dull and uninteresting clime, where all is cold and barren, to the delightful regions of fancy warmed by bright suns, and rich with generous fruits. Yet this remark is far from being of general application; for even here he has, by a strange perversity of taste, obscured the lights of his own genius, and if there is much to admire, there is also much to censure. The great defect of his mind seems to have been the want of that fine feeling of propriety, which is the regulating power of genius, and is as much the gift of nature, as an active fancy, or a daring imagination. This is less excusable in him, than it would have been in an uneducated poet; for though taste is an original endowment, as well any other of the higher mental qualities, it is more susceptible of improvement than any of them. All that schools or colleges could do for the human mind, was done for Fergusson. From boyhood, he had been trained to the study of the purest models of antiquity. At the university his judgment had been strengthened and enlarged by science, and, he had there heard lectures on morals and taste; yet in this latter quality he is far inferior to his uneducated brethren, Ramsey, Burns, and Hogg.

No poet of the same genius has, perhaps, ever been so unfortunate in the choice of subjects: though his language is more unmingled Scots than either Ramsay's or Burns's, he was not, like them, ambitious of being the poet of Scotland, but contented himself with describing the lowest and the least interesting of the local manners of Edinburgh. We cannot avoid lamenting that that muse, which might have rivalled Ramsay and Burns, in culling the poetic flowers which nature has scattered with so liberal a hand over the plains of Scotland, and painting those manners which exalt her peasantry among the nations, should have stained her wing by the impurities and filth of a great city; — that instead of perching upon the imperial thistle, or the blossoming hawthorn, or soaring to the rainbow of the hill, or joining the evening hymn of the cottager, she should have sought the tainted breeze and the sunless lane, and the disgusting orgies of low debauchery. This, I must repeat it, is the more to be regretted, for whenever she escapes from such scenes, the soar of her wing proves the divinity of her origin. In evidence of this assertion, it would be alone sufficient to quote the Farmer's Ingle.

The poet has there hit upon the true theme of poetry. It is by far the happiest of his efforts, and had his taste always led him to the choice of such subjects, he might have disputed the first place in Scottish fame with Burns. Independently indeed of all relative considerations, it is a noble poem, a refreshing and faithful picture of the simple and virtuous manners of an interesting class of society, and shews how well he was qualified by nature for the performance of the national work so admirably executed by his great successor. It breathes the true inspiration of poetry and of patriotism. Fergusson seems to have understood that the poet was most likely to succeed who described the manners of his country in his country's language; but it was unfortunate that he so seldom chose their fairest forms; and though he knew well that the love of country above every thing else animates the poet's strains, it is to be regretted that be so seldom strikes those strings of the Scottish harp that waken the Scottish heart to enthusiasm. The Farmer's Ingle has to us one merit which the author could not foresee, — it is the prototype of the Cottar's Saturday-night. It was here that Burns kindled that celestial lamp that was destined to cheer the drooping heart of the Scottish absentee in every region of the world, an the banks of the the and the Ganges, — in Van Diemans Land, and amidst the snows of the polar regions. Yet, though he certainly took the first hint of his poem from it, he borrowed nothing else, not an expression, not an idea; and much as we are disposed to admire the bard of Edin, we must admit, that the Ayrshire ploughman has produced by far the most interesting poem. What Fergusson has attempted, he has admirably executed. Nothing can be more faithful or graphic than the description of the group assembled round the Ingle, after the labours of the day; but excepting two stanzas, the one beginning, "On sicken food," &c. and the concluding stanza, it is rather a scene of repose and calm delight than of enthusiastic excitement. Fergusson has scarcely ventured beyond what the picture before him presents to the eye. Burns has ennobled his poem by the introduction of youthful love, of pure religion, of a lofty patriotism, and of every virtue that can render humble life amiable or delightful, or brighten the prospects beyond it, and all this in a strain of inspiration worthy of the subject. In one respect Fergusson has the advantage over Burns. In the management of his stanza, there is a closeness and condensation, and a happy choice of pure Scottish expression, that we look for in vain in Burns. In this comparative view of these noble poems, it is only justice to Fergusson to call to mind, that Burns had from infancy witnessed the scenes he paints, and was himself an important personage in the group he so admirably describes, and had at some period or other experienced every feeling and passion that glows with such splendour in his poem, while Fergusson could only obtain occasional glimpses of rural life.

It is probable that Burns borrowed the idea of the "Twa Brigs" from Fergusson's "Planestanes and Cawsey;" but he has risen so for above the original, that it would be absurd to institute a comparison. When our poet escapes from the contagion of Edinburgh, he often blazes forth in beautiful descriptions of nature; yet with the exception of the Farmer's Ingle, he has not produced any poem in which the expectation, raised by passages of splendid merit, is not disappointed before the conclusion. The opening of Leith Races is admirable. "Mirth" is a true poetic vision, and may compare with Burns's Coila; but the moment the poet ceases to gaze on the fairy phantom of his imagination, he and she part company. She is not the inspiring genius of the day, for though this poem possesses considerable merit, it displays little of the exhilarations of mirth. It too frequently happens, that the finest note of preparation vibrates a little while on the delighted ear, and is heard no more. In the exordium of the Ghaist, the midnight horrors of a churchyard are brought before the mind in imaginations worthy of Shakspeare, yet the succeeding dialogue between the spirits of Heriot and Watson does not rise above the tone of common conversation.

Of the love ode or song, which forms the most numerous, and perhaps the most valuable portion of Burns's poetry, Fergusson has not left us a single specimen. Love seems to have been a stranger to his bosom. This is the more singular in a youthful poet, of strong passions, and of a romantic imagination; yet in his poetry we discover no traces of it, fancied or ideal, and no mention is made of it in his life.

With all these deductions, and some may think that they have been made with an unsparing hand, Fergusson was a man of great original genius. He owes nothing to any of his predecessors. His language (and it is admirable), his sentiments, his subjects, his mode of treating them, are all his own. He was endowed by nature with great susceptibility of mind, and seems most readily to have taken the tone of the objects around him. He lived in poetry, and whatever presented itself to his eye, was with him a theme for the muse. In this way his subjects are often ill chosen; yet it is wonderful with what art he has elevated the low, and thrown over materials the most unpromising an interest which does not seem to belong to them. There was in his mind all the elements of the poetical character, — feeling, fancy, imagination, and enthusiasm; but his enthusiasm was depressed and chilled by poverty, the eye of his imagination dimmed by the city atmosphere, and the light of his understanding prematurely quenched by a terrible malady. In pleasing views of rural life, he is inferior to Ramsay, and in mastery of the human heart, to Burns; but he is equal to the latter, and far superior to the former, in vigour of intellect, and certainly not inferior to either in powers of description. Had he written less, his volume would have been more pleasing in perusal, but it is uncertain if we should have risen from it with a more exalted idea of his genius; and had fortune been as auspicious to him in placing him in a situation favourable to the developement of poetical talent, as nature in endowing him with that rare quality, there is reason to believe, that he would have scarcely had a rival in the galaxy of Scottish glory, rich as it is in luminaries of the first magnitude.