1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Allan Ramsay

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:179-85.



In Allan Ramsay I see the great successor to the royal race of bards, who laid the foundation of the rustic or national poetry of Scotland, in Peblis to the Play, Christ's lurk on the Green, and the Gaberlunyie Man; and I see more, I see in him the restorer of song, and the first who strove to redeem from oblivion, or rescue from the changeful memory of tradition, the ancient lyrics of the nation. In the passion, enthusiasm, and elegance of lyric composition, he has been far indeed surpassed; but he has never been surpassed in rustic glee, frank, manly humour, and in his happy groupings of humble life. He is warm, over warm perhaps, in some of his addresses to beauty, and less delicate than a poet now would desire to be who wishes to be published in that sweetest of all ways of publication, by the lips of the ladies. He may be justly accused also of being much too blunt and direct in his mode of wooing, and far too plain and too honest for negotiating in lyric verse with a court lady now: he dispenses with all chivalrous ceremony of approach, and never moves for a moment in the parallel lines which modesty and fear have laid down for lovers to walk in. Yet I am judging him too strictly when I try him by the present gazette standard of female delicacy and fashion. He was once amazingly popular, with high-born dames as well as with humble; and I am not to suppose, that in the year of grace; 1724, the ladies were less virtuous in conduct than at present. They spoke with some freedom when they allowed poets to sing such unceremonious strains.

In all he writes there is a large measure of enjoyment, and he sings from the fulness and overflowing of mirth and humour. What he sees, he sees for himself; living life is ever present to his eye, and he has made himself intimate with nature in all her familiar varieties. He sings of domestic love and fireside enjoyment like one who knows what charms a kind wife and promising children cast over a susceptible heart; and he loves to paint the ridiculous pretensions of age to the warmth and animation of youth, to extract mirth and amusement out of the follies of gray heads, and to make the words of love drop as cold from their lips as rain from a winter cloud. He pours out his humour till delicacy cries enough; he shows so much of the white legs of his rustic beauties that all their descendants grieve for the scantiness of longitude in their grandmothers' garments; and he dishes out domestic life in sauce too savoury for the prudent dames of the present generation. He forgets nature sometimes for the sake of foreign gods,

And lays his lugs in Pindus spring,
And invocates Apollo.

He had little tenderness, and little elevation of sentiment; he had raptured moments, but they were those of ordinary peasants. His ease was the ease of nature, and his gift lay in grouping rustic characters, in seizing on the infirm and ridiculous side of human life: he had less power in personating sweet and austere female modesty and grace, or in painting the gentle but wayward emotions of the bosom.

In his restorations of ancient song he has been sometimes singularly unhappy; he inherited little of the gift of creating new verses in the spirit and feeling of the old, when the starting train of thought required elevation or purity. In the song of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray he his despised the plaintive warning of the old commencing words, and offered violence to one of our most moving and romantic stories, by infusing mirth instead of sadness, and gaiety for simple pathos. But his fortune is far otherwise when he has mirth or humour for his companions; he renews the laugh, and renovates the glee, and revives the humour, with a skill and an earnestness which have never been surpassed, and but rarely equalled.

It has been for some time the practice to upbraid Allan with negligence in collating, and want of sympathy in editing ancient songs; his accusers forget that he was the first who made the attempt, and that without his aid we might have had nothing where we have much — that he was a daily labourer for his bread, and had not leisure to go in quest of the torn and bleeding members of old song: that he rescued many from certain oblivion, we have the evidence of his works; but that he threw willingly away any of our beautiful antique lyrics for the sake of filling their place with his own, we have no assurance save surmise. He says, indeed, that feeling assured how acceptable new songs to known tunes would prove, he had made verses for more than sixty, and thirty more were done by ingenious young gentlemen. But Allan, with all his vanity — and he had a reasonable share — and with all his imperfect taste — and he was not without it — had far too keen a sense of the beauties of song to cast any productions of merit away. Songs of genius protect themselves against duller rivals; they would have outlived — since they had lived so long — the negligence of any collector, and found safe sanctuary in some of those compilations with which the land was soon inundated. They who seek to believe that up to the time of Ramsay we had many oral lyrics of great antiquity and beauty, imagine also that he has supplanted them in popular esteem by his own inferior works — that he has buried the old gold to give currency to the baser metal of his own coining. I cannot see how the charge can be either substantiated or disproved, and he must be content to be assailed or defended by those who put harsh or charitable constructions on a passage which is open to both. How far he endeavoured to supply the place of what was lost, correct what was indelicate, or elevate what was silly, we may inquire in vain. But we may well imagine the song to be gross which Ramsay omitted on account of its indelicacy, and very dull and very weak which he threw away when he was labouring to fill up the craving appetite of volumes. It cannot be denied, that he gave a willing place in his collection to many exquisite old songs — that he preserved and eked out with more or less happiness many fragments and many choruses; — and are we to suppose that he denied the like care to any other deserving lyric? Of the many fragments of oral song which it has been say fortune to find, a number of them bear the names and characters of those which have been numbered among the lost favourites of our forefathers — they are all alike licentious and indiscreet; and if I may judge of those suppressed by those that have survived, we ought rather to praise Ramsay's good sense than to censure his want of sympathy with the remains of our minstrelsy.

One of the foremost in bringing this charge against Ramsay was Mr. Ritson, who reproaches him with assisting ingenious young gentlemen to supplant the exquisite works of our ancestors. This reproach might have been spared; since two of Allan's friends in this labour are two of our sweetest lyric poets. Ramsay was certainly no very careful remover of the dust and cobwebs from ancient verse, and Ritson was as dry and as barren as the other was rash or careless. The latter was a learned and laborious person without the light of genius to guide him amid the gross darkness of antiquarian research; and the former sought after truth with less solicitude, perhaps, since he was sure of the poet's wreath if he missed the critic's. The Englishman edited poetry without much sense of its beauty, and watched over the scattered relics of fugitive song with the vigilance of a dragon: the Scotchman lived before this fastidiousness had become a fashion; while the changes which time was continually making in oral song were of every day occurrence, which he seemed to imitate when he filled up the gaps and breaches in old verse with a clever hand, and with an eye that was not! more than nice in the choice of materials. Ritson's delight was in mutilated ballads, and he seemed not unwilling to be pleased sometimes with what lie did not understand: Ramsay loved no such mystery — he was a plain man, and relished a well told tale; and when he came to a difficult passage, he solved it like a poet, by making a verse in its place. If he made mistakes, and sometimes missed the feeling and spirit of the old melodies, he had many beauties to compensate, which were as much beyond the reach of Ritson as the critic's accuracy was beneath the poet's notice. Had Joseph edited the Reliques of Percy, he would have made a work as dreary as a Lincolnshire fen — had he collected the Minstrelsy of the Border, many of our most exquisite ballads would have remained amid the rubbish which obscured them, and we should have felt in his labours something like the misery of an invasion. The language of Ramsay is still as fresh, and his images of rustic life as living-like, as they were n hundred years ago.