1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Ross

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:216-17.



Of Alexander Ross, author of the Fortunate Shepherdess, Scotland knows much less than it ought; and I am afraid my praise will not help to invite a fastidious reader to his pages, where homely fidelity of painting will but poorly atone for an ill-told tale and an uncouth dialect. I sought his book in the Scottish lowlands, but it had not found its way from the bosom of Buchan either by the more visible progress of trade, or by that kind of chance intercourse which the country holds with the town through travelling sellers of songs, and ballads, and histories; it has not therefore become popular among the peasantry, for whose perusal it was composed. The author, a man of education, allowed his eye to be bounded in its range by his native hills, and sought manners and language from no purer or more poetic source than the rustics who surrounded him. He was content to take the world as he found it; he copied nature with all her warts and moles, and was rude and unseemly not from negligence but from principle. He had little imagination, if imagination consists only in the creation of new and splendid things, in evoking, like a dreamer, something bright and unsubstantial, in conjuring up a phantom with seven heads and ten horns; nor had he much imagination, if imagination, by a soberer definition, be the power of creating something in strict conformity to acknowledged superstition and belief, and in extracting poetry from the common pursuits, and opinions, and feelings of man-from the change of seasons, and the aspect of the universe. But he had an observing eye and a rough and a ready hand, and has contrived to please a large district by his skill in reflecting, in the natural mirror of verse, a distinct and agreeable image of the peasantry, with their pursuits and opinions.

That he brought to the service of the lyric Muse much original vigour of thought, happy selection of language, and natural and unstudied elegance of expression, is more than I am ready to say. His songs expand into poems, and he never can satisfy himself with a brief story, and a rapid sketch: he never read the memorable conclusion of the poet,

—Brevity is very good
Where we are, or are not understood.

Yet he never seems too long to a rustic audience; and as it was for their applause he wrote, he was satisfied with attaining it. He wove their curious sayings and their flashes of rude wit into verse, and they rewarded him by an honest laugh, and endured with a patience, which merited a more inspired poet, his interminable lyrics.