I have heard about Robert
Fergusson since I began studying Burns back in the early 1990s and one day
while in Edinburgh, Susan and I walked into McNaughtans Bookshop on
Haddington Place and met the proprietor, Elizabeth Strong, a lady who knows
her books. I would buy a lot of books from her over the subsequent years,
but I have always treasured my first purchase from her on the subject of
Fergusson. We found a beautiful leather 1812 two-volume set entitled The
Poetical Works of Fergusson with his Life. I remember hand-carrying it
on the airplane from Manchester to Atlanta to make sure it was not damaged
in any way on the trip home.
Today I welcome Rhona Brown
back to Robert Burns Lives! as one who already has several articles
on this web site. Her new book, Robert Fergusson and the Scottish
Periodical Press, is the first monograph on Fergusson since 1984 when
Fred Freeman published his book, Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist
Compromise. Basically, a monograph is a book written
by one person on a single subject. Dr. Rhona Brown has excelled in this
arena writing with her new publication on Fergusson.
In an email I
asked this of Dr. Brown: While doing your research and writing your book,
what stands out as something unexpected to you something you ran across that
you did not expect to find or something that perked you up because you did
find a bit of news about Fergusson you were unaware of, or for that matter,
something on the Fergusson/Burns connection?
answered, I did find some unexpected things during my research, but this is
always the nature of research! One of the things that interested me most was
the ways in which Fergusson's poetry aligned with news stories, particularly
of public celebrations in Edinburgh. As 'The Daft Days', 'The King's
Birth-Day in Edinburgh' and 'Leith Races' are published, the Weekly Magazine
prints details of riots and misbehaviour among Edinburgh residents on these
holidays. I think my book's strategy of reading the poems through the lens
of the magazines in which they were first printed shows just how
contemporary Fergusson was. He's often seen as being nostalgic for pre-Union
Scotland and for days gone by, but his magazine context shows us that he was
responding to day-to-day events and news stories with real immediacy.
Although, very sadly, Burns and Fergusson never met, it's clear that
Fergusson is in the literati's minds when Burns arrives in Edinburgh in
1787. In the contemporary periodical press and poetry publications, there
are lots of tributes to Burns which recognise his genius and vitality, but
also very much see him as Fergusson's Scots vernacular successor.
about Rhonas new book and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
FERGUSSON AND THE SCOTTISH PERIODICAL PRESS
By Rhona Brown
Cover illustration: The News. Plt 1.
Print by Henry Heath. Published by S. Knight. Courtesy of the Trustees of
the British Museum.
several hours over the last couple of weeks reading and studying this
magnificent book on Robert Fergusson, I found it to be really well-written,
engaging, humorous, tasteful, understandable, and full of
turn-the-pages-faster reading! Almost everything you want to know about
Fergusson can be found within. As mentioned above, this is a monograph,
meaning that the main purpose is to present primary research and original
scholarship, and Dr. Brown shines in doing just that.
chapters are listed for you to see the topics covered by the author:
first appearance as an author: Pastoral, Politics and Apprenticeship
1772: A New
Note: Scots Vernacular, Reputation and Recognition
1773 - January
to July: Assurance, fecundity and brilliance: Fergusson, Unofficial Poet
day and special days ongoings in Auld Reikie
1773 - August
to December: Into the very blaze of day: Fergussons Literary Zenith
Transfigured for all time: Literary Responses to Fergussons Death
publication is really about two men, Robert Fergusson and Walter Ruddiman,
publisher of Weekly Magazine. It was in this periodical where a
majority of Fergussons poems appeared from 1771 through 1773 on a regular
basis. Ruddiman provided a stage for Fergusson who in return captured the
hearts of its readers as he grew in stature as a gifted poet. Unfortunately
his writings continued for only a short period of time as his young life
ended at age 24. He was mourned for years after his death, and one thing is
sure, he built his reputation in the Scottish periodical press.
By taking the
poets work piece by piece as it appeared in the periodical press (not just
the Weekly Magazine) and by displaying her insight, research and
original scholarship, the author captured, for me, the essence of the real
Robert Fergusson, making him more than a forerunner for Robert Burns, but a
poet worthy of more recognition than he has received. He stands on his own
without having to be propped up by Burns. If I counted correctly, I found 35
references to Burns along with 14 poems, as well as Burns Poems, Chiefly
in the Scottish Dialect.
on a farm as a youth, walking behind a plow and putting in tobacco among
workers who pooled their labor as sharecroppers going from farm to farm to
make ends meet, and having lived in cities like Charleston, Savannah and
Atlanta, I particularly reveled in the give-and-take between Auld Reekie
and the countryside as presented by Fergusson. Town and country is a theme
he comes back to again and again as if it was a part of his DNA.
poet reached the height of his career in 1773 at the age of 23. As Brown
points out, Fergusson did not have to wait to be canonized by Burns: he was
crowned Laureat of this City (Edinburgh) in 1772, at the age of 22 and
soon was recognized beyond Edinburgh as a Scottish poetic spokesman. Yet,
he was not afraid to take on the city council when he saw how the city was
being neglected or when the price of meat, butter and cheese became too
high. There are many of these illustrations throughout the book than will
illustrate the soul of Robert Fergusson, a man among men. I have
purposefully stayed away from all the well-known incidents regarding his
hospitalization and death. There is so much more in this book than these two
this is an exceptional book about Robert Fergusson and should not be
reserved just for scholars. It is a breath of fresh air for any Burnsian
who wants a fresh view of the young man who had such a big influence on
Robert Burns, but in his own right was an outstanding poet!
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