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For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
Robert Fergusson


SUBJECTION to the demon of despondency was a rare experience to the usually calm and philosophical Wordsworth. Yet even his serene soul was occasionally clouded with dismal recollection of the past and gloomy doubt of the future. In one of these despondent moods, he gave utterance to a singularly forlorn sentiment. He had been contemplating the mystery of suffering genius as exemplified in the history of Chatterton and of Burns; and, dwelling exclusively on the wreckage of poetical lives, he came to the dreary conclusion,—

"We poets in our youth begin in gladness,
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness"

The statement, of course, is far from being of universal application. The mightiest poets, being essentially and exceptionally sane, and having spirits above the tyranny of time, have not died in misery. Poverty and neglect, as the terms are currently understood—some of them knew, but the end was neither despondency nor madness. In no sense of the word did Shakespeare die in misery. He was surrounded with every evidence of material comfort, and attended by all the blessings which, in his own estimate of a prosperous life, should accompany advancing years—‘honour, love, obedience, troops of friends.’ Milton, our next mightiest poet, did once make direct complaint, in the latter part of his life, of hav*-ing fallen ‘on evil tongues and evil days,’ but it was by no means a complaint of personal despondency: it was rather a stern denunciation of the frivolity and sensuality of a government, against which he was in solitary rebellion of spirit. And if his physical vision was darkened, his mind saw with clearer and steadier light: ‘none the more,’ he declared, with the bravery of unshaken faith in a great controlling Power that ordered all things,—

‘None the more Cease I to wander where the muses haunt
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief
Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks below
That wash thy hallowed feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit

Yet, notwithstanding these, and other less, but still well-known names, to the contrary, Wordsworth’s melancholy lines contain sufficient truth to warrant their general acceptance. It would be easy to extract name after name from the long roll of British poets to whose case they are completely applicable. Wordsworth himself, in the poem in which the lines occur, cites but two; chosen, doubtless, as being the saddest near to his own times; but they are representative names of the class to which Collins and Cowper in England, and Fergus-son and Tannahill in Scotland, belong.

The relation of society to suffering genius is a question more easily raised than answered. Many people will hesitate—some perhaps refuse—to acknowledge the relation as one of exceptional responsibility* Suffering genius itself, and those who have duly appreciative sympathy with it, have no such hesitation. To them the duty of society towards genius in distress is clear; its obligation a moral certainty. Burns claimed for himself the protection of his generation. Where, he asked, with a proud dependence, to which he felt he was entitled,— Where should I so properly look for patronage as to the illustrious of my native land ? Afterwards, when he had made experience of neglect, and was feeling the pang of disappointment, with haughty independence he hurled at the Crown itself the open reproach,—

‘For neither pension, post, nor place,
Am I your humble debtor.'

Coleridge was scarcely less emphatic in his impeachment of the country, for criminal neglect of Chatterton, Spencer, and Otway. ‘Is this' he demanded,—

‘Is this the land of song-ennobled line?
Is this the land where genius ne’er in vain
Poured forth his lofty strain?
Ah, me! yet Spenser, gentlest bard divine,
Beneath chill disappointment’s shade,
His weary limbs in lonely anguish laid;
And o’er her darling dead,
Pity, hopeless, hung her head,
While ’mid the pelting of that pitiless storm
Sunk to the cold earth Otway’s famished form.’

But his keenest invective was reserved for the treatment of Burns by ‘the Illustrious of his native land.* ‘They snatched him/ says Coleridge, ‘ from the sickle and the plough, to gauge ale-firkins;’ and in return for this generosity he would propose the following elaborate symbolical mockery of thanks:—

‘Then in the outskirts, where pollutions grow,
Pick the rank henbane and the dusky flowers
Of night-shade, or its red and tempting fruit.
These, with stopt nostril, and glove-guarded hand,
Knit in nice intertexture—so to twine
The illustrious brow of Scotch nobility! ’

Carlyle has handled the subject, relatively to the case of Burns, with his accustomed suggestiveness, but with unusual inconclusiveness.

‘We are little disposed' he says, ‘ to join with that class of Burns’s admirers who accuse the higher ranks among us of having ruined Burns by their selfish neglect of him. We doubt whether direct pecuniary help, had it been offered, would have been accepted, or could have proved very effectual.* But he also says, ‘We shall grant, and for Burns it is granting much, that, with all his pride, he would have thanked, even with exaggerated gratitude, any one who had cordially befriended him. . . . The poor promotion he desired in his calling might have been granted : it was his own scheme, therefore likelier than any other to be of service. All this it might have been a luxury, nay, it was a duty, for our nobility to have done. No part of this, however, did any of them do, or apparently attempt or wish to do. . . . Let us pity and forgive them! . . . Here was an action, extending, in virtue of its worldly influence, we may say, through all time ; in virtue of its moral nature, beyond all time, being immortal as the Spirit of Goodness itself; this action was offered them to do, and light {sic) was not given them to do it. Let us pity and forgive them ! But better than pity, let us go and do otherwise. Human suffering did not end with the life of Burns.' This is very much like saying they were to blame, and they were not to blame; they could have done Burns a good, and they could not have done him a good, and probably he himself would not have allowed them to do him a good. And it seems to mean that if they were instruments which Destiny might have employed for Burns’s benefit, but which Destiny did not so employ, they are to be exculpated ; but if they were free agents, who had the use of their own will, and who did not use it to Burns’s benefit, they are to be condemned.

But Burns himself has considered the subject of the relation of society to suffering genius from a non-personal standpoint, and has given his opinion with characteristic frankness, decision, and intrepidity, singularly refreshing after the contradictory inconclusiveness of Carlyle. Incidental mention of the name of the Scottish poet Fergusson was the occasion on which this opinion was parenthetically pronounced. For the ability of that too-much forgotten poet he had a great and genuine respect, which Fergusson’s verses will be found to warrant; for his untimely and tragic fate he had a sympathy peculiarly strong and tender. ‘Oh, Fergusson! ’ he wrote—

‘Thy glorious parts Ill-suited law’s dry musty arts!
My curse upon your whinstane hearts,
Ye Enbrugh gentry!
The tythe o’ what ye waste at cartes,
Wad stow’d his pantry.’

Burns wrote these words in the summer of 1785, when his own misfortunes, present and prospective, were sufficient to have engrossed his attention. Less than two years after, when he was the ‘lion* of literary Edinburgh, he had the courage to reiterate the curse in some verses which he wrote under Fergusson’s portrait

'Curse on ungrateful man, that can be pleased,
And yet can starve the author of the pleasure! ’

It seems to us that pecuniary aid, directly or indirectly given, if only given in time, would have saved Fergusson to his family, to Scotland, and to his better self. The situation he clung to was none of his choice. It stood between him and starvation. And dependent upon him at the age of eighteen were a widowed mother and her younger children. It was a situation which was encompassed with temptations, some of them peculiarly strong to a young man of his turn of mind and temperament. The monotony of task which it entailed—he was a copying clerk in a law office—naturally enough fostered a desire for the freedom and variety of such social intercourse as lay open to him after business hours. Fergusson was by instinct unusually sociable, and this very instinct, noble in itself, was one of the agencies, if it was not the sole cause of his ruin. Burns was not more emphatically a sociable man, and if his maturer judgment and more powerful constitution could not save him from the penalties of social excess, a far less effectual barrier against the inevitable were the inexperienced youth and delicate frame of poor Fergusson. His miserable and early fate seems to us more tragic than that of Burns, while his conduct, all the circumstances of his condition duly considered, was less reprehensible. Chill penury, though it could not freeze the genial current of his soul, was yet able to bind him socially in a rigid position from which there was no deliverance. He had no profession, no trade ; and neither means nor leisure time to acquire the one or the other. Burns had many resources to which he could have shifted for a livelihood : he could, at the worst, have taken up the tools of cottar labour —‘spades an’ shools, or knappin* hammers/ The only implement Fergusson could use was the pen—and the only paid work he could find in the world to do with it was the mechanical drudgery of copying law-papers. And this he was necessitated to do for a bare existence. Once or twice, before hope finally fled his uncomplaining spirit, he seems to have contemplated making an effort to free himself. Vague ideas of a competency to be made beyond the seas visited his mind—such as were afterwards to visit Burns’s. His boon companions, acting only according to the selfishness of their kind, gave him no help in any attempt he made to realise these ideas. His presence ministered to their pleasure; his poetical powers and social accomplishments furnished a necessary part of their entertainment. One only of his friends showed a genuine friendship for Fergusson. This was a Mr Burnet (of whom one would like to know more), whose generous cheque for one hundred pounds, and still more generous invitation, all the way from India, are none the less to be remembered to his honour that they came too late. Alas ! the body of poor Fergusson was already under the sod in Canongate Churchyard.

Robert Fergusson was born in Edinburgh, on October 17, 1750. His father, William Fergusson, said to have been a man of more than common intelligence, was then a clerk in the service of the British Linen Company, and had recently come from Aberdeen. Young Fergusson was naturally of a delicate constitution, but active and vivacious, and of an ardent and inquiring turn of mind. His education may be said to have begun at the High School of Edinburgh, whither he was sent at the age of seven. Four years* attendance here fitted him for the advanced classes of Dundee Grammar School, whence, at the age of thirteen, he proceeded to the University of St Andrews, the holder of a Fergusson bursary, which entitled him to a free course of the ordinary length in the Arts Faculty. Those four years at St Andrews were probably the happiest of his life. He may not have been a brilliant student, and perhaps was not altogether an exemplary one, but his amiable disposition and lively temperament, which, though inclined to fun, was without even the suspicion of malice, won for him the unusual distinction of being a favourite with professors and class-fellows alike. Even John Hogg, the college porter, though declaring him to have been a ‘tricky callant' acknowledged that he was a ‘ fine laddie for a? One of his tricks was the successful assumption for a wager of the role of street ballad-singer, a character for which he was well fitted by the possession of a good voice. His poems contain several happy references to his student life. Here is one, the scene of which is the porter’s lodge:—

‘Say, ye red-gowns, that aften here
Hae toasted cakes to Katie’s beer,
Gin e’er thir days hae had their peer,
Sae blythe, sae daft;
Ye’ll ne’er again in life’s career
Sit half sae saft.’

But there were other recollections of the porter’s lodge, and more was discussed than cakes and ale. John himself was a capable disputant on such academical questions as had a scriptural side, ranking himself with the Faculty of Divinity against the Faculty of Arts, when these faculties seemed to take up antagonistic ground.

I hae-na meikle skill 'quo’ he,
In what ye ca’ philosophee
It tells that baith the yird an* sea
Rin roun’ aboot:
Either the Bible tells a lee,
Or ye’re a’ oot!
It’s i’ the Psalms o’ Dauvit writ
That this wide warl’ ne’er should flit,
But on the watters coshly sit
Fu’ steeve an’ lestin’—
An’ was-na he a head o’ wit
At sic contestin’? ’

It had been the intention of his family to educate Fergusson for the ministry, and he seems to have been making some preparations for entering the Hall, as the Theological schools in Scotland are called, when domestic matters summoned him to Edinburgh, and demanded his help in the maintenance of the family. His father had been dead two years, and his mother was feeling the pressure of poverty. The first thing to consider was, how the abilities of the young student could be most speedily utilised to the advantage of the household. At last* after anxious deliberation, it was decided that the widow’s brother, a Mr John Forbes, holding a good position in Aberdeen, should be consulted on the subject, and to him, therefore, Robert was dispatched, with the strong expectation of finding, through his influence, the situation he was so eager to fill. He was then in his eighteenth year, a slenderly-built youth, of a complexion almost pallid, but pleasantly lit up by a pair of intelligent black eyes. The treatment he received at the hands of his uncle was perhaps the first rude shock to his sensibilities. A broad hint, which there was no mistaking, gave him very distinctly to understand that he was overstaying the time of a welcome guest; and he was coldly advised, that after so much idleness at St Andrews, he should now apply himself to some kind of industry. Stung by the vulgar taunt and the heartless manner in which it was conveyed, Fergusson set off for home, on foot and penniless, and arrived in Edinburgh, exhausted in body, hope, and spirit. The consequence was a serious illness, from which he recovered to write the only verses in which he reproaches the selfishness of the world, and repines at the hardness of his lot. The verses, which have a purely biographical interest, are allegorical, and represent the poet in the pastoral guise of Damon lamenting the decay of friendship. Fergusson at length found employment as engrossing clerk in a lawyer’s office; and, with a change or two of employers, the mechanical drudgery which the work of an engrossing clerk implies, was the sole and only service, which the world of Edinburgh—all the world he knew—apparently required of him. His principal relief from the monotony of the desk was the cheap and often coarse conviviality of the tavern, or a flying excursion to Fife. His poetical compositions seemed to have occupied little of his time. They mostly bear the marks of haste,—notably in their want of finish, but also in their general vigour. Even the most artistically conceived and executed of all his productions, his Farmer's Ingle, though full of repose, lacks finish; and, as a matter of fact, Fergusson was impatient to be done with what he had commenced, and revision was scarcely a part of his practice. He became a regular contributor to Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine,, which, no doubt, helped to develop his poetical talent, but in a direction that at first seemed to encourage a vitiated taste. The affected and sentimental pastorals of Pope and Shenstone were then fashionable—they were never, and never could be, popular—and Fergusson, like Ramsay before him, felt, and to some extent yielded to, the force of the prevailing fashion. It is amusing, by the way, to observe the manner in which the editor introduces Fergusson to the readers of the Weekly Magazine. The number for February 7, 1771, is before us as we write, and from it we extract the following notice :—

*We have been favoured with three Pastorals, written by a young gentleman of this place, the style of which appears as natural’—there is really no irony here—‘and picturesque as that of any of the modern ones lately published.’

Then follows the first pastoral, ‘Morning,' in the conventional manner so much admired then, so unspeakably wooden and wearisome now. Of course we have a scene of verdant lawns, bubbling fountains, and sportive lambkins, into the foreground of which Alexis and Damon are inanely ushered, while Ceres and Aurora and the other lay-figures of antiquity are scattered at random in the background. The fashionable literati and literatae of those days affected to be enlivened by such pasteboard compositions ; fortunately the members of ‘ The Cape Club,’ facetiously self-dubbed the Knights of the Cape, had healthier, if coarser, instincts, which led them to prefer pieces in the Scottish vernacular descriptive of the social feelings they felt and the convivial life they shared. The knights met in a tavern in the depths of Craig’s Close, off the High Street; Herd, the well-known collector of old airs, was Sovereign; and Fergusson was Sir Precentor because of his fine voice and efficiency in rendering ‘an auld Scotch sonnet.’ For the fine ladies and fine gentlemen who took in the Weekly Magazine Fergusson had Alexis complimenting Damon in the following polished lines,—

‘’Tis thine to sing the graces of the mom,
The zepher trembling o’er the ripening corn,
’Tis thine with ease to chant the rural lay
While bubbling fountains to your numbers play'

Here, on the other hand, was the kind of fare he provided for the duly appreciative knights,—

‘When big as bums the gutters rin,
Gin ye hae catcht a drookit skin,
To lucky Middlemist’s loup in,
An’ sit fu’ snug Owre oysters an’ a dram o’ gin,
Or haddock lug.
When auld St Giles at aucht o’clock
Bids merchant loons their shopies lock,
There we adjourn wi’ hearty folk
To birl oor boddles,
And get wherewi’ to crack our jokes
An’ clear oor noddles.’

The conviviality of club-life, after business hours, was the rule in Edinburgh all through the latter half of last century; and the mysteries of Hy-jinks, as elaborately described by Ramsay and dramatically presented by Scott, were in general and almost of nightly practice among citizens of every grade and degree of respectability. And yet poor Fergusson, because, falling in with the universal custom, he had the misfortune to succumb to it—partly from a generous excess of social sympathies, and partly from a too delicate constitution—has been held up to point the moral as a principal sinner and a prime offender. He certainly paid more dearly for his indulgence, but it is questionable if he was any worse than hundreds of respectable citizens of the time. He was a dutiful son, an affectionate brother, and, in the words of a correspondent of Burns who knew him well, c an inestimable friend, whose rich conversation, full fancy, and felicitous manner made him much sought after.’ A volume of his poems, first collected and published in 1773, came into the hands of the youthful Burns, and won for Fergusson’s memory, from the greatest genius and warmest heart of his country, a wreath of mingled admiration, love, and regret.

The history of the last year of Fergusson’s life is a subject much too painful to be given in any detail. It will be sufficient here to recall his mental derangement; the manner in which his friends entrapped him into a madhouse ; his horrible reception by the unhappy inmates ; his melancholy cell-life of two months, with the affecting incidents of his mother and sister’s visits; and his miserable death. The desolate wretchedness of his situation needs not to be described. He died in a part of the Darien House, devoted by the city authorities to such unhappy cases as his own, on the 16th of October 1774. If he had lived one day longer he would have completed his twenty-fourth year.

The character of Fergusson, so far as it is explicitly known, was hardly of the kind to engage the attention or enlist the sympathy of a biographer of Carlyle’s cast of mind. It seemed to be uninfluenced by any sense of the seriousness of life. To all outward appearance it was aimless and shiftless, frivolous and feebly dissolute. His life, like a rudderless boat, seemed to drift insensibly and helplessly to disaster. For such a disposition and such a life Carlyle’s feeling was one of contempt.

The fact that Fergusson is silent upon the subject is no proof, however, that he was unconscious of the responsibility of life in general, or careless of the conduct of his own in particular. What secret struggles there may have been with temptation, what agonies of self-abasement on the failure of noble resolutions, what tragic sense of inherent inability to. avoid the shipwreck which threatened and was inevitable—he has not revealed. He had not been in the habit of revealing himself in his verse, and probably his inner experiences were too painful for expression. But some horror of his own weakness, and some ghastly anticipation of his fate, must latterly have haunted his mind. In this view of the matter, his silence is tragically eloquent. And, indeed, the contrast which the humour of his poems presents to his brief miserable life and dreadful death seems to us only to accentuate the tragedy. The subject was really one for Carlyle, if only he had looked into it. Poor Fergusson’s life was scarcely less tragic than that of Chatterton.

Burns saw the tragedy of it, and seemed to perceive in the ruin of Fergusson some mysterious premonition of his own. His admiration of ‘the glorious dawning’ of Fergusson’s genius was not more marked and sincere than his regret for his ‘unfortunate’ fate.


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