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For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
Fergusson's Verse


SO long as the poetry of Burns is of interest to the student of literature, so long will the poetry of Fergusson merit some degree of attention, both because Burns was in more than one respect indebted to Fergusson, and because the verse of Fergusson contains many of those qualities which we so much admire in Burns’s. That is to say, Fergusson is interesting for his relation to Burns, and interesting too for his own sake. It is matter of regret that so authoritative a judge as Carlyle should have in the same sentence ignored the relationship and denied to him every other claim upon our regard. Carlyle’s favourite method as a critic is well-known. He dealt in contrasts, to which he gave point not more by generous appreciation on the one side than by merciless depreciation on the other. He levelled the wood to show the height of its tallest tree. This method may be seen in operation in his famous and, take it all in all, deservedly famous Essay on Burns. It would, perhaps, be going too far to say that Carlyle discovered Burns to the world in this essay, but thus much may be advanced that the essay is infused with a sympathy genuine, manly and profound, approaching probably nearer to the popular feeling in Scotland on the subject, certainly meeting the popular wish more completely, than the estimate of any other critic. Yet here, while putting forth his gigantic energy to reveal Burns in what he conceived to be his true proportions, he practises the ruthless method of contrast so characteristic of his genius, and, for one of the effects, Fergusson falls a victim to it This leafy sapling comes within the circuit of the woodman’s axe, and is remorselessly shorn through. How, then, does Carlyle speak of the native models which suggested, if they did not inspire the masterpieces of Burns? Not only with undue depreciation, but with positive contempt. It is well to remember that Carlyle, when he thus wrote of Burns and Fergusson, was a young man of a little over thirty. He represents Burns as being ‘ without models or with models only of the meanest sort; ’ and again as having ‘ only the rhymes of a Fergusson or a Ramsay for his standard of beauty.’ These assertions, in so far as they bear upon the education of Burns, do not now receive general credence. Burns was a well-educated man, pretty conversant with such masters of thought as Shakepeare and Milton, and such masters of style as Addison and Pope. To them Carlyle’s criticism cannot apply, though they do come within the scope of his language. The attack is directed upon native Scottish writers, of whom Fergusson is singled out as one of the representatives; and it means, if it means anything, that, prior to Burns, Scotland owned no poetical literature quite deserving of the name. This was the judgment of Carlyle; it was certainly and emphatically not the opinion of Burns. Burns, who on a memorable occasion quietly but firmly claimed to know something of his art, and who surely was the best judge of his indebtedness to Fergusson, neither despised nor depreciated his native models, but repeatedly, in every possible way, and invariably in terms of even impassioned sincerity, volunteered testimony to the worth of Ramsay, and, more markedly, of Fergusson. Not that he rated the poetical work of Fergusson at a higher value than that of Ramsay, but that his human sympathies were evoked by the personal miseries of the younger poet, unfortunate enough and near enough to his own times to be viewed as his ‘elder brother in misfortune'.

Burns’s testimony to Fergusson’s worth was expressed in his talk, his letters, his poetry, and his actions. Scott’s recollection of Burns, general and fragmentary though it was, included a strong impression of Burns’s extravagant admiration of Ramsay and Fergusson. 4 He talked of them with too much humility as his models,’ said Sir Walter, meaning selfhumility. In a letter, of date 6th February 1787, Bums, then in the zenith of his fame, writes of Fergusson, that he was a poet and a man ‘ whose talents for ages to come will do honour to our Caledonia.’ The complimentary references made to Fergusson in Burns’s verses are numerous. Now it is—‘ O for a spunk o’ Allan's glee or Fergusson's! ’ Again it is ‘famous Fergusson!’ and ‘Fergusson, the writer-chiel, a deathless name! ’ And there is the well known stanza, beginning—

‘O, Fergusson, thy glorious parts
Ill-suited law’s dry musty arts!*

But perhaps the most generally convincing proof of the sincerity of his admiration for Fergusson is to be seen in that inscribed tombstone in Canongate Churchyard, Edinburgh, which he caused to be erected at his own charge, to the perpetual memory of Fergusson.

There is, in short, no doubt about the reality of the admiration and sympathy that Burns habitually expressed for Fergusson. But, it may be objected, in regard to the admiration, Burns was not a competent judge. The objection, if made, would be a bold one, and yet no other is possible, to those who accept the dictum of Carlyle, that Fergusson was a poetaster and the meanest of models. Here it may at once be admitted that Burns's judgment of English poetry was not seldom at fault. Few will subscribe to the unhappy bit of criticism in The Vision:—

‘Thou can’st not learn, nor can I show,
To wake the bosom melting throe
With Shenstone’s art,
Or pour, with Gray, the moving flow
Warm on the heart'

And fewer still to the criticisms contained in these lines—if, indeed, they be Burns’s—

‘In Homer’s craft Jock Milton thrives,
Eschylus’ pen Will Shakspere drives,
Wee Pope, the knurlin’, till him rives Horatian fame;
In thy sweet sang, Barbauld ! survives,
E’en Sappho’s flame.’

To take Mrs Barbauld for Sappho rediviva (they had nothing in common but their sex) and to accredit Shenstone and Gray with unusual power over the emotions, was probably to mistake conventionalism for originality.

When, however, the subject is Burns's ability to estimate the poetical products of his native speech, we are, at every view of it, compelled to acknowledge him the master. In the field of Scottish poetry he is within his own domain. Here he is a king, whose word is law, whose decisions are final and unerring. Himself wielding the language with the freedom and vigour of a creator, he of all men could best estimate its use by others. He has estimated Fergusson's use of it, and the man Fergusson, too, by the ideas which he expressed by its use, and the astounding thing is, that the critics, while lauding Burns's use of the Scottish idiom, ignore or despise his judgment of its use by others.

The warmth with which Burns manifested his admiration for Fergusson, was partly due to his own obligations to him. There would be no detraction from the magnificent fame of Burns, in stating those obligations at their full length. The statement would be bare justice to the earlier poet: it would be his due honour. It would, besides, establish the continuity, the very remarkable continuity, of the Scottish school of poetical thought and expression. It would at the same time furnish to those who are jealous for the fame of Burns, the best means of estimating the superiority, or rather the supremacy of his power; here, it could be said, is the loan, and here the transcendent, the miraculous use made of it.

It will suffice at present briefly to indicate Burns’s indebtedness to Fergusson. It was in respect of theme, form, style of treatment, and even language. Carlyle arrogates great credit to Burns for discovering his themes in quarters so unlikely to supply them. 'The metal he worked in,’ says Carlyle, ‘lay hid under the desert moor, where no eye but his had guessed its existence.’ A slight acquaintance with Ramsay and Fergusson will serve to show that they had made the discovery here solely accredited to Bums. Before Burns they found poetical themes in the characters they met and talked with in street and field, and in the scenes they saw from their own doorways. They had so far done Burns a service, that they had familiarised and popularised those subjects to Scottish readers. This means that they had gathered an audience for Burns. He had so far the advantage of their labours. His opportunity was to develop what they Jiad begun. A score of his themes were directly suggested by theirs. It is saying, I am well aware, a great deal, yet it is not too mijch to say that Ramsay introduced Burns into almost every department of poetry in which he excelled.

Scottish song, as we now define it, was commenced by Ramsay ; he may be said to have invented it Burns's songs are of quite the same species—fuller, more glowing, and more fragrant. ‘Lochaber no more', 'Polwarth on the Green', ‘The Young Laird and Edinburgh Katey' foretold the richer, more varied, and more spontaneous melody of 'The Gloomy Nicht,' ‘Bonnie Jean' and ‘Highland Mary'. Again, Burns's depiction of humorous scenes is a development of Ramsay's. Here, probably, the interval between the two poets is at its shortest. There are whole stanzas of Ramsay's composition that might stand alongside of Burns’s ordinary work in this department ‘The Jolly Beggars' belongs to the same school of poetical painting as the continuation of ‘Christ's Kirk on the Green.' Yet again, the rhyming epistles which are so characteristic a part of Burns's poetry, and which contain so much of the poet's philosophy of life, were suggested by the correspondence of Ramsay and his now little-known contemporary, Hamilton of Gilbertfield. One must also make mention of Ramsay's well-nigh inimitable conduct of a tale—he was a first-rate story-teller —and find both in ‘The Twa Dogs ' and ‘Tam o'Shanter' traces of his art and influence. Burns’s satire, more especially as levelled against the Kirk, was his own, but it is interesting to observe that Ramsay, too, at one time meditated a similar service to candour and common-sense in matters religious, and claimed the power of doing it. Fergusson’s range was narrower than Ramsay’s, being confined, indeed, to humorous descriptions of low life, and faithful reproductions of rural life and rustic character. His ‘Farmer’s Ingle’ is his masterpiece, too little known, but by thosq* who know it placed on a level with ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night ’ in point of genuine artistic treatment. Artists will probably prefer it to ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night.’ It was a wonderful production for a youth of little over twenty. His humour was congenial with that of Burns, who studied it more closely than Ramsay’s—of which, indeed, it was a development.

The suggestion of ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night' ‘The Brigs of Ayr' ‘The Holy Fair' ‘The Ordination' ‘Halloween' etc., will be found in 'The Farmer’s Ingle', ‘The Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causeway' or, perhaps preferably ‘The Twa Ghaists' ‘Leith Races' ‘The Election' ‘Hallow Fair' etc. The traditionary metrical forms which Fergusson employed, Burns also adopted. Carlyle refers to them as if he meant to imply their incapacity as poetical vehicles. The best proof of their capability lies in the fact that a great proportion of the genius of Burns was conveyed by them to the world. These forms, so far as they are peculiarly Scottish, are three in number, exemplified in ‘The Address to the Deil' ‘Halloween' and ‘The Epistle to Davie' respectively. Two of them Fergusson handled with an ease and vigour which left little to be desired. Their capability as moulds for poetical thought he fully demonstrated in isolated stanzas before Burns poured the flood of his genius into them. It is, however, in general style of treatment and in language that Burns’s indebtedness to Fergusson is most marked. A broad, comprehensive, common - sense, even homely, and where possible, humorous view of the subject to be operated upon was characteristic of Fergusson as it is of Burns; they approached the subject, stalked it, so to say, in the same manner; ran it down, and made sure seizure of it in the same bold, straightforward, confident, and masterful style. It would be easy to quote stanza after stanza from Fergusson, which, in point of treatment and diction, might readily be taken for Burns. Here are a few passages which should recall very similar lines of Burns:—

‘In July month, ae bonny morn,
When nature’s rokelay green
Was spread owre ilka rig o’ corn
To charm the rovin’ een,—
Glowrin’ aboot I saw a quean, etc.

‘And wha are ye, my winsome dear,
That taks the gate sae early?
Whaur dae ye win? if ane may speir;
For I right meikle fairly
That sic braw buskit laughin’ lass
Thir bonny blinks should gie,
And loup, like Hebe, owre the grass,

As wanton and as free
Frae dool this day!”
I dwall amang the caller springs
That weet the Land o’ Cakes,
And aften tune my canty strings
At bridals and late-wakes,—
They ca’ me Mirth,” etc.’
Cp. The Holy Fair.

‘Mourn, ilka nymph and ilka swain,
Ilk sunny hill and dowie glen;
Let weeping streams and naiads drain
Their fountain-head;
Let echo swell the dolefu’ strain
Sin’ Music’s dead.’
Cp. Elegy on the Death of Captain Matthew Henderson— a noble development.

*Withoot the cuissers prance and nicher,
And owre the lea-rig scud ;
In tents, the carles bend the bicker,
And rant and roar like wud.’
Cp. The Holy Fair.

And the following short passages are Burns all over:—

*Noo morn wi’ bonny purpling smiles
Kisses the air-cock o’ Sanct Giles.’
‘When faither Adie first pat spade in
The bonnie yaird o’ ancient Eden,’ etc.

‘The denner dune, for brandy strang
They cry, to. weet their thrapple;
To gar the stamack bide the bang
And wi’ its ladin’ grapple.

Then grace is said—it’s no’ owre lang—
The claret reams in bells ;
Quo’ Deacon, “Let the toast round gang,
Come, here’s oor noble sel’s! ”

‘Up loups ane, wi’ diction fu’;
There’s lang an’ dreich contestin’,
For noo they’re near the point in view,
Noo ten miles fra the question In hand that night.

‘Fareweel, my cock! lang may ye thrive,
Weel happit in a cosy hive,’ etc.
And, not to extend the list unnecessarily,—
‘The country folk to lawyers crook—

“Ah, weel’s me o’ your bonny book! (bulk, body)
The ben-most pairt o’ my kist nook I’ll rype for thee,
And willin’ ware my hinmost rook For my decree.”
‘ But law’s a draw-well unco deep,
Withooten rim folk out to keep ;
A donnart chiel, when drunk, may dreep
Fu’ sleely in,
But finds the gate baith stey an’ steep
Ere oot he win.’
Burns’s opinion of Fergusson has been stated,

and some proof of his indebtedness has been led. It now remains to examine Fergusson’^ verse on its merits, independently of the critics, and independently of the extreme youth of the author and his ungen ial social circumstances. Let us begin the examination by a frank admission that his English compositions are commonplace at their best. But turn to ‘The Daft Days' ‘The Election' ‘The King’s Birthday in Edinburgh' ‘Caller Oysters' ‘Caller Water' ‘An Elegy on the Death of Scots Music' ‘Elegy on John Hogg' ‘Elegy on Professor Gregory' ‘Braid Claith' ‘The Sitting of the Court of Session' ‘The Rising of the Session' ‘Hallow Fair' ‘Leith Races' and ‘The Farmer’s Ingle.’ A perusal of these pieces, which, of course, contain the best specimen of Fergusson’s work, and which run to considerably over a thousand lines of verse, will secure a verdict, it may with confidence be asserted, entirely in consonance with the sentence of Burns that Fergusson was a true poet and an original genius. It will satisfy the examiner that, while Fergusson was not indeed literally and without limitation Burns’s ‘elder brother in the muses/ he was, nevertheless, not more unworthy to serve as a model to Burns than Marlowe was unworthy to serve as a model to Shakespeare, and that he was in some respects well up to Burns’s ordinary high level.

Burns would willingly have been the author of much that stands above the name of Fergusson; —that can be gathered from the various praise which, in all sincerity and in a manner at once gracious and graceful, he so freely awarded him. It is remarkable, though not to be wondered at, that the qualities for which Burns admired Fergusson’s verse are precisely its distinctive features. There is the glee which he inherited from Allan Ramsay, and there are the bauldness and the sleeness which were in a peculiar sense his own. Fergusson’s glee was his humour, neither forced, nor satirical, nor sardonic, but spontaneous, genial and ingenuous. It found him his themes, and inspired him with the social, generous, and not seldom manly sentiments which his poetry expresses. His boldness of style and treatment has already been adverted to: it is visible in the originality of his ideas as well as in the maturity of his idiom and utterance. He knew what he meant to say —a knowledge nearly as rare as it is needful— and spoke it clearly, going straight to the centre of his subject. His command of epithet was copious ; he was generally picturesque, and often melodious with a full round note. His sleeness, or slyness, was his tact, or ‘ pawkiness/ to use a Scottish expression, and included therefore both taste and intelligence, not excepting a certain restraint which, so far from neutralising his boldness, rather directed and guided it.

The severest thing in the way of criticism that can be said against Fergusson is that his range was narrow. It is here that his inferiority to Burns is notorious. And yet he gave promise of a broader development, which his premature death prevented. It was amongst the social scenes of humble and chiefly burgher life that he was most, and most frequently, at home. These scenes he presents with lifelike vividness, and very often at little expense of words. Here is an interior drawn with the hand of a Wilkie :—

'For whisky plooks (pimples)
That brunt for ooks (weeks)
On town-guard sogers* faces,
The barber bauld his whittle crooks,
An* scrapes them for the races.*

Here is a rustic interior, not less artistically designed:—

‘In rangels round before the ingle*s lowe (flame),
Frae gude-dame*s mouth auld-warld tales they hear
O* warlocks loupin* round the wirri-cowe (hob-goblin)
Or ghaists that win (live) in glen an* kirkyard drear,
Whilk touzles a* their tap an* gars them shak* wi* fear.*

It is a back view we get of the listeners with their hair standing, fear-disordered, against the glow of the farm kitchen fire. Fergusson is rarely pathetic, but kindly feeling and toleration are everywhere abundant. He is not insensible of the caprice with which Fortune bestows her favours, but there is no discontentment. He merely remarks—

‘Blythe they may be wha wanton play
In Fortune’s bonny blinkin' ray ;
Fu* weel can they ding dool away
Wi* comrades couthy,
An’ never dree a hunger’d day
Nor e’enin’ drouthy.’

Fergusson’s masterpiece is ‘The Farmer’s Ingle.’ With respect to his other poems it is unique. It is his one effort on a rural subject, and the only sample of his serious style. For its realism it is of undoubted value. There is neither caricature nor false colour in the picture, and the appeal is rather to the heart than to the fancy. The critic who wrote of it as being a mere list of the contents of a farm kitchen must have been hopelessly dull, or lamentably destitute of rural associations, or irredeemably bad-tempered. It is a sketch indeed, but a sketch drawn by a master. It is Fergusson’s most ambitious piece, and reveals the variety and range of his power in a way which no other of his poems even attempts to do.

Altogether the originality of thought and maturity of style of this youth of twenty-four were marvellous. But it is idle speculating on what he might have been, and might have done, had length of years been allowed him.


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