Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
Allan Ramsay

TWO hundred years ago this October, Allan Ramsay was born in the up land village of Leadhills, and one hundred years ago last July the first edition of Burns’s poems made its appearance in the weaving town of Kilmarnock. For the greater part of the century prior to the latter event, Ramsay was universally regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and ‘The Gentle Shepherd/ was believed to be the most consummate flower of Scottish poetical genius; and for just a century since, and in virtue of that latter event, the name and the fame of Ramsay have suffered more or less partial eclipse. He has not been forgotten,—his reputation was too firmly rooted in the popular heart for that; but he has been neglected, undeservedly neglected ;—his poetical power has been growing more and more merely traditional, and is now, we fear, not perhaps universally, but largely taken on trust. His name, we have said, has not been forgotten— it is, indeed, a household word throughout the Scottish lowlands. There, and more especially in the rural parts of that district, they talk familiarly, in the Scottish manner, of Allan —‘that’s ane o’ Allan’s sangs,’ they will say. If they speak of Allan Cunningham, who was also in his way successful in touching the national heart, they never fail to give him his full name. Ramsay has a prescriptive right to the simple and unsupported prenotnen. Sometimes they vary the expression by prefixing honesthonest Allan!’ they will say in the excess of a proud familiarity with his name. And ten to one they will follow up the words by a quotation, said to be from Burns, which probably reveals the origin of the adjective—

*Yes! there is ane—a Scottish callan;
There’s ane—come forrit, honest Allan!
Thou needna jouk behint the hallan,
A chiel sae clever;
The teeth o’ time may gnaw Tantallan,
But thou’s for ever!*

Yet it may well be doubted whether they appreciate at its proper value the epithet which they repeat so glibly. In their application of it to the personal character of Ramsay, they err greatly in giving it the significance of a retiring modesty of demeanour, which silently permits itself to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous or less meritorious rivals. Ramsay was not unduly bold, but bashfulness was no feature of his disposition, and he was the last person of the men of his day to be found ‘jouking behint the hallan.’1 If Burns did not write the lines, and it is only Burns’s brother Gilbert who denies the authorship, somebody else of Burns’s day did, who saw and lamented that neglect of Ramsay to which we have alluded, and that eclipse of his fame as a pastoral poet, which began when the brighter orb of Burns’s genius rose on the literary horizon. If Burns did write them, a supposition we decidedly incline to credit, they are in his mouth a singularly graceful acknowledgment of the excellence of his first and best model and master, and at the same time express or imply a sentiment which is quite in harmony with the frequent and just confessions of his indebtedness to Ramsay. Applicable in the brilliancy of Burns’s day, the lines are still more applicable now. So far, in short, has neglect of the writings of Ramsay gone, that perhaps not one in twenty, at a moderate computation, even of those in the rural lowlands who profess a great regard for his name, could give an intelligibly consistent outline of the story of ‘The Gentle Shepherd.' One may even venture to say that not a few of the admirers of ‘The Gentle Shepherd/ would be found to be ignorant of the appropriateness of the title!

While the general reader will find much to amuse and a great deal to instruct him in the pages of Ramsay, no student of Scottish literary history can afford to neglect a writer so original. His name marks an epoch in the history of our poetical literature. Before him were ‘the Makkaris' who reached their lofty culmination in William Dunbar, and who may be said to have terminated in some obscurity in the Sempills. A new era, what one may very fairly call the era of modern Scottish poetry, began with Ramsay. It is his style, his method of approach to, and treatment of, a subject, his language, which, with modifications and developments of a perfectly natural and organic growth, Fergusson, and Burns, and Scott (in those of his novels which describe purely Scottish character), and all the many minor writers of distinctively Scottish literature, Hogg being the most notable exception, have since adopted and used. It would be no difficult task to establish this statement of his connection with modern Scottish poetry—his connection with ancient Scottish poetry, too, can be demonstrated. Though he began a new era, he was not independent altogether of the old. He links on, at the outstart of his literary career, to the middle Sempill, whose humorous ‘Elegy' on the death of the Piper of Kilbarchan was the standard of his imitation, as it had previously been that of his contemporary and correspondent, Hamilton of Gilbertfield. Not less sympathetic was his sense of humour with the comic vein of the poet-king, James the First, as exemplified in ‘ Christ’s Kirk on the Green/ and his two cantos of continuation to that famous poem are an acknowledgment of the inspiration which he drew from the ancient ‘Makkaris' He was, however, essentially original. Cowper was not more original, excepting only in the matter of language. The poets of Scotland have from time to time employed a conventional and artificial phraseology, but no age and scarcely a writer in the long line of their history has been quite deficient in the use of a vigorous vernacular sufficient to bring them into living touch with the men of their generation. Ramsay’s originality did not, therefore, chiefly show itself in his adoption of the current and conversational speech of his day. It is, however, to be noticed that by the voluminousness of his poems, and their immense popularity, continued without a break for three generations, he may be said to have fixed the standard of modem Scotch, by blending his mother tongue with antique expressions of the past, and proving the capability of the mixture for large and varied poetical representations. * Thy bonnie auld words gar (make) me smile/ was part of a complimentary epistle addressed to Ramsay by a contemporary, himself an adept in the use of Scotch, and considerably older than the person with whom he was corresponding. The fact would seem to be, that modern Scotch is very much what Ramsay made it, and we question if there are many expressions in the rural Scotch of to-day, with all Burns’s cultivation of the language, which Ramsay, if he were living now, would not readily recognise.

Neither is Ramsay’s originality to be mainly found in the humour of his delineations. The humour, though in one sense it was his own, that is, unaffectedly sincere and genuine as a personal possession, was, notwithstanding, what one might almost call a national property, in which such of ‘ the Makkaris ’ as Dunbar and Lyndsay, and such of the later poets as Fergusson and Burns, could claim, in common with him, at least an equal share. Yet it may well be allowed that he deepened and widened the national sense of humour by the use which he made of his own share, and turned it with greater emphasis and effect upon the follies and minor immoralities of social life than any had ever done before him. He set the example of humorous portraiture and address to Burns ; and even in that dangerous though legitimate field for satirical humour, which, since Lyndsay’s time, has been the exclusive walk of Burns, namely, religious bigotry, tyranny and sham, he was meditating entrance and onslaught at the age of seventy—too late an age! Hear his own words:—

*I have it even in my poo’er
The very kirk itself to scour,
An' that ye’ll say’s a brag richt bauld!
But did not Lyndsay this of auld?
Wha gave the scarlet harlot strokes
Sneller (keener) than all the pelts of Knox.’

Ramsay’s originality lies much in the unromantic and yet fascinating realism of his natural descriptions. He flings no meretricious glamour, brings no lime-light effects to bear upon his scenery. Neither does he present us with featurelessly faithful photographic copies. It is nature, her naked self, but never presented except when in perfect harmony with the lyrical mood to which she is accessory, or the dramatic situation to which she is subordinated. It is very much the nature to which Cowper introduces us, allowance being made for difference of locality—healthy, every-day, commonplace nature; only, I think, more vividly, completely, and harmoniously presented. A brief quotation or two will, in a general way, exemplify what is meant. ‘This sunny morning,’ says the Gentle Shepherd,—

*This sunny morning, Roger, cheers my blood,
And puts all nature in a jovial mood.
How heartsome is’t to see the rising plants,
And hear the birds chirm owre their pleasing rants!*

The description of Habbie’s How (Hollow) is illustrative instance:—

‘Gae farer up the burn to Habbie’s How,
Where a’ the sweets of spring and simmer grow.
Between twa birks, out o’er a little linn,
The water fa’s and maks a singand din ;
A pool breast-deep, beneath, as clear as glass,
Kisses with easy whirls the bordering grass ;
We’ll end our washing while the morning’s cool,
And, when the day grows het, we’ll to the pool,
There wash oursels—’tis healthfu’ now in May,
And sweetly cauler on sae warm a day.’

Burns’s realism is of the same sort, with this difference, that there is in his descriptions an accompanying wealth of verbal melody which Ramsay could not command. Even in his most impassioned passages, Burns is still the realistic poet.

It is, however, in his delineation of human nature that Ramsay shows greatest originality. Reference is here made, less to his earlier, and broadly, indeed somewhat exaggeratedly, humorous descriptions of low life, than to his later and cheerfully serious representations of commonplace rural character. The' pastoral drama of ‘ The Gentle Shepherd * is not only a masterpiece, but an original creation. There was nothing like it, nothing to suggest it, in all the antecedent literature of Scotland. It is to this day the most widely and successfully representative poem dealing with Scottish rural life. Fergusson’s ‘ Farmer’s Ingle,’ and Burns’s ‘Cottar’s Saturday Night’ are kindred poems, similar in subject, and approached with the same serious spirit. But the form is different: they are narrative poems, descriptive of a common phase of rustic life within doors. None the less are they pendents to 'The Gentle Shepherd.’ For ‘ The Gentle Shepherd ’ is less a drama in which the actors happen to be rustics, with the interest of the play dependent on the plot, than an idyll, the form of which happens to be dramatic, with the interest dependent on the author’s views of rustic human life. It is to the credit of Ramsay as a genius of a distinctly original type, that living in close and actual contact with the artificial school of poets, of whom Pope and Gay were the representatives of his acquaintance, and rather welcoming than seeking to withdraw himself from their influence, he had yet within himself an instinct of true poetic feeling and a power of true poetic art, sufficient to lift him above their blandishments, and to anticipate by half a century that return to nature which in England was inaugurated by Cowper, and finally consummated by Wordsworth.

Scarcely less original was Ramsay as a lyrical poet. Next to his ‘Gentle Shepherd/ his songs have made a deep impression on the popular mind. He composed rather more than a hundred in all, and while it must be allowed, in the light of the later lyrical productions of Scotland, that the great majority of them are deficient alike . in harmony and melody, it should be remembered that the criticism would be very unfair that judged them on their absolute merits. The men of his generation were in a better position to do him justice here, knowing as they did the poverty of his models—for ballads are not songs, and Ramsay wrote no ballads—and unconscious as they were of the future of Scottish song under the marvellous art of Burns; and it was in his songs that they recognised a great part of his power. In short, he was the first in point of time of our song-writers, and may be said to have invented that species of song which is universally regarded as distinctively Scottish.

Burns’s songs exhibit a far higher degree lyrical inspiration and utterance, but they ai of identically the same species as Ramsay* To the green, or only partially opened, buds < Ramsay they offer the contrast of the full-blow blossoms of June, gorgeous with dyes, an breathing a paradise of fragrance; but they as yet the development of those buds, grown c the same stem, and drawing nourishment from the same soil. Much was to be expected from a country which had already given the promise of 'Polwarth on the Green' 'Lochab no more' ‘The Last Time I came o’er the Muir' and a really charming and even passioi ately voluptuous love song, beginning som what coldly with the question,

There are some authors, and even authors of note, of whose private life it may be sai without any necessary implication of a stain upon their character, that the less one knows it the better. They seem to have lived t\ individual and separate lives, the one social it may have been unsocial), and the other litterary, between which there was no vital bond union. You will search the one in vain for k< or commentary to the other. The statement cannot be made of Ramsay. His domestic life was in every-day contact with his literary life supplying it with theme, feeling, illustration and language. His literary life, in short, was, as far as it went, the expression of his domestic life: it was even more autobiographical than that of Burns. His, therefore, is a case where some acquaintance with the man is of service to a due appreciation of the poet.

It was fortunate for the development of the poetical faculty within him that his early years, from birth to the termination of boyhood, were spent without a break in the isolation and comparative solitude of upland rural life. Here he was, in the absence of other and less healthy attractions, in a sense compelled to make familiar acquaintance with the realism of Nature and the ways of the pastoral world.

Placed in the midst of a monotonous landscape of unromantic hills, he found Nature hard-favoured and ungenial, and therefore, undazzled by beauty where beauty was not, he only looked at her the more closely and critically, and practised the philosophy of an economical contentment. We have, in one of his somewhat rare reminiscences of his early life, a vivid glimpse of the common experience of his boyhood. *Ah' he says, speaking not merely of holiday rambles,

‘Aft have I wid thro’ glens wi’ chorking feet,
When neither kilt nor plaid could fend the weet;
Yet blithely wad I bang oot ower the brae
 And stend ower burns, as light as ony rae,
Hoping the morn might prove a better day.’

This passage is of further interest as revealing that adaptive temperament in the boy, which was at once the distinguishing trait and the most valuable possession of the man. To the habit of mind which the last line implies, he must partly have been brought by observation and study of the simple, uncomplaining lives of the practical hill - people, his neighbours. With their manners and customs he was familiarly and sympathetically acquainted. Bred, as he himself tells us, fifteen summers amongst them, he was more likely to have his impression of their ways deepened by the contrast than effaced by the novelties of city life, and, true as are his transcripts of rural scenery, his delineations of rustic character are even more faithful to the copy. There can, we think, be little doubt that his recollection of the Lowthers, tinged, it must be admitted, with the later-known grace of the Pentlands, furnished those admirably clear and correct pictures of pastoral scenery which form the background of ‘The Gentle Shepherd'; and there can be still less that the farmers and shepherds and milkmaids of Upper Clydesdale were the prototypes of Glaud and Symon, Patie and Roger, and Peggy and Jenny.

His fifteen years’ residence in Leadhills was also of course the period of his school education. His reading was sufficiently liberal to include the Latin grammar, and to enable the young student to make out the meaning of Horace, and even catch an occasional glimpse of the beauty of his style. In middle age he revived those early studies, and gave as the result some half-dozen versions of Horace in Lowland Scotch, which retain the sentiment and reproduce much of the pithy expression of the original. But a specimen of his translation will be the best index of his scholarship—

‘Then fling on coals, and ripe the ribs,
And beek the house baith but and ben,
That mutchkin stoup it hauds but dribs,
Then let’s get in the tappit hen.’

This is really an admirable rendering, as a glance at the text will show:—

Dissolve frigus, ligna super foco,
Large reponens, atque benignius
Deprome quadrimum Sabina,
O Thaliarche, merum diota.

The amplification of benignius in Ramsay’s translation was the result of a genuine inspiration.

Edinburgh, though then so much smaller, had more the air of a capital than now. ‘Legislation’s sovereign powers ’ still sat beneath the Castle, and there was in the single mile-long street of the city more bustle relatively to area than appears in the Edinburgh of to-day. The city was too small for the life that was pent within its walls. As the inhabitants increased, accommodation was ventured upon for the surplus in such aerial altitudes as ninth and even tenth storeys, or improvised in sunken flats and subterranean cellars. When the teeming population took the street, it literally filled it with a noisy, motley crowd, moving and mixing in endless picturesque combinations, and comprising in close juxtaposition individuals of every rank, reputation, and calling in the kingdom. It was the world political in parvo. Here young Ramsay must shortly have been in his element. His disposition, his genius, his actions, all alike testify to his love of sociality and predilection for a town life. Men and their manners were to him a more congenial study than the aspects of nature. He was never afterwards, in the long life that lay before him, to dissociate himself from Edinburgh. It is true that occasionally in his later life he would sigh for the sight of a clear stream or a breath of country air, but the recollection of the Glengonar and the Duneetny, and other burns of upper Clydesdale, were sufficient to satisfy the longing, or a flying visit to the Pentlands at Penicuik would send him back refreshed with a new relish for the town. His knowledge of the world physical as acquired during the first fifteen years of his life was enough for his purpose as a poet—it afforded him the scenic setting of his character delineations. Ramsay had that healthy love of nature which is pretty generally diffused. It was genuine as far as it went, but it was far from being a passion. It was duly subordinated to human associations. None the less are his incidental descriptions of nature accurate and picturesque. His power of observation was keen, and caught as if by special instinct the characteristic lines alike of a landscape and a human life. It was, however, as a humourist— a depictor of the comic in human nature—that Ramsay preferred to appear. There is a tradition that he wished to be a painter. If he had been a painter, there is little doubt that the bent of his genius would have pointed him to figure subjects, and we might have had in him a Scottish Hogarth, or an earlier Wilkie, though it must also be said that the temptation to the gainful trade of portrait painting might have exerted as great a force upon him as it afterwards exerted upon his son.

We may imagine Ramsay becoming naturalised to city life during the five or seven years of his apprenticeship. The close of this period would bring him to manhood, give him comparative freedom of action, and awaken within him a hopeful sense of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. He had now more leisure, and he seems to have employed it in making probationary acquaintance with the various social circles that were then open to a young man in his station of life. The favourite summer recreation of the burgesses was, then as now, the game of golf. It was played on Bruntsfield Links, which were then less than a mile from the nearest city port; and here the young wigmaker learned to tee and drive the ball over the bent, and fall into golfers’ ways. One of those ways was an occasional resort to the little village of Morningside, scarcely a mile further into the country, and there the evening’s diversion on the green was crowned by sundry horns of a mysterious white ale of potent spirit, the recipe of which was the patent and sole property of Maggie Johnston, the keeper of the farm-hostel to which resort was made. Here Allan studied and practised Hy-jinks, and once at least fell a victim to the game of ‘haill-oot (ie.t whole-out) drinks.’ On this memorable occasion he found the distance back to Edinburgh too fatiguing.

‘And when the dawn beyoud (began) to glow
I hirsled (jerked) up my dizzy pow (head)
Frae ’mang the corn, like wirrycow (bugbear),
Wi’ banes right sair,
And kent nae mair than if a yowe (ewe)
How I cam* there.’

But as a rule he would return to town in social talk with some brother golfer before the ten o’clock drum was beat, and the city gates closed for the night. Winter put a stop to open-air pastime, but drew the ties of a narrow sociality closer within doors. There was a strong feeling in some quarters of Edinburgh at this time—the time of the Union—that social life was too much under the restraint of the Church. Municipal authority accepted the restraint, recognising in it a legitimate and salutary influence. The magistracy neither provided nor permitted any sort of public amusement within the city bounds. There was neither theatre nor concert room. Even dinner parties were comparatively unknown. The fashionable form of conviviality was the cheap and mild dissipation of afternoon tea-drinking. Life was drearier of a Sunday— we should in all honesty of phrase say rather on the Sabbath, for the day was observed with all the rigour of the Mosaic institution, save only for the absence of animal sacrifices. Pious prowlers watched the street during divine service, and the seizers pounced upon every straggler, and confiscated every non-scriptural comfort that came in their way. We have startling records of the rigidity of their righteousness. A doctor’s messenger, despatched to an inn for some claret, is trapped on his return, and relieved of the bottles on the warrant of the Fourth Commandment. A hot roast is nosed out from the street, and carried off as a creature comfort of doubtful reputation even on profane days. A blackbird in a cage at a window is silenced for ever for desecrating the Lord’s day by whistling. It was not in the nature of things that such a ceremonial morality should continue for ever. A desire for freedom from such restraint was a rational instinct, and its expression was only a question of time. It was already begun in the first decade of the century. Convivial night-clubs were creeping into clandestine vogue. A society for the practice of public dancing had been formed, and was being surreptitiously patronised. Collections of the godless comic ballads, love ditties, and satirical poems of pre-Reformation times had been published and were being secretly circulated. These and such social phenomena afforded proof of a reaction against Puritanical rule. They were the perfectly natural growth of a people whose social instincts had been indiscriminately repressed as all alike sinful. Ramsay threw himself into the reactionary movement with characteristic promptitude. All his sympathies were with it from the first. It recommended itself alike to his joyous nature and his common-sense. Accordingly he sought and found entrance into the Easy Club. He frequented the Assembly’s dances,—and may have been present when the door of the dancing-room was assailed by a mob of fanatics armed with red-hot spits and pokers. He possessed himself of a copy of James Watson’s collection of ancient and modern Scottish poems, and read with a relish that resent bled the acquisition of a new and delightful sense the humours of ‘ Christ’s Kirk on the Green,’ ‘ The Piper of Kilbarchan,’ and ‘ Bonnie Heck.’ While thus revolting from the austerity of an exclusive and gloomy Calvinism, he gave no countenance to the profligacy and profanity of the extreme party in the reactionary movement. He did not become vicious because he refused to practise asceticism. He did not approve of the prospectus of the Hell-fire Club or the programme of the Horn Order, because he disapproved of the intolerance of religious fanaticism and tyranny. He believed there was room between the extremes ample enough to walk in with all reasonable freedom, and in this middle course he ate his cakes and drank his ale, and both preached and practised an enlightened virtue.

We have from Ramsay’s own pen a full-length portrait of himself, as he appeared in early manhood, which may conveniently be introduced here. He is a few inches under the middle size, being only five feet and four inches high, of slender 'make, as he was in boyhood, but lithe and active, and neither lean nor unhealthy. He is ‘ black-a-viced,’ that is, of a swarthy complexion ; but the rounded contour, of his cheeks, and an expression of mingled intelligence and good humour in eyes and lips, produce something far removed from a saturnine cast of countenance. His motto is moderation in all things—the use of pleasure, and neither its abuse nor yet its disuse. What he said of another may be said of him—

A youth thus blest with healthy frame,
Enlivened with a lively flame,
Will ne’er with sordid pinch control
The satisfaction of his soul.’

What he said of himself we may also reproduce :—

I hate a drunkard or a glutton,
Yet I'm no foe to wine and mutton.’

Then, with respect to ‘the fabric of his mind —

‘’Tis mair to mirth than grief inclin’d.
I rather choose to laugh at folly
Than show dislike by melancholy,
Well judging a sour, heavy face
Is not the truest sign of grace.’

In politics he professes to be no partisan, and in religion he is no sectarian : —

‘Know positively I’m a Christian,
Believing truths and thinking free,
Wishing thrawn parties wad agree.'

He makes candid confession of a desire for ‘fair fame' and is familiarly explicit on the subject of his domestic affairs. ‘Born' he says, ‘to nae lairdship/

‘I mak what honest shift I can,
And in my ain house am gudeman—
Which stands in Embro' Street, the sunside.'

Ramsay was well-connected, at least on his father’s side. He claimed kindred with the chief of the Ramsays, Ramsay of Dalhousie, and 'had his claims allowed’ by the Earl. There is little doubt that there were influential members of his grandfather’s family in Edinburgh, when he first exchanged country life for a life in town; but as he remained throughout the whole course of his life independent of any of them, it is unnecessary to trace his connection with people to whom he owed so little. But it is necessary to correct one or two popular errors concerning the business to which he was bound apprentice. And in the first place, Ramsay was not a barber. It is very probable that in the early part of the eighteenth century the tonsorial art was a branch of surgery ; but this at least is certain, that it had no connection as a craft with the calling of a wigmaker. Nor was Ramsay’s lifelong occupation as a burgess of Edinburgh that to which he had served an apprenticeship. It is true that he was a wigmaker when he began to be famous, but from the time of his established reputation as a new Scottish poet, that is some time between 1720 and 1726, he gradually took up the trade of a bookseller, and wigmaking went to the wall. He was a bookseller, and a most enterprising one, for considerably over a quarter of a century; it was as a bookseller and book-lender he made a fortune; and it is with the trade of a dealer in books we should properly associate his name. Though he thus left wigmaking, he was too sensible a man to despise it, or any other lawful occupation. He speaks jocularly of being a ‘thatcher of skulls/ and—referring to his double business of wigmaking and bookselling, which he carried on for a few years simultaneously—he describes himself as thatching the outside and lining the inside of ‘ many a douce and witty pash9 (head).

In one of his rhyming epistles, indeed, he declares he was ‘bred but howe (humbly) enough to a mean trade.' But he was in easy circumstances when he thus wrote retrospectively, and his correspondent was no less exalted a personage than the Secretary of the Admiralty, whose views of wigmaking were no doubt as Ramsay sympathetically described them. His reasons for abandoning the occupation to which he was bred for the calling of a bookseller were perfectly satisfactory: he found the latter to be more congenial to his tastes, and more lucrative at the same time that it was less laborious. Wigweaving, however, procured him the double advantage of a wife and patronage. His first patrons were naturally his customers, necessarily men of professional or at least genteel rank ; and his wife, Christian, was the daughter of one of them, a legal practitioner in the town, of the name of Ross.

His marriage with this lady, who was considerably his superior in social rank, was the beginning of a long and happy union. It was celebrated during the New Year festivities of 1712. From that year good fortune with scarcely one interval of absence waited on his footsteps. It was about that time he first began to write verses in emulation of Hamilton, and it was in that same year he was admitted into a very select social coterie of twelve, self-styled the Easy Club, and numbering among its members a University, professor, a doctor in large practice, and the well-known scholar and printer, Thomas Ruddiman.

His connection with this club, while it was highly creditable to him, was of the utmost importance in drawing out and directing his poetical talent He became its laureate, entertained its gatherings with his compositions, profited by its criticisms, and acquired something of its professional culture. It was for the Easy Club he wrote his humorous descriptions of low life, such as the Elegy on the Death of Maggie Johnston/ a suburban alewife well-known to all Edinburgh. This was really his first poem, his earlier pieces being merely the essays of an apprentice learning the art of literary expression. It was much applauded, and encouraged him to renewed efforts which were still more successful. The companion, ‘Elegy on the Death of Lucky Wood/ the cleanly alewife of the Canongate, and his additions to the ancient poem of ‘ Christ’s Kirk on the Green/ mark his highest achievements as a humourist in the department of low life. His situations in these compositions are intensely comical, and the language that depicts them is correspondingly blunt and broad. They cannot be defended from the charge of coarseness, but it can be said that the animalism they reveal is neither morbid nor prurient, any more than that of Chaucer; such as it is, it is natural and healthy. Hogarth found in Ramsay a brother artist, and in token of his delight at the discovery dedicated to him the twelve plates of his Illustrations of Hudibras. Ramsay’s delineations of low life were much misunderstood in his own day by well - meaning people of narrow sympathies and timid morality ; but if their misunderstanding had the effect of sending him to the higher and purer regions of respectable comedy, a supposition which is doubtful, we should be the last person to find fault with it. There is, at least, no doubt that after his thirty-sixth year, most of the coarseness which so abundantly characterises his earlier art as a humourist, disappears from his delineations, and the result is a style of composition not less effective and more refined, and more distinctly on the side of virtue.

Ramsay, however, it should be noticed, claimed in his earlier compositions, and at the time of their production, the credit of a moralist, and attributed to the spiritual purblindness of his critics their failure to perceive the satire of his representations. Here are his own words on the subject, appended to one of the freest of all his compositions—the third canto of ‘ Christ’s Kirk on the Green.’

‘I have pursued' he says, ‘these comical characters, having gentlemen’s health and pleasure, and the good manners of the vulgar in view,— the main design of comedy being to represent the follies and mistakes of low life in a just light, making them appear as ridiculous as they really are, that each who is a spectator may avoid being the object of laughter.'

If the object aimed at were certain of attainment, the justification of the artist would be tolerably complete.

The members of the Easy Club were suspected of sympathy with Jacobitism, and the suspicion becoming warm, the Club broke up in some alarm. Ramsay steered pretty dear of politics, but there is good ground for believing that his political leanings were towards the exiled Stuarts. The famous Countess of Eglinton, who accepted the dedication of ‘The Gentle Shepherd' was no politically indiscriminate patroness of literature ; and there can be no doubt that community of political sentiment would be a recommendation, if not a requisite, to the friendship of Pope, Gay and Arbuthnot—a friendship which Ramsay enjoyed. On the dissolution of the Club, which occurred shortly after the fiasco of ‘ The Fifteen/ Ramsay resolved on an appeal to the public for confirmation of the claim which he now set up, to rank as a poet. He set about the matter with characteristic prudence. Specimens of his poetry were printed on broadsheets and circulated about the town by street-vendors for the purpose of testing or stimulating the popular

taste. The plan succeeded so well that it became a practice of the citizens’ wives to send out for ‘Allan Ramsay’s last piece/ and discuss it with their afternoon tea. He next opened a subscription - list for purchasers’ names, and finally a handsome quarto of four hundred pages made its appearance from the press of his friend Ruddiman, and was speedily taken up. An analysis of the subscription-list shows, to the credit of the Scottish nobility, that about one-seventh of his patrons were of aristocratic birth. It is pleasant to find Pope’s name in the list The result of the publication was to extend his fame, and to improve his fortunes by about four hundred guineas. At the same time, it determined him to a literary career, and from the moment of that determination wigweaving languished, and the more leisurely occupation of bookselling filled his vacant hours. A period of great industry followed. Scarcely a year passed for the next decade but he was before the public with one or more offerings of original or editorial work. His editorial work was the collection of selected songs, both Scottish and English, into the ‘Tea Table Miscellany/ and a series of Scottish poems, purporting to have been ‘wrote by the ingenious before 1600/ brought together into ‘The Evergreen.' These collections contained compositions of his own which were either too free morally or too dangerous politically to be owned amongst his authorised productions. Of these anonymous poems the best is, undoubtedly, ‘The Vision/ which may indeed be regarded as Ramsay’s most ambitious effort, and certainly reveals a sweep and power of imagination beyond what we usually associate with his name. In original work he ventured unfortunately into fields foreign alike to his genius and his art—he took to imitating Pope, and produced some very laborious essays in English verse, and a few sad but unsorrowful elegies. His true sphere and talent lay in the use of the Scottish language upon themes of national interest. Of this he was well aware, but he could not altogether resist the temptation to enter the lists with his English contemporaries, and encounter them with their own weapons. His English verses, of which he wrote far too many, may show his culture, but they give no indication of his genius.

The quarto of which we have spoken appeared in 1721. Seven years later, that is, in 1728, he collected the pieces he had written in the interval, and published them in a similar manner in a companion quarto, and then rested from poetical labours. The period of his literary activity altogether extended over twenty years, of which the first five were the years of his apprenticeship. He gave over when he ceased to write with facility,—when, as he said, he found his muse beginning to be ‘dour and dorty.’ Ramsay probably made a mistake in imagining that facility of composition was a genuine proof of inspiration, and we cannot help thinking that the reduction of his speed of composition by one-half, if it had meant the retention of his heroic couplets and other English poems, which constitute about one-half of his works, would have been a very desirable thing indeed. He had, however, used the pen too long and too assiduously to be able entirely to forego the luxury of its use, and an occasional epistle in verse towards the end of his life showed that if he composed with more effort he composed with more pith.

The second quarto established Ramsay’s fame. It contained the composition which gave him most satisfaction, and which best illustrates the true character of his genius, the charming pastoral drama of ‘ The Gentle Shepherd.' Not the least charming feature of the little world which it reveals to us is the natural cheerfulness which pervades almost every scene. It became instantly popular, and so excited the envy of enemies, who had hitherto identified him with the school of art which delights to minister to immorality, that they absurdly refused him the authorship. The germ of the play will be found in two detached pastoral poems in the first quarto, where they seem to have attracted little attention. Ramsay ran them together as the first and second scenes of a drama which beautifully and naturally evolves the story they half suggest. No more pleasing and effective moral agency than this dramatic pastoral, the Bible alone excepted, ever entered the cottages of the Scottish peasantry. Its morality is of the best type—it is the morality of common-sense, practicable, honest and cheerful.

From his forty-fifth year onwards till his death, at the mature age of seventy-two, in 1758, Ramsay occupied himself chiefly with the enjoyment of his literary fame and the society or welfare of his children, and with the extension of his business as a burgess of Edinburgh. His bookseller’s shop in High Street looked out upon the busiest, as it was the most fashionable, and central part of Edinburgh. It became a kind of lounge for the literary and professional men of the town. Here Gay used to waste the summer forenoons in congenial gossip with Ramsay, and find amusement in the motley crowds that thronged around the old Market Cross under the windows. It was here, too, that Ramsay instituted the circulating library, which, while it brought him in a substantial addition to his annual gains introduced into Edinburgh the newest books published in London, and created and fostered a taste for reading, especially among the young, that was afterwards to bear good fruit in Scotland. There can be no doubt that the literary rivalry which sprang up between London and Edinburgh during the latter half of last century, a rivalry which Johnson lived to see, and which Horace Walpole recognised, was in no small degree owing to the enterprise of Ramsay, and the introduction of the circulating library. A feature of his library was the number of books of dramatic literature which it contained, and which were largely in demand by the younger part of the population. The cry was raised that Ramsay was polluting the morals of the city youth. He was unmoved by the cry, and continued to persevere in his plans for the enlightenment of the public. At this time there was not a single place of public amusement in Edinburgh —except the Assembly, as it was called, which met for the recreation of dancing in the dreary fashion so picturesquely described for us by Oliver Goldsmith. There was no theatre. Ramsay resolved to erect a theatre at his own expense, and regulate the management of it so as to make its entertainments at once popular and elevating. At great cost the building was put up and preparations were made for the opening day. The prices were already advertised. Nothing remained but that the house should be licensed. At the last moment, by a majority of the civic rulers, licence was refused ; the magistracy, who had the licensing power, had been influenced by the clergy of the city; they were not likely soon to change their views upon dramatic representations; and Ramsay was almost ruined. The ruin that threatened him awoke manifestations of wild delight among those who are known in Scotland as ‘ the unco guid or rigidly righteous,* and those others who had long been jealous of the success that had attended all the past enterprise of Ramsay. They preached at him, they lampooned him, they held him up as a fearful example of divine judgment. They published the ‘Dying Words of Allan Ramsay ’; they set up ‘ A Looking-Glass for Allan Ramsay.’ Ramsay tried to find redress by an appeal to law. The lawyers told him, in irrevocable decision of his case, that he had been damaged but not injured, and with the nice legal distinction he was obliged to be satisfied. Not, however, till he had tried one other resource. The Lord President of the Supreme Court, the famous and . enlightened judge, Forbes of Culloden, was his private friend; he would petition the Lord President The petition, which is in verse, was, as the tone of it shows, provident against disappointment, the seriousness of the case being half hidden under an air of jocularity. It is so characteristic of Ramsay, that the concluding portion may here be presented. ‘ Either * (he says, referring to the decision of the Court),—

‘Either say that I'mm a ’faulter,
Or thole (allow) me to employ my bigging (building),
Or, of the burden, ease my rigging (back)
By ordering fra the public fund
A sum to pay for what Pm bund ;
Syne (then\ in amends for what I've lost,
Edge me into some canny post,
With the good liking of our King,
And your petitioner shall—sing/

Ramsay finally applied himself to his legitimate business, and in an incredibly short time retrieved his loss by the theatre, and amassed besides what seems to have been a very comfortable independency. Some considerable time before he fairly retired from business he had put up a queer octagonal villa on the Castle-hill, commanding an extensive view northwards of every variety of Scottish scenery, and here he comfortably closed a long, happy, and useful career. In his seventieth year he had written to the Laird of Pennycuik, one of his intimate friends,—

‘I plan to be
From shackling trade and danger free,
That I may, loose from care and strife,
With calmness view the edge of life,
And, when a full ripe age shall crave,
Slide easily into my grave'

His last days were as he had wished—they found him as free from care and strife as it has ever fallen to the lot of men in circumstances similar to his to be. His children, a son and two daughters, were everything that he could desire. The son, whom at much expense he had bred as an artist, was rising into fame, and, possessed as he was of much of his father’s talent and disposition, was already showing those artistic and social qualities which were presently to secure for him the honour of portrait painter and prime favourite at the court of George III. He was equally free from strife He had enemies, but they were none of his making. They were either the fault of the age or the envious growth of his good fortune. He was both generous enough and wise enough to leave them alone. Satirist, of course, he was, but his satire was of that genial and even gentle kind that aims at institutions rather than individuals, at manners rather than men, and is content with simple exposure. In this respect, as has already been hinted, Ramsay presents a strong resemblance to Chaucer. It would be easy to pursue the parallel further, and to find in the history and external circumstances of Ramsay, and even in his personal appearance, lines and lineaments which recall the genial father of English humour. The same prudence in the conduct of worldly affairs, the menace of the same misfortune when life was well advanced, the same rotundity of figure, and the same perennial sympathy with the experience and gaiety of youth were visible in the case of both. If Pinkerton has been the most virulent in his abuse of Ramsay, he has also been the least capable of framing an estimate of him from a well-nigh total want of sympathy with his subject We prefer to accept our opinion of Ramsay from his life, which lies patent to those who have eyes, and from his published writings, which afford the best commentary on his life; or, if we must find a critic of authority with whom our own opinion shall agree, we shall hardly find a more competent than Walter Scott, who brought the essential quality of the man into a single word, "when he called him ‘the joyous Ramsay.’

Return to our Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus