Allan Ramsay 1684(?)–1758
Scottish poet and editor.
Through his own poetry and his editions of works by earlier writers, Ramsay played a major role in reviving the Scots poetic tradition that had languished since the late sixteenth century. Although he wrote both in English and in vernacular Scots, he is most remembered for his verses in Scots, which demonstrated the viability of the Scots language and of traditional Scottish genres and verse forms as vehicles for contemporary literary expression. He is considered an important predecessor of Robert Burns and a precursor of the Romantic movement of the later eighteenth century.
Ramsay was born in Leadhills in Lanarkshire, Scotland, some fifty miles from Edinburgh, in 1684 or 1685 (some sources say 1686). His father, the manager of a lead mine, died soon after his son's birth, and Ramsay spent most of his youth on a small farm belonging to his stepfather. In about 1700, Ramsay left Lanarkshire for Edinburgh, where by 1710 he was a master wigmaker and a burgess of the city. Two years later he married Christian Ross, daughter of a law clerk; the eldest of their several children, Allan, would become a noted portrait painter and essayist. From 1712 to 1715, Ramsay was a member of the Easy Club, a small group of young Scottish nationalists who wrote poetry and letters to the press and discussed relations between England and Scotland, which had been joined under the Parliamentary Union of 1707. He gradually gave up wigmaking in favor of bookselling, and in 1725 opened the first circulating library in the United Kingdom in his Edinburgh bookshop. He also opened a theater in 1936, but was forced to close it three years later by the opposition of the more conservative members of Edinburgh society and by the passage of the 1737 Licensing Act, which prohibited the production of plays outside of London without the permission of the lord chamberlain. He died in Edinburgh in 1758.
Ramsay's first poems were apparently written for the Easy Club, including his first poem in Scots, "Elegy on Maggie Johnston, who died Anno 1711." Over the next several years, his poems in Scots and English circulated in the form of broadsides and small collections. His reputation as a poet spread with his publication in 1721 of a collection of his verse which he issued to nearly five hundred subscribers, including a number of aristocrats and prominent literary figures, merchants, and professionals.
Ramsay's poetry, written in both Scots and English, included work in a wide variety of genres, but he was particularly known for his depictions—sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental—of Scottish rural and urban "low life." His pastoral drama The Gentle Shepherd appeared in 1725; three years later, he added some twenty songs to his original text, expanding it into a "ballad-opera" which became popular in England and the American colonies as well as in Scotland, where it was produced regularly into the nineteenth century. Ramsay also collected and published older Scots poetry in his anthologies Ever Green (1724) and Tea-Table Miscellany (four volumes, 1723-37), at times—to the dismay of later scholars—with his own unacknowledged additions or amendments.
While Ramsay has long been credited with revitalizing the Scots poetic tradition, his stature as a poet was eclipsed by the enormous popularity of Burns in the latter years of the eighteenth century. His reputation was particularly tarnished by the comments of two late-eighteenth century editors of Scots poetry, Lord Hailes (1770) and John Pinkerton (1786); both severely criticized Ramsay's free-handed editorial methods, and Pinkerton dismissed Ramsay's own verse as crude in both content and execution. The tendency to view Ramsay as a very minor talent whose primary contribution to literature was—despite his editorial shortcomings—his popularization of earlier Scots verse culminated in the assessment of T. F. Henderson, whose Scottish Vernacular Literature (1898) remained influential well into the twentieth century. The pattern for more positive evaluations of Ramsay was set by a long critical essay by Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, published in the 1800 Chalmers edition of the poet's works. While admitting that many of Ramsay's poems lack polish, Tytler praised the vitality of his best verse and defended him against charges of vulgarity with the argument that his language and style were suited to his true-to-life depictions of rural and city life. In Tytler's essay and in much subsequent nineteenth-century criticism, The Gentle Shepherd was singled out as Ramsay's most important work and was praised for its emotional veracity and its adaptation of the pastoral mode to a native British setting. More recent critics, while continuing to recognize the importance of Ramsay's editorial work and of The Gentle Shepherd, have turned increased attention to his other poetic accomplishments. Allan MacLaine, in particular (1985), argues that Ramsay produced admirable work in a wide variety of genres and in so doing not only won popular and critical acceptance of vernacular Scots verse, but also revived or created the verse forms and genres that would dominate the Scots literary revival throughout his century.
Poems (poetry) 1721
Fables and Tales (fables and short stories) 1722
The Tea-Table Miscellany 4 vols. [editor] (poetry) 1723-37
Ever Green 2 vols. [editor] (poetry) 1724
The Gentle Shepherd (drama) 1725
Poems 2 vols. (poetry) 1728
A Collection of Scots Proverbs [editor] (aphorisms) 1737
The Poems of Allan Ramsay 2 vols. (poetry) 1800
The Works of Allan Ramsay 6 vols. 1945-74
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SOURCE: "John Pinkerton," in The Gentle Shepherd: A Pastoral Comedy, William Gowans, 1852, pp. lxiv-lxvi.
[Pinkerton was a noted late-eighteenth century editor of poetry in the Scots language. In the following excerpt, originally published in his collection Ancient Scotish Poems in 1786, he belittles Ramsay's poetic accomplishments and knowledge of Scots.]
The convivial buffoonery of this writer has acquired him a sort of reputation, which his poetry by no means warrants; being far beneath the middling, and showing no spark of genius. Even his buffoonery is not that of a tavern, but that of an ale-house.
The Gentle Shepherd all now allow the sole foundation of his fame. Let us put it in the furnace a little; for, if it be gold, it will come out the purer. Dr. Beattie, in his Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition, observes, that the effect of the Gentle Shepherd is ludicrous from the contrast between meanness of phrase, and dignity or seriousness of sentiment. This is not owing to its being written in the Scotish dialect, now left to the peasantry, as that ingenious writer thinks; for the first part of Hardy-knute, written in that very dialect, strikes every English reader as sublime and pathetic to the highest degree. In fact this glaring defect proceeds from Allan Ramsay's own character as a buffoon, so evident from all...
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SOURCE: "Letter First on Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd," in The Scots Magazine, Vol. LIX, February, 1797, pp. 76-78.
[In the following excerpt, the anonymous critic, who signs himself "Philo-Scoticus," praises Ramsay's characterization and rendering of Scottish country life in The Gentle Shepherd and defends the poem against charges of vulgarity.]
Before I enter particularly upon the Gentle Shepherd, I beg leave to make a few observations upon the poem in general, as is customary with the greatest ancient as well as modern critics; I shall, in doing this, have an eye upon Aristotle's method of examining epic poetry, poetry, which Addison has adopted in that excellent critique upon Milton's Paradise Lost. He first considers the fable; secondly, the characters; thirdly, sentiments and behaviour of the actors; and fourthly, the language.
1st, The fables of all dramatic works must be probable, but those of the pastoral drama must be peculiarly so; nay these last must consist chiefly of common incidents, subservient to one interesting event, which is the end and occasion of the whole. Exactly such is the pastoral before us; almost all the scenes in it are familiar to the Scotchman, who hath passed his days on this side the Tweed; and there is one leading circumstance, one principal occurrence, which all the rest (nicely...
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SOURCE: "Remarks on the Genius and Writings of Allan Ramsay," in The Poems of Allan Ramsay, Vol. I, Alex. Gardner, 1877, pp. xliii-cii.
[Tytler's commentary, which first appeared in the 1800 edition of Ramsay's poems edited by George Chalmers, represents the first extended critical analysis of Ramsay's works. In the following excerpt, Tytler assesses Ramsay's contributions to Scottish literature in the Scots vernacular and in English, as well as his stature as a poet, particularly with regard to the elegies, the satires, and the pastoral poem The Gentle Shepherd.]
As the writings of Allan Ramsay have now stood the test of the public judgment during more than seventy years, and in the opinion of the best critics, he seems to bid fair to maintain his station among our poets, it may be no unpleasing nor uninstructive employment to examine the grounds on which that judgment is founded, to ascertain the rank which he holds in the scale of merit, and to state the reasons that may be given for assigning him that distinguished place among the original poets of his country to which I conceive he is entitled.
The genius of Ramsay was original; and the powers of his untutored mind were the gift of nature freely exercising itself within the sphere of its own observation….
Inheriting that ardour of feeling which is generally accompanied with strong sentiments of moral excellence,...
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SOURCE: "Leigh Hunt," in The Gentle Shepherd: A Pastoral Comedy, William Gowans, 1852, pp. lxviii-lxxii.
[Hunt is recognized for his articulation of the principles of the Romantic movement. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla (1848), he praises The Gentle Shepherd for its descriptions of nature and depiction of the emotional lives of its characters.]
Poetical expression in humble life is to be found all over the south. In the instances of Burns, Ramsay, and others, the north also has seen it. Indeed, it is not a little remarkable, that Scotland, which is more northern than England, and possesses not even a nightingale, has had more of it than its southern neighbour.
Allan Ramsay is the prince of the homely pastoral drama. He and Burns have helped Scotland for ever to take pride in its heather, and its braes, and its bonny rivers, and be ashamed of no honest truth in high estate or in low; an incalculable blessing. Ramsay is entitled not only to the designation we have given him, but in some respects is the best pastoral writer in the world. There are, in truth, two sorts of genuine pastoral—the high ideal of Fletcher and Milton, which is justly to be considered the more poetical,—and the homely ideal, as set forth by Allan Ramsay and some of the Idyls of Theocritus, and which gives us such feelings of nature...
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SOURCE: "Allan Ramsay," in Macmillan's Magazine, Vol. LV, No. 325, November, 1886, pp. 19-26.
[In the following excerpt, Robertson views Ramsay's poetry as a transitional link between the medieval tradition of Scots poetry and that of later Scots poets, such as Fergusson and Burns.]
Two hundred years ago, in October, 1686, Allan Ramsay was born in the upland 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; for just a century since, and in virtue of that latter event, his name and fame 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 undeservedly neglected; his poetical power has been growing more and more traditional, and is now, we fear, very 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. But if they speak of Allan...
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SOURCE: "Modern Period: Alan Ramsay (1686-1758)," in The Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry, Vol. II, William Blackwood and Sons, 1887, pp. 24-38.
[In the following excerpt, Veitch praises Ramsay's depiction of the natural scenery of the Scottish Lowlands.]
Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) is by far the most interesting and influential literary personage in Scotland in the first half of the eighteenth century. To his example, impulse, and suggestions of new lines of poetry, we owe much of all that is best in Scottish poetry and literature since his time. Fergusson and Burns could not have done what they did, unless as coming after Ramsay, and being thus enabled to start from the high level both of feeling and of accomplished versification which he had attained. Ramsay had the courage, in a conventional time both in English and Scottish poetry, to recognise and be true to the manners, the simple everyday life, the rural character, and the scenery of his native land….
Ramsay came to Edinburgh in 1701, where he was apprenticed to a wig-maker—then a business higher in the social scale than anything corresponding to it in these days. Here he came under the influence, in the first place, of the older Scottish poetry, through the publication of Watson's Choise Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems, both Ancient and Modern, by several hands, which appeared in three parts, in 1706,...
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SOURCE: "Ramsay to Burns," in Scottish Vernacular Literature: A Succinct History, revised edition, John Grant, 1910, pp. 400-26.
[Henderson's Scottish Vernacular Literature: A Succinct History was the first book-length study of Scots literature. In the following excerpt, Henderson credits Ramsay with reviving interest in the Scots literary tradition, but typifies most of his verse as coarse in content and crude in execution.]
If not the victim of the contradictory poetic models, English and Scots, which he sought combinedly to imitate, Ramsay, except in the case of The Gentle Shepherd, was nothing advantaged, either as Scots or English versifier, by any compensating result of the twofold influence. His familiarity with the vernacular song and some of the verse of the old Scots 'makaris,' in no wise tended to modify the pompous commonplace of his more ambitious essays in English verse, while his acquaintance with the English classics exercised little truly educative influence on his vernacular method. But this twofold acquaintanceship assisted him to construct a species of Scoto-English song which was rampantly popular both in Scotland and England. While his vernacular pieces won him universal fame among the lower classes of his native land, and his English verse was read with something resembling admiration by the more enlightened classes of both countries, his songs—as is abundantly...
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SOURCE: "Allan Ramsay and the Romantic Revival," in Essays and Studies, Vol. X, 1924, pp. 137-44.
[In the following excerpt, Mackail argues that "[Ramsay's] importance in letters is less in respect of his own poetry, vital and even excellent as some of it is, than as having given the first clearly assignable impulse to the romantic movement of the eighteenth century. "]
[Sir John] Steel's statue of Ramsay [in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh] has nothing romantic about it. It is the presentment of the sleek little tradesman of the Luckenbooths, burgess and bon vivant, and the presentment is true to life. But it is incomplete. Here, as often elsewhere, a man stands in the history of his country and of his art not merely for what he obviously was and consciously did, but also for what he in effect, and perhaps unconsciously, originated; for the turn he gave, recognizable only in the backward perspective of distance, to the movement of a whole age. Portrait and biography have to be supplemented by a larger and more searching interpretation.
Thus with Allan Ramsay; his importance in letters is less in respect of his own poetry, vital and even excellent as some of it is, than as having given the first clearly assignable impulse to the romantic movement of the eighteenth century. That movement is generally thought of as having begun much later. Its effective development is dated...
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SOURCE: "The Reputation and the Influence of Ramsay," in Allan Ramsay: A Study of His Life and Works, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931, pp. 124-35.
[Martin's 1931 biography of Ramsay was considered definitive until it was supplanted by Alexander Kinghorn in 1970 with his The Works of Allan Ramsay. In the following excerpt, Martin discusses Ramsay's reputation among his contemporaries and in the latter half of the eighteenth century.]
There is no reason for thinking that before 1719 Ramsay was known beyond the city of Edinburgh. But in that year we have his correspondence with Hamilton of Gilbertfield, the englishing of "Richy and Sandy" by Josiah Burchet, and the exchange of riming epistles with the Irishman, James Arbuckle. From this time Ramsay's fame spread rapidly beyond the walls of the Good Town, not without the help of his friends. Before Steele went to Edinburgh on government business in 1720, he instructed James Anderson to find him lodgings. The latter in reporting to his superior concluded his letter thus: "I enclose you a poem of Mr. Ramsay's, whose performances, I presume, you are not a stranger to." This specimen must have found favour with the Englishman, for he subsequently subscribed for two copies of the quarto of 1721. About a year later, Sir William Bennet of Grubet wrote the Countess Dowager of Roxburghe: "I send your ladyship Allan Ramsay's essay one...
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SOURCE: "Eighteenth-Century Vernacular Poetry," in Scottish Poetry: A Critical Survey, edited by James Kinsley, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1955, pp. 150-84.
[In the following excerpt, Daiches surveys Ramsay's contributions to Scottish literature as a poet and as an editor of Scots verse.]
In 1712 [Ramsay] joined with other young men in Edinburgh in founding the Easy Club, 'in order that by a Mutual improvement in Conversation they may become more adapted for fellowship with the politer part of mankind and Learn also from one another's happy observations'. (Burns was to found the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club with similar ends in view.) The members of this club all had pseudonyms, and Ramsay's was first Isaac Bickerstaff and later Gavin Douglas, a pair of names which reflect Ramsay's dual interest in the Queen Anne wits and in older Scottish literature. The Easy Club is important in Ramsay's career because it shows him in training to become a gentleman in the early eighteenth-century sense and also because it provided him with an audience for 'occasional' poetry for which he soon began to display his talent. Ramsay was far from being a great poet, but he was a facile versifier with certain happy flashes, and when circumstances were propitious he could turn out admirable specimens of familiar verse. The Easy Club provided the environment which encouraged this gift; it also provided a background of patriotic...
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SOURCE: "Biographical and Critical Introduction: The Gentle Shepherd," in The Works of Allan Ramsay, Vol. IV, edited by Alexander M. Kinghorn and Alexander Law, William Blackwood & Sons Ltd., 1970, pp. 90-108.
[Kinghorn's introduction to the fourth volume of Ramsay 's works includes what is widely considered the most accurate and complete biographical information on the poet. In the following excerpt from the critical portion of Kinghorn's introduction, the critic discusses Ramsay's use of the Scots language and the place of The Gentle Shepherd in Scots literary history.']
The work by which Ramsay achieved an immediate reputation among his own contemporaries and in the eyes of succeeding generations was The Gentle Shepherd, a Pastoral Comedy, published in 1725. Woodhouselee refers to it as "the noblest and most permanent monument of his fame" [In The Works of Allan Ramsay, 1800]. The play springs out of two eclogues, "Patie and Roger" and "Jenny and Maggy ", probably written in 1720 and 1723 respectively, and both incorporated in the finished drama. The Gentle Shepherd, which obviously owed its title to Spenser, was dedicated to Susanna, Countess of Eglintoun, in a spirit of heavy flattery. Ramsay concluded his inscription by striking an attitude of intimate self-doubt succeeded by a weak confidence:
I write this last Sentence...
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SOURCE: "Biographical and Critical Introduction: Ramsay as 'Translator,'" in The Works of Allan Ramsay, Vol. IV, edited by Alexander M. Kinghorn and Alexander Law, William Blackwood & Sons, 1970, pp. 109-127.
[In the following excerpt, Kinghorn discusses Ramsay's imitations of the Latin poet Horace and the French fabulists La Fontaine and La Motte.]
Ramsay's renderings from Horace show how much, and how little, he had in common with the Roman, whose poetic character, with its urbanity and worldly-wise sophistication, held an understandable attraction for the Scot. The MS. Life is one authority for judging the extent of the language barrier separating Ramsay from his originals, both in French and Latin. The biographer writes:
He had made himself very much master of the French language, and his imitations of the Fables of La Motte are excellent. He much lamented his deficiency in the Latin; of which, however, he had pickt up so much, as, by the help of Dacier, to catch the spirit of the Odes of Horace; which, even by this twilight, he, above all writings, admired; and, supplying, by congenial fancy, what he wanted in erudition, has imitated some of them with a truly Horatian felicity.
Ramsay's 1721 "Preface" contains several references to Horace, who is made the second of a triumvirate of poets, "Anacreon, Horace and...
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SOURCE: "The Gentle Shepherd," in Society and the Lyric: A Study of the Song Culture of Eighteenth-Century Scotland, Scottish Academic Press, 1979, pp. 70-96.
[In the following excerpt, Crawford examines the political and social context and implications of The Gentle Shepherd.]
According to Ramsay's own statement The Gentle Shepherd was written in the years 1724 and 1725. When the first edition came out in 1725 there were only four songs, "Peggy, now the King's come", II, iii; the duet between Patie and Peggy, "By the delicious warmness of thy mouth", II, iv; Bauldy's snatch of song, "Jenny said to Jocky, 'Gin ye winna tell'", IV, i; and the conclusion to the whole work, Peggy's "My Patie is a lover gay". Although it is most unlikely, as is sometimes claimed, that the first edition, containing a mere handful of songs, had any influence on The Beggars' Opera, it is nevertheless certain that there was at first some interaction between these almost opposite works. Gay's ballad opera was performed in Edinburgh by Tony Aston's company in October 1728 and seen by the pupils of Haddington Grammar School, who thereupon asked Ramsay to do the same with his drama; the upshot was a 'public performance of The Gentle Shepherd, with musical accompaniment, given on 22 January, 1729 "in Taylor's Hall, by a Set of Young Gentlemen"', in which the four songs were expanded to twenty-one. The 1734...
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SOURCE: "Augustan Influences on Allan Ramsay," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XVI, 1981, pp. 97-109.
[In the following excerpt, McGuirk compares Ramsay's selective use of the Scots vernacular "to match the elevation of his chosen genre" with the use of colloquial English dialects by London's neo-classical Augustan poets.]
Allan Ramsay's pastorals, songs, elegies, satires and epistles, in which neoclassical and dialect elements were mixed, had established him by 1720 as Edinburgh's most popular poet. The whole spectrum of Edinburgh's literate and semi-literate population supported Ramsay's work, which was extensively circulated in broadside sheets. By 1719 he was so well known even outside Scotland that a pirated edition of one of his pastorals was printed at London. By 1720 an octavo collection of Ramsay's most popular pieces was issued at Edinburgh, and the following year a more ambitious quarto edition was published there.
The subscription list for Ramsay's 1721 Poems included what must have been nearly every nobleman who was even a part-time resident in Edinburgh (such as the Duke of Queensberry), as well as a large contingent of advocates and doctors from Edinburgh's formidable professional classes. Yet Ramsay's appeal was not exclusively local: also among his subscribers were Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot, Richard Savage and (for two copies) Sir Richard Steele....
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SOURCE: "Scots Satires," in Allan Ramsay, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 14-41.
[MacLaine's 1985 study of Ramsay was the first book-length critical treatment of Ramsay's work. In the following excerpt, MacLaine analyzes the poet's satiric verses, crediting them with reviving interest in ancient Scottish verse forms and setting the precedent for modern Scots satire.]
At the very beginning of his poetic career Allan Ramsay made the conscious but risky decision of writing in his native Scottish tongue and of attempting to breathe new life into the moribund Scots poetic tradition. That tradition, as we have noted in the previous chapter, had become so impoverished that by Ramsay's time the Scots language was used only for humorous treatments of low life. It was, therefore, wholly natural if not inevitable that Ramsay should launch his career as a Scots poet by turning to various types of comic verse at the outset. He began with two major efforts in satiric verse—social satire in his continuations of "Christis Kirk on the Green" and political satire in "A Tale of Three Bonnets." At about the same time he moved into another popular comic form, the Scots comic elegy, producing no fewer than six of these from 1712 onward. Another traditional Scots satiric form, the "mock testament," attracted him also, and he tried his hand at two or three other types of comic verse in the vernacular. Altogether, Ramsay produced...
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Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. "Sentimentalism—Severer Cases." In his Religious Trends in English Poetry, pp. 424-87. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
Includes a brief discussion of Ramsay's relation to the Romantic Movement and the political and religious beliefs reflected in his poetry.
Gibson, Andrew. New Light on Allan Ramsay. Edinburgh: William Brown, 1927. 152 p.
The first modern biographical and bibliographical study of Ramsay.
Kinghorn, Alexander Manson. "Watson's Choice, Ramsay's Voice and a Flash of Fergusson." Scottish Literary Journal 19, No. 2 (November 1992): 5-23.
Examines Ramsay's use of contemporary and Middle Scots in his poetry.
——, and Alexander Law. Introduction to Poems by Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, pp. vii-xxxiv. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
A brief biographical sketch and critical analysis of Ramsay's work, focusing on his writing in Scots.
——. "Allan Ramsay and Literary Life in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century." In The History of Scottish Literature, Vol. 2, edited by Andrew Cook, pp. 65-79. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987.
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