Eighteenth-Century Scottish Poetry
Often considered the golden age of Scottish poetry, eighteenth-century Scotland witnessed a struggle to reconcile its traditional language and cultural heritage with extreme political and social change. With the Scottish Reformation and the formal establishment of Presbyterianism in 1690, Scotland forged a new alliance with England, which had a lasting effect on the cultural significance of the Scots language. The Presbyterian church banned secular literature, thus suppressing the vernacular Scots songs that had been flourishing. Furthermore, no Scots Bible existed; the English Bible became the standard. The infusion of English culture and politics into Scotland culminated in 1707 with an official Parliamentary Union that made Scotland a part of the British Empire.
Scotland's literati generally reacted either by embracing the English literary tradition or by rebelling against England's cultural domination and reviving the Scots vernacular. Recognizing the distinguished history of English letters, a group of poets known as the Scottish Augustans began to write primarily in English. James Thomson (1700-1748), for example, combined proper English language with idiosyncratic, Latinate diction in such works as The Seasons (1730), a blank-verse meditation on nature. Heavily Miltonic, the poem was praised by figures such as William Hazlitt, and some critics have cited The Seasons as a precursor to British Romanticism. Scottish Augustan poetry also includes Robert Blair's The Grave (1743), William Falconer's The Shipwreck (1762), and James Beattie's The Minstrel (1771, 1774). Other Scottish writers, however, feared the loss of their native character and responded to English influence with a surge of nationalism—a flowering of Scots vernacular poetry and the rise of the native novel. Compilations such as James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern (1706-1711) brought traditional poems into wide circulation, thus helping to restore the popularity of Scots verse. The chief promoter of vernacular poetry was Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), a patriotic Jacobite who wrote in Scots, English, and Anglo-Scots, and whose work as an editor and poet strongly influenced such later figures as Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns. For the collections The Ever Green (1724) and The Tea-Table Miscellany (1724-37), Ramsay drew heavily upon the Bannatyne manuscript, a collection of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish ballads and songs, and poetry by Scottish poets Robert Henryson, Alexander Scott, and William Dunbar. Ramsay's own Scots compositions in works such as The Gentle Shepherd (1725) revived several traditional meters, and his exploration of traditional genres including the comic elegy, mock testament, and pastoral; together with his creation of the Scots verse epistle; elevated Scots from what was commonly regarded as the language of bawdy and comic songs to a vehicle for serious poetry. Several influential collections followed Ramsay's example, including David Herd's Ancient and Modern Scottish Poems (1769), Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), John Pinkerton's Select Scottish Ballads (1781-1783), and Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). Most famous (or infamous) of the anthologies that appeared during this time were James Macpherson's "translations" of ancient Gaelic manuscripts—Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760), Fingal (1762), Temora (1763), and The Poems of Ossian (1765)—which are now widely considered forgeries. The most important link between Ramsay and Burns, however, was Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), whose Poems (1773) drew upon both the English poetic tradition and the Scots genres popularized by Ramsay. Fergusson was highly regarded for his realistic depictions of Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside. His poems "Leith Races," "Plainstanes and Causey," and "Farmer's Ingle" were emulated by Burns in "The Holy Fair," "The Twa Brigs," and "The Cotter's Saturday Night."
The last and greatest of the poets of the Scots vernacular revival, Robert Burns (1759-1796) is considered the national poet of Scotland. Burns was influenced by "the excellent Ramsay, and the still more excellent Ferguson [sic]," although his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) and his contributions to James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803) and George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs for the Voice (1793-1818), reveal a more fluent use of the Scots dialect. Scots, as a vernacular language, lent itself to Burns' depiction of Scottish rural life, and Burns also expanded its use by addressing more serious topics such as Scottish nationalism and the importance of freedom. Burns resuscitated traditional poetic forms, imbuing them with contemporary issues and a mastery of traditional Scots. With the death of Burns, Scottish poetry (especially Scots vernacular poetry) generally declined. The progression of the Industrial Revolution irreversibly modernized Scotland, further alienating the society from its traditions. London increasingly became the literary capital of Britain, while emigration in the early nineteenth century largely emptied Scotland of its native talents. Furthermore, some critics contend that Burns exhausted the poetic potential of Scots, with vernacular poets who followed unable to improve on his work due to the limitations of the language itself. Although some twentieth-century versifiers have experimented with the Scots vernacular, critics generally agree that Scotland's literati have never surpassed the age of Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns.
The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius. A Poem. 2 vols. 1771, 1774
The Grave 1743
Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect 1786
The Poetry of Robert Burns. 4 vols. 1896-97
The Shipwreck 1762
Poems by Robert Fergusson 1773
The Poetry of Robert Fergusson. 2 vols. 1954-56
(Editor) Ancient and Modern Scottish Poems 1769
(Editor) The Scots Musical Museum 1787-1803
Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language 1760
Fingal, an Ancient Poem in Six Books 1762
Temora, an Ancient Epic Poem, in Eight Books 1763
The Poems of Ossian 1765
(Editor) Reliques of Ancient English Poetry 1765
(Editor) Select Scottish Ballads. 2 vols. 1781-83
(Editor) The Ever Green 1724
The Gentle Shepherd 1725
(Editor) Tea-Table Miscellany. 4 vols. 1724-37
(Editor) Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 1802-3
(Editor) Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs for the Voice 1793-1818
The Seasons. A Poem 1730
The Castle of Indolence: an Allegorical Poem. Written in Imitation of Spenser 1748
(Editor) Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern 1706-11
J. H. Millar
SOURCE: "Eighteenth-Century Poetry: Burns," in A Literary History of Scotland, T. Fisher Unwin, 1903, pp. 370-429.
[In the following excerpt, Millar surveys the development of Scottish poetry during the eighteenth century, examining the role of the classical English-language tradition and the revival of local vernacular verse, which culminated with the poetry of Robert Burns.]
Poetry is an art more provocative of imitation than prose; and it is not surprising that, when to excel in the use of English and to eschew the Scots dialect became the mark of an enlightened mind and a cultivated taste, a considerable number of Scottish writers should have betaken themselves to verse as their form of literary expression. In too many of these it is impossible, even for partiality, to ignore "the vain stiffness of a lettered Scot." But they must all be supposed to have served some purpose, and it is proposed to take a brief survey of their performances before passing on to the vernacular poetry, in which we shall find a great deal more that is worth dwelling on.
By far the greatest poet and most accomplished artist of the Scots versifiers who wrote in English during the eighteenth century was James Thomson (1700-48), a native of Ednam in Roxburghshire, and a son of the manse. The Seasons (1726-30) and The Castle of Indolence (1746) are poems which well repay minute examination and detailed criticism, though the lyric, Rule Britannia (1740), is better remembered by the general. But they belong essentially to English literature, on which the former exerted no little influence, and of which both are justly esteemed among the most pleasing ornaments of the second class. To treat Thomson as a characteristically Scottish poet would be as absurd as to devote time and space to Dr. John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), whose proper place is with the London wits of the age of Anne and of the first two Georges. Similar considerations recommend an equally summary treatment of Dr. John Armstrong, whose Economy of Love (1736), doubtless for excellent reasons, does not appear … in any edition of his works that I have been fortunate enough to fall in with; whose Art of Preserving Health (1744) is better than its title might lead one to expect; and whose Taste: An Epistle to a young Critic (1753) is a satire of the familiar type in rhymed heroics. His brother in medicine, Dr. Smollett, was a greater favourite of the muses. The Tears of Scotland (1746) is a piece very creditable to his good feeling; the Ode to Leven Water, which appeared in Humphry Clinker (1771), is more excellent still; and if the Ode to Independence (1773) had fulfilled the promise of its opening lines, we had been blessed in him with a writer of odes superior to most of his rivals in that sort of composition, and perhaps not so very far beneath the level of Gray himself.
Robert Blair (1699-1746) was not one of those who followed the road to London; and he died, as he had lived for fifteen years, minister of Athelstaneford, in East Lothian, in which cure he was the predecessor of John Home. His poem, The Grave (1743), enjoyed unbounded popularity both in its own day, and at a much later period. Suggested, it may be, by Young's Night Thoughts, the first instalment of which had appeared in the preceding year, it has, at all events, the merit of comparative brevity, and it works, with considerable skill, the vein of gloom which that long-winded exercise in blank verse opened, and which found such favour with the public of the eighteenth century. In the structure and cadence of his measures, however, Blair owes very little to Young; but rather … stands debtor to the Elizabethan dramatists. Certainly there is no echo of Thomson, or of any other writer of blank verse later than the Elizabethans, in the concluding passage of a poem, in which good single lines are not infrequent, but which contains nothing else of such refreshing and unexpected beauty:—
Thus at the shut of even the weary bird
Leaves the wide air, and, in some lonely brake,
Cowers down and dozes till the dawn of day,
Then claps his well-fledged wings and bears away.
David Hume was always willing to give to any of his friends the "hand" which "every fellow likes." He indulged in extravagant eulogy of John Home's Douglas; and another poet whom he went out of his way to praise at considerable length was William Wilkie (1721-72), the minister of Ratho, and Professor of Natural Philosophy at St. Andrews. Wilkie was a man of real erudition, though of the most eccentric manners; and in 1757 he published a classical epic, entitled the Epigoniad, in nine books and about six thousand lines. This masterpiece was thought, perhaps by Wilkie, and certainly by Wilkie's friends, to afford a striking proof of the vast strides which Scotland had made along the road which leads from barbarism and ignorance to refinement and learning. Nevertheless, the Critical Review, then under the editorship of Smollett, had spoken disrespectfully of the great work on its first appearance, and had called attention to certain mistakes in expression and prosody by which it was disfigured. To repair this injustice, Hume addressed a long letter to "the authors" of that periodical in 1759, in which, after premising that "no literary journal was ever carried on in this country with equal spirit and impartiality," he goes on to extenuate the faults complained of on the ground that they proceeded "entirely from the author's being a Scotchman, who had never been out of his own country," and then engages in a defence of the book, pointing out its merits, and illustrating them by quotations. A more curious piece of fatuity was never perpetrated by a genius of the first order than this critical essay of Hume's. So at least it is apt to strike a generation whose standards of taste are very different from his. No amount of special pleading will make the Epigoniad a great poem. It is well enough in its way, and is preferable to Glover's Leonidas or Athenaid. The episode of the Cyclops, for example, in book iv., might be worse, though even there Wilkie never comes up to the not very exacting measure of Pope's, or Broome's, Odyssey. The whole thing is "as dead as mutton"; it is the offspring of convention and rule, not of passion, or sensibility, or vision. Wilkie's Fables (1768) are very much better, though far from being in the front rank of such trifles, with the possible exception of The Hare and the Parian, which is in the vernacular of the Lothians.
Nor is it possible to be at all enthusiastic over The Shipwreck (1762) of William Falconer (1732-69), a piece of frigid classicism, memorable chiefly as affording, in an occasional cadence or turn of phrase, some anticipation of Crabbe's manner. It is difficult even to counterfeit interest in the fortunes of Palemon, and Albert, and Anna; and if the reading of the poem once begun is not soon desisted from, it is because of the peculiar fascination which arises from the mingling of two such incongruous elements as the poetical diction of the eighteenth century and the terms of the seaman's art. The result is so quaint that a specimen may be pardoned:—
A lowering squall obscures the southern sky,
Before whose sweeping breath the waters fly;
Its weight the topsails can no more sustain—
Reef topsails, reef! the master calls again.
The halyards and top bow-lines soon are gone,
To clue lines and reef tackles next they run:
The shivering sails descend; the yards are square;
Then quick aloft the ready crew repair:
The weather earings and the lee they past,
The reefs enrolled and every point made fast.
Deep on her side the reeling vessel lies:
Brail up the mizen quick! the master cries,
Man the clue-garnets! let the main-sheet fly!
It rends in thousand shivering shreds on high!
The contrast between this stilted and lumbering stuff and the rapid and masterly handling of technicalities displayed, say, in M'Andrew's Hymn is striking and suggestive.
James Beattie (1735-1803) may not have been an acute metaphysician (and he signally failed to demolish Hume), or a cool-headed critic (for he fell a willing victim to the famous Macpherson imposture [i.e., the publication of Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands (1760), Fingal (1762), and Temora (1763), which James Macpherson (1736-96) claimed to have translated from ancient Gaelic manuscripts but which many historians now consider to be forgeries]), or yet a great poet (for he never seems quite to know what he would be at). But at least he deserves our thanks for the effort he made to escape from the common groove, and to provide the public with a commodity bearing a stronger superficial resemblance to poetry than the Epgoniads and Shipwrecks could boast of. He did not, indeed, altogether abandon the rhymed heroic couplet, and his lines On the proposed monument to Churchill (1765) are a typical specimen of the conventional satire: not without vigour and point, but immeasurably below satire as it comes from the hands of a true master, like Pope. In the Hermit he employs with laudable freedom and ease a galloping sort of measure, in considerable request for bacchanalian lyrics, to which class that poem does not belong; and in his chef d'œuvre, The Minstrel (1770-74), he betakes himself to the Spenserian stanza, to write in which was a favourite exercise of almost all the poets and poetasters of the age from Thomson (or indeed from Prior and Pope) down to William Julius Mickle (1734-88), the translator of the Lusiad, the reputed author of at least one spirited and popular song in his national dialect, and the undoubted author of the ballad of Cumnor Hall, which fascinated the youthful ear of Scott. Beattie seems to share with many of his fellow versifiers the suspicion that there is something inherently and incurably ridiculous in the Spenserian stanza. He, like them, appears never to get rid of the feeling that he is writing a parody. And accordingly, every now and then, he gives to his verse a ludicrous turn, of which, it must in fairness be owned, the metre of Spenser when wedded to commonplace and degrading ideas is readily susceptible, owing to the lofty and ennobling associations with which that poet invested it. Hence a want of steady aim, an infirmity of artistic purpose, is very noticeable in the Minstrel, which is disjointed in structure and confused in arrangement. Yet Beattie, one may venture to think, had some true feeling for what we call nature, and was not insensible to the charm of the "melodies of morn," or the "sheep-fold's simple bell," or "the full choir that wakes the universal grove," or any of the other phenomena which he notes and records, in a vocabulary that was, unfortunately, not yet emancipated from the thraldom of "poetic" convention. The following stanzas, though the first is more in his jocose than in his serious vein, may serve to give a tolerably accurate idea of his versification:—
The dream is fled. Proud harbinger of day,
Who scar'dst the vision with thy clarion shrill,
Fell chanticleer! who oft hath reft away
My fancied good, and wrought substantial ill!
O to thy cursed scream, discordant still,
Let harmony aye shut her gentle ear:
Thy boastful mirth let jealous rivals spill,
Insult thy crest, and glossy pinions tear,
And ever in thy dreams the ruthless fox appear!
Forbear, my muse. Let love attune thy line.
Revoke the spell. Thine Edwin frets not so.
For how should he at wicked chance repine
Who feels from every change amusement flow?
Even now his eyes with smiles of rapture glow,
As on he wanders through the scenes of morn,
Where the fresh flowers in living lustre blow,
Where thousand pearls the dewy lawns adorn,
A thousand notes of joy in every breeze are born.
The names of Michael Bruce (1746-67) and John Logan (1748-88) recall a rather squalid, but at the same time characteristic, controversy. On the death of the former, the latter obtained Bruce's manuscripts and papers from his father, with a view to their publication, and in 1770 brought out a volume purporting to contain Bruce's poems, together with some pieces by other hands. Bruce's relations, according to the story, were astonished to find that the youth's "Gospel Sonnets" were not included in this collection, and the suspicion of unfair dealing on the part of Logan became to their minds a certainty when in 1781 Logan published a volume of his own poems in which were to be found certain sacred verses alleged to be Bruce's, and an amended version of an Ode to the Cuckoo, which had formed part of the 1770 publication. On the one hand, then, it is said that Logan deliberately turned Bruce's manuscripts to his own account, and falsely claimed to be the author of poems which he had never written: on the other hand, this accusation is indignantly denied, and, though it is admitted that Logan's conduct and behaviour were not always such as becomes a minister of the gospel, his authorship of the Ode and of sundry other pieces in dispute is strenuously maintained. The evidence in support of either contention is extremely unsatisfactory. There is a vast amount of hearsay, and a great deal about manuscripts which A said that B told him that C had seen. Local patriotism has, of course, stepped in to supply deficiencies in solid fact, and, the village of Kinnesswod being inferior in population and importance to the port of Leith, the clamour of the Bruce faction has naturally been shriller and more insistent than that of Logan's partisans. Moreover, Logan's is not so picturesque a figure as that of the youthful poet, nor has he the moral support of an aged parent. Also, it may be questioned whether the participators in this wretched squabble have always taken pains to forget that Bruce was a Seceder, whereas Logan belonged to the Establishment, and was a Moderate.
The one thing certain is that, apart from the grave aspersions cast upon Logan's personal character, the matter is not worth fighting about. The Ode to the Cuckoo, round which the battle has raged most hotly, is a poor enough affair in all conscience. It contains two really good lines, and only two:—
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.
The rest or it is essentially commonplace, and in parts indisputably pedestrian. No man need be ambitious to be reckoned the author of such a quatrain as this:—
In the 1770 version, there is one line which positively declines to scan. This was corrected in the later edition, and indeed all the changes made by Logan are for the better. As for Bruce's acknowledged work, it may be wonderful for his age, and considering the circumstances of his upbringing; but it will not suffer the application of any reasonably high standard. That his imitative faculty was strong is manifest. Not only does he follow the "classical" convention with abject fidelity, calling his friend Mr. Arnot, for instance, in Lochleven, by the name of Agricola, but he makes no scruple of appropriating earmarked words and phrases from his models. The Elegy to Spring is neither more nor less than a palpable imitation of Gray. It is perhaps a misfortune for the memory of this hapless young man that his champions should persist in attributing to his praiseworthy efforts, not merely comparative, but, absolute merit. Were it not for their misdirected zeal, it would be superfluous to subject them to any serious examination.
In addition to the volume of poems already referred to Logan was responsible for a tragedy, entitled Runnamede, which, like Home's Douglas, gave great offence to the "wild" party in the Church. But it is not as a dramatist, or an original poet, that he deserves to be held in remembrance. His claim upon the regard of posterity is founded on the Translations and Paraphrases in verse of several passages of Sacred Scripture (1781), collected and prepared by a Committee of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in order to be sung in churches. Of this anthology, which consists of sixty-seven "paraphrases" and five "hymns," Logan was to all intents and purposes the editor. Addison, Watts, Doddridge, and other less eminent writers were drawn upon; and in the case of almost all, save Addison, considerable alterations were made upon the original text. The practice of emendation in such circumstances is, as a rule, highly reprehensible. But in this case it was abundantly justified by success. Scarce one of the modifications which we owe to Logan but is a self-evident improvement; scarce one but vouches for his true ear, sound judgment, and correct taste. The Paraphrases form incomparably the best collection of sacred lyrics (or "Gospel sonnets"), for its size, which has ever been made in the English language. Devout, dignified, and reticent, they afford a truly admirable medium for expressing the religious feelings and aspirations of an intelligent, educated, and self-respecting people. Their genuine piety is untainted by extravagance, their grave severity unruffled by hysteria. They that seek for glitter, and banality, and noise, must turn to the more comprehensive volumes of a later date, whence they will not be sent empty away. It is one of the most significant symptoms of the degeneration which, as some believe, is over-taking the Scottish character, that this excellent little collection is falling into something like desuetude in public worship.
The "classical" tradition was sufficiently prolific. It produced some one's Albania (1737) in blank verse and the Clyde (1764) of John Wilson (1720-89) in rhymed heroics, both typical specimens of their kinds. It may also be said to have been an unconscionable time in dying, and its extinction by no means coincides with the close of the eighteenth century. A particularly favourable specimen of what it could produce is to be found in the Scenes of Infancy (1803) of John Leyden, who will have to be adverted to in another connection.
The waning harvest moon shone cold and bright;
The warder's horn was heard at dead of night;
And as the massy portals wide were flung,
With stamping hoofs the rocky pavement rung.
Such lines are at all events much preferable to the performances of the amiable James Grahame (1765-1811), advocate, and clerk in holy orders of the Church of England. Blank verse was the metre of Grahame's choice, and the excellence of his intention will scarce atone for the futility of his execution. The Rural Calendar, The Birds of Scotland, and The Sabbath (1803), his chef d'œuvre, are conventional, ineffective, and tedious. But he deserves a niche in the Caledonian Temple of fame for the following exquisite example of the genuine "poetic diction," culled from his versified ornithology:—
Within the fabric rude
Or e'er the new moon waxes to the full
The assiduous dam eight spotted spheroids sees.
Few poets have surpassed this elegant periphrasis for eggs. The last of the "classical" Anglo-Scottish poets who need be mentioned is Robert Pollok (1798-1827), a native of Renfrewshire, who become a Seceder Minister. The Course of Time (1827) enjoyed great renown in its day. John Wilson greeted it with loud applause; and the moral lessons it inculcates were justly thought to be beyond exception. But all its choice passages—even the once celebrated screed on Byron—are of no significance for the present generation; and Pollok, for us, is merely one of the not insignificant band of his countrymen who with indomitable perseverance have confronted the obstacles presented by narrow means and humble circumstances, only to perish in the very moment when victory has been achieved.
In the Scottish vernacular verse of the eighteenth century we possess one of the happiest illustrations of what is called a "school" of poetry, culminating in the supreme achievement of an acknowledged and unsurpassed master. The members of the school were numerous, and were drawn from every class of the community and almost every part of the country. But there is a certain unity of tone and feeling, as well as of method and craftsmanship, in the work of all of them. None of them attempted to be "original" in the hackneyed sense of the word. Each tried to accommodate his effort to some old and well-proved convention. The new wine was put into old bottles, so to say; but the old bottles stood the strain. And from many men whom it would be affectation to class as great poets there emanated lyrics which only a practised and delicate sense or discrimination can distinguish from the writing of men whose pre-eminence it were no less affectation to dispute. The rhythms, the metres, the manner which had been established as the invariable concomitants of Scots poetry upwards or two centuries before, were once more summoned to the poet's aid; and "emulation" (an almost technical term with Burns in discussing his art) accomplished what less judicious and well-regulated ambition had probably failed to perform.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century the religious or, rather, ecclesiastical gloom in which the Scots had been involved for a hundred years and more began to be dissipated. The nation had time to take breath, and to recall the "makaris" and singers in whom generations less sophisticated with theological subtleties had taken unaffected delight, and whose memory had never become wholly obliterated. The Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots poems both ancient and modern (1706-11) put forth by James Watson (d. 1722) doubtless met some public demand, and being, as its preface tells us, "the first of its nature which has been published in our own native Scots dialect," it marks the beginning of a vigorous revival of interest in the poetry of the vernacular. The contents of the work are extremely varied. They embrace many English pieces, like Montrose's verse, Sir George Mackenzie's Caelia's Country-house and Closet, and Colonel Cleland's Halloo my Fancie, whither wilt thou go?; macaronics like Drummond's Polemo-Middinia; and Scots poems like Montgomerie's The Cherry and the Slae, and Christis Kirk on the Green. The most valuable and interesting ingredients of the miscellany, however, are Sempill's Piper of Kilbarchan and Sanny Brigs; Hamilton of Gilbertfield's Bonny Heck; the octosyllabics on the old theme of the fashionable extravagances of the age, entitled The Speech of a Fife Laird; and, above all, the Blyth-some Bridal, a jingle of rare spirit and gusto. The following catalogue of typical Scots "vivers" might well be set for translation and paraphrase in schools where such exercises are indulged in:—
Of this lyric, as of The Barring of the Door, Leader Haughs and Yarrow, Maggie Lauder, Maggie's Tocher, My Jo Janet, Toddlin' Hame, and a host of other pieces, the origin and date are unknown, or, at best, uncertain. As in the case of the ballads, already discussed, we may be pretty sure that they did not spring automatically from a common artistic consciousness, or unconsciousness, but that some one man was originally responsible for bringing them into the world. As they flew viva per ora virum, they became modified according to the intelligence and taste of the transmitter. Sometimes they were improved, sometimes they suffered, in the process. But of none perhaps can we positively say that we possess the text in the state in which it left the author's hands, and, in point of fact, many have been touched up deliberately and not by accident. It was the Scots tradition to seize upon some snatch of ancient song and write a new poem up to and about it. The method had its advantages and its drawbacks. Some of those who practised it (not very many, be it said) were tasteless botchers. The greatest of all the vampers was a genius, whose touch transformed the poorest dross into gold. If we consider the fate of Auld Lang Syne we see the best and the worst of the system. In Watson's Collection we find an Anglicised version, possibly by Sir Robert Ayton, which is respectable but not much more:—
Allan Ramsay caught the hint, and turned out something even more frigid and uninspiring:—
Finally came "the immortal exciseman," and what he made of it, even an Englishman may be supposed to know. So that, on the whole, when the drawbacks and the advantages of the tradition are weighed against one another, it is by no means clear that we have not come off a good deal better than we should have done had the primitive texts descended to us in all their purity, and the Scots poets betaken themselves to the discovery of new modes of expression.
Watson was excellent, so far as he went. But the collections which did for the songs of Scotland what Tom Durfey had done for those of England, and a great deal more, were the work of Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), a native of Leadhills, in Lanarkshire, who became first a barber and periwig-maker and afterwards a bookseller in Edinburgh. The contents of his Evergreen (1724) are chiefly derived from the Bannatyne MS. (supra p. 207), and consist of old poems like Christis Kirk on the Green, The Thistle and the Rose, Robeno and Makyne, and so forth. The Tea-table Miscellany (1724-40), on the other hand, exhibits the lyrical side of Scots poetry, and with all its faults is a most meritorious anthology. "Our Scots tunes," as Ramsay not unjustly says, "have an agreeable gaiety and natural sweetness that make them acceptable wherever they are known, not only among ourselves, but in other countries." Accordingly he set himself, with the assistance of certain "ingenious young gentlemen," to provide sets of verses, modelled more or less closely upon those handed down by tradition, which should be not unworthy of the airs with which they were to be conjoined. The "ingenuity" of the editor and his subordinates may sometimes have been misplaced, and their zeal may have outrun discretion; but it cannot be doubted that Ramsay has preserved much for us that might otherwise have been irrevocably lost. And what is particularly noticeable in him is his fearless and confident assertion of the claims of the national muse. Foreign decorations and accessories are to be avoided. "The morning rises as she does in the Scottish horizon. We are not carried to Greece or Italy for a shade, a stream, or a breeze. The groves rise in our valleys, the rivers flow from our own fountains, and the winds blow upon our own hills." This is the very spirit of Burns.
Ramsay himself was the chief contributor to his Miscellany, and many of the specimens of his work—not perhaps, always the best—won great popularity. In merit, they vary considerably. Now and then he "tunes his lyre" to a purely English strain; but it is difficult to be enthusiastic over
Ye powers! was Damon then so blest
To fall to charming Delia's share?
Some of the most acceptable have been those which hit off a mean between poetical English and broad Scots. But he is in his most characteristic and felicitous lyrical vein when writing in the Doric. The success of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray (with which it is interesting to compare Genty Tibby and Sonsy Nelly—a different treatment of the same theme), of This is no my ain house, of The Lass of Patie's Mill, and of For the sake of somebody is not surprising or undeserved. As a favourable illustration of his capabilities, I submit three stanzas of The Young Laird and Edinburgh Katy, merely premising that here, as in the rest of Ramsay's lyrical triumphs, it is impossible to state precisely how much is his and how much the work of some vates ignotus.
There is here true, if not very profound, feeling; and we are conscious of the presence of that simple, yet resolute, determination to extract from life every drop of pleasure it can afford which is so persistent a note in Scottish poetry, and which Ramsay himself so frankly inculcates in the following lines:—
It is the philosophy of Burns, except in his hours of remorse.
The volume of Allan Ramsay's original poetry, apart from song-writing, is considerable, and we may say of him, as he says of John Cowper, that
He was right nacky in his way,
And eydent baith be night and day.
His English poems, which include a number of so-called odes and elegies, are of little interest and significance, when they are not positively bad. Health and The Morning Interview, both in rhymed heroics, are the result of injudicious "emulation" of Pope, and little instruction or amusement can be derived from Tartana; or the Plaid, in which he implores the Caledonian beauties "who have long been both the muse and subject of [his] song," to assist their bard,
who, in harmonious lays
Designs the glory of your plaid to raise.
Much better are his Fables (1722-30), in Scots octosyllabics, though he never attains the freedom and lightness of touch that distinguish the
Dear lad, wha linkan o'er the lee,
Sang Blowsalind and Bowzybee.
In the "familiar epistles" which passed between him and Hamilton of Gilbertfield in the Habbie Simson metre he not only gives his talents fairer play, but provides a model of which Burns was not slow to avail himself to admirable purpose. Two poems of heavier calibre and more ambitious design would of themselves have marked out Ramsay from the general run of Scottish "bards." The brace of cantos which he added to Christis Kirk on the Green (1716) are characteristic of one aspect of the age and of the race—grimy, squalid, and coarse; full of what is known as "realism," but lacking that touch of genius which a Burns might have supplied, and in whose absence the spirit of gaiety has evaporated, and mirth has sunk into gross and unredeemed buffoonery. The Gentle Shepherd (1725), which has generally been regarded as Ramsay's masterpiece, is much pleasanter reading than the Christis Kirk cantos, though it is difficult to classify. The work is, in truth, a curious blend of the mock-pastoral of Gay with the realistic-pastoral, if we may call it so, of Crabbe. Anomalous though the species be, the experiment is in the main successful. The mild burlesque of the conventional idyll with its Damons and Phyllises that runs through the poem mingles very happily with the pictures of Scottish peasant life, which, if some of its harsher features have been eliminated from the representation, is depicted with faithfulness and sympathy.
But to many judges it must always seem that the very cream of Ramsay's work is to be found in his vernacular pieces, on some topic of purely local or personal interest, which the genius of the author has so handled as to raise it out of the parochial and particular into the region of the artistic and universal. When treating such themes Ramsay's metre is that of Habbie Simson, except in the cases in which he employs that of The Cherry and the Sale. But he handles both with equal firmness and dexterity. Here are a couple of stanzas from The Poet's Wish, in which stands revealed a "gausie" shopkeeping Scots Horace, but a Horace, notwithstanding:—
In the same measure are the humorous Address to the Town Council of Edinburgh, praying them to suppress the piracy of the author's works by the street ballad-vendors, and The Vision, a poem in a loftier strain, which he in vain endeavoured to palm off as a genuine antique in the Evergreen.
In the less complicated and shorter stanza to which I have referred we have a quartette of Elegies; on Maggy Johntoun, who kept an alehouse at Bruntsfield links, on Lucky Wood, who kept a tavern in the Canongate, on Patie Birnie, "the famous fiddler of Kinghorn," and on John Cowper, the...
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A. M. Oliver
SOURCE: "The Scottish Augustans," in Scottish Poetry: A Critical Survey, edited by James Kinsley, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1955, pp. 119-49.
[In the following essay, Oliver discusses eighteenth-century Scottish poetry written in English, faulting its didacticism and conventionality, and praising its original treatment of supernatural themes.]
The eighteenth-century Scots who wrote English verse, but little or no verse in Scots, are described conveniently by the title of this [essay]—conveniently, but inaccurately. In the sense in which Horace or Pope was Augustan, in poise, clear self-knowledge and serene self-esteem, in mastery...
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SOURCE: "The Scottish Ballads," in The Scots Literary Tradition: An Essay in Criticism, second edition, Faber & Faber, 1962, pp. 131-141.
[A former lecturer at the University of Exeter, Speirs has written a number of studies of poetry, including books on Medieval poetry and Chaucer. In the following essay, originally published in the first edition of The Scots Literary Tradition (1940), Speirs discusses the folk tradition in relation to Scottish Ballad poetry.]
As we have them in the Collections, the Scottish Ballads are poems chiefly of the eighteenth century. That they are quite different from other poems of that...
(The entire section is 2945 words.)
H. J. C. Grierson
SOURCE: "The Problem of the Scottish Poet," in Essays and Studies, Vol. XXI, 1936, pp. 105-23.
[Formerly a professor of English and rector at the University of Edinburgh, Grierson wrote and edited a number of books on Sir Walter Scott. In the following excerpt, Grierson discusses the limited role of the Scottish dialect since the eighteenth century and asserts that Burns and Scott were the last representatives of a genuine Scottish poetic tradition.]
Throughout the seventeenth, the eighteenth, and even part of the nineteenth century the cultured, educated Scot spoke, among his fellow Scots, his Scottish vernacular; but if he...
(The entire section is 24536 words.)
T. C. Smout
SOURCE: "The Golden Age of Scottish Culture: Poetry and Novels," in A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969, pp. 489-500.
[A professor of Scottish history at the University of St. Andrews, Smout has written several important historical studies of Scotland, including Scottish Trade on the Eve of the Union, 1660-1707 (1963) and (with I. Levitt) The State of the Scottish Working Class in 1843 (1979). In the following excerpt, Smout discusses the culmination and subsequent decline of Scottish poetry.]
Why should Scottish imaginative literature of the eighteenth century … beat up to a...
(The entire section is 2607 words.)
Buchan, John. "Certain Poets: Scots Vernacular Poetry." In Homilies and Recreations, pp. 261-72. 1926. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Chronicles the evolution of Scots, focusing on its revival and preservation in eighteenth-century Scottish literature and its subsequent deterioration.
Craig, David. Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680-1830. London: Chatto & Windus, 1961, 340 p.
Cross-disciplinary "'social history' of literature" exploring especially the cultural environment that produced the vernacular revival.
(The entire section is 334 words.)