Eighteenth-Century Scottish Poetry
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
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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...
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The Scottish Augustans
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 of technique and consummate propriety of expression, in a word, in classical perfection, there are no Scottish Augustans. Nor are there many English. The eighteenth-century critics were the first to note the unsatisfactory character of eighteenth-century poetry:
Johnson voices Gray's lament more temperately, but no less decisively [in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1904)]: 'There was no poetry, nothing that towered above the common mark.' The nineteenth century, reacting violently, disliked its predecessor without much discrimination. The more dispassionate and painstaking studies of our own time modify the familiar picture, here and there, in detail, but leave it essentially unchanged. One emerges from an open-minded...
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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 century may at first occasion surprise, but has its explanation. On the other hand it has been denied (by the primitivists) that they are poems of that century at all. It has been argued that there is no reason to suppose they did not come into being centuries earlier than the century in which they were written down. It has also been observed that a good deal of the 'material' used is 'medieval'. But a poem and the language it is in are one and the same. Translated, it either becomes a new poem or ceases to be a poem at all. It is sufficient therefore to point to the language the ballads are in, which in most cases is at the point of development it was in the eighteenth century. (This is not merely a matter of language, but of sensibility. The...
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The Scots Vernacular Revival
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 wrote—philosophy, history, theology, poetry, economics, whatever the theme—he wrote in English. The position today is reversed. He speaks English, a northern English certainly, lingua inglese in bocca scozzese (unless early education or social ambition has further polished and disguised his speech), but he may, if he is literary, compose verses in Scots or write a novel of Scottish life in which the dialogues are in Scots or in what passes as Scots. The late Professor Mair wrote Scots poems no better if no worse than those of many others. His Greek renderings of some Scots poems are, or seem, better than the originals.
The interaction between the two varieties of one language, which is what they are, the standard...
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Scottish Poetry After Burns
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 crescendo of achievement and then break off into a silence broken only by staccato outbursts? This is a problem to which there is perhaps no simple answer, but traditions in poetry and fiction both appeared to lead into a cul-de-sac from which it was difficult to make further meaningful advance.
In poetry the cul-de-sac was a linguistic one. In the early sixteenth century practically the only medium for any kind of serious expression in prose or in poetry was the Scottish language, which was, in its vocabulary, its constructions and its rhythms plainly distinct from English, though allied to it closely enough for a Scotsman and an Englishman to converse without an interpreter. Sixteenth-century Scottish was rather more...
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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.
Crawford, Thomas. "Scottish Popular Ballads and Lyrics of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: Some Preliminary Conclusions." Studies in Scottish Literature 1, No. 1 (July 1963): 49-63.
Surveys Scottish manuscripts, broadsides, and songbooks of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to explore the popular song of Scotland during that time.
Cunningham, Allan. The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern. 1825. Reprint. 4 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1975.
Four-volume anthology of Scottish poetry, including an extensive introduction and critical discussion of Scotland's major poets from King James V to Sir...
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