Allan Ramsay Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.