Allan Ramsay Essay - Critical Essays

Ramsay, Allan


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.

Principal Works

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


John Pinkerton (essay date 1786)

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 his poems, and which we all know he bore in private life; and from Allan's total ignorance of the Scotish tongue, save that spoken by the mob of Mid Lothian. It is well known that a comic actor of the Shuter or Edwin class, though highly meritorious in his line, yet, were he to appear in any save queer characters, the effect would even be more ludicrous than when he was in his proper parts, from the contrast of the man with his assumed character. This applies also to authors; for Sterne's sermons made us laugh, though there was nothing laughable in them: and, had Rabelais,...

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The Scots Magazine (essay date 1797)

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...

(The entire section is 1099 words.)

Alexander Fraser Tytler (essay date 1800)

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...

(The entire section is 7649 words.)

Leigh Hunt (essay date 1848)

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...

(The entire section is 1231 words.)

J. Logie Robertson (essay date 1886)

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...

(The entire section is 3130 words.)

John Veitch (essay date 1887)

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...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)

T. F. Henderson (essay date 1910)

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...

(The entire section is 1428 words.)

J. W. Mackail (essay date 1924)

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...

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Burns Martin (essay date 1931)

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...

(The entire section is 2576 words.)

David Daiches (essay date 1955)

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...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)

Alexander M. Kinghorn (essay date 1970)

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...

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Alexander M. Kinghorn (essay date 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 2963 words.)

Thomas Crawford (essay date 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 6174 words.)

Carol McGuirk (essay date 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 4306 words.)

Allan H. MacLaine (essay date 1985)

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...

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Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 353 words.)