Eighteenth-Century Scottish Poetry Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.