Robert Fergusson Essay - Critical Essays

Fergusson, Robert


Robert Fergusson 1750–1774

Scottish poet.

The following entry contains criticism published from 1897 through 1992.

Known chiefly for his poems employing the forms, subjects, and language of his native Scots, Fergusson is widely recognized as the most influential predecessor of Scotland's most famous poet, Robert Burns.

Biographical Information

Fergusson was born in Edinburgh in 1750, the youngest of four children. His father earned a modest income as a clerk-copyist. Fergusson received an early education from his parents and a tutor, and in 1758 he enrolled in Edinburgh High School, where he received a strong classical education. He then transferred to the Grammar School of Dundee, where he obtained a scholarship which also entitled him to four years of support at the University of St. Andrews. Following the death of his father, Fergusson left school without taking a degree in order to help his mother. In 1769, he took the position of copyist in an Edinburgh law firm, where he earned a meager salary. He found his employment tedious, but became active in the cultural life of Edinburgh during this time. A friendship with the famous opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci led to the performance of three pastoral songs composed by Fergusson in the opera Artaxerxes at the Edinburgh theatre. Fergusson's first published poetry appeared in 1771 in the Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement, a publication for which he became a regular contributor. While his early poems were written in conventional English verse forms, the 1772 publication of "The Daft Days" marked the beginning of a series of poems written in the Scottish vernacular. Fergusson's familiarity with both the common people and the cultural elite of Edinburgh enhanced the local color and realism of his works. His first book of poetry, Poems by Robert Fergusson, appeared in 1773, followed by the long poem Auld Reikie, published in the same year. In 1774, however, Fergusson fell seriously ill with a nervous disorder associated with his congenitally weak constitution and the effects of alcohol and what may have been an advancing case of syphilis. His condition became critical following a fall down a flight of stairs, from which he suffered a concussion. He was subsequently confined for a brief period to the "Schelles," the Edinburgh asylum, where he died soon after his twenty-fourth birthday.

Major Works

Although generally considered inferior to his verse written in the Scots language, critics have observed that some of Fergusson's early English-language poems such as "An Eclogue," reveal a unique use of humor, dialogue, characterization, and natural description. These qualities were further developed in the Scots vernacular poems that secured Fergusson's reputation. Characterized by conviviality, wit, local color, realism, and linguistic facility, many of the vernacular poems are occasional. "The Daft Days," for example, describes life in Edinburgh during the holidays between Christmas and the New Year. "Caller Oysters," another noted vernacular poem, celebrates the fresh oysters which were consumed in the Edinburgh taverns and surrounding countryside. In his vernacular poems, Fergusson frequently employed the six-line stanza form known as the "Standard Habbie," which was also used by Ramsay. Other forms successfully adapted by Fergusson were heroic couplets in "An Eclogue, to the Memory of Dr. William Wilkie," and the nine-stanza "Christis Kirk" form in "Hallow Fair." Widely considered one of Fergusson's best works, the long poem Auld Reikie is written in octosyllabic couplets. This work chronicles a week in the city of Edinburgh, vividly describing the shops, markets, taverns, clubs, and diverse characters that move through the streets. Another of Fergusson's landmark poems is "The Farmer's Ingle," which uses a nine-line Spenserian stanza to depict a small farm household, evoking the traditional lifestyle and language of the Scottish countryside.

Critical Reception

Despite his popularity, Fergusson received little critical attention during his lifetime and immediately following his death. This lack of critical response has been attributed to the brevity of his career, the popularity of his immediate successor, Robert Burns, and his resistance to the dominant literary style of his era. James A. Roy commented: "By remaining a realist and a satirist at a time when sentiment was the fashion and by insisting on writing in the vernacular, "Fergusson missed the way that led to recognition by the literary élite of his country." Fergusson has predominantly been viewed by critics as either an "unrealized possibility," or an important transition figure who served as a link between the achievements of Ramsay and those of Burns. Recent decades have witnessed increasing attention to the originality and skill of Fergusson's writings, and the extent of his important influence on Robert Burns. Many agree with A.M. King-horn and Alexander Law, who commented that "without Fergusson, more fertile in original conceptions, Burns would not have found the forms that … made him Scotland's national poet."

Principal Works

Poems by Robert Fergusson (poetry) 1773

Auld Reikie: A Poem (poetry) 1773

Poems on Various Subjects: Part II (poetry) 1779

The Unpublished Poems of Robert Fergusson (poetry) 1955


Henry MacArthur (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "Robert Fergusson," in Realism and Romance and Other Essays, 1897. Reprint by Kennikat Press, 1970, pp. 204-25.

[In the following excerpt, MacArthur briefly discusses Fergusson's strengths and weaknesses as a poet and compares his work with that of Robert Burns.]

In our estimate of Fergusson's poetry his English pieces do not count. 'These English songs,' said Burns, 'gravel me to death,' and it is easy to imagine Fergusson saying the same thing.

That is a measure of Fergusson's English performance; and for most people it will be quite enough. Clearly, had Fergusson written always in this fashion, one would not be talking of him at this time of day. Indeed, if there is one thing more than another specially noticeable in Fergusson, it is the rich feast of the Doric which in every one of his best poems he sets before us. Such phrases as 'gust your gab' and 'weet your thrapple' ought to be dear to the heart of every patriotic Scot, and of such phrases Fergusson is full. Not Burns himself has a greater command over the resources of our kindly Scots tongue. If we valued our poets in proportion to the difficulty which the base Southron finds in reading their works, then would Fergusson be elevated far above Burns. Without going quite so far as that, one has a certain malicious satisfaction in trying to guess what one who has the misfortune not to be a Scotsman would make of this address "To the Tron-Kirk Bell":—

This familiar way of treating the august personage referred to is, I think, very characteristic of our Scots poets. And the reason seems clear. It is not hard to hate the Devil, but, in spite of yourself, you cannot but have a friendly, neighbourly sort of feeling for one whom you call, familiarly, the Deil.

Fergusson has been called the Laureate of Old Edinburgh, and the title is richly deserved. There he had been born, there he spent most of his life,...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

W. J. Courthope (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: "Democracy and Lyric Poetry, Scottish and English," in A History of English Poetry, Vol. VI, Macmillan & Co., 1910, pp. 52-83.

[In the following excerpt, Courthope briefly summarizes Fergusson's poetic achievement, focusing on his use of the Scots vernacular.]

Fergusson, like Ramsay, wrote both in literary English and in the vernacular. The former class of his poems comprises Odes, Pastorals, Elegies, Mock-heroics, in all of which the predominant influence of the Classical Renaissance is not less plainly visible than is the imitation of such English writers as Collins, Gray, and Shenstone. In many of his "Scots Poems" there is also an unmistakable English...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Sir George Douglas (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: "Robert Fergusson," in Scottish Poetry: Drum-mond of Hawthornden to Fergusson, James Maclehose & Sons, 1911, pp. 157-93.

[In the following excerpt, Douglas discusses the artistic temperament evidenced by Fergusson's life and poetry.]

It was in 1771, at the age of twenty, that [Fergusson] contributed his English Pastorals: "Morning," "Noon," and "Night," to an Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, conducted by a son of that Dr. Ruddiman who had been one of Allan Ramsay's first patrons. These pastorals, deft and pretty though they be, are obviously the work of a writer who as yet has nothing to say. But his apprenticeship to poetry was brief. Next year he published "The...

(The entire section is 2359 words.)

A. Montgomerie Bell (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "Robert Fergusson, 1750-1774," in The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. LV, No. 326, 1923, pp. 179-88.

[In the following excerpt, Bell offers an overview of Fergusson 's life and career and comments on some of the poems that established the poet's reputation.]

Robert Fergusson, the Scottish poet, was born in Edinburgh on September 5, 1750, and died in the same city on October 16, 1774; a brief life, yet worthy of long remembrance. His parents, William Fergusson and Elizabeth Forbes, both children of the farm-house, in 1746 left Tarland in Aberdeenshire, and settled in the metropolis, where William Fergusson showed considerable business capacity, and, after a hard...

(The entire section is 3249 words.)

James A. Roy (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Robert Fergusson and Eighteenth-Century Scotland," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 2, January, 1948, pp. 179-89.

[Roy is a Scottish critic and educator. In the following excerpt, he argues that Fergusson's critical reception was impeded by his use of satire and traditional Scottish dialect during "an age when sentimentalism was the vogue."]

Fergusson made his first appearance as an author by contributing three songs to the opera Artaxerxes, which was a translation of Metastasio's work of that name. The English version, which was produced at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, in 1769, was a miserable travesty of the original, and...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)

Herbert J. C. Grierson and J. C. Smith (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: "The Revival of Scottish Poetry," in A Critical History of English Poetry, Chatto & Windus, 1947. Reprint by Chatto & Windus, 1965, pp. 263-67.

[A Scottish critic and educator, Grierson was considered a leading authority on Milton, Donne, and Scott. In the following excerpt from A Critical History of English Poetry, originally published in 1944, Grierson and Smith offer a brief summary of Fergusson's contribution to the Scottish literary tradition.]

Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) wrote no songs in Scots, but in other forms of poetry he has left a body of work remarkable in one who died so young…. In poetry other than song Fergusson is the chief...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Allan H. MacLaine (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Robert Fergusson's Auld Reikie and the Poetry of City Life," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2, October, 1963, pp. 99-110.

[MacLaine is a Canadian critic who specializes in Scottish poetry. In the following excerpt, he discusses Fergusson's description of eighteenth-century Edinburgh in "Auld Reikie," comparing the style and form of the poem with that of John Gay's "Trivia."]

The most famous poem in British literature devoted wholly to description of city life is John Gay's Trivia. But this fascinating work stands by no means alone; rather it is representative of a vast body of little-known poetry in this genre, extending from the...

(The entire section is 5032 words.)

Allan H. MacLaine (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Fergusson and the Tradition," and "Fergusson and Burns: Conclusion," in Robert Fergusson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965, pp. 15-21, 152-63.

[In the following excerpt, MacLaine offers an overview of the Scots poetic tradition and discusses Fergusson's place in the Scots poetic revival of the eighteenth century, summarizing his achievement "from both the historical and purely literary points of view. "]

The Scots Poetic Tradition:

When Robert Fergusson burst upon the literary scene of Scotland in the 1770's, the native poetic tradition was in a rather precarious state. In the early part of the century, a group of writers and editors, led...

(The entire section is 5556 words.)

Alexander Manson Kinghorn (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to Poems by Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, edited by A. M. Kinghorn and A. Law, Rowman & Littlefield, 1974, pp. vii-xxxiv.

[An English critic, Kinghorn is widely considered an authority on Scottish poetry. In the following excerpt, he and Law, a Scottish writer who co-edited with Kinghorn The Works of Allan Ramsay (1961-74), discuss Fergusson's innovative use of language and poetic form, praising "his ability to associate language and locale in unexpected ways."]

Fergusson did not live long enough to attract attention outside his immediate circle, which was unlucky, since it is unlikely that he would have long remained...

(The entire section is 2712 words.)

David Daiches (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Chapter III," in Robert Fergusson, Scottish Academic Press, 1982, pp. 39-110.

[Daiches is an English critic. In the following excerpt, he offers a chronological discussion of Fergusson's poetry, with a view to describing the poet's artistic development.]

On 7 February 1771 The Weekly Magazine printed anonymously the first of three pastoral poems, entitled respectively "Morning", "Noon" and "Night". The latter two appeared in the issues of the 14th and 21st, and they were all anonymous. But the first had an introductory note by Walter Ruddiman: "We have been favoured with three Pastorals, under the titles of Morning, Noon and Night, written by a young...

(The entire section is 10953 words.)

Jerry O'Brien (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Sonsie Muse: The Satiric Use of Neoclassical Diction in the Poems of Robert Fergusson," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XIX, 1984, pp. 165-76.

[In the following excerpt, O'Brien discusses Fergusson's satirical use of neoclassical conventions in his pastoral verse.]

Modern criticism of Scots literature has provided us with many fine studies on the poetry of Robert Fergusson. Among the revelations disclosed, the influence of Fergusson's Scots poems on the imagination of Robert Burns is of great significance. We know now with certainly that Burns's discovery of Fergusson's poems toward the latter part of 1784 marked the turning point in the...

(The entire section is 2421 words.)

Alan T. McKenzie (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Two 'Heads Weel Pang'd Wi' Lear': Robert Fergusson, Samuel Johnson, and St. Andrews," in Scottish Literary Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, December, 1984, pp. 25-35.

[In the following excerpt, McKenzie discusses Fergusson's satirical verse epistle, "To the Principal and Professors of the University of St Andrews on their Superb Treat to Samuel Johnson," in which Fergusson expressed his resentment of English influence over Scottish literature].

On August 19th, 1773 the eight Professors at the University of St Andrews entertained two distinguished visitors with what one of the visitors later called 'a very good dinner' and the other described as 'all the elegance of...

(The entire section is 2228 words.)

F. W. Freeman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Substitute Life (City)," in Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist Compromise, Edinburgh University Press, 1984, pp. 123-78.

[In the following excerpt, Freeman discusses the political views that influenced Fergusson's poetry, characterizing Fergusson as a resolute Scots Tory, Jacobite and nationalist who was often "openly anti-England, Hanover, and Whig," and a "most uncompromisingly political poet."]

When the Scots humanist pondered the nation that Scotland had become after the ousting of the Stewarts, the eclipse of the older religions and the church hierarchy, the dissolution of the Scots parliament, the severance of old continental alliances, and the...

(The entire section is 12024 words.)

F. W. Freeman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Robert Fergusson: Pastoral and Politics at Mid Century," in The History of Scottish Literature: 1660-1800, Vol. 2, edited by Andrew Hook, Aberdeen University Press, 1987, pp. 141-56.

[In the following excerpt, Freeman discusses Fergusson's defense of Scottish traditions that were threatened by radical social change during the eighteenth century, observing that his poems oppose themes of "shelter, nature, pastoral," and "artifice, false appearance, counterpastoral."]

Robert Fergusson, whom Burns pronounced 'By far, my elder brother in the Muses', Wordsworth greatly admired, and Scott, Stevenson, Muir and MacDiarmid, recognized as one of the foremost of Scottish...

(The entire section is 2439 words.)

A. M. Kinghorn (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Watson's Choice, Ramsay's Voice and a Flash of Fergusson," in Scottish Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2, November, 1992, pp. 5-23.

[In the following excerpt, Kinghorn praises Fergusson's use of language, and asserts that the poet's critical reception was impeded during his lifetime by widespread prejudice against the Scots vernacular.]

In comparison [with the poet Allan Ramsay], Fergusson was neglected, though with him and through him literary Scots assumed a comparatively stable form, the more familiar 'Lallans' used by Burns and his imitators. Analysis shows that it was rooted chiefly in the vernacular of Edinburgh with some additions from older Scots and...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

Further Reading


"Fergusson, Tannahill, and Pollock." In Dublin University Magazine LXXXVIII, No. DXXIV (July, 1934): 324-25.

Offers a descriptive interpretation of Fergusson's life and artistic sensibility.

Grosart, Alexander B. Famous Scots Series: Robert Fergusson. Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1898, 160 p.

Discusses Fergusson's life, career, and works. Considered by some critics to be a well-researched biography of occasionally questionable accuracy.


MacLaine, Allan H. "The Christis...

(The entire section is 186 words.)