Robert Fergusson 1750–1774
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.
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.
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.
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."