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.)