Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 10. Difficulty of estimating his Originality; His treatment of the Old Songs; The Tea-Table Miscellany and The Evergreen

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIV. Scottish Popular Poetry before Burns

§ 10. Difficulty of estimating his Originality; His treatment of the Old Songs; The Tea-Table Miscellany and The Evergreen

As a lyrist, his actual achievements are a little difficult to appraise, for it is impossible to know precisely how much of the several songs he contributed to The Miscellany was his own, how much that of the original author’s; but, from what we do know of certain of them, it is plain that he had no claim whatever to gifts as an amender or transformer bearing any distant similarity to those of Burns. In fact, in “purifying” the old songs, he generally transmuted them into very homely and ordinary productions; and, while preserving some of the original spirit of the more humorous among them, the more romantic and emotional appear to have suffered not a little from his lack of ardent feeling and high poetic fancy. This, for example, is very evident in his transmutation of the pathetic ballad of Bessy Bell and Marie Gray into a very commonplace semi-sentimental, semi-comic song, as thus:

  • Dear Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,
  • Ye unco sair oppress us:
  • Our fancies gae between you twae,
  • Ye are sic bonney lasses.
  • Commonplace, truth to tell, is the dominating note of all his songs, though, in the best of them, My Peggy is a young thing, it appears, by some happy chance, in a guise of tender simplicity that completely captivates. He never did anything in lyric verse to compare with it. True, Lochaber no more may be instanced as, at least in parts, much superior to this simple ditty; but it is by no means so faultless: indeed, it seems to deteriorate with each succeeding stanza, and the peculiar pathetic beauty that gleams through its defects it may owe to an original now lost; while it is at least worth mention that, in a note on Lochaber in Johnson’s Museum, captain Riddell states: “The words here given to Lochaber were composed by an unfortunate fugitive on account of being concerned in the affair of 1715”; and, if the song be by Ramsay, he could hardly have hit on such a theme without some special poetic suggestion. The more purely English lyrics attained to great vogue in “Mary’bone” gardens and similar haunts; and he was one of the most popular song-writers of his day in England as well as Scotland. His more ambitious English verse cannot be said to merit much attention. While the mere versification is fluent and faultless, he has succeeded in aping rather the poetic offences than the excellences of his eighteenth century models. Even his satires, when he had recourse to English, almost lost their sting. His Scribblers lashed, for example, is a very poor imitation of Pope. Again, his elegies on the great, throughout in stately English, are woefully stilted productions and compare badly with his robust and animated vernacular productions, as witness that on Lady Margaret Anstruther, which begins thus:
  • All in her bloom, the graceful fair
  • Lucinda leaves this mortal round.
  • Ramsay’s strong devotion to literature and his increasing poetic repute, combined with the acquaintance he had formed in the Easy club—access to which he owed, presumably, rather to his “auld descent” than to his business prosperity, but of which he was, later, chosen poet-laureate—with various learned and intellectual Edinburgh citizens, suggested to him, in 1719, to abandon the wigmaking trade for that of a bookseller. He also started a circulating library, lending out books at a penny a night: not the old theological treatises which had hitherto formed the main intellectual pabulum of the burgher Scot, but what Wodrow, in a woeful private lament, terms, “all the villainous, profane and obscene books as printed in London.” Ramsay, certainly, was not squeamish in his tastes; but, by his courageous defiance of the narrow puritanism of his time, he effectually removed the old Scottish ban on secular English literature and did more, perhaps, than any other man to further the intellectual revival of which, towards the close of the century, Edinburgh became the centre. Apart from this, by the publication of his own verse, of The Tea-Table Miscellany (1724–32), and of The Evergreen (1724)—a selection of the verse of the old “makaris” obtained chiefly from the Bannatyne MS.—he disseminated a love of song and verse among the people, both high and low, which, consummated by the advent of Burns, still remains a marked characteristic of Scotland. How utterly “the good old bards of Scotland,” as Ramsay terms them, had been forgotten, is witnessed in his introduction to The Evergreen. Writing of them as if they had belonged to a remote age or a distant foreign land, he says: “It was intended that an account of the authors of the following collection should be given, but not being furnished with such distinct information as could be wished for that end, at present, the design is delayed,” etc. To have been the first to seek to do justice to these forgotten masters in verse is a sufficient title on Ramsay’s part to the permanent gratitude of his countrymen; but, in addition, his work as a literary pioneer in the combined capacity of writer, editor, publisher and librarian was, largely because of the literary dearth of the preceding century in Scotland, of far greater importance than that of many with whose literary achievements his own can bear no comparison.