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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

§ 23. Robert Fergusson: his personality and poetic qualities

The succession of the Scottish bards of the revival anterior to Burns closes, as it began, with a signal personality, though it is that of a mere youth. The ill-fated Robert Fergusson died in a madhouse at the early age of twenty-four. At the age of fifteen, while a student at St. Andrews university—where he was more prominent for his pranks than for his scholarly bent—his dawning powers as a vernacular bard were manifested in an elegy, after the Habbie fashion, on professor David Gregory, which is really a production of a much keener and subtler wit than that of his early exemplars. The Elegy on John Hogg late Porter in St. Andrews University, besides affording us a curious glimpse of a phase of university life that has now vanished, is notable for its facile and rollicking humour; but it is of later date. The Death of Scots Music, a whimsical, exaggerated but sincere lament for the demise of M’Gibbon, the Edinburgh musician, is in a more poetic vein than either of the elegies just mentioned. It was, like Ramsay, as the bard of Edinburgh that Fergusson first won fame; but, unlike Ramsay, his main title to fame is in this capacity. Had he lived longer, he might have attained to some ease and freedom in English verse; though, as in the case of Burns, his environment, the cast of his genius, his latent predilection for the vernacular, and the foreign character which, to him as to many Scots of his time, seemed to belong to English speech, militate against this possibility. Be this as it may, in the short career that was to be his, he succeeded, like Burns, in depicting the scenes which he thoroughly knew, and expressing the thoughts and sentiments akin to his circumstances and to the life he led. Unlike Burns, he was, for this reason, an urban, more than a rustic, bard. The influence of a few months spent by him in early manhood with his uncle in the country is revealed in his odes To the Bee and The Gowdspink, delicately descriptive, humorous and faintly didactic, and in The Farmer’s Ingle, a picture of a winter evening in a farmhouse kitchen, sketched with perfect insight into the character of the life he depicts and with the full human sympathy essential to true creative art. But it was as the poet of “Auld Reekie, wale of ilka town” that he was to make his mark—not Auld Reekie as represented in its resorts of fashion, but as revealed in its tavern jollifications, street scenes and popular amusements on holidays and at fairs and races. The subject is not great or inspiring, but, such as it is, it is treated with insight and a power of verisimilitude that brings vividly before our imagination the modes and manners of the Edinburgh populace in the eighteenth century. Here, and, indeed, generally, he proved himself, as a vernacular bard, young though he was and short as was his career, superior to Ramsay. Fergusson’s wit is not so gross and it is more keenly barbed, his sympathetic appreciation is stronger, his survey is more comprehensive, his vernacular is racier, he has a better sense of style, he is more of a creative artist, and he is decidedly more poetic. He displayed the capacity of the Habbie stave for a variety of descriptive narrative as well as for elegies and epistles, and showed a mastery in its use beyond that of his predecessors, though two of his most racily descriptive and humorous pieces, Leith Races and The Hallow Fair, are in the stave of Christis Kirk, with a single refrain ending in “day.” Another Hallow Fair, modelled on Let us a’ to the Bridal, signally evinces the hearty merriment which was one of his inborn traits, though illhealth, irksome taskwork, poverty and irregular living clouded it soon with hopeless melancholy. The Farmer’s Ingle is written in a nine-line stave, formed by adding a line to the old alternatively riming octave; and his other staves are the octosyllabic and heroic couplets, which he also used for English verse. The most notable of his couplet pieces are Planestanes and Causeway—an imaginary night dialogue between these two entities, on which Burns modelled his night dialogue between the new and the old Brigs of Ayr—the picture of Auld Reekie, and The Bill of Fare, in which he makes Dr. Samuel Johnson the subject of his satire.

The verse of Fergusson is small in bulk; it lacks maturity of sentiment; here and there it shows patent faults and lapses. But the genuineness, the cleverness, the racy humour and vivid truthfulness of his art are beyond question: and his achievement, so far as concerns the portrayal of the Edinburgh that he knew, has a certain rounded completeness.