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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

§ 6. Robert Sempill and The Life and Death of Habbie Simson

Meanwhile, the old poetic methods of the “makaris” had been preserved or revived by Robert Sempill, of Beltrees, Renfrewshire, in his eulogy of the village piper of Kilbarchan, Habbie Simson. Sempill has also been speculatively credited with the authorship of Maggie Lauder, on account of its mention of Habbie, but nothing is known of the song previous to its preservation by Herd, and it might just as well have been the work of Hamilton of Gilbertfield, the scene of whose Bonnie Heck, like that of Maggie Lauder, is laid in Fife. More probable is Sempill’s authorship of The Blythesome Bridal, which has also been attributed to his son Francis Sempill, author of a vernacular piece of no great merit, in the French octave, The Banishment of Povertie. The Blythesome Bridal, though a little rancid in its humour, is the cleverest of those seventeenth century pieces with the exception of Maggie Lauder. Its portrayal of the village worthies who went to the bridal, if more cynical than flattering, is terse and realistic: but the simple, semihumorous, semi-pathetic eulogy of the piper was to exercise a much more pregnant and permanent influence on the future of Scottish verse. Ramsay, in one of his poetical epistles, refers to it as “Standard Habbie,” and with even greater reason than it was possible for him to know, though he could hardly exaggerate what he himself owed to it as an exemplar for some of his most characteristic verse. It is written in a six-line stave in rime couée, built on two rimes, which can be traced back to the French troubadours, and was common in England in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The stave appears anonymously in the Bannatyne MS., but, possibly, was introduced into Scotland, not from France, at an early, but from England at a comparatively late, period, for Sir David Lyndsay is the earliest of the “makaris” who is known to have made use of it, though, after him, Montgomerie, Scott and Sir Richard Maitland all had recourse to it. Since it is the stave of one of the Gude and Godly Ballatis, and appeared, also, in Sir David Lyndsay’s Pleasant Satyre, Sempill’s knowledge of it is easy to explain; but it had never previously been employed for elegies, and to have recourse to it for this purpose was, on his part, if not an inspiration of genius, at least a very happy thought. If The Life and Death of Habbie Simson is but a moderately good achievement, it is hardly exaggeration to affirm that, but for it, the course of Scottish vernacular verse would, in certain almost cardinal respects, have been widely different from what it turned out to be. It set a fashion which was to dominate, in quite a singular way, its whole future. Not only were most future vernacular elegies—beginning with the epitaph of Sanny Briggs, the butler of the Sempills and Habbie’s nephew, which was either by Robert Sempill or his son Francis—modelled on it, generally down to the adoption of the refrain ending in “dead”; but the stave, which almost writes itself, proved peculiarly adapted for the Scoto-English which had become the prevailing speech in Scotland, and suitable for the expression of almost any variety of sentiment, from homely and familiar humour, the prevailing mood of the vernacular muse, to cutting satire, delicate, tender or highwrought emotion, graphic and impressive description, or moving appeal.