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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

§ 9. His earlier productions and The Gentle Shepherd

But, by his two cantos added to Christis Kirk, one to an edition which he published in 1716 and the other to a second edition in 1718, Ramsay claimed much more serious attention as a vernacular bard. There was a certain presumption in his thus seeking to link his name with this fine old classic, and the experiment was not justified by the character of his success; for neither was his poetic training nor genius, if genius, as Burns affirmed, he had, akin to that of the author—the supposed royal author—of the ancient poem, nor was the Edinburgh or Scotland of Ramsay’s day precisely similar to the rude undisciplined Scotland of the fifteenth century; but, nevertheless, his descriptions have the merit of being graphically and literally representative of the tone and manners of the common people of his own time; and the constant play of humour that pervades them partly atones for their excessive squalidity. In several of his fables and tales, he further showed himself master of a lighter, and, generally, quite irreproachable, vein of comic humour, and The Monk and the Miller’s Wife is a wonderfully good modern travesty of The Freiris of Berwick. Whether or not he had any similar antique original for The Vision, his own description of it—as “compylit in Latin by a most lernit clerk in Tyme of our Hairship and oppression, anno 1300, and translatit in 1524”—is, manifestly, fictitious. It seems rather to be a kind of Jacobite effusion, voicing the general discontent at the union and its consequences. Written in the stave of The Cherrie and the Slae, it also gives evidence of the results of Ramsay’s fuller acquaintance with the works of the old “makaris” through the perusal of them in the Banatyne MS., and, here and there, they seem to have inspired him with the courage to attempt poetic flights rather beyond the common scope of his vernacular muse, although his low comedy genius occasionally plays havoc with his more ambitiously imaginative descriptions.

But Ramsay’s crowning poetical achievement is, probably, the pastoral drama entitled The Gentle Shepherd. Here, his comic vein is generally restrained within the bounds of propriety, the pervading tone of the poem being lightly humorous. Yet, notwithstanding a certain stilted artificiality borrowed from English eighteenth century models, nature and reality on the whole triumph, and, if he depicts rustic life robbed of its harshness and of many of its more vulgar and grosser features, his idealisation is of a kind quite legitimate in art.