Robert Fergusson died in Edinburgh’s Bedlam on 17 October 1774. He was 24 years old. He had been admitted to the asylum three months before, against his will, because his mother could no longer look after him. Having been persuaded by some friends that he was being taken out in a sedan chair to visit another acquaintance, he was conveyed instead to a cell in the asylum, a sepulchrous building abutting the old city wall. On discovering the ruse, a contemporary biographer wrote, Fergusson went into a ‘frantic rage’, wailing hideously, and stirring up shrieks from the other wretched inmates. The same biographer liked to assert the relative tranquillity of his death, but there is little evidence that his last months were anything other than confused and tragic.
It’s been said since the early 19th century that Fergusson’s mental degeneration was attributable to syphilis, but his death was undoubtedly accelerated by a serious head injury, sustained in July 1774 when he fell downstairs after an evening out drinking with friends. He had been maudlin, depressed and given to religiosity in the preceding months, but by the time of the accident was showing signs of recovery. It is not necessary to read Fergusson’s life and, more important, his poems, as a narrative that leads remorselessly to its grim conclusion.
In the agitated weeks before his confinement Fergusson is thought to have burned his manuscripts. But between 1765 and the year of his death he had written more than a hundred poems, many published in Edinburgh’s Weekly Magazine, and a collection of nearly forty of them had been brought out in 1773 by Walter Ruddiman, the magazine’s publisher. Fergusson was never able to complete the long works he envisaged: he apparently had it in mind to translate Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics. He abandoned a (now lost) dramatic tragedy about William Wallace after two acts, and his best-known poem, ‘Auld Reekie’, was envisaged as a work in more cantos than the magnificent one and a bit that survive. Fergusson’s oeuvre, as we have it today, consists essentially of brilliant, occasional, often satirical, short poems.
These days Fergusson is most commonly treated as a Scottish poet, and a poet of Scots poetry. This is the tenor of the subtitle – ‘Robert Burns’s Favourite Scottish Poet’ – of ‘Heaven-Taught Fergusson’, a collection of essays and poems edited by Robert Crawford. It is also the tenor of many of the pieces in it. As Matthew Wickman puts it, in one of those weaselish generalities that suggest a lurking self-doubt, ‘most scholars believe his most significant poetic achievements are in Scots.’ In fact, the 1773 Poems begins with ‘Poems on Various Subjects’, 28 of them, all in English; this 84-page section is then followed by nine ‘Scots Poems’, taking 36 pages. And the volume finishes with ‘A Glossary, or explanation of the Scots Words contained in the foregoing Poems’. Fergusson and Ruddiman probably did this because they were looking for an English as well as a Scottish audience. They did not get much of one, but the demarcation of Fergusson’s English and Scottish poems continued after his death.
The 1779 edition of Fergusson’s poetry published by Walter and Thomas Ruddiman added poems in English and Scots to those included in 1773, but with the balance still in favour of those in English. It kept the division of English and Scots poems and added a section rather whimsically entitled ‘Posthumous Pieces’. By the time of the 1788 Perth edition, however, the value of Fergusson’s poetry in English seemed less clear. This edition was advertised as to be sold in Scotland and England, and put all Fergusson’s English poems together in its first part, but prefaced them with an apology: ‘The Publishers of this Collection, flatter themselves the insertion of the ENGLISH poems of Fergusson will be excused, as they wished to present the Reader with a complete copy of his Works.’ Two centuries later this editorial attitude had hardened: Kinghorn and Law’s 1974 edition of the poems of Allan Ramsay and Fergusson included only two of Fergusson’s English poems (and none of Ramsay’s); James Robertson’s Selected Poems, published in 2000, and the most accessible edition of Fergusson’s poetry in print, contains only four poems in English. The notable exception was Matthew McDiarmid’s complete edition (1954-56), in which the English and Scots poems are presented in integrated chronological order – but it is no longer in print.
The depreciation of Fergusson’s English writing has been fuelled by literary and linguistic nationalism. From early on, many Scottish commentators thought his work in English was no good: ‘His poems written in pure English . . . seldom rise above mediocrity,’ David Irving wrote in 1800, in his influential Lives of Scottish Authors. The prevailing view of Fergusson’s English work is well summarised by Susan Manning, in the best essay in Crawford’s volume, as ‘nugatory apprenticework’. Her view is that ‘our reading of Fergusson’s poetry is immensely impoverished if it does not comprehend his writing in English.’ Not many other contributors to ‘Heaven-Taught Fergusson’ seem to agree.
Some of Fergusson’s earlyish English pastoral poetry has a blandness which might seem to justify its neglect. But he wrote exuberantly ironising burlesque poems in English as well as in the Scottish idiom with which they are so strongly associated. He uses English for the wonderful ‘A Saturday’s Expedition (in mock heroics)’, a very funny account of a bunch of friends taking a boat-trip across the Forth from Leith to Kinghorn and back again from Inverkeithing, buoyed up on either shore by hard liquor, ‘Port, punch, rum, brandy, and Geneva strong’, and substantial meats, ‘with stomach full/ Of juicy beef, or mutton in its prime’. Midway the first repast is lost through ‘wat’ry sickness’:
yet the rocking bark,
Truly regardless of their precious food,
Converts their visage to the ghastly pale,
And makes the sea partaker of the sweets
On which they sumptuous far’d . . .
This poem is undiscussed by Crawford and his contributors. But overdoing it, being sick and starting all over again is a potent metaphor in Fergusson’s poetry for an attitude to life that courts calamity in order to gain zest from existence. As he puts it in the drinking-song ‘Hollo! Keep it up boys!’, another of his English poems (and similarly ignored in ‘Heaven-Taught Fergusson’):
How all things dance round me – ‘tis life tho’, my boys:
Of drinking and spewing how great are the joys!
Despite its attraction to such behaviour, Fergusson’s writing is far from unreflective or uncontrolled. His work is prompted by a sense of emptiness, loss, dispute or regret, which he likes to explore in dialogic poems: between shepherds, in his pastoral mode, but also between brandy and whisky, with a landlady adjudicating; between the Edinburgh pavement and the causeway; and between the ghosts of the Edinburgh philanthropists George Watson and George Heriot. Fergusson’s poetics are naturally dialogic, confidently mixing genres, styles, Scots and English. This is apparent in another mode Fergusson is drawn to, the elegiac, or, often, the mock-elegiac.
A striking number of the contributors to ‘Heaven-Taught Fergusson’ want to discuss Fergusson’s ‘Elegy, on the Death of Scots Music’. Douglas Dunn tells us that ‘spirited elegy, of a kind that trades more on celebration than mourning, is characteristic of the male Scottish mind.’ It takes a while to recover from the massiveness of that statement, and its inappropriateness to, say, Robin Cook, but it does identify something quintessential to Fergusson. I’m sure Dunn is right to reject ‘po-faced’ readings of the elegy, and to claim that it upholds the resilience of the Scots musical tradition even as it pronounces its demise:
O Scotland! that could yence afford
To bang the pith of Roman sword,
Winna your sons, wi’ joint accord,
To battle speed?
And fight till Music be restor’d,
Which now lies deid.
As Dunn and Manning argue, this is not a xenophobic poem. Rather, it asserts, as Fergusson does elsewhere about Scotland and England, that a culture needs to be alert to the risk of being overwhelmed by foreign imports and to keep alive its own traditions.
There still seems to be a critical need to see Fergusson’s poems as subservient to something. For W.N. Herbert, Fergusson’s moments of ‘little Scotlandism’ are ‘tokens in the construction of a self-sufficient Scotland, independent in mind if not in actuality’. If Fergusson is not being yoked, a little laboriously, to the anti-Union cause, he is being set up as Robert Burns’s warm-up man. The title and subtitle of Crawford’s book unashamedly suggest that Fergusson needs to be sold via Burns, though several of the essays here, including Crawford’s excellent introduction, stress the danger of his being obscured by Burns’s championing of him.
It would be a pity if Fergusson’s poems were to be read merely for signs of incipient madness, nationalism or Burnsism avant la lettre. He does not need these crutches. As Crawford says, he is a great city poet, of Edinburgh especially. ‘Auld Reekie’ is a richly nosy poem. Fergusson whisks us round the city: unguarded moments, smells, aperçus, political comment, all are expressed with irreverence and affection for ‘Edina’. But the darker episodes – the malodorous dandified drunk sliding into the gutter, the hypocrisy of a society that employs a ‘saulie’, or hired mourner, at funerals – reveal the underside of his own exuberance. Death is often just round the corner in Fergusson’s poetry: ‘the niest dead-deal’ – the nearest board for lifting a corpse – ‘may be ours.’
Fergusson didn’t just write about city life: ‘The Farmer’s Ingle’ is more anthologised than ‘Auld Reekie’. But the natural world is rarely seen as unsullied. In the magnificent ‘Ode to the Gowdspink’, the goldfinch, a bird symbolic of liberty, would rather change its ‘cleething gay’ for the lav’rock’s ‘sober grey’ (‘lav’rock’ = ‘skylark’) than be hunted by mankind until trapped and put in a cage for a young lady to admire:
For whan fair freedom smiles nae mair,
Care I for life? Shame fa the hair;
A field o’ergrown wi rankest stubble,
The essence of a paltry bubble.
This willingness to toss away life itself in the face of corralling and compromise is evident in Fergusson’s poetry throughout his career, although there are some signs of a bleakening towards the end. He returned to English for many of his final poems, like this paraphrasing of Job: ‘Wild visag’d fear, with sorrow-mingled eye,/And wan destruction piteous stared me nigh.’ It would be easy to see his choice of English as designed to enhance a sense of alienation. But his mood seems to have varied: among the ‘Posthumous Pieces’ is also the delectable version in Scots of ‘Horace, Ode XI, Lib I’, which opens: ‘Ne’er fash your thumb what gods decree/To be the weird of you or me.’ And Horace’s famous ending becomes: ‘The day looks gash [bright], toot aff your horn/ Nor care yae strae about the morn’. Fergusson’s short career is characterised by these oscillations and mood-swings. Crawford makes the case that Fergusson’s variousness, ‘local and cosmopolitan, wild and sophisticated, learned and vernacular’, qualifies him as ‘the first modern poet’ – this would have made a better subtitle than ‘Robert Burns’s Favourite Scottish Poet’.
The essays in ‘Heaven-Taught Fergusson’ are interspersed with poems on him by, among others, Kathleen Jamie, Edwin Morgan and Les Murray. This is an elegant echo of Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, in which many of Fergusson’s poems first appeared, and where verse was juxtaposed with essays, articles and correspondence. Fergusson is much admired by other poets – as so famously by Burns, from one of whose poems this collection takes its title. Burns chose to write it in English.