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sion is irresistible when we look at the chief events in English literature during the three years of Ramsay's membership of the Easy Club. He was a member of the Club from 1712 to 1715. The kind of poetry that was most in vogue at the time was pastoral poetry. We have already seen how general had been the discussion of this kind of poetry for some years. During the existence of the Easy Club interest in the topic had received a fresh stimulus from the publication of Pope's “ Windsor Forest,” and Ambrose Philips's “ Pastorals.” For the purpose of puffing Philips and depreciating Pope there was a series of articles on Pastoral Poetry in the Guardian which doubtless were read by Isaac Bickerstaff's double in the Easy Club. Every-body who had any pretension to literary fashion read Steele and Addison's periodicals, and the members of the Easy Club were keen and ardent amateurs of poetry, not a little self-conscious of poutic ambition. To puff Philips and depreciate Pope was the prime purpose of these articles in the Guardian, and this purpose was cleverly defeated by the stratagem of the poet whose reputation was in danger ; but unintentionally and by the way the articles served a more important purpose-namely, guiding Allan Ramsay into a kind of poetry exactly suited to his talents. One of the papers in the Guardian reads now like a recipe for Allan Ramsay's great pastoral ; “ The Gentle Shepherd” might be said to have been made from it as from a prescription, so exactly in the scheme and accessories does the poet follow the advice of the critic. " Paint the manners of natural rustic life,” said the critic to the poet, “not the manners of artificial shepherds and shepherdesses in a fictitious golden age; use actual rustic dialect ; instead of satyrs and fauns and nymphs, introduce the supernatural creatures of modern superstition. This is what the essayist in the Guardian advised, and what Ramsay with happily appropriate genius did. I know no other instance in literature where a poet has carried out the ideas of a critic so perfectly. Ramsay pottered for a
a little with pastoral dialogues of the old artificial school, in which he made Steele and Pope discourse in the character of shepherds about the deaths of Addison and Prior-a fancy rendered all the more absurd by his making these two shepherds discourse in the Scotch dialect. But he soon abandoned these affectations, and produced his drama of real rustic life in 1725. Its repute was instantaneous and widespread. Edition after edition was produced; it was said that “The Gentle Shepherd ” was almost as common a book in the houses of the Scotch peasantry as the Bible. Amateur companies were organized in country parishes to act it. Even to this day, it is said, such companies exist and perform occasionally in the south of Scotland. The fame of “The Gentle Shepherd” spread beyond Scotland ; it probably furnished the hint of “The Beggar's Opera” to Gay; so that if Ramsay owed something to the critical ideas of his English contemporaries, he may be said to have repaid the debt.
The songs interspersed through “The Gentle Shepherd,” which is rather an operetta than a drama, are not the best part of it. I cannot say that I think highly of Ramsay's gifts as a song-writer. . His genius was not lyrical. His songs, even the best of them, strike me as smirking and affected, entirely destitute of genuine lyric rapture. We have only to place his “Auld Lang Syne,” or his “Nanny 0,” by the side of Burns's words to the same airs to feel how empty they are of lyric sincerity and force, how artificially, mechanically, and laboriously they have been put together.
“How joyfully my spirits rise,
When dancing she moves finely-O;
RAMSAY'S LACK OF THE LYRIC ART
Attend my vow, ye gods, while I
"Her face is fair, her heart is true,
The inferiority of Ramsay is still more manifest when we look at his “ Auld Lang Syne.” The opening lines have a ring of insincerity that pervades the whole song :
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Tho' they return with scars ?
Obtained in glorious wars.
Thy arms about me twine,
As I was lang syne.”
There are two lines in Ramsay's "Farewell to Lochaber” that seem to be conclusive against his claim to a respectable place among song-writers. A soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart is a well-chosen lyrical theme ; Ramsay had abundance of poetical intelligence, and is often happy in his choice of themes. And the opening lines, when sung to the beautiful air, are undeniably simple and touching :
“Fareweel to Lochaber, fareweel to my Jean,
Where heartsome wi' thee I hae mony days been.”
But presently come the two lines which strike an absurdly false note, and turn the plaintive soldier into a burlesque impostor :
“ These tears that I shed they are a' for my dear,
And no for the dangers attending on weir.” Fancy a departing soldier explaining that he weeps not because he is afraid of the enemy, but because he is sorry to leave his sweetheart ! Qui s'excuse, s'accuse. The girl, if she had a particle of spirit, would have laughed, and set him down at once as a transparent humbug. No man capable of writing a good song with any deep sentiment or passion in it could have passed such a preposterous insincerity as that. No; “ renowned Allan, canty callan," had not the lyric gift. His strength lay in humorous description and portraiture ; in arch, sly, “pawky” fun. The portrait of him by his son is a speaking likeness of the poet as we know him through his works; it is a keen, slyly humorous face, the face of a man with a quick sense of the ridiculous, and a firm touch in the exhibition of what amuses him, but it is not the face of a lyric poet.
If we except the songs, which, as I have said, are of rather unequal merit, we cannot but admire the manner in which Ramsay embodied the idea so casually suggested by the English critic. As is usually the case in such matters, several places are claimants for the honor of being the scene of the poem, but probably Newhall in Peeblesshire conforms most to the poetic descriptions. The plot is slender, but not more so than we should expect in such an operetta, and the scenes are connected with no little dramatic skill. The bulk of the story narrates the pastoral loves of Roger and Jenny, and of Patie, the Gentle Shepherd, and Peggy, a shepherd's niece. Sir William Worthy, a somewhat priggish but not unamiable knight, is the presiding genius; in Patie he recognizes his son, and in Peggy his niece, and the
faithful lovers receive his blessing. Bauldy, Madge, and Mause supply what comic element there is, but the humor is of a quiet, subdued order, never approaching the rollicking fun of Burns. The light, bantering conversation between Peggy and Jenny is admirably done, and the spirited eulogy of Patie by his sweetheart is a good example of the style of language that Ramsay considered most suited to a Scottish pastoral :
“Sic coarse-spun thoughts as thae want pith to move
My settled mind, I'm o'er far gane in love.
Ill nature heffs in sauls that's weak and poor.” In a prologue for “The Gentle Shepherd” on the occasion of one of its presentations on the stage the poet declared :
" Tho' they're but Shepherds that we're now to act
To act the blithsome life that shepherds lead.” Now, it is just this fact, that Allan Ramsay did not “regard” those "nicer ears," that constitutes his main