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TO THE EARL OF WARWICK, ON THE DEATH OF MR. ADDISON.
If, dumb too long, the drooping Muse hath stayed,
Can I forget the dismal night, that gave
To strew fresh laurels let the task be mine,
Oft let me range the gloomy isles alone (Sad luxury! to vulgar minds unknown) Along the walls where speaking marbles show What worthies form the hallow'd mould below : Proud names, who once the reins of empire held ; In arms who triumph'd, or in arts excelled ; Chiefs, graced with scars, and prodigal of blood ; Stern patriots, who for sacred freedom stood ; Just men, by whom impartial laws were given ; And saints, who taught, and led, the way to heaven. (Ne'er to these chambers, where the mighty rest, Since their foundation, came a nobler guest, Nor e'er was to the bowers of bliss conveyed | A fairer spirit, or more welcome shade.
In what new region, to the just assigned, What new employments please th’ unboxed mind? A winged Virtue, through th' ethereal sky, From world to world unwearied does he fly? Or curious trace the long laborious maze Of heaven's decrees, where wondering angels gaze? Does he delight to hear bold Seraphs tell How Michael battled, and the Dragon fell?
Or, mixed with milder Cherubim, to glow y In hymns of love, not ill essayed below ?
Or dost thou warn poor mortals left behind,
That awful form (which, so ye heavens decree, Must still be loved and still deplored by me)
In nightly visions seldom fails to rise,
[ALLAN RAMSAY was born in 1686, in Lanarkshire. His father was the manager of Lord Hopetoun's lead mines, but his great-grandfather was younger son of a 'laird of Cockpen,' and nephew of Ramsay of Dalhousie, and he took pride in his descent from this ancient stock. He was apprenticed as a boy to a wig-maker, but passed from writing poetry and editing poetical collections into being a bookseller. His earliest efforts were circulated among his 'cronies' in MS., and sold by himself to the public in penny broad sheets. In 1716 he published an edition of Christ's Kirk on the Green, with a second canto of his own composition, and soon after another edition with a third new canto. In 1719 he published a collection of Scots Songs; in 1721 a collection of his own poems in quarto; in 1722 his Fables and Tales and his Tale of Three Bonnets; in 1723 his Fair Assembly; in 1724 a poem on Health; in the same year miscellaneous collections entitled The Tea-Table Miscellany, and The Evergreen; and in 1725 the work with which chiefly his fame is associated, The Gentle Shepherd. He died in 1758.]
Ramsay had an influence upon the growth of the peasant poetry of Scotland which must be taken account of quite apart from the qualities of his own song, and perhaps constitutes a better title to remembrance. He did not create the movement which reached its full volume and intensity in the poetry of Burns, but it was concentrated in him for a generation, and passed on with a mighty impulse. It must always be hazardous work guessing at the beginnings of things, but if one were asked to name the great seminal work of the Scotch poetry of the eighteenth century, one would have little hesitation in pitching upon Watson's Choice Collection of Scots Songs, Ancient and Modern. Ramsay himself tells us that his inspiration, or at least his ambition to write, came from this source. It was to the Scotch poetry of the eighteenth
century what Tottel's Miscellany was to the English poetry of the sixteenth, only much more powerful in its influence, owing to the fact that fewer influences were at work in the field. Ramsay carried out on a larger scale and with more abundant resources the plan adopted by this pioneer, collecting, adapting, and publishing 'ancient' poems, and getting 'ingenious' friends to assist him in the production of 'modern' poems. His shop at the sign of the Mercury in the High Street of Edinburgh, thus became the headquarters of a school, in which he was the acknowledged master, and the productions of this school, written in the dialect of a peasantry among whom it was a disgrace not to be able to read, and coming home to their business and bosoms,' were popular as no literature had ever been before. It was not without some reason that austere moralists lamented the flight of godliness from the land before Ramsay's licentious muse. The Gentle Shepherd, with its pagan summons to lads and lasses to 'pu the gowan in its prime,' found its way into the cottages, though as forbidden fruit wherever the authority of the Kirk was respected, almost as freely as the Bible.
To get a correct conception of the general character of Ramsay's poems, we must look at the audience for whom they were written.
They were read by peasants, by shepherds, ploughboys, and milkmaids, but they had first passed under the critical eyes of a more lettered circle. It may seem a paradox to call Ramsay's poems vers de société, yet such in effect they were, though the society for which they were written had not much of the culture which we now associate with the name. Ramsay was a convivial soul-he has been called a 'convivial buffoon'—and he and his friends had formed themselves into an 'Easy Club,' in imitation of the famous literary clubs of the London coffee-houses. It was for this society that he began to write verses, for a knot of young lawyers, doctors, lairds, and tradesmen, who had a liking for literature and goodfellowship, who read the Spectator, Pope, Dryden, and the poets of the Restoration, and met of an evening to sup, crack jokes, and exchange literary essays and small talk. Ramsay's poems smack of this convivial atmosphere. Through the medium of the “Easy Club,' with such admixture as it could not fail to receive from the vigorous individuality of the members, the spirit of the Restoration passed to do battle among the Scotch peasantry with the austere spirit of the Kirk. The rugged passion and rude pathos, the intense sympathy with the joys and sorrows of a hard existence,