Robert Fergusson: Wikis

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Statue of Fergusson outside the Canongate Kirk on Edinburgh's Royal Mile

Robert Fergusson (5 September 1750 – 16 October 1774) was a Scottish poet. After formal education at the University of St Andrews, Fergusson followed an essentially bohemian life course in Edinburgh, the city of his birth, then at the height of intellectual and cultural ferment as part of the Scottish enlightenment. Many of his extant poems were printed from 1771 onwards in Walter Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine, and a collected works was first published early in 1773. Despite a short life, his career was highly influential, especially through its impact on Robert Burns. He wrote both Scottish English and the Scots language, and it is his vivid and masterly writing in the latter leid for which he is principally acclaimed.

Contents

Life

Robert Fergusson was born in Cap and Feather Close, a vennel off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, later demolished to make way for what is today the North Bridge. His parents, William and Elizabeth (née Forbes), were originally from Aberdeenshire, but had moved to the city two years previously. He was the third of three surviving children by them. He received formal schooling at the city's Royal High School and the High School of Dundee, leading to matriculation into the University of St Andrews with the assistance of a clan Fergusson bursary in 1765.

In May 1768 Fergusson returned to Edinburgh. His father had died the previous year, his sister Barbara had married, and his older brother Harry had recently left Scotland, enlisting with the British Navy after a business failure. This probably left Fergusson, who had not completed his studies, to support their mother. Any possibility of family support from his maternal uncle, John Forbes of Round Lichnot near Auld Meldrum, ceased when his uncle permanently disowned him after a quarrel. Fergusson, who had rejected the church, medicine and law as career options open to him due to his university training, finally settled in Edinburgh as a copyist, the occupation of his father.

Literary career

Fergusson's relatively lowly employment gave him liberty pursue his writing career. There is good evidence he had already been developing literary ambitions as a student at St Andrews where he claimed to have begun drafting a play on the life of William Wallace. His earliest extant poem, also written at this time, is a satirical elegy in Scots on the death of David Gregory, one of the university’s professors of maths.

Fergusson involved himself in Edinburgh's social and artistic circles mixing with musicians, actors, artists and booksellers who were also publishers. His friend, the theatre-manager William Woods, regularly procured him free admission to theatre productions[1] and in mid 1769 he struck up a friendship with the Italian castrato singer Giusto Fernando Tenducci who was touring with a production of Artaxerxes. Fergusson's literary debut came when Tenducci asked him to contribute Scots airs for the Edinburgh run of the opera. He supplied three, which were performed and published with the libretto.

After February 1771 he began to contribute poems to Walter Ruddiman's Weekly Review. These at first were generally conventional English language works which were either satirical or fashionably pastoral in the manner of William Shenstone. His first Scots poem to be published (The Daft Days) appeared on 2 January 1772, and from that date on he submitted works in both languages.

Popular reception for his Scots work, as evidenced in a number of verse epistles in its praise[2], helped persuade Ruddiman to publish a first general edition of his poems which appeared in early 1773 and sold around 500 copies, allowing Fergusson to clear a profit.[3]

In mid 1773 Fergusson attempted his own publication of Auld Reekie, now regarded as his masterpiece, a vivid verse portrait of his home city intended as the first part of a planned long poem. It demonstrated his ambition to further extend the range of his Scots writing. This also included an aspiration to make Scots translations of Virgil's Georgics, thus following in the footsteps of Gavin Douglas. However, if any drafts for such a project were made, none survive. The poet was a hard self-critic and is known latterly to have destroyed manuscripts of his writing.[4]

Clubs

Fergusson was a member of the Cape Club which regularly assembled at a tavern in Craig's Close. Each member had a name and character assigned to him, which he was required to maintain at all gatherings. David Herd (1732-1810), the collector of the classic edition of Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1776), was "sovereign" of the Cape (in which he was known as "Sir Scrape") when Fergusson was dubbed a knight of the order, with the title of "Sir Precentor", in allusion to his fine voice. Alexander Runciman, the historical painter, his pupil Jacob More, and Sir Henry Raeburn were all members. The old minute books of the club abound with pencilled sketches by them, one of the most interesting of which, ascribed to Runciman, is a sketch of Fergusson in his character of "Sir Precentor".

Death

Fergusson's literary energy and active social life were latterly overshadowed by what may have been depression although there are likely to have been other factors. From around mid-1773 his surviving works appear to become more darkly melancholic. In late 1773, in his "Poem to the Memory of John Cunningham" which was written on hearing news of the death of that poet in an asylum in Newcastle, Fergusson expressed fears of a similar fate.[5]

His fears were founded. Around the backend of the year 1774, after sustaining a head injury in circumstances that are obscure, Fergusson was submitted against his will into Edinburgh's Darien House "hospital" where, after a matter of weeks, he suddenly died. He had only just turned 24. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the west side of the Canongate kirkyard.

A memorial headstone for Fergusson's grave was privately commissioned in 1787 by Robert Burns and paid for at his own expense. It was further inscribed by Robert Louis Stevenson in the later nineteenth century and survives in the existing monument today.

Overview and influence

Fergusson's literary output was both urban and pastoral in equal degree. He was often an effective satirist and generally nationalist in themes and outlook. Although small, his canon stands as an important artistic and linguistic bridge between the generation of Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and most later writers in Scots. His bilingual career was the acknowledged inspiration for the career of Robert Burns. Many leading makars of the twentieth century, such as Robert Garioch or Sydney Goodsir Smith, similarly recognised his importance. More widely, however, his legacy has tended to be unjustly neglected.

Many works by Burns either echo or are directly modelled on works by Fergusson. For example "Leith Races" unquestionably supplied the model for Burns' "Holy Fair". "On seeing a Butterfly in the Street" has reflections in it which strikingly correspond with "To a Mouse". Comparisons, such as between Fergusson's "The Farmer's Ingle" and Burns' "The Cottar's Saturday Night", often demonstrate the creative complexity of the influence.

Fergusson's life also had one important non-literary influence. The brutal circumstances of the poet's death prompted one of his visitors in bedlam, the young doctor Andrew Duncan (1744-1828), to pioneer better institutional practices for the treatment of mental health problems through the creation of what is today the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.[6]

Editions

Ruddiman's 1773 edition of Fergusson's work was reprinted in 1779 with a supplement containing additional poems. A second edition appeared in 1785. There are later editions, by Robert Chambers (1850) and Alexander Grosart (1851). A life of Fergusson is included in David Irving's Lives of the Scottish Poets, and in Robert Chambers's Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Scotsmen.

See also

External links

References

  1. ^ Matthew McDiarmid, ‘’The Poems of Robert Fergusson (2 vols)’’ Volume 1. Blackwood, 1954. pp.22-28
  2. ^ See Robert Fergusson Selected Poems edited by James Robertson. (Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2000.) Examples are by "J.S." published 3 September 1772 (pp.68-70) and Andrew Gray, published 11 June 1773 (pp.139-40). Fergusson himself wrote Scots verse epistles in reply to both.
  3. ^ Carol McGuirk: "The 'Rhyming Trade': Fergusson, Burns, and the Marketplace". In Heaven-taught Fergusson. Ed. Robert Crawford, Tuckwell Press, East Linton, 2003. p.117.
  4. ^ Robert Fergusson Selected Poems ed. James Robertson. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2000. pp.22-6 discusses instances and possible reasons for this.
  5. ^ Robert Fergusson Selected Poems edited by James Robertson. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2000. p.21.
  6. ^ http://www.nhslothian.scot.nhs.uk/aboutus/nhshistory/reh_history.asp
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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ROBERT FERGUSSON (1750-1774), Scottish poet, son of Sir William Fergusson, a clerk in the British Linen Company, was born at Edinburgh on the 5th of September 1750. Robert was educated at the grammar school of Dundee, and at the university of St Andrews, where he matriculated in 1765. His father died while he was still at college; but a bursary enabled him to complete his four years of study. He refused to study for the church, and was too nervous to study medicine as his friends wished. He quarrelled with his uncle, John Forbes of Round Lichnot, Aberdeenshire, and went' to Edinburgh, where he obtained employment as copying clerk in a lawyer's office. In this humble occupation he passed the remainder of his life. While at college he had written a clever elegy on Dr David Gregory, and in 1771 he began to contribute verses regularly to Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine. He was a member of the Cape Club, celebrated by him in his poem of "Auld Reekie." "The Knights of the Cape" assembled at a tavern in Craig's Close, in the vicinity of the Cross; each member had a name and character assigned to him, which he was required to maintain at all gatherings of the order. David Herd (1732-1810), the collector of the classic edition of Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1776), was sovereign of the Cape (in which he was known as "Sir Scrape") when Fergusson was dubbed a knight of the order, with the title of "Sir Precentor," in allusion to his fine voice. Alexander Runciman, the historical painter, his pupil Jacob More, and Sir Henry Raeburn were all members. The old minute books of the club abound with pencilled sketches by them, one of the most interesting of which, ascribed to Runciman's pencil, is a sketch of Fergusson in his character of "Sir Precentor." Fergusson's gaiety and wit made him an entertaining companion, and he indulged too freely in the convivial habits of the time. After a meeting with John Brown of Haddington he became, however, very serious, and would read nothing but his Bible. A fall by which his head was severely injured aggravated symptoms of mental aberration which had begun to show themselves; and after about two months' confinement in the old Darien House - then the only public asylum in Edinburgh - the poet died on the 16th of October 1774.

Fergussons' poems were collected in the year before his death. The influence of his writings on Robert Burns is undoubted. His "Leith Races" unquestionably supplied the model for the "Holy Fair." Not only is the stanza the same, but the Mirth who plays the part of conductor to Fergusson, and the Fun who renders a like service to Burns, are manifestly conceived on the same model. "The Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causey" probably suggested "The Brigs of Ayr"; "On seeing a Butterfly in the Street" has reflections in it which strikingly correspond with "To a Mouse"; nor will a comparison of "The Farmer's Ingle" of the elder poet with "The Cottar's Saturday Night" admit of a doubt as to the influence of the city-bred poet's muse on that exquisite picturing of homely peasant life. Burns was himself the first to render a generous tribute to the merits of Fergusson; on his visit to Edinburgh in 1787 he sought out the poet's grave, and petitioned the authorities of the Canongate burying-ground for permission to erect the memorial stone which is preserved in the existing monument. The date there assigned for his birth differs from the one given above, which rests on the authority of his younger sister Margaret.

The first edition of Fergusson's poems was published by Ruddiman at Edinburgh in 1773, and a supplement containing additional poems, in 1779. A second edition appeared in 1785. There are later editions, by Robert Chambers (1850) and Dr A. B. Grosart (1851). A life of Fergusson is included in Dr David Irving's Lives of the Scottish Poets, and in Robert Chambers's Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished Scotsmen.


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