Fergusson, Robert (1750-1774) (DNB00)


FERGUSSON, ROBERT (1750–1774), Scotch poet, was born at Edinburgh 5 Sept. 1750 in a lane somewhere in the course of the modern North Bridge Street. His father, William Fergusson, was at the time clerk to the only haberdasher in the city, having a few years previously left his native Tarland, Aberdeenshire, in search of improved fortune. His mother was the youngest daughter of John Forbes, a man of agricultural position in Aberdeenshire, and a cadet of the house of Tolquhon. Their family probably numbered five in all, and Robert was the third son. Both parents were upright and persevering, and the father pushed forward till he held, at his death in 1767, the position of managing clerk in the linen department of the British Linen Company, Edinburgh. Fergusson's mother had taught him carefully, and although a very delicate boy, he passed through a preparatory school with distinction, and entered the high school at an unusually early age. When he had been four years here, on the advice of his uncle, John Forbes, farmer and factor in Aberdeenshire, and through the influence of Lord Finlater, chancellor of Scotland, he secured a Fergusson bursary, which implied preparatory study at the grammar school, Dundee, and a four years' curriculum at St. Andrews University. He matriculated at St. Andrews in February 1765, intending to study for the church.

Fergusson at St. Andrews was brilliant and attractive, being generally popular with his fellow-students and professors. His distinction as a student would seem to have been scientific rather than literary. Dr. David Gregory [q. v.], professor of mathematics in the university, died in the course of Fergusson's first year, and it is more than probable that he wrote immediately afterwards (in a stanza favoured by Burns) the clever but irreverent ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr. David Gregory.’ He soon became known as a youthful poet of unusual promise. The elegy just mentioned, and perhaps one or two more, have alone survived, and the ‘dramatic fragments,’ given by some of the poet's biographers as specimens of his more ambitious attempts while a student, are of no importance. He owed not a little to the influence of Wilkie of the ‘Epigoniad,’ the eccentric professor of natural philosophy, who fully recognised his merits. Fergusson's high spirits and impulsive temper got him into occasional difficulties with the authorities, but he left St. Andrews respected by all who had known him best. Having finished the four years' curriculum he returned to his widowed mother in 1768, resolved not to study for the church.

In 1769 Fergusson paid a visit to his uncle, John Forbes, at Round Lichnot, Aberdeenshire. While there Lord Finlater one day dined with Forbes, who was naturally anxious to introduce his nephew to his patron. Fergusson presented himself in so untidy a dress that the uncle rebuked and refused to present him. Fergusson left the house at once, and made his way to Edinburgh in spite of entreaties to return. There seems to be no foundation for the stories told by biographers, which represent the uncle as brutal, and Fergusson as retorting by a severe epistle addressed from the nearest public-house. Nor does it seem possible to connect with the episode the two poems, ‘Decay of Friendship’ and ‘Against Repining at Fortune,’ which did not appear till about three years later. While at Round Lichnot Fergusson was in the habit of assembling the servants on Sundays, and preaching to them ‘from the mouth of the peat-stack’ with such impressive fervour as to leave them ‘bathed in tears.’

Fergusson declined to study medicine. His sensitive nature shrank from the proposal, and he said that he seemed to have in his own person symptoms of every disease to which he gave special attention. He presently found a situation as extracting clerk in the commissary clerk's office, which he held to the end of his life, with the exception of a few months in the sheriff clerk's office, from which he was glad to retreat owing to his pain in connection with the enforcing of executions. Fergusson probably despised the drudgery of law. In any case he found that he could write poetry, and became well known in Edinburgh society. Apparently he was a satisfactory copying-clerk, but it was a genuine relief to him when, as early as 1769, he ‘formed an acquaintance with several players and musicians.’ Among these were Woods the actor, and the famous singer Tenducci, for whom he wrote three songs to be sung in the opera ‘Artaxerxes.’ These songs, set to three familiar Scottish airs, while not specially striking either in sentiment or structure, are important as early illustrations of Fergusson's efforts in verse. They occupy the first place among his ‘English Poems’ in the works as published by Fullarton & Co., the most satisfactory edition.

In 1771 Fergusson became a regular contributor to Ruddiman's ‘Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement.’ He began with ‘Pastorals,’ according to the orthodox method of the eighteenth century. Presently, however, by the contribution of several Scottish poems, he was hailed as the direct successor to Allan Ramsay. From all parts of the country his fame began to be sounded, and before the end of 1772 he was the intimate friend of many of the most important and the most gifted men of Scotland. He was invited by country gentlemen to spend holidays at their residences. He seems to have been a witty and entertaining companion. By the end of 1772 he began to suffer from want of sufficient self-restraint. In October of that year he joined the ‘Cape Club,’ which included David Herd, the editor of ‘Scots Songs and Ballads,’ Runciman the printer, and other prominent Edinburgh citizens. The club was a somewhat exclusive and well-conducted debating society. But unfortunately he frequented other haunts at times, and his only defence was the pathetic exclamation, ‘Oh, sir, anything to forget my poor mother and these aching fingers!’

In 1773 Fergusson collected his contributions to the magazine, and published through the Ruddimans a 12mo volume under the general title ‘Poems by R. Fergusson.’ He made some money by the publication, and he speedily produced other pieces that added to his fame, including the ‘Address to the Tron Kirk Bell,’ ‘Caller Water,’ the ‘Rising’ and the ‘Sitting of the Session,’ the ‘Odes to the Bee and Gowdspink,’ and the ‘Farmer's Ingle,’ the prototype of the ‘Cottar's Saturday Night.’ The poet, meanwhile, became hopeless over his prospects, and thought of going to sea like his elder brother Henry, who had been away for several years. Ultimately he returned to his desk, and resumed his former habits. He would still sing his Scottish songs, and indulge in an occasional frolic, but his strength gradually gave way. A chance interview with the Rev. John Brown of Haddington startled him into a sense of his spiritual position. He burned various unpublished manuscripts, and would study nothing but his bible. A fall down a staircase brought on an illness that ended in insanity. He had to be confined in the public asylum, where he died, a few hours after a pathetic interview with his mother and his sister, on 16 Oct. 1774. He was buried in the Canongate churchyard, and a plain gravestone with a poetical epitaph was placed at his head in 1789 by Burns, who did not scruple to own his indebtedness to Fergusson. When Fergusson reaches his highest level, as he does in his ‘Farmer's Ingle,’ ‘Leith Races,’ the poems on the session, ‘Caller Oysters,’ and ‘Braid Claith,’ his work presents the rare qualities of keen observation, subtle and suggestive humour, epigrammatic felicity, quick flashes of dramatic delineation, and quaintly pathetic touches of sentiment, all indicative of unusual genius.

The principal editions of Fergusson's poems are: ‘Poems,’ 1773; ‘Poems on Various Subjects,’ with a short life by T. Ruddiman, 1779; ‘Poems on Various Subjects,’ in two parts, Perth, 1789; ‘Works of Robert Fergusson,’ with life by D. Irving, and three engravings, Glasgow, 1800; ‘Works,’ with longer biography, by A. Peterkin, London, 1807; ‘Poems of Robert Fergusson,’ with a sketch of the author's life and cursory view of his writings, by J. Bannington, London, 1809; an edition in two volumes, printed at Alnwick in 1814, with engravings by Bewick; an edition printed in Edinburgh in 1821, with life by James Gray of the high school; one edited by Robert Chambers in 1840, with life and footnotes; and ‘The Works of Robert Fergusson,’ with life and essay on poetical genius, by A. B. G[rosart], 1851.

[The editions of the Poems, with prefixed biographies; Alex. Campbell's Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland; Irving's Lives of the Scottish Poets; Sommers's Life of Robert Fergusson; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Chambers's Life and Works of Burns.]

T. B.