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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Allan Ramsay (1686–1758)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE CRITICISM which ranks Allan Ramsay with Theocritus and Tasso, as a writer of pastoral poetry, is to a great degree justifiable. The Edinburgh wig-maker resembles the singer of Greece and the singer of Italy in that his verse is redolent of the soil. In an age given over to the composition of artificial pastorals, of impossible Arcadias, peopled by Strephons and Chloes and Phyllises, Ramsay portrayed real shepherds in the actual country life of the Scotch peasantry. Instead of placing high-flown, impossible language upon their lips, he made them use the familiar Lowland Scotch dialect. He wrote a poem breathing of the fields, and full of the homely sights and sounds of rustic existence. His naturalness and his spontaneity in an artificial age constitute his right to be named as a worthy progenitor of Burns.  1
  The author of ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ was born in 1686, in Leadhills, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in the heart of the Lowther hills. It is significant that the future poet, while born and bred among the peasantry, was far enough removed from them by a strain of Allan Ramsay gentler blood to be in the position of observer and critic, rather than in that of a comrade. On his father’s side he was related to the Earls of Dalhousie, on his mother’s to the great Douglas clan. Neither his father nor his mother were native to Leadhills, and between Ramsay and the rough mining population there could have been little sympathy. He remained in the bleak region until his sixteenth year, aiding his stepfather, David Crichton, on his farm; he was then apprenticed to an Edinburgh wig-maker, whom he served until 1707, when having received back his indentures, he began business for himself.  2
  The Edinburgh of this period, deprived of its political prominence by the Act of Union, passed in 1707, which united England and Scotland under the name of Great Britain, gave itself up to certain literary and social activities, which took concrete form in a variety of clubs. Of one of these, “The Easy Club,” Ramsay was made a member; and it was through its encouragement and stimulus that his poetical talents bore fruit. He published occasional pieces—“elegies,” as he called them—full of humor and insight into the life of which he formed a part. In 1716 appeared the poem which first showed him to be a master in the portrayal of rustic Scottish life. This was ‘Christ’s Kirk on the Green.’ King James I. of Scotland had written a single canto under this title, describing a brawl at a country wedding. Ramsay supplied a second and a third canto, imitating so perfectly the spirit and form of the royal author’s work that the whole appears as the work of one hand.  3
  In 1725 ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ was published. The immediate cause of its composition is said to have been an article in the Guardian for April 7th, 1713; which, taking Pope’s ‘Windsor Forest’ as its starting-point of discussion, proceeded to describe the characteristics of a true pastoral poem. These differed essentially from the popular ideal, which regarded the “shepherd” of literature as a kind of Dresden-china embodiment of all the virtues; a silken swain living an exquisite life among beribboned sheep and dainty shepherdesses. Ramsay, with the instinct of the true poet, brushed this flummery aside, and following the prescription of nature as set forth in the Guardian, went direct to the “common people” to obtain material for his pastoral. ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ is a poetical embodiment of rustic Scotland. It is written in the language of the peasantry; it is an intimate reproduction of their life. The simple tale, told with such truthfulness of detail and sincerity of feeling, became at once popular with all classes. It found its way not only into the homes of the London and Edinburgh wits, but into the farm-houses of the country people, to whom it became a kind of Bible. Its maxims passed into proverbs; its many passages of beautiful verse found their true home in the hearts of those whose manner of life had been the author’s inspiration.  4
  It is through ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ that Allan Ramsay is chiefly remembered as a poet only second to Burns himself. Yet he claims recognition as one who did not a little for the literature of his country by the publication of the ‘Tea-Table Miscellany’ and the ‘Evergreen,’—collections of ancient Scottish verse, which went far to revive interest in that golden age of Scotland’s literature extending from the time of King James I. to the death of Drummond of Hawthornden.  5
  The remainder of Ramsay’s life was uneventful. He opened a bookstore in Edinburgh, with which was connected the first circulating library ever established in the country. He continued to write until late in his life: many of his poems were issued in “broadsides,” or quarto sheets, which were hawked through the streets of Edinburgh; their popularity was enormous. They have long since dropped into the limbo of obscurity; but ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ is read and loved in Scotland to this day.  6
 
 
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