Allan Ramsay’s major contribution to Scottish literature in the 18th century is both as a writer and as a collector and editor of older Scottish poetry. His The Gentle Shepherd was major influence on both Scottish drama and the pastoral genre, while his use of the ‘standard habbie’ brought this poetic form to the notice of later Scottish poets, notably Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns.
The Tea-table Miscellany was a collection of songs including some by Ramsay and his friends, several well-known ballads and songs, and some earlier verse from the 17th century. Disappointment with the Act of Union (1707) between Scotland and England is thought to have been the impetus that turned Ramsay to literature, and his writing in Scots dates from around 1711, though he continued to write in English as well. These pages show Ramsay code-switching between Scots and English, the manuscript ‘R’ indicating that the poems are by Ramsay.
How was Ramsay seen by his contemporaries?
Ramsay was popular, both personally and as a writer, and was able to combine a poetic imagination with a flair for business – he maintained a successful career as a bookseller and corresponded with some of the major literary figures of the day. But he was unable to establish his own theatre in Edinburgh, and provoked both the jealousy of other writers and the anger of the pious establishment, the church being a strict controller of morals at this time. This attitude to his work was expressed in such publications as The flight of religious piety from Scotland upon the account of Ramsay's lewd books etc, & the Hellbred Play-House Comedians, who debauched all the faculties of the soul of our rising generation (1763). However, Ramsay’s success can be seen in the numbers of editions of his works.
Ramsay’s attitude is best summed up in his description of himself:
Ramsay's earlier poems were short, often printed as broadsides, and sold very cheaply, but in later life he was recognised both as a presiding genius and an ambassador of Scottish culture, as well-known in London as in Edinburgh. In 1722 he applied for a pension from The Duke of Roxburghe, Secretary of State for Scotland, on the grounds that his Scots verse was performing a national service.
I rather choose to laugh at folly,
Than shew dislike by melancholy
- Article by:
- Robert Irvine
Dr Robert Irvine examines the Hastie manuscript, a collection of manuscript songs by Robert Burns, and The Scots Musical Museum, where they were ultimately published.
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