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31 January 2000

Scotland’s forgotten laureate

New Statesman Scotland - Had he not died at the age of 24, the poet Robert Fergusson would

By Alan Taylor

Towards the bottom end of the Royal Mile, old Edinburgh’s spinal cord, and within spitting distance of Holyrood, where the nation’s permanent parliament is rapidly taking shape, stands the Canongate kirk. On occasion, when in vacant or in pensive mood, I drop by during the lunch hour, sitting in a pew and ruminating over my sandwich while tourists wander disinterestedly around. On the rare days when the weather permits, I take a stroll round the churchyard. Here lie many Scottish worthies, among them Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, Sir William Fettes, founder of Tony Blair’s alma mater, and, intriguingly (and more mundanely), one Janet Douglas, whose inscription reads:

Beneath this Turff her corps does ly
whoe’s Virtues Grac’d humanity
And while on earth her beauty Shone
bewail’d by all now that She’s gone.

Invariably, my steps take me to the west side of the churchyard, to the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson who died in 1774. This year marks the 250th anniversary of his birth and, hopefully, an upturn in his critical fortunes. At a time of year when celebrations of Burns are nightly and bibulous occurrences, the neglect of Fergusson, whose poems are out of print, is all the more keenly felt. Later this year, however, that at least will be put right when a small Scottish publisher, Birlinn, will publish a new edition, edited by the writer James Robertson. In August, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is holding a special Fergusson event and the University of St Andrews, where he excelled as a student, has asked a number of leading poets, including Douglas Dunn, Les Murray and Edwin Morgan, to write poems in Fergusson’s honour.

Such cheering news, however, cannot dispel the feeling that this is all too little and too late. Fergusson’s premature death was not, as Gore Vidal said when told that Truman Capote had expired, a good career move. At 24, he was just beginning to flower as a poet. If Burns, for example, had died at the same age, he would have left nothing worth remembering. The same cannot be said of Fergusson, but what we have is suggestive of promise unfulfilled rather than genius cruelly silenced. Burns petitioned for a headstone for Fergusson’s grave and wrote the inscription:

This simple Stone directs Pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her Poet’s Dust.

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A century or so later, another Robert – Robert Louis Stevenson – referred to Fergusson as “the poor, white-faced, drunken, vicious boy” from St Andrews who caroused after office hours in Edinburgh’s stinking closes. This, surely, is closer to the truth. Fergusson’s Edinburgh was not the geometrically rigid and meticulously planned New Town, but the ill-lit, libidinous and haphazard precincts which rose to the east of Castle Rock. It was a smelly city, and not just because of the numerous breweries. As Samuel Johnson told James Boswell, as they made their way up the Royal Mile: “I can smell you in the dark.”

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Here, Fergusson lived hard and paid the price. The sanitised view is that he died insane in the local asylum after falling down the stairs in his house. But in a new book, Madness and Society in Eighteenth Century Scotland, Rab Houston reveals a more prosaic scenario. The poet, he says, was “in drink when he tumbled head over heels and concussed himself. Being very drunk was not unusual for Fergusson.” Then, as now, Edinburgh was a city steeped in alcohol. In the 18th century, the Old Town boasted countless bars that stayed open until the last customer had left. It was not unknown for judges to arise from beneath a table and go straight to the bench. For bohemian spirits, there were wild private clubs where the carousing could be prolonged indefinitely.

It was a milieu that Fergusson embraced. Born and brought up in Edinburgh, he knew it intimately. Though his family was desperately poor, he was given a good education and sent to the High School. Later, he spent four years at St Andrews University, where he became known for his pranks and satirical verses. After a disastrous spell in Aberdeen, he returned to Edinburgh, found work as a clerk and began to churn out verses written in hackneyed English, which few would claim showed any talent. But, in 1772, Fergusson reverted to his native Scots and for two astonishing years he produced one brilliant poem after another for a journal called Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement. Readers loved them, and almost overnight Fergusson became an Edinburgh celebrity, though he was never able to give up the day job. Then, after all too brief a flourish, he died, “lamented by lovers of poetry, of wit, and of song”.

Quite why the reputation of a poet who was so popular should have declined so precipitously has never been fully explained. Ironically, one reason is the rise of Robert Burns, who did his best to keep Fergusson’s flame alive. Burns’s arrival on the scene in the mid-1780s was sensational. Like the advent of rock and roll, which drove jazz and other forms of music underground for a generation, Burnsmania eclipsed interest in other Scottish writers. Bardolatry brooked no criticism and Burns was elevated to near-sainthood, irrespective of his frequent clashes with the Church and his frequent amorous adventures. Like Fergusson, he was at his best when writing in Scots. But in contrast to him, Burns often fell into a sentimental trap, writing weepy love songs that Tammy Wynette would be proud to pen.

This was never part of Fergusson’s repertoire. His subject was Edinburgh, “Auld Reikie”, which he portrayed unvarnished in its conspicuous grime and glory, in a masterly poem of the same name:

On Stair wi’ tub, or pat in hand
The barefoot housemaids looe to stand,
That antrim fock may ken how snell
Auld Reikie will at morning smell
Then with an inundation big as
The burn that ‘neath Nor Loch Brig is,
They kindly shower Edina’s roses
To quicken and regale our noses.

While Burns was feted by polite Edinburgh society, Fergusson, the city’s true laureate, immortalised the vulgar intimacy of the streets, and was cold-shouldered, like a drunk at a tea dance. He was a patriot, maybe even a Jacobite, and he was incensed by the likes of Samuel Johnson, who took every opportunity to knock the Scots. When his old university feted the lexicographer, Fergusson lampooned him as the Great Cham and wrote a satirical poem “To the Principal and Professors . . . on their superb Treat to Samuel Johnson”. In another poem, he had fun at the expense of the novelist Henry Mackenzie, author of the bestseller The Man of Feeling, and synonymous with “polite literature”, making a pig – “The Sow of Feeling” – speak in pukka English.

None of this helped endear Fergusson to Edinburgh’s grandees, who were intent on making the most of the 1707 Union with England and capitalising on the crushing of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745. Moreover, his personal habits, while finding him friends and admirers in the howffs and brothels of the Old Town, did not make him sought-after company in the salons of the New Town where, a decade after his death, Burns would prove to be such a charmer. Fergusson was a ruder entity altogether, a Scottish Dylan Thomas, the Irvine Welsh of his day. He drank heavily, behaved badly and often looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. “He lived the life he wrote about,” said Roderick Watson in The Literature of Scotland, who has suggested that the poet’s insanity may have been brought about through syphilis. That, too, was unlikely to have made him much welcome.

In certain sections of the city, where repression was raised to an art form, Fergusson flaunted his infamy. In the theatre, an art much frowned upon, he sat in the so-called Shakespeare box and expressed his approval of performances not by clapping, but by “raising his right hand clenched above his head, and bringing it down emphatically on the front of the box, with a sweeping blow”. He clearly revelled in the recognition, but like Boswell and Burns and Stevenson, he was also prone to melancholy, the Scottish curse, which may be why he took so readily to drink. Whatever the reason, it took its toll and after 24 frenetic months he had burnt himself out.

What would have become of him had he survived? His situation is often compared to that of his English contemporary, Thomas Chatterton, who also died young. Literature is strewn with those who fell by the wayside when in their prime. One thinks of Keats and Shelley and Sylvia Plath, all of whom are surrounded by the aura of romance. Fergusson, however, remains largely unsung and unmythologised. There is no biography of him in print and studies are few. Even at Burns suppers, when tributes would be appropriate, his name is ignored. Yet his influence on Burns was crucial. Most importantly, he ushered in a new kind of writing: irreverent, witty and gutsy. “Had he lived,” wrote Allan MacLaine of the University of Rhode Island, “there is little doubt that he would have seriously rivalled Burns, at least as a satirist and as a writer of humorous descriptive poetry, if not a lyricist.”

In the modern era, his influence on Scottish poets is palpable, including Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Robert Garioch, all of whose work contains echoes of Fergusson. Like them, he brings Edinburgh alive with the vigour of his language and the boldness of his strokes. Few poets have so focussed their oeuvre on one city and captured its spirit so memorably. Traces of the 18th-century Scottish capital, teeming with rude life and a concentration of genius to rival Renaissance Florence, may be slowly disappearing as the decades go by, but Fergusson’s spirit hovers over it still. Burns may be the national bard, but Robert Fergusson is the laureate of the nation’s capital.

Alan Taylor is managing editor, Scotsman Publications