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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
Allan Ramsay (Poet)
ALLAN RAMSAY (1686-1758), Scottish poet, was born at Leadhills, Lanarkshire, on the 15th of October 1686. He was educated at the parish school of Crawford, and in 1701 was apprenticed to a wig-maker in Edinburgh. He married Christian Ross in 1712; a few years after he had established himself as a wig-maker (not as a barber, as has been often said) in the High Street, and soon found himself in comfortable circumstances. His first efforts in verse-making were inspired by the meetings of the Easy Club (founded in 1712), of which he was an original member; and in 1715 he became the Club Laureate. In the society of the members he assumed the name of "Isaac Bickerstaff," and later of "Gawin Douglas," the latter partly in memory of his maternal grandfather Douglas of Muthill (Perthshire), and partly to give point to his boast that he was a "poet sprung from a Douglas loin." The choice of the two names has some significance, when we consider his later literary life as the associate of the Queen Anne poets and as a collector of old Scots poetry. By 1718 he had made some reputation as a writer of occasional verse, which he published in broadsheets, and then (or a year earlier) he turned bookseller in the premises where he had hitherto plied his craft of wig-making. In 1716 he had published a rough transcript of Christ's Kirk on the Green from the Bannatyne MS., with some additions of his own. In 1718 he republished the piece with more supplementary verses. In the following year he printed a collection of Scots Songs. The success of these ventures prompted him to collect his poems in 1722. The volume was issued by subscription, and brought in the sum of four hundred guineas. Four years later he removed to another shop, in the neighbouring Luckenbooths, where he opened a circulating library (the first in Scotland) and extended his business as a bookseller. Between the publication of the collected edition of his poems and his settling down in the Luckenbooths, he had published a few shorter poems and had issued the first instalments of The Tea-Table Miscellany and The Ever Green (both 1724-1727). The Tea-Table Miscellany is "A Collection of Choice Songs Scots and English," containing some of Ramsay's own, some by his friends, several well-known ballads and songs, and some Caroline verse. Its title was suggested by the programme of the Spectator : and the compiler claimed the place for his songs "e'en while the tea's fill'd reeking round," which Addison sought for his speculations at the hour set apart "for tea and bread and butter." In The Ever Green, being a Collection of Scots Poems wrote by the Ingenious before 1600, Ramsay had another purpose, to reawaken an interest in the older national literature. Nearly all the pieces were taken from the Bannatyne MS., though they are by no means verbatim copies. They included his version of Christ's Kirk (u.s.) and a remarkable pastiche by the editor entitled the Vision. While engaged on these two series, he produced, in 1725, his dramatic pastoral The Gentle Shepherd. In the volume of poems published in 1722 Ramsay had shown his bent to this genre, especially in "Patie and Roger," which supplies two of the dramatis personae to his greater work. The success of the drama was remarkable. It passed through several editions, and was performed at the theatre in Edinburgh; its title is still known in every corner of Scotland, even if it be no longer read. Ramsay wrote little afterwards, though he published a few shorter poems, and new editions of his earlier work. A complete edition of his Poems appeared in London in 1731 and in Dublin in 1733. With a touch of vanity he expressed the fear lest "the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I had acquired." He was already on terms of intimacy with the leading men of letters in Scotland and England. He corresponded with Hamilton of Bangour (q.v.), Somerville, Gay (q.v.) and Pope. Gay visited him in Edinburgh, and Pope praised his pastoral - compliments which were undoubtedly responsible for some of Ramsay's unhappy poetic ventures beyond his Scots vernacular. The poet had for many years been a warm supporter of the stage. Some of his prologues and epilogues were written for the London theatres. In 1736 he set about the erection of a new theatre, "at vast expense," in Carrubber's Close, Edinburgh; but the opposition was too strong, and the new house was closed in 1737. In 1755 he retired from his shop to the house on the slope of the Castle Rock, still known as Ramsay Lodge. In this house, called by his friends "the goose-pie," because of its octagonal shape, the poet died on the 7th of January 1758.
Ramsay's importance in literary history is twofold. As a pastoral writer ("in some respects the best in the world," according to Leigh Hunt) he contributed, at an early stage, to the naturalistic reaction of the 18th century. His Gentle Shepherd, by its directness of impression and its appreciation of country life, anticipates the attitude of the school which broke with neo-classical tradition. It has the "mixed" faults which make the greater poem of his Scots successor, Thomson, a "transitional" document, but these give it an historical, if not an individual, interest. His chief place is, however, as an editor. He is the connecting-link between the greater "Makars" of the 5th and 16th centuries, and Fergusson (q.v.) and Burns. He revived the interest in vernacular literature, and directly inspired the genius of his greater successors. The preface to his Ever Green is a protest against "imported trimming" and "foreign embroidery in our writings," and a plea for a return to simple Scottish tradition. He had no scholarly interest in the past, and he never hesitated to transform the texts when he could give contemporary "point" to a poem; but his instinct was good, and he did much to stimulate an ignorant public to fresh enjoyment. In this respect, too, he anticipates the reaction in England which followed securely on the publication of Percy's Reliques. The Tea-Table Miscellany was reprinted in 1871 (2 vols., Glasgow; John Crum); The Ever Green in 1875 (2 vols., Glasgow; Robert Forrester); The Poems of Allan Ramsay in 1877 (2 vols., Paisley; Alex. Gardner). These volumes are uniform in size and binding, though issued by different publishers, u.s. A selection of the Poems appeared in 1887 (1 vol. 16mo, London; Walter Scott). There are many popular reprints of The Gentle Shepherd. (G. G. S.)
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Allan Ramsay (Poet)'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/a/allan-ramsay-poet.html. 1910.
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