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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Fergusson and the Scottish Periodical Press by Rhona Brown

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

I have heard about Robert Fergusson since I began studying Burns back in the early 1990s and one day while in Edinburgh, Susan and I walked into McNaughtan’s Bookshop on Haddington Place and met the proprietor, Elizabeth Strong, a lady who knows her books. I would buy a lot of books from her over the subsequent years, but I have always treasured my first purchase from her on the subject of Fergusson. We found a beautiful leather 1812 two-volume set entitled The Poetical Works of Fergusson with his Life. I remember hand-carrying it on the airplane from Manchester to Atlanta to make sure it was not damaged in any way on the trip home.

Today I welcome Rhona Brown back to Robert Burns Lives! as one who already has several articles on this web site. Her new book, Robert Fergusson and the Scottish Periodical Press, is the first monograph on Fergusson since 1984 when Fred Freeman published his book, Robert Fergusson and the Scots Humanist Compromise. Basically, a monograph is a book written by one person on a single subject.  Dr. Rhona Brown has excelled in this arena writing with her new publication on Fergusson.

In an email I asked this of Dr. Brown: “While doing your research and writing your book, what stands out as something unexpected to you…something you ran across that you did not expect to find or something that perked you up because you did find a bit of news about Fergusson you were unaware of, or for that matter, something on the Fergusson/Burns connection?”

Rhona answered, “I did find some unexpected things during my research, but this is always the nature of research! One of the things that interested me most was the ways in which Fergusson's poetry aligned with news stories, particularly of public celebrations in Edinburgh. As 'The Daft Days', 'The King's Birth-Day in Edinburgh' and 'Leith Races' are published, the Weekly Magazine prints details of riots and misbehaviour among Edinburgh residents on these holidays. I think my book's strategy of reading the poems through the lens of the magazines in which they were first printed shows just how contemporary Fergusson was. He's often seen as being nostalgic for pre-Union Scotland and for days gone by, but his magazine context shows us that he was responding to day-to-day events and news stories with real immediacy. Although, very sadly, Burns and Fergusson never met, it's clear that Fergusson is in the literati's minds when Burns arrives in Edinburgh in 1787. In the contemporary periodical press and poetry publications, there are lots of tributes to Burns which recognise his genius and vitality, but also very much see him as Fergusson's Scots vernacular successor.”

I’m excited about Rhona’s new book and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

By Rhona Brown

Cover illustration: The News. Plt 1. Print by Henry Heath. Published by S. Knight. Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Having spent several hours over the last couple of weeks reading and studying this magnificent book on Robert Fergusson, I found it to be really well-written, engaging, humorous, tasteful, understandable, and full of “turn-the-pages-faster” reading! Almost everything you want to know about Fergusson can be found within. As mentioned above, this is a monograph, meaning that the main purpose “is to present primary research and original scholarship”, and Dr. Brown shines in doing just that.

The six chapters are listed for you to see the topics covered by the author:

1771: ‘His first appearance as an author”: Pastoral, Politics and Apprenticeship

1772: ‘A New Note’: Scots Vernacular, Reputation and Recognition

1773 - January to July: Assurance, ‘fecundity and brilliance’: Fergusson, Unofficial Poet Laureate

1773: ‘Every day and special days ongoings’ in ‘Auld Reikie’

1773 - August to December: ‘Into the very blaze of day’: Fergusson’s Literary Zenith

1774: ‘Transfigured for all time’: Literary Responses to Fergusson’s Death

This publication is really about two men, Robert Fergusson and Walter Ruddiman, publisher of Weekly Magazine. It was in this periodical where a majority of Fergusson’s poems appeared from 1771 through 1773 on a regular basis. Ruddiman provided a stage for Fergusson who in return captured the hearts of its readers as he grew in stature as a gifted poet.  Unfortunately his writings continued for only a short period of time as his young life ended at age 24. He was mourned for years after his death, and one thing is sure, he built his reputation in the Scottish periodical press.

By taking the poet’s work piece by piece as it appeared in the periodical press (not just the Weekly Magazine) and by displaying her insight, “research and original scholarship”, the author captured, for me, the essence of the real Robert Fergusson, making him more than a forerunner for Robert Burns, but a poet worthy of more recognition than he has received. He stands on his own without having to be propped up by Burns. If I counted correctly, I found 35 references to Burns along with 14 poems, as well as Burns’ Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

Having worked on a farm as a youth, walking behind a plow and “putting in tobacco” among workers who pooled their labor as “sharecroppers” going from farm to farm to make ends meet, and having lived in cities like Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta, I particularly reveled in the give-and-take between “Auld Reekie” and the countryside as presented by Fergusson. Town and country is a theme he comes back to again and again as if it was a part of his DNA.

“The forgotten poet” reached the “height of his career” in 1773 at the age of 23. As Brown points out, “Fergusson did not have to wait to be canonized by Burns: he was crowned ‘Laureat of this City’ (Edinburgh) in 1772, at the age of 22” and soon was recognized beyond Edinburgh as “a Scottish poetic spokesman”. Yet, he was not afraid to “take on” the city council when he saw how the city was being neglected or when the price of meat, butter and cheese became too high. There are many of these illustrations throughout the book than will illustrate the soul of Robert Fergusson, a man among men. I have purposefully stayed away from all the well-known incidents regarding his hospitalization and death. There is so much more in this book than these two topics.

In summary, this is an exceptional book about Robert Fergusson and should not be “reserved” just for scholars.  It is a breath of fresh air for any Burnsian who wants a fresh view of the young man who had such a big influence on Robert Burns, but in his own right was an outstanding poet!

Well done, Rhona Brown. (FRS: 10.25.12)

Electric Scotland Note:

You can also download the book: The Poetical Works of Robert Fergusson (1800)
You can check out a page about Robert Fergusson here

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