by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
I want to thank my friend
Terry McGuire who keeps me updated on articles about Burns that are
constantly being published in Scotland. Some days I receive maybe one
article from him and other days perhaps five or six. One day I hope to
meet Terry, look him in the eye, shake his hand, and raise a dram of
thanks and friendship!
What a pleasure it was for me to pop open the article below on the
subject of Burns’ hero Robert Fergusson written recently by Rosemary
Goring. Ms. Goring willingly agreed for me to use this article for our
readers. This piece answers questions about Fergusson that you may never
have thought to ask and sends you seeking more material on him. Burns
considered Fergusson to be his brother in the muse, and I have
considered them to be united as closely as Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid. Yet they never broke the law, robbed a bank, jumped from a
cliff together or sailed off to South America. But Burns and Fergusson
did break open the minds of many of us through the years and it is
difficult to think of Burns without also thinking of Fergusson. Relying
on Fergusson, Burns changed the way the world thought of poetry and
songs while preserving the auld Scottish language. I trust you will
enjoy this article as much as I did and hope those of you who have
access to Herald Scotland can thank Rosemary for sharing on these pages
with an email. She is literary editor and columnist at the Herald, and I
offer a huge thank-you to Rosemary for her intellect, writing talent and
mind-grasping imagination, all displayed brilliantly in this article on
Scotland’s Bard, as well as appreciation to the Herald for their
permission to print this column in Robert Burns Lives!. (FRS: 1.28.15)
Red Red Roses on
a Tragic Poet’s Grave
By Rosemary Goring
The coldest day of the
year was not perhaps the best time to be wandering around the Canongate
Kirk’s melancholy graveyard. Nevertheless, that’s where I found myself,
on a morning so frozen that it seemed the air might shatter and sprinkle
ice on the path.
The grave that drew me was that of the poet Robert Fergusson, whose
spritely statue graces the entrance to the Kirk. Fergusson’s memorial
keeps company with soldiers, surgeons, candlemakers and brewers, and, on
the far side of the Kirk, the unfortunate David Riccio, or so some say.
The young poet was no less unlucky than the murdered courtier, though it
was insanity, possibly brought on by syphilis, that killed one of the
most influential literary figures who ever walked the Old Town. If, like
me, you are of a fanciful turn of mind, then on a heartless January
morning you can still sense him languishing in the city’s asylum, not
far from the Kirk.
Though he died in abject poverty, and had a pauper’s burial, Fergusson’s
grave is stately, fenced by iron railings, and planted with rose bushes.
A toppled jar of red roses brought a splash of colour the day I visited.
It was Robert Burns who probably paid for the headstone, and wrote its
tribute, though it was not erected until after his death. The
inscription, in a stonemason’s flowery hand, reads: “Here lies Robert
Fergusson Poet, Born September 5th 1751 [in fact, he was born in 1750],
Died October 16th, 1774. No scupturd Marble here nor pompous lay/No
storied Urn nor animated Bust/This simple Stone directs Pale Scotia’s
way/To pour her Sorrows o’er her Poets Dust.”
Whoever left the red roses is, perhaps intentionally, also paying
tribute to Burns, whose work would have been less rich and vigorous
without the example Fergusson set. As Robert Crawford writes in The
Bard, his biography of Burns, when the younger aspiring poet first read
Fergusson – Burns was 15 when he died - he discovered a soul mate.
Reading Fergusson, writes Crawford, brought on a “step-change in his own
verse”. Though they were from entirely different backgrounds – Fergusson
was highly educated and well connected – they shared a similar outlook
on life, and a passion for the verve and melancholy of Scots that makes
their poetry memorable. They were also drawn to the stews and hotspots
of a teeming city, a predilection that made it almost certain they would
find themselves in trouble.
Copying Fergusson, Burns took to calling himself a ‘Bardie’. He
identified closely with the poet he called “my elder brother in
Misfortune/By far my elder brother in the Muse”, and was drawn to
Fergusson’s miserable end, a fate he perhaps feared for himself.
Leaving the chill Canongate for the warmth of the Music Department of
Edinburgh Central Library, I found further evidence of the place
Fergusson held in Burns’s heart. In a display case is Burns’s copy of
Fergusson’s poems. On the fly-leaf he has written his own version of a
passage from Jeremiah, which begins” “Oh Woe is me, my Mother dear! A
man of strife ye’ve born me; For sair contention I maun bear, They hate
revile and Scorn me…”
This echoes a similar exercise by Fergusson, who paraphrased a chapter
of Job. The two were thus inspired by miserable passages of the Bible,
morbidly in thrall to the dark side and penury of the versifier’s life.
At around the time he wrote his jeremiad, Burns was struggling to cope
with rejection by Jean Armour. It was only the hope of making it as a
poet, he said, that prevented him from killing himself. Thankfully, he
did not, but in his emotionally overwrought state, one catches a glimpse
of the despair he, like Fergusson, suffered. Both, however, were equally
able to be light-hearted and humourful, and it is their unquenchable
spirit, as well as their profundity, that endeared them to readers
generations after they were gone.
Without his early influence, who knows how long it might have taken for
Burns to find his voice. On the eve of the Bardie’s birthday, Fergusson
deserves a toast. And a fresh bunch of roses.