Blawing off the Mullygrumbs:Two Unpublished Poems by Allan Ramsay By John Goodridge Walking through Newcastle’s Bigg Market last July I caught a street phenomenon that was new to me, though it must have been a common enough sight in Scottish cities a year or so earlier, and is now familiar on both sides of the border: groups of drinkers in pub doorways and on corners all along the street, smoking together. Clear evidence – no doubt painful to the political and medical architects of the smoking ban – that smoking is a sociable and a socially bonding activity, not to mention a clearly pleasurable one. It reminded me of some very much earlier written evidence I had seen of pleasurable, sociable smoking, and with it some unfinished business I had with its author, the great eighteenth-century Scottish vernacular poet Allan Ramsay (1684-1758). Twenty years ago I had the job of cataloguing Ramsay’s manuscripts for the Index of English Literary Manuscripts project. Mainly divided between the National Library of Scotland, the British Library, the Scottish Record Office (now part of the National Archives of Scotland), Edinburgh University Library and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, Ramsay’s surviving manuscripts tell us some very interesting things about this most fertile of eighteenth-century writers. One of the first things I learned, though, was how badly neglected Ramsay was – and in fact still is, so I had better start with the basics. Born in Leadhills, Lanarkshire, the son of a lead mine manager, Ramsay was apprenticed to an Edinburgh wigmaker, and went on to set himself up as a bookseller and what would now be called a publisher, self-publishing quite a lot of his own work. He was a prolific poet, publishing about 40 separate works, plus two subscription volumes of poems (Poems, 1721 and 1728), and The Gentle Shepherd (1725), the pastoral versedrama universally regarded as his masterpiece.
Two of his three editing projects, The Ever Green (two volumes, 1724) and The Tea Table Miscellany (five volumes, 1724-37), are major anthologies, influential in the revival of Scottish poetry. His poems and anthologies were reprinted regularly well into the nineteenth century, and were a key influence on Fergusson and Burns, among others. Ramsay was a Jacobite sympathiser and member of the pro-Jacobite ‘Easy Club’, and enjoyed the patronage of a number of influential figures, most prominently Sir John Clerk, a key tastemaker in the period. Among the most interesting manuscripts are those of The Gentle Shepherd. From the ‘draft’ sections of the play in Edinburgh University Library I could see how it was skilfully worked up from two of Ramsay’s existing dialogue poems. I learned, too, of the difficulty in getting it performed in a then theatre-free Edinburgh. The play most probably made its debut in an amateur performance by the boys of Haddington School, and among the manuscripts in the National Library is a four-page ‘Fragment: In Defence of an Edinburgh Theatre’ Ramsay wrote. Despite the ultimate failure of his plans for such a theatre Ramsay played a vital role in the development of the Scottish theatre. From a manuscript of draft songs I could see how Ramsay, after reviving a primarily Scottish pastoral dramatic tradition with the play, got distracted by the doings of the London Scriblerian writers and nearly spoiled it as a result. The phenomenal success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) made Ramsay determined to have his own ‘ballad opera’, and – again ingeniously – he worked up this set of ballads for the play, largely from existing text within it. But he eventually decided that his play did not need them, and removed the songs from the later editions. It somehow seemed appropriate that the song manuscript
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was itself now divided between two cultures – quite drastically, in fact, by the Atlantic Ocean, half of it being in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, and the other half in the Huntington in California. Perhaps most interestingly of all, I learned from the beautiful fair-copy manuscript of the play in the National Library of Scotland how Ramsay visualised his play as a written text, and how carefully and seductively he presented this fair copy to the play’s patron Susannah, Countess of Eglintoun. It is clear that Ramsay has decided to present the text in an illustrated form, with caricature comic faces in the spirit of the play, and ornately decorated dividers and tail-pieces, using images such as an ornate snake with trees growing from its back. In Iain Gordon Brown’s Poet and Painter (1984), a study of Ramsay and his equally famous son and namesake, Allan Ramsay the painter (1713-1784), some of these images are reproduced and discussed. The early drafts of The Gentle Shepherd also include drawings: there are seven profiles on one page, one of which is glossed ‘The Temper of the Tempter with face like a Spaniard which seems to be dyed in a tanyard and hung up a year’. (These images are discussed in Brown’s 1986 essay on the play, ‘Superfyn Poetry Nae Doubt?’). The manuscript shows the pride Ramsay felt in his creation. The time of completion is recorded not just to the date but to the minute, and there is a characteristically boastful opening annotation, added in 1737, the year he presented the manuscript to his patroness (to whom the play was also dedicated): This is the Originall Manuscript from which the Coppys were printed; presented to my Patroness March 2d 1737 – after my having seen reprinted six Editions of it a thousand each Time in Ed, besides two in London one in Dublin & one in Glasgow – and Be it kend to you, curious posterity, that the performance has received the Universall aprobation as I hope it will from YOU Thousands of years hence. N. B. The additional Songs were added to the fourth
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Edition about the year 1732 by the Author. It is interesting that despite all the bragging he is still fretting over those songs. As a self-made wigmaker and shopman Ramsay was perhaps more aware than most of the need to present oneself in the literary marketplace, to make a good appearance, and we can see this in the way he writes here, simultaneously looking to his patroness and to posterity – the latter not entirely seriously, acknowledging the need to be humorous as well as bold. In an age where a relationship with a powerful patron could make or break a writer, one of the trickiest tasks for poets, especially those of humble origin, was to negotiate a bearable working relationship with such figures. One of the many remarkable things about Ramsay was how delicately he negotiated this hazardous exercise, and how easy he managed to make it look. One of the two unpublished poems that constitute my unfinished business with Ramsay demonstrates this skill to perfection. The poem ‘To Sir John Clerk’ is in Boston Public Library, together with another untitled poem (both are printed below). They are in an eighteenth-century hand, but it is not Ramsay’s, and for this reason I rather timidly left them out of my listing of Ramsay manuscripts for the Index. But the words on the page make it absolutely unmistakeable that at least ‘To Sir John Clerk’ is Ramsay’s. It is very likely that the other manuscript poem in the same hand is also Ramsay’s. Neither has ever been published before. Here is the text of the titled poem: To Sir John Clerk This Boast with what its walls defends To Barron Clerk his Ramsay sends Wishing him health and humour gay on the inclosed pipes to play Tho they’re not of the Humming kind that drone aloud from Bags of Wind yet they can gar the spirits Caper with Curling fumes of halesom Vapour While steams throw the Warm Tubes we draw
which off the Mullygrumbs can Blaw by this so easy canny cast from cares we’er made free for a Blast The first thing to note is that it is in the form of a riddle, and that the riddle is more difficult for us than it would have been for Clerk, who presumably received the original autograph manuscript, and would see straight away what it was: a poem written on a paper used as a wrapper for the clay smoking-pipes Ramsay was enclosing as a gift. That eighteenth-century readers loved riddles, even where they knew the answer, is evident from the poetry pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine (founded 1731), which abound with riddles, rebuses, anagrams, acrostics, and rhymed puzzles of all kinds. The most obvious meaning of ‘Boast’ (l. 1) is a noise or a shout, (OED, ‘boast’, n. 1), but the reference to ‘what its walls defends’ (ie. what is protected by the poem that ‘walls’ up the pipes) may suggest it is an old racquets or real tennis expression: a ‘boast’ or ‘boasted’ ball hits the sides before rebounding to the end wall. Either meaning would show Ramsay in confident mood with his patron, either offering him a ‘shout’ or a ‘serve’. The reference to other kinds of ‘pipes’ that can be played (bagpipes, specifically) appeals to Clerk as if Ramsay were his piper, cleverly suggesting a more ancient set of relationships based in clan roles and loyalties. The familiar greeting of ‘good health’ is also expanded into comforting ideas and images around the (as was then thought) health benefits of inhaling tobacco fumes. The idea of healthfully ‘taking the air’ is pursued through images of air, the wind, steam, fumes and the ‘spirits’. The wind in bagpipes is compared to that in those pipes which can gar (make) the spirits caper, and whose halesom (healthful) vapours can blow away the ‘Mullygrumbs’, ie. the grumps or the blues. This is turn leads us to the key image in the poem’s carefully offset punch line: ‘free for a blast’. This is the motto of the Clerks of Penicuik, who hold their lands free of the crown, the reddendo being three blasts on a hunting horn when the sovereign shall come to hunt on the Burgh Muir of Edinburgh. By placing it where he
does, Ramsay punningly makes the phrase also refer to smoking: to be free to have a ‘blast’ on the tobacco pipe rather than the hunting horn. What we have here, then, is a charming literary and material gift which reflects and represents Ramsay’s own gift for friendship. This was the poet who invented a much-imitated style of verse epistle in which sociability, friendship and good humour are keynotes. He was also in the habit of giving Clerk what he called his ‘plaister gimcracks’ – decorated plaster of Paris plaques and other craft objects he had made. Ramsay was a man of many talents, and he utilised them all in building relationships with the likes of Sir John Clerk. The other unpublished poem in the manuscript, also probably by Ramsay, is untitled, and in four numbered verses: Frae purses stroot proceeds good Chear Smooth verses frae the Generous Vine but shilpit swats or heavy Beer can ne’er produce a sprightly Line
In Raeth serene, with Eagles flight Apollos Broad atempt the sky and smiling litle Truffers flight that mint with borrowed Wings to fly
Let servile drudges foot for foot Originalls trace up and down it disna set a Native Wit by sic poor shifts to win a Crown
A Crown of Laurels which shall lay till Time and Laurels cease to be How blyth am I that canny cast fa’s to the skair of sic as me ....................... ............. .......
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The dialect is more pronounced: like Robert Burns and many other Scottish poets Ramsay moved more or less easily between Lallans and ‘standard’ metropolitan English. The message is uncontroversial: good cheer comes from a ‘stroot’ purse; good verses come from ‘Generous’ wine; but weak ‘small’ beer (‘shilpit swats’, implicitly ‘mean’ by contrast), and ‘heavy’ beer, are both equally useless when it comes to versifying. Try telling that to John Clare or Robert Burns. The rest of the poem emphasises the need for poets to be bold, original and experimental, and the laurel crown inevitably comes back (as we might by now expect) to Ramsay himself, or at least it (very slightly more modestly) ‘fa’s to the skair of sic as me’,’ falls to the share of such as me’. (A few terms need explaining. In verse 2 ‘Raeth’ most probably means ‘Wreath’, ie. again, the laurel crown used to reward poets, while ‘Broad’ seems to be a variant of ‘Brood’, ‘Truffers’ are ‘Triflers’ and to ‘mint’ is to intend or attempt.) Ramsay’s personality shines out of these two poems, as it does from so much of his enormously varied, rich and rewarding oeuvre. The impulses toward braggadocio and generosity are almost perfectly balanced. His overall influence is a little hard to judge, eclipsed as he is by the far greater poetry of Burns, who nevertheless stands squarely on his shoulders. But his confident colloquial style, skill at versifying the poet-patron relationship (and other kinds of friendship), his occasional and humorous poetry, his engagement with rural and urban culture and his interest in personality have all helped him to remain a key figure, especially for later self-taught poets such as Henry Shanks, the ‘Blind Poet of the Deans’, who in The Peasant Poets of Scotland (1881, p.114) described him as ‘the father of the poets of the people’. When critics of John Clare’s first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) complained about his ‘too frequent imitations of Burns’, he protested that when his first poems were written he knew nothing of Burns, but ‘I had an odd volume of Ramsay a long while and if I imitated any it shoud be him to which I am ready to acknowledge a great deal.’ And sure enough, among Clare’s earliest manuscripts is a mock-up of a title page, at the heart of which is a chunk of Ramsay: A RUSTIC’S PASTIME, IN LEISURE HOURS; ======= J CLARE.
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Some like to laugh their time away, To dance while pipes or fiddles play, And have nae sense of ony want As lang as they can drink or rant. The rattling drum or trumpets tout Delight young swankies that are stout; May I be happy in my lays,
Is all my wish; well pleas’d to sing Beneath a tree, or by a spring. RAMSAY
============== HELPSTON; 1814.
Clare is quoting from Ramsay’s ‘Address to the Right Hon. William Earl of Dalhousie’ published in Poems on Several Occasions (the 1793 edition is in Clare’s surviving library in Northampton). Apart from the purely literary influence, one wonders whether Ramsay’s light touch in several published poems to Dalhousie, Clerk and others might have inspired Clare to domesticate his own fairly terrifying patron Admiral Lord Radstock into a well-meaning avuncular figure. One ‘inspiration’, finally, may be worth noting. There is a key moment in John Minter Morgan’s utopian novel The Revolt of the Bees (1826), when the ‘experimentalist’ bee, representing Robert Owen, has his ‘visionary’ reforms rejected by the bee community, and flies off to form a colony elsewhere. H. Gustav Klaus describes what happens in the beehive next: Into this apparently hopeless situation, the bees are visited by the spirit of the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, who invites them to a voyage into the future. They fly to the summit of Ben Lomond, from whence they look out across the landscape of lakes and hills, which is now dotted with a series of compact model communities. From wigmaker to poet to avator for the utopian future: a transformation indeed.
SOURCES Iain Gordon Brown, Poet and Painter: Allan Ramsay, Father and Son 1684-1784 (Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1984). – “‘Superfyn Poetry Nae Doubt?’: Advice to Allan Ramsay and a Criticism of The Gentle Shepherd”, Bibliotheck, 13 (1986), no. 2, 33-41. – “‘Plaister Gimcracks’: The Handicraft of Allan Ramsay the Poet”, Review of Scottish Culture, 2 (1986), 19-22. – The Clerks of Penicuik: Portraits of Taste and Talent (Edinburgh: Penicuik House Preservation Trust, 1987), p. 9. John Clare, ‘A Rustic’s Pastime’, Northampton Clare Manuscripts, MS 1. John Goodridge, ‘Allan Ramsay (1686-1758)’ in The Index of English Literary Manuscripts,Volume III 1700-1800, Part 3, ed by Margaret M Smith and Alexander Lindsay (London: Mansell, 1992), pp. 169-261. John Minter Morgan, The Revolt of the Bees (1826), quoted in H. Gustav Klaus, The Literature of Labour (Brighton: Harvester, 1985), p. 30. Henry Shanks, The Peasant Poets of Scotland and Musings Under the Beeches (Bathgate, Edinburgh and Glasgow: Laurence Gilbertson et al., 1881), p.114. Thanks are due to Iain Gordon Brown at the National Library of Scotland for his helpful advice, and to Sean P. Casey of Boston Public Library for promptly securing permission to publish the two Ramsey manuscript poems (ref call # Ch. H. 12. 3)
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A critical essay of Allan Ramsay's unpublished poems. From issue 28, Autumn 2008.