Robert Fergusson (1750- 1774); Scottish poet; biography and famous works

Robert Fergusson (5 September 1750- 16 October 1774) was a Scottish poet. He was born in Edinburgh. After formal schooling at the city’s high school, he attended the University of St Andrews. But he abandoned his studies at St Andrew’s to become a copying clerk in his native city. His earliest extant poem, written at this time, is a satirical elegy in Scots on the death of David Gregory, one of the university’s professors of maths. His friend, the theatre bmanager William Woods, regularly procured him free admission to theatre productions. Fergusson’s poems, imitations of William Shenstone and other English authors, were published in Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement in 1771. “The Daft Days’, his first Scottish poem is one of the 35 Scots works on which his reputation rests, appeared there in January 1772. Poems (1773) collected 27 English and nine Scots poems. He mainly wrote either satirical or pastoral poems. His most famous work is Auld Reekie, which is a vivid verse portrait of his home city intended as the first part of a planned long poem. The posthumous Poems on Various Subjects (1779), made up largely of material published in the Weekly Magazine in the months after the appearance of the 1773 volume, inspired Robert Burns to ’emulating vigour’: ‘Leith Races’ foreshadows ‘The Holy Fair’, while ‘The Farmer’s Ingle’ provides a notably unsentimental prototype for ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’.

Fergusson vividly evokes the street life, taverns, and amusements of Edinburgh, and mocks the established literary world in his attacks on Henry Mackenzie (in the English ‘The Sow of Feeling’) and Samuel Johnson. ‘Auld Reekie’, an ambitious satire on Edinburgh in octosyllabic couplets, was left unfinished. In 1773, he developed manic-depressive symptoms, and he died shortly after his removal to Bedlam.

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