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Kay's Originals Vol. 2


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. 237 works of the day, but it was not till 1794 that Mr. Sommers, impelled by the political excitement of the times, committed himself to the public, by the production of a pamphlet on the “Meaning and Extent of the Burgess Oath.”‘ This essay, inscribed to Provost Elder, is written in a clear and forcible style. The aim of the author was to exhibit to his fellow-burgesses the nature and duties by which they were bound, and the evil effects consequent on disunion, disaffection, and civil war. As the pamphlet is now scarce, we may quote the following passage as a specimen :-“ How valuable, how important then, the blessings of internal peace-national peace ! Consequently, how criminal the conduct of those who would endeavour to deprive us of them ! Peace, at her leisure, plans and leads out industry to execute all those noble improvements in agriculture, commerce, architecture, and science, which we behold on every side. Peace sets the mark of property on our possessions, and bids justice guarantee them to our enjoyment. Peace spreads over us the banner of the laws, while, free from outrage, and secure from injury, we taste the milk and honey of our honest toil.“ The author was prompted to this performance by a desire to vindicate the character of the poet, and rescue his memory from the misrepresentations of ‘‘ those biographers who knew him not, and who have taken their materials from others little better informed than themselves.” The story of the poet’s accidental meeting with the Rev. John Brown, in the churchyard of Haddington, and the extraordinary effect resulting from the conversation, is strongly doubted by Mr. Sommers. “This rural excursion, and singular dialogue,” says he, “ with all its supposed direful effects, has even found its way into the first volume of the Supplement to the [email protected] dia Britanniea, and is held forth in that part of their biographical history as a sterling circumstance in the life of the unfortunate Robert Fergusson! I know, however, that account to be ill-founded in most particulars, although the visit alluded to was in the year 1772. The day before Robert Fergusson set out upon it, I saw and conversed with him; and the evening on which he returned to town was in his company ; and not one word dropped from him of any such thing having happened, though he was thn in every respect possessed of all his mental faculties. With regard to the accusation preferred against the poet, “that he was an utter stranger to temperance and sobriety, and that his dissipated manner of life had in a great measure eradicated all sense of delicacy and propriety,” Mr. Sommers observes, that ‘‘ those who were personally acquainted with him, will His Life of Fergusson appeared in 1803.’ “Observations on the Meaning and Extent of the Burgess Oath, taken at the admission of every Burgess in the City of Edinburgh, as comprehending the duties of Religion, Allegiance to the King, Respect and Submission to the authority of the Civil Magistrate, and the relative duties which the Bur gesses owe to each other. By Thomas Sommera, Burgess and Freeman Glazier of Edinburgh.” 8vo. * “Life of Robert Fergusson, the Scottish Poet, by Thomas Sommers, Burgess and Freeman of Edinburgh, and his Majesty’s Glazier for Scotland.” This biographical sketch was intended to accompany an edition of Fergusson’s Poems, printed in 12mo, by Chapman and Lang, 1500, and which Sommers characterises “as the best yet published.” Edin. 1803, 12mo.
Volume 9 Page 316
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238 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. not subscribe to that opinion ; for even when in his more devoted hours at the shrine of Bacchus, he preserved a modesty and gentleness of manners, exhibited by few of his age, sprightly humour, and unpatronised situation." Of the intimacy betwixt the poet and his biographer, the following anecdote affords a characteristic instance. Mr. Sommers, alluding to his shop in the Parliament Square, states that he was frequently visited by the poet, when passing to or from the Comniissary Office :-" In one of those visits I happened to be absent ; he found, however, my shopboy Robert Aikman (a great favourite of Fergusson), then engaged in copying from a collection of manuscript hymns one on the Creation, given to him by a friend of the author, in order to improve his hand in writing. Fergusson looked at the hymn, and supposing that I had given it to the boy, not merely to transcribe, but to learn its serious contents, took the pen out of his hand, and upon a small slip of paper wrote the following lines : - ' Tom Sommers is a gloomy man, His mind is dark within ; 0 holy - ! glaze his soul, That light may enter in.' He then desired the boy to give his compliments to me, delivered to him the slip of paper, and retired." Another circumstance relative to the only portrait known to have been taken of the poet, is too interesting to be omitted. Speaking of Ruiaciman, the painter, Sommers says-" That artist was at this time painting, in his own house in the Pleasance, a picture on a half-length cloth of the Prodigal Son, in which his fancy and pencil had introduced every necessary object and circumstance suggested by the sacred passage. I was much pleased with the composition, colouring, and admirable effect of the piece, at least what was done of it; but expressed my surprise at observing a large space in the centre, exhibiting nothing but chalk outlines of a human figure. He informed me that he had reserved that space for the Prodigal, but could not find a young man whose personal form and expressive features were such as he could approve of, and commit to the canvas. Robert Fergusson's face and figure instantly occurred to me ; not from an idea that Fergusson's real character was that of the Prodigal; by no means-but on account of his sprightly humour, personal appearance, and striking features. I asked Mr. Runciman if he knew the poet? He answered in the negative, but that he had often read and admired the poems. That evening at five I appointed to meet with him and the poet in a tavern, Parliament Close. We did so, and I introduced him. The painter was much pleased, both with his figure and conversation. I intimated to Ferpsson the nature of the business on which we met. He agreed to sit next forenoon.. I accompanied him for that purpose; and in a few days the picture strikingly exhibited the bard in the character of a prodigal, sitting on a grassy bank, surrounded by swine, some of which were sleeping, and others feeding ; his right leg over his left knee ; eyes uplifted ; At his own desire I called to see it.
Volume 9 Page 317
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