"FAIREST, WHEN BY the RULES" William Browne (n.d.) William Browne gained his reputation as a writer of pastoral poetry; Britannia's PASTORAL is his best known work. As most 17th-century poets did, he also wrote sonnets, and "Fairest, When by the Rules" is one that is occasionally published in modern poetry collections. He adopts the traditional rhyme scheme for the Shakespearean, or English, sonnet, ababcdcdefefgg, with the three quatrains establishing and extending a theme through metaphor and the final couplet commenting upon it. The theme is that of prediction, as Browne adopts a metaphor of palmistry, one means of fortune telling. The object of the prediction is the speaker's happiness and how he might achieve it.
The speaker proposes the question as he addresses his love in the first quatrain:
Fairest, when by the rules of palmistry You took my hand to try if you could guess, By lines therein, if any wight there be ordained to make me know some happiness.
Because his love reads his palm and he uses the term ordained, the speaker seeks to connect the cause for his contentment with fate or a religious decision made for him by an unseen source. By doing so, the speaker suggests that neither he nor the object of his affection has the power to change that which has been ordained. He continues, "I wished that those characters could explain, / Whom I will never wrong with hope to win,"
making clear that he feels unworthy to reveal the name of the person he desires, the characters referring to the lines in his palm. He especially does not want "Fairest" to know, as he coyly says, "or that by them," meaning the "characters," "a copy might be seen, / By you, O love, what thoughts I had within." The speaker moves from the examination of his hand to that of his mind.
Browne executes a clever double meaning concerning his hand and fortune in the next line, "But since the hand of Nature did not set," and then again refers to fate or providence, suggesting that nature did not want his need clearly revealed, although he tries to minimize the remark by making it a parenthetical one: "(As providently loth to have it known)." The next two lines pursue the idea of future occurrences as a type of riddle, its solution hidden at first glance, as Browne writes, "The means to find that hidden alphabet, / Mine eyes shall be th' interpreters alone." Now the speaker has told the "Fairest" that she looks to the wrong part of his body to reveal his needs. She should look into his eyes, which will interpret for her his emotions and communicate what will make him happy. He makes this quite clear in the concluding couplet: "By them conceive my thoughts, and tell me, fair, / If now you see her that doth love me there?" He playfully suggests that she will see her own physical reflection in his eye, while searching for his mental reflection, or thought.
Browne appropriately adopts a light approach in developing this flirtatious scene as he makes use of the sonnet in the manner in which it was intended.
FERGUSSON, ROBERT (1750-1774) Born in Cap-and-Feather Close, Edinburgh, Robert Fergus-son was the second son of a clerk named William and his wife, Elizabeth. Respectable members of the lower middle class, Fergusson's parents could not have afforded to educate him. After he attended a private school in Edinburgh, he was able to enroll in the Grammar School of Dundee through a bursary, or scholarship, which also allowed him to attend four years at St. Andrews, 1764-68. Before leaving for school in 1764, Fergusson traveled with his mother to Roundlichnot, near Aberdeenshire, to visit his wealthy uncle, John Forbes, who would later prove a disappointment to his future. While at St. Andrews Fergusson studied with the brilliant poet and professor William Wilkie and proved a promising student, reading voraciously Latin, English, and Scots poetry. Despite undesirable accommodations and not much in the way of food, Fergus-son thrived in the environment. He wrote two high-quality poems in the Scots language, including the satire "Elegy on the Death of Mr. David Gregory," but before he could develop a writing career, his father died in 1767. While Fergusson stayed on at school for a short time, he had to interrupt his education in 1768 in order to care for his family.
Fergusson's uncle, Forbes, invited the young man to live with him for a time, promising to find him work, but did little on his nephew's behalf. After six months passed with no prospects, Fergusson returned to Edinburgh, feeling desperate in regard to his future. He found a position copying legal documents for Charles Abercrombie, deputy clerk of the Comissary Office, Edinburgh. In the only position he would ever hold, Fergusson performed the most dull and tedious work imaginable. Probably in hopes of increasing his income, he returned to writing. When he attempted to write in the popular English mode in order to sell, he produced several poems unworthy of his talent. As did others tempted away from their native tradition, Fergusson failed in his efforts. only when he returned to the Scots language did his talent become clear.
As Allan H. MacLaine, writer of the first book-length study on Fergusson, explained, Scotland's native poetic tradition was in peril in the mid-18th century. While the 15th and early 16th centuries had produced a
"golden age" of Scots poetry, three particular changes caused its near-demise. First, the Calvinist beliefs of John Knox became popular in Scotland, convincing its populace that poetry should be categorized, along with other entertainments, as a "lewd" pursuit. Second, the Scottish court, long a center of traditional arts, moved in 1603 from Edinburgh to London, removing its strong support. Third, the influence of English poetry caused native poets, such as William Drummond of Hawthornden, to adopt not only the English style, but the language. A renewed interest in the Scottish poetic heritage did not occur until an upsurge of nationalism early in the 18th century. That upsurge was ironically propelled by the insult of the parliamentary union of 1707, which citizens viewed as a reduction of Scotland to little more than a British province. Led by their queen, Mary Scott, Scottish citizens resisted assimilation, resulting in an astounding resurgence of all cultural aspects, including writing; the Scottish Enlightenment was born. While various outstanding poets, including James Watson and Allan Ramsay, published in the century's first decades, no excellent poet worked during the four decades between 1730 and 1770. When Fergusson returned to his native style, the prospect of a new Scots writer appeared strong.
With publication of a few of his poems, Fergusson gained reputation. He contributed regularly by 1771 to The Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement. While his first work was in the hackneyed English vein, probably influenced by the undeservedly praised William Shenstone, in 1772 Fergusson returned to the native language to produce the traditional and much lauded "The Daft Days." That began a brilliant series of 31 Scots language poems. He became famous but received no offers of support and continued work at his copying job. In fall 1772 he was proclaimed in letters from delighted readers successor to Allan Ramsay. This led to election to the prestigious Cape Club of Edinburgh and the publication of Poems, a volume of his few works, in 1773.
A celebrity, Fergusson did not long enjoy his position. overworked and strained by a tedious occupation and heavy social commitments, he became ill, collapsing in January 1774; the doctors diagnosed a nervous disorder. As he seemed in recovery, a fall down stone steps caused irreversible damage from a concussion that permanently injured his brain. Fergusson became violently insane, requiring institutionalization by his frantic mother. He moved into Edinburgh's house for the insane, nicknamed "the Schelles," or "Cells." Shortly after his 24th birthday, Fergusson died.
According to the scholar F. W. Freeman, by the early 19th century, the critic James Sibbald agreed with others in dismissing the Scots Vernacular Revival as provincial, the poetry too debased and common. But an understanding of Fergusson as a highly educated and traditional man, a practicing Tory, debunks the idea that colloquial writers were uneducated dolts. The debate over the value of a national language art had existed for some time, hearkening back to the ancient versus modern controversy of the 16th century. One group supported the idea that one's national language provides a unique way to express the "natural genius" of a nation and that poetry's language is that of the common man. Fergusson well exemplified that belief.
Robert Fergusson's memory and work were unnoticed for the next two centuries, except by the poet who would eclipse his importance, Robert Burns. Burns greatly appreciated Fergusson's talent and sent a respectful letter to the Honorable Bailies of the Canongate, Edinburgh, in 1787. He wrote, in part, of his sorrow upon learning that "the remains of Robert Fergusson, the so justly celebrated Poet, a man whose talents, for ages to come, will do honor to our Caledonian name," lay unrecognized in their churchyard. Burns asked, and was granted, permission to mark Fergusson's grave with a stone. Burns recognized what it would take scholars decades to acknowledge, that Fergusson was an artist deserving of the dignity and respect of the poetry world.
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