JAMES Thomson (1700-48) was one of the most influential Scottish poets ever, effectively inventing the genre of landscape poetry and invigorating that of landscape painting in his epic sequence The Seasons (1726-30, revised 1744). Born in Ednam, Roxburghshire, he was taken as a baby to Southdean, near Carter Bar on the border, and went to Edinburgh University. He moved to London, where he became well-known as a dramatist, most famously writing the lyrics of Rule Britannia for Thomas Arne’s music in the anti-Jacobite play he co-authored with David Mallet, The Masque of Alfred (1740). But as the poet of The Seasons, his influence grew. Written in London, it processes boyhood memories but universalises the landscape it describes. It derives from Scotland, unmistakably in “Winter”:

Then comes the father of the tempest forth,

Wrapt in black glooms. First, joyless rains obscure

Drive through the mingling skies with vapour foul,

Dash on the mountain’s brow, and shake the woods

That grumbling wave below. The unsightly plain

Lies a brown deluge; as the low-bent clouds

Pour flood on flood, yet unexhausted still

Combine, and, deepening into night, shut up

The day’s fair face.

This is exciting poetry: nature is a new subject. The poem’s influence was extensive. Thomson started more than he knew. He describes Scotland explicitly in “Autumn”, naming the river Tweed and praising the “patriot-hero” Wallace. Thomson’s Wallace, however, is named with other heroes including Sir Francis Drake, opposing tyranny in a universal struggle. Any particularly Scottish character or landscape, like the poem as a whole, is sublimated into a general context. Joseph Haydn used a translation for the text of his three-hour oratorio.

The Anglocentric aspect of Thomson’s work was characteristic of much Scottish writing of the time. James Beattie (1735-1803), professor of moral philosophy and an anti-slavery campaigner, was the author of the popular poem The Minstrel (1771-72) and, anonymously, of a little book entitled Scoticisms, Arranged in Alphabetical Order, Designed to Correct Improprieties of Speech and Writing (1779), itemising the idiomatic Scots aspects of writing that should be extracted from works addressing an English-language readership. Dr Johnson met him in London and liked him well enough.

In a world where British naval power was growing, Allan Cunningham (1784-1842), biographer of Burns, friend of Hogg, Scott and the English poet John Clare, wrote “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea”, a classic anthology poem of sailing ships:

There’s tempest in yon horned moon,

And lightning in yon cloud;

And hark the music, mariners,

The wind is piping loud;

The wind is piping loud, my boys,

The lightning flashing free –

While the hollow oak our palace is,

Our heritage the sea.

Such bravado in English however is matched by his lament from exile, written in Scots, “The Sun Rises Bright in France”:

The sun rises bright in France,

And fair sets he;

But he has tint the blithe blink he had

In my ain country.

It would be wrong to see literature in English, Scots and Gaelic as totally independent traditions in the 18th century: there were overlapping priorities, connections and continuities in their work, even when their readers came from different constituencies.

For example, the vigour and vitality of humour and appetite, the unquenchable thirst for life in Burns at his best, or in Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair or Duncan Ban MacIntyre, equally characterize the works of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byron’s praise of Burns applies as well to Byron: “What an antithetical mind! – tenderness, roughness, delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and groveling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!”

In Don Juan, Byron wrote: “I am half a Scot by birth, and bred / A whole one...”

A boy from Aberdeen, he was sent to the English public school at Harrow and then Cambridge. With effortless ease, he took flamboyance to excess. Nobody was more highly spirited. In Don Juan, Byron’s satiric edge runs sharp through thousands of stanzas, bridging a classic Enlightenment laconicism, a sense of being cool, over to the high passionate gestures of isolated Romantic individualism, in the role of the outcast sinner. He maintains a fierce critical disdain towards the religious subservience of approaching Victorianism. Byron sustained a huge contempt of bourgeois values, simpering moralism and the idea that usefulness could only be measured by money. As a poet, he worked hard but his laughter still shreds work ethic and piety.

If the ploughman Burns lived in a world where Holy Fairs and houghmagandie, public boxing, drinking sprees, music and dancing, were familiar enough in the yearly round, aristocratic Byron also exulted in such activities, and like Burns, Byron knew how earthy values crossed social strata. But by Byron’s time, polite society was even more thoroughly committed to grinding down public festivities in fairs, sports and open air gatherings. Byron was a shock for polite, well-educated readers. He horrified his public. However, his wide and deep popularity was not founded merely on literary fashion and sensationalism, but on a broad understanding of what he represented: ideas about defiance of oppression and the courage of self-determination. In Canto 12 of Don Juan, he says: “I’m going to be immoral, now / I mean to show things really as they are, / Not as they ought to be...”

Like Scott, Byron welcomed material improvements and new technology. He was privileged and comfortable enough to be able to dissent from the conventions of his class, but no-one could predict the intensity, energy and accuracy of his dissension, the lasting strength of the forms it took, in coruscating verse allied with the earthed values he recognised in Scott and Burns. The spirit of the ballad describing Macpherson’s rant below the gallows tree, his song, dance and defiance of his murderers and of death itself, was something Byron knew innately. In Canto 9 of Don Juan we read:

Death laughs. Go ponder o’er the skeleton

With which men image out the unknown thing

That hides the past world, like to a set sun

Which still elsewhere may rouse a brighter spring.

Death laughs at all you weep for...

From 1813 to 1824, Byron was the best-selling living poet. The reading public was expanding, in Scotland and internationally, eager for newspapers, critical review journals, novels, long narrative poems published in books.

The single most piercingly beautiful Scottish song in Byron’s oeuvre is “Dark Lochnagar” but the rollercoaster satire of Don Juan, the arch, poised and posturing narrative poems such as “The Siege of Corinth” (1816), “The Prisoner of Chillon” (1816) and “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1812-1818), all contributed to a European sense of the Byronic personality, opposed to convention, hypocrisy, “cant” and servile self-abnegation. Flawed but heroic, Byron like Burns thrives on his youth, and like Burns, died in his 30s.

Next week: Susan Mansfield on a major new exhibition of Scottish art opening soon in Montrose, bringing portraits, landscapes, poems and biographies of modern Scotland into focus