Today’s big mystery is the contrast between Henry Mackenzie and Robert Fergusson, and how each of these men represented a particular set of literary options, traditions, and personae for Robert Burns. We know now which model he picked, but it’s important to notice Burns’s Mackenzie-ish side, especially in his more sentimental or anglicized moments, and to recognize the degree to which Mackenzie struggled to move Burns away from Fergusson’s model of dissipation and early death.
Nonetheless, Fergusson remains the eternally youthful, early-dying though not quite deceased poet of the Old Town and St. Andrews, the “Poet Laureate of the Night-Watch,” whose poetry represents a stylistic breakthrough of vernacular Scots with contemporary English idioms in 1772, a triumph that had run its course by the time the poet died at the age of 24 two years later.
Mackenzie is the urbane lawyer, editor, and confidante of the Edinburgh literary scene whose Man of Feeling is a massive sentimental success in 1771, but whose novelistic career is over with Julia de Rubigne by 1777, and who lived another 54 years as one of the city’s ‘s leading periodical editors, critics and men of letters. Mackenzie promoted (and scolded) Burns, nursed some hard feelings against Fergusson (who parodied him, briefly and perhaps cruelly, in a burlesque called “the Sow of Feeling”), and helped to adjudicate the Ossianic dispute with a typically balanced report to the Highland Society in 1805.
Interestingly enough, both men are recognizable products of the city of Edinburgh, though from very different neighborhoods and social strata, and both men are in fact highly educated writers who made very deliberate stylistic choices about their relation to English and Scottish literary traditions.
It’s just that subsequent literary history has made Mackenzie, and much of the other polite writing of this era, especially from figures like Hugh Blair, difficult to enjoy.
But I also think, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Mackenzie’s best writing is not novelistic but critical, essayistic, and autobiographical. My favorite writing of his comes from the journals that were mined for his Anecdotes and Egotisms. This is the kind of reflective writing that Fergusson never had the opportunity to write.