1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:479-83.



After the publication of Fergusson's poems, in a collected shape, in 1773, there was an interval of about thirteen years, during which no writer of eminence arose in Scotland who attempted to excel in the native language of the country. The intellectual taste of the capital ran strongly in favour of metaphysical and critical studies; but the Doric muse was still heard in the rural districts linked to some popular air, some local occurrence or favourite spot, and was much cherished by the lower and middling classes of the people. In the summer of 1786, ROBERT BURNS, the Shakspeare of Scotland, issued his first volume from the obscure press of Kilmarnock, and its influence was immediately felt, and is still operating on the whole imaginative literature of the kingdom. Burns was then in his twenty-seventh year, having been born in the parish of Alloway, near Ayr, on the 25th of January 1759. His father was a poor farmer, a man of sterling worth and intelligence, who gave his son what education he could afford. The whole, however, was but a small foundation on which to erect the miracles of genius! Robert was taught English well, and "by the time he was ten or eleven years of age, he was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles." He was also taught to write, had a fortnight's French, and was one summer-quarter at land-surveying. He had a few books, among which were the Spectator, Pope's Works, Allan Ramsay, and a collection of English songs. Subsequently (about his twenty-third year) his reading was enlarged with the important addition of Thomson, Shenstone, Sterne, and Mackenzie. Other standard works soon followed. As the advantages of a liberal education were not within his reach, it is scarcely to be regretted that his library was at first so small. What books he had, he read and studied thoroughly — his attention was not distracted by a multitude of volumes — and his mind grew up with original and robust vigour. It is impossible to contemplate the life of Burns at this time, without a strong feeling of affectionate admiration and respect. His manly integrity of character (which, as a peasant, he guarded with jealous dignity), and his warm and true heart, elevate him, in our conceptions, almost as much as the native force and beauty of his poetry.

We see him in the veriest shades of obscurity toiling, when a mere youth, "like a galley-slave," to support his virtuous parents and their household, yet grasping at every opportunity of acquiring knowledge from men and books — familiar with the history of his country, and loving its very soil — worshipping the memory of Scotland's ancient patriots and defenders, and exploring every scene and memorial of departed greatness — loving also the simple peasantry around him, "the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers." Burning with a desire to do something for old Scotland's sake, with a heart beating with warm and generous emotions, a strong and clear understanding, and a spirit abhorring all meanness, insincerity, and oppression, Burns, in his early days, might have furnished the subject for a great and instructive moral poem. The true elements of poetry were in his life, as in his writings. The wild stirrings of his ambition (which he so nobly compared to the "blind gropings of Homer's Cyclops round the walls of his cave"), the precocious maturity of his passions and his intellect, his manly frame, that led him to fear no competitor at the plough, and his exquisite sensibility and tenderness, that made him weep over even the destruction of a daisy's flower or a mouse's nest, these are all moral contrasts and blendings that seem to belong to the spirit of romantic poetry. His writings, as we now know, were but the fragments of a great mind — the hasty outpourings of a full heart and intellect. After he had become the fashionable wonder and idol of his day — soon to be cast into cold neglect and poverty! — some errors and frailties threw a shade on the noble and affecting image, but its higher lineaments were never destroyed. The column was defaced, not broken; and now that the mists of prejudice have cleared away, its just proportions and exalted symmetry are recognised with pride and gratitude by his admiring countrymen.

Burns came as a potent auxiliary or fellow-worker with Cowper, in bringing poetry into the channels of truth and nature. There were only two years between the Task and the "Cotter's Saturday Night." No poetry was ever more instantaneously or universally popular among a people than that of Burns in Scotland. It seemed as if a new realm had been added to the dominions of the British muse — a new and glorious creation, fresh from the hand of nature. There was the humour of Smollett, the pathos and tenderness of Sterne or Richardson, the real life of Fielding, and the description of Thomson — all united in delineations of Scottish manners and scenery by an Ayrshire ploughman! The volume contained matter for all minds — for the lively and sarcastic, the wild and the thoughtful, the poetical enthusiast and the man of the world. So eagerly was the book sought after, that, where copies of it could not be obtained, many of the poems were transcribed and sent round in manuscript among admiring circles. The subsequent productions of the poet did not materially affect the estimate of his powers formed from his first volume. His life was at once too idle and too busy for continuous study; and, alas! it was too brief for the full maturity and development of his talents. Where the intellect predominates equally with the imagination (and this was the case with Burns), increase of years generally adds to the strength and variety of the poet's powers; and we have no doubt that, in ordinary circumstances, Burns, like Dryden, would have improved with age, and added greatly to his fame, had he not fallen at so early a period, before his imagination could be enriched with the riper fruits of knowledge and experience. He meditated a national drama; but we might have looked with more confidence for a series of tales like "Tam o' Shanter," which (with the elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson, one of the most highly finished and most precious of his works) was produced in his happy residence at Ellisland. Above two hundred songs were, however, thrown off by Burns in his latter years, and they embraced poetry of all kinds. Mr. Moore became a writer of lyrics, as he informs his readers, that he might express what music conveyed to himself. Burns had little or no technical knowledge of music. Whatever pleasure he derived from it, was the result of personal associations — the words to which airs were adapted, or the locality with which they were connected. His whole soul, however, was full of the finest harmony. So quick and genial were his sympathies, that he was easily stirred into lyrical melody by whatever was good and beautiful in nature. Not a bird sang in a bush, nor a burn glanced in the sun, but it was eloquence and music to his ear. He fell in love with every fine female face he saw; and thus kindled up, his feelings took the shape of song, and the words fell as naturally into their places as if prompted by the most perfect knowledge of music. The inward melody needed no artificial accompaniment. An attempt at a longer poem would have chilled his ardour; but a song embodying some one leading idea, some burst of passion, love, patriotism, or humour, was exactly suited to the impulsive nature of Burns's genius, and to his situation and circumstances. His command of language and imagery, always the most appropriate, musical, and graceful, was a greater marvel than the creations of a Handel or Mozart. The Scottish poet, however, knew many old airs — still more old ballads; and a few bars of the music, or a line of the words, served as a keynote to his suggestive fancy. He improved nearly all he touched. The arch humour, gaiety, simplicity, and genuine feeling of his original songs, will be felt as long as "rivers roll and woods are green." They breathe the natural character and spirit of the country, and must be coeval with it in existence. Wherever the words are chanted, a picture is presented to the mind; and whether the tone be plaintive and sad, or joyous and exciting, one overpowering feeling takes possession of the imagination. The susceptibility of the poet inspired him with real emotions and passion, and his genius reproduced them with the glowing warmth and truth of nature.

"Tam o' Shanter" is usually considered to be Burns's masterpiece: it was so considered by himself, and the judgment has been confirmed by Campbell, Wilson, Montgomery, and almost every critic. It displays more various powers than any of his other productions, beginning with low comic humour and Bacchanalian revelry (the dramatic scene at the commencement is unique, even in Burns), and ranging through the various styles of the descriptive, the terrible, the supernatural, and the ludicrous. The originality of some of the phrases and sentiments, as

Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious—
O'er a' the ills of life victorious!

the felicity of some of the similes, and the elastic force and springiness of the versification, must also be considered as aiding in the effect. The poem reads as if it were composed in one transport of inspiration, before the bard had time to cool or to slacken in his fervour; and such we know was actually the case. Next to this inimitable "tale of truth" in originality, and in happy grouping of images, both familiar and awful, we should be disposed to rank the "Address to the Deil." The poet adopted the common superstitions of the peasantry as to the attributes of Satan; but though his Address is mainly ludicrous, he intersperses passages of the highest beauty, and blends a feeling of tenderness and compunction with his objurgation of the Evil One. The effect of contrast was never more happily displayed than in the conception of such a being straying in lonely glens and rustling among trees — in the familiarity of sly humour with which the poet lectures so awful and mysterious a personage (who had, as he says, almost overturned the infant world, and ruined all); and in that strange and inimitable outbreak of sympathy in which a hope is expressed for the salvation, and pity for the fate, even of Satan himself—

But fare you weel, auld Nickie-ben!
Oh! wad ye tak a thought and men'!
Ye aiblins might — I dinna ken—
Still hae a stake;
I'm wae to think upo' yen den,
Even for your sake!

The "Jolly Beggars" is another strikingly original production. It is the most dramatic of his works, and the characters are all finely sustained. Of the "Cotter's Saturday Night," the "Mountain Daisy," or the "Mouse's Nest," it would be idle to attempt any eulogy. In those Burns is seen in his fairest colours — not with all his strength, but in his happiest and most heartfelt inspiration — his brightest sunshine and his tenderest tears. The workmanship of these leading poems is equal to the value of the materials. The peculiar dialect of Burns being a composite of Scotch and English, which he varied at will (the Scotch being generally reserved for the comic and tender, and the English for the serious and lofty), his diction is remarkably rich and copious. No poet is more picturesque in expression. This was the result equally of accurate observation, careful study, and strong feeling. His energy and truth stamp the highest value on his writings. He is as literal as Cowper. The banks of the Doon are described as faithfully as those of the Ouse; and his views of human life and manners are as real and as finely moralised. His range of subjects, however, was infinitely more diversified, including a varied and romantic landscape, the customs and superstitions of his country, the delights of good fellowship and boon society, the aspirations of youthful ambition, and, above all, the emotions of love, which he depicted with such mingled fervour and delicacy. This ecstacy of passion was unknown to the author of the Task. Nor could the latter have conceived anything so truly poetical as the image of Coila, the tutelar genius and inspirer of the peasant youth in his clay-built hut, where his heart and fancy overflowed with love and poetry. Cowper read and appreciated Burns, and we can picture his astonishment and delight on perusing such strains as Coila's address:—

"With future hope I oft would gaze
Fond on thy little early ways,
Thy rudely carolled, chiming phrase,
In uncouth rhymes,
Fired at the simple, artless lays,
Of other times.

"I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Delighted with the dashing roar;
Or when the north his fleecy store
Drove through the sky,
I saw grim nature's visage hoar
Strike thy young eye.

"Or when the deep green-mantled earth
Warm cherished every flowret's birth,
And joy and music pouring forth
In every grove,
I saw thee eye the general mirth
With boundless love.

"When ripened fields and azure skies,
Called forth the reapers' rustling noise,
I saw thee leave their evening joys,
And lonely stalk,
To vent thy bosom's swelling rise
In pensive walk.

"When youthful love, warm-blushing, strong,
Keen-shivering shot thy nerves along,
Those accents, grateful to thy tongue,
The adored Name,
I taught thee how to pour in song,
To soothe thy flame.

"I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
Wild send thee pleasure's devious way,
Misled by Fancy's meteor-ray,
By passion driven;
But yet the light that led astray
Was light from Heaven.

"I taught thy manners-painting strains,
The loves, the ways of simple swains,
Till now, o'er all my wide domains
Thy fame extends;
And some, the pride of Coila's pains,
Become thy friends.

"Thou canst not learn, nor can I show,
To paint with Thomson's landscape glow;
Or wake the bosom-melting throe,
With Shenstone's art;
Or pour, with Gray, the moving flow
Warm on the heart.

"Yet, all beneath the unrivalled rose,
The lowly daisy sweetly blows;
Though large the forest's monarch throws
His army shade,
Yet green the juicy hawthorn grows
Adown the glade.

"Then never murmur nor repine;
Strive in thy humble sphere to shine;
And trust me, not Potosi's mine,
Nor king's regard,
Can give a bliss o'ermatching thine,
A rustic bard.

"To give my counsels all in one—
Thy tuneful flame still careful fan
Preserve the dignity of man,
With soul erect;
And trust, the universal plan
Will all protect.

"And wear thou this" — she solemn said,
And bound the holly round my head:
The polished leaves, and berries red,
Did rustling play;
And, like a passing thought, she fled
In light away.

Burns never could have improved upon the grace and tenderness of this romantic vision — the finest revelation ever made of the hope and ambition of a youthful poet. Greater strength, however, he undoubtedly acquired with the experience of manhood. His "Tam o' Shanter," and "Bruce's Address," are the result of matured powers; and his songs evince a conscious mastery of the art and materials of composition. His "Vision of Liberty" at Lincluden is a great and splendid fragment. The reflective spirit evinced in his early epistles is found, in his "Lines Written in Friars' Carse Hermitage," to have settled into a deep vein of moral philosophy, clear and true as the lines of Swift, and informed with a higher wisdom. It cannot be said that Burns absolutely fails in any kind of composition, except in his epigrams; these are coarse without being pointed or entertaining. Nature, which had lavished on him such powers of humour, denied him wit.

In reviewing the intellectual career of the poet, his correspondence must not be overlooked. His prose style was more ambitious than that of his poetry. In the latter he followed the dictates of nature, warm from the heart, whereas in his letters he aimed at being sentimental, peculiar, and striking; and simplicity was sometimes sacrificed for effect. As Johnson considered conversation to be an intellectual arena, wherein every man was bound to do his best, Burns seems to have regarded letter-writing in much the same light, and to have considered it necessary at times to display all his acquisitions to amuse, gratify, or astonish his patronising correspondents. Considerable deductions must, therefore, be made from his published correspondence, whether regarded as an index to his feelings and situation, or as models of the epistolary style. In subject, he adapted himself too much to the character and tastes of the person he was addressing, and in style, he was led away by a love of display. A tinge of pedantry and assumption, and of reckless bravado, was thus at times superinduced upon the manly and thoughtful simplicity of his natural character, which sits as awkwardly upon it as the intrusion of Jove or Danae into the rural songs of Allan Ramsay. Burns's letters, however, are valuable as memorials of his temperament and genius. He was often distinct, forcible, and happy in expression — rich in sallies of imagination and poetical feeling — at times deeply pathetic and impressive. He lifts the veil from the miseries of his latter days with a hand struggling betwixt pride and a broken spirit. His autobiography, addressed to Dr. Moore, written when his mind was salient and vigorous, is as remarkable for its literary talent as for its modest independence and clear judgment; and the letters to Mrs. Dunlop (in whom he had entire confidence, and whose ladylike manners and high principle rebuked his wilder spirit) are all characterised by sincerity and elegance. One beautiful letter to this lady we are tempted to copy: it is poetical in the highest degree, and touches with exquisite taste on the mysterious union between external nature and the sympathies and emotions of the human frame

"ELLISLAND, New-Year-Day Morning, 1789.

"This, dear madam, is a morning of wishes, and would to God that I came under the apostle James's description! — 'the prayer of a righteous man availeth much.' In that case, madam, you should welcome in a year full of blessings: everything that obstructs or disturbs tranquillity and self enjoyment should be removed, and every pleasure that frail humanity can taste should be yours. I own myself so little a Presbyterian, that I approve of set times and seasons of more than ordinary acts of devotion, for breaking in on that habituated routine of life and thought which is so apt to reduce our existence to a kind of instinct, or even sometimes, and with some minds, to a state very little better than mere machinery.

"This day, the first Sunday of May, a breezy, blue-skied noon some time about the beginning, and a hoary morning and calm sunny day about the end of autumn; these, time out of mind, have been with me a kind of holiday.

"I believe I owe this to that glorious paper in the Spectator — the Vision of Mirza — a piece that struck my young fancy before I was capable of fixing an idea to a word of three syllables: 'On the 5th day of the moon, which, according to the custom of my forefathers, I always keep holy, after having washed myself, and offered up my morning devotions, I ascended the high hill of Bagdat, in order to pass the rest of the day in meditation and prayer.'

"We know nothing, or next to nothing, of the substance or structure of our souls, so cannot account for those seeming caprices in them, that one should be particularly pleased with this thing, or struck with that, which, on minds of a different cast, makes no extraordinary impression. I have some favourite flowers in spring, among which are the mountain-daisy, the harebell, the foxglove, the wild-brier rose, the budding birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang over with particular delight. I never hear the loud, solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of gray plovers in an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, which, like the Eolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod? I own myself partial to such proofs of those awful and important realities — a God that made all things — man's immaterial and immortal nature, and a world of weal or wo beyond death and the grave."

To the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, Burns seems to have clung with fond tenacity: it survived the wreck or confusion of his early impressions, and formed the strongest and most soothing of his beliefs. In other respects his creed was chiefly practical. "Whatever mitigates the woes, or increases the happiness of others," he says, "this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my reason of iniquity." The same feeling he had expressed in one of his early poems—

But deep this truth impressed my mind,
Through all his works abroad,
The heart benevolent and kind
The most resembles God.

Conjectures have been idly formed as to the probable effect which education would have had on the mind of Burns. We may as well speculate on the change which might be wrought by the engineer, the planter, and agriculturist, in assimilating the wild scenery of Scotland to that of England. Who would wish (if it were possible), by successive graftings, to make the birch or the pine approximate to the oak or the elm? Nature is various in all her works, and has diversified genius as much as she has done her plants and trees. In Burns we have a genuine Scottish poet: why should we wish to mar the beautiful order and variety of nature by making him a Dryden or a Gray? Education could not have improved Burns's songs, his "Tam o' Shanter," or any other of his great poems. He would never have written them but for his situation and feelings as a peasant — and could he have written anything better? The whole of that world of passion and beauty which he has laid open to us might have been hid for ever; and the genius which was so well and worthily employed in embellishing rustic life, and adding new interest and glory to his country, would only have swelled the long procession of English poets, stript of his originality, and bearing, though proudly, the ensign of conquest and submission.