1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 78-82.



"Excelling equally in the pathetic and the humorous; possessing descriptive powers which some have not hesitated to place with those of Shakspeare himself; now lashing the vice and superstition of his time with all the keenness of wit and all the bitterness of satire, and now singing of love and of beauty in numbers which have justly ranked him with the first of amatory poets; it was no wonder that the merits of the Ayrshire Bard should be instantly and generally appreciated. The fame of the unfortunate Fergusson, in his life-time, was scarcely known beyond the precincts of the northern capital; that even of Ramsay had but partially penetrated the country south of the Tweed; but the genius of their mighty successor commanded a wider field. In spite of the disadvantages of his station, and of the language he wrote in, he made the world the theatre of his triumphs. From the palace to the cot, every breast responded to the chords be awakened. The peasant stared to find his own thoughts and feelings expressed by a brother peasant. The learned praised, and the noble flattered him; his brows were encircled with the laurel wreath; but here terminated the homage. He was left to poverty — almost to want, and his fine independent spirit was broken. He fell, in truth, the victim of inexpiable neglect; while they whose duty it was to have patronised, basely represented him as the victim of his own irregularities!"

He spoke this with unusual warmth, and I expressed my concurrence in every word he uttered. He went on:—

"Yet it might admit of debate whether the misfortunes of this poet have not enhanced the interest we take in his productions. We sympathise with his plaintive moods the more readily, perhaps, and the more sincerely, because we know the sorrows he sings to have been more serious than 'poetic pains,' and to have had a deeper source than sentimental trickery. Nor might it be refining too much to assert, that his livelier pieces gain something from the force of contrast, just as a bright patch of mountain greensward — already distinguished from the surrounding heath — will look yet brighter in a flash of evanescent sunshine. His death, too, which happened in the very flower of his age, while his mind was yet in all its vigour, may have contributed to produce the same effect. We image to ourselves additional triumphs which be might have achieved but for his premature dissolution; without admitting for a moment the possibility of his future efforts falling short of his preceding ones. Yet a supposition of this kind might be entertained without at all detracting from his great and original powers. He had projected an English drama, a species of writing the most difficult of any, and which his previous habits of composition must have rendered a task of peculiar difficulty to him. Verily, his Pegasus must have learned a very different pace, — or rather he must have exchanged his Northern shelty for an English war-horse; and it becomes a question whether he could have managed him with the same ease, or sat him with the same gracefulness.

"The writings of Burns I made my constant study, I was fortunate enough to see Currie's edition of them; and the detail of his life and character, as therein exhibited, endeared the man to my heart, and exalted even the poet to my imagination. Beauties were displayed to me in the latter, which the immaturity of my judgment had overlooked; and a hundred good qualities in the former, of which I had previously been ignorant. Hour after hour I used to pore over his life, his letters, and his poetry, and most devoutly did I breathe the wish that I might be like him in everything! With a vanity not unnatural at that period of life, I looked forward to a time when, after my death, some skilful and tender hand should carefully collect my own scattered performances; I figured to myself some young aspirer to poetic fame turning over my pages with feelings similar to those which accompanied my perusal of Burns; and with a high sense of the value of such feelings — which a mind so constituted, will know how to excuse or to sympathise with — I considered the silent worship of this imagined devotee, as a thing that would be worth having lived, written, and died for! 'Give me the fame of Burns,' I exclaimed, 'and welcome — thrice welcome all the storms that crushed, prematurely, the blossoms of his genius!'"