1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Anna Seward to William Newton, the Peak Minstrel, 26 September 1787; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:326.



Lichfield, Sept. 26, 1787.

I am very sorry for your declining health, and broken and, perturbed rest. Perhaps your energies, the united force of your manual and mental industry bears too hard upon the vital springs. Let me intreat you to acquire a taste for the sweets of tender indolence, when there are no indispensable demands upon your attention.

Have you seen the poems of the Scotch peasant Burns? They abound with the irregular fires of genius whenever they describe rural scenery, or the customs and characters of village-life. We find that he has looked at Nature, in her wild and rustic operations, with his own eyes, and he is particularly happy in his winter landscapes. But when he grows sentimental he has little that is new, and his plagiarisms are notorious. There is great originality in the allegoric ode which personifies a Caledonian muse; but he says there was about her

A hair-brain'd sentimental trace.

The line is specked as a quotation. How a sentimental trace should be hair-brained, which means wild, giddy, unthinking, there can be no guess.

Mr. Hayley thus replies to my inquiring after his opinion of Burns's compositions — "I admire the Scotch peasant, but do not think him superior to your poetical carpenter [Newton]."