I heard it mentioned at Mr. M—'s [Henry Mackenzie], that a triennial dinner, in honour of Robert Burns, was about to take place; and thinking it would be a good opportunity for me to see a larger number of the Scots literati than I had yet met with collected together, I resolved, if possible, to make one of the party. I found, on enquiring, that in consequence of the vast multitude of persons who wished to be present, the original plan of the dinner had been necessarily departed from, and the company were to assemble, not in a tavern, for no tavern in Edinburgh could accommodate them, but in the Assembly-Rooms in George-Street. Even so, I was told, there was likely to be a deficiency rather than a superfluity of room; and, indeed, when I went to buy my ticket, I found no more remained to be sold. But I procured one afterwards through Mr. M—; and W— arriving from the country the same day, I went to the place in company with him. He is hand in glove with half of the stewards, and had no difficulty in getting himself smuggled in. I send you a copy of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal, which contains the best newspaper account of the affair I have met with, but shall proceed to favour you with a few of my own observations in addition.
Those who are accustomed to talk and think of the Scotch as a cold phlegmatic people, would have been convinced of their mistake by a single glance at the scene which met my eyes when I entered. I have never witnessed a more triumphant display of national enthusiasm, and had never expected to witness any display within many thousand degrees of it, under any thing less than the instantaneous impulse of some glorious victory. The room is a very large one, and I had already seen it lighted up in all the splendour of a ball; but neither its size nor its splendour had then made anything more than a very common-place impression on my mind. But now — what a sight was here! A hall of most majestic proportions — its walls, and hangings, and canopies of crimson, giving a magical richness of effect to the innumerable chandeliers with which its high roof appeared to be starred and glowing — the air overhead alive with the breath of lutes and trumpets — below, the whole mighty area paved with human faces, (for the crowd was such that nothing of the tables could at first be seen,) — the highest, and the wisest, and the best of a nation assembled together — and all for what? — to do honour to the memory of one low-born peasant. What a lofty tribute to the true nobility of Nature! — What a glorious vindication of the born majesty of Genius!
With difficulty we procured seats at the lower extremity of the Hall, at the table where Captain A— of the Navy presided as croupier — a fine manly-looking fellow, with a world of cordial jollity in his face. W— chose to sit at this table, as he afterwards told me, because, in the course of a long experience, he had found the fare of a public dinner uniformly much better in the immediate neighbourhood of the croupier or president; and indeed, whatever might be the case elsewhere, the fare where we sat was most excellent. We had turbot in perfection — a haunch of prime venison — the red-deer I believe — and every thing, in short, which could have been selected to make a private dinner delicious.
The port and sherry allowed by the traiteur were by no means to be sneezed at; but W— had determined to make himself as happy as possible, and his servant produced a bottle of hock, and another of the sparkler during dinner. Afterwards, we exchanged our port for very tolerable claret, and we had filberts and olives at will; which being the case, entre nous, no man could complain of his dessert.
The chair was occupied by Mr. M— [James Mackintosh?], an advocate of considerable note; a pleasant gentlemanlike person, so far as I could judge, (for he was quite at the other end of the room from us,) and close around him were gathered a great number of the leading members of the same profession. Among the rest J— [Francis Jeffrey]. An universal feeling of regret appeared to fill the company, on account of the absence of Mr. S— [Walter Scott], who was expected to have taken his place at the right hand of the president, and would have come to town for the purpose, had he not been prevented by a severe attack of illness. In different parts of the room, a variety of distinguished individuals, of whom I had often heard, were successively pointed out to me by W—; but it was some time before I could collect my senses, sufficiently to take any very accurate inspection of their physiognomies. Wherever I looked, I saw faces ennobled by all the eloquence of a pure and lofty enthusiasm. It was evident, that all had the right feeling; and at such a moment it appeared to me a comparatively small matter which of them had the celebrity even of genius.
After dinner, the president rose and proposed The Memory of the Poet. The speech with which he prefaced the toast was delivered with all the ease of a practised speaker, and was by no means devoid of traces of proper feeling. But, I confess, on the whole, its effect was to me rather a disappointing one. The enthusiasm felt by the company was such, that nothing could have been pitched in a key too high for them; and the impression of Mr. M—'s address had certainly, in their state of feeling at the moment, more of a chilling than an elevating effect. I thought him peculiarly unhappy in the choice of a few poetical quotations with which he diversified his speech — that from Swift's Rhapsody, in particular, was extremely unfortunate. What good effect could be produced on such an occasion as this, by repeating such lines as those about
Not beggar's brat on bulk begot,
Not bastard of a pedlar Scot,
Not boy brought up to cleaning shoes,
The spawn of Bridewell or the stews,
Not infants dropped, the spurious pledges
Of gypsies littering under hedges
Are so disqualified by fate
To rise in church, or law, or state,
As he whom Phoebus, in his ire,
Has blasted with poetic fire, &c.
Nor were the fine verses of Milton much more appropriate to the occasion, although their own grandeur would probably have prevented them from being at all disagreeable in the hearing, had Mr. M—'s recollection been such as to enable him to recite them with facility. Whatever may be the case with the most of those, whose lips "Phoebus tips with fire," poor Burns was assuredly not one who neglected, for the sake of the Muses,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair.
But it would be quite silly to trouble you with such minutiae as these; — the true defect lay in selecting, to preside in such an assembly upon such an occasion, any other than a man of great reputation and rank in literature. Had such a person been selected, and had he, as it might have happened, committed the very same faults which Mr. M— did commit, the impression of his general character would still have been sufficient to prevent the company from regarding, otherwise than with a favourable eye, even the defects of one in whom they would have been eager and proud to recognize the intellectual kinsman of their great poet. But, in the first place, it is not easy to understand why a man should be chosen to direct and guide the enthusiasm of a meeting in honour of Robert Burns, merely because he himself enjoys a tolerable degree of reputation as a Scottish barrister; and, in the second place, every point in which such a person so chosen fails in the discharge of his duties, has the effect of making men recur to this original difficulty, with an increasing and a most unpleasant pertinacity. There was, perhaps, an injudicious degree of courage in Mr. M—'s attempt; but "eventus docuit."
It is a much easier thing, however, to say who should not, than who should have presided on this occasion. It seems that, among others, Mr. J— had been talked of; but he had the good sense to reject the proposal without hesitation. And with what face, indeed, could he, the author of the longest, and most deliberate, and most elaborate attack that ever assailed the character of Burns — an attack of which, with all my tolerance for J—'s failings, I cannot help thinking the whole spirit and tone are radically and essentially abominable — with what face could he have presumed to occupy the first place in an assembly of men, whose sole bond of union could be nothing else than that feeling of deep, tender, and reverential admiration for poor Burns's memory, his own want of which had been so decidedly, or rather so ostentatiously held forth? Many people can see some excuse — and I myself can imagine some explanation of the irreverent way, in which Mr. J— has accustomed himself to treat his own great poetical contemporaries. But I know not, neither can I imagine, upon what principle a man of his fine understanding, and fine feeling too, should have esteemed himself justifiable in concentrating the whole pitiless vigour of his satire upon the memory of one, whose failings, whatever they might be, were entitled to so much compassion as those of Robert Burns — in exhausting his quiver of poisoned shafts in piercing and lacerating the resting-place of one, whose living name must always be among. the dearest and most sacred possessions of his countrymen. I cannot help thinking, that J— displayed in that attack a very lamentable defect, not merely of nationality of feeling, but of humanity of feeling. If the pride of being the countryman of Burns was not enough to make J— a lenient observer of his errors, there were abundance of other considerations of a yet higher kind, which should not have come vainly to the aid of that honourable pride. Alas! how easy a thing is it for us, who have been educated in the atmosphere of ease — who have "been clothed in fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day" — how easy a thing is it for such as we are, to despise and deride the power of temptations, that might be enough, and more than enough, to unhinge all the resolutions, and darken all the destinies of one, who had been accustomed, in good earnest, to drink the water of bitterness, and eat his bread in the sweat of his brow! It is an easy thing for those, who have comfortable homes, and congenial occupations, to rail against the dissipated habits of a poor wandering poet, compelled to waste his best days in degrading drudgeries, and night after night to find himself surrounded in his own narrow dwelling by all the depressing and contracting squalors of penury.
The rule of judging as we would be judged, although an excellent one, surely, in the main, must be taken, I think, with a great "sequela" of exceptions. It is the besetting temptation of many natures, and honest natures too, to
Compound for sins they are inclined to,
By damning those they have no mind to.
And perhaps few sins are more "damned" upon this principle than those of the bottle. You might as well attempt to make a deaf man comprehend the excellencies of Mozart, as to convince some people that it is a venial thing to be fond of an extra glass of claret. Many even of those who take great pleasure in society, can never be brought to understand why people should get tipsy when they meet together round a table. The delight which they experience in company, is purely rational — derived from nothing but the animated and invigorated collision of contending and sporting intellects. They have wit and wisdom for their share, and they have little reason to complain; but what do they know about the full, hearty, glorious swing of jollity? How can they ever sympathise with the misty felicity of a man singing
It is the moon — I ken her horn!
I think no man should be allowed to say anything about Burns, who has not joined in this chorus, although timber-tuned, and sat till daylight although married.
The first healths (after some of mere formality,) were those of the mother of Burns — for she, it seems, is still alive, in extreme old age; his widow, the "Jean," of his poetry — and his sons. A gentleman who proposed one of these toasts, mentioned a little anecdote, which gave infinite delight to all present, and which will do so to you. After the last of these triennial meetings, a pension of £50 per annum was settled on Mrs. Burns, by a Scottish gentleman of large fortune, Mr. Maule of Panmure. One of the sons of the poet, however, has since that time gone out to India in a medical capacity; and being fortunate enough to obtain a situation of some little emolument, the first use he made of his success was to provide for his mother, in such a way as enabled her to decline any farther continuance of Mr. Maule's bounty — conduct, as was well said, "worthy of the wife and son of the high-souled Burns" — one who, in spite of all his faults, and all his difficulties, contrived, in the true spirit of proud independence, to owe no man any thing when he died. By the way, the person who mentioned this was the same G— whose name is so intimately associated with that of Burns, in the great collection of Scots Music.
The health of Mr. Scott was then proposed, in terms of such warmth as might fit the occasion by the Chairman. That of Mr. Mackenzie was given by Mr. C—, a celebrated advocate, and prefaced with some very elegant sentences respecting the early and effectual patronage extended by him to Burns in the Mirror. Mr. J— then rose and proposed the health of Thomas Campbell, with a neat allusion to his late exquisite sketch of the character of Burns in the "Specimens." I assure you, nothing could be more appropriate or more delightful, than the way in which all these toasts were received by the company. But you will see well enough by the paper I have sent you, what toasts were given. I am sorry to say, that those which were not given, occupied not a little of my attention. It was obvious from the way in which things went on, that Mr. M—, Mr. J—, Mr. C—, and one or two of their friends among the stewards, had previously arranged among themselves what toasts should be proposed, and in what order; nor could the business of such a meeting be well conducted without some such preparation. I well knew before I went, that, as it happened, those gentlemen who took the chief direction in this affair were all keen Whigs. But I never considered this as a circumstance of the slightest importance, nor expected, most assuredly, that it would at all shew itself in the conduct of the assembly. I regarded politics and parties as things that had not the least connection with the purposes of the meeting, and expected, indeed, that they would have been most studiously kept out of view, for the very purpose of rendering the meeting as universally and genially delightful as possible. I was, however, sadly disappointed. It is needless to multiply examples. It is sufficient to mention, that not one of these Edinburgh Reviewers had the common candour or manliness, in a meeting, the object of which was so purely to do honour to poetical genius, to propose the health either of Wordsworth, or of Southey, or of Coleridge. I could not have believed that the influence of paltry prejudices could ever be allowed to controul in such a way the conduct of men so well entitled to be above their sphere. Even by the confession of the Edinburgh Review itself; these men are three of the greatest poetical geniuses our island ever has produced. Their choice of subjects, their style of versification, and various other particulars, are ridiculed; but it is no where denied, that even their errors are entitled to derive some little shelter from the originality, power, and beauty, of the productions in which they make their appearance. I am indeed very much at a loss to comprehend, how any man of intelligence could satisfy his conscience, that he did right in proposing, on such an occasion as this, the healths of Crabbe, Rogers, nay even of Montgomery, (for such was the case,) and omitting to do the same honour to the great names I have mentioned. Surely here was a sad descent from that pure elevation on which the true critic, and the true philosopher, must ever stand. I had no conception previously of the real extent to which, in this country of political strife, the absurdities of party spleen are carried, even by men of eminence and virtue. I had no suspicion, that such a man as Mr. J—, or even as Mr. M—, would have dared to shew, almost to confess himself, incapable of overlooking the petty discrepancies of political opinion, in forming his estimate of a great English poets character. It is not thus that a man can hope to anticipate the judgment of posterity, or to exert a permanent sway over that of his contemporaries. In regard to J—-, above all, I confess I was grieved to detect so much littleness, where I had been willing to look for very different things. I was grieved, indeed, to discover that he also, even out of his Review, is in a great measure one that
—narrows his mind,
And to party gives up what was meant for mankind.
That Mr. J— had found reason to change some of the opinions he had once expressed concerning Robert Burns, was, in part at least, admitted by himself, in one of the speeches he delivered on this very occasion. Nay, had it not been so, I am inclined to think it might have been better for him to have kept altogether away from the assembly. Having laid aside the worst of his prejudices against poor Burns, why should he not have been proud and joyful in finding and employing such an opportunity for doing justice to a great poet, who, — himself the purest of men, and leading and having ever led the holiest and most dignified of lives, — had not disdained to come forward at an earlier and a less triumphant period, as the defender and guardian of the reputation of his frailer brother? What had parties, and systems, and schools, and nicknames, to do with such a matter as this? Are there no healing moments in which men can afford to be free from the fetters of their petty self-love? Is the hour of genial and cordial tenderness, when man meets man to celebrate the memory of one who has conferred honour on their common nature — is even that sacred hour to be polluted and profaned by any poisonous sprinklings of the week-day paltriness of life? — My displeasure, in regard to this affair, has very little to do with my displeasure in regard to the general treatment of Mr. Wordsworth in the Edinburgh Review. That the poems of this man should be little read and little admired by the majority of those who claim for themselves the character of taste and intelligence — that they should furnish little, except subjects of mirth and scorn, to those who, by their own writings, would direct the judgment of others — these are things which affect some of his admirers with astonishment — they affect me with no sentiments but those of humility and grief. The delight which is conferred by vivid descriptions of stranger events and stronger impulses than we ourselves experience, is adapted for all men, and is an universal delight. That part of our nature, to which they address themselves, not only exists in every man originally, but has its existence fostered and cherished by the incidents of every life. To find a man who has no relish for the poetry of Love or of War, is almost as impossible, as to find one that does not enjoy the brightness of the sun, or the softness of moonlight. The poetry of ambition, hatred, revenge, pleases masculine minds in the same manner as the flashing of lightnings and the roaring of cataracts. But there are other things in man and in nature, besides tumultuous passions and tempestuous scenes; — and he that is a very great poet, may be by no means a very popular one.
The critics who ridicule Mr. Wordsworth, for choosing the themes of his poetry among a set of objects new and uninteresting to their minds, would have seen, had they been sufficiently acute, or would have confessed, had they been sufficiently candid, that, had he so willed it, he might have been among the best and most powerful masters in other branches of his art, more adapted for the generality of mankind and for themselves. The martial music in the hall of Clifford was neglected by the Shepherd Lord, for the same reasons which have rendered the poet that celebrates him such a poet as he is.
Love had he seen in huts where poor men lie,
His daily teachers had been woods and rills;
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
Before a man can understand and relish his poems, his mind must, in some measure, pass through the same sober discipline — a discipline that calms, but does not weaken the spirit — that blends together the understanding and the affections, and improves both by the mixture. The busy life of cities, the ordinary collisions of sarcasm and indifference, steel the mind against the emotions that are bred and nourished among those quiet vallies, so dear to the Shepherd Lord and his poet. What we cannot understand, it is a very common, and indeed a very natural thing, for us to undervalue; and it may be suspected, that some of the merriest witticisms which have been uttered against Mr. Wordsworth, have had their origin in the pettishness and dissatisfaction of minds, unaccustomed and unwilling to make, either to others or to themselves, any confessions of incapacity.
But I am wandering sadly from him, who, as Wordsworth has beautifully expressed it,
—walked in glory and in joy,
Following his plough along the mountain's side.
—However, I shall come back to him in my next.
In order to catch the post, a few days ago, I sent off my letter before my subject was half concluded; which, doubtless, you will attribute chiefly, or entirely, to my old passion for parentheses and episodes. To return to my "epos" — the Burns's dinner.
One of the best speeches, perhaps the very best, delivered during the whole of the evening, was that of Mr. J— W—n [John Wilson], in proposing the health of the Ettrick Shepherd. I had heard a great deal of W—n from W—, but he had been out of Edinburgh ever since my arrival, and indeed had walked only fifty miles that very morning, in order to be present on this occasion. He showed no symptoms, however, of being fatigued with his journey, and his style of eloquence, above all, whatever faults it might have, displayed certainly no deficiency of freshness and vigour. As I know you admire some of his verses very much, you will be pleased with a sketch of his appearance. He is, I imagine, (but I guess principally from the date of his Oxford prize-poem) some ten years your junior and mine — a very robust athletic man, broad across the back — firm set upon his limbs-and having altogether very much of that sort of air which is inseparable from the consciousness of great bodily energies. I suppose, in leaping, wrestling, or boxing, he might easily beat any of the poets, his contemporaries — and I rather suspect, that in speaking, he would have as easy a triumph over the whole of them, except Coleridge. In complexion, he is the best specimen I have ever seen of the genuine or ideal Goth. His hair is of the true Sicambrian yellow; his eyes are of the lightest, and at the same time of the clearest blue; and the blood glows in his cheek with as firm a fervour as it did, according to the description of Jornandes, in those of the "Bello gaudentes, praelio ridentes Teutones" of Attila. I had never suspected, before I saw him, that such extreme fairness and freshness of complexion could be compatible with so much variety and tenderness, but, above all, with so much depth of expression. His forehead is finely, but strangely shaped; the regions of pure fancy, and of pure wit, being both developed in a very striking manner — which is but seldom the case in any one individual — and the organ of observation having projected the "sinus frontalis" to a degree that is altogether uncommon. I have never seen a physiognomy which could pass with so much rapidity from the serious to the most ludicrous of effects. It is more eloquent, both in its gravity and in its levity, than almost any countenance I am acquainted with is in any one cast of expression; and yet I am not without my suspicions, that the versatility of its language may, in the end, take away from its power.
In a convivial meeting — more particularly after the first two hours are over — the beauty to which men are most alive in any piece of eloquence is that which depends on its being impregnated and instinct with feeling. Of this beauty, no eloquence can be more full than that of Mr. J— W—n. His declamation is often loose and irregular to an extent that is not quite worthy of a man of his fine education and masculine powers; but all is redeemed, and more than redeemed, by his rich abundance of quick, generous, and expansive feeling. The flashing brightness, and now and then the still more expressive dimness of his eye — and the tremulous music of a voice that is equally at home in the highest and the lowest of notes — and the attitude bent forward with an earnestness to which the graces could make no valuable addition — all together compose an index which they that run may read — a rod of communication to whose electricity no heart is barred. Inaccuracies of language are small matters when the ear is fed with the wild and mysterious cadences of the most natural of all melodies, and the mind filled to overflowing with the bright suggestions of an imagination, whose only fault lies in the uncontrolable profusion with which it scatters forth its fruits. With such gifts as these, and with the noblest of themes to excite and adorn them, I have no doubt, that Mr. W—n, had he been in the church, would have left all the impassioned preachers I have ever heard many thousand leagues behind him. Nor do I at all question, that even in some departments of his own profession of the law, had he in good earnest devoted his energies to its service, his success might have been equally brilliant. But his ambition had probably taken too decidedly another turn; nor, perhaps, would it be quite fair, either to him or to ourselves, to wish that the thing had been otherwise.
As Mr. W—n has not only a great admiration, but a great private friendship for Mr. H— [James Hogg], his eloquence displayed, it is probable upon the present occasion, a large share of every feeling that might most happily inspire it. His theme was indeed the very best that the occasion could have thrown in his way; for what homage could be so appropriate, or so grateful to the Manes of Burns, as that which sought to attain its object by welcoming and honouring the only worthy successor of his genius? I wish I could recall for your delight any portion of those glowing words in which this enthusiastic speaker strove to embody his own ideas — and indeed those of his audience — concerning the high and holy connection which exists between the dead and the living peasant — both "sprung from the very bosom of the people," both identifying themselves in all things with the spirit of their station, and endeavouring to ennoble, themselves only by elevating it. It was thus, indeed, that a national assembly might most effectually do honour to a national poet. This was the true spirit for a commemoration of Robert Burns.
The effect which Mr. Mr. W—n's speech produced on H— himself, was, to my mind, by far the most delightful thing that happened during the whole of the night. The Shepherd was one of the stewards, and in every point of view he must have expected some particular notice to be taken of his name; but either he had not been prepared for being spoken of at so early an hour, or was entirely thrown off his balance by the extraordinary flood of eloquence which Mr. W—n poured out, to do honour to his genius; for nothing could be more visibly unaffected, than the air of utter blank amazement with which he rose to return his thanks. He rose, by the way, long before the time came. He had listened to Mr. W—n for some minutes, without comprehending the drift of his discourse; but when once he fairly discovered that he himself was the theme, he started to his feet, and with a face flushed all over deeper than scarlet, and eyes brimful of tears, devoured the words of the speaker,
Like hungry Jew in wilderness,
Rejoicing o'er his manna.
His voice, when he essayed to address the company, seemed at first entirely to fail him; but he found means to make us hear a very few words, which told better than any speech could have done. "I've aye been vera proud, gentlemen," (said he,) "to be a Scots poet — and I was never sae proud o't as I am just noo." I believe there was no one there who did not sympathize heartily with this most honest pride. For my part, I began to be quite in love with the Ettrick Shepherd.
In process of time, the less jovial members of the company began to effect their retreat, and W— and I, espying some vacant places at the table where Mr. W—n and the Ettrick Shepherd were seated, were induced to shift our situation, for the sake of being nearer these celebrated characters. I was placed within a few feet of H—, and introduced to W—n across the table, and soon found, from the way in which the bottle circulated in this quarter, that both of them inherited in perfection the old feud of Burns against the "aquae potores." As to the bottle, indeed, I should exclude H—; for he, long before I came into his neighbourhood, had finished the bottle of port allowed by our traiteur, and was deep in a huge jug of whisky toddy — in the manufacture of which he is supposed to excel almost as much as Burns did — and in its consumption too, although happily in rather a more moderate degree.
After this time, I suspect the prescribed order of toasts began to be sadly neglected, for long speeches were uttered from remote corners, nobody knew by whom or about what; song after song was volunteered; and, all the cold restraints of sobriety being gradually thawed by the sun of festive cheer,
Wit walked the rounds, and music filled the air.
The inimitable "Jolly Beggars" of the poet, which has lately been set to music, was got up in high style, the songs being exquisitely sung by Messrs Swift, Templeton, and Lees, and the recitative read with much effect by Mr. B—.
But even this entertainment, with all its inherent variety, was too regular for the taste of the assembly. The chairman himself broke in upon it the first, by proposing a very appropriate toast, which I shall attempt to naturalize in Cardiganshire; this again called up a very old gentleman, who conceived that some compliment had been intended for a club of which he is president; in short, compliments and toasts became so interlaced and interlarded, that nobody could think of taking up the thread of "The Jolly Beggars" again. By the way, this inimitable Cantata is not to be found in Currie's edition, and I suspect you are a stranger even to its name; and yet, had Burns left nothing more than this behind him, I think he would still have left enough to justify all the honour in which his genius is held. There does not exist, in any one piece throughout the whole range of English poetry, such a collection of true, fresh, and characteristic lyrics. Here we have nothing, indeed, that is very high, but we have much that is very tender. What can be better in its way, than the fine song of the Highland Widow, "wha had in mony a well been douked?"
A Highland lad my love was born,
The Lowland laws he held in scorn;
But he still was faithful to his clan,
My gallant braw John Highlandman.
With his philabeg and tartan plaid,
And good claymore down by his side,
The ladies' hearts he did trepan,
My gallant braw John Highlandman.
Sing, hey, my braw John Highlandman,
Sing, ho, my braw John Highlandman,
There's not a lad in a' the Ian'
Was match for my John Highlandman.
And that fine Penseroso close,
But oh! they catch'd him at the last,
And bound him in a dungeon fast;
My curse upon them every one,
They've hang'd my braw John Highlandman,
And now, a widow, I must mourn
Departed joys that ne'er return;
No comfort — but a hearty can,
When I think on John Highlandman.
The Little Fiddler, who (in vain, alas!) offers his services to console her, is conceived in the most happy taste.
A pigmy scraper wi' his fiddle,
Wha used at trysts and fairs to driddle,
Her strapping limb and gausy middle,
(He reached nae higher,)
Had holed his heartie like a riddle,
And blawn't on fire.
Wi' hand on haunch, and upward ee,
He crooned his gamut, one, two, three,
Then in an Arioso key,
The wee Apollo
Set off with allegretto glee,
His giga solo.
But the finest part of the whole, is the old Scottish Soldier's ditty. Indeed, I think there is no question, that half of the best ballads Campbell has written, are the legitimate progeny of some of these lines.
I am a son of Mars, who have been in many wars,
And shew my cuts and scars wherever I come;
This here was for a wench, and that other in a trench,
When welcoming the French at the sound of the drum.
My prenticeship I passed where my leader breathed his last,
When the bloody die was cast on the heights of Abram;
I served out my trade when the gallant game was play'd,
And the Moro low was laid at the sound of the drum.
I lastly was with Curtis among the floating batt'ries,
And there I left for witness an arm and a limb;
Yet let my country need me, with Elliot to head me,
I'd clatter on my stumps at the sound of the drum.
What though with hoary locks, I must stand the winter shocks,
Beneath the woods and rocks oftentimes for a home!
When the t'other bag I sell, and the t'other bottle tell,
I could meet a troop of hell at the sound of the drum.
What different ideas of low life one forms even from reading the works of men who paint it admirably. Had Crabbe, for instance, undertaken to represent the carousal of a troop of Beggars in a hedge alehouse, how unlike would his production have been to this Cantata? He would have painted their rags and their dirt with the accuracy of a person who is not used to see rags and dirt very often; he would have seized the light careless swing of their easy code of morality, with the penetration of one who has long been a Master-Anatomist of the manners and the hearts of men. But I doubt very much, whether any one could enter into the true spirit of such a meeting, who had not been, at some period of his life, a partaker in "propria persona," and almost "par cum paribus," in the rude merriment of its constituents. I have no doubt that Burns sat for his own picture in the Bard of the Cantata, and had often enough in some such scene as Poosie Nansie's—
Between his twa Deborahs,
Looked round him, and found them
Impatient for his chorus.
It is by such familiarity alone that the secret and essence of that charm, which no groupe of human companions entirely wants, can be fixed and preserved even by the greatest of poets — Mr. Crabbe would have described the Beggars like a firm though humane Justice of the Peace — poor Robert Burns did not think himself entitled to assume any such airs of superiority. The consequence is, that we would have understood and pitied the one groupe, but that we sympathize even with the joys of the other. We would have thrown a few shillings to Mr. Crabbe's Mendicants, but we are more than half inclined to sit down and drink them ourselves along with the "orra duds" of those of Burns.
I myself — will you believe it? — was one of those who insisted upon disturbing the performance of this glorious Cantata with my own dissonant voice. In plain truth, I was so happy, that I could not keep silence, and such was the buoyancy of my enthusiasm, that nothing could please me but singing a Scottish song. I believe, after all, I got through it pretty well; at least, I did well enough to delight my neighbours. My song was that old favourite of your's—
My name it is Donald Macdonald,
I live in the Hielands sae grand.
One of the best songs, I must think, that our times has produced; and, indeed, it was for many years one of the most popular. I had no idea who wrote the words of my song, and had selected it merely for its own merit, and my own convenience; but I had no sooner finished, than Mr. H— stretched his hand to me, across two or three that sat between us, and cried out with an air of infinite delight, "Od', sir — Doctor Morris" — (for he had heard my name,) — "od', sir, — I wrote that sang when I was a herd on Yarrow, — and little did I think ever to live to hear an English gentleman sing it." From this moment there was no bound to the warmth of our affection for each other; in order to convince you of which, in so far as I myself was concerned, I fairly deserted my claret for the sake of joining in the jug-party of the Shepherd. Nor, after all, was this quite so mighty a sacrifice as you may be inclined to imagine. I assure you, there are worse things in life than whisky-toddy; although I cannot go the same length with Mr. H—, who declared over and over that there is nothing so good.
A man may, now and then, adopt a change of liquor with advantage; but, upon the whole, I like better to see people "stick to their vocation." I think nothing can be a more pitiable sight than a French count on his travels, striving to look pleased over a bumper of strong Port; and an Oxford doctor of divinity looks almost as much like a fish out of water, when he is constrained to put up with the best Claret in the world. In like manner, it would have tended very much to disturb my notions of propriety, had I found the Ettrick Shepherd drinking Champagne or Hock. It would have been a sin against keeping with such a face as he has. Although for some time past he has spent a considerable portion of every year in excellent, even in refined society, the external appearance of the man can have undergone but very little change since he was "a herd on Yarrow." His face and hands are still as brown as if he lived entirely "sub dio." His very hair has a coarse stringiness about it, which proves beyond dispute its utter ignorance of all the arts of the friseur; and hangs in playful whips and cords about his ears, in a style of the most perfect innocence imaginable. His mouth, which, when he smiles, nearly cuts the totality of his face in twain, is an object that would make the Chevalier Ruspini die with indignation; for his teeth have been allowed to grow where they listed, and as they listed, presenting more resemblance, in arrangement, (and colour too,) to a body of crouching sharp-shooters, than to any more regular species of array. The effect of a forehead, towering with a true poetic grandeur above such features as these, and of an eye that illuminates their surface with the genuine lightnings of genius,—
—an eye that, under brows
Shaggy and deep, has meanings, which are brought
From years of youth,—
these are things which I cannot so easily transfer to my paper. Upon the whole, his exterior reminded me very much of some of Wordsworth's descriptions of his Pedlar:—
—plain his garb,
Such as might suit a rustic sire, prepared
For Sabbath duties; yet he is a man
Whom no one could have passed without remark.
Active and nervous is his gait. His limbs
And his whole figure breathe intelligence.
Indeed, I can scarcely help suspecting, that that great poet, who has himself thought so much
On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life,
Musing in solitude—
must have thought more than once of the intellectual history of the Ettrick Shepherd, when he drew that noble sketch, which no man can ridicule, unless from a vicious want of faith in the greatness of human nature. Neither is there any thing unlikely in the supposition in another point of view, for W— tells me, the two poets have often met, and always expressed the highest admiration for each other. He says,
From his sixth year, the boy of whom I speak,
In summer tended cattle on the hills.
I believe poor H— tended them in winter also.
—From that bleak tenement,
He many an evening to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness, all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travell'd through the wood, with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.
So the foundations of his mind were laid.
In such communion, not from terror free,
While yet a child, and long before his time,
He had perceived the presence and the power
Of greatness; and deep feeling had impressed
Great objects on his mind, with portraiture
And colour so distinct, that on his mind
They lay like substances, and almost seemed
To haunt the bodily sense.
Those who have read the Shepherd's latest writings, as I fear you have not done, would find still stronger confirmation of my idea in what follows:—
He had small need of books; for many a tale,
Traditionary round the mountains hung,
And many a legend, peopling the dark woods,
Nourished imagination in her youth.
The life and death of Martyrs, who sustained,
With will inflexible, those fearful pangs
Triumphantly displayed in records left,
Of persecution and the Covenant — Times
Whose echo rings through Scotland to this hour.
But I must not think of discussing the Ettrick Shepherd in a single letter. — As for the Burns' dinner, I really cannot in honesty pretend to give you any very exact history of the latter part of its occurrences. As the night kept advancing, the company kept diminishing, till about one o'clock in the morning, when we found ourselves reduced to a small staunch party of some five-and-twenty, men not to be shaken from their allegiance to King Bacchus, by any changes in his administration — in other words, men who by no means considered it as necessary to leave the room, because one, or even because two presidents had set them such an example. The last of these presidents, Mr. P. R—, a young counsellor of very rising reputation and most pleasant manners, made his approach to the chair amidst such a thunder of acclamation as seems to be issuing from the cheeks of the Bacchantes, when Silenus gets astride on his ass, in the famous picture of Rubens. Once in the chair, there was no fear of his quitting it while any remained to pay homage due to his authority. He made speeches, one chief merit of which consisted (unlike Epic poems) in their having neither beginning, middle, nor end. He sung songs in which music was not. He proposed toasts in which meaning was not — But over everything that he said there was flung such a radiance of sheer mother-wit, that there was no difficulty in seeing the want of meaning was no involuntary want. By the perpetual dazzle of his wit, by the cordial flow of his good humour, but above all, by the cheering influence of his broad happy face, seen through its halo of punch-steam (for even the chair had by this time got enough of the juice of the grape,) he contrived to diffuse over us all, for a long time, one genial atmosphere of unmingled mirth How we got out of that atmosphere, I cannot say I remember, — but am, notwithstanding,