1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Anonymous, "Poems by Robert Burns" Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (1 January 1787).



When an author we know nothing of solicits our attention, we are but too apt to treat him with the same reluctant civility we show to a person who has come unbidden into company. Yet talents and address will gradually diminish the distance of our behaviour, and when the first unfavourable impression has worn off, the author may become a favourite, and the stranger a friend. The poems we have just announced may probably have to struggle with the pride of learning and the partiality of refinement; yet they are intitled to particular indulgence.

Who are you, Mr. Burns? will some surly critic say. At what University have you been educated? what languages do you understand? what authors have you particularly studied? whether Aristotle or Horace directed your taste? who has praised your poems, and under whose patronage are they published? In short, what qualifications intitle you to instruct or entertain us? To the questions of such a catechism, perhaps honest Robert Burns would make no satisfactory answers. "My good Sir," he might say, "I am a poor countryman; I was bred up at the school of Kilmarnock; I understand no languages but my own; I have studied Allan Ramsay and Fergusson. My poems have been praised at many a fire-side; and I ask no patronage for them, if they deserve none. I have not looked on mankind through the spectacle of books. An ounce of mother wit, you know, is worth a pound of clergy; and Homer and Ossian, for any thing that I have heard, could neither write nor read." The author is indeed a striking example of native genius bursting through the obscurity of poverty, and the obstructions of laborious life. He is, in truth, a common ploughman; and when we consider him in this light, we cannot help regretting that wayward fate had not placed him in a more favoured situation. Those who view him in with the severity of lettered criticism, and judge him by the fastidious rules of art, will discover that he has not the Doric simplicity of Ramsay, nor the brilliant imagination of Fergusson; but to those who admire the exertions of untutored fancy, and are blind to many faults for the sake of numberless beauties, his poems will afford singular gratification. His observations on human characters are acute and sagacious, and his descriptions are lively and just. Of rustic pleasantry he has a rich fund; and some of his softer scenes are touched with inimitable delicacy. He seems to be a boon companion, and often startles us with a flash of libertinism which will keep some readers at a distance. Some of his subjects are serious, but those of the humorous kind are the best. It is not meant, however, to enter into a minute investigation of his merits, as the copious extracts we shall make will enable our readers to judge for themselves. The character Horace gives to Osellus is particularly applicable to him.

Rusticus abnormis sapiens, crassaque Minerva.