Some traits of the character of Cowper have been already inserted in this work. Perhaps a few remarks on a still more extraordinary genius of our days may not be unacceptable. The writer is not so presumptuous as to attempt to add any new light to what is contained in the life of Burns, by Dr. Currie, who, himself, alas! is now to be numbered with the dead; but ventures merely to indulge himself, and, he hopes, some of his readers, in dwelling on a pleasing topic, and, perhaps, in comparing some of the endowments of this gifted Being, with those of the author of the Task.
No poet's life ever exhibited colours so much in unison with those of his writings as that of Burns; and as the charms of his poetry excited our curiosity for the memoirs of the man, the latter have raised a new and infinitely increased interest in his compositions. Much as I admire the exquisite tenderness and moral delicacy of Cowper's temperament, I confess I am still more delighted with the boldness and vehemence of the bard of Caledonia. "His generous affections, his ardent eloquence, his brilliant and daring imagination" make him my idol. His proper regard to the dignity of his own powers, his stern and indignant elevation of manners, and due jealousy and repression of the insolence of rank and wealth, are worthy of inexpressible applause.
Know thine own worth, and reverence the lyre,
says Beattie, who, however, with a more timid character, does not seem to have entirely acted up to his own advice. Burns knew it well, and extorted respect from the most unwilling. The herd of stupid sensualists, who consider the writer of verses as an idler in childish toys and silly bubbles of air, were awed a his presence. The tones of his voice, the dark frowns of his commanding countenance, the lightning of his eye, produced instantaneous feelings of inferiority and submission, and secured to genius its just estimation.
They who abandon the cause which they ought to support, who shrink before vulgar greatness, and who seem ashamed in public of that on which the reflections of their closets teach them to place the highest veneration, and on which their only claims to notice can be grounded, deserve no common contempt. The courage and high sentiments of Burns placed him far above this meanness.
In a letter to Mr. Cunningham, August 8, 1790, he says
"However, tossed about as I am, if I choose, (and who would not choose) to bind down with the crampets of attention the brazen foundation of integrity, I may rear up the superstructure of independence, and from its daring turrets bid defiance to the storms of fate. And is not this 'a consummation devoutly to be wished?"'
Thy spirit, Independence, let me share;
Lord of the lion heart and eagle eye!
Thy steps I follow with my bosom bare,
Nor heed the storm that howls along the sky!
"Are not these noble verses? They are the introduction of Smollet's Ode to Independence. How wretched is the man that hangs on by the favours of the great! To shrink from every dignity of man, at the approach of a lordly piece of self-consequence, who, amid all his tinsel glitter and stately hauteur, is but a creature formed as thou art, and perhaps not so well formed as thou art, came into the world a puling infant as thou didst, and must go out of it as all men must, a naked corse. * * * * * * * [Brydges: "The strain of indignant invective goes on some time longer in the stile which our bard was too apt to indulge." Currie's note.]
It was not far from the same time, and nearly in the same spirit, that he wrote the following, Jan. 17, 1791, to Mr. Peter Hill.
"Take these two guineas, and place them over against that **** account of yours! which has gagged my mouth these five or six months! I can as little write good things as apologies to the man I owe money to. O the supreme curse of making three guineas do the business of five! Not all the labours of Hercules, not all the Hebrews three centuries of Egyptian bondage, were such an insuperable business, such an task! Poverty! thou half-sister of death, thou cousin-german of hell! where shall I find force of execration equal to the amplitude of thy demerits? oppressed by thee, the venerable ancient, grown hoary in the practice of every virtue, laden with years and wretchedness, implores a little, little aid to support his existence from a stony hearted son of mammon, whose sun of prosperity never knew a cloud; and is by him denied and insulted. Oppressed by thee, the man of sentiment, whose heart glows with independence, and melts with sensibility, inly pines under the neglect, or writhes in bitterness of soul, under the contumely of arrogant unfeeling wealth. Oppressed by thee, the on of genius, whose ill starred ambition plants him at the tables of the fashionable and polite, must see in suffering silence his remark neglected, and his person despised, while shallow greatness in his hideous attempts at wit, shall meet with countenance and applause. Nor is it only the family of worth that have reason to complain of thee: the children of folly and vice, though in common with thee the offspring of evil, smart equally under thy rod. Owing to thee, the man of unfortunate disposition and neglected education is condemned as a fool for his dissipation, despised and shunned as a needy wretch, when his follies as usual bring him to want; and when his unprincipled necessities drive him to dishonest practices, he is abhorred as a miscreant, and perishes by the justice of his country. But far otherwise is the lot of the man of family and fortune. His early follies and extravagance are spirit and fire; his consequent wants are the embarrassments of an honest fellow; and, when to remedy the matter, he has gained a legal commission to plunder distant provinces, or massacre peaceful nations, he returns, perhaps, laden with the spoils of rapine and murder; lives wicked and respected, and dies a **** and a lord! — Nay, worst of all, alas for helpless woman! the needy prostitute, who has shivered at the corner of the street, waiting to earn the wages of casual prostitution, is left neglected and insulted, ridden down by the chariot wheels of the coroneted RIP, hurrying on to the guilty assignation; she who, without the same necessities to plead, riots nightly in the same guilty trade!
"Well, divines may say of it what they please, but execration is to the mind what phlebotomy is to the body; the vital sluices of both are wonderfully relieved by their respective evacuations."
Thus it was that the sentiments which breathe in the poetry of Burns constantly animated his own bosom, in the intercourse of life. They were not "conjured up" merely "for the occasions" of his Muse. He never felt, thought, or acted, but as a poet. The silent walk, the interesting hour of female society, and the rude and boisterous merriment of the feast and the bowl, were all tinctured with the varying emotions of the bard. His powerful sensibilities, too strong to be tinctured with any of that affectation which justly exposes feeble pretenders to ridicule and scorn, found an uncontrouled vent, and constantly fed that stream of living colours, in which his pen was dipped. To the artifices of composition, the trick of combining tawdry or mellifluous words, which
Play round the "ear;" but come not to the heart,
he had never occasion to resort. His mind was always full, and he wrote from it: he only sought for language therefore, as the channel of his thoughts. On this account there is a pervading spirit in his writings, which shines with palpable superiority through their dress.
Dr. Currie has observed, that if fiction be the soul of poetry, as some assert, Burns can have no pretensions to the name of poet. But perhaps Dr. Currie understands the term "fiction" a little too strictly; and the proposition may not be as inconsistent with the undoubted claims of Burns, as he supposes. It is true that Burns's compositions are almost entirely founded on the feelings and circumstances of his own life. He has never shewn an extent of fiction like Shakspeare, who placed himself in a thousand situations and characters remote from his own, and then, by imagining the natural operations of the human bosom under these circumstances, realized fancy, and brought the living characters to our view. But of that fiction which could vary and new-combine the feelings and incidents of his own experience, could re-create the phantoms of his brain when they were past, could bring them before his mental eve, arrange them in new groupes, and command their vivid attendance, till he had delineated them in language and metre; how few have possessed the power like Burns! If the observation of Dr. Joseph Warton be just, that "Nature is more powerful than fancy, and we can always feel more than we can imagine," (which, perhaps, however, may be doubted) there are some great advantages in this limited species of fiction.
It must not, however, be forgot that Burns has a few claims to the power of fiction in its more enlarged sense. No poem ever more glowed with life than "Robert Bruce's Address to his army, at the battle of Bannockburn." And there are some others written for "Thomson's Scots Airs," and for "Johnson's Scots Musical Museum," of this sort.
But why should I continue the coarse and blundering touches of my pen in endeavouring to draw the portrait of Burns, when he has given us so many sketches himself. Take for instance this, from his "Letter CXXXVI. to Miss C**, Aug. 1793."
"What is said of illustrious descent is, I believe, equally true of a talent for poetry: none ever despised it who had pretensions to it. The fates and characters of the rhyming tribe often employ my thoughts when I am disposed to be melancholy. There is not among all the martyrologies that ever were penned, so rueful a narrative as the lives of the poets. In the comparative of wretches, the criterion is not what they are doomed to suffer , but how they are formed to bear. Take a being of our kind, give him a stronger imagination and a more delicate sensibility, which between them will ever engender a more ungovernable set of passions than are the usual lot of man; implant in him an irresistible impulse to some idle vagary, such as arranging wild flowers in fantastical nosegays, tracing the grasshopper to his haunt by his chirping song, watching the frisks of the little minnows in the sunny pools, or hunting after the intrigues of butterflies; in short, send him adrift after some pursuit which shall eternally mislead him from the paths of lucre, and yet curse him with a keener relish than any man living for the pleasures that lucre can purchase; lastly, fill up the measure of his woes by bestowing on, him spurning a sense of his own dignity, and you have created a wight nearly as miserable as a poet. To you, madam, I need not recount the fairy pleasures the Muse bestows to counterbalance this catalogue of evils. Bewitching poetry is like bewitching woman; she has in all ages been accused of misleading mankind from the councils of wisdom and the paths of prudence, involving them in difficulties, baiting them with poverty, branding them with infamy, and plunging them in he whirling vortex of ruin; yet where is the man but must own that all our happiness on earth is not worthy the name; that even the holy hermit's solitary prospect of paradisaical bliss is but the glitter of a northern sun rising over a frozen region, compared with the many pleasures, the nameless raptures that we owe to the lovely queen of the heart of man!" [Vol. II. p. 417, 18, 19.]
This letter is a mixture of gallantry, playfulness, and melancholy truths. That which follows, addressed "to Mrs. Dunlop from Ellisland, New-year's-day morning, 1789," is of a much higher tone.
"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: every thing 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 superior to mere machinery.
"This day, the first Sunday of May, a breezy blue-eyed 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 yon fancy before I was capable of fixing an idea to a word of three syllables: 'On the fifth 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 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 fox-glove, 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 grey 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 an 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 and woe beyond death and the grave."
This is of a very high tone; but the next exceeds it. It is "Letter CXLVIII. to Mr. Cunningham, dated 25th Feb. 1794."
"Canst thou minister to a mind diseased? Canst thou speak peace and rest to a soul, tost on a sea of troubles, without one friendly star to guide her course, and dreading that the next surge may overwhelm her? Canst thou give to a frame, tremblingly alive as the tortures of suspence, the stability and hardihood of the rock that braves the blast? If thou canst not do the least of these, why wouldst thou disturb me in my miseries with thy inquiries after me?
"For these two months I have not been able to lift a pen. My constitution and frame were, ab origine, blasted with a deep incurable taint of hypochondria, which poisons my existence. Of late a number of domestic vexations, and some pecuniary share in the ruin of these times; losses which, though trifling were yet what I could ill bear, have so irritated me, that my feelings at times could only be envied by a reprobate spirit listening to the sentence that dooms it to perdition.
"Are you deep in the language of consolation? I have exhausted in reflection every topic of comfort. A heart at ease would have been charmed with my sentiments and reasonings; but as to myself I was like Judas Iscariot preaching the gospel; he might melt and mould the hearts of those around him, but his own kept its native incorrigibility.
"Still there are two great pillars that bear us up amid the wreck of misfortune and misery. The one is composed of the different modifications of a certain noble, stubborn something in man, known by the names of courage, fortitude, magnanimity. The other is made up of those feelings and sentiments, which, however the sceptic may deny them, or the enthusiast disfigure them, are yet, I am convinced, component parts of the human soul; those senses of the mind, if I may be allowed the expression, which connect us with, and link us to, those awful obscure realities, an all-powerful and equally beneficent God, and a world to come beyond death and the grave. The first gives the nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field. The last pours the balm of comfort into the wounds which time can never cure.
"I do not remember, my dear Cunningham, that you and I ever talked on the subject of religion at all. I know some who laugh at it as the trick of the crafty FEW, to lead the undiscerning MANY; or at most as an uncertain obscurity, which mankind can never know any thing of, and with which they are fools if they give themselves much to do. Nor would I quarrel with a man for his irreligion, any more than I would for his want of a musical ear. I would regret that he was shut out from what to me and to others were such superlative sources of enjoyment. It is in this point of view, and for this reason, that I will deeply imbue the mind of every child of mine with religion. Let me flatter myself, that this sweet little fellow, who is just now running about my desk, will be a man of a melting, ardent, glowing heart; and an imagination, delighted with the painter, and rapt with the poet. Let me figure him, wandering out in a sweet evening, to inhale the balmy gales, and enjoy the growing luxuriance of the spring; himself the while in the blooming youth of life. He looks abroad on all nature, and through Nature up to Nature's God. His soul, by swift, delighting degrees, is rapt above this sublunary sphere, until he can be silent no longer, and bursts out into the glorious enthusiasm of Thomson,
These, as they change, Almighty Father, these
Are but the varied God. — The rolling year
Is full of thee.
"These are no ideal pleasures; they are real delights; and' I ask what of the delights among the sons of men are superior, not to say, equal to them? And they have this precious vast addition, that conscious virtue stamps them for her own; and lays hold on them to bring herself into the presence of a witnessing, judging, and approving God." [II. p. 441-444.]
They who most value an insipid propriety and decorum, which are the protection of the dull and the stupid, will consider these ebullitions to be but little recompence for the irregularities of the bard. Their test of a good understanding and amiable character directly terminates in SELF. "What is the indiscretion," they cry, "that can be redeemed by a few songs?" A few songs! which they would not obtain at the expence of an awkward bow, and an inopportune expression! But if "to make the distant and the future predominate over the present" be "to advance us in the train of intellectual beings," then how high a station does he merit, who lives in a conflict of passions, who endures the heated temperament of fancy, who suffers poverty, neglect, and scorn, and calumny, for the sake of delighting those whom he has never seen, or perhaps heard of, and of charming, by the efforts of his muse, the remote shores of the Atlantic, and generations yet unborn.
The poet's frailties extend but a little way. His imprudences, his ill-timed ardours, his disregard of interest, his sallies of intemperance, and all those excesses which are always bordering on his virtues, affect but himself and a few around him. Of what thousands will his compositions tend to refine the understanding, to melt the heart, and exalt the soul! Burns's personal faults are buried with his personal virtues in the grave,
Where they alike in trembling hope repose,
The bosom of his father and his God.
His works live in full vigour, and will live as long as the language lasts. Of how many a lover will they sooth the sorrows; of how many a soldier will they inflame the patriotism; of how many a genius will they fan the fires! How often will they disperse the gloom of solitude, and appease the agonies of pain! How often will they encourage virtue, and shew vice its ugliness!
That unconquerable love of intellectual fame, which urges the elevated mind
To scorn delights, and live laborious days,
an never indeed be appreciated, or even conceived by these selfish and half-brutal censurers. As they know not how to value its productions, still less can they estimate with candour its concomitant errors and miseries.
"The occupations of a poet," says Dr. Currie, "are not calculated to strengthen the governing powers of the mind, or to weaken that sensibility which requires perpetual control, since it gives birth to the vehemence of passion as well as to the higher powers of imagination. Unfortunately, the favourite occupations of genius are calculated to increase all its peculiarities; to nourish that lofty pride which disdains the littleness of prudence, and the restrictions of order; and by indulgence, to increase that sensibility which in the present form of our existence is scarcely compatible with peace or happiness, even when accompanied with the choicest gifts of fortune!
"It is observed by one who was a friend and associate of Burns, and who has contemplated and explained the system of animated nature, that no sentient being with mental powers greatly superior to those of men, could possibly live and be happy in this world. 'If such a being really existed,' continues he, 'his misery would be extreme; with senses more delicate and refined, with perceptions more acute and penetrating, with a taste so exquisite, that the objects around him would by no means gratify it, obliged to feed on nourishment too gross for his frame, he must be born only to be miserable, and the continuation of his existence would be utterly impossible. Even in our present condition, the sameness and the insipidity of objects and pursuits, the futility of pleasure, and the infinite sources of excruciating pain, are supported with great difficulty by cultivated and refined minds. Increase our sensibilities, continue the same objects and situation, and no man could bear to live.'
"Thus it appears that our powers of sensation, as well as all our other powers, are adapted to the scene of our existence; that they are limited in mercy as well as in wisdom.
"The speculations of Mr. Smellie are not to be considered as the dreams of a theorist; they were probably founded on sad experience. The being he supposes 'with senses more delicate and refined, with perceptions more acute and penetrating,' is to be found in real life. He is of the temperament of genius, and, perhaps, a poet."
They, whose conduct is not actuated by views of direct benefit to themselves, but who live for the public, and look to no personal advantages but those which are the remote and uncertain result of general esteem and admiration, are considered by the herd of mankind, as of a romantic and enthusiastic character, which is only fitted for the abodes of insanity: an opinion which the passages, cited from Currie and Smellie, will tend to confirm. "What is the use of talents," I hear them say, "which will hot enable a man to direct himself; or of an imagination, which makes him melancholy and miserable?" But mark the poet in one of his happier moments! Observe the excess of his enjoyment, exhibited in the Tale of Tam O'Shanter!
—ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely.
The night drave on wi' sangs and clatter;
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious;
Wi' favours secret, sweet, and precious:
The souter told his queerest stories;
The landlord's laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E'en drown'd himself amang the nappy,
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious.
But pleasures are like poppies spread;
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow-falls in the river,
A moment white — then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form,
Evanishing amid the storm:
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride.
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods;
The lightnings flash from pole to pole;
Near and more near the thunders roll;
When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze;
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
&c. &c. &c. &c.
What think you of this, ye dull estimators of selfish pleasures? Do not I again hear you exclaim, "Mad fancies! The sights that Tam O'Shanter describes are not true. But if they were, why bring before our minds what is only adapted to frighten us, and give us pain!" Ye gloriers in your own stupidity, what a pity it is ye wear the form of an intellectual being!
But, for the comfort of the plodders, these rapid and violent movements were wearing out the thread of life too fast. The machine could not endure this violent pace the usual length of time; and Burns died in July 1796, in his thirty-eighth year. He sunk a martyr to his sensibility: a sensibility, to which, though the bitterness of malice and envy will attribute the fatal effects of it to his vicious indulgences, yet it must be recollected that other poets have fallen victims, whose morals have been pure and spotless. The sensibility of Cowper, for a time, overwhelmed his faculties at an age as early as that at which Burns found a refuge in the grave.
The genius of Burns was more sublime than that of Cowper. Both excelled in the familiar: but yet the latter was by nature as well as education more gentle, more easy, and delicate; he had also more of tenuity, while Burns was more concise, more bold, and energetic. They both also abounded in humour, which possessed the same characteristics in each; one mild, serene, and smiling; the other daring and powerful, full of fire and imagery. The poems of one fill the heart and the fancy with the soft pleasures of domestic privacy, with the calm and innocent occupations of rural solitude, the pensive musings of the moralist, and the chastised indignation of pure and simple virtue: the poems of the other breathe by turns Grief, Love, Joy, Melancholy, Despair and Terror; plunge us in the vortex of passion, and hurry us away on the wings of unrestrained and undirected fancy.
Cowper could paint the scenery of Nature and the simple emotions of the heart with exquisite simplicity and truth. Burns could array the morning, the noon, and the evening in new colours; could add new grace to female beauty, and new tenderness to the voice of love. In every situation in which he was placed, his mind seized upon the most striking circumstances, and combining them anew, and dressing them with all the fairy trappings of his imagination, he produced visions such as none but "poets dream." Wherever he went, in whatever he was employed, he saw every thing with a poet's eye, and clothed it with a poet's tints.
The hearts and tempers of these bards seem to have been cast in moulds equally distinct: while Cowper shrunk from difficulties and was palsied with dangers, we can conceive Burns at times riding with delight in the whirlwind, performing prodigies of heroism, and foremost in the career of a glorious death. We can almost suppose in his athletic form and daring countenance, had he lived in times of barbarism, and been tempted by hard necessity to forego his principles, such an one as we behold at the head of a banditti in the savage scenery of Salvator Rosa, gilding the crimes of violence and depredation by acts of valour and generosity! In Cowper, on the contrary we view a man only fitted for the most refined state of society, and for the bowers of peace and security.
There is a relative claim to superiority on the side of Burns, on which I cannot lay so much stress as many are inclined to do. I mean his want of education, while the other enjoyed all the discipline and all the advantages of a great public school. If the addiction to the Muses, and the attainment of poetical excellence were nothing more than an accidental application of general talents to a particular species of intellectual occupation, how happens it that among the vast numbers educated at Westminster, or Eton, or Winchester, or Harrow, among whom there most be very many of very high natural endowments, and where day after day, and year after year, they are habituated to poetical composition by every artifice of emulation, and every advantage of precept and example, so few should attain the rank of genuine poets, while Burns in a clay-built hovel, amid the labours of the plough and the flail, under the anxiety of procuring his daily bread, with little instruction and few books, and surrounded only by the humblest society, felt an irresistible impulse to poetry, which surmounted every obstacle, and reached a felicity of expression, a force of sentiment, and a richness of imagery scarce ever rivalled by an union of ability, education, practice, and laborious effort? Thinking therefore that poetical talent is a bent impressed by the hand of Nature, I cannot give the greatest weight to subsequent artificial circumstances; but yet I must admit that in the case of Burns they were so unfavourable that no common natural genius could have overcome them.
On the contrary, there were some points in the history of Burns more propitious to the bolder features of poetry, than in that of Cowper. He wrote in the season of youth, when all the passions were at their height; his life was less uniform, and his station was more likely to encourage energy and enthusiasm, than the more polished and more insipid ranks, to which the other belonged. In the circles of fashion, fire and impetuosity are deemed vulgar; and with the roughnesses of the human character all its force is too often smoothed away. An early intercourse with the upper "mobility" is too apt to damp all the generous emotions, and make one ashamed of romantic hopes and sublime conceptions. From blights of this kind the early situation of Burns protected him. The heaths and mountains of Scotland, among which he lived, braced his nerves with vigour, and cherished the bold and striking colours of his mind.
But it seems to me vain and idle to speculate upon education and outward circumstances, as the causes or promoters of poetical genius. It is the inspiring breath of Nature alone, which gives the powers of the genuine bard, and creates a ruling propensity, and a peculiar east of character which will rise above every impediment, but can be substituted by neither art nor labour. To write mellifluous verses in language which may seem to the eye and the ear adorned with both imagery and elegance, may be a faculty neither unattainable, nor even uncommon. But to give that soul, that predominance of thought, that illuminated tone of a living spirit, which spring in so inexplicable a manner from the chords of the real lyre, is beyond the reach of mere human arrangement, without the innate and very rare gift of the Muse. That gift has regard neither to rank, station, nor riches. It shone over the cradles of Surry, and Buckhurst, amid the splendour of palaces, and the lustre of coronets; it shone over those of Milton, and Cowley, and Dryden, and Gray, and Collins, amid scenes of frugal and unostentatious competence and mediocrity; it shone over that of Burns, in the thatched hovel, the chill abode of comfortless penury and humble labour.
If there be any who doubt whether, in the exercise of this gift, Burns contributed to his own happiness, let them hear the testimony of himself. "Poesy," says he to Dr. Moore, "was still a darling walk for my mind; but it was only indulged in according to the humour of the hour. I had usually half a dozen, or more pieces on hand; I took up one or other as it suited the momentary tone of the mind, and dismissed the work as it bordered on fatigue. My passions, when once lighted up, raged like so many devils, till they got vent in rhyme, and then the conning over my verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet!" [Life, p. 48.] In truth, without regard to happiness, or misery, the impulse of the true poet towards his occupation is generally irresistible, even to the neglect of all, to which prudence and self-interest imperiously dictate his attention. Thus placed in the conflict of opposite attractions he too often fails a victim to the compunctions of mental regret, and the actual stripes of worldly adversity. But the dye is cast; even the misery, which is endured in such a cause, is dear to him; and the hope that his memory will live, and the pictures of his mind be cherished when his bones are mouldering in the dust, is a counterpoise to more than ordinary sufferings!
I do not mean to encourage the idea, that the imprudences,* and much less the immoralities, of Burns, were absolutely inseparable from the brilliance of his talents, or the sensibilities of his heart. I am not justifying, I only attempt to plead for them, in mitigation of the harsh and narrow censures of malignity and envy. I call on those of dull heads and sour tempers to judge with candour and mercy, to respect human frailties, more especially when redeemed by accompanying virtues, and to enter not into the garden of Fancy with implements too coarse, lest in the attempt to destroy the weeds, they pluck up also all the flowers.
September 23, 1805.
* I include not pecuniary imprudences, for which, I think, he has been unjustly censured. He had expended in nine years the subscription money of his poems — but how had he expended it? Partly in an unsuccessful farm; partly in assisting his friends, and partly in aid of his slender income. His contempt for money, especially as he had suffered from infancy the effects of actual poverty, was highly noble and generous. I cannot agree with some critics, that he had no cause to complain of want of due patronage. Was the mean place of an exciseman, with a salary of from £35 to £50 a year proper for Burns after his merits were acknowledged, and his literary genius deemed a national honour? It is wonderful, that upon such an income, such a man, who was encouraged to give up his mind to poetry, which rendered him unfit to improve it, was uneasy and discontented? He died out of debt; — but he had saved nothing! — Unpardonable imprudence!!! We are told, indeed, that an increase of income would only have increased the indulgence of his intemperance — a very generous mode of reconciling us to the hardships of his lot; — and as if intemperance was generally found to increase with affluence! Considering how immense is the present patronage of government, I must consider the neglect of Burns, whose powers had been duly appreciated, a stigma upon the age; and it is but candid to believe that more easy circumstances of fortune would have materially tended to soften the most objectionable habits of his last years, and perhaps have prolonged his life. Many points of this subject remain untouched; but the limits of this Number call on me to stop my pen.