1825 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Henry Mackenzie, Anecdotes and Egotisms, 1825 ca.; ed. Thompson (1927) 151-52.



His pride; his Contempt of rank was a little affected; for he sometimes was rather more than enough flattered with the notice of great Men; yet he put on the opposite feeling and frequently had in his mouth, talking of some great Men supercilious and contemptuous of little men "They look, he would say, frequently to myself." They look, in the words of Glenalvon to Douglas, as if they said "You are no match for me." The greatest of all pride is the pride of humility.

He indulged his sarcastic humour in talking of men, particularly if he thought them proud, or disdainful of Persons of inferior rank; his Observations were always acute and forcibly expressed. I was walking with him one day, when we met a common Acquaintance not remarkable for Ability or intellectual Endowments. I observed how extremely fat he had lately grown. "Yes," said Burns, "and when you have told that you have exhausted the subject of Mr — Fatness is the only quality you can ascribe to him."

How different was the fate of Burns compared with that of a Poet in birth, in Education, and many other circumstances like him, tho I do not arrogate to him so much creative genius, Allan Ramsay. He came into notice in a Station as mean as Burns, had no advantage over him in Birth, Connexions, or any other Circumstances independent of his own genius; alas! it was the Patronage and Companionship which Burns obtained, that changed the Colour of his later life; the patronage of dissipated men of high rank, and the Companionship of clever and witty, but dissipated men of lower rank. The notice of the former flattered his vanity, and in some degree unsettled his religious faith, which however he never abandoned; and from an Anecdote to be immediately mentioned he seemed to mingle with the most amiable feelings.— but the levity of both his Patrons and his associates Dwelt on the Surface of his Mind, and prompted some of his Poetry which offended the serious, and lost him better friends than those which that poetry had acquired. — Dugald Stewart who first introduced him to me, told me latterly, that his Conduct and Manners had become so degraded that decent persons could hardly take any notice of him. I suspect my excellent friend had been deceived by exaggerated accounts of his irregularities; and certainly his genius had not sunk with his Condition, nor lost by the taint of his manners; for it appears by the Account given of him by Mr Thomson, and his last letters to that gentleman that the vigor of his fancy and power of Composition still remained "Still in his ashes lived his wonted fires."

There are in some of the loose sheets many Anecdotes of Burns; but I think it is not there mentioned, that with all his genius and invention I rather suspect he was not capable of a Composition of length, or that required Application of thought. I observed to him how much Allan Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd was a favorite with the public, and suggested his writing a pastoral Drama of the same kind. He seemed much pleased with the Idea, and promised to try such a Composition; but tho then in the full Vigor of his invention and of his power of writing poetry, he never executed that design.