1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Anonymous, "Some Account of Robert Burns" Edinburgh Magazine NS 8 (September 1796) 169-74.



It is not likely that the extinction of a spirit like the late Robert Burns should be unattended with a variety of posthumous anecdotes, memoirs, &c. relative to the very rare and uncommon personage whom it animated. I shall not attempt to inlist with the voluminous corps of biographers, who, it is probable may, without possessing his genius, arrogate to themselves the privilege of criticising the character or writings of Mr. Burns. "The inspiring mantle" thrown over him by that tutelary muse who first found him like the prophet Elisha, "at his plough," has been the portion of few, may be the portion of fewer still; and if it is true that men of genius have a claim in their literal capacities to the legal rights of the British citizen in a court of justice, that of being "tried only by their Peers," (I borrow here an expression I have frequently heard Burns himself make use of,) God forbid I should, any more than the generality of other people, assume the flattering and peculiar privilege of sitting upon his jury. But the intimacy of our acquaintance, for several years past, may perhaps justify my presenting to the public a few of those ideas and observations I have had the opportunities of forming, and which to the day that closed for ever the scene of his happy qualities and of his errors, I have never had the smallest cause to deviate in or to recall.

It will be the misfortune of Burns's reputation in the records of literature, not only to future generations and to foreign countries, but even with his native Scotland and a number of his cotempotaries, that he has been regarded as a poet, and nothing but a poet. It must not be supposed that I consider this title as a trivial one; no person can be more penetrated with the respect due to the wreath bestowed by the Muses than myself; and much certainly is due to the merits of a self-taught bard, deprived of the advantages of a classical education, and the intercourse of minds congenial to his own, till that period of life when his native fire had already blazed forth in all its wild graces of genuine simplicity, and energetic eloquence of sentiment.

But the fact is, that even when all his honours are yielded to him, Burns will undoubtedly be found to move in a sphere less splendid, less dignified, and even in his own pastoral stile, less attractive than several other writers have done; and that poesy was (I appeal to all who had the advantage of being personally acquainted with him) actually not his forte. If others had climbed more successfully to the heights of Parnassus, none certainly ever outshone Burns in the charms — the sorcery I would almost call it, of fascinating conversation, the spontaneous eloquence of social argument, or the unstudied poignancy of brilliant repartee. His personal endowments were perfectly correspondent with the qualifications of his mind. His form was manly, his action — energy itself entirely divested, however, of all those graces, of that polish, acquired only in the refinement of societies in which he seldom had the opportunity to mix; but where, such was the irresistible power of attraction that encircled him, tho' his manners and appearance were always peculiar, that he never failed to delight and to excel. His figure certainly bore the authentic impress of his birth and original station of life; it seemed rather moulded by nature for the rough exercises of agriculture, than the gentler cultivation of the belles letters. His features were stamped with the hardy character of independence, and the firmness of conscious though not arrogant pre-eminence. I believe no man was ever gifted with a larger portion of the "vivida vis animi." The animated expressions of his countenance were almost peculiar to himself. The rapid lightnings of his eye were always the harbingers of some flash of genius, whether they darted the fiery glances of insulted and indignant superiority, or beamed with the impassioned sentiment of fervent and impetuous affections. His voice alone could improve upon the magic of his eye; sonorous, replete with the finest modulations, it alternately captivated the ear with the melody of poetic numbers, the perspicuity of nervous reasoning, or the ardent sallies, of enthusiastic patriotism. The keeness of satire was, I am at a loss whether to say his forte or his foible: For though nature had endowed him with a portion of the most pointed excellence in that "perilous gift," he suffered it too often to be the vehicle of personal, and sometimes unfounded animosities. It was not always that sportiveness of humour, "that unwary pleasantry," which Sterne has described to us, in colours so conciliatory; but the darts of ridicule were frequently directed as the caprice of the instant suggested, or the altercations of parties or of persons happened to kindle the restlessness of his spirit into interest or aversion. This however was not unexceptionably the case; his wit (which is no unusual matter indeed) had always the start of his judgment, and would lead him to the indulgence of raillery, uniformly acute, but often unaccompanied with the least desire to wound. The suppression of an arch and full pointed bon mot, from the dread of injuring its object, the sage of Zurich very properly classes as a virtue only to be sought for in the kalender of Saints; if so, Burns must not be dealt with unconscientiously for being rather deficient in it. He paid forfeit of his talents as dearly as any ono could do; "'twas no extravagant arithmetic" to say of him as of Yorick, "that for every ten jokes he got an hundred enemies."

And much allowance should be made by a candid mind for the splenetic warmth of a spirit whom "distress had often spited with the world," and which, unbounded in its intellectual sallies and pursuits, continually experienced the curbs imposed by the way-wardness of his fortune; the vivacity of his wishes and temper, checked by almost habitual disappointments, and endowed with a heart that acknowledged the ruling passion of independence, without having been placed beyond the grasp of penury. His soul was never languid or inactive, and his genius was extinguished only with the last sparks of retreating life. His passions rendered him, according as they disclosed themselves, in affection or antipathy, of enthusiastic attachment or most rancourous malevolence: For he possessed none of that negative insipidity of character whose love might be regarded with indifference, or whose resentment could be considered with contempt. In this, it should seem, the temper of his companions took the tincture from his own; for he acknowledged in the universe but two classes of objects — those of adoration the most fervent, or of aversion the most invincible. It has been frequently reproached to him, that unsusceptible indifference, often hating where he ought to have despised, he alternately opened his heart and poured forth all the treasures of his understanding to such as were incapable of appreciating the homage, and elevated to the privileges of an adversary, many who were unqualified in talent, or in nature for the honour of a contest so distinguished.

It is said that the celebrated Dr. Johnson professed "to love a good hater:" — A temperament that had singularly adapted him to cherish a prepossession in favour of our bard; who, perhaps, could fall little short even of the surly Doctor in this qualification, as long as the disposition to ill-will continued; but the versatility of his passions were fortunately tempered to their fervor; he was seldom, never indeed, implacable in his resentments; and, sometimes, it has been alledged, not inviolably steady in enagagements of friendship. Much indeed has been talked of his inconstancy and caprices, but I am inclined to believe, they originated less from a levity of resentment, than from an impetuosity of feeling, that rendered him prompt to take umbrage; and his sensations of pique, where he fancied he had discovered the traces of unkindness, scorn, or neglect, took their measures of asperity from the overflowings of the opposite sentiment which preceded them, and which seldom failed to regain its ascendancy in his bosom on the return of its calmer reflection. He was candid and manly in the avowal of his wrongs, and his avowal was a reparation: — His native "fierte" never forsaking him a moment, the value of a frank acknowledgement was enhanced towards a generous mind, from its never being attended with servility. His mind, organized only for the stronger and more acute operations of the passions, was impracticable to the efforts of superciliousness, that would have depressed it into humility, and equally superior to the encroachments of venal suggestions, that might have led him into the mazes of hypocrisy.

It has been observed, that he was far from averse to the incense of flattery, and could receive it tempered with less delicacy than might have been expected, as he seldom transgressed in that way himself; where he paid a compliment indeed it might claim the power of intoxication, as approbation from him was always an honest tribute from the warmth and sincerity of his heart.

It has been sometimes represented by those who it should seem, had a view to detract, though they could not hope wholly to obscure, that native brilliancy which the powers of this singular man had invariably bestowed on every thing that came from his lips or pen; that the history of the Ayrshire Plow-boy was an ingenious fiction, fabricated for the purposes of obtaining the interest of the great, and enhancing the merits of what, in reality, required no foil. The Cotter's Saturday Night, — Tam O'Shanter, and the Mountain Daisy, besides a number of later productions, where the maturity of his genius will be readily traced, and which will be given to the Public as soon as his friends have collected and arranged them, speak sufficiently for themselves; and had they fallen from a hand more distinguished in the ranks of society than that of a peasant they had perhaps bestowed as unusual a grace there, as even to the humbled shade of rustic inspiration, from which they really sprung.

To the obscure scene of Mr. Burns's education, and to the laborious, tho' honourable station of rural industry in which his parentage enrolled him, almost every inhabitant of the south of Scotland can give testimony. His only surviving brother, Gilbert Burns, now guides the ploughshare of his forefathers in Ayrshire, at a small farm near Mauchline; and our poet's eldest son, (a lad of nine years of age, whose early dispositions already prove him the heritor of his father's talents, as well as indigence,) has been destined by his family to the humble employments of the loom.

That Burns had received no classical education, and was acquainted with the Greek and Roman authors only through the medium of translations, is a fact that can be indisputably proved. I have seldom seen him at a loss in conversation, unless where the dead languages and their writers were the subject of discussion; when I have pressed him to tell me why he never took pains to acquire the Latin in particular, a language his happy memory had so soon enabled him to be master of, he used only to reply, with a smile, that he had already knew all the Latin he desired to learn, and that was, "omnia vincit amor;" a phrase, that from his writings, and most favourite pursuits, it should undoubtedly seem he was most thoroughly versed in; but I really believe his classic erudition extended little, if any farther.

The penchant Mr. Burns had uniformly acknowledged for the festive pleasure of the table, and towards the fairer and softer objects of Nature's creation, has been the rallying point where the attacks of his censors, both pious and moral, have been directed; and to these, it must be confessed, he shewed himself no Stoic. His poetical pieces blend with alternate happiness of description the frolic spirit of the joy-inspiring bowl, or melt the heart to the tender and impassionated sentiments in which beauty always taught him to pour forth his own. But who will wish to reprove the feelings he has consecrated with such lively touches of nature? And where is the rugged moralist that will persuade us so far to "chill the genial current of the soul," as to regret that Ovid ever celebrated his Corinna, or that Anacreon sung beneath his vine.

I will not however undertake to be the apologist of the irregularities even of a man of genius; though I believe it is as certainly understood that Genius never was free of irregularities, as that their absolution, in great measure, may be justly claimed, since it is certain, that the world had continued very stationary in its intellectual acquirements had it never given birth to any but men of plain sense. Evenness of conduct, and a due regard to the decorums of the world, have been so rarely seen to move hand in hand with Genius, that some have gone so far as to say, though there I cannot acquiesce, and that they are even incompatible: Besides, the frailties that cast their shade over splendor of superior merit are more conspicuously glaring than where they are the attendants of mere mediocrity; it is only on the gem we are disturbed to see the dust. The pebble may be soiled, and we never regard it. The eccentric intuitions of Genius too often yield the soul to the wild effervescence of desires always unbounded, and sometimes equally dangerous to the repose of others as fatal to its own. No wonder then if Virtue herself is sometimes lost in the blaze of kindling animation, or that the calm monitions of reason were not invariably found sufficient to fetter an imagination which scorned the narrow limits and restrictions that would chain it to the level of ordinary minds.

The Child of Nature, the Child of Sensibility, unbroke to the refrigerative precepts of philosophy, untaught always to vanquish the passions which were his frequent errors; Burns makes his own artless apology in terms more forcible than all the argumentary vindications in the world could, in one of his poems, where he delineates with his usual simplicity the progress of his mind, and its first expansion to the lessons of the "Tutelary Muse."

I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
Wild send thee Pleasure's devious way,
Misled by Fancy's meteor ray,
By passion driven;
But yet the light that led astray,
Was light from heaven.
Vide The Vision, Duan II.

I have already transgressed far beyond the bounds I had proposed to myself on first committing to paper these sketches, which comprehend at least what I have been led to deem the leading features of Burns's mind and character. A critique, either literary or moral, I cannot aim at; mine is wholly fulfilled if, in these paragraphs, I have been able to delineate any strong traits that distinguished him, of those talents which raised him from the plough, where he passed the bleak morning of his life, weaving his rude wreathes of poesy with the wild field flowers that sprung around his cottage, to the enviable eminence of literary fame, where Scotland will long cherish his memory with delight and gratitude, and proudly remember, that beneath her cold sky, a genius was ripened without care or culture, that would have done honour to the genial temperature of climes better adapted to cherishing its germs, to the perfectioning of those luxuriances; that warmth of fancy and colouring, in which he so eminently excelled!

From several paragraphs I have noticed in the public prints, even since the idea of sending these thither was formed, I find private animosities are not yet subsided, and envy has not yet done her part. I still trust, however, that honest fame will be affixed to Burns's reputation which he will be found to have merited, by the candid and impartial, among his countrymen; and where a kindred bosom is found, that has been taught to glow with the fires that animated Burns's, should a recollection of the imprudence that sullied his brighter qualifications interpose; remember at the same time the imperfection of all human excellence, and leave those inconsistencies which alternately, exalted his nature to the seraph, and sunk it again into the man, to the tribunal which alone can investigate the labyrinths of the human heart,

Where they alike in trembling hopes repose
The bosom of his father, and his God.

He has left behind a wife, with five infant children, and in the hourly expectation of a sixth, without any resource but what she may hope from public sypmpathy, and the regard due to the memory of her husband. Need we say any thing more to awaken the feelings of Benevolence? Burns, who himself erected a monument to the memory of his unfortunate poetical predecessor Ferguson, has left in his distressed and helpless family an opportunity to his admirers and the public, at once to pay a tribute of respect to the genius of the poet, and to erect a substantial monument of their own beneficence. — Actuated by the regard which is due to the shade of such a genius, his remains were interred on August 25th 1796, with military honours, and every suitable respect. The corpse, having been previously conveyed to the town-hall, remained there till the following ceremony took place: The military at Dumfries, consisting of the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire fencibles, having handsomely tendered their services, lined the streets on both sides to the burial-ground. The royal Dumfries volunteers, of which he was a member, in uniform, with crapes on their left arms, supported the bier. A party of that corps, appointed to perform the military obsequies, moving in slow solemn time to the Dead March in Saul, which was played by the military band, preceded in mournful array with arms reversed. The principal part of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood, with a number of the particular friends of the bard from remote parts, followed in procession; the great bells of the churches tolling at intervals. Arrived at the church-yard gate, the funeral party, according to the rules of that exercise, formed two lines, and leaned their heads on their fire-locks pointed to the ground. Thro' this space the corpse was carried, and borne forward to the grave. The party then drew up alongside of it, and fired three vollies over the coffin when deposited in the earth. The whole ceremony presented a solemn, grand, and affecting spectacle; and accorded with the general sorrow and regret for the loss of a man whose like we scarce can see again.