1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Henry Mackenzie, The Lounger No. XCVII (9 December 1786) 385-88.



To the feeling and the susceptible there is something wonderfully pleasing in the contemplation of genius, of that supereminent reach of mind by which some men are distinguished. In the view of highly superior talents, as in that of great and stupendous natural objects, there is a sublimity which fills the soul with wonder and delight, which expands it, as it were, beyond its usual bounds, and which, investing our nature with extraordinary powers, and extraordinary honours, interests our curiosity, and flatters our pride.

This divinity of genius, however, which admiration is fond to worship, is best arrayed in the darkness of distant and remote periods, and is not easily acknowledged in the present times, or in places with which we are perfectly acquainted. Exclusive of all the deductions which envy or jealousy may sometimes be supposed to make, there is a familiarity in the near approach of persons around us, not very consistent with the lofty ideas which we wish to form of him who has led captive our imagination in the triumph of his fancy, overpowered our feelings with the tide of passion, or enlightened our reason with the investigation of hidden truths. It may be true, that "in the olden time" genius had some advantages which tended to its vigour and its growth; but it is not unlikely that in "the ignorant present time" our posterity may find names which they will dignify, though we neglected, and pay pay to their memory those honours which their cotemporaries had denied them

There is, however, a natural, and indeed fortunate vanity in trying to redress this wrong which genius is exposed to suffer. In the discovery of talents generally unknown, men are apt to indulge the same fond partiality as in all other discoveries which themselves have made; and hence we have had repeated instances of painters and of poets, who have been drawn from obscure situations, and held forth to public notice and applause by the extravagant encomiums of their introductors, yet in a short time have sunk again to their former obscurity; whose merit, though perhaps somewhat neglected, did not appear to have been much undervalued by the world, and could not support, by its own intrinsic excellence, that superior place which the enthusiasm of its patrons would have assigned it.

I know not if I shall be accused of such enthusiasm and partiality, when I introduce to the notice of my readers a poet of our own country, with whose writings I have lately become acquainted; but if I am not greatly deceived, I think I may safely pronounce him a genius of no ordinary rank. The person to whom I allude is ROBERT BURNS, an Ayrshire ploughman, whose poems were some time ago published in a country-town in the west of Scotland, with no other ambition, it would seem, than to circulate among the inhabitants of the country where he was born, to obtain a little fame from those who had heard of his talents. I hope I shall not be thought to assume too much, if I endeavour to place him in a higher point of view, and to claim for him those honours which their excellence appears to deserve.

In mentioning the circumstance of his humble situation, I mean not to rest his pretensions solely on that title, or to urge the merits of his poetry when considered in relation to the lowness of his birth, and the little opportunity of improvement which his education could afford. These particulars, indeed, might excite our wonder at his productions; but his poetry, considered abstractly, and without the apologies arising from his situation, seems to me fully intitled to command our feelings, and to obtain our applause. One bar, indeed, his birth and education have opposed to his fame, the language in which most of his poems are written. Even in Scotland, the provincial dialect which Ramsay and he have used is now read with a difficulty which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader: in England it cannot be read at all, without such a constant reference to a glossary, as nearly to destroy to destroy that pleasure.

Some of his productions, however, especially those of the grave style, are almost English. From one of those I shall first present my readers with an extract, in which I think they will discover a high tone of feeling, a power and energy of expression, particularly and strongly characteristic of the mind and the voice of a poet. 'Tis from his poem entitled the Vision, in which the Genius of his native country, Ayrshire, is thus supposed to address him:

With future hope, I oft would gaze,
Fond, on thy little, early ways,
Thy rudely-carolled, chiming phrase,
In uncouth rhymes,
Fir'd at the simple, artless lays
Of other times.

I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Delighted with the dashing roar;
Or when the North his fleecy store
Drove thro' the sky,
I saw grim Nature's visage hoar,
Struck thy young eye.

Or when the deep-green-mantled Earth,
Warm-cherished ev'ry floweret's birth,
And joy and music pouring forth,
In every grove,
I saw thee eye the general mirth
With boundless love.

When ripen'd fields, and azure skies,
Called forth the reapers rustling noise,
I saw thee leave their evening joys,
And lonely stalk,
To vent thy bosom's swelling rise,
In pensive walk.

When youthful love, warm, blushing, strong,
Keen-shivering, shot thy nerves along,
Those accents, grateful to thy tongue,
Th' adored name,
I taught thee how to pour in song,
To soothe thy flame.

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.

Of strains like the above, solemn and sublime, with that rapt and inspired melancholy in which the Poet lifts his eye "above the visible diurnal sphere" the Poems intitled, Despondency, the Lament, Winter, a Dirge, and the Invocation to Ruin, afford no less striking examples. Of the tender and the moral, specimens equally advantageous might be drawn from the elegiac verses, intitled Man was made to mourn, from The Cottar's Saturday Night, the Stanzas To a Mouse, or those To a Mountain-Daisy, on turning it down with the plough in April 1786. This last Poem I shall insert entire, nor from its superior merit, but because its length suits the bounds of my Paper.

Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower,
Thou's met me in an evil hour,
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem;
To spare thee now is past my power,
Thou bonie gem.

Alas! it's no thy neighbour sweet,
The bonie Lark, companion meet!
Bending thee 'mong the dewy weet
Wi' speckled breast,
When upward-springing, blythe, to greet
The purpling east.

Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet chearfully thou glinted forth
Amid the storm,
Scarce rear'd above the parent-earth
Thy tender form.

The flaunting flowers our gardens yield,
High-shelt'ring woods, and wa's maun shield;
But thou beneath the random bield
Of clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stubble-field,
Unseen, alane.

There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snowy bosom sun-ward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head,
In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed,
And low thou lies!

Such is the fate of artless maid,
Sweet flow'ret of the rural shade!
By Love's simplicity betray'd,
And guileless trust,
Till she, like thee, all soil'd, is laid
Low in the dust.

Such is the fate of simple bard,
On Life's rough ocean luckless starr'd!
Unskillful he to note the card
Of prudent lore,
Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
And whelm him o'er!

Such fate to suff'ring words is given,
Who long with wants and woes has striven,
By human pride or cunning driven
To Misery's brink,
Till, wrench'd of every stay but Heaven,
He ruined sunk.

Ev'n thou who mourn'd the daisy's fate,
Taht fate is thine — No distant date;
Stern Ruin's plough-share drives, elate,
Full on thy bloom,
'Till crush'd beneath the furrows weight,
Shall be thy doom.

I have seldom met with an image more truly pastoral than that of the lark, in the second stanza. Such strokes as these mark the pencil of the poet, which delineates Nature with the precision of intimacy, yet with the delicate colouring of beauty and of taste.

The power of genius is not less admirable in tracing the manners, than in painting the passions, or in drawing the scenery of Nature. That intuitive glance with which a writer like Shakespeare discerns the characters of men, with which he catches the many-changing hues of life, forms a sort of problem in the science of mind, of which it is easier to see the truth than to assign the cause. Though I am very far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, his Dialogue of the Dogs, his Dedication to G— H—, Esq; his Epistle to a young Friend, and to W. S—n, will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this Heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners.

Against some passages of those last-mentioned poems it has been objected, that they breathe a spirit of libertinism and irreligion. But if we consider the ignorance and fanaticism of the lower class of people in the country where these poems were written, a fanaticism of that pernicious sort which sets faith in opposition to good works, the fallacy and danger of which, a mend so enlightened as our Poet's could not but perceive; we shall look upon his lighter Muse, not as the enemy of religion, (of which in several places he expresses the justest sentiments), but as the champion of morality, and the friend of virtue.

There are, however, it must be allowed, some exceptionable parts of the volume he has given to the public, which caution would have suppressed, or correction struck out; but Poets are seldom cautious, and our Poet had, alas! no friends or companions from whom correction could be obtained. When we reflect on his rank in life, the habits to which he must have been subject, and the society in which he must have mixed, we regret perhaps more than wonder, that delicacy should be so often offended in perusing a volume in which there is so much to interest and to please us.

Burns possesses the spirit as well as the fancy of a Poet. That honest pride and independence of soul which are sometimes the Muse's only dower, break forth on every occasion in his works. It may be, then, I shall wrong his feelings, while I indulge my own, in calling the attention of the public to his situation and circumstances. That condition, humble as it was, in which he found content, and wooed the Muse, might not have been deemed uncomfortable; but grief and misfortunes have reached him there; and one or two of his poems hint, what I have learnt from some of his countrymen, that he has been obliged to form the resolution of leaving his native land, to seek under a West-Indian clime that shelter and support which Scotland has denied him. But I trust means may be found to prevent this resolution from taking place; and that I do my country no more than justice, when I suppose her ready to stretch out her hand to cherish and retain this native Poet, whose "wood-notes wild" possess so much excellence. To repair the wrongs of suffering or neglected merit; to call forth genius from the obscurity in which it had pined indignant, and place it where it may profit or delight the world; these are exertions which give to wealth an enviable superiority, to greatness and to patronage a laudable pride.