Robert Burns

John Service, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:512-23.

That admiration of Burns' poetry as the work of a ploughman which Jeffrey in his time had occasion to deprecate, in which he could see no more sense than "in admiring it as if it had been written with his toes," has not survived Jeffrey's ridicule. Burns, like Joseph in Egypt, was destined to "forget his toil and his father's borne." His right to a place among the greater poets of Europe being no longer in dispute, to speak of him still as "the Ayrshire bard" is almost as dull an affectation as to follow his own example and call him Rob or Robin. A great poet not only in the sense that his affinities are with the greatest of the great poets that were before him or have been since, rather than with the multitude of inferior writers who have struggled into fame in verse, but great also in the sense that he gave a new impulse and a new direction to poetry, helped to overturn in that splendid realm the dynasty of Pope, and to found that to which Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron belong, Burns is only once a peasant and clownish in the course of nearly a century during which his name has been illustrious. It is not in 1786, in the circles of rank and fashion in Edinburgh, in which he appears fresh from the plough — here his courtliness astonishes Dugald Stewart and delights the Duchess of Gordon — it is now, when coming from Olympus, he is introduced to us as from Ayrshire. Though nothing could be more natural than his first appearance in the character of rustic bard, he has so long played a different part that his resumption of it is felt to border upon the grotesque and to be akin to fustian. The task which criticism has to perform in regard to him is indicated in this transformation of the natural man into something of a histrionic figure. It is a task of difficulty under any conditions, and not to be attempted with success in a very limited space. It is to explain how the publication of a small volume of poems "chiefly in the Scottish dialect," the natural destiny of which would have seemed to be fulfilled in making the Ayrshire bard known in Ayrshire, or at the most in Scotland, should have turned out to be an occasion, in literature and in history, of worldwide significance.

This explanation, be it ever so partial, must include, and perhaps ought to begin with, the admission, fatal to his character as a prodigy, that the influences under which Burns was tutored into song were as eminently European in fact as they were singularly provincial in appearance. The Revolution, at any rate in action, had not returned from America to France, when his poems were published. But the intellectual activity and turmoil which led to the Revolution was a phenomenon to which he was no more of a stranger in his humble and straitened sphere of life, than to summer's heat or winter's cold, or the west wind or "man's inhumanity to man." His father's cottage, in which, like the rest of the family (they were all readers), he sat at meals "with a book in one hand and a spoon in the other," was, as far as intelligence of most kinds was concerned, in open communication with Europe and America, and the presiding spirit in it was an old peasant, whose sagacity and whose virtues would have adorned the rank to which Glancairn or Athole belonged. Whatever limitations were imposed upon the growth of his intellect, whatever obstacles were thrown in the way of his attaining literary distinction by a life of slavish toil such as he was condemned to live, there was nothing in his case in such a life to exclude, there was everything to beget and to intensify, sympathy with an age which had grown sick of conventionality, classicality, and unreality in life and literature, and which yearned passionately after a return to nature and to truth. This yearning might be less general and less eager among the peasants of Ayrshire than among some other classes in other parts of Europe, but then he belonged, by the discipline as well as by the force of his mind, rather to Europe than to Ayrshire. His education at school, though, even for a Scotch peasant's son, irregular and scanty, was sufficient to fit him for becoming a citizen of the world; and a citizen of the world he did become by the study of the best English authors in prose and verse and by critical familiarity with the songs and ballads of his country. In virtue of this citizenship, the spirit of Revolution being abroad in Europe, he was as certain to encounter it as was Tam O'Shanter on his way home from Ayr and from the company of Souter Johnny to see Kirk Alloway in a "bleeze."

"He sings," as he himself says, "the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him"; but it is after the manner of one who is accustomed to live and move in a larger world than that in which he and they had "leave to toil." While he has never yet set foot beyond his native county, his mind has travelled; he is familiar with the continental resorts of persons of quality, with hunters of Ponotaxi (who have to rhyme with orthodoxy), with scenes, events, characters in Eastern lands, and in the literature and history of antiquity. His ideas, Sentiments, aspiration; hopes, fears, range easily and naturally beyond parochial and provincial limits into national affairs and the struggling life of civilised mankind. If he is ever more truly himself than in Bruce's Address to his troops at Bannockburn, a patriotic ode, it is in anticipating that golden age of the poet and the philanthropist when

man to man the world o'er
Shall brothers be for a' that.

His countrymen are a pushing and adventurous race. Wherever they go they carry with them as a feature of the national mind, an estimate of man as man, of wealth and worth, of rank and work, which bears the stamp of one man's genius. Burns' poems and songs are a programme of social and political reform and progress, or at any rate aspiration, — as radical a programme as could well be framed. No such programme, it is certain, ever had such currency in one nation as it has obtained among the Scottish race at home and abroad. For almost a century it has been said and sung by high and low, by rank and fashion, by artisans and, milkmaids, and aged inmates of the poorhouse. Children babble it and lisp it; it is the privileged sedition of public houses and public assemblies, privileged almost like the Bible; young ladies warble it at the request of their Tory grandfathers and to please their orthodox aunts; in kirks as well as where the shepherd tells his tale the echoes of it are never still. As far as there is any need to characterise his poetical lineage and development, this identifies Burns with the Revolution. It identifies him with it as respects the style of his poetry and also as respects its substance. Machinery of all kinds deteriorates by use; allowance should be made in all cases, that of poetry not excepted, for depreciation of value as the effect of wear and tear. Only the forces of nature are inexhaustible. Happily for him, Burns' poetical life fell within a period in which it had come to be felt that the machinery of the classical school of poetry was worn out, and that recourse must be had, for poetical power, to unexhausted and inexhaustible nature. He owed thus to the spirit of the time that passion for truth and nature in the style of his poems which ensured them such welcome a the time could give to novelty and excellence combined. He was a debtor to the same source for the ideas and sentiments, or many of the ideas and sentiments, to which his poetry owes not a little of the vitality and the currency it has among men and nations to whom it is known only in an almost unknown tongue, or in more or less inadequate translations.

His poetry is instinct with the life and movement of one age, — one which was an era of resurrection from the dead and of revolt against all that had lived too long. Any explanation of Burns, however, which is thus to be found where we find an explanation of Europe itself in the spirit of a particular age, is of course partial.

Its merit is that it points to what is more essential and more comprehensive than itself. Burns' poetry shares with all poetry of the first order of excellence the life and movement not of one age but of all ages, that which belongs to what Wordsworth calls "the essential passions" of human nature. It is the voice of nature which we hear in his poetry, and it is of that nature one touch of which makes the whole world kin. It is doubtful whether any poet, ancient or modern, has evoked as much personal attachment of a fervid and perfervid quality as Burns has been able to draw to himself. It is an attachment the amount and the quality of which are not to be explained by anything in the history of the man, anything apart from the exercise of his genius as a poet. His misfortunes, though they were great, do not account for it — these are cancelled by his faults, from which his misfortunes are not easily separated. What renders it at all intelligible is that human nature, in its most ordinary shapes, is more poetical than it looks, and that exactly at those moments of its consciousness in which it is most truly because most vividly and powerfully and poetically itself, Burns has a voice to give to it. He is not the poet's poet, which Shelley no doubt meant to be, or the philosopher's poet, which Wordsworth, in spite of himself; is. He is the poet of homely human nature, not half so homely or prosaic as it seems. His genius, in a manner all its own, associates itself with the fortunes, experiences, memorable moments, of human beings whose humanity is their sole patrimony to whom "liberty," and whatever, like liberty, has the power

To raise a man aboon the brute,
And mak him ken himsel,

is their portion in life; for whom the great epochs and never-to-be-forgotten phases of existence are those which are occasioned by emotions inseparable from the consciousness of existence. For the great majority of his readers, and therefore for the mass of human beings, the sympathy which exists between him and them is sympathy relative to their strongest and deepest feelings, and this is sympathy out of which personal affection naturally springs, and in the strength of which it cannot but grow strong. In this light Burns clubs and Burns celebrations, excursions and pilgrimages to the land of Burns, manifestations of personal affection without parallel for range or depth in the history of literature, instead of misleading the critical judgment as to his poetry, are an infallible index to the truth respecting it — namely, that the passions which live in it and by which it lives are the essential passions of human nature.

Of these plain "good masters" his princely intellectual gifts are the humble and faithful servants. His imagination, humour, pathos, the qualities in respect of which his genius is most powerful and opulent, are without reserve placed at their disposal and submitted to their dictation. His genius might possibly have elected to move sometimes in a different sphere, but this is the sphere in which its creative force is habitually spent. Words and phrases which derive their significance from what belongs to it are those that recur oftenest in his best and in his worst lines, and linger in our ears with the airs to which his songs are sung. As part and parcel of its contents, and as they are assorted in its compass, "freedom and whisky gang thegither" in his rhymes; so do mirth and care, despair and rapture, pride of birth and pride of worth, love and sorrow and death, auld acquaintance not to be forgotten, social inequalities not to be forgiven, hypocrisy at its prayers, and commiseration for the wretched which extends to the brute creation and cannot be withheld from the devil. That the worst of it as well as the best of it has power over him is the most that can be said in the way of censure or in the way of excuse in regard to that capital fault of his, a relish for grossness and even obscenity in the choice and treatment of his themes, which gives occasion to turgid moralists to talk of him as at once the glory and the shame of literature, and which, as disfiguring some of his best pieces no one has more reason to regret than he who has to do justice to the genius of the poet by making a selection from his works.

Genius can explain everything except itself. In this limitation of his genius to one sphere of activity we have, however, not only some explanation of the place which Burns occupies in European literature and European history, but also a revelation of the inner structure and quality of his genius. Genius which in every case eludes and defies definition is by this restriction of its operations shown to be in his case, more than most, synonymous with force of mind, that force which cleaves its way through the shows of things to the reality behind them and beyond them:

The heart ay's the part ay
That makes us right or wrang.

To say that this is his poetical creed is to say that poetical genius in his case is akin to or identical with "majestic common sense," an intellect of singular power to penetrate appearance and become conversant with reality and, truth — that reality and truth which are to be found, if anywhere, in the sphere of the passions and emotions of which he is the laureate. He is closer to this reality than other poets because his mental force is greater than theirs and carries him farther and straighter from the surface of things towards the centre. His poetry makes a gift again to folly of that definition of poetry which was presented by folly to stupidity — that is the best poetry which is the most feigning. It feigns not at all when it is at its best, and hardly any when it is at its worst. So much reality is therein it to the experience of common mortals, that it is commonly mistaken among them for useful information for the people. Where it is not understood as comprehending the choicest products of Imagination, humour, pathos, it is admired and valued as a repertory of oracular wisdom. When it is denied the welcome to which it is entitled as song, the gift of the gods, it is sure of applause as the "pith of sense," of which every man as he believes has his own share. Genius in the case of Burns is thus shown to be compact of sense, sagacity, intelligence of a powerful and piercing order, general force of mind to which nature and life cannot but yield up their deepest secrets. It is in the sphere of the essential passions of human nature that reality lies. That Burns, in a manner all his own, is rigid, not consciously always, but instinctively, in adhering to this sphere, is evidence that what takes in him the form and fashion of genius is common sense.

A melancholy or rather a mournful interest attaches to several of his poems — A Bard's Epitaph for example, and the Epistle to a Young Friend — as showing that intellect and passion were as far from being perfectly adjusted in his life as they have been in the lives of many other sons of genius. That they were not on better terms with each other than they actually were, it may be, is a matter which calls rather for regret than for amazement. Considering what nature made him and what his destiny was, considering how rudely in his case the sensibilities of a gifted soul clashed with the exigencies of a sordid lot, it is possibly not a matter for as much astonishment as has been sometimes expressed, that the last chapter of his history should be one which cannot be read without a pang of sorrow for the degradation of genius. Had he been a struggling tradesman in Paris instead of a struggling farmer in Ayrshire and a measurer of ale-firkins at Dumfries, Burns would no doubt have lived and died with a reputation for sobriety as unimpeachable as that of Beranger. But for that insanity, compounded of headache and melancholy, from which he suffered all his life, as the result of being made to do a man's work when he was a boy; but for his being "half fed, half sarkit," too literally and too long not to be rendered "half mad" as well, it is open to a candid judgment to suppose that the "thoughtless follies" which "laid him low," would not have been committed, at any rate would not have cut half as formidable a figure as they do in the count and reckoning of some of the honorary sheriffs and respectable aldermen of literature. But however it may have been that the relations of intellect and passion were imperfectly or ill adjusted in his life, their perfect harmony is the marvel and the glory of his song. Passages indeed from various pieces of his, perhaps whole pieces, could be cited which fall below the level of poetry in the strictest sense of the word, for which no higher character can be claimed than that of rhymed prose, because tense and sagacity or wit and humour predominate in them in too marked a degree over feeling and imagination. It is as if the balance, "rarely right adjusted," in his life, swung heavily sometimes in his verse to the other side. But it is only where it is chargeable with this excess of sense, or where it is written in that English tongue of which he never attained any mastery in verse, that his poetry falls short of excellence as regards the union of intellect and passion, the union of which is the first condition of poetical vitality. His passions, according to a well-known account of them from the best authority, "raged like so many devils" till they found vent in rhyme. They could not have raged more or raged less any day without perhaps marring the perfection of a stanza or a song which has almost the perfection of the work of Shakespeare or of nature. His one poetical failing, besides being on which leans to virtue's side, is exhibited for the most part only where it is harmless — in his epistles, satires, and especially his epigrams. His songs, on which after all his fame must mainly rest, are free from it; though even in them passion is governed and moderated in such a manner that in the whole collection of them there is abundant evidence of sense and sanity which it would have been fatal to obtrude in any one of them. His claim to be considered the first of song-writers is hardly disputed. It is a claim which rests upon scores of lyrics, each of which might be cited as an instance of lyrical passion at its best and highest. Lyrical passion in his case drew its strength from various and opposite sources, from the dashing experiences, habits, and emotions of a nature which needed nothing so much as regulation and harmony. But it is itself harmony as perfect as the song of the linnet and the thrush piping to a summer evening of peace on earth and glory in the western sky. Whatever the poet's eye has seen of beauty, or his heart has felt of mirth or sadness or madness, melts into it and becomes a tone, a chord of music of which, but for one singer, the world should hardly have known the power to thrill the universal heart. He could not begin to write a song till he had crooned over and got into his head some old air to which words might be adapted. Only when his songs are sung are they legitimately said, is the melody of them vocalised. Their affinity with music by origin and by use is only symbolic of the harmony to which lyrical passion in the s has set the incongruous facts and experiences of human, life and destiny. The best of them are serious and pathetic, like Mary Morison, My Nanie O, Of a' the airts the wind can blow; but serious and pathetic like these, or arch and airy and humorous like Tam Glen and Duncan Gray, they draw upon sources of melody of which Tibullus and Petrarch and Beranger had almost as little knowledge as of the sources of the Lugar or of the banks of Bonie Doon.

Like Shakespeare, Burns is almost as great in the matter of borrowing as in that of originality. His measures are without exception those with which he was familiar in his favourites and predecessors, Ramsay and Fergusson, or in the ballads and songs which the stream of time might be said to have brought down to his poetical mill. His Cotter's Saturday Night is modelled upon Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle; his Holy Fair upon the same poet's Leith Races. His epistles are Ramsay's and Fergusson's in form and spirit, only instinct with a kind of genius to which neither Ramsay nor Fergusson had any pretensions. One stanza in which he wrote a great deal, for which among poetical measures he had as much partiality as he had for winter among the seasons, or the mavis among birds, or humanity among the virtues, and which his readers, even Scotch readers, find it sometimes hard to endure, was no doubt made classical to him and informed with music by its having been made use of by predecessors of his, of whose genius he had formed a most generous and uncritical estimate.

His best work is distributed over three periods, into which his poetical life can be most easily divided — the first marked by the publication of his poems at Kilmarnock, 1786, when he was at the age of twenty-seven; the second comprehending the extraordinary fertility of his later residence in Ayrshire (at Mossgiel), and terminating in 1788, and the third being the melancholy last years at Ellisland and Dumfries, in which his recreation was to give to his country and the world a store of songs, original and such as no other country possesses. The Jolly Beggars, that incomparable opera in which critical genius of the highest order has discovered the highest flight of his poetical genius, belongs to the first period, though not published till after his death. The Cotter's Saturday Night belongs to the same period. My Nanie O is one of its songs. As regards humour and imagination it could be represented either by Death and Doctor Hornbook, or the Address to the Deil, or The Holy Fair. With reference to the work which was done by him before the close of this period, considering its quality and variety, considering how much of it is destined to hold a permanent place in literature, Burns is perhaps to be regarded as the most remarkable instance on record of the precocity of genius, at any rate poetical genius. It would be difficult to point to a single rival for poetical fame who before the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven had contributed as much to the stock of literature, exempt for ever from oblivion. He was in this sense something of the prodigy which, in respect of his being born a peasant, Jeffrey would not allow him to be considered.

In each of these three periods of his poetical life he was at his best in one or other of the departments of song in which his greatness is least open to question. To Ellisland and Dumfries, the last of the three, besides Tam o' Shanter and Captain Grose, belongs the glory of that marvellous series of songs, new and old, original and improved, which it was the unhappy exciseman-poet's one pure delight to contribute to the Miscellanies in which they appeared. Whether his genius was exhausted by the activity of these ten or a dozen years, or whether, if his life had been prolonged, he might not have undertaken and accomplished some even greater task than any he had attempted, is a question to which no very certain answer can be given. He might have done something to diminish the interval between him and the poets of the first order — those whose poetry includes character and action as well as passion. He was ambitious of doing something of the kind. At one time the scheme of an epic, at another the plans for a tragedy were revolved in his mind. But if we may judge from a fragment of his intended drama, from the quality of his English verses, or from the leading features of his character, it seems unlikely that he would under any circumstances have made a nearer approach than he has done, or than that other passionate pilgrim of the realm of song, Byron, has done, to Milton or Shakespeare. His nearest approach to Shakespeare and Milton must be held to be that he wrote for the same theatre as they — not for an age, but for all time.

If only because the essential passions of human nature are so peculiarly and exclusively the sphere in which his genius moves, the question whether on the whole the influence of his poetry is wholesome, is a question touching the perpetuity of his fame. It is the native sphere of morality and religion in which his genius disports itself, and hence, though it cannot be required of poetry that it should directly inculcate virtue and piety, yet poetry like his has only the choice of recognising at their proper value the highest instincts and feelings of human nature, or ensuring its own consignment to neglect and oblivion by clashing with them. For, as critics have at length discovered, poetry is not meant for critics but for mankind. If it is of use to mankind it has a chance of life; if not it must die. On these terms like other poets, Burns is a competitor for immortality, and on these terms, though his claim has been variously judged, it is now generally admitted to be strong. It is true, as has been already acknowledged, that touches of grossness and obscenity disfigure some of his best pieces, and are the execrable characteristics of some of his worst. It is true also that religious people have had much fault to find with The Holy Fair and Holy Willie, and other satires of his in which religious, or rather ecclesiastical things and personages, have been held up to ridicule and scorn. But the one fault he shares with many of his brother poets whose immortality is not doubtful; the other to most persons is rendered venial by a doubt as to whether it is not rather a capital merit than an unpardonable sin. His morality is not always perfect; sometimes it sanctions or applauds what cannot be defended. But he never ridicules religion except when the religion in question is in the nature of things ridiculous, and only not so by an accident of time or place. On the other hand, it is a world from which virtue and piety are not absent into which he habitually escapes from scenes in the actual world in which, with most of his generation, he was tempted to linger too long and too agreeably. Sordid and even revolting as some of these scenes are, they are yet to the reader of all that he has written only grotesque openings into a world beyond and above them in which everything fair and good has its own place — love and troth, joy in all that is pure and high, sorrow over all that is weak and low and sad, in the life of man. Hypocrisy, superstition, fanaticism owe him a heavy grudge. But in Scotland at least, and where The Holy Fair is remembered and Holy Willie is not unknown, spiritual religion owes him little but thanks.

On this subject only a word more need be said. Barns lives above all, and is destined to live, in his songs. In them, at any rate, he lives for an infinitely larger public than knows much of him as the author of Halloween or The Jolly Beggars. By his songs, though they too furnish his more austere censors with complaint, the service which he rendered to morality and religion is one the value of which can hardly be over-estimated. It is a remarkable fact that a country; the history of which is so much, as that of Scotland is, a history of religious or at any rate ecclesiastical events, especially battles, a country too which has not been unprolific in poetical talent, should have given birth to almost no religious poetry worth the name. Yet hardly is religious poetry a more prolific crop in the country of Dunbar and Burns and Scott than figs or peaches or bananas. It may be after all that other passions than those spiritual ones which find expression for themselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, have been chiefly concerned in those religious movements of which Scottish history is a tedious record. But be that as it may, Burns inherited from his poetical ancestry a wealth not of hymns but of songs and ballads, chiefly of course amatory. They inspired him with harmonies compared with which they are themselves harsh and out of tune — the inimitable airs to which they were sung were reverberated from his mind in words in which there is the very soul of melody. In this process of transmitting what he received from the past to the future to which be looked forward as a better day for all mankind, he changed, as regards morality, silver into gold, dirt into the fragrance of lilies and violets, foul dirt into the breath of meadows and of shady paths through woods and by the banks of murmuring streams. As a reformer of one branch of literature, when centuries that are centuries still have dwindled into years, he may perhaps be named along with John Knox and Walter Scott in the history of the Scottish Reformation. Anyhow, judged by his songs, Burns' fame has little to fear from any question being raised as to whether the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the instance of his poetry is really what it seems — a tree that is good for food and pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.