Scotland has better reason to be proud of her peasant poets than any other country in the world. She possesses a rich treasure of poetry, expressing the moral character of her population at very remote times; and in her national lyrics alone, so full of tenderness and truth, the heart of a simple, and wise, and thoughtful people is embalmed to us in imperishable beauty. If we knew nothing of the forefathers of our Scottish hamlets, but the pure and affectionate songs and ballads, the wild and pathetic airs of music which they loved, we should know enough to convince us that they were a race of men strong, healthful, happy, and dignified in the genial spirit of nature. The lower orders of the Scotch seem always to have had deeper, calmer, purer, and more reflecting affections than those of any other people, — and at the same time they have possessed, and do still possess, an imagination that broods over these affections with a constant delight, and kindles them into a strength and power, which, when brought into action by domestic or national trouble, have often been in good truth sublime.
Whatever may have been the causes of this fine character in more remote times, it seems certain, that, since the Reformation, it is to be attributed chiefly to the spirit of their Religion. That spirit is pervading and profound: it blends intimately with all the relations of life, — and gives a quiet and settled permanency to feelings, which, among a population uninspired by an habitual reverence for high and holy things, are little better than the uncertain, fluctuating, and transitory impulses of temperament. It is thus that there is something sacred and sublime in the tranquillity of a Scottish cottage. The Sabbath-day seems to extend its influence over all the week. The Bible lies from week's end to week's end visible before the eyes of all the inmates of the house; the language of Scripture is so familiar to the minds of the peasantry, that it is often adopted unconsciously in the conversation of common hours; in short, all the forms, modes, shows of life are, in a great measure, either moulded or coloured by Religion.
All enlightened foreigners have been impressed with a sense of the grandeur of such a national character, but they have failed in attributing it to the right cause. The blessings of Education have indeed been widely diffused over Scotland, and her Parish-Schools have conferred upon her inestimable benefits. But there is such simplicity and depth of moral feeling and affection in her peasantry, — such power over the more agitating and tumultuous passions, which, without weakening their lawful energies, controls and subdues their rebellious excitement, — there is an imagination so purely and loftily exercised over the objects of their human love, — that we must look for the origin of such a character to a far higher source than the mere culture of the mind by means of a rational and widely-extended system of Education. It is the habitual faith of the peasantry of this happy and beautiful land, "that has made them whole." The undecaying sanctities of religion have, like unseen household gods, kept watch by their hearth-sides from generation to generation; and their belief in the Bible is connected with all that is holiest and dearest in filial and parental love. A common piece of wood, the meanest article of household furniture, is prized, when it is a relic of one tenderly beloved; but the peasant of Scotland has a relic of departed affection, that lifts his nature up to heaven, when he takes into his reverential hands, "THE BIG HA' BIBLE, ANCE HIS FATHER'S PRIDE."
None who have enjoyed the happiness and the benefit of an intimate knowledge of the peasantry of Scotland will think this picture of their character overdrawn or exaggerated. We are not speaking of ideal beings — but of men marked, even in their best state, with many defects, frailties, errors, and vices. But that the Scotch are a devout people, one day wisely passed in Scotland would carry conviction to a stranger's heart; and when it is considered how many noble and elevating feelings are included within the virtue of DEVOTION, — unfearing faith, submissive reverence, calm content, and unshaken love, — we acknowledge, that a people who, emphatically speaking, fear God, insist possess within themselves the elements of all human virtue, happiness, and wisdom, — however much these may be occasionally weakened or polluted by the mournful necessities of life, — grief, ignorance, hard labour, penury, and disease.
It is the heart of the people, not merely their external character, of which we speak, though that too is beyond all comparison the most interesting and impressive of any nation in the world. It would require along line of thought to fathom the depth of a gray-haired Scottish peasant's heart, who may have buried in the churchyard of his native village the partner of a long, life, and the children she had brought to bless it. Time wears not out from his heart any impression that love has once graven there; it would seem, that the strength of affections relying on heaven when earth has lost all it valued, preserved old age from dotage and decay. If religion is most beautiful and lovely in the young, the happy, and the innocent, we must yet look for the consummation of its sublimity in the old, the repentant, and the resigned, and both may be seen
In some small kirk upon its sunny brae,
When Scotland lies asleep on the still Sabbath-day.
The Scottish peasantry are poetical, therefore, because they are religious. A heart that habitually cherishes religious feelings, cannot abide the thought of pure affections and pure delights passing utterly away. It would fain give a permanent existence to the fleeting shadows of earthly happiness. Its dreams are of heaven and eternity, and such dreams reflect back a hallowed light on earth and on time. We are ourselves willing, when our hour is come, to perish from the earth; but we wish our thoughts and feelings to live behind us; and we cannot endure the imagined sadness and silence of their extinction. Had a people no strong hope of the future, how could they deeply care for the past? or rather, how could the past awaken any thoughts but those of despondency and despair? A religious people tread constantly as it were on consecrated ground. It cannot be said, that there is any death among them; for we cannot forget those whom we knew we shall meet in heaven. But unless a people carry on their hopes and affections into an eternal future, there must be a deplorable oblivion of objects of affection vanished, — a still-increasing
Of love upon the hopeless earth.
Religion, then, has made the Scottish people thoughtful and meditative in their intellects — simple and pure in their morals — tender and affectionate in their hearts. But when there is profound thought and awakened sensibility, imagination will not fail to reign; and if this be indeed the general character of a whole people, and should they moreover be blessed with a beautiful country, and a free government, then those higher and purer feelings which, in less happy lands, are possessed only by the higher ranks of society, are brought into free play over all the bosom of society; and it may, without violence, be said, that a spirit of poetry breathes over all its valleys.
Of England, and of the character of her population, high and low, we think with exultation and with pride. Some virtues they perhaps possess in greater perfection than any other people. But we believe, that the most philosophical Englishmen acknowledge that there is a depth of moral and religious feeling in the peasantry of Scotland, not to be found among the best part of their own population. There cannot be said to be any poetry of the peasantry of England. We do not feel any consciousness of national prejudice, when we say, that a great poet could not be born among the English peasantry — bred among them — and restricted in his poetry to subjects belonging to themselves and their life.
There doubtless are among the peasantry of every truly noble nation, much to kindle the imagination and the fancy; but we believe, that in no country but Scotland does there exist a system of social and domestic life among that order of men, which combines within it almost all the finer and higher emotions of cultivated minds) with a simplicity and artlessness of character peculiar to persons of low estate. The fireside of an English cottager is often a scene of happiness and virtue; but unquestionably, in reading the "Cotter's Saturday Night" of Burns, we feel, that we are reading the records of a purer, simpler, more pious race; and there is in that immortal poem a depth of domestic joy — an intensity of the feeling of home — a presiding spirit of love — and a lofty enthusiasm of religion, which are all peculiarly Scottish, and beyond the pitch of mind of any other people.
It is not our intention at present, to pursue this interesting subject into its inmost recesses; we may have said enough to awaken the meditations of our readers on the poetical character of our peasantry. Yet, it may not be amiss to say a few words on the difference of poetical feeling and genius in an agricultural and pastoral state of life, — exemplified as that difference appears to be in the poetry of Burns, and his only worthy successor, the Ettrick Shepherd.
And, in the first place, it is undeniable, that in an agricultural country, the life of a peasant is a life of severe and incessant labour, leaving him apparently few opportunities for the cultivation and enjoyment either of his moral or intellectual nature. Each hour has its task, — and when the body is enslaved, with difficulty may the soul be free.
In the second place, the knowledge which men thus situated are likely to wish to attain, is of a narrow and worldly kind, immediately connected with the means of subsistence, and not linked with objects fitted to awaken much enthusiastic or imaginative feelings. The knowledge absolutely essential to a cottar in an agricultural country is small indeed, and small accordingly it will be found to be in almost all cases. Sobriety and prudence are his chief virtues; but his duties and his cares make no demand on qualities or feelings of a higher kind.
Thirdly, the face of an agricultural country cannot be very kindling to the senses or imagination. It is all subordinated to separate and distinct uses; one great end, namely, production, is constantly obtruded on the mind among all the shews of scenery, and that alone must be fatal to all play of imagination.
Fourthly, the constant and close intercourse between the inhabitants, arising from the density of population, gives to the people a tone of thought alien from all enthusiasm, and consequently from all superstition. Any superstitious forms that may rise up among them will be but slight modifications of feelings excited by the objects of reality, and will possess but a feeble power among the depressing and deadening influences of a life on the whole so unimaginative.
And, lastly, it may be asserted, that if such be the character of an agricultural life, the religion of the people will rather be of a sedate and rational kind, than characterized by that fervour, and even passion, without which it is apt to degenerate into a cautionary system of morality, instead of being a kindling, supporting, and elevating faith.
On the whole, therefore, it would seem that it is not to an agricultural country that we are to look for a poetical character in its inhabitants, or for the appearance among them of a great and prevailing poet.
In a pastoral state of society, the scene assumes a very different aspect. For, in the first place, shepherds and men, connected with a pastoral life, are not bowed down "by bodily labour constant and severe," — and both the thoughts and the affections have time for indulgence. They have also a more intimate acquaintance with the great and simple forms of nature, and with them are necessarily associated many of their best daily emotions. They held converse with nature, and become even in the painful prosecution of their necessary labours, unconsciously familiar with her language. Their own language then becomes poetical, and doubtless influences their characters. Their affections become spiritualized along with their imagination, — and there is a fine and delicate breath and shadow of superstition over all the character of their best emotions. Their very religion partakes somewhat of the wildness of superstitious fear: the lonely edifice built for the service of God in the mountain solitude is surrounded by spots haunted by the beings of a fairy creed.
It is certain that it has been in the pastoral vallies of the south of Scotland that the poetical genius of our country has been most beautifully displayed; and though the peculiar history of those districts, as well as the circumstances under which their language grew, were especially favourable to the formation and display of poetical feeling, yet we are not to look to such narrow and limited causes as these for the acknowledged superiority of the genius of the shepherds of the south, but rather, as we conceive, to such as have been hinted at above, and are necessarily, in a great degree, common to all pastoral states of society, in all times and in all countries.
When we consider the genius of Burns, we see it manifestly moulded and coloured by his agricultural life. We see in all his earliest poems — and they are by far his finest — a noble soul struggling — labouring with a hard and oppressive fate. He was, from very boy-hood, "a toil-worn cottar," — and it was the aim of his noble heart to preserve that dignity which nature gave it, unshaken and unhumbled by the "weary weight" of his lot. His genius was winged by independence — and in the proud disdain with which he spurned at the fortune that in vain strove to enslave him, it seemed as if his soul rose to a nobler pitch of enthusiasm, and that he more passionately enjoyed his freedom when feeling circled, not bound by unavailing chains.
The hardships and privations that Burns early felt himself born to endure, — the constant presence before him of the image of poverty — the conviction of the necessary evils of the poor man's lot — made his whole heart to leap within him when joy, and pleasure, and happiness, opened their arms to receive him. Bliss bursts upon him like a rush of waters — and his soul is at once swept down the flood. Every one must have felt that there is a melancholy air spread over his poetry — as if his creed truly were that man was made to mourn;" but sudden flashings and illuminations of delight are for ever breaking out; — and in the vehemence, and energy, and triumphant exultation of his language in those moments of inspiration, we feel how dear a thing free and unmingled happiness is to the children of poverty and sorrow.
It was thus that the calamities of a life of hardship, that bows down ordinary spirits to the earth, elevated and sublimed the genius and character of our immortal poet. It was thus that nothing seemed worthy to engross his attention, but the feelings and the passions of the heart of man. He felt within him visitings of thoughts that wafted him into Elysium, — he recognised in those thoughts the awful power of human passion, — and saw that, circumscribed as the sphere was in which he, a poor peasant, was placed, he might yet walk in it with power and glory, — and that he might waken up into strength, freshness, and beauty, those feelings of his lowly brethren that destiny had enfeebled and obscured, and give them an existence in poetry, essentially true to human life, but tinged with that adorning radiance, which emanates only from the poet's soul in the hour of his inspiration.
It is here that we must seek for the true cause of Burns' very limited power of description of external Nature. Certainly, of all poets of the first order, he is the one that has left us the fewest fine pictures of landscape. His senses were gratified with the forms, the blooms, and the odours of nature and often in the fulness of his convivial delight, he pours out vivid expressions of that rapture and enjoyment. But external nature seems never to have elevated his imagination, or for any length of time to have won him from the dominion of the living world. Where his eye reposed, or his ear listened, there too his soul was satisfied. When he has attempted to generalize, to delineate associations by which nature is connected with the universal feelings of our kind, he sinks to the level of an ordinary versifier. All that vivid and burning vigour, with which he describes his own feelings and passions as a human being in union with human beings, is gone at once; and we witness the unavailing labour of a mind endeavouring to describe what it but imperfectly understands, and but feebly enjoys. There is scarcely a line in his poems written in, or of the Highlands, that would startle us with surprise in the verses of the merest poetaster. His mind had never delivered itself up to such trains of thought. In his evening walks, after a day of toil, the murmur of the stream, the whispering of the breeze, or the song of the blackbird, touched his heart with joy and beautifully indeed has he blended his sweetest dreams of love and affection with such simple sounds as these; but generally speaking, Nature had no charms for him, unless when she at once recalled to his memory, the image of some human being whom he loved, and the visions of departed happiness. Then indeed, insensate things became instinct with spirit, and spoke the passion of the poet's soul; of which there cannot be a finer instance than in the lines to "Mary in Heaven," when the trees, the banks, the streams, the channel of the Ayr, seem all parts of his own being, and the whole of that sylvan scenery is enveloped in an atmosphere of mournful passion.
We have frequently thought that it was fortunate for Burns, that he lived before this age of descriptive poetry. No doubt his original mind would have preserved him from servile imitation; but his admiration of the genius of his great contemporaries might have seduced the train of his emotions from the fireside to the valley, and he might have wasted on the forms of external nature, much of that fervid passion which he has bestowed on the dearer and nearer objects of human love. Had he done so, he would have offered violence to his own soul; for it is plain that he never could have been a truly great poet, except as the low-born poet of lowly life, and that had he resigned any part of his empire ever the passions of the human breast, he would have been but an inferior prince in the dominions of pure fancy.
He was, in many respects, born at a happy time; happy for a man of genius like him, but fatal and hopeless to the mere common mind. Much poetry existed in Scotland, but no poet. There was no lavish and prodigal applause of great public favourites, no despotical criticism stretching the leaden sceptre of command over the free thoughts of genius. There were in our popular poetry many exquisite fragments struck off as it were from the great mass of domestic life; many pictures of unfinished, but touching beauty. There was every thing to stimulate, awaken, and excite, little or nothing to depress or discourage. A whole world of life lay before Burns, whose inmost recesses, and darkest nooks, and sunniest eminence he had familiarly trodden from his childhood. All that world, he felt, could be made his own. No conqueror had overrun its fertile provinces, and it was for him to be crowned supreme over all the "Lyrical singers of that high-souled land."
The crown that he has won can never be removed from his head. Much is yet left for other poets, even among that life where the spirit of Burns delighted to work; — but he has built monuments on all the high places, and they who follow can only hope to leave behind them some far humbler memorials.
We have said that there is necessarily less enthusiasm, and therefore less superstition in an agricultural than a pastoral country. Accordingly, in the poetry of Burns, there is not much of that wild spirit of fear and mystery which is to be found in the traditions of the south of Scotland. The "Hallowe'en" is a poem of infinite spirit and vivacity, that brings vividly before us all the merriment of the scene. But there is little or nothing very poetical in the character of its superstitions, — and the poet himself, whose imagination seems never to have been subjected beneath the sway of any creatures but those of flesh and blood, treats the whole subject with a sarcastic good-humour, and sees in it only the exhibition of mere human feelings, and passions, and characters. Even in "Tam o' Shanter" the principal power lies in the character and situation of that "drowthy" hero; the Devil himself, playing on his bag-pipes in the window-neuk, is little more than a human piper, rather more burly than common; and while the witches and warlocks are mere old men and women, who continue to dance after "jigging-time is o'er," the young witch, "with the sark of se'enteen hunder linnen," is a buxom country lass to all intents and purposes, and considered by "Tam" in a very alluring but very simple and human light. "Weel done, cutty sark!"
The description of the horrors of the scene has always seemed to us overcharged, and caricatured so as to become shocking rather than terrible. One touch of Shakspeare's imagination is worth all that laborious and heavy accumulation of affrightments. But we are not now seeking to paint a picture of Burns' genius — we aim only at a general and characteristic sketch. A few words more, then, on the moral and religious spirit of his poetry, and we have done.
Strong charges have been brought against the general character of his writings, and by men who, being ministers of the Christian religion, may be supposed well imbued with its spirit. They have decreed the poetry of Burns to be hostile to morality and religion. Now, if this be indeed the case, it is most unaccountable that such compositions should have become universally popular among a grave, thoughtful, affectionate, and pious peasantry — and that the memory of Burns, faulty and frail as his human character was, should be cherished by them with an enthusiastic fondness and admiration, as if they were all bound to him by ties strong as those of blood itself. The poems of Burns do in fact form a part of the existence of the Scottish peasantry — the purest hearts and the most intelligent minds are the best acquainted with them — and they are universally considered as a subject of rejoicing pride, as a glory belonging to men in low estate, and which the peasant feels to confer on him the privilege of equality with the highest in the land. It would he a gross and irrational libel on the national character of our people to charge Robert Burns with being an immoral and irreligious poet.
It is, however, perfectly true, that Burns was led, by accidental and local circumstances, perhaps too frequently to look, in a ludicrous point of view, on the absurdities, both of doctrines and forms, that degraded the most awful rites of religion-and likewise on the follies and hypocrisies that disgraced the character of some of its most celebrated ministers. His quick and keen sense of the ludicrous could not resist the constant temptations which assailed it in the public exhibitions of these mountebanks; and hence, instead of confining himself to the happier and nobler task of describing religious Observances and Institutions as they might be, he rioted in the luxury of an almost licentious ridicule of the abject, impious, and humiliating fooleries which, in too many cases, characterized them as they were — while his imagination was thus withdrawn from the virtues and piety of the truly enlightened ministers of Christianity, to the endless and grotesque varieties of professional vice and folly exhibited in the hypocritical pretenders to sanctity, and the lunged bellowers who laid claim to gifts of grace.
In all this mad and mirthful wit, Burns could hardly fail of sometimes unintentionally hurting the best of the pious, while he was in fact seeking to lash only the worst of the profane; and as it is at all times dangerous to speak lightly about holy things, it is not to be denied, that there are in his poems many most reprehensible passages, and that the ridicule of the human sometimes trespasses with seeming irreverence on the divines. An enemy of Burns might doubtless select from his writings a pretty formidable list of delinquencies of this kind — and by shutting his heart against all the touching and sublime poetry that has made Burns the idol of his countrymen, and brooding with a gloomy malignity on all his infirmities thus brought into one mass, he might enjoy a poor and pitiable triumph over the object of his unchristian scorn. This has been more than once attempted — but without much effect; and nothing can more decidedly prove that the general spirit of Burns' poetry is worthy of the people among whom he was born, than the forgiveness which men of austerest principles have been willing to extend to the manifold errors both of his genius and his life.
But, while we hold ourselves justified in thus speaking of some of his stern and rancorous accusers, we must not shut our eyes to the truth — nor deny, that though Burns has left to us much poetry which sinks, with healing and cheering influence, into the poor man's heart — much that breathes a pure spirit of piety and devotion, — he might have done far more good than he has done — had he delighted less in painting the corruptions of religion, than in delineating her native and indestructible beauty. "The Cottar's Saturday Night" shews what he could have done — had he surveyed, with a calm and untroubled eye, all the influences of our religion, carried as they are into the inmost heart of society by our simple and beautiful forms of worship — had marriage — baptism — that other more awful sacrament — death — and funeral — had these and the innumerable themes allied to them, sunk into the depths of his heart, and images of them reascended thence into living and imperishable light.
There is a pathetic moral in the imperfect character of Burns, both as a poet and a man; nor ought they who delight both in him and his works, and rightly hold the anniversary of his birth to be a day sacred in the calendar of genius — to forget, that it was often the consciousness of his own frailties that made him so true a painter of human passions — that he often looked with melancholy eyes to that pure and serene life from which he was, by his own imprudence, debarred — that innocence, purity, and virtue, were to him, in the happiest hours of his inspiration, the fair images of beings whose living presence he had too often shunned — and that the sanctities of religion itself seem still more sanctified, when they rise before us in the poetry of a man who was not always withheld from approaching with levity, if not with irreverence, her most holy and mysterious altars.
We should be afraid of turning from so great a national poet as Burns, to a living genius, also born like him in the lower ranks of life, were we not assured that there is a freshness and originality in the mind of the Ettrick Shepherd, well entitling him to take his place immediately after
Him who walked in glory and in joy,
Following his plough upon the mountain side.
The truth is, that the respective characters of their poetry are altogether separate and distinct; — and there can be nothing more delightful than to see these two genuine children of Nature following the voice of her inspiration into such different haunts, each happy in his own native dominions, and powerful in his own legitimate rule.
And, in the first place, our admirable Shepherd is full of that wild enthusiasm towards external nature, which would seem to have formed so small a part of the poetical character of Burns — and he has been led by that enthusiasm to acquire a far wider and far deeper knowledge of her inexhaustible wonders. He too passed a youth of poverty and hardship — but it was the youth of a lonely shepherd among the most beautiful pastoral vallies in the world, and in that solitary life in which seasons of spirit-stirring activity are followed by seasons of contemplative repose, how many years passed over him rich in impressions of sense and in dreams of fancy. His haunts were among scenes
The most remote, and inaccessible
By shepherds trod;
And living for years in the solitude, he unconsciously formed friendships with the springs — the brooks — the caves — the hills — and with all the more fleeting and faithless pageantry of the sky, that to him came in the place of those human affections from whose indulgence he was debarred by the necessities that kept him aloof from the cottage fire, and up among the mists on the mountain-top. His mind, therefore, is stored with images of nature dear to him for the recollections which they bring — for the restoration of his earlier life. These images he has, at all times, a delight in pouring out — very seldom, it is true, with much selection, or skill in the poet's art — so that his pictures in landscape are generally somewhat confused — but in them all there are lines of light, or strokes of darkness, that at once take the imagination, and convince us that before a poet's eye had travelled the sunshine or the shadow. Open a volume of Burns — and then one of the Ettrick Shepherd — and we shall see how seldom the mind of the one was visited by those images of external nature which in that of the other find a constant and chosen dwelling-place.
Secondly, We shall find, that in his delineations of human passions, Burns drew from himself; or immediately from the living beings that were "toiling and moiling" around him; and hence, their vivid truth and irresistible energy. But the Ettrick Shepherd is, clearly, a man rather of kind and gentle affections than of agitating passions — and his poetry, therefore, when it is a delineation of his own feelings, is remarkable for serenity and repose. When he goes out of himself — and he does so much more than Burns — he does not paint from living agents in the transport of their passions — from the men who walk around him in this our every-day world; but he rather loves to bring before him, as a shepherd still in his solitude, the far-off images of human life, dim and shadowy as dreams — and to lose himself in a world of his own creation, filled with all the visionary phantoms of poetical tradition.
Accordingly, in his poetry, we have but few complete pictures of which the intensity of mere human passions or feelings constitutes the merit and the charm — as in so many of the compositions of Burns; and, therefore, he never can become so popular a poet, nor does he deserve to be so. The best poetry of Burns goes, sudden as electricity, to the heart. Every nerve in our frame is a conductor to the fluid. The best poetry of the Ettrick Shepherd rather steals into our souls like music; and, as many persons have no ear for music, so have many persons no soul for such kind of poetry. Burns addressed himself almost exclusively to the simplest and most elementary feelings of our nature, as they are exhibited in social and domestic life; — he spoke of things familiar to all, in language familiar to all — and hence his poetry is like "the casing air," breathed and enjoyed by all. No man dares to be sceptical on the power of his poetry, for passages could be recited against him that would drown the unbeliever's voice in a tumult of acclamation. But we doubt if, from the whole range of the Ettrick Shepherd's writings, one such triumphant and irresistible passage could be produced — one strain appealing, without possibility of failure, to the universal feelings of men's hearts. But it is equally certain that many strains — and those continued and sustained strains too — might be produced from the writings of this extraordinary person, which in the hearts and souls of all men of imagination and fancy — of all men who understand the dim and shadowy associations of recollected feelings — amid who can feel the charm of a poetical language, occasionally more delicate and refined, than perhaps was ever before commanded by an uneducated mind — would awaken emotions, if not so strong, certainly finer and more ethereal than any that are inspired by the very happiest compositions of the Bard of Coila.
Indeed we should scarcely hesitate to say that the Ettrick Shepherd had more of pure fancy than Burns. When the latter relinquished his strong grasp of men's passions — or suffered the vivid images of his own experience of life to fade away, he was any thing but a great poet — and nothing entirely out of himself had power brightly to kindle his imagination, unless, indeed, it were some mighty national triumph or calamity, events that appealed rather to his patriotism than his poetry. But the Shepherd dreams of the days of old, and of all their dim and wavering traditions. Objects dark in the past distance of time have over him a deeper power than the bright presence of realities — and his genius loves better to lift up the veil which forgetfulness has been slowly drawing over the forms, the scenes, the actions, and the characters of the dead, than to gaze on the motions of the living. Accordingly, there are some images — some strains of feeling in his poetry, more mournful and pathetic — at least, full of a sadness more entrancing to the imagination than any thing we recollect in Burns — but, at the same time, we are aware, that though a few wild airs, from an Eolian harp, perhaps more profoundly affect the soul, at the time when they are swelling, than any other music — yet have they not so permanent a dwelling-place in the memory as the harmonious tunes of some perfect instrument.
But, thirdly, we have to remind such of our readers as are well acquainted with the poetry of the Ettrick Shepherd, that to feel the full power of his genius we must go with him "Beyond this visible diurnal sphere," and walk through the shadowy world of the imagination. It is here, where Burns was weakest, that he is most strong. The airy beings that to the impassioned soul of Burns seemed cold — bloodless — and unattractive — rise up in irresistible loveliness in their own silent domains, before the dreamy fancy of the gentle-hearted Shepherd. The still green beauty of the pastoral hills and vales where he passed his youth, inspired him with ever-brooding visions of fairy-land — till, as he lay musing in his lonely sheiling, the world of phantasy seemed, in the clear depths of his imagination, a lovelier reflection of that of nature — like the hills and heavens more softly shining in the water of his native lake. Whenever he treats of fairy-land, his language insensibly becomes, as it were, soft, wild, and aerial — we could almost think that we heard the voice of one of the fairy-folk — still and serene images seem to rise up with the wild music of the versification — and the poet deludes us, for the time, into an unquestioning and satisfied belief in the existence of those "green realms of bliss" of which he himself seems to be a native minstrel.
In this department of pure poetry, the Ettrick Shepherd has, among his own countrymen at least, no competitor. He is the poet laureate of the Court of Faery — and we have only to hope he will at least sing an annual song as the tenure by which he holds his deserved honours.
The few very general observations which we have now made on the genius of this truly original Poet are intended only as an introduction to our criticisms on his works. It is, not uncommon to hear intelligent persons very thoughtlessly and ignorantly say, that the Ettrick Shepherd no doubt writes very good verses — but that Burns has preoccupied the ground, and is our only great poet of the people. We have perhaps said enough to shew that this is far from being the case — that the genius of the two poets is as different as their life — and that they have, generally speaking, delighted in the delineation of very different objects..
If we have rightly distinguished and estimated the peculiar genius of the "author of the Queen's Wake," we think that he may benefit by attending to some conclusions which seem to flow from our remarks. He is certainly strongest in description of nature — in the imitation of the ancient ballad — and in that wild poetry which deals with imaginary beings. He has not great knowledge of human nature — nor has he any profound insight into its passions. Neither does he possess much ingenuity in the contrivance of incidents, or much plastic power in the formation of a story emblematic of any portion of human life. He ought, therefore, in our opinion, not to attempt any long poem in which a variety of characters are to be displayed acting on the theatre of the world, and of which the essential merit must lie in the exhibition of those passions that play their parts there; he ought, rather, to bring before us shadowy beings moving across a shadowy distance, and rising up from that world with whose objects he is so familiar, but of which ordinary minds know only enough to regard, with a delightful feeling of surprise and novelty, every indistinct and fairy image that is brought from its invisible recesses. There indeed seems to be a field spread out for him, that is almost all his own. The pastoral vallies of the south of Scotland look to him as their best-beloved poet; — all their mild and gentle superstitions have blended with his being; — he is familiar too with all the historical traditions that people them with the "living dead," and surely, with all the inestimable advantages of his early shepherd-life, and with a genius so admirably framed to receive and give out the breath of all its manifold inspirations, he may yet make pastoral poetry something more wild and beautiful than it has ever been — and leave behind him a work in which the feelings and habits — the very heart and soul of a shepherd-life, are given to us all breathed over and coloured by the aerial tints of a fairy fancy.
The love of poetry is never bigotted and exclusive, and we should be strongly inclined to suspect its sincerity, if it did not comprehend within the range of its enthusiasm many of the fine productions of the Ettrick Shepherd. We believe that his countrymen are becoming every day more and more alive to his manifold merits — and it would be indeed strange if they who hold annual or triennial festivals in commemoration of their great dead poet should be cold — to the claims of the gifted living. It cannot but be deeply interesting to all lovers of genius — and more especially to all proud lovers of the genius of their own Scotland, to see this true poet assisting at the honours paid to the memory of his illustrious predecessor. He must ever be, on such high occasions, a conspicuous and honoured guest; and we all know, that it is impossible better to prove our admiration and love of the character and genius of Burns, than by the generous exhibition of similar sentiments towards the Ettrick Shepherd.