1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Bryan Waller Procter, in Effigies Poeticae, or, the Portraits of the British Poets (1824) 103-04.



From a Drawing by Nasmyth, in the possession of Mrs. Barns.

This portrait does not do justice to the countenance of the celebrated Scottish poet; but it is the only one, we believe, that is in existence. BURNS, — who grew up like a daisy — or rather like a sapling on a mountain side, upon whom the dews of poetry fell early, and the light of the dawn descended, — was altogether an extraordinary writer. He was really a pastoral poet; not like Virgil, who sang of the husbandman's arts from the marble halls of Augustus Caesar, but following his plough in the Scottish valleys, or wandering by the brawling rivulets which he afterwards immortalized in sung. We are not inclined here to touch upon his infirmities, if he had any; but to record our sense of his merits. He was the first writer of verse of whom Scotland could very largely boast: and, indeed, he was a fresh, original, vigorous writer, — not comparable, certainly, as a lofty poet, to several of our English spirits, but, after his own fashion, delightful and matchless. His humour, which however English readers in general cannot be supposed to appreciate, was perfect in its way; his familiar epistles yield to none since Ben Jonson wrote; and his songs are unsurpassed, except by Shakspeare. Burns was overflowing with sensibility, irritable, kind-hearted, and undaunted; and we see evidences of this in almost every page of his poetry. He has been accused of boasting, and of imprudence. But as no man ever possessed the faculty of Burns without perfectly knowing it, so the promulgation of this knowledge must be accounted indiscretion, rather than vanity; and as to his general imprudence, it is, unfortunately, scarcely to be expected that the poet, who spreads his thoughts into the regions of imagination, should at the same time square his conduct by the severe rules of reason. The one is too much at variance with the other. There may, however, be two opinions on this subject. In regard to his powers, there can be but one. He was a true, unaffected, and what we may call natural poet: that is to say, he was not nourished like a sickly plant, by melancholy musing, nor raised prematurely to renown, in the hot bed of court favor; but he sprang up in his native valley, while the winds and the rain fell freely on him. He was born "in the eye" of nature, and grew up and flourished like the forest oak. He was fresh, vigorous, and beautiful, but like the oak was cut down in his prime, that the people who had neglected him when living might shed tears upon his grave, and deify him as the first spirit of their land, and raise an unnecessary column to his fame. We do not like this posthumous gratitude. It is suspicious and idle to adore the dull ashes of a poet, when we might wreathe his living forehead with bays, and encircle him with our smiles, and shut out the ghastly face of poverty from his home.

Burns was certainly deficient in imagination, but there is often a deep sentiment in his verse, which in some measure makes us amends for the other quality. What a delightful song is that "To Jessy"—

Thou art sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet,
And soft as their parting tear — Jessy!

And those two exquisite lines (in the same song)

'Tis sweeter for thee despairing
Than aught in the world beside — Jessy.

are the very romance of sentiment. These last resemble a passage written by Cotton, (the friend of Walton,) which Burns in all probability never saw. The writer is speaking of his "Love,"

For whom more glory 'tis to die
Scorned and neglected, than enjoy
All beauty in the world beside.

And the second stanza of Burns's song, addressed to "Mary Morison," is the perfection of the lover's melancholy, and tuneful as the widowed nightingale's lamenting.