1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Richard Ryan, in Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 3:44-50.



If there could be any doubt as to the disgrace which attaches to the gentlemen of Scotland, for suffering a man of Burns's talents to descend to the station of an ordinary exciseman, to toil for his daily bread, there can be none whatever as to the everlasting shame which they incurred by allowing him to remain for years in that degraded rank.

When Burns at first applied for a contingent appointment in this service, intending to hold it as something in reserve against the worst that might befal him, he suppressed the feelings with which it was impossible for a man of his noble and aspiring soul not to regard it; but when necessity had at last thrust the situation upon him, and when he had seen years pass away without any generous offer to raise him above it, he scrupled not to avow how much he felt it had degraded him. In a letter written to Mr. Grahame, of Fintry, to vindicate himself from some injurious representations which had been made to the Board of Excise, respecting his conduct, he has the following eloquent passage:

"Often in blasting anticipation have I listened to some future hackney scribbler, with heavy malice of savage stupidity, exultingly asserting that Burns, notwithstanding the fanfaronade of independence to be found in his works, and after having been held up to public view, and to public estimation, as a man of some genius, yet quite destitute of resources within himself to support his borrowed dignity, dwindled into a paltry exciseman, and slunk out the rest of his insignificant existence in the meanest of pursuits and among the lowest of mankind.

"In your illustrious hands, Sir, permit me to lodge my strong disavowal and defiance of such slanderous falsehoods. Burns was a poor man from his birth, and an exciseman by necessity; but I will say it, the sterling of his honest worth, poverty could not debase, and his independent British spirit, oppression might bend, but could not subdue."

It has been said, and too often repeated, that Burns, during his latter years, nay, from the very moment of entering into society, gave himself up to habits of intemperance, and died its victim. How little to be envied are the feelings of those who can take pleasure in drawing aside the veil from the social follies or weaknesses of such a man as Burns! Were the fact even as represented, does it become that country which so cruelly neglected him, to speak with severity of any alleviation which his wounded spirit may have sought from the state of humiliation and misery to which he was ungenerously consigned? Does it become those who imposed upon him one of "the meanest pursuits," and an association with the "lowest of mankind," to talk of the excesses to which he may have fled, to lull for the moment the revolting sense of his degradation? — But the fact has been mis-stated. Burns was never the dissolute man that he has been represented: he mingled much in society, because it was the only sphere in which he could gratify that strong, and certainly not injurious, passion which he possessed, for observing the ways and manners of men; and because the active indulgence of this passion was the only chance which he had of escape from that constitutional melancholy which never ceased to pursue him. He was fond too, most enthusiastically fond, of the social hour which was spent in communion with men of souls congenial to his own; and when seated with such over the flowing bowl, it is not to be wondered that he was sometimes slow to rise: yet whatever might be the social pleasures of Burns, he was never the man to sacrifice to them either his business, his independence, or his self-respect. The supervisors of his conduct as as an officer, testify that he performed all the duties of his office with exemplary regularity. The state of his affairs at his death shew that, small as his income was, he kept rigidly within it; and his most intimate associates allow that, however freely he may have partaken in company, he never sunk into habits of solitary indulgence.

It is not possible, either morally or physically, that the man who was thus regular, thus economical, thus privately abstinent, could have been the habitual slave of intemperance, which some writers would have us believe: that his constitution, naturally delicate, may have been unequal to the limited indulgences which he permitted himself, and that his death may have been hastened by them, is but too likely. But, how much does it not add to his country's shame, that, possessing a man of genius, whose loss they could never repair, who could only have lived long by living with exceeding temperance, that he was not placed in a situation of life, where the comforts of life, the refinements of elegant society, and pursuits of a literary nature, might have removed every temptation to live otherwise than the good of his health demanded. Burns, as he tells us, lived on "for the heart of the man and the fancy of the poet:" — he could not exist without a plenitude of emotions, and it was not his fault that he was forced to seek them where alone he could find them.

The fate of Burns may excite compassion; but to a person who has at all mingled with that elevated class to whom he looked for patronage, it can excite no surprise. Was it at all likely that a man would be encouraged by his superiors in wealth, who had the honesty to tell them that he was bred to the plough, and whether they chose to patronize him or not, he was independent of them? He was too much in the habit of calling things by their right names, to bask long in the smiles of the rich and powerful. Burns knew the secret of winding himself into the favour of the great, as well as any man, but he both contemned and abhorred it. He knew that to flatter their vices, to laugh at their political prostitutions, and, in short, to strive to make them think most favourably of themselves, was his path to temporal comfort and substantial patronage. Honesty and fair fame lay in quite a different road; and he unhesitatingly chose it, beset as it was with difficulties and terrors.

It certainly is highly creditable to the Nobles and Sages of the "Modern Athens," that now the Bard is quietly entombed, and can ask nothing further at their hands, these worthies are putting statues up to him as if they thought his poetry would not be so lasting as their memorials, or as if they imagined this tardy recognition of his wondrous powers was an "amende honorable" for the neglect and contempt to which he was consigned while living. The sculptor who gains by their generosity, and the menials who may be employed to keep them clean, may thank them for erecting these monuments; but the majority of Burns's countrymen will not. His poetry lives in their hearts — will live as long as time itself shall last; and ages hence, Scotia will rejoice in the poetic glory of her honest and highly-gifted Ploughman, as universally as she does at the present moment.