1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:230-36.



A lyric poet, with more than the rustic humour and exact truth of Ramsay, with simplicity surpassing Crawford's, and native elegance exceeding Hamilton's, and with a genius which seemed to unite all the distinguishing excellencies of our elder lyrics, appeared in Robert Burns. He was the first who brought deep passion to the service of the lyric Muse, who added sublimity to simplicity, and found grace and elegance among the cottages of his native land. The beauty and the variety of his songs, their tenderness and truth, their pathetic sweetness, their unextinguishable humour, their noble scorn of whatever is mean and vile, and their deep sympathy with the feelings of humble worth, are felt by all, and acknowledged by all. His original power, and his happy spirit, were only equalled by his remarkable gift of entering into the characters of our ancient songs, and the skill with which he abated their indelicacy, or eked out their imperfections. No one felt more fondly the presence of beauty, could express admiration, hope, or desire, in more glowing language, or sing of the calm joys of wedded love, or the unbounded rapture of single hearts and mutual affection, with equal force or felicity. All his songs are distinguished more or less by a happy carelessness, by a bounding elasticity of spirit, a singular and natural felicity of expression, by the ardour of an enthusiastic heart, and the vigour of a clear understanding. He had the rare gift of expressing himself according to the rank and condition of mankind, the stateliness of matron pride, the modesty of virgin affection, the querulousness of old age, and the overflowing enthusiasm and vivacity of youth. His simplicity is the simplicity of strength: he is never mean, never weak, seldom vulgar, and but rarely coarse; and his unrivalled power of clothing his thoughts in happy and graceful language never forsakes him. Capricious and wayward as his musings sometimes are, mingling the moving with the comic, and the sarcastic with the solemn, all he says is above the mark of other men — he sheds a redeeming light on all he touches; whatever his eye glances on rises into life and beauty, and stands consecrated and imperishable. His language is familiar, yet dignified, careless, yet concise; and he touches on the most perilous or ordinary themes with a skill so rare and felicitous, that good fortune seems to unite with good taste in carrying him over the mire of rudeness and vulgarity, in which, since his time, so many inferior spirits have wallowed. His love, his enthusiasm, his devotion, his humour, his domestic happiness, and his homeliest joy, is every where characterised by a brief and elegant simplicity, at once easy to him and unattainable to others. No one has such power in adorning the humble, and dignifying the plain, and in extracting sweet and impassioned poetry from the daily occurrences of human life: his simplicity is without childishness, his affection without exaggeration, and his sentiment without conceit.

The influence which the genius of Burns has obtained over the heart of Scotland is indeed great, and promises to be lasting. He alarms, it is true, very sensitive and fastidious persons, by the freedom of his speculations and the masculine vigour of his mode of expression; but these are rather the casual lapses of the Muse, the overflowings of an ardent heart and unwearied fancy, and a love of vivid illustration, than a defect of principle, or an imperfection of taste. Like a fine race-horse, he cannot always stop at the winning-post; like a beautiful stream, he sometimes overflows the banks; and his genius resembles more a tree run wild, than one trimmed and pruned to decorate a garden walk. When speaking of his prospect of future fame to a friend, he said he depended chiefly on his songs for the continuance of his name; and his decision seems correct. Not but that I think, in all his earlier poems, he displays greater force and freedom of genius than he any where exhibits in his lyrics; but then these brief and bright effusions are learned by heart — are confided to the memories of the people — and come down from generation to generation without the aid of the press or the pen, to which longer and more deliberate productions must be trusted. In this way alone would many of the best of Burns's songs be preserved, perhaps his humorous lyrics the longest — we naturally prefer mirth to sorrow: the source of tears is deeper than that of laughter; and duller heads and less sensible hearts, which could not partake in his emotions of tenderness and sublimity, would assist in preserving whatever increased the joy of a bridal feast, or the merriment of rustic festivity.

But with all his impassioned eloquence in the presence of beauty, with his power of exciting emotions at will, whether of pleasure or of pity, and with all his delight in what is lovely and inspiring, he had little of that elevated and refined spirit which contemplates beauty with awe, and approaches it with reverence. Of this pure glory and hallowed light his lyrics possess nothing. The midnight tryste and the stolen interview — the rapture to meet, and the anguish to part — the whisper in the dark — and all the lavish spirit of nocturnal enjoyment, correspond more with the warmth than the elevation of love. He looked not on loveliness as on a pure and an awful thing: he drew no magic circle of lofty and romantic thought round those he loved, which could not be passed without lowering them from stations little lower than the angels; but he clasps them in his arms, and lavishes on their condescension all the rapture of unrefined joy. His rapture is without romance; and to the charms of his compositions he has not added that of chivalry. He has no distant mode of salutation — he seeks the couch rather than approaches the footstool of beauty; and the sparkling wine, the private chamber, and the "pulse's maddening play," are to him that inspiration which devouter minds have invoked by prayer and humiliation. When one of the ladies who had felt the sorcery of his conversation as well as of his Muse said, with more naivete than delicacy, that no man's eloquence ever carried her so completely off her feet as that of Burns, she expressed, very happily, that influence which the passionate language of poetry has over a susceptible heart: but still this fails to let us into the secret of the charms he used; and the lady may have lost her self-command by the witchery of a gross as well as an aerial eloquence. But if he was not under the spell of chivalry in the intercourses of love, he was occasionally under an influence which sobered down the selfish impetuosity of passion — which imparted a meekness to his joy, and a reverence to his language. I am willing to believe that a deep feeling of devotion, constant in his youth, and flashing back on him by fits and starts during the period of his short but glorious career, interposed to hallow his thoughts, and restrain that torrent of passion which overflowed in all his productions.

He laid down rules for lyric composition which he did not always observe, and seemed willing to restrain others from pruning the luxuriance, or improving the sentiment, or heightening the story, of ancient song, while he was ready to indulge in it himself. Of the many fine songs which he wrote, a large proportion are either avowedly or evidently conceived in the spirit, and executed in the feeling, of others: he retouched many, restored many, and remodelled many; but he retouched few without improving them, restored none without increasing their beauty, and remodelled none without introducing some of those electric touches of delicacy, or humour, or tenderness, for which he is so remarkable. It would extend to a great length the character which I am endeavouring to draw, were I to seek to justify my assertion by an examination into all the sources from which he gathered the materials of song — or to point out fragments which he completed, verses from which he borrowed, or songs which he imitated. He seemed, indeed, to take particular delight in completing the old and imperfect songs of his native country: without much old world lore, with no great thirst of research, without any particular sympathy for the old simple style of our ballads, he has exercised his fancy and displayed his taste among the reliques of ancient song to a greater extent than is generally known. Though nature is exhaustless, I must confess that Burns, who is somewhat little less than nature herself, appears to have felt at last the decay of fancy in the service to which his love of Scottish music called him. To expect that a spirit so wayward could endure, year after year, to measure out lyric verse according to the prescription of all manner of melodies, is to me surprising. That he could stay till he entered into the feeling of the air — till he extracted from bagpipers and fiddlers all their varieties of the melody which was to be united to verse; and then make a notorious sacrifice of vigorous meaning to empty music, and endure the criticism of men, whose skill in the science of sound was less to be disputed than in the science of sense, is one of those instances of condescension and willing humiliation which are unfrequent in the history of Robert Burns.