1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

James Montgomery, "Scottish Verse" Lectures on General Literature, Poetry, &c. (1833; 1836) 132-37.



The language (shall I call it?) of our northern neighbours, in which so much popular poetry has been preserved, and so much more compiled of late years, has the same peculiar character as Spenser's; namely, that it is fluctuating, not fixed; a conventional, not an actual, language. Its basis was, undoubtedly, a national dialect now nearly obsolete; but its superstructure consists of vulgar idioms, and its embellishments of pure English phrases. Hence, as it is written (for I confine these strictures to its written forms), this admired "Scotch" is an arbitrary system of terms, only remotely akin; and its force and elegance depend principally on the skill with which each particular author combines its constituent parts, to make a common chord of its triple tones. That style, therefore, may, in general, he pronounced the most harmonious and perfect in which the national dialect is the key-note, while the vulgar and the English (like the third and fifth in music) are subordinate. This flexible and untameable tongue — which the Done muse, when she fled from Greece, might have invented for herself, while learning the old Erse, among the mountains and glens of Caledonia, — has also a minor scale, of touching tenderness, as well as a major, of spirit, stirring strength.

Burns, "the glory" of his country, or "the shame," as he worthily or ignominiously exercised his vein of versatile genius, disdained to confine his strains to any peculiar accordance of these: but, according to the theme, ran through the whole vernacular diapason, as well as the falsetto English, in which his feebler pieces are composed. Of the latter, it would be wasting time to offer an example, because a longer quotation than convenient might be required, to prove a point of little significance. Three specimens, however, to show the gradations, of what is vulgarly called the Scotch dialect, employed by him, may be expedient and acceptable, as they will be quite in place, while we are considering poetic diction and poetic license. Brief though they be, these extracts from long poems, quite distinct from each other, in their general diction, will at once discover to the unsuspecting admirers of north country song what prodigious advantages its minstrels possess over their "southron" brethren, who are confined to sheer English, and dare not touch a provincial accent with the tip of their tongue, on pain of excommunication from classic society. The boundless resources enjoyed by the former, to select and link together words and phrases at will, high or low, antique or new-fangled, polished or barbarian, — not only prepossess the reader in favour of every real beauty struck out by such grotesque combinations, and make him eagerly relish it, but they likewise (unconsciously to himself) influence his judgment, to make large allowance for frequent defects and excesses, as necessary, and not offensive ingredients, in a style released from all obligations to law and precedent.

I begin with the rudest, which I scarcely can hope to read intelligibly in English ears, so unskilled am I in the accents of my mother tongue. The "Farmer's New Year's Morning Salutation to his auld Mare Maggie" is written in such uncouth strains as these:

A guid new-year, I wish thee, Maggie!
Hae! there's a ripp to thy auld baggie;
Tho' thou's howe-backit now, and knaggie,
I've seen the day,
Thou could hae gaen like onie staggie
Out-owre the lay....

When first I gaed to woo my Jenny,
Ye then was trottin wi' your minnie:
Tho' ye was tricklie, slee and funnie,
Yet ne'er was dousie;
But hamely, tawie, quiet, an' cannie,
An' unco sonsie....

Thou never braindg't, an' fetcht, an' fliskit;
But thy auld tail thou wad hae whiskit,
An' spread abreed thy weel-flll'd brisket,
Wi' pith and pow'r,
Till sprittie knowes wad rair't and riskst,
An' slippet owre.

In the "Advice to a Young Friend," we have nearly the national Scotch, as it is used among persons of the middle rank; most characteristically inculcating, among others, this shrewd lesson:—

Aye free, aff han', your story tell,
When wi' a bosom-crony;
But still keep something to yoursel'
Ye scarcely tell to ony:
Conceal yourself as weel's ye can
Fra' critical dissection,
But keek thro' every other man
With sharpen'd sly inspection.

In "the Cottar's Saturday Night," the poet has so varied his dialect that there are scarcely two consecutive stanzas written according to the same model. An hour of winter evening music on the Aeolian harp, when all the winds are on the wing, would hardly be more wild, and sweet, and stern, and changeable than the series. Some of the strains are as purely English as the author could reach; others so racily Scottish as often to require a glossary; while in a third class the two are so enchantingly combined, that no poetic diction can excel the pathos and sublimity, blended with beauty and homeliness, that equally mark them. Of the latter description is the following:

The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace,
The big ha-Bible, ance his father's pride:
His bonnet reverently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care:
And, "Let us worship God!" he says, with solemn air.

The latitudinarianism of the Scottish dialect in rhyming, jingling, or merely alliterative vowel sounds, in dissonant words at the end of lines, may be thus exemplified:

O pale, pale now, those rosy lips,
I aft hae kiss'd sae fondly;
And closed for aye the sparkling glance,
That dwelt on me sae kindly.
And mouldering now, in silent dust,
That heart that lo'ed me dearly;
But still within my bosom's core,
Shall live my Highland Mary!

"Fondly" and "kindly," — "dearly" and "Mary" could never be endured as rhymes on this side of the Tweed; but yet the slight sprinkling of Scottish in the context, with the overpowering tenderness of the sentiments themselves, render these discords tolerable, or rather compel them to be forgotten in such association.

Finally, this composite dialect adds exquisite quaintness to humorous, and a simple grace to ordinary forms of speech, while it renders grand and terrific imagery more striking and dreadful. It is hardly a language of this world in the witching scene in "Tam O'Shanter," that miracle of the muse of Burns, in which all his talents are brought into play, on a subject most gross and abominable, yet in the passage alluded to preternaturally awful and mysterious, so long as he maintains his gravity in describing the obscene and horrid rites of the "secret, black, and midnight hags," within the walls of Auld Kirk Alloway, Satan himself being bag-piper to their dancing.

Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And, by some devilish cantrip-sleight,
Each in his cauld hand held a light;
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
—A murderer's banes in gibbet-aims,
Twa span-lang wee unchristen'd bairns,
A thief new cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his get did gape;
Five tomahawks wi' blude red-rusted,
Five scymetars wi' murder crusted;
A garter which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled,
Wham his ain son o' life bereft,—
—The grey hairs yet stack to the heft....

Wi' mair o' horrible an' awfu',
Which e'en to name wad be unlawfu'.

The elision of the final "l" in the last rhymes of this extract is singularly, expressive of the horror that clips the breath of the speaker, while he imagines himself the spectator of "deeds without a name." Such criticisms may seem frivolous to some incurious persons: but every poet at least will know how to estimate the value of licenses like these, to do what he pleases with words, and make words do what they are bidden. But with all these immunities the writers of Scottish verse are so limited in their ranges of subjects, and the compass of their song, that their pieces must of necessity be brief, and their themes nearly confined to humour, pathos, and familiar description. A great work, like an epic poem, could not be achieved in so lawless a dialect.