1786
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Vision.

Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns.

Robert Burns


Robert Burns's The Vision, like his Cotter's Saturday Night, assimilates the eighteenth-century Spenserian mode to his own vernacular manner. The term "Duan," he informs us, is adapted from Macpherson's Ossian, and indeed Burns's Muse appears, somewhat curiously, dressed in highland garb. The mode of the poem itself owes more to Collins, Shenstone, Langhorne, Chatterton, and Beattie — rendered "Scottish" by the use of the "Habbie" stanza and the Scotch diction in the frame narrative.

The poet returns to his smoky cottage after an arduous day's labor; he is startled to behold an uncouth figure enter: a comely maiden with a crown of holly and a broad green mantle on which appears the poet's native landscape. It is Coila, his Muse, who explains that different spirits are assigned to poets of various degrees, even the lowest. She has observed his development as a writer with interest: "With future hope, I oft would gaze, | Fond, on thy little, early ways, | Thy rudely-caroll'd, chiming phrase, | In uncouth rhymes, | Fir'd at the simple, artless lays | Of other times" p. 95. She describes his character in a series of brief scenes recalling the Edwin of James Beattie's The Minstrel. Burns will not, she says, command the particular powers of Thomson, Shenstone, or Gray, yet within his more "humble sphere" he will be gloriously successful — placing the holly-crown upon his head, the Muse vanishes "like a passing thought."

Henry Mackenzie: "In mentioning the circumstance of his humble situation, I mean not to rest his pretensions solely on that title, or to urge the merits of his poetry when considered in relation to the lowness of his birth, and the little opportunity of improvement which his education could afford. These particulars, indeed, might excite our wonder at his productions; but his poetry, considered abstractly, and without the apologies arising from his situation, seems to me fully intitled to command our feelings, and to obtain our applause. One bar, indeed, his birth and education have opposed to his fame, the language in which most of his poems are written. Even in Scotland, the provincial dialect which Ramsay and he have used is now read with a difficulty which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader: in England it cannot be read at all, without such a constant reference to a glossary, as nearly to destroy to destroy that pleasure" The Lounger (9 December 1786) 385-86.

English Review: "The Vision is perhaps the most poetical of all his performances. Revolving his obscure situation, in which there was nothing to animate pursuit or gratify ambition; comparing his humble lot with the more flourishing condition of mercantile adventures; and vowing to renounce the unprofitable trade of verse for ever; there appeared to him a celestial figure; not one of the nine muses, celebrated in fiction; but the real muse of every inspired poet, the GENIUS of his native district and frequented scenes. This is an elegant and happy imagination. The form of Nature, that first met his enamoured eyes, is the muse of the rural poet. The mountains, the forests, and the streams, are the living volumes that impregnate his fancy, and kindle the fire of genius" 9 (February 1787) 90.

Robert Burns to Mrs. Dunlop: "I send you with this, Spencer, as I promised; and I already 'rejoice with them that do rejoice' in anticipating the pleasure you will have in the fairy mazes of enchanted ground." 29 February 1788; in Letters, ed. Roy (1985) 1:246.

John Service: "Like Shakespeare, Burns is almost as great in the matter of borrowing as in that of originality. His measures are without exception those with which he was familiar in his favourites and predecessors, Ramsay and Fergusson, or in the ballads and songs which the stream of time might be said to have brought down to his poetical mill. His Cotter's Saturday Night is modelled upon Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle; his Holy Fair upon the same poet's Leith Races. His epistles are Ramsay's and Fergusson's in form and spirit, only instinct with a kind of genius to which neither Ramsay nor Fergusson had any pretensions. One stanza in which he wrote a great deal, for which among poetical measures he had as much partiality as he had for winter among the seasons, or the mavis among birds, or humanity among the virtues, and which his readers, even Scotch readers, find it sometimes hard to endure, was no doubt made classical to him and informed with music by its having been made use of by predecessors of his, of whose genius he had formed a most generous and uncritical estimate" The English Poets (1880) 3:520.

Carol McGuirk: "Burns has become so engrossed by his effort to secure a Thomsonian cadence for his vision (with echoes of other poets from Milton to Warton) that there seems little of his own voice in duan 2. Like the concluding stanzas of 'To a Mountain Daisy,' this section of 'The Vision' might have been designed by some committee for the preservation of eighteenth-century cliches" Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era (1985) 40.

William Hamilton Reid, "the English Burns," takes the figure of Coila from this poem in his Spenserian An Elegy to the Memory of Mr. Robert Burns, the celebrated Scots Poet, reprinted in the American Universal Magazine 1 (20 March 1797) 447-48.



DUAN FIRST.
The sun had clos'd the winter-day,
The Curlers quat their roaring play,
And hunger'd Maukin taen her way
To kail-yards green,
While faithless snaws ilk step betray
Whare she has been.

The Thresher's weary flingin-tree,
The lee-lang day had tir'd me;
And when the Day had clos'd his e'e,
Far i' the West,
Ben i' the Spence, right pensivelie,
I gaed to rest.

There, lanely, by the ingle-cheek,
I sat and ey'd the spewing reek,
That fill'd, wi' hoast-provoking smeek,
The auld, clay biggin;
And heard the restless rattons squeak
About the riggin.

All in this mottie, misty clime,
I backward mus'd on wasted time,
How I had spent my youthfu' prime,
An' done nae-thing,
But stringing blethers up in rhyme
For fools to sing.

Had I to guid advice but harket,
I might, by this, hae led a market,
Or strutted in a Bank and clarket,
My Cash-Account;
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-farket,
Is a' the' amount.

I started, mutt'ring blockhead! coof!
And heav'd on high my wauket loof,
To swear by a' yon starry roof,
Or some rash aith,
That I, henceforth, would be rhyme-proof
Till my last breath—

When click! the string the snick did draw;
And jee! the door gaed to the wa';
And by my ingle-lowe I saw,
Now bleezan bright,
A tight, outlandish Hizzie, braw,
Come full in sight.

Ye need na doubt, I held my whisht;
The infant aith, half-form'd, was crusht;
I glowr'd as eerie's I'd been dusht,
In some whild glen;
When sweet, like modest Worth, she blusht,
And stepped ben.

Green, slender, leaf-clad Holly-bought
Were twisted, gracefu', round her brows,
I took her for some SCOTTISH MUSE,
By that same token;
And come to stop those reckless vows,
Would soon been been broken.

A "hare-brain'd, sentimental trace"
Was strongly marked in her face;
A wildly-witty, rustic grace
Shone full upon her;
Her eye, ev'n turn'd on empty space,
Beam'd keen with Honor.

Down flow'd her robe, a tartan sheen,
Till half a leg was scrimply seen;
And such a leg! my BESS, I ween,
Could only peer it;
Sae straught, sae taper, tight and clean,
Nane else came near it.

Her Mantle large, of greenish hue,
My gazing wonder chiefly drew;
Deep light and shades, bold-mingling, threw
A lustre grand;
And seem'd, to my astonish'd view,
A well-known Land.

Here, rivers in the sea were lost;
There, mountains to the skies were tost:
Here, tumbling billows mark'd the coast,
With surging foam;
There, distant shone, Art's lofty boast,
The lordly dome.

Here, DOON pour'd down his far-fetch'd floods;
There, well-fed IRVINE stately thuds:
Auld, hermit AIRE staw thro' his woods,
On to the shore;
And many a lesser torrent scuds,
With seeming roar.

Low, in a sandy valley spread,
An ancient BOROUGH rear'd her head;
Still, as in Scottish Story read,
She boasts a Race,
To ev'ry nobler virtue bred,
And polish'd grace.

DUAN SECOND.
With musing-deep, astonish'd stare,
I view'd the heavenly-seeming Fair;
A whisp'ring throb did witness bear
Of kindred sweet,
When with an elder Sister's air
She did me greet.

"All hail! my own inspired Bard!
In me thy native Muse regard!
Nor longer mourn thy fate is hard,
Thus poorly low!
I come to give thee such reward,
As we bestow.

"Know, the great Genius of this Land,
Has many a light, aerial band,
Who, all beneath his high command,
Harmoniously,
As Arts or Arms they understand,
Their labors ply.

"They SCOTIA'S Race among them share;
Some fire the Sodger on to dare;
Some rouse the Patriot up to bare
Corruption's heart:
Some teach the Bard, a darling care,
The tuneful Art.

"'Mong swelling floods of reeking gore,
They ardent, kindling spirits pour;
Or, mid the venal Senate's roar,
They, sightless, stand,
To mend the honest Patriot-lore,
And grace the hand.

"Hence, FULLARTON, the brave and young;
Hence, DEMPSTER'S truth-prevailing tongue;
Hence, sweet-harmonious BEATTIE SUNG
His 'Minstrel-lays;'
Or tore, with noble ardour stung,
The Sceptic's bays.

"To lower Orders are assign'd,
The humbler ranks of Human-kind,
The rustic Bard, the lab'ring Hind,
The Artisan;
All chuse, as, various they're inclin'd,
The various man.

"When yellow waves the heavy grain,
The threat'ning Storm, some, strongly, rein;
Some teach to meliorate the plain,
With tillage-skill;
And some instruct the Shepherd-train,
Blythe o'er the hill.

"Some hint the Lover's harmless wile;
Some grace the Maiden's artless smile;
Some soothe the Lab'rer's weary toil,
For humble gains,
And make his cottage-scenes beguile
His cares and pains.

"Some, bounded to a district-space,
Explore at large Man's infant-race,
To mark the embryotic trace,
Of rustic Bard;
And careful note each op'ning grace,
A guide and guard.

"Of these am I — COILA my name;
And this district as mine I claim,
Where once the Campbell's, chiefs of fame,
Held ruling pow'r:
I mark'd thy embryo-tuneful flame,
Thy natal hour.

"With future hope, I oft would gaze,
Fond, on thy little, early ways,
Thy rudely-caroll'd, chiming phrase,
In uncouth rhymes,
Fir'd at the simple, artless lays
Of other times.

"I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Delighted with the dashing roar;
Or when the North his fleecy store
Drove thro' the sky,
I saw grim Nature's visage hoar,
Struck thy young eye.

"Or when the deep-green-mantl'd Earth,
Warm-cherish'd ev'ry floweret's birth,
And joy and music pouring forth,
In ev'ry grove,
I saw thee eye the gen'ral mirth
With boundless love.

"When ripen'd fields, and azure skies,
Call'd forth the Reaper's rustling noise,
I saw thee leave their ev'ning joys,
And lonely stalk,
To vent thy bosom's swelling rise,
In pensive walk.

"When youthful Love, warm-blushing, strong,
Keen-shivering shot thy nerves along,
Those accents, grateful to thy tongue,
Th' adored Name,
I taught thee how to pour in song,
To soothe thy flame.

"I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
Wild-send thee Pleasure's devious way,
Misled by Fancy's meteor-ray,
By Passion driven;
But yet the light that led astray,
Was light from Heaven.

"I taught thy manners-painting strains,
The loves, the ways of simple swains,
Till now, o'er all my wide domains,
Thy fame extends;
And some, the pride of Coila's plains,
Become thy friends.

"Thou canst not learn, nor I can show,
To paint with Thomson's landscape-glow;
Or wake the bosom-melting throe,
With Shenstone's art;
Or pour, with Gray, the moving flow,
Warm on the heart.

"Yet all beneath th' unrivall'd Rose,
The lowly Daisy sweetly blows;
Tho' large the forest's Monarch throws
His army shade,
Yet green the juicy Hawthorn grows,
Adown the glade.

"Then never murmur nor repine;
Strive in thy humble sphere to shine;
And trust me, not Potosi's mine,
Nor Kings regard,
Can give a bliss o'ermatching thine,
A rustic Bard.

"To give my counsels all in one,
Thy tuneful flame still careful fan;
Preserve the dignity of Man,
With Soul erect;
And trust, the UNIVERSAL PLAN
Will all protect.

"And wear thou this" — she solemn said,
And bound the Holly round my head:
The polish'd leaves, and berries red,
Did rustling play;
And, like a passing thought, she fled,
In light array.

[pp. 87-99]