Thomas Carlyle, Scottish essayist and historian (born in Ecclefechan on 4th Dec 1795)

Summary

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Part 2

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Part 6

Part 7

 

SUMMARY OF THOMAS CARLYLE'S

ESSAY ON ROBERT BURNS

OUR grand maxim of supply and demand. Living misery and posthumous glory. The character of Burns a theme that cannot easily become exhausted. His Biographers. Perfection in Biography. Burns one of the most considerable British men of the eighteenth century: An age the most prosaic Britain had yet seen. His hard and most disadvantageous conditions. Not merely as a Poet, but as a Man, that he chiefly interests and affects us. His life a deeper tragedy than any brawling Napoleon's. His heart, erring and at length broken, full of inborn riches, of love to all living and lifeless things. The Peasant Poet bears himself among the low, with whom his lot is cast, like a King in exile. His Writings but a poor mutilated fraction of what was in him, yet of a quality enduring as the English tongue. He wrote, not from hearsay, but from sight and actual experience. This, easy as it looks, the fundamental difficulty which all poets have to strive with. Byron, heartily as he detested insincerity, far enough from faultless. No poet of Burns's susceptibility from first to last so totally free from affectation. Some of his Letters, however, by no means deserve this praise. His singular power of making all subjects, even the most homely, interesting. Wherever there is a sky above him, and a world around him, the poet is in his place. Every genius an impossibility till he appears. Burns's rugged earnest truth, yet tenderness and sweet native grace. His clear graphic "descriptive touches" and piercing emphasis of thought. Professor Stewart's testimony to Burns's intellectual vigour. A deeper insight than any "doctrine of association." In the Poetry of Burns keenness of insight keeps pace with keenness of feeling. Loving Indignation and good Hatred: Scots wha hae: Macpherson's Farewell: Sunny buoyant floods of Humour. Imperfections of Burns's poetry : Tam o' Shanter, not a true poem so much as a piece of sparkling rhetoric : The Jolly Beggars, the most complete and perfect as a poetical composition. His Songs the most truly inspired and most deeply felt of all his poems. His influence on the hearts and literature of his country : Literary patriotism. Burns's acted Works even more interesting than his written ones; and these too, alas, but a fragment: His passionate youth never passed into clear and steadfast manhood. The only true happiness of a man : Often it is the greatest minds that are latest in obtaining it : Burns and Byron. Burns's hard-worked, yet happy boyhood : His estimable parents. Early dissipations. In Necessity and Obedience a man should find his highest Freedom. Religious quarrels and scepticisms. Faithlessness: Exile and blackest desperation. Invited to Edinburgh: a Napoleon among the crowned sovereigns of Literature. Sir Walter Scott's reminiscence of an interview with Burns. Burns's calm manly bearing amongst the Edinburgh aristocracy. His bitter feeling of his own indigence. By the great he is treated in the customary fashion ; and each party goes his several way. What Burns was next to do, or to avoid : His Excise-and-Farm scheme not an unreasonable one : No failure of external means, but of internal, that overtook Burns. Good beginnings. Patrons of genius and picturesque tourists: Their moral rottenness, by which he became infected, gradually eat out the heart of his life. Meteors of French Politics rise before him, but they are not his stars. Calumny is busy with him. The little great-folk of Dumfries : Burns's desolation. In his destitution and degradation one act of self-devotedness still open to him : Not as a hired soldier, but as a patriot, would he strive for the glory of his country. The crisis of his life : Death. Little effectual help could perhaps have been rendered to Burns : Patronage twice cursed : Many a poet has been poorer, none prouder. And yet much might have been done to have made his humble atmosphere more genial. Little Babylons and Babylonians : Let us go and do otherwise. The market-price of Wisdom. Not in the power of any mere external circumstances to ruin the mind of a man. The errors of Burns to be mourned over, rather than blamed. The great want of his life was the great want of his age, a true faith in Religion and a singleness and unselfishness of aim. Poetry, as Burns could and ought to have followed it, is but another form of Wisdom, of Religion. For his culture as a Poet, poverty and much suffering for a season were absolutely advantageous. To divide his hours between poetry and rich men's banquets an ill-starred attempt. Byron, rich in worldly means and honours, no whit happier than Burns in his poverty and worldly degradation : They had a message from on High to deliver, which could leave them no rest while it remained unaccomplished. Death and the rest of the grave : A stern moral, twice told us in our own time. The world habitually unjust in its judgments of such men. With men of right feeling anywhere, there will be no need to plead for Burns : In pitying admiration he lies enshrined in all our hearts.

 

  


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