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

 

 

THOMAS CARLYLE'S

ESSAY ON BURNS (1828)

Written for the Edinburgh Review, No. 36

- "The Life of Robert Burns, by J. G. Lockhart, LL. B.

 

Part 1

IN the modern arrangements of society, it is no uncommon thing that a man of genius must, like Butler, " ask for bread and receive a stone ;" for, in spite of our grand maxim of supply and demand, it is by no means the highest excellence that men are most forward to recognise. The inventor of a spinning-jenny is pretty sure of his reward in his own day ; but the writer of a true poem, like the apostle of a true religion, is nearly as sure of the contrary. We do not know whether it is not an aggravation of the injustice, that there is generally a posthumous retribution. Robert Burns, in the course of Nature, might yet have been living ; but his short life was spent in toil and penury ; and he died, in the prime of his manhood, miserable and neglected : and yet already a brave mausoleum shines over his dust, and more than one splendid monument has been reared in other places to his fame ; the street where he languished in poverty is called by his name ; the highest personages in our literature have been proud to appear as his commentators and admirers ; and here is the sixth narrative of his Life that has been given to the world !

Mr. Lockhart thinks it necessary to apologise for this new attempt on such a subject : but his readers, we believe, will readily acquit him ; or, at worst, will censure only the performance of his task, not the choice of it. The character of Burns, indeed, is a theme that cannot easily become either trite or exhausted ; and will probably gain rather than lose in its dimensions by the distance to which it is removed by Time. No man, it has been said, is a hero to his valet; and this is probably true ; but the fault is at least as likely to be the valet's as the hero's. For it is certain, that to the vulgar eye few things are wonderful that are not distant. It is difficult for men to believe that the man, the mere man whom they see, nay perhaps painfully feel, toiling at their side through the poor jostlings of existence, can be made of finer clay than themselves. Suppose that some dining acquaintance of Sir Thomas Lucy's, and neighbour of John a Combe's, had snatched an hour or two from the preservation of his game, and written us a Life of Shakspeare ! What dissertations should we not have had,—not on Hamlet and The Tempest, but on the wool-trade, and deer-stealing, and the libel and vagrant laws ; and how the Poacher became a Player ; and how Sir Thomas and Mr. John had Christian bowels, and did not push him to extremities ! In like manner, we believe, with respect to Burns, that till the companions of his pilgrimage, the Honourable Excise Commissioners, and the Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt, and the Dumfries Aristocracy, and all the Squires and Earls, equally with the Ayr Writers, and the New and Old Light Clergy, whom he had to do with, shall have become invisible in the darkness of the Past, or visible only by light borrowed from his juxtaposition, it will be difficult to measure him by any true standard, or to estimate what he really was and did, in the eighteenth century, for his country and the world. It will be difficult, we say ; but still a fair problem for literary historians ; and repeated attempts will give us repeated approximations.

His former Biographers have done something, no doubt, but by no means a great deal, to assist us. Dr. Currie and Mr. Walker, the principal of these writers, have both, we think, mistaken one essentially important thing : their own and the world's true relation to their author, and the style in which it became such men to think and to speak of such a man. Dr. Currie loved the poet truly ; more perhaps than he avowed to his readers, or even to himself; yet he everywhere introduces him with a certain patronising, apologetic air; as if the polite public might think it strange and half unwarrantable that he, a man of science, a scholar and gentleman, should do such honour to a rustic. In all this, however, we readily admit that his fault was not want of love, but weakness of faith ; and regret that the first and kindest of all our poet's biographers should not have seen farther, or believed more boldly what he saw. Mr. Walker offends more deeply in the same kind : and both err alike in presenting us with a detached catalogue of his several supposed attributes, virtues, and vices, instead of a delineation of the resulting character as a living unity. This, however, is not painting a portrait ; but gauging the length and breadth of the several features, and jotting down their dimensions in arithmetical ciphers. Nay, it is not so much as this : for we are yet to learn by what arts or instruments the mind could be so measured and gauged.

Mr. Lockhart, we are happy to say, has avoided both these errors. He uniformly treats Burns as the high and remarkable man the public voice has now pronounced him to be : and in delineating him, he has avoided the method of separate generalities, and rather sought for characteristic incidents, habits, actions, sayings ; in a word, for aspects which exhibit the whole man, as he looked and lived among his fellows. The book accordingly, with all its deficiencies, gives more insight, we think, into the true character of Burns, than any prior biography: though, being written on the very popular and condensed scheme of an article for Constable's Miscellany, it has less depth than we could have wished and expected from a writer of such power ; and contains rather more, and more multifarious, quotations, than belong of right to an original production. Indeed, Mr. Lockhart's own writing is generally so good, so clear, direct, and nervous, that we seldom wish to see it making place for another man's. However, the spirit of the work is throughout candid, tolerant, and anxiously conciliating; compliments and praises are liberally distributed, on all hands, to great and small ; and, as Mr. Morris Birkbeck observes of the society in the backwoods of America, " the courtesies of polite life are never lost sight of for a moment." But there are better things than these in the volume ; and we can safely testify, not only that it is easily and pleasantly read a first time, but may even be without difficulty read again.

Nevertheless, we are far from thinking that the problem of Burns's Biography has yet been adequately solved. We do not allude so much to deficiency of facts or documents,—though of these we are still every day receiving some fresh accession,—as to the limited and imperfect application of them to the great end of Biography. Our notions upon this subject may perhaps appear extravagant; but if an individual is really of consequence enough to have his life and character recorded for public remembrance, we have always been of opinion that the public ought to be made acquainted with all the inward springs and relations of his character. How did the, world and man's life, from his particular position, represent themselves to his mind ? How did co-existing circumstances modify him from without ; how did he modify these from within ? With what endeavours and what efficacy rule over them ; with what resistance and what suffering sink under them ? In one word, what and how produced was the effect of society on him ; what and how produced was his effect on society ? He who should answer these questions, in regard to any individual, would, as we believe, furnish a model of perfection in Biography. Few individuals, indeed, can deserve such a study ; and many lives will be written, and, for the gratification of innocent curiosity, ought to be written, and read and forgotten, which are not in this sense biographies. But Burns, if we mistake not, is one of these few individuals; and such a study, at least with such a result, he has not yet obtained. Our own contributions to it, we are aware, can be but scanty and feeble; but we offer them with goodwill, and trust they may meet with acceptance from those they are intended for.

Burns first came upon the world as a prodigy ; and was, in that character, entertained by it, in the usual fashion, with loud, vague, tumultuous wonder, speedily subsiding into censure and neglect ; till his early and most mournful death again awakened an enthusiasm for him, which, especially as there was now nothing to be done, and much to be spoken, has prolonged itself even to our own time. It is true, the " nine days " have long since elapsed; and the very continuance of this clamour proves that Burns was no vulgar wonder. Accordingly, even in sober judgments, where, as years passed by, he has come to rest more and more exclusively on his own intrinsic merits, and may now be well-nigh shorn of that casual radiance, he appears not only as a true British poet, but as one of the most considerable British men of the eighteenth century. Let it not be objected that he did little. He did much, if we consider where and how. If the work performed was small, we must remember that he had his very materials to discover ; for the metal he worked in lay hid under the desert moor, where no eye but his had guessed its existence ; and we may almost say, that with his own hand he had to construct the tools for fashioning it. For he found himself in deepest obscurity, without help, without instruction, without model ; or with models only of the meanest sort. An educated man stands, as it were, in the midst of a boundless arsenal and magazine, filled with all the weapons and engines which man's skill has been able to devise from the earliest time ; and he works, accordingly, with a strength borrowed from all past ages. How different is his state who stands on the outside of that storehouse, and feels that its gates must be stormed, or remain for ever shut against him ? His means are the commonest and rudest ; the mere work done is no measure of his strength. A dwarf behind his steam-engine may remove mountains ; but no dwarf will hew them down with a pickaxe ; and he must be a Titan that hurls them abroad with his arms.

 

  


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