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

 

 

THOMAS CARLYLE'S

ESSAY ON BURNS (1828)

 

Part 3

But we return to his Poetry. In addition to its Sincerity, it has another peculiar merit, which indeed is but a mode, or perhaps a means, of the foregoing : this displays itself in his choice of subjects ; or rather in his indifference as to subjects ; and the power he has of making all subjects interesting. The ordinary poet, like the ordinary man, is for ever seeking in external circumstances the help which can be found only in himself. In what is familiar and near at hand he discerns no form or comeliness : home is not poetical, but prosaic ; it is in some past, distant, conventional, heroic world, that poetry resides ; were he there and not here, were he thus and not so, it would be well with him. Hence our innumerable host of rose-coloured Novels and iron-mailed Epics, with their locality not on the Earth, but somewhere nearer to the Moon. Hence our Virgins of the Sun, and our Knights of the Cross, malicious Saracens in turbans, and copper-coloured Chiefs in wampum, and so many other truculent figures from the heroic times or the heroic climates, who on all hands swarm in our poetry. Peace be with them ! But yet, as a great moralist proposed preaching to the men of this century, so would we fain preach to the poets, "a sermon on the duty of staying at home." Let them be sure that heroic ages and heroic climates can do little for them. That form of life has attraction for us, less because it is better or nobler than our own, than simply because it is different; and even this attraction must be of the most transient sort. For will not our own age, one day, be an ancient one ; and have as quaint a costume as the rest; not contrasted with the rest therefore, but ranked along with them, in respect of quaintness ! Does Homer interest us now, because he wrote of what passed beyond his native Greece, and two centuries before he was born ; or because he wrote of what passed in God's world, and in the heart of man, which is the same after thirty centuries ? Let our poets look to this : is their feeling really finer, truer, and their vision deeper than that of other men,—they have nothing to fear, even from the humblest subjects ; is it not so,—they have nothing to hope, but an ephemeral favour, even from the highest.

The poet, we imagine, can never have far to seek for a subject: the elements of his art are in him, and around him on every hand ; for him the Ideal world is not remote from the Actual, but under it and within it : nay, he is a poet, precisely because he can discern it there. Wherever there is a sky above him, and a world_ around him,' the poet is in his place ; for here too is man's existence, with its infinite longings and small acquirings ; its ever-thwarted, ever-renewed endeavours; its unspeakable aspirations, its fears and hopes that wander through Eternity ; and all the mystery of brightness and of gloom that it was ever made of, in any age or climate, since man first began to live. Is there not the fifth act of a Tragedy in every death-bed, though it were a peasant's, and a bed of heath ? And are wooings and weddings obsolete, that there can be Comedy no longer ? Or are men suddenly grown wise, that Laughter must no longer shake his sides, but be cheated of his Farce ? Man's life and nature is, as it was, and as it will ever be. But the poet must have an eye to read these things, and a heart to understand them : or they come and pass away before him in vain. He is a vates, a seer ; a gift of vision has been given him. Has life no meanings for him, which another cannot equally decipher ; then he is no poet, and Delphi itself will not make him one.

In this respect, Burns, though not perhaps absolutely a great poet, better manifests his capability, better proves the truth of his genius, than if he had by his own strength kept the whole Minerva Press going, to the end of his literary course. He shows himself at least a poet of Nature's own making ; and Nature, after all, is still the grand agent in making poets. We often hear of this and the other external condition being requisite for the existence of a poet. Sometimes it is a certain sort of training ; he must have studied certain things, studied, for instance, " the elder dramatists," and so learned a poetic language ; as if poetry lay in the tongue, not in the heart. At other times we are told he must be bred in a certain rank, and must be on a confidential footing with the higher classes ; because, above all things, he must see the world. As to seeing the world, we apprehend this will cause him little difficulty, if he have but eyesight to see it with. Without eyesight, indeed, the task might be hard. The blind or the purblind man " travels from Dan to Beersheba, and finds it all barren." But happily every poet is born in the world ; and sees it, with or against his will, every day and every hour he lives. The mysterious workmanship of man's heart, the true light and the inscrutable darkness of man's destiny, reveal themselves not only in capital cities and crowded saloons, but in every hut and hamlet where men have their abode. Nay, do not the elements of all human virtues and all human vices ; the passions at once of a Borgia and of a Luther, lie written in stronger or fainter lines, in the consciousness of every individual bosom, that has practised honest self-examination ? Truly, this same world may be seen in Mossgiel and Tarbolton, if we look well, as clearly as it ever came to light in Crockford's, or the Tuileries itself.

But sometimes still harder requisitions are laid on the poor aspirant to poetry ; for it is hinted that he should have been born two centuries ago ; inasmuch as poetry, about that date, vanished from the earth, and became no longer attainable by men ! Such cobweb speculations have, now and then, overhung the field of literature ; but they obstruct not the growth of any plant there : the Shakspeare or the Burns, unconsciously and merely as he walks onward, silently brushes them away. Is not every genius an impossibility till he appear ? Why do we call him new and original, if we saw where his marble was lying, and what fabric he could rear from it ? It is not the material, but the workman that is wanting. It is not the dark place that hinders, but the dim eye. A Scottish peasant's life was the meanest and rudest of all lives, till Burns became a poet in it, and a poet of it ; found it a man's life, and therefore significant to men. A thousand battle-fields remain unsung ; but The Wounded Hare has not perished without its memorial ; a balm of mercy yet breathes on us from its dumb agonies, because a poet was there. Our Hallowe'en had passed and repassed, in rude awe and laughter, since the era of the Druids ; but no Theocritus, till Burns, discerned in it the materials of a Scottish Idyl : neither was The Holy Fair any Council of Trent or Roman Jubilee ; but nevertheless, Superstition and Hypocrisy and Fun having been propitious to him, in this man's hand it became a poem, instinct with satire and genuine comic life. Let but the true poet be given us, we repeat it, place him where and how you will, and true poetry will not be wanting.

Independently of the essential gift of poetic feeling, as we have now attempted to describe it, a certain rugged sterling worth pervades whatever Burns has written ; a virtue, as of green fields and mountain breezes, dwells in his poetry ; it is redolent of natural life and hardy natural men. There is a decisive strength in him, and yet a sweet native gracefulness : he is tender, he is vehement, yet without constraint or too visible effort ; he melts the heart, or inflames it, with a power which seems habitual and familiar to him. We see that in this man there was the gentleness, the trembling pity of a woman, with the deep earnestness, the force and passionate ardour of a hero. Tears lie in him, and consuming fire ; as lightning lurks in the drops of the summer cloud. He has a resonance in his bosom for every note of human feeling ; the high and the low, the sad, the ludicrous, the joyful, are welcome in their turns to his " lightly moved and all-conceiving spirit." And observe with what a fierce, prompt force he grasps his subject, be it what it may ! How he fixes, as it were, the full image of the matter in his eye ; full and clear in every lineament ; and catches the real type and essence of it, amid a thousand accidents and superficial circumstances, no one of which misleads him ! Is it of reason ; some truth to be discovered ? No sophistry, no vain surface-logic detains him ; quick, resolute, unerring, he pierces through into the marrow of the question ; and speaks his verdict with an emphasis that cannot be forgotten. Is it of description ; some visual object to be represented ? No poet of any age or nation is more graphic than Burns : the characteristic features disclose themselves to him at a glance ; three lines from his hand, and we have a likeness. And, in that rough dialect, in that rude, often awkward metre, so clear and definite a likeness ! It seems a draughtsman working with a burnt stick; and yet the burin of a Retzsch is not more expressive or exact.

Of this last excellence, the plainest and most comprehensive of all, being indeed the root and foundation of every sort of talent, poetical or intellectual, we could produce innumerable instances from the writings of Burns. Take these glimpses of a snow-storm from his Winter Night (the italics are ours):

"When biting Boreas, fell and doure,

Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r,

And Phcebus gies a short-liv'd glowr
             Far south the lift.
Dint-dark' ning thro' the flaky show'r

             Or whirling drift:


'Ae night the storm the steeples rock'd,

Poor labour sweet in sleep was lock'd,

While burns wi snawy vireeths upchock'd
               Wild-eddying whirl,

Or thro' the mining outlet lock'd

                Down headlong hurl."

Are there not " descriptive touches " here ? The describer saw this thing; the essential feature and true likeness of every circumstance in it ; saw, and not with the eye only. " Poor labour locked in sweet sleep ;" the dead stillness of man, unconscious, vanquished, yet not unprotected, while such strife of the material elements rages, and seems to reign supreme in loneliness : this is of the heart as well as of the eye !—Look also at his image of a thaw, and prophesied fall of the Auld Brig:

"When heavy, dark, continued, a'-day rains

Wi' deepening deluges o'erflow the plains;

When from the hills where springs the brawling Coil,

Or stately Lugar's mossy fountains boil,

 

Or where the Greenock winds his moorland course,

Or haunted Garpal * draws his feeble source,

Arous'd by blust'ring winds and spotting thowes.

In mony a torrent dawn his snaw-broo rowes;

While crashing ice, borne on the roaring speat.

Sweeps dams and mills and brigs a' to the gate :

 

And from Glenbuck down to the Rottonkey,

Auld Ayr is just one lengthen'd tumbling sea;

Then down ye'll hurl, Deil nor ye never rise !

And dash the gumlie jaups up to the pouring skies."

 

* Fabulous Hydaspes!

The last line is in itself a Poussin-picture of that Deluge ! The welkin has, as it were, bent down with its weight; the " gumlie jaups " and the " pouring skies " are mingled together ; it is a world of rain and ruin. In respect of mere clearness and minute fidelity, the Farmer's commendation of his Auld Mare, in plough or in cart, may vie with Homer's Smithy of the Cyclops, or yoking of Priam's Chariot. Nor have we forgotten stout Burn-the-wind and his brawny customers, inspired by Scotch Drink : but it is needless to multiply examples. One other trait of a much finer sort we select from multitudes of such among his Songs. It gives, in a single line, to the saddest feeling the saddest environment and local habitation :—

" The pale Moon is setting beyond the white wave,

And Time is setting wi' me O;

Farewell, false friends ! false lover, farewell!

I'll nae mair trouble them nor thee O."

This clearness of sight we have called the foundation of all talent ; for, in fact, unless we see our object, how shall we know how to place or prize it, in our understanding, our imagination, our affections ? Yet it is not in itself, perhaps, a very high excellence ; but capable of being united indifferently with the strongest, or with ordinary powers. Homer surpasses all men in this quality : but, strangely enough, at no great distance below him are Richardson and Defoe. It belongs, in truth, to what is called a lively mind ; and gives no sure indication of the higher endowments that may exist along with it. In all the three cases we have mentioned, it is combined with great garrulity ; their descriptions are detailed, ample and lovingly exact; Homer's fire bursts through, from time to time, as if by accident; but Defoe and Richardson have no fire. Burns, again, is not more distinguished by the clearness than by the impetuous force of his conceptions. Of the strength, the piercing emphasis with which he thought, his emphasis of expression may give a humble but the readiest proof. Who
ever uttered sharper sayings than his ; words more memorable, now by their burning vehemence, now by their cool vigour and laconic pith ? A single phrase depicts a whole subject, a whole scene. We hear of "a gentleman that derived his patent of nobility direct from Almighty God." Our Scottish forefathers in the battle-field struggled forward " red-wat-shod :" in this one word, a full vision of horror and carnage, perhaps too frightfully accurate for Art !

 

In fact, one of the leading features in the mind of Burns is this vigour of his strictly intellectual perceptions. A resolute force is ever visible in his judgments, as in his feelings and volitions. Professor Stewart says of him, with some surprise : " All the faculties of Burns's mind were, as far as I could judge, equally vigorous ; and his predilection for poetry was rather the result of his own enthusiastic and impassioned temper, than of a genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition. From his conversation I should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in whatever walk of ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities." But this, if we mistake not, is at all times the very essence of a truly poetical endowment. Poetry, except in such cases as that of Keats, where the whole consists in a weak-eyed maudlin sensibility, and a certain vague random tunefulness of nature, is no separate faculty, no organ which can be superadded to the rest, or disjoined from them ; but rather the 1 result of their general harmony and completion. The feelings, the gifts that exist in the Poet are those that exist, with more or less development, in every human soul : the imagination, which shudders at the Hell of Dante, is the same faculty, weaker in degree, which called that picture into being. How does the Poet speak to men, with power, but by being still more a man than they ? Shakspeare, it has been well observed, in the planning and completing of his tragedies, has shown an Understanding, were it nothing more, which might have governed states, or indited a Novum Organum. What Burns's force of understanding may have been, we have less means of judging : it had to dwell among the humblest objects ; never saw Philosophy ; never rose, except by natural effort and for short intervals, into the region of great ideas. Nevertheless, sufficient indication, if no proof sufficient, remains for us in his works : we discern the brawny movements of a gigantic though untutored strength ; and can understand how, in conversation, his quick, sure insight into men and things may, as much as aught else about him, have amazed the best thinkers of his time and country.


But, unless we mistake, the intellectual gift of Burns is fine as well as strong. The more delicate relations of things could not well have escaped his eye, for they were intimately present to his heart. The logic of the senate and the forum is indispensable, but not all-sufficient ; nay, perhaps the highest Truth is that which will the most certainly elude it. For this logic works by words, and " the highest," it has been said, " cannot be expressed in words." We are not without tokens of an openness for this higher truth also, of a keen though uncultivated sense for it, having existed in Burns. Mr. Stewart, it will be remembered, wonders, in the passage above quoted, that Burns had formed some distinct conception of the " doctrine of association." We rather think that far subtler things than the doctrine of association had from of old been familiar to him. Here, for instance :


"We know nothing," thus writes he, " or next to nothing, of the structure of our souls, so we cannot account for those seeming caprices in them, that one should be particularly pleased with this thing, or struck with that, which, on minds of a different cast, makes no extraordinary impression. I have some favourite flowers in spring, among which are the mountain-daisy, the harebell, the foxglove, the wild-brier rose, the budding birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang over with particular delight. I never hear the loud solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of grey plover in an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, which, like the Ćolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident; or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod ? I own myself partial to such proofs of those awful and important realities : a God that made all things, man's immaterial and immortal nature, and a world of weal or woe beyond death and the grave."

 

  


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