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

 

 

THOMAS CARLYLE'S

ESSAY ON BURNS (1828)

 

Part 4


Force and fineness of understanding are often spoken of as something different from general force and fineness of nature, as something partly independent of them. The necessities of language so require it ; but in truth these qualities are not distinct and independent : except in special cases, and from special causes, they ever go together. A man of strong understanding is generally a man of strong character ; neither is delicacy in the one kind often divided from delicacy ir; the other. No one, at all events, is ignorant that in the Poetry of Burns keenness of insight keeps pace with keenness of feeling; that his light is not more pervading than his warmth. He is a man of the most impassioned temper; with passions not strong only, but noble, and of the sort in which great virtues and great poems take their rise. It is reverence, it is love towards all Nature that inspires him, that opens his eyes to its beauty, and makes heart and voice eloquent in its praise. There is a true old saying, that " Love furthers knowledge : " but above all it is the living essence of that knowledge which makes poets ; the first principle of its existence, increase, activity. Of Burns's fervid affection, his generous all-embracing Love, we have spoken already, as of the grand distinction of his nature, seen equally in word and deed, in his Life and in his Writings. It were easy to multiply examples. Not man only, but all that environs man in the material and moral universe, is lovely in his sight : " the hoary hawthorn," the " troop of grey plover," the " solitary curlew," all are dear to him ; all live in this Earth along with him, and to all he is knit as in mysterious brotherhood. How touching is it, for instance, that, amidst the gloom of personal misery, brooding over the wintry desolation without him and within him, he thinks of the " ourie cattle" and "silly sheep," and their sufferings in the pitiless storm !

'' I thought me on the ourie cattle,

Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
                         O' wintry war,

Or thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle,
                         Beneath a scaur.
Ilk happing bird, wee helpless thing,

That in the merry months o' spring

Delighted me to hear thee sing,
                         What comes o' thee?

Where wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing,
                         And close thy ee?"

The tenant of the mean hut, with its "ragged roof and chinky wall," has a heart to pity even these ! This is worth several homilies on Mercy ; for it is the voice of Mercy herself. Burns, indeed, lives in sympathy ; his soul rushes forth into all realms of being ; nothing that has existence can be indifferent to him. The very Devil he cannot hate with right orthodoxy :

"But fare you weel, auld Nickie-ben;

O wad ye tak a thought and men' I

Ye aiblins might,—I dinna ken,—

                     Still hae a stake;

I'm wae to think upo' yon den,
                      Even for your sake ! "

"He is the father of curses and lies," said Dr. Slop ; "and is cursed and damned already."— "I am sorry for it," quoth my uncle Toby !— A Poet without Love were a physical and metaphysical impossibility.

But has it not been said, in contradiction to this principle, that "Indignation makes verses " ? It has been so said, and is true enough : but the contradiction is apparent, not real. The Indignation which makes verses is, properly speaking, an inverted Love ; the love of some right, some worth, some goodness, belonging to ourselves or others, which has been injured, and which this tempestuous feeling issues forth to defend and avenge. No selfish fury of heart, existing there as a primary feeling, and without its opposite, ever produced much Poetry : otherwise, we suppose, the Tiger were the most musical of all our choristers. Johnson said, he loved a good hater ; by which he must have meant, not so much one that hated violently, as one that hated wisely j hated baseness from love of nobleness. However, in spite of Johnson's paradox, tolerable enough for once in speech, but which need not have been so often adopted in print since then, we rather believe that good men deal sparingly in hatred, either wise or unwise : nay, that a " good " hater is still a desideratum in this world. The Devil, at least, who passes for the chief and best of that class, is said to be nowise an amiable character.

Of the verses which Indignation makes, Burns has also given us specimens : and among the best that were ever given. Who will forget his Dweller in yon Dungeon dark ; a piece that might have been chanted by the Furies of Æschylus ? The secrets of the infernal Pit are laid bare ; a boundless baleful " darkness visible ;" and streaks of hell-fire quivering madly in its black, haggard bosom !

" Dweller in yon Dungeon dark,

Hangman of Creation, mark !

Who in widow's weeds appears,

Laden with unhonoured years,

Noosing with care a bursting purse,

Baited with many a deadly curse?"

Why should we speak of Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled; since all know of it, from the king to the meanest of his subjects ? This dithyrambic was composed on horseback: in riding in the middle of tempests, over the wildest Galloway moor, in company with a Mr. Syme, who, observing the poet's looks, forbore to speak,—judiciously enough, for a man composing Bruce's Address might be unsafe to trifle with. Doubtless this stern hymn was singing itself, as he formed it, through the soul of Burns : but to the external ear, it should be sung with the throat of the whirlwind. So long as there is warm blood in the heart of Scotchman or man, it will move in fierce thrills under this war-ode ; the best, we believe, that was ever written by any pen.

Another wild stormful Song, that dwells in our ear and mind with a strange tenacity, is Macpherson s Farewell. Perhaps there is something in the tradition itself that co-operates. For was not this grim Celt, this shaggy Northland Cacus, that " lived a life of sturt and strife, and died by treacherie,"—was not he, too, one of the Nimrods and Napoleons of the earth, in the arena of his own remote misty glens, for want of a clearer and wider one ? Nay, was there not a touch of grace given him ? A fibre of love and softness, of poetry itself, must have lived in his savage heart; for he composed that air the night before his execution; on the wings of that poor melody his better soul would soar away above oblivion, pain, and all the ignominy and despair, which, like an avalanche, was hurling him to the abyss ! Here also, as at Thebes, and in Pelops' line, was material Fate matched against man's Freewill ; matched in bitterest though obscure duel ; and the ethereal soul sank not, even in its blindness, without a cry which has survived it. But who, except Burns, could have given words to such a soul ; words that we never listen to without a strange half-barbarous, half-poetic fellow-feeling I

"Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,

        Sae dauntingly gaed he ;

He play'd a spring, and danced it round,

        Below the gallows-tree."

Under a lighter disguise, the same principle of Love, which we have recognised as the great characteristic of Burns, and of all true poets, occasionally manifests itself in the shape of Humour. Everywhere, indeed, in his sunny moods, a full buoyant flood of mirth rolls through the mind of Burns ; he rises to the high, and stoops to the low, and is brother and playmate to all Nature. We speak not of his bold and often irresistible faculty of caricature ; for this is Drollery rather than Humour : but a much tenderer sportfulness dwells in him ; and comes forth here and there, in evanescent and beautiful touches ; as in his Address to the Mouse, or the Farmer's Mare, or in his Elegy on Poor Mailie, which last may be reckoned his happiest effort of this kind. In these pieces there are traits of a Humour as fine as that of Sterne ; yet altogether different, original, peculiar,—the Humour of Burns.

Of the tenderness, the playful pathos, and many other kindred qualities of Burns's Poetry, much more might be said; but now, with these poor outlines of a sketch, we must prepare to quit this part of our subject. To speak of his individual Writings' adequately and with any detail, would lead us far beyond our limits. As already hinted, we can look on but few of these pieces as, in strict critical language, deserving the name of Poems: they are rhymed eloquence, rhymed pathos, rhymed sense; yet seldom essentially melodious, aerial, poetical. Tam o' Shanter itself, which enjoys so high a favour, does not appear to us at all decisively to come under this last category. It is not so much a poem, as a piece of sparkling rhetoric; the heart and body of the story still lies hard and dead. He has not gone back, much less carried us back, into that dark, earnest, wondering age, when the tradition was believed, and when it took its rise; he does not attempt, by any new modelling of his supernatural ware, to strike anew that deep mysterious chord of human nature, which once responded to such things; and which lives in us too, and will for ever live, though silent now, or vibrating with far other notes, and to far different issues. Our German readers will understand us, when we say, that he is not the Tieck but the Musäus of this tale. Externally it is all green and living; yet look closer, it is no firm growth, but only ivy on a rock. The piece does not properly cohere: the strange chasm which yawns in our incredulous imaginations between the Ayr public-house and the gate of Tophet, is nowhere bridged over, nay, the idea of such a bridge is laughed at; and thus the Tragedy of the adventure becomes a mere drunken phantasmagoria, or many-coloured spectrum painted on ale-vapours, and the Farce alone has any reality. We do not say that Burns should have made much more of this tradition; we rather think that, for strictly poetical purposes, not much was to be made of it. Neither are we blind to the deep, varied, genial power displayed in what he has actually accomplished; but we find far more " Shakspearean" qualities, as these of Tam o' Shanter have been fondly named, in many of his other pieces; nay, we incline to believe that this latter might have been written, all but quite as well, by a man who, in place of genius, had only possessed talent.

Perhaps we may venture to say, that the most strictly poetical of all his " poems" is one which does not appear in Currie's Edition; but has been often printed before and since, under the humble title of The Jolly Beggars. The subject truly is among the lowest in Nature; but it only the more shows our Poet's gift in raising it into the domain of Art. To our minds, this piece seems thoroughly compacted; melted together, refined; and poured forth in one flood of true  harmony. It is light, airy, soft of movement; yet sharp and precise in its details; every face is a portrait: that raucle carlin, that wee Apollo, that Son of Mars, are Scottish, yet ideal; the scene is at once a dream, and the very Rag-castle of " Poosie-Nansie." Farther, it seems in a considerable degree complete, a real self-supporting Whole, which is the highest merit in a poem. The blanket of the Night is drawn asunder for a moment; in full, ruddy, flaming light, these rough tatterdemalions are seen in their boisterous revel; for the strong pulse of Life vindicates its right to gladness even here; and when the curtain closes, we prolong the action, without effort; the next day as the last, our Caird and our Ballad-monger are singing and soldering; their "brats and callets" are hawking, begging, cheating; and some other night, in new combinations, they will wring from Fate another hour of wassail and good cheer. Apart from the universal sympathy with man which this again bespeaks in Burns, a genuine inspiration and no inconsiderable technical talent are manifested here. There is the fidelity, humour, warm life, and accurate painting and grouping of some Teniers, for whom hostlers and carousing peasants are not without significance. It would be strange, doubtless, to call this the besl of Burns's writings: we mean to say only, that it seems to us the most perfect of its kind, as a piece of poetical composition, strictly so called. In The Beggar's Opera, in The Beggar's Bush, as other critics have already remarked, there is nothing which, in real poetic vigour, equals this Cantata ; nothing, as we think, which comes within many degrees of it.

But by far the most finished, complete, and truly inspired pieces of Burns are, without dispute, to be found among his Songs. It is here that, although through a small aperture, his light shines with least obstruction ; in its highest beauty and pure sunny clearness. The reason may be, that Song is a brief, simple species of composition ; and requires nothing so much for its perfection as genuine poetic feeling, genuine music of heart. Yet the Song has its rules equally with the Tragedy; rules which in most cases are poorly fulfilled, in many cases are not so much as felt. We might write a long essay on the Songs of Burns, which we reckon by far the best that Britain has yet produced : for indeed, since the era of Queen Elizabeth, we know not that, by any other hand, aught truly worth attention has been accomplished in this department. True, we have songs enough " by persons of quality ;" we have tawdry, hollow, wine-bred madrigals ; many a rhymed speech " in the flowing and watery vein of Ossorius the Portugal Bishop," rich in sonorous words, and, for moral, dashed perhaps with some tint of a sentimental sensuality ; all which many persons cease not from endeavouring to sing ; though for most part, we fear, the music is but from the thrpat outwards, or at best from some region far enough short of the Soul; not in which, but in a certain inane Limbo of the Fancy, or even in some vaporous debateable-land on the outskirts of the Nervous System, most of such madrigals and rhymed speeches seem to have originated.

With the Songs of Burns we must not name these things. Independently of the clear, manly, heartfelt sentiment that ever pervades his poetry, his Songs are honest in another point of view : in form, as well as in spirit. They do not affect to be set to music, but they actually and in themselves are music ; they have received their life, and fashioned themselves together, in the medium of Harmony, as Venus rose from the bosom of the sea. The story, the feeling, is not detailed, but suggested : not said, or spouted, in rhetorical completeness and coherence ; but sung, in fitful gushes, in glowing hints, in fantastic breaks, in warblings not of the voice only, but of the whole mind. We consider this to be the essence of a song ; and that no songs since the little careless catches, and as it were drops of song, which Shakspeare has here and there sprinkled over his Plays, fulfil this condition in nearly the same degree as most of Burns's do. Such grace and truth of external movement, too, presupposes in general a corresponding force and truth of sentiment and inward meaning. The Songs of Burns are not more perfect in the former quality than in the latter. With what tenderness he sings, yet with what vehemence and entireness ! There is a piercing wail in his sorrow, the purest rapture in his joy ; he burns with the sternest ire, or laughs with the loudest of slyest mirth ; and yet he is sweet and soft, " sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet, and soft as their parting tear." If we farther take into account the immense variety of his subjects ; how, from the loud flowing revel in Willie brew'd a Peck 0' Maut, to the still, rapt enthusiasm of sadness for Mary in Heaven ; from the glad kind greeting of Auld Langsyne, or the comic archness of Duncan Gray, to the fire-eyed fury of Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled, he has found a tone and words for every mood of man's heart,—it will seem a small praise if we rank him as the first of all our Song-writers ; for we know not where to find one worthy of being second to him.

It is on his Songs, as we believe, that Burns's chief influence as an author will ultimately be found to depend : nor, if our Fletcher's aphorism is true, shall we account this a small influence. "Let me make the songs of a people," said he, " and you shall make its laws." Surely, if ever any Poet might have equalled himself with Legislators on this ground, it was Burns. His Songs are already part of the mother-tongue, not of Scotland only but of Britain, and of the millions that in all ends of the earth speak a British language. In hut and hall, as the heart unfolds itself in many-coloured joy and woe of existence, the name, the 'voice of that joy and that woe, is the name and voice which Burns has given them. Strictly speaking, perhaps no British man has so deeply affected the thoughts and feelings of so many men, as this solitary and altogether private individual, with means apparently the humblest.

 

  


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