ESSAY ON BURNS (1828)
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
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
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.