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

 

 

THOMAS CARLYLE'S

ESSAY ON BURNS (1828)

 

Part 5


In another point of view, moreover, we incline to think that Burns's influence may have been considerable : we mean, as exerted specially on the Literature of his country, at least on the Literature of Scotland. Among the great changes which British, particularly Scottish literature, has undergone since that period, one of the greatest will be found to consist in its remarkable increase of nationality. Even the English writers, most popular in Burns's time, were little distinguished for their literary patriotism, in this its best sense. A certain attenuated cosmopolitanism had, in good measure, taken place of the old insular home-feeling ; literature was, as it were, without any local environment ; was not nourished by the affections which spring from a native soil. Our Grays and Glovers seemed to write almost as if in vacuo; the thing written bears no mark of place ; it is not written so much for Englishmen, as for men j or rather, which is the inevitable result of this, for certain Generalisations which philosophy termed men. Goldsmith is an exception : not so Johnson ; the scene of his Rambler is little more English than that of his Rasselas. But if such was, in some degree, the case with England, it was, in the highest degree, the case with Scotland. In fact, our Scottish literature had, at that period, a very singular aspect ; unexampled, so far as we know, except perhaps at Geneva, where the same state of matters appears still to continue. For a long period after Scotland became British we had no literature : at the date when Addison and Steele were writing their Spectators our good John Boston was writing, with the noblest intent, but alike in defiance of grammar and philosophy, his Fourfold State of Man. Then came the schisms in our National Church, and the fiercer schisms in our Body Politic : Theologic ink, and Jacobite blood, with gall enough in both cases, seemed to have blotted out the intellect of the country : however, it was only obscured, not obliterated. Lord Kames made nearly the first attempt at writing English ; and ere long Hume, Robertson, Smith, and a whole host of followers, attracted hither the eyes of all Europe. And yet in this brilliant resuscitation of our " fervid genius," there was nothing truly Scottish, nothing indigenous, except, perhaps, the natural impetuosity of intellect, which we sometimes claim, and are sometimes upbraided with, as a characteristic of our nation. It is curious to remark that Scotland, so full of writers, had no Scottish culture, nor indeed any English ; our culture was almost exclusively French. It was by studying Racine and Voltaire, Batteux and Boileau, that Kames had trained himself to be a critic and philosopher ; it was the light of Montesquieu and Mably that guided Robertson in his political speculations ; Quesnay's lamp that kindled the lamp of Adam Smith. Hume was too rich a man to borrow ; and perhaps he reacted on the French more than he was acted on by them ; but neither had he aught to do with Scotland ; Edinburgh, equally with La Fleche, was but the lodging and laboratory, in which he not so much morally lived, as metaphysically investigated. Never, perhaps, was there a class of writers so clear and well-ordered, yet so totally destitute, to all appearance, of any patriotic affection, nay, of any human affection whatever. The French wits of the period were as unpatriotic: but their general deficiency in moral principle; not to say their avowed sensuality and unbelief in all virtue, strictly so called, render this accountable enough. We hope there is a patriotism founded on something better than prejudice ; that our country may be dear to us, without injury to our philosophy; that in loving and justly prizing all other lands, we may prize justly, and yet love before all others, our own stern Motherland, and the venerable Structure of social and moral Life, which Mind has through long ages been building up for us there. Surely there is nourishment for the better part of man's heart in all this : surely the roots, that have fixed themselves in the very core of man's being, may be so cultivated as to grow up not into briers, but into roses, in the field of his life ! Our Scottish sages have no such propensities : the field of their life shows neither briers nor roses ; but only a flat, continuous threshing-floor for Logic, whereon all questions, from the " Doctrine of Rent" to the " Natural History of Religion," are threshed and sifted with the same mechanical impartiality !

With Sir Walter Scott at the head of our literature, it cannot be denied that much of this evil is past, or rapidly passing away : our chief literary men, whatever other faults they may have, no longer live among us like a French Colony, or some knot of Propaganda Missionaries ; but like natural-born subjects of the soil, partaking and sympathising in all our attachments, humours, and habits. Our literature no longer grows in water but in mould, and with the true racy virtues of the soil and climate. How much of this change may be due to Burns, or to any other individual, it might be difficult to estimate. Direct literary imitation of Burns was not to be looked for. But his example, in the fearless adoption of domestic subjects, could not but operate from afar ; and certainly in no heart did the love of country ever burn with a warmer glow than in that of Burns : " a tide of Scottish prejudice," as he modestly calls this deep and generous feeling, "had been poured along his veins ; and he felt that it would boil there till the flood-gates shut in eternal rest." It seemed to him as if he could do so little for his country, and yet would so gladly have done all. One small province stood open for him,—that of Scottish Song ; and how eagerly he entered on it, how devotedly he laboured there ! In his toilsome journeyings, this object never quits him ; it is the little happy-valley of his careworn heart. In the gloom of his own affliction, he eagerly searches after some lonely brother of the muse, and rejoices to snatch one other name from the oblivion that was covering it ! These were early feelings, and they abode with him to the end :

"... A wish (I mind its power),

A wish that to my latest hour

Will strongly heave my breast,—

That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake,

Some useful plan or book could make,

Or sing a sang at least.


The rough bur Thistle spreading wide
    Amang the bearded bear,

I turn'd my weeding-clips aside,
    And spared the symbol dear."

But to leave the mere literary character of Burns, which has already detained us too long. Far more interesting than any of his written works, as it appears to us, are his acted ones : the Life he willed and was fated to lead among his fellow-men. These Poems are but like little rhymed fragments scattered here and there in the grand unrhymed Romance of his earthly existence ; and it is only when intercalated in this at their proper places that they attain their full measure of significance. And this, too, alas, was but a fragment ! The plan of a mighty edifice had been sketched ; some columns, porticoes, firm masses of building, stand completed ; the rest more or less clearly indicated ; with many a far-stretching tendency, which only studious and friendly eyes can now trace towards the purposed termination. For the work is broken off in the middle, almost in the beginning ; and rises among us, beautiful and sad, at once unfinished and a ruin ! If charitable judgment was necessary in estimating his Poems, and justice required that the aim and the manifest power to fulfil it must often be accepted for the fulfilment ; much more is this the case in regard to his Life, the sum and result of all his endeavours, where his difficulties came upon him not in detail only, but in mass ; and so much has been left unaccomplished, nay, was mistaken, and altogether marred.

Properly speaking, there is but one era in the life of Burns, and that the earliest. We have not youth and manhood, but only youth : for, to the end, we discern no decisive change in the complexion of his character ; in his thirty-seventh year he is still, as it were, in youth. With all that resoluteness of judgment, that penetrating insight, and singular maturity of intellectual power, exhibited in his writings, he never attains to any clearness regarding himself; to the last, he never ascertains his peculiar aim, even with such distinctness as is common among ordinary men ; and therefore never can pursue it with that singleness of will, which ensures success and some contentment to such men. To the last, he wavers between two purposes : glorying in his talent, like a true poet, he yet cannot consent to make this his chief and sole glory, and to follow it as the one thing needful, through poverty or riches, through good or evil report. Another far meaner ambition still cleaves to him ; he must dream and struggle about a certain " Rock of Independence," which, natural and even admirable as it might be, was still but a warring with the world, on the comparatively insignificant ground of his being more completely or less completely supplied with money than others ; of his standing at a higher or at a lower altitude in general estimation than others. For the world still appears to him, as to the young, in borrowed colours ; he expects from it what it cannot give to any man ; seeks for contentment, not within himself, in action and wise effort, but from without, in the kindness of circumstances, in love, friendship, honour, pecuniary ease. He would be happy, not actively and in himself, but passively and from some ideal cornucopia of Enjoyments, not earned by his own labour, but showered on him by the beneficence of Destiny. Thus, like a young man, he cannot gird himself up for any worthy well-calculated goal, but swerves to and fro, between passionate hope and remorseful disappointment: rushing onwards with a deep tempestuous force, he surmounts or breaks asunder many a barrier; travels, nay, advances far, but advancing only under uncertain guidance, is ever and anon turned from his path ; and to the last cannot reach the only true happiness of a man, that of clear decided Activity in the sphere for which, by nature and circumstances, he has been fitted and appointed.

We do not say these things in dispraise of Burns ; nay, perhaps, they but interest us the more in his favour. This blessing is not given soonest to the best ; but rather, it is often the greatest minds that are latest in obtaining it ; for where most is to be developed most time may be required to develop it. A complex condition had been assigned him from without ; as complex a condition from within ; no " pre-established harmony " existed between the clay soil of Mossgiel and the empyrean soul of Robert Burns ; it was not wonderful that the adjustment between them should have been long postponed, and his arm long cumbered, and his sight confused, in so vast and discordant an economy as he had been appointed steward over. Byron was, at his death, but a year younger than Burns ; and through life, as it might have appeared, far more simply situated : yet in him too we can trace no such adjustment, no such moral manhood ; but at best, and only a little before his end, the beginning of what seemed such.

By much the most striking incident in Burns's Life is his journey to Edinburgh ; but perhaps a still more important one is his residence at Irvine, so early as in his twenty-third year. Hitherto his life had been poor and toilworn ; but otherwise not ungenial, and, with all its distresses, by no means unhappy. In his parentage, deducting outward circumstances, he had every reason to reckon himself fortunate. His father was a man of thoughtful, intense, earnest character, as the best of our peasants are ; valuing knowledge, possessing some, and, what is far better and rarer, open-minded for more : a man with a keen insight and devout heart; reverent towards God, friendly therefore at once, and fearless towards all that God has made : in one word, though but a hard-handed peasant, a complete and fully unfolded Man. Such a father is seldom found in any rank in society, and was worth descending far in society to seek. Unfortunately, he was very poor ; had he been even a little richer, almost never so little, the whole might have issued far otherwise. Mighty events turn on a straw ; the crossing of a brook decides the conquest of the world. Had this William Burns's small seven acres of nursery-ground anywise prospered, the boy Robert had been sent to school: had struggled forward, as so many weaker men do, to some university ; come forth not as a rustic wonder, but as a regular, well-trained, intellectual workman, and changed the whole course of British Literature—for it lay in him to have done this ! But the nursery did not prosper ; poverty sank his whole family below the help of even our cheap school-system : Burns remained a hard-worked ploughboy, and British literature took its own course. Nevertheless, even in this rugged scene there is much to nourish him. If he drudges, it is with his brother, and for his father and mother, whom he loves, and would fain shield from want. Wisdom is not banished from their poor hearth, nor the balm of natural feeling : the solemn words, Let us worship God, are heard there from a " priestlike father;" if threatenings of unjust men throw mother and children into tears, these are tears not of grief only, but of holiest affection ; every heart in that humble group feels itself the closer knit to every other ; in their hard warfare they are there together, a " little band of brethren." Neither are such tears, and the deep beauty that dwells in them, their only portion. Light visits the hearts as it does the eyes of all living : there is a force, too, in this youth, that enables him to trample on misfortune : nay, to bind it under his feet to make him sport. For a bold, warm, buoyant humour of character has been given him ; and so the thick-coming shapes of evil are welcomed with a gay, friendly irony, and in their closest pressure he bates no jot of heart or hope. Vague yearnings of ambition fail not, as he grows up ; dreamy fancies hang like cloud-cities around him ; the curtain of Existence is slowly rising, in many-coloured splendour and gloom : and the auroral light of first love is gilding his horizon, and the music of song is on his path ; and so he walks

           " . . . in glory and in joy,

Behind his plough, upon the mountain side I "

We ourselves know, from the best evidence, that up to this date Burns was happy ; nay, that he was the gayest, brightest, most fantastic, fascinating being to be found in the world ; more so even than he ever afterwards appeared. But now, at this early age, he quits the paternal roof; goes forth into looser, louder, more exciting society ; and becomes initiated in those dissipations, those vices, which a certain class of philosophers have asserted to be a natural preparative for entering on active life ; a kind of mud-bath, in which the youth is, as it were, necessitated to steep, and we suppose, cleanse himself before the real toga of Manhood can be laid on him. We shall not dispute much with this class of philosophers ; we hope they are mistaken : for Sin and Remorse so easily beset us at all stages of life, and are always such indifferent company, that it seems hard we should, at any stage, be forced and fated not only to meet but to yield to them, and even serve for a term in their leprous armada. We hope it is not so. Clear we are, at all events, it cannot be the training one receives in this Devil's service, but only our determining to desert from it, that fits us for true manly Action. We become men, not after we have been dissipated, and disappointed in the chase of false pleasure ; but after we have ascertained in any way what impassable barriers hem us in through this life ; how mad it is to hope for contentment to our infinite soul from the gifts of this extremely finite world ; that a man must be sufficient for himself: and that for suffering and enduring there is no remedy but striving and doing. Manhood begins when we have in any way made truce with Necessity ; begins even when we have surrendered to Necessity, as the most part only do ; but begins joyfully and hopefully only when we have reconciled ourselves to Necessity ; and thus, in reality, triumphed over it, and felt that in Necessity we are free. Surely, such lessons as this last, which, in one shape or other, is the grand lesson for every mortal man, are better learned from the lips of a devout mother, in the looks and actions of a devout father, while the heart is yet soft and pliant, than in collision with the sharp adamant of Fate, attracting us to shipwreck us, when the heart is grown hard, and may be broken before it will become contrite. Had Burns continued to learn this, as he was already learning it in his father's cottage, he would have learned it fully, which he never did ; and been saved many a lasting aberration, many a bitter hour and year of remorseful sorrow.

It seems to us another circumstance of fatal import in Burns's history, that at this time too he became involved in the religious quarrels of his district; that he was enlisted and feasted, as the fighting man of the New-Light Priesthood, in their highly unprofitable warfare. At the tables of these free-minded clergy he learned much more than was needful for him. Such liberal ridicule of fanaticism awakened in his mind scruples about Religion itself ; and a whole world of Doubts, which it required quite another set of conjurers than these men to exorcise. We do not say that such an intellect as his could have escaped similar doubts at some period of his history ; or even that he could at a later period have come through them altogether victorious and unharmed : but it seems peculiarly unfortunate that this time, above all others, should have been fixed for the encounter. For now, with principles assailed by evil example from without, by "passions raging like demons " from within, he had little need of sceptical misgivings to whisper treason in the heat of the battle, or to cut off his retreat if he were already defeated. He loses his feeling of innocence ; his mind is at variance with itself; the old divinity no longer presides there ; but wild Desires and wild Repentance alternately oppress him. Ere long, too, he has committed himself before the world ; his character for sobriety, dear to a Scottish peasant as few corrupted worldlings can even conceive, is destroyed in the eyes of men ; and his only refuge consists in trying to disbelieve his guiltiness, and is but a refuge of lies. The blackest desperation now gathers over him, broken only by red lightnings of remorse. The whole fabric of his life is blasted asunder ; for now not only his character, but his personal liberty, is to be lost; men and Fortune are leagued for his hurt ; " hungry Ruin has him in the wind." He sees no escape but the saddest of all 1 exile from his loved country, to a country in every sense inhospitable and abhorrent to him. While the " gloomy night is gathering fast," in mental storm and solitude, as well as in physical, he sings his wild farewell to Scotland :

"Farewell, my friends; farewell, my foes!

My peace with these, ray love with those:

The bursting tears my heart declare;

Adieu, my native banks of Ayr !"

Light breaks suddenly in on him in floods ; but still a false transitory light, and no real sunshine. He is invited to Edinburgh ; hastens thither with anticipating heart ; is welcomed as in a triumph, and with universal blandishment and acclamation ; whatever is wisest, whatever is greatest or loveliest there, gathers round him, to gaze on his face, to show him honour, sympathy, affection. Burns's appearance among the sages and nobles of Edinburgh must be regarded as one of the most singular phenomena in modern Literature; almost like the appearance of some Napoleon among the crowned sovereigns of modern Politics. For it is nowise as " a mockery king" set there by favour, transiently and for a purpose, that he will let himself be treated ; still less is he a mad Rienzi, whose sudden elevation turns his too weak head : but he stands there on his own basis ; cool, unastonished, holding his equal rank from Nature herself; putting forth no claim which there is not strength in him, as well as about him, to vindicate. Mr. Lockhart has some forcible observations on this point :

"It needs no effort of imagination," says he, "to conceive what the sensations of an isolated set of scholars (almost all either clergymen or professors) must have been in the presence of this big-boned, black-browed, brawny stranger, with his great flashing eyes, who having forced his way among them from the plough-tail at a single stride, manifested in the whole strain of his bearing and conversation a most thorough conviction, that in the society of the most eminent men of his nation he was exactly where he was entitled to be ; hardly deigned to flatter them by exhibiting even an occasional symptom of being flattered by their notice; by turns calmly measured himself against the most cultivated understandings of his time in discussion; overpowered the bon-mots of the most celebrated convivialists by broad floods of merriment, impregnated with all the burning life of genius; astounded bosoms habitually enveloped in the thrice-piled folds of social reserve, by compelling them to tremble,— nay, to tremble visibly,—beneath the fearless touch of natural pathos; and all this without indicating the smallest willingness to be ranked among those professional ministers of excitement, who are content to be paid in money and smiles for doing what the spectators and auditors would be ashamed of doing in their own persons, even if they had the power of doing it; and last, and probably worst of all, who was known to be in the habit of enlivening societies which they would have scorned to approach, still more frequently than their own, with eloquence no less magnificent; with wit, in all likelihood still more daring; often enough, as the superiors whom he fronted without alarm might have guessed from the beginning, and had ere long no occasion to guess, with wit pointed at themselves."

 

  


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