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

 

 

THOMAS CARLYLE'S

ESSAY ON BURNS (1828)

 

Part 7


Contemplating this sad end of Burns, and how he sank unaided by any real help, uncheered by any wise sympathy, generous minds have sometimes figured to themselves, with a reproachful sorrow, that much might have been done for him ; that by counsel, true affection, and friendly ministrations, he might have been saved to himself and the world. We question whether there is not more tenderness of heart than soundness of judgment in these suggestions. It seems dubious to us whether the richest, wisest, most benevolent individual could have lent Burns any effectual help. Counsel, which seldom profits any one, he did not need ; in his understanding, he knew the right from the wrong as well, perhaps, as any man ever did ; but the persuasion which would have availed him lies not so much in the head as in the heart, where no argument or expostulation could have assisted much to implant it. As to money, again, we do not believe that this was his essential want ; or well see how any private man could, even presupposing Burns's consent, have bestowed on him an independent fortune with much prospect of decisive advantage. It is a mortifying truth, that two men in any rank of society could hardly be found virtuous enough to give money, and to take it as a necessary gift, without injury to the moral entireness of one or both. But so stands the fact : Friendship, in the old heroic sense of that term, no longer exists ; except in the cases of kindred or other legal affinity, it is in reality no longer expected or recognised as a virtue among men. A close observer of manners has pro¬nounced " Patronage," that is, pecuniary or other economic futherance, to be "twice cursed ;" cursing him that gives and him that takes ! And thus, in regard to outward matters also, it has become the rule, as in regard to inward it always was and must be the rule, that no one shall look for effectual help to another; but that each shall rest contented with what help he can afford himself. Such, we say, is the principle of modern Honour ; naturally enough, growing out of that sentiment of Pride which we inculcate and encourage as the basis of our whole social morality. Many a poet has been poorer than Burns, but no one was ever prouder ; we may question whether, without great precautions, even a pension from Royalty would not have galled and encumbered more than actually assisted him. Still less, therefore, are we disposed to join with another class of Burns's admirers, who accuse the higher ranks among us of having ruined Burns by their selfish neglect of him. We have already stated our doubts whether direct pecuniary help, had it been offered, would have been accepted, or could have proved very effectual. We shall readily admit, however, that much was to be done for Burns ; that many a poisoned arrow might have been warded from his bosom ; many an entanglement in his path cut asunder by the hand of the powerful ; and light and heat, shed on him from high places, would have made his humble atmosphere more genial ; and the softest heart then breathing might have lived and died with some fewer pangs. Nay, we shall grant farther, and for Burns it is granting much, that, with all his pride, he would have thanked, even with exaggerated gratitude, any one who had cordially befriended him ; patronage, unless once cursed, needed not to have been twice so. At all events, the poor promotion he desired in his calling might have been granted : it was his own scheme, therefore likelier than any other to be of service. All this it might have been a luxury, nay, it was a duty, for our nobility to have done. No part of all this, however, did any of them do ; or apparently attempt, or wish to do : so much is granted against them. But what then is the amount of their blame ? Simply that they were men of the world, and walked by the principles of such men ; that they treated Burns as other nobles and other commoners had done other poets ; as the English did Shakspeare ; as King Charles and his Cavaliers did Butler ; as King Philip and his Grandees did Cervantes. Do men gather grapes of thorns 1 or shall we cut down our thorns for yielding only a fence and haws ? How, indeed, could the " nobility and gentry of his native land " hold out any help to this " Scottish Bard, proud of his name and country"? Were the nobility and gentry so much as able rightly to help themselves ? Had they not their game to preserve, their borough interests to strengthen, dinners, therefore, of various kinds to eat and give ? Were their means more than adequate to all tills business, or less than adequate ? Less than adequate, in general; few of them in reality were richer than Burns; many of them were poorer; for sometimes they had to wring their supplies, as with thumb-screws, from the hard hand; and, in their need of guineas, to forget their duty of mercy, which Burns was never reduced to do. Let us pity and forgive them. The game they preserved and shot, the dinners they ate and gave, the borough interests they strengthened, the little Babylons they severally builded by the glory of their might, are all melted or melting back into the primeval Chaos, as man's merely selfish endeavours are fated to do ; and here was an action, extending, in virtue of its worldly influence, we may say, through all time; in virtue of its moral nature, beyond all time, being immortal as the Spirit of Goodness itself; this action was offered them to do, and light was not given them to do it. Let us pity and forgive them. But better than pity, let us go and do otherwise. Human suffering did not end with the life of Burns; neither was the solemn mandate, " Love one another, bear one another's burdens," given to the rich only, but to all men. True, we shall find no Burns to relieve, to assuage by our aid or our pity; but celestial natures, groaning under the fardels of a weary life, we shall still find; and that wretchedness which Fate has rendered voiceless and tuneless is not the least wretched, but the most.

Still, we do not think that the blame of Burns's failure lies chiefly with the world. The world, it seems to us, treated him with more rather than with less kindness than it usually shows to such men. It has ever, we fear, shown but small favour to its Teachers: hunger and nakedness, perils and reviling, the prison, the cross, the poison-chalice have, in most times and countries, been the market-price it has offered for Wisdom, the welcome with which it has greeted those who have come to enlighten and purify it. Homer and Socrates, and the Christian Apostles, belong to old days; but the world's Martyrology was not completed with these. Roger Bacon and Galileo languish in priestly dungeons; Tasso pines in the cell of a madhouse; Camoens dies begging on the streets of Lisbon. So neglected, so " persecuted they the Prophets," not in Judea only, but in all places where men have been. We reckon that every poet of Burns's order is, or should be, a prophet and teacher to his age; that he has no right to expect great kindness from it, but rather is bound to do it great kindness; that Burns, in particular, experienced fully the usual proportion of the world's goodness; and that the blame of his failure, as we have said, lies not chiefly with the world.

Where, then, does it lie f We are forced to answer : With himself; it is his inward, not his outward, misfortunes that bring him to the dust. Seldom, indeed, is it otherwise ; seldom is a life morally wrecked but the grand cause lies in some internal mal-arrangement, some want less of good fortune than of good guidance. Nature fashions no creature without implanting in it the strength needful for its action and duration ; least of all does she so neglect her masterpiece and darling, the poetic soul. Neither can we believe that it is in the power of any external circumstances utterly to ruin the mind of a man ; nay, if proper wisdom be given him, even so much as to affect its essential health and beauty. The sternest sum-total of all worldly misfortunes is Death ; nothing more can lie in the cup of human woe : yet many men, in all ages, have triumphed over Death, and led it captive, converting its physical victory into a moral victory for themselves, into a seal and immortal consecration for all that their past life had achieved. What has been done, may be done again : nay, it is but the degree, and not the kind of such heroism that differs in different seasons ; for without some portion of this spirit, not of boisterous daring, but of silent fearlessness, of Self-denial in all its forms, no good man, in any scene or time, has ever attained to be good.

We have already stated the error of Burns, and mourned over it, rather than blamed it. It was the want of unity in his purposes, of consistency in his aims ; the hapless attempt to mingle in friendly union the common spirit of the world with the spirit of poetry, which is of a far different and altogether irreconcilable nature. Burns was nothing wholly, and Burns could be nothing, no man formed as he was can be anything, by halves. The heart, not of a mere hot-blooded, popular Versemonger, or poetical Restaurateur, but of a true Poet and Singer, worthy of the old religious heroic times, had been given him : and he fell in an age, not of heroism and religion, but of scepticism, selfishness, and triviality, when true Nobleness was little understood, and its place supplied by a hollow, dissocial, altogether barren and unfruitful principle of Pride. The influences of that age, his open, kind, susceptible nature, to say nothing of his highly untoward situation, made it more than usually difficult for him to cast aside, or rightly subordinate ; the better spirit that was within him ever sternly demanded its rights, its supremacy : he spent his life in endeavouring to reconcile these two; and lost it, as he must lose it, without reconciling them.

Burns was born poor, and born also to continue poor, for he would not endeavour to be otherwise : this it had been well could he have once for all admitted, and considered as finally settled. He was poor, truly ; but hundreds even of his own class and order of minds have been poorer, yet have suffered nothing deadly from it: nay, his own Father had a far sorer battle with ungrateful destiny than his was ; and he did not yield to it, but died courageously warring, and to all moral intents prevailing, against it. True, Burns had little means, had even little time for poetry, his only real pursuit and vocation ; but so much the more precious was what little he had. In all these external respects his case was hard, but very far from the hardest. Poverty, incessant drudgery, and much worse evils, it has often been the lot of Poets and wise men to strive with, and their glory to conquer. Locke was banished as a traitor ; and wrote his Essay on the Human Understanding sheltering himself in a Dutch garret. Was Milton rich or at his ease when he composed Paradise Lost ? Not only low, but fallen from a height ; not only poor, but impoverished ; in darkness and with dangers compassed round, he sang his immortal song, and found fit audience, though few. Did not Cervantes finish his work, a maimed soldier and in prison ? Nay, was not the Araucana, which Spain acknowledges as its Epic, written without even the aid of paper ; on scraps of leather, as the stout fighter and voyager snatched any moment from that wild warfare ?

And what, then, had these men, which Burns wanted ? Two things ; both which, it seems to us, are indispensable for such men. They had a true, religious principle of morals ; and a single, not a double aim in their activity. They were not self-seekers and self-worshippers ; but seekers and worshippers of something far better than Self. Not personal enjoyment was their object ; but a high, heroic idea of Religion, of Patriotism, of heavenly Wisdom, in one or the other form, ever hovered before them ; in which cause they neither shrank from suffering, nor called on the earth to witness it as something wonderful; but patiently endured, counting it blessedness enough so to spend and be spent. Thus the "golden-calf of Self-love," however curiously carved, was not their Deity ; but the Invisible Goodness, which alone is man's reasonable service. This feeling was as a celestial fountain, whose streams refreshed into gladness and beauty all the provinces of their otherwise too desolate existence. In a word, they willed one thing, to which all other things were subordinated and made subservient ; and therefore they accomplished it. The wedge will rend rocks ; but its edge must be sharp and single : if it be double, the wedge is bruised in pieces and will rend nothing.

Part of this superiority these men owed to their age ; in which heroism and devotedness were still practised, or at least not yet disbelieved in : but much of it likewise they owed to themselves. With Burns, again, it was different. His morality, in most of its practical points, is that of a mere worldly man ; enjoyment, in a finer or coarser shape, is the only thing he longs and strives for. A noble instinct sometimes raises him above this : but an instinct only, and acting only for moments. He has no Religion ; in the shallow age, where his days were cast, Religion was not discriminated from the New and Old Light forms of Religion ; and was, with these, becoming obsolete in the minds of men. His heart, indeed, is alive with a trembling adoration, but there is no temple in his understanding. He lives in darkness and in the shadow of doubt. His religion, at best, is an anxious wish ; like that of Rabelais, " a great Perhaps."
He loved Poetry warmly, and in his heart ; could he but have loved it purely, and with his whole undivided heart, it had been well. For Poetry, as Burns could have followed it, is but another form of Wisdom, of Religion ; is itself Wisdom and Religion. But this also was denied him. His poetry is a stray vagrant gleam, which will not be extinguished within him, yet rises not to be the true light of his path, but is often a wildfire that misleads him. It was not necessary for Burns to be rich, to be, or to seem, "independent ;" but it nvas necessary for him to be at one with his own heart ; to place what was highest in his nature highest also in his life ; " to seek within himself for that consistency and sequence, which external events would for ever refuse him." He was born a poet ; poetry was the celestial element of his being, and should have been the soul of his whole endeavours. Lifted into that serene sether, whither he had wings given him to mount, he would have needed no other elevation : poverty, neglect, and all evil, save the desecration of himself and his Art, were a small matter to him ; the pride and the passions of the world lay far beneath his feet ; and he looked down alike on noble and slave, on prince and beggar, and all that wore the stamp of man, with clear recognition, with brotherly affection, with sympathy, with pity. Nay, we question whether for his culture as a Poet poverty and much suffering for a season were not absolutely advantageous. Great men, in looking back over their lives, have testified to that effect. " I would not for much," says Jean Paul, " that I had been born richer." And yet Paul's birth was poor enough ; for, in another place, he adds : "The prisoner's allowance is bread and water ; and I had often only the latter." But the gold that is refined in the hottest furnace comes out the purest; or, as he has himself expressed it, " the canary-bird sings sweeter the longer it has been trained in a darkened cage."

A man like Burns might have divided his hours between poetry and virtuous industry ; industry which all true feeling sanctions, nay, prescribes, and which has a beauty, for that cause, beyond the pomp of thrones : but to divide his hours between poetry and rich men's banquets was an ill-starred and inauspicious attempt. How could he be at ease at such banquets ? What had he to do there, mingling his music with the coarse roar of altogether earthly voices ; brightening the thick smoke of intoxication with fire lent him from heaven ? Was it his aim to enjoy life ? To-morrow he must go drudge as an Exciseman ! We wonder not that Burns became moody, indignant, and, at times, an offender against certain rules of society ; but rather that he did not grow utterly frantic, and run amuck against them all. How could a man, so falsely placed, by his own or others' fault, ever know contentment or peaceable diligence for an hour ? What he did, under such perverse guidance, and what he forbore to do, alike fill us with astonishment at the natural strength and worth of his character.

Doubtless there was a remedy for this perverseness ; but not in others ; only in himself; least of all in simple increase of wealth and worldly " respectability." We hope we have now heard enough about the efficacy of wealth for poetry, and to make poets happy. Nay, have we not seen another instance of it in these very days ? Byron, a man of an endowment considerably less ethereal than that of Burns, is born in the rank not of a Scottish ploughman, but of an English peer : the highest worldly honours, the fairest worldly career, are his by inheritance ; the richest harvest of fame he soon reaps, in another province, by his own hand. And what does all this avail him ? Is he happy, is he good, is he true ? Alas, he has a poet's soul, and strives towards the Infinite and the Eternal ; and soon feels that all this is but mounting to the housetop to reach the stars ! Like Burns, he is only a proud man ; might, like him, have " purchased a pocket-copy of Milton to study the character of Satan ;" for Satan also is Byron's grand exemplar, the hero of his poetry, and the model apparently of his conduct. As in Burns's case, too, the celestial element will not mingle with the clay of earth ; both poet and man of the world he must not be ; vulgar Ambition will not live kindly with poetic Adoration ; he cannot serve God and Mammon. Byron, like Burns, is not happy ; nay, he is the most wretched of all men. His life is falsely arranged : the fire that is in him is not a strong, still, central fire, warming into beauty the products of a world ; but it is the mad fire of a volcano ; and now—we look sadly into the ashes of a crater, which, ere long, will fill itself with snow !

Byron and Burns were sent forth as missionaries to their generation, to teach it a higher Doctrine, a purer Truth ; they had a message to deliver, which left them no rest till it was accomplished ; in dim throes of pain, this divine behest lay smouldering within them ; for they knew not what it meant, and felt it only in mysterious anticipation, and they had to die without articulately uttering it. They are in the camp of the Unconverted ; yet not as high messengers of rigorous though benignant truth, but as soft flattering singers, and in pleasant fellowship will they live there : they are first adulated, then persecuted; they accomplish little for others; they find no peace for themselves, but only death and the peace of the grave. We confess, it is not without a certain mournful awe that we view the fate of these noble souls, so richly gifted, yet ruined to so little purpose with all their gifts. It seems to us there is a stern moral taught in this piece of history—twice told us in our own time ! Surely to men of like genius, if there be any such, It carries with it a lesson of deep impressive significance. Surely it would become such a man, furnished for the highest of all enterprises, that of being the Poet of his Age, to consider well what it is that he attempts, and in what spirit he attempts it. For the words of Milton are true in all times, and were never truer than in this: " He who would write heroic poems must make his whole life a heroic poem." If he cannot first so make his life, then let him hasten from this arena; for neither its lofty glories, nor its fearful perils, are fit for him. Let him dwindle into a modish balladmonger ; let him worship and besing the idols of the time, and the time will not fail to reward him. If, indeed, he can endure to live in that capacity ! Byron and Burns could not live as idol-priests, but the fire of their own hearts consumed them; and better it was for them that they could not. For it is not in the favour of the great or of the small, but in a life of truth, and in the inexpugnable citadel of his own soul, that a Byron's or a Burns's strength must lie. Let the great stand aloof from him, or know how to reverence him. Beautiful is the union of wealth with favour and furtherance for literature; like the costliest flower-jar enclosing the loveliest amaranth. Yet let not the relation be mistaken. A true poet is not one whom they can hire by money or flattery to be a minister of their pleasures, their writer of occasional verses, their purveyor of table-wit; he cannot be their menial, he cannot even be their partisan. At the peril of both parties, let no such union be attempted ! Will a Courser of the Sun work softly in the harness of a Dray-horse ? His hoofs are of fire, and his path is through the heavens, bringing light to all lands; will he lumber on mud highways, dragging ale for earthly appetites from door to door f

But we must stop short in these considerations, which would lead us to boundless lengths. We had something to say on the public moral character of Burns; but this also we must forbear. We are far from regarding him as guilty before the world, as guiltier than the average; nay, from doubting that he is less guilty than one of ten thousand. Tried at a tribunal far more rigid than that where the Plebiscita of common civic reputations are pronounced, he has seemed to us even there less worthy of blame than of pity and wonder. But the world is habitually unjust in its judgments of such men; unjust on many grounds, of which this one may be stated as the substance : It decides, like a court of law, by dead statutes ; and not positively, but negatively, less on what is done right, than on what is or is not done wrong. Not the few inches of deflection from the mathematical orbit, which are so easily measured, but the ratio of these to the whole diameter, constitutes the real aberration. This orbit may be a planet's, its diameter the breadth of the solar system ; or it may be a city hippodrome ; nay, the circle of a ginhorse, its diameter a score of feet or paces. But the inches of deflection only are measured : and it is assumed that the diameter of the ginhorse, and that of the planet, will yield the same ratio when compared with them ! Here lies the root of many a blind, cruel condemnation of Burnses, Swifts, Rousseaus, which one never listens to with approval. Granted, the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged ; the pilot is blameworthy ; he has not been all-wise and all-powerful : but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe, or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.

With our readers in general, with men of right feeling anywhere, we are not required to plead for Burns. In pitying admiration he lies enshrined in all our hearts, in a far nobler mausoleum than that one of marble ; neither will his Works, even as they are, pass away from the memory of men. While the Shakspeares and Miltons roll on like mighty rivers through the country of Thought, bearing fleets of traffickers and assiduous pearl-fishers on their waves ; this little Valclusa Fountain will also arrest our eye : for this also is of Nature's own and most cunning workmanship, bursts from the depths of the earth, with a full gushing current, into the light of day ; and often will the traveller turn aside to drink of its clear waters, and muse among its rocks and pines !

 

  


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