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EDINBURGH REVIEW,

JANUARY 1809.

1' No. XXVI.

ART. I. Reliques of Robert Burns, consisting chiefly of Original

Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scotish Songs. Collected and published by R. H. Cromek. 8vo. pp. 450. London. 1809.

Burns is certainly by far the greatest of our poetical prodigies-D from Stephen Duck down to Thomas Dermody. They are forgotten already; or only remembered for derision. But the name of Burns, if we are not mistaken, has not yet gathered all its fame;' and will endure long after those circumstances are forgotten which contributed to its first notoriety. So much indeed are we impressed with a sense of his merits, that we cannot help thinking it a derogation from them to consider him as a prodigy at all ; and are convinced that he will never be rightly estimated as a poet, till that vulgar wonder be entirely repressed which was raised on his having been a ploughman. It is true, no doubt, that he was born in an humble station, and that muclı of his early life was devoted to severe labour, and to the society of his fellow-labourers. But he was not himself either wneducated or illiterate; and was placed perhaps in a situation more favourable to the development of great poetical talents, than any other which could have been assigned him. He was taught, at a very early age, to read and write ; and soon after acquired a competent knowledge of French, together with the elements of Latin and Geometry. His taste for reading was encouraged by his parents and many of his associates; and, before he had ever composed a single stanza, he was not only familiar with many prose writers, but far more intimately acquainted with Pope, Shakespeare and Thomson, than nine tenths of the youth that leave school for the university. These authors, indeed, with some old collections of songs, and the lives of Hannibal and of Sir WilVOL. XIII. NO. 26.

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press originality, and discourage enterprize; and either to change those whom nature meant for poets, into mere readers of poetry, or to bring them out in the form of witty parodists, or ingenious imitators. Independent of the reasons which have been already suggested, it will perhaps be found too, that necessity is the mother of invention in this as well as in the more vulgar arts; or, at least, that inventive genius will frequently slumber in inaction, where preceding ingenuity has in part supplied the wants of the owner. A solitary and uninstructed man, with lively feelings and an inflammable imagination, will be easily led to exercise those gifts, and to occupy and relieve his mind in poetical composition ; but if his education, his reading and his society supply him with an abundant store of images and emotions, he will probably think but little of these internal resources, and feed his mind contentedly with what has been provided by the industry of others.

Setia To say nothing, therefore, of the distractions and the dissipation of mind that belong to the commerce of the world, nor of the cares of minute accuracy and high finishing which are imposed on the professed scholar, there seem to be deeper reasons for the separation of originality and accomplishment; and for the partiality which has led poetry to choose almost all her favourites among the recluse and uninstructed. A youth of quick parts, in short, and creative fancy,with just so much reading as to guide his ámbition, and rough hew his notions of excellence, if his lot be thrown in humble retirement, where he has no reputation to lose, and where he can easily hope to excel all that he sees around him, is much more likely, we think, to give himself up to poetry, and to train himself to habits of invention, than if he had been encumbered by the pretended helps of extended study and literary society.

If these observations should fail to strike of themselves, they may perhaps derive additional weight from considering the very remarkable fact, that almost all the great poets of every country have appeared in an early stage of their history, and in a period comparatively rude and unlettered. Homer went forth like the morning star before the dawn of literature in Greece; and almost all the great and sublime poets of modern Europe are already between two and three hundred years old. Since that time, al. though books and readers, and opportunities of reading, are multiplied a thousand fold, we have improved chiefly in point and terseness of expression, in the art of raillery, and in clearness and simplicity of thought. Force, richness and variety of invention, are now at least as rare as ever. But the literature and refinement of the age does not exist at all for a rustic and illiterate

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