« PreviousContinue »
Ye aiblins might-I dinna ken
Still hae a stake;
Even for your sake!
The · Jolly Beggars' is another strikingly original production. It is the most dramatic of his works, and the characters are all finely sustained. Currie has been blamed by Sir Walter Scott and others for over-fastidiousness in not admitting that humorous cantata into his edition, but we do not believe that Currie ever saw the 'Jolly Beg. gars.' The poem was not published till 1801, and was then printed from the only copy known to exist in the poet's handwriting. Of the Cotter's Saturday Night, the ‘Mountain Daisy,' or the Mouse's Nest,' it would be idle to attempt any eulogy. In these Burns is seen in his fairest colours-not with all his strength, but in his happiest and most heart-felt inspiration--his brightest sunshine and his tenderest tears. The workmanship of these leading poems is equal to the value of the materials. The peculiar dialect of Burns being a composite of Scotch and English, which he varied at will—the Scotch being generally reserved for the comic and tender, and the English for the serious and lofty—his diction is remarkably rich and copious. No poet is more picturesque in expression. This was the result equally of accurate observation, careful study, and strong feeling. His energy and truth stamp the highest value on his writings. He is as literal as Cowper. The banks of the Doon are described as faithfully as those of the Oyse; and his views of human life and manners are as real and as finely moralised. His range of subjects, however, was infinitely more diversified, including a varied and romantic landscape, the customs and superstitions of his country, the delights of goodfellowship and boon society, the aspirations of youthful ambition, and, above all, the emotions of love, which he depicted with such mingled fervour and delicacy. This ecstacy of passion was unknown to the author of the ‘Task.' Nor could the latter have conceived any. thing so truly poetical as the image of Coila; the tutelar genius and inspirer of the peasant youth in his clay-built hut, where his heart and fancy overflowed with love and poetry, Cowper read and appreciated Burns, and we can picture his astonishment and delight on perusing such strains as Coila's address :
Extract from the · Vision.' • With future hope I oft would gaze,
Drove through the sky, Fond, on thy little early ways,
I saw grim nature's visage hoar
Strike thy young eye.
"Or when the deep green-mantled earth Of other times.
Warm cherished every flow'ret's birth,.
And joy and music pouring forth I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
In every grove, Delighted with the dashing roar;
I saw thee eye the general mirth Or when the north his fleecy storo
With boundless love.
• When ripened fields and azure skies,
With Shenstone's art;
Warm on the heart.
Yet, all beneath the unrivalled rose,
The lowly daisy sweetly blows;
Though large the forest's monarch throws "When youthful love, warm-blushing,
His arıny shade, strong,
Yet green the juicy hawthorn grows, Keen-shivering shot thy nerves along,
Adown the glade.
* Then never murinur nor repine ; I taugbt thee how to pour in song, Strive in thy humble sphere to shine; To soothe thy flame.
And, trust me, not Potosi's mine,
Nor king's regard,
A rustic bard.
"To give my counsels all in one But yet the light that led astray,
Thy tuneful flame still careful fan;
Preserve the dignity of man,
With soul erect;
Will all protect.
"And wear thou this '—she solemn said, And some, the pride of Coila's plains, And bound the holly round my head : Become thy friends.
The polished leaves, and berries red,
Did rustling play ; Thou canst not learn, nor can I shew, And, like a passing thought, she fled To paint with Thomson's landscape glow;
In light away. Or wake the bosom-melting throe, Burns never could have improved upon the grace and tenderness of this romantic vision—the finest revelation ever made of the hope and ambition of a youthful poet. Greater strength, however, he undoubtedly acquired with the experience of manhood. His “Tam o' Shanter,' and 'Bruce's Address,' are the result of matured powers; and his songs evince a conscious mastery of the art and materials of composition. His · Vision of Liberty' at Lincluden is a great and splendid fragment. The reflective spirit evinced in his early epistles is found, in his 'Lines written in Friars' Carse Hermitage,' to have settled into a vein of moral philosophy, clear and true as the lines of Swift, and informed with a higher wisdom. It cannot be said that Burns absolutely fails in any kind of composition, except in his epigrams; these are coarse without being pointed or entertaining; Nature, which had lavished on him such powers of humour denied him wit.
In reviewing the intellectual career of the poet, his correspondence must not be overlooked. His prose style was more ambitious than that of his poetry. In the latter he followed the dictates of nature, warm from the heart, whereas in his letters he aimed at being sentimental, peculiar, and striking; and simplicity was sometimes sacrificed for effect. As Johnson considered conversation to be an intellectual arena, wherein every man was bound to do his best, Burns seems to have regarded letter-writing in much the same light, and to have considered it necessary at times to display all his acquisitions to amuse, gratify, or astonish his admiring correspondents. Considerable deductions must, therefore, be made from his published correspondence, whether regarded as an index_to his feelings and situation, or as models of the epistolary style. In subject, he adapted himself too much to the character and tastes of the person he was addressing, and in style he was led away by a love of display. A tinge of pedantry and assumption, or of reckless bravado, was thus at times superinduced upon the manly and thoughtful simplicity of his natural character, which sits as awkwardly upon it as the intrusion of Jove or Danae into the rural songs of Allan Ramsay.* Burns's letters, however, are valuable as memorials of his temperament and genius. He was often distinct, forcible, and happy in expression-rich in sallies of imagination
and poetical fecling-at times deeply pathetic and impressive. He lifts the veil from the miseries of his latter days with a hand struggling betwixt pride and a broken spirit. His autobiography, addressed to Dr. Moore, written when his mind was salient and vigorous, is as remarkable for its
* The scraps of French in his letters to Dr. Moore, Mrs. Riddel, &c., have an unpleasant effect. . If he had an affectation in anything,' says Dugald Stewart, 'it was in introducing occasionally [in conversation] a word or phrase from that language.'. Campbell makes a similar statement, and relates the following anecdote: One of his friends, who carried him into the company of a French lady, remarked, with surprise, that he attempted to converse with her in her own tongue. Their French, however, was mutually unintelligible. As far as Burns could make himself understood, he unfortunately offended the foreign lady. He meant to tell her that she was a charming person, and delightful in conversation, but expressed himself so as to appear to her to mean that she was fond of speaking: to which the Gallic dame indignantly replied, that it was quite as common for poets to be impertinent as for women to be loquacious. The friend who introduced Burns on this occasion (and who herself related the anecdote to Mr. Campbell) was Miss Margaret Chalmers, afterwards Mrs. Lewis Hay, who died in 1843. The wonder is, that the dissipated aristocracy of the Caledonian Hunt, and the buckish tradesmen of Edinburgh,' left any part of the original plainness and simplicity of his manners. Yet his learned friends saw no change in the proud self-sustained and selfmeasuring poet. He kept his ground, and he asked no more.
“A somewhat clearer knowledge of men's affairs, scarcely of their characters,' says the quaint but true and searching Thomas Carlyle, “this winter in Edinburgh did afford him; but a sharper feeling of Fortune's un qual arrangements in their
social destiny it also left with him. He had seen the gay and gorgeous arena, in which the powerful are born to play their parts; nay, had himself stood in the midst of it; and he felt more bitterly than ever that here he was but a looker-on, and had no part or lot in that splendid game. From this time a jealous indignant fear of social degradation takes possession of him; and perverts, so far as aught could pervert, his private contentment, and his feelings towards his richer fellows. It was clear to Burns that he had talent enough to make a fortune, or a hundred fortunes, could he but have rightly willed this. It was clear also that he willed something far different, and therefore could not make one. Unhappy it was that he had pot power to choose the one and reject the other, but must halt forever between two opinions, two objects; making hampered advancement towards either. But so it is with many men; "we long for the merchandise, yet would fain keep the price;" and so stand chaffering with Fate, in vexatious altercation, till the night come, and our fair is over!
literary talent as for its modest independence and clear judgment; and the letters to Mrs. Dunlop-in whom he had entire confidence, and whose lady-like manners and high principle rebuked his wilder spirit-are all characterised by sincerity and elegance. One beautiful letter to this lady we are tempted to copy; it is poetical in the highest degree, and touches with exquisite taste on the mysterious union between external nature and the sympathies and emotions of the human frame :
ELLISLAND, New-year-day Morning, 1789. This, dear madam, is a morning of wishes, and would to God that I came under the apostle James's description !-the prayer of a righteous man availeth much. In that case, madam, you should welcome in a year full of blessings; everything that obstructs or disturbs tranquillity and self-enjoyment should be removed, and every pleasure that frail humanity can taste should be yours. I own myself so little a Presbyterian, that I approve of set times and seasons of more than ordinary acts of devotion, for breaking in on that habituted routine of life and thought which is so apt to reduce our existence to a kind of instinct, or even sometimes, and with some minds, to a state very little better than mere machinery.
This day, the first Sunday of May, a breezy, blue-skied noon some time about the beginning, and a hoary morning and calm sunny day about the end of autumn; these, time out of mind, have been with me a kind of holiday.
I believe I owe this to that glorious paper in the 'Spectator-the Vision of Mirzaa piece that struck my young
fancy before I was capable of fixing an idea to a word of three syllables ; On the 5th day of the moon, which, according to the custom of my forefathers, I always keep holy, after having washed myself, and offered up my morning devotions, I ascended the high hill of Bagdat, in order to pass the rest of the day in meditation and prayer.'
We know nothing, or next to nothing, of the substance or structure of our souls, so cannot account for those seeming caprices in them, that one should be particularly pleased with this thing, or struck with that, which on minds of a different cast, makes no extraordinary impression. I have some favourite flowers in spring, among which are the mountain daisy, the harebell, the foxglove, the wild-brier rose, the budding birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang, over with particular delight. I never hear the loud, solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of gray, plovers in an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, which, like the Æolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod? I own myself partial to such proofs of those awful and important realities--a God that made all things, man's immaterial and immortal nature, and a world of weai or woe beyond death and the grave
In another of his letters we have this striking autobiographical fragment:
I have been this morning taking a peep through, as Young finely says, the dark postern of time long elapsed;' and you will easily guess 'twas a rueful prospect: what a tiệsue of thoughtlessness, weakness, and folly! My life reminded me of a ruined temple; what strength, what proportion in some parts ! what unsightly gaps, what prostrate ruins in others! I kneeled down before the Father of Mercies, and said: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.'. I rose eased and strengthened. I despise the superstition of a fanatic, but I love the religion of a man.
And again in a similar strain:
There is scarcely any earthly object gives me more-I do not know if I should call it pleasure--but sonething which exalts me, something which enraptures me—than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood or high plantation in a cloudy winter-day, and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees, and raving over the plain! It is my best season for devotion : my mind is wrapped up in a kind of enthusiasm to Him, who, in the pompous language of the Hebrew bard, .walks on the wings of the wind.'
To the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, Burns seems to have clung with fond tenacity; it survived the wreck or confusion of his early impressions, and formed the strongest and most soothing of his beliefs. In other respects his creed was chiefly practical. Whatever mitigates the woes, or increases the happiness of others,' he says, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.' The same feeling he had expressed in one of his early poems:
But deep this truth impressed my mind,
Through all his works abroad,
The most resembles God. Conjectures have been idly formed as to the probable effect which education would have had on the mind of Burns. We may as well speculate on the change which might be wrought by the engineer, the planter, and agriculturist, in assimilating the wild scenery of Scotland to that of England. Who would wish-if it were possible—by successive graftings, to make the birch or the pine approximate to the oak or the elm? Nature is various in all her works, and has diversified genius as much as she has done her plants and trees. In Burns we have a genuine Scottish poet; why should we wish to mar the beautiful order and variety of nature by making him a Dryden or a Gray? Education could not have improved Burns's songs, his * Tam o' Shanter,' or any other of his great poems.
never have written them but for his situation and feelings as a peasantand could he have written anything better? The whole of that world of passion and beauty which he has laid open to us might have been hid for ever; and the genius which was so well and worthily employed in embellishing rustic life, and adding new interest and glory to his country, would only have placed him in the long procession of English poets, stripped of his originality, and bearing, though proudly, the ensign of conquest and submission
From the Epistle to James Smith. This while my notion's ta'en a sklent Then farewell hopes o' laurel-boughs, To try my fate in guid black prent; To garland my poetic brows! But still the mair I'm that way bent, Henceforth I'll rove where busy ploughs Something cries . Hoolie!
Are whistling thrang, I red you, honest man, tak tent!
An' teach the lanely heights an' howes Ye'll shaw your folly.
My rustic sang,
Then, all unknown,
I'll lay me with the inglorious dead,
Forgot and gone!