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BURNS ONE OF THE TRUE AND GREAT POETS.
“the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspere “ far above him.
“If I would compare him with Shakspere, I must
acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakspere the greater wit. Shakspere was the Homer or • father of our dramatick poets; Jonson was the Virgil, “the pattern of elaborate writing. I admire him; but “ I love Shakspere.”
Dryden's ample tribute to the genius of Shakspere was paid at a time when the general taste was so perverse and depraved, as to give undue preference to far inferior authorship. It is now fully accepted as a just eulogy of his transcendant talents and established fame. And those who have read and appreciated Burns will recognise in him some of the best qualities of those true poets, of whom Shakspere is chief, and of whom it may be said, as his great compeer, Milton, hoped, regarding himself, “ that he might perhaps leave some“thing so written to aftertimes, as they should not “willingly let die.” There is no doubt of that now, as regards the best poetry of Burns, and we may hope that the same disposition will prevail with a very remote posterity. Such poems of his as had their origin and their first celebrity in transient, religious, and political controversies will be less and less regarded as years roll on; but those which embody his purest, noblest, and best thoughts, struck off with nature's fire, and that touch all hearts, will survive the changes of time, the vicissitudes of taste, and those caprices of fashion, which may occasion the temporary neglect even of a Shakspere.
The lapse of nearly a century has produced very great social changes in these islands, and they proceed at a rapid pace. We are daily becoming less insular, and more cosmopolitan. Steam travelling by sea and land, the increased facilities of the Post Office and the telegraphs, and the multitudinous publications of the daily and periodical press, with the incessant activity of
EFFECT OF SOCIAL PROGRESS.
trade and manufactures, assimilate town and country. The cities pour forth their myriads, who banish seclusion, and people former solitudes with workers in manufactories and mines, and the railways convey excursionists all over the kingdom. In 1816, Í visited Loch Katrine and the Trosachs, when there was but a small hotel with a few beds, generally sufficient for the occasional visitors attracted to the scene by the recent publication of Scott's “Lady of the Lake.” My second visit, after a long interval, was in company with the accomplished author of “The Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers ” and his sisters, before Ayton had attained the rank of Professor of Rhetoric and belles lettres in the University of Edinburgh. He amused himself and us by describing a conversation he had with a simple, superstitious Highlander, who had seen a dark, strange-looking man “making music “wi' a chest, and he had a wee hairy-looking laddie.” “Did you speak to the wee laddie ? “No, he didna “look canny. I said naething to him, and he said “naething to me.” In short, the rare sight, at that time in those parts, of an Italian and his monkey, dressed like a boy, was awfully mysterious to the Highlander, who doubtless fancied the monkey to be such an elf as Scott has described. The small hotel was then overcrowded. On my third visit, in August, 1869, there was a large hotel, with between one and two hundred visitors, and among them Longfellow, the American poet, eminent and admired in our country as much as in his own. After dinner, while I sat before the hotel, in the open air, watching the sun's declining rays gilding the summits of Ben Ann and Benvenue, and casting dreamy shadows along their rugged sides, the poet placed himself beside me. Some of his first sentences were about mountain climbing, which he left to his children now. Had they come later, some reference to him who had so well taught young ambition to climb moral and poetic heights in “Excelsior," would have been irresistible. He rapidly passed to the beautiful scenery before us, and to the poet whose genius had brought so many visitors from all lands as to banish the
LONGFELLOW AT THE TROSACHS.
charming solitude that inspired his muse, so that it was difficult to realise it and the story of Fitz James and Roderick Dhu, amid a promiscuous wandering crowd. After Scott, he discussed Wilson, and finding that I had often seen those distinguished men, had many questions to ask concerning them; and doubtless in such pleasant talk, and about other poets—as Burns--and other things, the evening shades would have closed around us. But we were interrupted by a self-introduced Glasgow gentleman, who broke in abruptly upon our discourse, and managed to break it off for ever.
A copy of the London Times, of 3rd October, 1798, published about two years after the death of Burns, is a single sheet of large foolscap, with only six columns of advertisements. It contains the official_despatches relating to Lord Nelson's victory over the French fleet, at the mouth of the Nile, two months after it took place; news of the Irish Rebellion; one column of Law Report; advertisements of one birth, one marriage, and two deaths; price of the paper, sixpence.
As the leading journal of to-day is to the Times news.paper at the close of the last century, such, comparatively, we may roughly estimate to have been our progress during that time, throughout the country, in our knowledge of what is passing in the world around us, and in many other respects.
Under these influences the state of society in which we live, its manners and customs and characters are very different from those which Burns described, and they are still changing. It is difficult to forecast the future, and to imagine what Lord Lytton intended by his fanciful description of that Coming Race, whom he supposed to dwell in a subterranean region, in artificial light, the women volatile, who not only could fly about with their wings, but could reduce man or monster, friend or foe, to coke or cinder, with the unerring shot of a mysterious rifle.
But, without expecting anything so extraordinary, it would seem that the permanent celebrity of Burns as a poet is less likely to suffer from his dialect, than from
EFFECT OF SOCIAL CHANGES ON POETRY.
progressive changes in the habits and the manners of the people.
“Halloween” is a vivid picture of superstitious observances, practised at the time he wrote the poem, but they have nearly all ceased, together with the simple credulity which formerly made them attractive to the Scottish peasantry.* The grave abuses which he censured in "The Holy Fair" have happily disappeared, so that its merited satire is no longer necessary. Habits of sobriety and temperance being universal among gentlemen, while the discouragement of drunkenness in the working classes is the wish and endeavour of all who desire their welfare; bacchanalian songs are now out of place.
Love, and the fair and gentle sex, inspired some of his most esteemed poetry; but his tenderest lyrics on that theme would scarcely be appropriate to some ladies, who compete with men in the professions, in politics, in field sports, and other masculine occupations and amusements. I say nothing with regard to the propriety and utility of such arrangements, but only that they were not characteristic of the admired models of Burns.
The highways are overrun with bicycles, a modern and doubtless useful substitute for horses, which men have hitherto had all to themselves. The ladies are more pleasantly, safely, and gracefully mounted on their welltrained palfreys; and, it is to be hoped, they will never change them for any modification of the bicycle, even if it should be constructed with side saddles and pedals. Don Quixote on Rosinante, however grotesque and grim, had something chivalrous about him. But the knights errant we so often meet on their rotatory engines suggest, nothing knightly but rather by the peculiar motion of their limbs, and the solemn gravity of the performance, the remainder of a penal sentence, to be completed in the open air, under ticket of leave.
*“Halloween a descriptive poem, perhaps even more exquisitely wrought than the “Holy Fair” and containing nothing that could offend the feelings of anybody.”—Lockhart.
BEST POETRY WILL ENDURE.
Manifold changes, discoveries, and improvements, during the last century, have added to our knowledge, power, and prosperity, our advancement in science, arts, and manufactures, and, it is to be hoped, have tended to make us wiser and better. For these great national benefits we must be content to surrender some of the pleasing illusions of fiction. But it may be safely predicted that Burns, in virtue of the intrinsic excellence of his best compositions, founded in nature and in truth, will long retain his high rank among British Poets.