« PreviousContinue »
CRITICAL AND IMAGINATIVE.
THE GENIUS AND CHARACTER OF BURNS.
BURNS is by far the greatest poet that ever sprung from the bosom of the people, and lived and died in a humble condition. Indeed, no country in the world but Scotland could have produced such a man; and he will be for ever regarded as the glorious representative of the genius of his country. He was born a poet, if ever man was, and to his native genius alone is owing the perpetuity of his fame. For he manifestly had never very deeply studied poetry as an art, nor reasoned much about its principles, nor looked abroad with the wide ken of intellect for objects and subjects on which to pour out his inspiration. The condition of the peasantry of Scotland, the happiest, perhaps, that Providence ever allowed to the children of labour, was not surveyed and speculated on by him as the field of poetry, but as the field of his own existence; and he chronicled the events that passed there, not merely as food for his imagination as a poet, but as food for his heart as a man. Hence, when inspired to compose poetry, poetry came gushing up from the well of his human affections, and he had nothing more to do than to pour it, like streams irrigating a meadow, in many a cheerful tide over the drooping flowers and fading verdure of life. Imbued with vivid perceptions, warm feelings, and strong
passions, he sent his own existence into that of all things, animate and inanimate, around him; and not an occurrence in hamlet, village, or town, affecting in any way the happiness of the human heart, but roused as keen an interest in the soul of Burns, and as genial a sympathy, as if it had immediately concerned himself and his own individual welfare. Most other poets of rural life have looked on it through the aerial veil of imagination-often beautified, no doubt, by such partial concealment, and beaming with a misty softness more delicate than the truth. But Burns would not thus indulge his fancy where he had felt-felt so poignantly, all the agonies and all the transports of life. He looked around him, and when he saw the smoke of the cottage rising up quietly and unbroken to heaven, he knew, for he had seen and blessed it, the quiet joy and unbroken contentment that slept below and when he saw it driven and dispersed by the winds, he knew also but too well, for too sorely had he felt them, those agitations and disturbances which had shook him till he wept on his chaff bed. In reading his poetry, therefore, we know what unsubstantial dreams are all those of the golden age. But bliss beams upon us with a more subduing brightness through the dim melancholy that shrouds lowly life; and when the peasant Burns rises up in his might as Burns the poet, and is seen to derive all that might from the life which at this hour the peasantry of Scotland are leading, our hearts leap within us, because that such is our country, and such the nobility of her children. There is no delusion, no affectation, no exaggeration, no falsehood in the spirit of Burns's poetry. He rejoices like an untamed enthusiast, and he weeps like a prostrate penitent. In joy and in grief the whole man appears: some of his finest effusions were poured out before he left the fields of his childhood, and when he scarcely hoped for other auditors than his own heart, and the simple dwellers of the hamlet. He wrote not to please or surprise others we speak of those first effusions-but in his own creative delight; and even after he had discovered his power to kindle the sparks of nature wherever they slumbered, the effect to be produced seldom seems to have been considered by him, assured that his poetry could not fail to produce the same passion in the hearts of other men from which it boiled over in his own. Out of himself, and beyond his own nearest
and dearest concerns, he well could, but he did not much love often or long to go. His imagination wanted not wings broad and strong for highest flights. But he was most at home when walking on this earth, through this world, even along the banks and braes of the streams of Coila. It seems as if his muse were loth to admit almost any thought, feeling, image, drawn from any other region than his native district-the hearthstone of his father's hut-the still or troubled chamber of his own generous and passionate bosom. Dear to him the jocund laughter of the reapers on the corn-field, the tears and sighs. which his own strains had won from the children of nature enjoying the mid-day hour of rest beneath the shadow of the hedgerow tree. With what pathetic personal power, from all the circumstances of his character and condition, do many of his humblest lines affect us! Often, too often, as we hear him singing, we think that we see him suffering! "Most musical, most melancholy," he often is, even in his merriment! In him, alas! the transports of inspiration are but too closely allied with reality's kindred agonies! The strings of his lyre sometimes yield their finest music to the sighs of remorse or repentance. Whatever, therefore, be the faults or defects of the poetry of Burns-and no doubt it has manyit has, beyond all that ever was written, this greatest of all merits, intense, life-pervading, and life-breathing truth.
There is probably not a human being come to the years of understanding in all Scotland, who has not heard of the name of Robert Burns. It is, indeed, a household word. His poems are found lying in almost every cottage in the country, on the "window-sole" of the kitchen, spence, or parlour; and in the town-dwellings of the industrious poor, if books belong to the family at all, you are pretty sure to see there the dear Ayrshire Ploughman. The father or mother, born and long bred, perhaps, among banks and braes, possesses, in that small volume, a talisman that awakens in a moment all the sweet visions of the past, and that can crowd the dim abode of hard-working poverty with a world of dear rural remembrances that awaken not repining but contentment.
No poet ever lived more constantly and more intimately in the hearts of a people. With their mirth, or with their melancholy, how often do his "native wood-notes wild" affect the sitters by the ingles of low-roofed homes, till their hearts
overflow with feelings that place them on a level, as moral creatures, with the most enlightened in the land, and more than reconcile them with, make them proud of, the condition assigned them by Providence! There they see with pride the reflection of the character and condition of their own order. That pride is one of the best natural props of poverty; for, supported by it, the poor envy not the rich. They exult to know and to feel that they have had treasures bequeathed to them by one of themselves-treasures of the heart, the intellect, the fancy, and the imagination, of which the possession and the enjoyment are one and the same, as long as they preserve their integrity and their independence. The poor man, as he speaks of Robert Burns, always holds up his head and regards you with an elated look. A tender thought of the "Cottar's Saturday Night," or a bold thought of "Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled," may come across him; and he who in such a spirit loves home and country, by whose side may he not walk an equal in the broad eye of day as it shines over our Scottish hills? This is true popularity. Thus interpreted, the word sounds well, and recovers its ancient meaning. The land "made blithe with plough and harrow,"—the broomy or the heathery braes-the holms by the river's side-the forest where the woodman's ringing axe no more disturbs the cushat -the deep dell where all day long sits solitary plaided boy or girl watching the kine or the sheep-the moorland hut without any garden-the lowland cottage, whose garden glows like a very orchard, when crimsoned with fruit-blossoms most beautiful to behold-the sylvan homestead sending its reek aloft over the huge sycamore that blackens on the hill-sidethe straw-roofed village gathering with small bright crofts its many white gable-ends round and about the modest manse, and the kirk-spire covered with the pine-tree that shadows its horologe―the small, quiet, half-slated half-thatched rural town, -there resides, and will for ever reside, the immortal genius of Burns. Oh, that he, the prevailing Poet, could have seen this light breaking in upon the darkness that did too long and too deeply overshadow his lot! Some glorious glimpses of it his prophetic soul did see; witness "The Vision," or that some. what humbler but yet high strain, in which, bethinking him of the undefined aspirations of his boyhood, he said to himself—
“Even then a wish, I mind its power,
Shall strongly heave my breast,
The rough bur-thistle, spreading wide
I turned the weeder-clips aside,
And spared the symbol dear."
Such hopes were with him in his "bright and shining youth," surrounded as it was with toil and trouble that could not bend his brow from its natural upward inclination to the sky; and such hopes, let us doubt it not, were also with him in his dark and faded prime, when life's lamp burned low indeed, and he was willing at last, early as it was, to shut his eyes on this dearly beloved but sorely distracting world.
With what strong and steady enthusiasm is the anniversary of Burns's birthday celebrated, not only all over his own native land, but in every country to which an adventurous spirit has carried her sons! On such occasions, nationality is a virtue. For what else is the "Memory of Burns," but the memory of all that dignifies and adorns the region that gave him birth? Not till that region is shorn of all its beams-its honesty, its independence, its moral worth, its genius, and its piety, will the name of Burns
"Die on her ear, a faint unheeded sound."
But it has an immortal life in the hearts of young and old, whether sitting at gloaming by the ingle-side, or on the stone seat in the open air, as the sun is going down, or walking among the summer mists on the mountain, or the blinding winter snows. In the life of the poor there is an unchanging and a preserving spirit. The great elementary feelings of human nature there disdain fluctuating fashions; there pain and pleasure are alike permanent in their outward shows as in their inward emotions; there the language of passion never grows obsolete; and at the same passage you hear the child sobbing at the knee of her grandame whose old eyes are somewhat dimmer than usual