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confidence for a series of tales like Tam o'Shanter, which (with the elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson, one of the most highly finished and most precious of his works) was produced in his happy residence at Ellisland. Above two hundred songs
Burns's House, Dumfries.
were, however, thrown off by Burns in his latter years, and they embraced poetry of all kinds. Mr Moore became a writer of lyrics, as he informs his readers, that he might express what music conveyed to himself. Burns had little or no technical knowledge of music. Whatever pleasure he derived from it, was the result of personal associations—the words to which airs were adapted, or the locality with which they were connected. His whole soul, however, was full of the finest harmony. So quick and genial were his sympathies, that he was easily stirred into lyrical melody by whatever was good and beautiful in nature. Not a bird sang in a bush, nor a burn glanced in the sun, but it was eloquence and music to his ear. He fell in love with every fine female face he saw; and thus kindled up, his feelings took the shape of song, and the words fell as naturally into their places as if prompted by the most perfect knowledge of music. The inward melody needed no artificial accompaniment. An attempt at a longer poem would have chilled his ardour; but a song embodying some one leading idea, some burst of passion, love, patriotism, or humour, was exactly suited to the impulsive nature of Burns's genius, and to his situation and circumstances. His command of language and imagery, always the most appropriate, musical, and graceful, was a greater marvel than the creations of a Handel or Mozart. The Scottish poet, however, knew many old airs—still more old ballads; and a few bars of the music, or a line of the words, served as a keynote to his suggestive fancy. He improved nearly all he touched. The arch humour, gaiety, simplicity, and genuine feeling of his original songs, will be felt as long as “rivers roll and woods are green.’ They breathe the natural character and spirit of the country, and must be coeval with it in existence. Wherever the words are chanted, a picture is presented to the mind; and whether the tone be plaintive and sad, or joyous and exciting, one
overpowering feeling takes possession of the imagination. The susceptibility of the poet inspired him with real emotions and passion, and his genius reproduced them with the glowing warmth and truth of nature.
‘Tam o'Shanter’ is usually considered to be Burns's masterpiece: it was so considered by himself, and the judgment has been confirmed by Campbell, Wilson, Montgomery, and almost every critic. It displays more various powers than any of his other productions, beginning with low comic humour and Bacchanalian revelry (the dramatic scene at the commencement is unique, even in Burns), and ranging through the various styles of the descriptive, the terrible, the supernatural, and the ludicrous. The originality of some of the phrases and sentiments, as
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious— O'er a’ the ills of life victorious !
the felicity of some of the similes, and the elastic force and springiness of the versification, must also be considered as aiding in the effect. The poem reads as if it were composed in one transport of inspiration, before the bard had time to cool or to slacken in his fervour; and such we know was actually the case. Next to this inimitable “tale of truth’ in originality, and in happy grouping of images, both familiar and awful, we should be disposed to rank the Address to the Deil. The poet adopted the common superstitions of the peasantry as to the attributes of Satan; but though his Address is mainly ludicrous, he intersperses passages of the highest beauty, and blends a feeling of tenderness and compunction with his objurgation of the Evil One. The effect of contrast was never more happily displayed than in the conception of such a being straying in lonely glens and rustling among trees— in the familiarity of sly humour with which the poet lectures so awful and mysterious a personage (who had, as he says, almost overturned the infant world, and ruined all); and in that strange and inimitable outbreak of sympathy in which a hope is expressed for the salvation, and pity for the fate, even of Satan himself—
The Jolly Beggars is another strikingly original production. and the characters are all finely sustained. 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 heartfelt 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 Ouse; and his views of human life and manners are as real and as finely moralised. His range of subjects, however, was
It is the most dramatic of his works, infinitely more diversified, including a varied and romantic landscape, the customs and superstitions of his country, the delights of good fellowship 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 anything 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:–
“With future hope I oft would gaze
I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Or when the deep green-mantled earth
When ripened fields and azure skies,
When youthful love, warm-blushing, strong,
I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
I taught thy manners-painting strains,
Thou canst not learn, nor can I show,
Yet, all beneath the unrivalled rose,
Then never murmur nor repine ;
To give my counsels all in one—
And wear thou this’—she solemn said,
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 deep 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
* The scraps of French in his letters to Dr Moore, Mrs
Riddell, &c. have an unpleasant effect. “If he had an affectstion 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 relatethe 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
can taste should be yours.
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 feeling—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 literary talent as for its modest independence and clear judgment; and the letters to Mrs Dunlop (in whom he had entire confidence, and whose ladylike 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:–
or disturbs tranquillity and self enjoyment should
be removed, and every pleasure that frail humanity 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 habituated 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
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 self-measuring poet. He kept his ground, and he asked no more. ‘A somewhat clearer knowledge of men's affairs, scarcely of their charac
ters,’ says the quaint but true and searching Thomas Carlyle, “this winter in Edinburgh did afford him; but a sharper feeling of Fortune's unequal 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 not power to choose the one and reject the other, but must halt for ever 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 !"
Spectator—the Vision of Mirza—a 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
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. He would never have written them but for his situation and feelings as a peasant—and 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 swelled the long procession of English poets, stript of his originality, and bearing, though proudly, the ensign of conquest and submission.
Or do these workings argue something
When ance life's day draws near the gloamin',
Then fareweel vacant careless roamin’;
And fareweel cheerfu' tankards foamin',
And fareweel dear, deluding woman!
Oh Life! how pleasant in thy morning,
We wander there, we wander here,
To a Mountain Daisy, On turning one down with the plough in April 1786.
Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower,
Alas! it's no thy neibor sweet,
Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
The flaunting flowers our gardens yield,
High sheltering woods and wa's maun shield:
But thou, beneath the random bield
Adorns the histie stibble-field,
There in thy scanty mantle clad,
Such is the fate of artless maid,
Such is the fate of simple bard,
Such fate to suffering worth is given,