« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
ROBERT BURNS AND THE CENTENARY.
On the 25th of January, 1759, in a clay-built cottage, raised by his father's own hands, on the banks of bonnie Doon, in the district of Kyle-thenceforth to further enhance the old boast of “Kyle for a man”—and in the county of Ayr, amidst a tempest which shattered the frail tenement that the parental hands had erected for the roof-tree of his wife and little ones, and sent the newly-born babe and its mother to seek the shelter of betterhoused neighbours, was born Scotland's great lyric poet, ROBERT BURNS, the centenary of whose birth has just been celebrated even in England "from Eddystone to Berwick bounds, from Lynn to Milford Bay," with a unanimous fervour that in its ovation to the poet's memory, leaves no room for doubt of its thorough sincerity. But how far the worshippers brought a reasonable knowledge to accompany a sudden ecstatic faith, at least this side the Border, may be questionable.
The biography of the poet is a familiar story, for it has been often and well told by his fellow.countrymen-Lockhart, Allan Cunningham, Robert Chambers, Cromek especially; and the poet himself gives, in a letter to Dr. Moore, in 1787, an exceedingly graphic account of his earlier years and his family's struggles ; in fact, with the exception of Dr. Johnson'as photographed by the Scotch laird, James Boswell, we call to mind no siogle literary life which has been so completely laid open to us; and his diligent biographers had great help from the poet's own worthy brother Gilbert, a sensible, well-informed man, whose reminiscences, apart from their intoresting subject, have a great charm from their freshness of feeling and vigorous perception. We will briefly recapitulate the main
incidents. The father of the future bard, William Burness, as he spelt the name, was a fine type of the better-developed Scotch character, laborious, frugal, and pious; yet withal somewhat rigid and sombre, which was not to be 'wondered at, for the hard-striving man's life was soured by worldly unsuccess, and his nature tinctured by rigid Calvinism. The mother of Burns was in much a remarkable woman-at least sufficiently so to prove the commonly observed rule, that all celebrated men owe the seeds of future emi. nence to the individuality of their mothers. Frequently she cheered the hours of monotonous gloom in the poverty-pressed cot by chaunting old songs and ballads, of which she had a large store, and which, doubiless, lighted the flame smouldering in her young son's mind, to be further fed by an old dame who came to live with the simple family when the boy as ten years old, and who possessed the largest store of tales concerning fairies and ghosts, and witches and warlocks, and such eerie folk, to be found in that country side. Nobody can doubt who knows even little of the Scottish poet's biography, that he owed much to the superior education afforded to his class; and this explains, in a large measure, not only the mastery of numbers and powers of clear expression which Burns's corre. spondence amply demonstrates, but how prepared was such an educated public both for the production and appreciation of such a man by their superior culture and training. Much more than a common pedagogue was Murdoch to Robert Burns, and few men could have reaped greater advantages in so short a period even from the best of tutors. "His instruction, as far as it went, was sound, and his reading, though necessarily discursive, was solid. In 1784 the good father died-Robert being 24 years of ageworn out with toil and sorrow, after living just long enough to learn that
his long-pending lawsuit with his landlord had terminated by plunging his poor wife and children in ruin. He left five children younger than Robert. Just before the father's death, when family affairs were at a crisis, Robert and his brother took a farm. “It was," says Gilbert, “a joint concern among us. Every member of the family was allowed ordinary wages for the labour he performed on the farm. My brother's allowance and mine was £7 per annum each, and during the whole time this concern lasted, which was four years, his expenses never exceeded his slender income." Before his 16th year he had, as he tells us himself, "first committed the sin of rhyme." His verses soon gained him considerable local fame, to which, as he made connexions in Ayr and other neighbouring towns with young men of his own age, he greatly added by the remarkable fluency and vigour of his conversational powers. These social gatherings soon introduced the eager spirit to new habits, and his attachment to female society, which had from carly youth been very strong, was no longer confined within those bounds of strict virtue which had hitherto restrained him, About his 24th year he was furnished with the subject of his “ Epistle to John Rankin," or to state the bald fact, Robin had to do penance in church for the unlicensed daughter whom in his “ Inventory" he styles his “sonsie, smirking, dear-bought Bess.” Another affair of the kind determined the subsequent course of his life. This was his connexion with Jean Armour, afterwards Mrs. Burns, who brought the poet-father twins. In the difficulties and distress arising from their imprudence, it was agreed between them that they should make a legal acknowledgment of an irregular and private marriage, and that he should then set out for Jamaica to push his fortune. “But before leaving my native country for ever, writes Burns to Mr. Moore, "I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my productions as impartially as was in my power; I thought they had merit; and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears.” In the autumn of 1786 an impression of 600 copies was struck off at Kilmarnock, which were well received by the public, and realised for their author the not inconsiderable sum of £20. This supply was seasonable ; for the poet was thinking of indenting himself “ for want of money to procure my passage. As soon as I was master of nine guineas, the price of wafting ine to the torrid zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde, 'for hungry ruin had me in the wind. I had been for some days skusking from covert to covert under all the terrors of a jail, as some ill-advised people had uncoupled the merciless pack of the law at my heels.” This was to oblige him to find security for the maintenance of his children ; for the parents of Jean Armour were so indignant that the father had burnt the informal “marriage lines," and would not allow the regular union to take place, nor the children to be legitimatised. He proceeds: “I had taken farewell of my few friends ; my chest was on the road to Greenock ; I had composed the last song I should
I ever measure in Caledonia, The gloomy night is gathering fast,' when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine, overthrew all my schemes by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition fired me so much that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance or a single letter of introduction.". The result was the cordial reception of the poet by all the aristocracy of rank, fashion, and intelleot in the Scottish metropolis. Under the patronage of the Earl of Glencairn, Robertson, Dugald Stewart, Mackenzie, Lord Monboddo, the Duchess of Gordon, and other eminent and fashionable folk, a second edition of the poems was issued, for which he received fully five hundred pounds. In the spring of
1788, after having been fêted as lowly poet was scarce ever before, he returned to Ayrshire, where his brother Gilbert, who had undertaken the support of their aged mother, was struggling with many difficulties in the farm they had conjointly taken. Robert advanced £200, and with the remainder of his money stocked another farm, that of Ellisland, in Dumfriesshire. Here he took up his abode in June of the same year, having previously legalised his union with Jean Armour. Soon afterwards he was appointed, at his own solicitation, by the interest of Mr. Graham, of Fintry, an excise officer for the district in which he lived, with a salary of £50 a year, afterwards increased to £70. But after a holding of above three years the farm had to be resigned as unprofitable, and the poet took his family to live in a small house in the town of Dumfries, where he spent the
sad remnant of his short life. Habits which he had acquired during his | sudden dazzling blaze of popularity on his first introduction to public
notice, now gained an entire ascendancy over him as misfortune and disappointment broke, or at least embittered, his spirit, and enfeebled his powers of resistance. Some imprudent expressions for a government servant, which he had dropped on the alarming subject of the French revolution, destroyed his chance of promotion, and nearly lost him the office altogether. He produced many pieces, and especially the best and greatest number of his songs after the appearance of the first Edinburgh issue of his poems, of which, in his lifetime, no less than five editions appeared. The songs were principally contributed to a publication called “Johnson's Museum," and afterwards to a work of much greater pretension, the wellknown “Collection of Original Scottish Airs,” edited and published by Mr. George Thomson. The correspondence of Burns with his publisher and friend, forms a very interesting series of letters, as well as illustrating the life and harassments of their writer. On the 21st of July, 1796, at the early age of 37 years, died the erring, struggling, genial poet, in a small provincial town, almost dunned to death for a few pounds, and leaving four sors and a widow to a heritage of poverty. They gave him a public funeral, rendered truly imposing by the multitude of uninvited mourners, and 63 years afterwards the land echoes for a day from the Land's End to John O'Groat's, with the name and the fame of Robert Burns.
When, as simple English readers, we endeavour to estimate fully the genius of Burns and the influence of his poetry, we have not the faintest desire to loosen the affections of our northern cousins, the M‘Tartans and Macplaids, for their national lyrist. We can enter somewhat into the exclusive homage they demand for their one prominent poet; and, fully appreciating their characteristic heartiness of assertion, enter our feeble strictures with a becoming timidity. We at once plunge into the arena of critical judgment by frankly stating our opinion that the English have rather overdone Burns, and by indulging in stilted heroics about the "ploughman bard" and the "self-formed genius," have somewhat weakened their well-intentioned homage by too much incense.
Of the poetry of Burns it is almost supererogation to characterise it as distinguished by simple, true, and earnest feeling, and by sentiments of the most generous and ennobling kind. His rhythm is eminently easy and flowing. In short, his songs are exquisitely beautiful, more especially to readers who, by early education and association, are familiar with their diction, imagery, and allusions. But for the majority of English readers, the works of Burns, if not quite a sealed book, inust ever be as if “ seeing in a glass darkly." The poet was decidedly national, not to say local; and most of his pieces are even more difficult to comprehend in their entirety by English readers, than the archaisms of Yorkshire, the dialect of Tim Bobbin, or even thé Dorsetshire “hwomely” verse as recently set forth by Mr.
Barnes. In the majority of his effusions there is scarcely a stanza that does not necessitate a tiring reference to the glossary. Says Allan Cunningham," it is one of the delusions of his biographers that the sources of his inspiration are to be sought in English poetry; but save an image from Young, and a word or two from Shakspere, there is no trace of them in all his compositions. Burns read the English poets, no doubt, with wonder and delight ; but he felt that he was not of their school ; the language of life with him was wholly different; the English language is, to a Scottish peasant, much the same as a foreign tongue." Argal, as Shakspere's clowns have it, the Scottish peasant's speech is equally foreign to his more southern fellow islanders; and we have the testimony on record of Dr. Alexander Murray, the great Scotch oriental scholar, " that the English of Milton was less easy to learn than the Latin of Virgil." We readily own the music of the Scotch bard, and we feel it: but as music heard afar off, by fitful snatches of delicious melody, with too frequent intervals of blank expression.
When we estimate Burns as a man, we see but another instance of the great truth that “conduct is fate.” Blest by gifts of mind beyond his peers, with grand opportunities misused, we cannot join in the repeated cry of his being the sport of ill-fortune, and the bearer of the “oppressor's wrong and the proud man's contumely.” In sober fact, what are the wrongs that the gifted rhymer endured. To moan at fate, even if mentally above the herd, is no proof of greatness. A first edition of poems to bring their writer £20 in a small provincial town, was what few of the poetical tribe could boast, especially in these latter days, when many a new-fledged lyrist has had to disburse more for simple publication. To have received five hundred pounds for a second edition was indisputably a happy freak of fortune, and said much for his country's appreciation, when we take into consideration the period, the scanty population, and the poverty of the people. We have i had enough and to spare of the repetition of Dr. Johnson's well-worn lines:
" Mark what ills the scholar's life assail
To buried merit raise the tardy bust." and, in the case of Burns, we fail to see the application. The government of the day recognised his merits by giving Scotia's gifted son the place of gauger !—which seems to be accepted by the unthinking as an ineffaceable reproach. The place was given to the poet at his own frequent solicitation, and his most partial biographer is careful to inforın us that it was equal to above £200 a year in London; and the world has not even yet ratified the decree that cabinets are to find places or pensions for all Parnassus. We find his fellow-patriot, Allan Cunningham, with curious logic, going so far as to declare that “perhaps the remembrance of having aided in crushing the great and glorious spirit of Burns came with no healing upon its wings across the mind of Pitt. The success of Napoleon arenged the sufferings of the bard.” The mournful unhappiness of the private life of the poet was bis own making, and while men are individuals, and not mere units of a compact whole, it will ever be so. We must not dwell upon what we always considered to be his greatest error; and never has poet-strange, contradictory human nature !-better described its effects :
« The sacred lowe o' weel-placed love,
Luxuriantly indulge it;
Tho' naething should divulge it :
The hazard o' concealing ;
And petrifies the feeling !"
We swear not by Father Matthew nor by apostle Gough, and are fully aware of the universal drinking customs of a century since-more especially in the far North; yet if Tyrtæus will take too much hippocrene, Tyrtæus shall have aches and pains; and if bibulous Tyrtæus grows moody and worse, and comes to the bad, Tyrtæus should look for help to where Jove directed the waggoner, as narrated long ago by good Mr. Æsop, of Greece. For the last and gravest charge of all-his neglect by the great of his own land- we can scarcely see how this is supported by fact : they helped him in the most delicate of ways to a manly spirit, by subscribing £500 for his poems; one gives him a tolerably good situation, ensuring maintenance, if not further fortune, while his political opinions (due honour to him for them !) happened to run counter to those in power; and if that promotion did not come to a bold speaker who was already half-gagged as a gauger, there is small occasion for surprise, however much there may be for regret. How the poet could speak of one of them himself, these fervent words—if words are worth anything-will prove,
" The bridegroom may forget the bride
Was made his wedded wife yestreen;
That on his head an hour has been ;
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
And a' that thou hast done for me!" If we wanted to strengthen the position we have here taken, we might mention that two of the sons of the poet received appointments under , the East India Company, and have risen to high rank in its military service. The gentlemen are still living; and while gladly endorsing their own individual merit, we still must suppose that being their father's sons was their passport to better fortunes than the orphans left in the small house in Dumfries would otherwise have ever encountered,
Now that the jovial recognition of the great Scotch song-writer has expended itself, and the factitious fervour put on for a day, from the lands irradiated by the Aurora Borealis to the Constellation of the Southern Cross, has subsided, we may well ask what have we reaped for legacy to the next centenary commemoration. We are forced to own that the Crystal Palace prize poem is, as yet shown, the only fruition of so much exotic cultivation. The question of the wrongfulness of literary prize competition we care not now to re-open further than to enter one more protest against holding out temptation to neglect more direct employ; ments, to encourage morbid temperaments by disappointed hopes, and evoking the feverish spirit of the gambler in a chance where only one can win, and the losers are not satisfied by the result. It is done. Gallantry helps us to put aside our inconvenient scruples, and we state sincerely our gratification that the triumphant laurel, with its golden binding, is worn by a lady, and fitly a Scotch lady. Whether the Sydenham Sappho is to take rank with the many songsters of her tuneful band, the Ramsays, the Tannahills, the Motherwells, the Robert Nicolls, the Willie Thoms, and the authoress of that most pathetic ballad, “Auld Robin Gray,”. Lady Anne Lindsay, we will not venture to predicate. But to have carried off the victor's palm from the crowd of ambitious eulogists, and under the award of such competent judges as the Sydenham triumvirate, bears upon its face, if not the divine stamp of poesie,” at least that of no common merit. Flushed and eager "wrote the six hundred” (and a score over), but foremost of the Parnassian racers came the lady ; the Muses had helped their sister, and we threw up our caps gleefully at the success of the fair