To Robert Burns
From Letters to Dead Authors
Sir,--Among men of Genius, and especially among Poets, there are some to whom
we turn with a peculiar and unfeigned affection; there are others whom we
admire rather than love. By some we are won with our will, by others conquered
against our desire. It has been your peculiar fortune to capture the hearts of
a whole people--a people not usually prone to praise, but devoted with a
personal and patriotic loyalty to you and to your reputation. In you every
Scot who _is_ a Scot sees, admires, and compliments Himself, his ideal self--
independent, fond of whisky, fonder of the lassies; you are the true
representative of him and of his nation. Next year will be the hundredth since
the press of Kilmarnock brought to light its solitary masterpiece, your Poems;
and next year, therefore, methinks, the revenue will receive a welcome
accession from the abundance of whisky drunk in your honour. It is a cruel
thing for any of your countrymen to feel that, where all the rest love, he can
only admire; where all the rest are idolators, he may not bend the knee; but
stands apart and beats upon his breast, observing, not adoring--a critic. Yet
to some of us--petty souls, perhaps, and envious--that loud indiscriminating
praise of 'Robbie Burns' (for so they style you in their Change-house
familiarity) has long been ungrateful; and, among the treasures of your songs,
we venture to select and even to reject. So it must be! We cannot all love
Haggis, nor 'painch, tripe, and thairm,' and all those rural dainties which
you celebrate as 'warm-reekin, rich!' 'Rather too rich,' as the Young Lady
said on an occasion recorded by Sam Weller.
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
You _have_ given her a Haggis, with a vengeance, and her 'gratefu' prayer' is
yours for ever. But if even an eternity of partridge may pall on the epicure,
so of Haggis too, as of all earthly delights, cometh satiety at last. And yet
what a glorious Haggis it is--the more emphatically rustic and even Fescennine
part of your verse! We have had many a rural bard since Theocritus 'watched
the visionary flocks,' but you are the only one of them all who has spoken the
sincere Doric. Yours is the talk of the byre and the plough-tail; yours is
that large utterance of the early hinds. Even Theocritus minces matters, save
where Lacon and Comatas quite outdo the swains of Ayrshire. 'But thee,
Theocritus, wha matches?' you ask, and yourself out-match him in this wide
rude region, trodden only by the rural Muse.
'_Thy_ rural loves are nature's sel';' and the wooer of Jean Armour speaks
more like a true shepherd than the elegant Daphnis of the 'Oaristys.'
Indeed it is with this that moral critics of your life reproach you,
forgetting, perhaps, that in your amours you were but as other Scotch
ploughmen and shepherds of the past and present. Ettrick may still, with
Afghanistan, offer matter for idylls, as Mr. Carlyle (your antithesis, and the
complement of the Scotch character) supposed; but the morals of Ettrick are
those of rural Sicily in old days, or of Mossgiel in your days. Over these
matters the Kirk, with all her power, and the Free Kirk too, have had
absolutely no influence whatever. To leave so delicate a topic, you were but
as other swains, or, as 'that Birkie ca'd a lord,' Lord Byron; only you
combined (in certain of your letters) a libertine theory with your practice;
you poured out in song your audacious raptures, your half-hearted repentance,
your shame and your scorn. You spoke the truth about rural lives and loves. We
may like it or dislike it; but we cannot deny the verity.
Was it not as unhappy a thing, Sir, for you, as it was fortunate for Letters
and for Scotland, that you were born at the meeting of two ages and of two
worlds--precisely in the moment when bookish literature was beginning to reach
the people, and when Society was first learning to admit the low-born to her
Minor Mysteries? Before you how many singers not less truly poets than
yourself--though less versatile not less passionate, though less sensuous not
less simple--had been born and had died in poor men's cottages! There abides
not even the shadow of a name of the old Scotch song-smiths, of the old
ballad-makers. The authors of 'Clerk Saunders,' of 'The Wife of Usher's Well,'
of 'Fair Annie,' and 'Sir Patrick Spens,' and 'The Bonny Hind,' are as unknown
to us as Homer, whom in their directness and force they resemble. They never,
perhaps, gave their poems to writing; certainly they never gave them to the
press. On the lips and in the hearts of the people they have their lives; and
the singers, after a life obscure and untroubled by society or by fame, are
forgotten. 'The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth his Poppy.'
Had you been born some years earlier you would have been even as these unnamed
Immortals, leaving great verses to a little clan--verses retained only by
Memory. You would have been but the minstrel of your native valley: the wider
world would not have known you, nor you the world. Great thoughts of
independence and revolt would never have burned in you; indignation would not
have vexed you. Society would not have given and denied her caresses. You
would have been happy. Your songs would have lingered in all 'the circle of
the summer hills;' and your scorn, your satire, your narrative verse, would
have been unwritten or unknown. To the world what a loss! and what a gain to
you! We should have possessed but a few of your lyrics, as
When o'er the hill the eastern star
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo;
And owsen frae the furrowed field,
Return sae dowf and wearie o!
How noble that is, how natural, how unconsciously Greek! You found, oddly, in
good Mrs. Barbauld, the merits of the Tenth Muse:
In thy sweet sang, Barbauld, survives
Even Sappho's flame!
But how unconsciously you remind us both of Sappho and of Homer in these
strains about the Evening Star and the hour when the Day _metenisseto_
_boulytoide_?* Had you lived and died the pastoral poet of some silent glen,
such lyrics could not but have survived; free, too, of all that in your songs
reminds us of the Poet's Corner in the 'Kirkcudbright Advertiser.' We should
not have read how
Phoebus, gilding the brow o' morning,
Banishes ilk darksome shade!
Still we might keep a love-poem unexcelled by Catullus,
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met--or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
But the letters to Clarinda+ would have been unwritten, and the thrush would
have been untaught in 'the style of the Bird of Paradise.'
*Transliterated from Greek.
A quiet life of song, _fallentis_semita_vitae_', was not to be yours. Fate
otherwise decreed it. The touch of a lettered society, the strife with the
Kirk, discontent with the State, poverty and pride, neglect and success, were
needed to make your Genius what it was, and to endow the world with 'Tam o'
Shanter,' the 'Jolly Beggars,' and 'Holy Willie's Prayer.' Who can praise them
too highly--who admire in them too much the humour, the scorn, the wisdom, the
unsurpassed energy and courage? So powerful, so commanding, is the movement of
that Beggars' Chorus, that, methinks, it unconsciously echoed in the brain of
our greatest living poet when he conceived the Vision of Sin. You shall judge
for yourself. Recall:
Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!
Here's to all the wandering train!
Here's our ragged bairns and callers!
One and all cry out, Amen!
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected!
Churches built to please the priest!
Then read this:
Drink to lofty hopes that cool
Visions of a perfect state:
Drink we, last, the public fool,
Frantic love and frantic hate.
Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance,
While we keep a little breath!
Drink to heavy Ignorance
Hob and nob with brother Death!
Is not the movement the same, though the modern speaks a wilder recklessness?
So in the best company we leave you, who were the life and soul of so much
company, good and bad. No poet, since the Psalmist of Israel, ever gave the
world more assurance of a man; none lived a life more strenuous, engaged in an
eternal conflict of the passions, and by them overcome--'mighty and mightily
fallen.' When we think of you, Byron seems, as Plato would have said, remote
by one degree from actual truth, and Musset by a degree more remote than
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+ Clarinda was the 'Arcadian name' chosen by Agnes Craig M'Lehose, used in her correspondence with Robert Burns. Burns used Sylvander.