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Of these plain 'good masters' his princely intellectual gifts are the humble and faithful servants. His imagination, humour, pathos, the qualities in respect of which his genius is most powerful and opulent, are without reserve placed at their disposal and submitted to their dictation. His genius might possibly have elected to move sometimes in a different sphere, but this is the sphere in which its creative force is habitually spent. Words and phrases which derive their significance from what belongs to it are those that recur oftenest in his best and in his worst lines, and linger in our ears with the airs to which his songs are sung. As part and parcel of its contents, and as they are assorted in its compass, 'freedom and whisky gang thegither' in his rhymes; so do mirth and care, despair and rapture, pride of birth and pride of worth, love and sorrow and death, auld acquaintance not to be forgotten, social inequalities not to be forgiven, hypocrisy at its prayers, and commiseration for the wretched which extends to the brute creation and cannot be withheld from the devil. That the worst of it as well as the best of it has power over him is the most that can be said in the way of censure or in the way of excuse in regard to that capital fault of his, a relish for grossness and even obscenity in the choice and treatment of his themes, which gives occasion to turgid moralists to talk of him as at once the glory and the shame of literature, and which, as disfiguring some of his best pieces no one has more reason to regret than he who has to do justice to the genius of the poet by making a selection from his works.
Genius can explain everything except itself. In this limitation of his genius to one sphere of activity we have, however, not only some explanation of the place which Burns occupies in European literature and European history, but also a revelation of the inner structure and quality of his genius. Genius which in every case eludes and defies definition is by this restriction of its operations shown to be in his case, more than most, synonymous with force of mind, that force which cleaves its way through the shows of things to the reality behind them and beyond them :
'The heart ay's the part ay
That makes us right or wrang.'
To say that this is his poetical creed is to say that poetical genius in his case is akin to or identical with 'majestic common sense,' an intellect of singular power to penetrate appearance and become conversant with reality and truth-that reality and truth which are
to be found, if anywhere, in the sphere of the passions and emotions of which he is the laureate. He is closer to this reality than other poets because his mental force is greater than theirs and carries him farther and straighter from the surface of things towards the centre. His poetry makes a gift again to folly of that definition of poetry which was presented by folly to stupidity -that is the best poetry which is the most feigning. It feigns not at all when it is at its best, and hardly any when it is at its worst. So much reality is there in it to the experience of common mortals, that it is commonly mistaken among them for useful information for the people. Where it is not understood as comprehending the choicest products of imagination, humour, pathos, it is admired and valued as a repertory of oracular wisdom. When it is denied the welcome to which it is entitled as song, the gift of the gods, it is sure of applause as the 'pith of sense,' of which every man as he believes has his own share. Genius in the case of Burns is thus shown to be compact of sense, sagacity, intelligence of a powerful and piercing order, general force of mind to which nature and life cannot but yield up their deepest secrets. It is in the sphere of the essential passions of human nature that reality lies. That Burns, in a manner all his own, is rigid, not consciously always, but instinctively, in adhering to this sphere, is evidence that what takes in him the form and fashion of genius is common sense.
A melancholy or rather a mournful interest attaches to several of his poems-A Bard's Epitaph for example, and the Epistle to a Young Friend-as showing that intellect and passion were as far from being perfectly adjusted in his life as they have been in the lives of many other sons of genius. That they were not on better terms with each other than they actually were, it may be, is a matter which calls rather for regret than for amazement. Considering what nature made him and what his destiny was, considering how rudely in his case the sensibilities of a gifted soul clashed with the exigencies of a sordid lot, it is possibly not a matter for as much astonishment as has been sometimes expressed, that the last chapter of his history should be one which cannot be read without a pang of sorrow for the degradation of genius. Had he been a struggling tradesman in Paris instead of a struggling farmer in Ayrshire and a measurer of ale-firkins at Dumfries, Burns would no doubt have lived and died with a reputation for sobriety as unimpeachable as that of Beraner. But for tnat insanity, compounded of headache
and melancholy, from which he suffered all his life, as the result of being made to do a man's work when he was a boy; but for his being 'half fed, half sarkit,' too literally and too long not to be rendered 'half mad' as well, it is open to a candid judgment to suppose that the 'thoughtless follies' which 'laid him low,' would not have been committed, at any rate would not have cut half as formidable à figure as they do in the count and reckoning of some of the honorary sheriffs and respectable aldermen of literaBut however it may have been that the relations of intellect and passion were imperfectly or ill adjusted in his life, their perfect harmony is the marvel and the glory of his song. Passages indeed from various pieces of his, perhaps whole pieces, could be cited which fall below the level of poetry in the strictest sense of the word, for which no higher character can be claimed than that of rhymed prose, because sense and sagacity or wit and humour predominate in them in too marked a degree over feeling and imagination. It is as if the balance, 'rarely right adjusted,' in his life, swung heavily sometimes in his verse to the other side. But it is only where it is chargeable with this excess of sense, or where it is written in that English tongue of which he never attained any mastery in verse, that his poetry falls short of excellence as regards the union of intellect and passion, the union of which is the first condition of poetical vitality. His passions, 20cording to a well-known account of them from the best authority, 'raged like so many devils' till they found vent in rhyme. They could not have raged more or raged less any day without perhaps marring the perfection of a stanza or a song which has almost the perfection of the work of Shakespeare or of nature. His one poetical failing, besides being one which leans to virtue's side, is exhibited for the most part only where it is harmless-in his epistles, satires, and especially his epigrams. His songs, on which after ali his fame must mainly rest, are free from it, though even in them passion is governed and moderated in such a manner that in the whole collection of them there is abundant evidence of sense and sanity which it would have been fatal to obtrude in any one of them. His claim to be considered the first of song-writers is hardly disputed. It is a claim which rests upon scores of lyrics, each of which might be cited as an instance of lyrical passion at its best and highest. Lyrical passion in his case drew its strength from various and opposite sources, from the clashing experiences, habits and emotions of a nature which needed nothing so much as
regulation and harmony. But it is itself harmony as perfect as the song of the linnet and the thrush piping to a summer evening of peace on earth and glory in the western sky. Whatever the poet's eye has seen of beauty, or his heart has felt of mirth or sadness or madness, melts into it and becomes a tone, a chord of music of which, but for one singer, the world should hardly have known the power to thrill the universal heart. He could not begin to write a song till he had crooned over and got into his head some old air to which words might be adapted. Only when his songs are sung are they legitimately said, is the melody of them vocalised. Their affinity with music by origin and by use is only symbolic of the harmony to which lyrical passion in them has set the incongruous facts and experiences of human life and destiny. The best of them are serious and pathetic, like Mary Morison, My Nanie O, Of a' the airts the wind can blaw; but serious and pathetic like these, or arch and airy and humorous like Tam Glen and Duncan Gray, they draw upon sources of melody of which Tibullus and Petrarch and Beranger had almost as little knowledge as of the sources of the Lugar or of the banks of Bonie Doon.
Like Shakespeare, Burns is almost as great in the matter of borrowing as in that of originality. His measures are without exception those with which he was familiar in his favourites and predecessors, Ramsay and Fergusson, or in the ballads and songs which the stream of time might be said to have brought down to his poetical mill. His Cotter's Saturday Night is modelled upon Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle; his Holy Fair upon the same poet's Leith Races. His epistles are Ramsay's and Fergusson's in form and spirit, only instinct with a kind of genius to which neither Ramsay nor Fergusson had any pretensions. One stanza in which he wrote a great deal, for which among poetical measures he had as much partiality as he had for winter among the seasons, or the mavis among birds, or humanity among the virtues, and which his readers, even Scotch readers, find it sometimes hard to endure, was no doubt made classical to him and informed with music by its having been made use of by predecessors of his, of whose genius he had formed a most generous and uncritical estimate.
His best work is distributed over three periods, into which his poetical life can be most easily divided-the first marked by the publication of his poems at Kilmarnock, 1786, when he was at the age of twenty-seven; the second comprehending the extraordinary fertility of his later residence in Ayrshire (at Mossgiel), and ter.
minating in 1788, and the third being the melancholy last years at Ellisland and Dumfries, in which his recreation was to give to his country and the world a store of songs, original and amended, such as no other country possesses. The Folly Beggars, that incomparable opera in which critical genius of the highest order has discovered the highest flight of his poetical genius, belongs to the first period, though not published till after his death, The Cotter's Saturday Night belongs to the same period. My Nanie O is one of its songs. As regards humour and imagination it could be represented either by Death and Doctor Hornbook, or the Address to the Deil, or The Holy Fair. With reference to the work which was done by him before the close of this period, considering its quality and variety, considering how much of it is destined to hold a permanent place in literature, Burns is perhaps to be regarded as the most remarkable instance on record of the precocity of genius, at any rate poetical genius. It would be difficult to point to a single rival for poetical fame who before the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven had contributed as much to the stock of literature, exempt for ever from oblivion. He was in this sense something of the prodigy which, in respect of his being born a peasant, Jeffrey would not allow him to be considered.
In each of these three periods of his poetical life he was at his best in one or other of the departments of song in which his greatness is least open to question. To Ellisland and Dumfries, the last of the three, besides Tam o' Shanter and Captain Grose, belongs the glory of that marvellous series of songs, new and old, original and improved, which it was the unhappy excisemanpoet's one pure delight to contribute to the Miscellanies in which they appeared. Whether his genius was exhausted by the activity of these ten or a dozen years, or whether, if his life had been prolonged, he might not have undertaken and accomplished some even greater task than any he had attempted, is a question to which no very certain answer can be given. He might have done something to diminish the interval between him and the poets of the first order -those whose poetry includes character and action as well as passion. He was ambitious of doing something of the kind. At one time the scheme of an epic, at another the plans for a tragedy were revolved in his mind. But if we may judge from a fragment of his intended drama, from the quality of his English verses, or from the leading features of his character, it seems unlikely that he would under any circumstances have made a nearer approach