« 上一頁繼續 »
testimony of the narrator; and yet that individual is to the public a nonentity-for the publication is anonymous. It contains, instead of facts and evidence, and reflections drawn from and warranted by these, a great deal of conjecture and assumption and split-hair philosophising about possibilities, of very little moment in themselves, and as foreign to the life and character of Burns as of Bonaparte. It represents Burns in one page as in fact a very good man, and damns him by hypothesis in the next. Altogether, it seems to have been written with sickly fastidiousness of taste, and in terror lest on any topic the author should have got out of order. Too much is sacrificed to a false public appetite for sermonising and scandal ; and when we see the moral part of Burns falling, as it were, under the daggers of literary patriots, when we see a friend among the number, we can imagine that we hear the parting spirit of the bard utter the last and deep reproach of Cæsar.
We need not go beyond the passages we have quoted for proof of our general objections to this specimen of biography. There is scarcely a page in which we do not stumble on a proposition coupled with such phrases as "there is ground to suspect," "I suspect," and “it is to be suspected.” And it is very curious that in almost every case all these suspicions are at once injurious to Burns and contrary to notorious facts. No better illustration can be given of this unsatisfactory style of biography than the “suspicion ” which is excited against the unspotted worth of William Burns, the poet's father. We are instructed by a philosophical reverie that the misfortunes of that worthy man must probably have arisen from some radical defect in his own character or conduct, since uniform mischance, it is assumed, always implies as much! How silly and cruel are such insinuations! God knows, there are many pressed down in adversity for life without the slightest cause existing in their conduct or personal characters. We have known individuals possessing every quality that we can conceive of human worth destined, like William Burns, to drink deeply in the cup of affliction,
to struggle through life with poverty and disappointment and sorrow, and to descend like him into the grave with few other consolations than the prospects beyond it. The cause of William Burns's uniform misfortune is very obvious to an ordinary observer: he had not money; that was his defect. And the want of capital alone fettered him to all the disasters which he experienced in his affectionate anxiety to keep his family around him in their tender years. There is no occasion for a refinement in speculation when a fact stands manifestly in view sufficient to account for occurrences. We will not notice all the may-be sentences of which we disapprove, and to which we could only give a contradiction; nor shall we swell these remarks by selecting the inconsistencies which are involved in the views of the biographer; but there is one part of his own conduct which we cannot overlook, which we notice with regret, and which many will reprobate in stronger terms than we are inclined to employ. We allude to the visit which the biographer paid to Burns a few months before his death, and whatever the memory of Burns may suffer from the account given of that visit, the biographer, whoever he be, must suffer infinitely more in public opinion.
The biographer tells the public that, after a separation of eight years, he went to Dumfries on purpose to pay a visit to his old friend Burns, only a few months before the death of Burns; that the first of two days, which, on this occasion, they spent together, was nearly all consumed in a manner indicative of entire correctness in the poet's conduct, and distinguished by no peculiarity, except that he showed a disposition, which, however, was easily repressed (being overawed, no doubt), to throw out political remarks of the same nature with those for which he had been reprehended.” The day following, however, he is described as “ready” to attend the biographer and a friend to the inn, where “he called for fresh supplies of liquor,” for which, he being their invited guest, his companions were, of course, to pay; and the narrator adds, it till he saw us worn out that he departed about three in
the morning, with a reluctance which probably proceeded less from being deprived of our company than from being confined to his own !” Really this is the very shabbiest business recorded in any of the biographical garrulities we have ever seen. We never could have dreamt that any man, accustomed to the courtesies of decent society, would have violated the rules of hospitality and friendship so egregiously as to invite a friend to his table, for it is the same thing whether that be in a private house or a tavern, and then publish to the world a narration of the quantities of food and drink of which he may choose to make use. If there be anything in the scene described obnoxious to real spirit, it is all on one side. Why brand as meanness the warmth and frank ingenuousness of Burns's kindness on meeting with an old acquaintance by insinuating that he drank freely, because he was not to pay a few paltry shillings, which he did not value? Why dare to say that he left the social board reluctantly, because he
probably” less delighted with his companions than apprehensive of being confined to his own solitary reflections? What grounds, what temptation can warrant a supposition so violent and so repugnant to all the probabilities of the case ? And what motives can justify such pitiful gossiping? We gladly turn from this vile thingthis unmatched outrage on charity and friendship and call to remembrance the writings of Burns, and the spirit by which they are characterised.
It is not our intention to say much on the subject of Burns's works, further than to affirm that they are eminently friendly to good morals. A proposition so decidedly in the face of numerous assertions to the contrary, requires a little explanation ; and in giving it we shall not go over the beaten path by indulging in highflown panegyrics on his genius. The man that cannot discern the excellences of Burns's poetry is far beyond the reach of our poor abilities to point them out, and perhaps beyond the consciousness of anything except mere animal existence.
The writings of Burns may be considered in two points
of view—either as indicative of his real personal character, and therefore possessing an influence over society on the score of example, or as having a tendency in their intrinsic qualities to affect the morals of the community in which they circulate. If they are regarded in the first of these lights, we ought to consider strictly whether, even with all their blemishes as published since his death, they afford conclusive evidence with respect to his character. The writings of no man afford such evidence. It is quite a commonplace fact that authors, like other men, are very artificial animals—that they are not always what they seem in their writings; and that the force of any presumptions arising as to personal qualities from the mere complexion of their compositions, whether published or not, must be modified by the circumstances under which they exist. A man may divest himself of all sincerity, and write a book or paper in discordance with his real sentiments. Another may, in a moment of elevation, or thoughtlessness, or confidence, write a letter to an intimate friend, either in jest or under casual and passing emotions, not accordant with the ordinary tenor of his feelings and opinions; and therefore any inferences as to personal character deduced from writings of any description must be drawn with great limitations. Many of Burns's compositions were written in such circumstances as to render it impossible to learn anything very decisive from them concerning his moral feelings—for opposite conclusions may easily be drawn from different parts of his works. To assume dogmatically any positions on the subject is absurd, and to assert that he was irreligious or vicious, or that he must afford a pernicious example, because he satirised some of the fanatical clergy and wrote private letters to his confidential friends, in which there are occasional deviations from the circumspection observed in the works that he published, is by no means a legitimate mode of induction. The indications of character disclosed in the public and private writings of Burns, to the effect of operating as an example, are so equivocal, therefore, as to afford no satisfactory proof, without a collateral view of his life.
The obvious, the consolatory, and we think the irresistible conclusion to be deduced from the remarks and proof which we now take the liberty of submitting to the public, is that Burns has been cruelly wronged. It matters little whether this evil has arisen from credulity, misinformation, or malicious purpose. It is fit that the error should be corrected, not merely because it is fair that the dead as well as the living should have justice in every individual instance, but because the general interests of society and literature are outraged if calumny is permitted in such a case to circulate in triumphant dogmatism. By calumny we mean injurious accusation without proof. And if ever calumny of the most dastardly kind poisoned public opinion, it has been in the case of Burns. It is not enough to say that he frequently indulged in convivial propensities, and therefore was a habitual debauchee, and every way abominable as a man; it is absolute imbecility, savouring of the tabernacle, to say that because he satirised and painted hypocrisy truly he was a blasphemer, and a profligate as an author; and no man shall be permitted to assert, without evidence in support of his allegation, that Burns was a worthless wretch if there be one untrammelled press in Scotland. Some of the rigidly righteous tremble at the mere sound of praise to his genius, and seem to think that because he had the failings of humanity there should be no monument to his memory. It is not to his failings that a monument can be consecrated by any rational being, but to his transcendent genius as the Poet of Nature, for no one who can discover excellence and distinguish it from the dross of mortality in his own frame can overlook the high pre-eminence of Burns in all the faculties and feelings which raise man from the dust into the temple of fame. To the broad, the general and unqualified accusations which have been brought against him, we offer a valid defence that there is no proof; we also give exculpatory evidence of the most satisfying nature, and we retire from public notice with a perfect conviction that as Burns has been tried he will be acquitted by his country.