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Anderson, my Joe, which is now united to words that breathe a strain of conjugal tenderness that is as highly moral as it is exquisitely affecting.
Few circumstances could afford a more striking proof of the strength of Burns's genius than the general circulation of his poems in England, notwithstanding the dialect in which the greater part are written, and which might be supposed to render them here uncouth or obscure. In some instances he has used this dialect on subjects of a sublime nature, but, in general, he confines it to sentiments or descriptions of a tender or humorous kind; and, where he rises into elevation of thought, he assumes a purer English style. The singular faculty he possessed of mingling in the same poem humorous sentiments and descriptions, with imagery of a sublime and terrific nature, enabled him to use this variety of dialect on some occasions with striking effect. His poem of Tam o' Shanter affords an instance of this. There he passes from a scene of the lowest humour to situations of the most awful and terrible kind. He is a musician that runs from the highest to the lowest of his keys, and the use of the Scottish dialect enables him to add two additional notes to the bottom of his scale.
Great efforts have been made by the inhabitants of Scotland of the superior ranks to approximate in their speech to the pure English standard, and this has made it difficult to write in the Scottish dialect without exciting in them some feelings of disgust, which in England are scarcely felt. An Englishman who understands the meaning of the Scottish words is not offended, nay, on certain subjects he is perhaps pleased, with the rustic dialect, as he may be with the Doric Greek of Theocritus.
But a Scotchman inhabiting his own country, if a man of education, and more especially if a literary character, has banished such words from his writings, and has attempted to banish them from his speech; and being accustomed to hear them from the vulgar daily, does not easily admit of their use in poetry, which requires a style elevated and ornamental. A dislike of this kind is, however, accidental, not natural. It is of the species of disgust
which we feel at seeing a female of high birth in the dress of a rustic; which, if she be really young and beautiful, a little habit will enable us to overcome. A lady who assumes such a dress puts her beauty, indeed, to a severer trial. She rejects—she, indeed, opposes the influence of fashion ; she possibly abandons the grace of elegant and flowing drapery; but her native charms remain the more striking, perhaps, because the less adorned; and to these she trusts for fixing her empire on those affections over which fashion has no sway.
If she succeeds, a new association arises, The dress of the beautiful rustic becomes itself beautiful, and establishes a new fashion for the young and the gay. And when, in after ages, the contemplative observer shall view her picture in the gallery that contains the portraits of the beauties of successive centuries, each in the dress of her respective day, her drapery will not deviate more than that of her rivals from the standard of his taste, and he will give the palm to her who excels in the lineaments of nature.
Burns wrote professedly for the peasantry of his country, and by them their native dialect is universally relished. To a numerous class of the natives of Scotland of another description, it may also be considered as attractive in a different point of view. Estranged from their native soil and spread over foreign lands, the idiom of their country unites with the sentiments and the descriptions on which it is employed to recall to their minds the interesting scenes of infancy and youth--to awaken many pleasing, many tender recollections. Literary men residing at Edinburgh or Aberdeen cannot judge on this point for one hundred and fifty thousand of their expatriated countrymen.*
* These observations are excited by some remarks of respectable correspondents of the description alluded to. This calculation of the number of Scotchmen living out of Scotland is not altogether arbitrary, and it is probably below the truth. It is, in some degree, founded on the proportion between the number of the sexes in Scotland, as it appears from the invaluable Statistics of Sir John Sinclair. For Scotchmen of this description, more particularly, Burns seems to have written his song, beginning Their groves sweet myrtle, a beautiful strain, which, it may be confidently predicted, will be sung with equal, or superior, interest on the banks of the Ganges or of the Mississippi as on those of the Tay or the Tweed.
To the use of the Scottish dialect in one species of poetry, the composition of songs, the taste of the public has been for some time reconciled. The dialect in question excels, as has already been observed, in the copiousness and exactness of its terms for natural objects; and in pastoral or rural songs it gives a Doric simplicity, which is very generally approved. Neither does the regret seem well founded which some persons of taste have expressed, that Burns used this dialect in so many other of his compositions. His declared purpose was to paint the manners of rustic life among his humble compeers, and it is not easy to conceive that this could have been done with equal humour and effect if he had not adopted their idiom. There are some, indeed, who will think the subject too low for poetry. Persons of this sickly taste will find their delicacies consulted in many a polite and learned author; let them not seek for gratification on the rough and vigorous lines, in the unbridled humour, or in the overpowering sensibility of this bard of nature.
To determine the comparative merit of Burns would be no easy task. Many persons, afterwards distinguished in literature, have been born in as humble a situation of life; but it would be difficult to find any other who, while earning his subsistence by daily labour, has written verses which have attracted and retained universal attention, and which are likely to give the author a permanent and distinguished place among the followers of the muses. If he is deficient in grace, he is distinguished for ease as well as energy; and these are indications of the higher order of genius. The father of epic poetry exhibits one of his heroes as excelling in strength, another in swiftness—to form his perfect warrior, these attributes are combined. Every species of intellectual superiority admits, perhaps, of a similar arrangement. One writer excels in force, another in ease; he is superior to them both in whom both these qualities are united. Of Homer himself it may be said that, like his own Achilles, he surpasses his competitors in mobility as well as in strength.
The force of Burns lay in the powers of his understanding
and in the sensibility of his heart; and these will be found to infuse the living principle into all the works of genius which seem destined to immortality. His sensibility had an uncommon range. He was alive to every species of emotion. He is one of the few poets that can be men-, tioned who have at once excelled in humour, in tenderness, and in sublimity; a praise unknown to the ancients, and which, in modern times, is only due to Ariosto, to Shakespeare, and perhaps to Voltaire. To compare the writings of the Scottish peasant with the works of these giants in literature might appear presumptuous; yet it may be asserted that he has displayed the foot of Hercules. How near he might have approached them by proper culture, with lengthened years, and under happier auspices, it is not for us to calculate. But while we run over the melancholy story of his life it is impossible not to heave a sigh at the asperity of his fortune; and as we survey the records of his mind it is easy to see that out of such materials have been reared the fairest and most durable of the monuments of genius.
By DAVID IRVING, LL.D.
BURNS was possessed of a versatility and strength of genius which might have conducted him to eminence in any department of science or literature. His senses were acute; his affections warm and generous; his imagination was vivid and excursive; his judgment prompt and penetrating. His poetry is the effusion of a vigorous and susceptible mind powerfully affected by the objects of its contemplation. The external beauties of nature, the pleasures and disappointments of love, the characteristics of the peasant's fate, the ridiculous features of hypocrisy and superstition, furnish the principal subjects on which he has exercised his bold and original talents. Most of the occasions which awakened his poetical powers were not fictitious but real; and his sentiments and language are generally those of a man who obeys the strong impulses of unsophisticated feeling. Although he laboured under the disadvantages of a very imperfect education, yet some circumstances of his very early life were not altogether unfavourable to the nurture of a poetical genius. The peculiarity of his fate tended to impress every sentiment more deeply on his mind, and to familiarise him with the habits of profound meditation. The lessons which his father taught him were those of piety, virtue, and independence ; lessons which are scarcely of less importance to the poet than to the man. His early years were, indeed, consumed in depressing toil; but even while the young peasant followed the plough, his intellectual eye was fixed on immortality.