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Many of his poems were composed during the hours when he was actually engaged in manual labour: his native energy was unsubdued by illiberal toil, by perpetual mortification, and by his total seclusion from that intercourse which is most calculated to fan the sparks of generous emulation.
“This kind of life," says Burns, “the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year; a little before which period I first committed the sin of rhyme.” Love, he informs us, was the original source of his poetry : “I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love; and then rhyme and song were in a manner the spontaneous language of my heart."
His principal models of composition were Ramsay and Fergusson. In his letter to Dr. Moore he remarks that he had nearly abandoned poetry, when in his twentythird year, having become acquainted with the works of Fergusson, he “strung anew his wildly-sounding lyre with emulating vigour.” Of classical learning he was totally destitute; and it is not apparent that he was much indebted to his knowledge of the French language. With the best English writers he was, however, sufficiently conversant: he read them with avidity, and for the most part with wonderful discernment. Nor was he altogether unacquainted with science: he had at least studied Euclid, Locke, and Smith; he read and understood Mr. Alison's Essays on the Principles of Taste.
The most beautiful of his poems are professedly written in the Scottish dialect: but in general they are not deeply tinctured with provincial idioms; many of the stanzas are almost purely English. His verses, though not very polished or melodious, are commonly distinguished by an air of originality which atones for every deficiency. His rhymes are often imperfect, and his expression indelicate; he passes from ease to negligence and from simplicity to
But these peculiarities we may ascribe to his early habits of association.
The poems of Burns, though most remarkable for the
quality of humour, exhibit various proofs of his imagination, and the soundness of his understanding enabled him to attain a variety of excellence which can only be traced in the production of original genius. Some of his subjects are sufficiently mean; but he never fails to illumine them with brilliant flashes of intellect. His flights, however, are sudden and irregular; the strong impulses of his mind were not sufficiently chastened and directed by the wholesome discipline of the schools. His compositions, however, beautiful in detached parts, are very often defective in their general plan.
The most exquisite of his serious poems is The Cotter's Saturday Night. The character and incidents which the poet here describes in so interesting a manner are such as his father's cottage presented to his observation; they are such as may everywhere be found among the virtuous and intelligent peasantry of Scotland.
“I recollect once he told me,” says Professor Stewart,“ when I was admiring a distant prospect in one of our morning walks, that the sight of so many smoking cottages gave a pleasure to his mind, which none could understand who had not witnessed, like himself, the happiness and the worth which they contained.” With such impressions as these upon his mind, he has succeeded in delineating a charming picture of rural innocence and felicity. The incidents are well selected, the character skilfully distinguished, and the whole composition is remarkable for the propriety and sensibility which it displays. To transcribe every beautiful passage which the poem contains would be to transcribe almost every stanza; the following may be selected on account of its moral as well as its poetical effect:
But hark! a rap comes gently to the door.
Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same, Tells how a neebor lad cam' o'er the moor,
To do some errands, and convoy her hame.
Sparkle in Jenny's e'e, and flush her cheek ;
While Jenny hafilins is afraid to speak;
Wi' kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben ;
A strappin' youth; he takes the mother's eye;
The father cracks of horses, pleughs, and kye.
But blate and laithfu', scarce can weel behave;
What makes the youth sae bashfu' an' sae grave;
O happy love! where love like this is found!
O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare!
And sage experience bids me this declare-
One cordial in this melancholy vale,
In other's arms breathe out the tender tale,
Is there, in human form, that bears a heart,
A wretch! a villain! lost to love and truth! That can, with studied, sly, ensnaring art,
Betray sweet Jenny's unsuspecting youth? Curse on his perjur'd arts! dissembling smooth!
Are honour, virtue, conscience, all exild?
Points to the parents fondling o'er their child?
The stanzas To a Mountain Daisyon turning one down with the plough have always been acknowledged as beautiful and interesting. His address to a Mouse, on turning her up in her nest with the plough, evinces the fertility of his genius and the unbounded benevolence of his heart. These two poems derive additional interest from the attitude in which the writer is himself presented to our view; we behold him engaged in the labour of the field, and moving in his humble sphere with all the dignity of honest independence and conscious genius.
The exordium of his very poetical production entitled The Vision is also rendered interesting by the same circumstances; it exhibits Burns in the retirement of his homely cottage :
The sun had clos'd the winter day,
To kail-yards green,
Whare she has been.
The thresher's weary flingin'-tree
Far i' the west,
I gaed to rest.
There, lanely, by the ingle-cheek,
The auld clay biggin';
About the riggin'.
All in this mottie, misty clime,
An' done nae-thing,
For fools to sing.
Others of his serious poems are distinguished by beauties of no vulgar kind. Many passages rise to sublimity; and his moral reflections are often solemn, pathetic, and perspicacious.
But it is, perhaps, in his humorous and satirical poems that he appears to most advantage. Nature had endowed him with an uncommon degree of sagacity; and his perpetual disappointments and mortification rendered him a more keen observer of the follies of mankind. His satire, however, when he refrains from personalities, is seldom unmerciful; his general opinion of human nature was by no means unfavourable; and he commonly exposes vice and folly with a kind of gay severity.
Halloween exhibits a humorous and masterly description of some of the remarkable superstitions of his countrymen. The incidents are selected and the characters discriminated with his usual felicity. His Address to the Deil, as well as
Death and Dr. Hornbook, is distinguished by an original vein of satirical humour. The Holy Fair is entitled to every praise except that of scrupulous decency. The subsequent stanzas may serve to discover with what efficiency Burns could wield the shafts of ridicule:
Now a' the congregation o'er
Is silent expectation;
Wi' tidings o' damnation.
'Mang sons o' God present him,
Wi fright that day.
Hear how he clears the points o' faith
Wi' rattlin' an' wi' thumpin'!
He's stampin' an' he's jumpin'!
His eldritch squeel an' gestures,
On sic a day!
But, hark! the tent has chang'd its voice;
There's peace an' rest nae langer :
They canna sit for anger.
On practice and on morals;
A lift that day.
What signifies his barren shine
Of moral pow'rs an' reason ?
Are a' clean out o' season.
Or some auld pagan Heathen,
That's right that day.
In guid time comes an antidote
inst sic poison'd nostrum ; For Peebles, frae the water-fit,
Ascends the holy rostrum :