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particularly from his having, in absolute jest, said he envied the condition of a wild horse in the deserts of Asia, and an oyster! Like other fabulists, the Quarterly reviewer must have his moral; and having prefigured the poor poet as a horse, which acknowledged not adversity as the tamer of the human breast, and knew not "the golden* curb which discretion hangs upon passion”; having, moreover, assumed that this horse-oyster bard “believed that there could be no pleasurable existence between the extremes of licentious frenzy and torpid sensuality,” he closes a very poetical series of remarks with an oracular conclusion “that if pride and ambition were capable of being taught, they might hence learn that a well-regulated mind and controlled passions are to be prized above all the glow of imagination and all the splendour of genius!” This is very glowing and very splendid, no doubt; but really there is too much of "the spirit of chivalry” for commonplace and "vulgar” taste. The British public would have infinitely preferred honest truth and charity to that chivalry which insults a dead man, whose living touch would have withered the hand that is lifted up in impotence to hurt, over the wreck of his manly frame.
Sick as we are of the nauseating inventions of the Quarterly Review, we cannot pass over the observations applied to the “plebeian” spirit of Burns, as if it had been something inferior to “that spirit of chivalry which since the feudal times has pervaded the higher ranks of European society." This is a conceit of the reviewer's own, adopted, it would seem, for no other purpose than to vent a sarcasm against Burns and the humbler ranks of the community; the epithet “plebeian” is repeated with an air of self-gratulation not unworthy of some silly lord. Diversities of rank, political and hereditary honours, are the unavoidable results of a well-regulated state of society, and we are ever ready to give honour to whom honour is due, but we have no notion of tolerating a supercilious
* What does the critic mean by a golden curb ?
assumption of lordliness in an anonymous reviewer, who, perhaps, has no claim whatever to public notice, which is not founded solely on qualities altogether personal. Nor can we ever reckon that condition of life ignoble which could nurture in our “land of brown heath” the high soul, the manly, sublime, and truly British spirit of Robert Burns. If the reviewer means to say that Burns had not the manners of a courtier, or the flippancy of a Parisian petit maitre, we will not dispute the position; but if he means to insinuate that he was destitute of that purest remnant of feudal manners, the
grace of life,” which springs from an union of habitual self-possession and benevolence in society, and which constitutes true politeness and honest urbanity, we will tell him that no man had it in a more eminent degree than Burns. The ladies are on this subject no bad judges; they are unanimous against the reviewer, and the testimony, indeed, of all who ever came within the reach of his social influence is that it was something like sorcery. But really for this reviewer to talk of chivalry, and to write such ungentlemanly stuff as we have been noticing, is like an old Border bandit speaking of honesty.
This unknown personage represents Burns as ever so poor "as to be on the very brink of absolute ruin, looking forward now to the situation of a foot-soldier, now to that of a common beggar, as no unnatural consummation of his evil fortune.” Such a statement is really ludicrous. It is a construction of facts and of passages in the poet's letters akin to the sublime notion that Burns had fixed upon the devil as the model of his own character. But we will not fatigue the reader of these notes with further animadversion on the errors of this blundering scribbler, who seems to have looked to payment by the sheet as his reward for this effusion of malevolence. Before taking our leave, however, we may only deny (as is necessary, of course, when the “extravagance of genius,” by which this critic is distinguished, ever touches or adorns a fact) that Burns was either a political partisan, or listened with complacency to what has been termed French philo
sophy—if any definite meaning can be affixed to these expressions. Burns was of too sturdy a temper to be a partisan ; he was destined to take a lead in anything to which his soul was devoted, and though he submitted to make his bread as an inferior officer of Excise, he never yielded to the meanness of abetting miserable political clubs by his orations, or of composing bad songs to stimulate their prejudices and passions when it was thought requisite to create and strengthen principles by the force of alcohol. The transient meaning given to “French philosophy” is now unintelligible, since the howl of liberty and equality ceased to alarm. Nothing can be more contrary to fact,
inconsistent with various averments, that Burns was the mere organ of feeling, than the assertion that he had imbibed what was universally understood at the time as the true character of notions, termed by some Frenchmen and their adversaries philosophy-a brutal dereliction of every sentiment and affection native to the heart of Burns. That in his private sentiments, and in his ordinary intercourse with society, he favoured the French Revolution, in so far as it promised to lead to that blessed consummation which we have lived to behold—a limited monarchy on the ruins of an absolute despotism—is quite true; but it is about as logical to infer from thence that he wished to overturn the limited monarchy and established liberty of his native country, as to conclude that he was a habitual drunkard because he sometimes took a cheerful glass with his friends. Whenever truth is forsaken there are no bounds to absurdity, and the critic before us has given an ample measure. But we leave him to his fate—not without some pity blended in our resentments.
Of the Life attributed to Mr. Walker, of Perth, we really wish we could speak in terms of approbation; but we cannot, in the present instance, indulge our personal feelings at the expense of Robert Burns. His representation of Burns's life and character is inconsistent with itself. It is constructed on what appears to us an erroneous notion of biography; it contains statements of fact which must derive all their credibility from the individual 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. 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, “nor was it till he saw us worn out that he departed about three in