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believe that Apollo would not have hurt the Muse's son. But let us not fear to confess all his faults, failings, errors, vices, sins in all their magnitude and in all their darkest colours. They are known to the whole world. Yet still the whole world loves, admires, respects, venerates the memory of Burns.
Not under the power of his genius alone does the world thus feel and judge. For how much is there of good and great in the character of the man ! What lessons of patience, endurance, contentment, resignation, magnanimity, devotion, does his earlier life teach! Was not his manhood, in all its better days, nay, on to the week of the final struggle, dignified, amidst all its stains, by independence, by patriotism, by integrity, by generosity --for he was generous as poor—and by the discharge of nature's primal duties under sorest difficulty and distress, for hard had he worked for that wife and those children, whom at last he piously delivered up to the care of their God on the bed of death. Who ever laid one mean, jealous, envious, unkind, or cruel thought or deed to the charge of Robert Burns? Ill-used as he had been by the world—by the great and the rich, and the learned and the wise, in short, by the powerful—who were proud to take him by the hand and lift him up for a little while on a towering and conspicuous eminence, and then did let him wander away off into what might have been utter obscurity for them, into sufferings by them unmitigated; this, we say, was to use him ill indeed, and even this might have broken many a noble heart, as we know that for a time it shook his to its very core.
But in spite of all this, in spite of the “hope deferred that maketh the heart sick,” Burns never became a misanthrope. A few indignant flashes his genius occasionally gave forth against the littleness of the great, but nothing so paltry as personal pique at the bad and base usage of a few, or even many, who ought not thus to have dishonoured their birth, ever inspired Burns with feelings of hostility towards the highest orders. His was an imagination that clothed high rank with that dignity and splendour which some of the degenerate descendants of old and illustrious houses had seemed to have forgotten; and when an Athole, a Daer, or a Glencairn "reverenced the lyre "and grasped the hand of the peasant who had received it as his patrimony from nature, Burns felt it to be nowise inconsistent with the stubbornest independence that ever supported a son of the soil in his struggles with necessity, reverently to doff his bonnet and bow his head in their presence, proud in his humility.
The bridegroom may forget the bride
Was made his wedded wife yestreen;
That on his head an hour hath been;
The mother may forget the child
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
And a' that thou hast done for me!
Even this perfect freedom from uneasy, dissatisfied, and angry thoughts and feelings towards the rich and great, when we consider all things, proves the native magnanimity of Burns. After all, that is the highest eulogy which uses only the most common but the most holy words. Burns, then, was a good son, a good brother, a good friend, a good husband, and a good father.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
By THOMAS CARLYLE.
From “The EDINBURGH Review,” December, 1829.
REVIEW OF “LOCKHART'S LIFE OF ROBERT BURNS.”
In the modern arrangements of society, it is no uncommon thing that a man of genius must, like Butler, "ask for bread and receive a stone"; for, in spite of our grand maxim of supply and demand, it is by no means the highest excellence that men are most forward to recognise. The inventor of a spinning-jenny is pretty sure of his reward in his own day; but the writer of a true poem, like the apostle of true religion, is nearly as sure of the contrary. We do not know whether it is not an aggravation of the injustice that there is generally a posthumous retribution. Robert Burns, in the course of nature, might yet have been living; but his short life was spent in toil and penury, and he died in the pride of his manhood, miserable and neglected; and yet already a brave mausoleum shines over his dust, and more than one splendid monument has been reared in other places to his fame; the street where he languished in poverty is called by his name; the highest personages in our literature have been proud to appear as his commentators and admirers, and here is the sixth narrative of his Life that has been given to the world!
Mr. Lockhart thinks it necessary to apologise for this new attempt on such a subject; but his readers, we believe, will readily acquit him, or at worst will censure only the performance of his task, not the choice of it. The character of Burns, indeed, is a theme that cannot easily become either trite or exhausted, and will probably gain rather than lose in its dimensions by the distance to which it is removed by time. No man, it has been said, is a hero to his valet; and this is probably true; but the fault is at least as likely to be the valet's as the hero's; for it is certain that to the vulgar eye few things are wonderful that are not distant. It is difficult for men to believe that the man, the mere man whom they see, nay, perhaps, painfully feel, toiling at their side through the poor jostlings of existence, can be made of finer clay than themselves. Suppose that some dining acquaintance of Sir Thomas Lucy's, and neighbour of John a Combe's, had snatched an hour or two from the preservation of his game and written us a Life of Shakespeare! What dissertations should we not have had—not on Hamlet and The Tempest, but on the wool trade, and deer stealing, and the libel and vagrant laws! and how the poacher became a player; and how Sir Thomas and Mr. John had Christian bowels, and did not push him to extremities! In like manner, we believe, with respect to Burns, that till the companions of his pilgrimage, the honourable Excise Commissioners and the gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt, and the Dumfries aristocracy, and all the squires and earls, equally with the Ayr writers, and the new and old light clergy, whom he had to do with, shall have become invisible in the darkness of the past, or visible only by light borrowed from his juxtaposition, it will be difficult to measure him by any true standard, or to estimate what he really was and did in the eighteenth century for his country and the world. It will be difficult, we say, but still a fair problem for literary historians; and repeated attempts will give us repeated approximations.
His former biographers have done something, no doubt, but by no means a great deal, to assist us. Dr. Currie and Mr. Walker, the principal of these writers, have both, we think, mistaken one essentially important thing—their own and the world's true relation to their author, and the style in which it became such men to think and to speak of such a man. Dr. Currie loved the poet truly,
more perhaps than he avowed to his readers, or even to himself; yet he everywhere introduces him with a certain patronising, apologetic air, as if the polite public might think it strange and half-unwarrantable that he, a man of science, a scholar, and gentleman, should do such honour to a rustic. In all this, however, we readily admit that his fault was not want of love, but weakness of faith; and regret that the first and kindest of all our poet's biographers should not have seen further, or believed more boldly what he saw. Mr. Walker offends more deeply in the same kind; and both err alike in presenting us with a detached catalogue of his several possessed attributes, virtues, and vices, instead of a delineation of the resulting character as a living unity. This, however, is not painting a portrait, but gauging the length and breadth of the several features, and jotting down their dimensions in arithmetical ciphers. Nay, it is not so much as this; for we are yet to learn by what arts or instruments the mind could be so measured and gauged.
Mr. Lockhart, we are happy to say, has avoided both these errors. He uniformly treats Burns as the high and remarkable man the public voice has now pronounced him to be; and in delineating him, he has avoided the method of separate generalities, and rather sought for characteristic incidents, habits, actions, sayings; in a word, for aspects which exhibit the whole man as he looked and lived among his fellows. The book, accordingly, with all its deficiencies, gives more insight, we think, into the true character of Burns than any prior biography; though, being written on the very popular and condensed scheme of an article for Constable's Miscellany, it has less depths than we could have wished and expected from a writer of such power; and contains rather rather more,
multifarious, quotations than belong of right to an original production. Indeed, Mr. Lockhart's own writing is generally so good, so clear, direct, and nervous, that we seldom wish to see it making place for another man's. However, the spirit of the work is thoroughly candid, tolerant, and anxiously conciliating; compliments and praises are liberally dis