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mixes warmly in their interests; nay, throws himself into their arms and, as it were, entreats them to love him. It is moving to see how, in his darkest despondency, this proud being still seeks relief from friendship, unbosoms himself often to the unworthy, and, amid tears, strains to his glowing heart a heart that knows only the name of friendship. And yet he was "quick to learn," a man of keen vision, before whom common disguises afforded no concealment. His understanding saw through the hollowness even of accomplished deceivers, but there was a generous credulity in his heart. And so did our peasant show himself among us, “a soul like an Æolian harp, in whose strings the vulgar wind as it passed through them changed itself into articulate melody.” And this was he for whom the world found no fitter business than quarrelling with smugglers and vintners, computing Excise dues upon tallow, and gauging ale barrels ! In such toils was that mighty spirit sorrowfully wasted, and a hundred years may pass on before another such is given us to waste.
All that remains of Burns, the writings he has left, seem to us, as we hinted above, no more than a poor mutilated fraction of what was in him, brief broken glimpses of a genius that could never show itself complete, that wanted all things for completeness-culture, leisure, true effort, nay, even length of life. His poems are, with scarcely any exception, mere occasional effusions poured forth with little premeditation, expressing by such means as offered the passion, opinion, or humour of the hour. Never in one instance was it permitted him to grapple with any subject with the full collection of his strength, to fuse and mould it in the concentrated fire of his genius. To try by the strict rules of art such imperfect fragments would be at once unprofitable and unfair. Nevertheless, there is something in these poems, marred and defective as they are, which forbids the most fastidious student of poetry to pass them by. Some sort of enduring quality they must have, for, after fifty years of the wildest vicissitudes in poetic taste, they still continue to be read, nay, are read more and more eagerly, more and more exten
sively, and this is not only by literary virtuosos and that class upon whom transitory causes operate most strongly, but by all classes down to the most hard, unlettered, and truly natural class who read little and especially no poetry, except because they find pleasure in it. The grounds of so singular and wide a popularity, which extends in a literal sense from the palace to the hut and over all regions where the English tongue is spoken, are well worth inquiring into. After every just deduction, it seems to imply some rare excellence in these works. What is that excellence?
To answer this question will not lead us far. The excellence of Burns is indeed among the rarest, whether in poetry or prose, but at the same time it is plain and easily recognised, his sincerity, his indisputable air of truth. Here are no fabulous woes or joys, no hollow fantastic sentimentalities, no wire-drawn refinings either in thought or feeling; the passion that is traced before us has glowed in a living heart, the opinion he utters has risen in his own understanding and been a light to his own steps. He does not write from hearsay, but from sight and experience: it is the scenes he has lived and laboured amid that he describes; those scenes, rude and humble as they are, have kindled beautiful emotions in his soul, noble thoughts, and definite resolves, and he speaks forth what is in him not from any outward call of vanity or interest, but because his heart is too full to be silent. He speaks it, too, with such melody and modulation as he can, “in homely rustic jingle”; but it is his own and genuine. This is the grand secret for finding readers and retaining them; let him who would move and convince others be first moved and convinced himself. Horace's rule, Si vis me flere, is applicable in a wider sense than the literal one. To every poet, to every writer, we might say-Be true, if you would be believed. Let a man but speak forth with genuine earnestness the thought, the emotion, the actual condition of his own heart, and other men, so strangely are we all knit together by the tie of sympathy, must and will give heed to him. In culture, in extent of view, we may stand above the speaker or below him, but in either case his words, if they are earnest and sincere, will find some response within us, for in spite of all casual varieties in outward rank, or inward, as face answers to face, so does the heart of man to man.
This may appear a very simple principle, and one which Burns had little merit in discovering. True, the discovery is easy enough, but the practical appliance is not easyis indeed the fundamental difficulty which all poets have to strive with and which scarcely one in the hundred ever fairly surmounts. A head too dull to discriminate the true from the false, a heart too dull to love the one at all risks and to hate the other in spite of all temptations, are alike fatal to a writer. With either, or, as more commonly happens, with both of these deficiencies, combine a love of distinction, a wish to be original, which is seldom wanting, and we have affectation, the bane of literature, as cant, its elder brother, is of morals. How often does the one and the other front us in poetry as in life! Great poets themselves are not always free of this vice; nay, it is precisely on a certain sort and degree of greatness that it is most commonly ingrafted. A strong effort after excellence will sometimes solace itself with a mere shadow of success, and he who has much to unfold will sometimes unfold it imperfectly. Byron, for instance, was no common man, yet if we examine his poetry with this view we shall find it far enough from faultless. Generally speaking, we should say that it is not true. He refreshes us not with the divine fountain, but too often with vulgar strong waters, stimulating indeed to the taste, but soon ending in dislike or even nausea. Are his Harolds and Giaours, we would ask, real men we mean poetically consistent and conceivable men? Do not these characters, does not the character of their author, which more or less shines through them all, rather appear a thing put on for the occasion; no natural or possible mode of being, but something intended to look much grander than nature? Surely all these stormful agonies, this volcanic heroism, superhuman contempt, and moody desperation, with so much scowling and teeth-gnashing and other sulphurous humours, is more like the brawling of a player in some paltry tragedy which is to last three hours, than the bearing of a man in the business of life which is to last three-score and ten years. To our minds there is a taint of this sort, something which we should call theatrical, false, and affected, in every one of these otherwise powerful pieces. Perhaps Don Juan, especially the latter parts of it, is the only thing approaching to a sincere work he ever wrote; the only work where he showed himself, in any measure, as he was, and seemed so intent on his subject as, for moments, to forget himself.
Yet Byron hated this vice, we believe, heartily detested it; nay, he had declared formal war against it in words. So difficult is it even for the strongest to make this primary attainment, which might seem the simplest of all, to read its own consciousness without mistakes, without errors involuntary or wilful! We recollect no poet of Burns's susceptibility who comes before us from the first, and abides with us to the last, with such a total want of affectation. He is an honest man and an honest writer. In his successes and his failures, in his greatness and his littleness, he is ever clear, simple, true, and glitters with no lustre but his own. We reckon this to be a great virtue—to be, in fact, the root of most other virtues, literary as well as moral.
It is necessary, however, to mention that it is to the poetry of Burns that we now allude-to those writings which he had time to meditate, and where no special reason existed to warp his critical feeling or obstruct his endeavour to fulfil it. Certain of his letters and other fractions of prose composition by no means deserve this praise. Here, doubtless, there is not the same natural truth of style; but, on the contrary, something not only stiff, but strained and twisted, a certain high-flown, inflated tone, the stilting emphasis of which contrasts ill with the firmness and rugged simplicity of even his poorest
Thus no man, it would appear, is altogether unaffected. Does not Shakespeare himself sometimes premeditate the sheerest bombast ? But even with regard to these letters of Burns, it is but fair to state that he had two excuses. The first was his comparative deficiency in language. Burns, though for the most part he writes with singular force, and even gracefulness, is not master of English prose as he is of Scottish verse—not master of it, we mean, in proportion to the depth and vehemence of his matter. These letters strike us as the effort of a man to express something which he has no organ fit for expressing. But a second and weightier excuse is to be found in the peculiarity of Burns's social rank. His correspondents are often men whose relation to him he has never accurately ascertained; whom, therefore, he is either forearming himself against, or else unconsciously flattering, by adopting the style he thinks will please them. At all events, we should remember that these faults, even in his letters, are not the rule but the exception. Whenever he writes, as one would ever wish to do, to trusted friends and on real interests, his style becomes simple, vigorous, expressive, sometimes even beautiful. His letters to Mrs. Dunlop are uniformly excellent.
But we return to his poetry. It addition to its sincerity ) it has another peculiar merit, which indeed is but a mode, or perhaps a means, of the foregoing. It displays itself in his choice of subjects, or rather in his indifference as to subjects, and the power he has of making all subjects interesting. The ordinary poet, like the ordinary man, is forever seeking in external circumstances the help which can be found only in himself. In what is familiar and near at hand he discerns no form of comeliness: home is not poetical but prosaic; it is in some past, distant, conventional world that poetry resides for him; were he there and not here, were he thus and not so, it would be well with him. Hence our innumerable host of rose-coloured novels and iron-mailed epics, with their locality not on the earth, but somewhere nearer to the moon.
Hence our Virgins of the Sun and our Knights of the Cross, malicious Saracens in turbans and copper-coloured chiefs in wampum, and so many other truculent figures from the