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LIST OF REVIEWS
EARLY CRITICAL REVIEWS ON
By HENRY MACKENZIE.
From “The LOUNGER,” December, 1786.
To the feeling and susceptible there is something wonderfully pleasing in the contemplation of genius, of that super-eminent reach of mind by which some men are distinguished. In the view of highly superior talents, as in that of great and stupendous natural objects, there is a sublimity which fills the soul with wonder and delight, which expands it, as it were, beyond its usual bounds, and which, investing our nature with extraordinary honours, interests our curiosity and flatters our pride.
This divinity of genius, however, which admiration is fond to worship, is best arrayed in the darkness of distant and remote periods, and is not easily acknowledged in the present times, or in places with which we are perfectly acquainted. Exclusive of all the deductions which envy or jealousy may sometimes be supposed to make, there is a familiarity in the near approach of persons around us, not very consistent with the lofty ideas which we wish to form of him who has led captive our imagination in the triumph of his fancy, overpowered our feelings with the tide of passion, or enlightened our reason with the investigation of hidden truths. It may be that, “in the olden time," genius had some advantages which tended to its vigour and its growth ; but it is not unlikely
that, even in these degenerate days, it rises much oftener than it is observed; that in “the ignorant present time" our posterity may find names which they will dignify, though we neglected, and pay to their memory those honours which their contemporaries have denied them.
There is, however, a natural, and, indeed, a fortunate vanity in trying to redress this wrong which genius is exposed to suffer. In the discovery of talents generally unknown, men are apt to indulge the same fond partiality as in all other discoveries which themselves have made; hence we have had repeated instances of painters and of poets, who have been drawn from obscure situations, and held forth to public notice and applause by the extravagant encomiums of their introducers, yet in a short time have sunk again to their former obscurity; whose merit, though perhaps somewhat neglected, did not appear much under-valued by the world, and could not support, by its own intrinsic excellence, the superior place which the enthusiasm of its patrons would have assigned it. I know not if I shall be accused of such enthusiasm and partiality when I introduce to the notice of my readers a poet of our own country, with whose writings I have lately become acquainted; but, if I am not greatly deceived, I think I may safely pronounce him a genius of no ordinary rank. The person to whom I allude is Robert Burns, an Ayrshire ploughman, whose poems were some time ago published in a country town in the West of Scotland, with no other ambition, it would seem, than to circulate among the inhabitants of the country where he was born, to obtain a little fame from those who have heard of his talents. I hope I shall not be thought to assume too much if I endeavour to place him in a higher point of view, to call for a verdict of his country on the merit of his works, and to claim for him those honours which their excellence appears to deserve.
In mentioning the circumstances of his humble station, I mean not to rest his pretensions solely on that title or to urge the merits of his poetry when considered in relation to the lowness of his birth, and the little opportunity of improvement which his education could afford. These particulars, indeed, might excite our wonder at his productions; but his poetry, considered abstractly, and without the apologies arising from his situation, seems to me fully entitled to command our feelings and to obtain our applause.
One bar, indeed, his birth and education have opposed to his fame—the language in which most of his poems are written. Even in Scotland the provincial dialect which Ramsay and he have used is now read with a difficulty which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader; in England it cannot be read at all, without such a constant reference to a glossary as nearly to destroy the pleasure.
Some of his productions, however, especially those of the grave style, are almost English. From one of these I shall first present my readers with an extract, in which I think they will discover a high tone of feeling, a power and energy of expression particularly and strongly characteristic of the mind and the voice of a poet. 'Tis from his poem entitled “The Vision," in which the genius of his native county, Ayrshire, is thus supposed to address him:
With future hope, I oft would gaze,
In uncouth rhymes,
Of other times.
I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
Drove thro' the sky,
Struck thy young eye.
Or when the deep-green mantled earth
In ev'ry grove,
With boundless love.