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[ROBERT BURNS was born 25th January, 1759, 'the hindmost year but ane' of George the Second's reign, in a cottage built by his father, two miles south of Ayr, and close to Alloway Kirk, that relic of nondescript architecture to which his genius has lent almost as worldwide an interest as that which makes Vaucluse a place of pilgrimage to all nations. Eldest son of William Burness, of a Kincardineshire family of small farmers, market gardener and overseer of a small estate in the neighbourhood of Ayr, and afterwards tenant of Lochlie and Mount Oliphant, small Ayrshire farms, Burns received an education which ultimately included a sound acquaintance with English grammar. a little mathematics, mensuration, French, and a smattering of Latin. At work on his father's farm from an early age till he was twenty-three, he tried then to establish himself in business as a flax-dresser in Irvine, but returned in a short time to his father's house with empty pockets and with a character hitherto blameless deteriorated by some new companionships. After the death of his father, a specimen of industry and integrity never rewarded in this life, his brother Gilbert and he took the farm of Mossgiel near Mauchline (1784), which also turned out to be a bad bargain. To escape troubles in which his youthful and characteristic follies involved him, especially with the father of his future partner in life, 'Bonie Jean,' he accepted an appointment to a clerkship in Jamaica; but on the point of starting on the voyage he had his footsteps turned towards Edinburgh by the success of his volume of poems (Kilmarnock, 786), and by the patronage, literary and aristocratic, which it immediately secured for him. With the proceeds of a second edition of the volume (Edinburgh, 1787), amounting to £500 or £600. he established himself on the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries. Unsuccessful once more in this tenancy he became an exciseman to eke out his income, and finally in that capacity unfortunately both for his health and for his reputation, removed to Dumfries, where he died in 1796.]

That admiration of Burns' poetry as the work of a ploughman which Jeffrey in his time had occasion to deprecate, in which he could see no more sense than 'in admiring it as if it had been written with his toes,' has not survived Jeffrey's ridicule. Burns, like Joseph in Egypt, was destined to 'forget his toil and his father's house.' His right to a place among the greater poets of Europe being no longer in dispute, to speak of him still as 'the

Ayrshire bard' is almost as dull an affectation as to follow his own example and call him Rob or Robin. A great poet not only in the sense that his affinities are with the greatest of the great poets that were be ore him or have been since, rather than with the multitude of inferior writers who have struggled into fame in verse, but great also in the sense that he gave a new impulse and a new direction to poetry, helped to overturn in that splendid realm the dynasty of Pope, and to found that to which Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron belong, Burns is only once a peasant and clownish in the course of nearly a century during which his name has been illustrious. It is not in 1786, in the circles of rank and fashion in Edinburgh, in which he appears fresh from the ploughhere his courtliness astonishes Dugald Stewart and delights the Duchess of Gordon-it is now, when coming from Olympus, he is introduced to us as from Ayrshire. Though nothing could be more natural than his first appearance in the character of rustic bard, he has so long played a different part that his resumption of it is felt to border upon the grotesque and to be akin to fustian. The task which criticism has to perform in regard to him is indicated in this transformation of the natural man into something of a histrionic figure. It is a task of difficulty under any conditions, and not to be attempted with success in a very limited space. It is to explain how the publication of a small volume of poems 'chiefly in the Scottish dialect,' the natural destiny of which would have seemed to be fulfilled in making the Ayrshire bard known in Ayrshire, or at the most in Scotland, should have turned out to be an occasion, in literature and in history, of worldwide significance.

This explanation, be it ever so partial, must include, and perhaps ought to begin with, the admission, fatal to his character as a prodigy, that the influences under which Burns was tutored into song were as eminently European in fact as they were singularly provincial in appearance. The Revolution, at any rate in action, had not returned from America to France, when his poems were published. But the intellectual activity and turmoil which led to the Revolution was a phenomenon to which he was no more of a stranger in his humble and straitened sphere of life, than to summer's heat or winter's cold, or the west wind or man's inhumanity to man.' His father's cottage, in which, like the rest of the family (they were all readers), he sat at meals 'with a book in one hand and a spoon in the other,' was, as far as intelligence of most kinds was concerned, in open communication with Europe L1



and America, and the presiding spirit in it was an old peasant, whose sagacity and whose virtues would have adorned the rank to which Glencairn or Athole belonged. Whatever limitations were imposed upon the growth of his intellect, whatever obstacles were thrown in the way of his attaining literary distinction by a life of slavish toil such as he was condemned to live, there was nothing in his case in such a life to exclude, there was everything to beget and to intensify, sympathy with an age which had grown sick of conventionality, classicality, and unreality in life and literature, and which yearned passionately after a return to nature and to truth. This yearning might be less general and less eager among the peasants of Ayrshire than among some other classes in other parts of Europe, but then he belonged, by the discipline as well as by the force of his mind, rather to Europe than to Ayrshire. His education at school, though, even for a Scotch peasant's son, irregular and scanty, was sufficient to fit him for becoming a citizen of the world; and a citizen of the world he did become by the study of the best English authors in prose and verse and by critical familiarity with the songs and ballads of his country. In virtue of this citizenship, the spirit of Revolution being abroad in Europe, he was as certain to encounter it as was Tam O'Shanter on his way home from Ayr and from the company of Souter Johnny to see Kirk Alloway in a 'bleeze.'

'He sings,' as he himself says, 'the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him'; but it is after the manner of one who is accustomed to live and move in a larger world than that in which he and they had ‘leave to toil.' While he has never yet set foot beyond his native county, his mind has travelled; he is familiar with the continental resorts of persons of quality, with hunters of Ponotaxi (who have to rhyme with orthodoxy), with scenes, events, characters in Eastern lands, and in the literature and history of antiquity. His ideas, sentiments, aspirations, hopes, fears, range easily and naturally beyond parochial and provincial limits into national affairs and the struggling life of civilised mankind. If he is ever more truly himself than in Bruce's Address to his troops at Bannockburn, a patriotic ode, it is in anticipating that golden age of the poet and the philanthropist when

'man to man the world o'er Shall brothers be for a' that.'

His countrymen are a pushing and adventurous race. Wherever

they go they carry with them as a feature of the national mind, an estimate of man as man, of wealth and worth, of rank and work, which bears the stamp of one man's genius. Burns' poems and songs are a programme of social and political reform and progress, or at any rate aspiration,— ‚—as radical a programme as could well be framed. No such programme, it is certain, ever had such currency in one nation as it has obtained among the Scottish race at home and abroad. For almost a century it has been said and sung by high and low, by rank and fashion, by artisans and milkmaids, and aged inmates of the poorhouse. Children babble it and lisp it; it is the privileged sedition of public houses and public assemblies, privileged almost like the Bible; young ladies warble it at the request of their Tory grandfathers and to please their orthodox aunts; in kirks as well as where the shepherd tells his tale the echoes of it are never still. As far as there is any need to characterise his poetical lineage and development, this identifies Burns with the Revolution. It identifies him with it as respects the style of his poetry and also as respects its substance. Machinery of all kinds deteriorates by use; allowance should be made in all cases, that of poetry not excepted, for depreciation of value as the effect of wear and tear. Only the forces of nature are inexhaustible. Happily for him, Burns' poetical life fell within a period in which it had come to be felt that the machinery of the classical school of poetry was worn out, and that recourse must be had, for poetical power, to unexhausted and inexhaustible nature. ie owed thus to the spirit of the time that passion for truth and nature in the style of his poems which ensured them such welcome as the time could give to novelty and excellence combined. He was a debtor to the same source for the ideas and sentiments, or many of the ideas and sentiments, to which his poetry owes not a little of the vitality and the currency it has among men and nations to whom it is known only in an almost unknown tongue, or in more or less inadequate translations.

His poetry is instinct with the life and movement of one age,— one which was an era of resurrection from the dead and of revolt against all that had lived too long. Any explanation of Burns, however, which is thus to be found where we find an explanation of Europe itself in the spirit of a particular age, is of course partial. Its merit is that it points to what is more essential and more comprehensive than itself. Burns' poetry shares with all poetry of the first order of excellence the life and movement not of one age but

of all ages, that which belongs to what Wordsworth calls the essential passions' of human nature. It is the voice of nature which we hear in his poetry, an it is of that nature one touch of which makes the whole world kin. It is doubtful whether any poet, ancient or modern, has evoked as much personal attachment of a fervid and perfervid quality as Burns has been able to draw to himself. It is an attachment the amount and the quality of which are not to be explained by anything in the history of the man, anything apart from the exercise of his genius as a poet. His misfortunes, though they were great, do not account for it—these are cancelled by his faults, from which his misfortunes are not easily separated. What renders it at all intelligible is that human nature, in its most ordinary shapes, is more poetical than it looks, and that exactly at those moments of its consciousness in which it is most truly because most vividly and powerfully and poetically itself, Burns has a voice to give to it. He is not the poet's poet, which Shelley no doubt meant to be, or the philosopher's poet, which Wordsworth, in spite of himself, is. He is the poet of homely human nature, not half so homely or prosaic as it seems. His genius, in a manner all its own, associates itself with the fortunes, experiences, memorable moments, of human beings whose humanity is their sole patrimony; to whom 'liberty,' and whatever, like liberty, has the power

• To raise a man aboon the brute,
And mak him ken himsel,'

is their portion in life; for whom the great epochs and never-to-beforgotten phases of existence are those which are occasioned by emotions inseparable from the consciousness of existence. For the great majority of his readers, and therefore for the mass of human beings, the sympathy which exists between him and them is sympathy relative to their strongest and deepest feelings, and this is sympathy out of which personal affection naturally springs, and in the strength of which it cannot but grow strong. In this light Burns clubs and Burns celebrations, excursions and pilgrimages to the land of Burns, manifestations of personal affection without parallel for range or depth in the history of literature, instead of misleading the critical judgment as to his poetry, are an infallible index to the truth respecting it—namely, that the passions which live in it and by which it lives are the essential passions of human


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