Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

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 Bannock burn, 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. e 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 com prehensive 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, and 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

nature

Of these plain 'good masters' his princely intellectual gifts are the humble and faithful servants. His imagination, humour, pathos, the qualities in respect of which his genius is most powerful and opulent, are without reserve placed at their disposal and submitted to their dictation. His genius might possibly have elected to move sometimes in a different sphere, but this is the sphere in which its creative force is habitually spent. Words and phrases which derive their significance from what belongs to it are those that recur oftenest in his best and in his worst lines, and linger in our ears with the airs to which his songs are sung. As part and parcel of its contents, and as they are assorted in its compass, 'freedom and whisky gang thegither' in his rhymes; so do mirth and care, despair and rapture, pride of birth and pride of worth, love and sorrow and death, auld acquaintance not to be forgotten, social inequalities not to be forgiven, hypocrisy at its prayers, and commiseration for the wretched which extends to the brute creation and cannot be withheld from the devil. That the worst of it as well as the best of it has power over him is the most that can be said in the way of censure or in the way of excuse in regard to that capital fault of his, a relish for grossness and even obscenity in the choice and treatment of his themes, which gives occasion to turgid moralists to talk of him as at once the glory and the shame of literature, and which, as disfiguring some of his best pieces no one has more reason to regret than he who has to do justice to the genius of the poet by making a selection from his works.

Genius can explain everything except itself. In this limitation of his genius to one sphere of activity we have, however, not only some explanation of the place which Burns occupies in European literature and European history, but also a revelation of the inner structure and quality of his genius. Genius which in every case eludes and defies definition is by this restriction of its operations shown to be in his case, more than most, synonymous with force of mind, that force which cleaves its way through the shows of things to the reality behind theni and beyond them:

"The heart ay's the part ay

That makes us right or wrang.'

To say that this is his poetical creed is to say that poetical genius in his case is akin to or identical with 'majestic common sense,' an intellect of singular power to penetrate appearance and become conversant with reality and truth-that reality and truth which are

to be found, if anywhere, in the sphere of the passions and emotions of which he is the laureate. He is closer to this reality than other poets because his mental force is greater than theirs and carries him farther and straighter from the surface of things towards the centre. His poetry makes a gift again to folly of that definition of poetry which was presented by folly to stupidity -that is the best poetry which is the most feigning. It feigns not at all when it is at its best, and hardly any when it is at its worst. So much reality is there in it to the experience of common mortals, that it is commonly mistaken among them for useful information for the people. Where it is not understood as comprehending the choicest products of imagination, humour, pathos, it is admired and valued as a repertory of oracular wisdom. When it is denied the welcome to which it is entitled as song, the gift of the gods, it is sure of applause as the 'pith of sense,' of which every man as he believes has his own share. Genius in the case of Burns is thus shown to be compact of sense, sagacity, intelligence of a power ul and piercing order, general force of mind to which nature and life cannot but yield up their deepest secrets. It is in the sphere of the essential passions of human nature that reality lies. That Burns, in a manner all his own, is rigid, not consciously always, but instinctively, in adhering to this sphere, is evidence that what takes in him the form and fashion of genius is common sense.

A melancholy or rather a mournful interest attaches to several of his poems—A Bard's Epitaph for example, and the Epistle to a Young Friend—as showing that intellect and passion were as far from being perfectly adjusted in his life as they have been in the lives of many other sons of genius. That they were not on better terms with each other than they actually were, it may be, is a matter which calls rather for regret than for amazement. Considering what nature made him and what his destiny was, considering how rudely in his case the sensibilities of a gifted soul clashed with the exigen · cies of a sordid lot, it is possibly not a matter for as much astonishment as has been sometimes expressed, that the last chapter of his history should be one which cannot be read without a pang of sorrow for the degradation of genius. Had he been a struggling tradesman in Paris instead of a struggling farmer in Ayrshire and a measurer of ale-firkins at Dumfries, Burns would no doubt have lived and died with a reputation for sobriety as unimpeachable as that of Beraner. But for that insanity, compounded of headache

« AnteriorContinuar »