Imágenes de páginas

and melancholy, from which he suffered all his life, as the result o! being made to do a man's work when he was a boy; but for his being 'half fed, half sarkit,' too literally and too long not to be rendered 'half mad' as well, it is open to a candid judgment to suppose that the thoughtless follies' which ‘laid him low,' would not have been committed, at any rate would not have cut half as formidable a figure as they do in the count and reckoning of some of the honorary sheriffs and respectable aldermen of literature. But however it may have been that the relations of intellect and passion were imperfectly or ill adjusted in his life, their perfect harmony is the marvel and the glory of his song. Passages indeed from various pieces of his, perhaps whole pieces, could be cited which fall below the level of poetry in the strictest sense of the word, for which no higher character can be claimed than that of rhymed prose, because sense and sagacity or wit and humour predominate in them in too marked a degree over feeling and imagination. It is as if the balance, 'rarely right adjusted,' in his life, swung heavily sometimes in his verse to the other side. But it is only where it is chargeable with this excess of sense, or where it is written in that English tongue of which he never attained any mastery in verse, that his poetry falls short of excellence as regards the union of intellect and passion, the union of which is the first condition of poetical vitality. His passions, according to a well-known account of them from the best authority, ‘raged like so many devils' till they found vent in rhyme. They could not have raged more or raged less any day without perhaps marring the perfection of a stanza or a song which has almost the perfection of the work of Shakespeare or of nature. His one poetical failing, besides being one which leans to virtue's side, is exhibited for the most part only where it is harmless—in his epistles, satires, and especially his epigrams. His songs, on which after ali his fame must mainly rest, are free from it, though even in them passion is governed and moderated in such a manner that in the whole collection of them there is abundant evidence of sense and sanity which it would have been fatal to obtrude in any one of them. His claim to be considered the first of song-writers is hardly disputed. It is a claim which rests upon scores of lyrics, each of which might be cited as an instance of lyrical passion at its best and highest. Lyrical passion in his case drew its strength from various and opposite sources, from the clashing experiences, habits and emotions of a nature which needed nothing so much as regulation and harmony. But it is itself harmony as perfect as the song of the linnet and the thrush piping to a summer evening of peace on earth and glory in the western sky. Whatever the poet's eye has seen of beauty, or his heart has felt of mirth or sad. ness or madness, melts into it and becomes a tone, a chord of music of which, but for one singer, the world should hardly have known the power to thrill the universal heart. He could not begin to write a song till he had crooned over and got into his head some old air to which words might be adapted. Only when his songs are sung are they legitimately said, is the melody of them vocalised. Their affinity with music by origin and by use is only symbolic of the harmony to which lyrical passion in them has set the incongruous facts and experiences of human life and destiny. The best of them are serious and pathetic, like Mary Morison, My Nanie O, Of a the airts the wind can blaw; but serious and pathetic like these, or arch and airy and humorous like Tam Glen and Duncan Gray, they draw upon sources of melody of which Tibullus and Petrarch and Beranger had almost as little knowledge as of the sources of the Lugar or of the banks of Bonie Doon.

Like Shakespeare, Burns is almost as great in the matter of borrowing as in that of originality. His measures are without exception those with which he was familiar in his favourites and predecessors, Ramsay and Fergusson, or in the ballads and songs which the stream of time might be said to have irought down to his poetical mill. His Cotter's Saturday Night is modelled upon Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle; his Holy Fair upon the same poet's Leith Races. His epistles are Ramsay's and Fergusson's in form and spirit, only instinct with a kind of genius to which neither Ramsay nor Fergusson had any pretensions. One stanza in which he wrote a great deal, for which among poetical measures he had as much partiality as he had for winter among the seasons, or the mavis among birds, or humanity among the virtues, and which his readers, even Scotch readers, find it sometimes hard to endure, was no doubt made classical to him and informed with music by its having been made use of by predecessors of his, of whose genius he had formed a most generous and uncritical estimate.

His best work is distributed over three periods, into which his poetical life can be most easily divided—the first marked by the publication of his poems at Kilmarnock, 1786, when he was at the age of twenty-seven ; the second comprehending the extraordinary fertility of his later residence in Ayrshire (at Mossgiel), and ter.

minating in 1788, and the third being the melancholy last years at Ellisland and Dumfries, in which his recreation was to give to his country and the world a store of songs, original and amended, such as no other country possesses. The Jolly Beggars, that incomparable opera in which critical genius of the highest order has discovered the highest flight of his poetical genius, belongs to the first period, though not published till after his death, The Cotter's Saturday Night belongs to the same period. My Nanie 0 is one of its songs. As regards humour and imagination it could be represented either by Death and Doctor Hornbook, or the Address to the Deil, or The Holy Fair. With reference to the work which was done by him before the close of this period, considering its quality and variety, considering how much of it is destined to hold a permanent place in literature, Burns is perhaps to be regarded as the most remarkable instance on record of the precocity of genius, at any rate poetical genius. It would be difficult to point to a single rival for poetical fame who before the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven had contributed as much to the stock of literature, exempt for ever from oblivion. He was in this sense something of the prodigy which, in respect of his being born a peasant, Jeffrey would not allow him to be considered.

In each of these three periods of his poetical life he was at his best in one or other of the departments of song in which his greatness is least open to question. To Ellisland and Dumfries, the last of the three, besides Tam o' Shanter and Captain Grose, belongs the glory of that marvellous series of songs, new and old, original and improved, which it was the unhappy excisemanpoet's one pure delight to contribute to the Miscellanies in which they appeared. Whether his genius was exhausted by the activity of these ten or a dozen years, or whether, if his life had been prolonged, he might not have undertaken and accomplished some even greater task than any he had attempted, is a question to which no very certain answer can be given. He might have done something to diminish the interval between him and the poets of the first order --those whose poetry includes character and action as well as passion. He was ambitious of doing something of the kind. At one time the scheme of an epic, at another the plans for a tragedy were revolved in his mind. But if we may judge from a fragment of his intended drama, from the quality of his English verses, or from the leading features of his character, it seems unlikely that he would under any circumstances have made a nearer approach than he has done, or than that other passionate pilgrim of the realm of song, Byron, has done, to Milton or Shakespeare. His nearest approach to Shakespeare and Milton must be held to be that he wrote for the same theatre as they-not for an age, but for all time.

If only because the essential passions of human nature are so peculiarly and exclusively the sphere in which his genius moves, the question whether on the whole the influence of his poetry is whole. some, is a question touching the perpetuity of his fame. It is the native sphere of morality and religion in which his genius disports itself, and hence, though it cannot be required of poetry that it should directly inculcate virtue and piety, yet poetry like his has only the choice of recognising at their proper value the highest instincts and feelings of human nature, or ensuring its own consignment to neglect and oblivion by clashing with them. For, as critics have at length discovered, poetry is not meant for critics but for mankind. If it is of use to mankind it has a chance of life ; if not it must die. On these terms, like other poets, Burns is a competitor for immortality, and on these terms, though his claim has been variously judged, it is now generally admitted to be strong. It is true, as has been already acknowledged, that touches of grossness and obscenity disfigure some of his best pieces, and are the execrable characteristics of some of his worst. It is true also that religious people have had much fault to find with The Holy Fair and Holy Willie, and other satires of his in which religious, or rather ecclesiastical things and personages, have been held up to ridicule and

But the one fault he shares with many of his brother poets whose immortality is not doubtful; the other to most persons is rendered venial by a doubt as to whether it is not rather a capital merit than an unpardonable sin. His morality is not always perfect ; sometimes it sanctions or applauds what cannot be defended. But he never ridicules religion except when the religion in question is in the nature of things ridiculous, and only not so by an accident of time or place. On the other hand, it is a world from which virtue and piety are not absent into which he habitually escapes from scenes in the actual world in which, with most of his generation, he was tempted to linger too long and too agreeably. Sordid and even revolting as some of these scenes are, they are yet to the reader of all that he has written only grotesque openings into a world beyond and above them in which everythin; fair ard good has its own place-love and truth, joy in all that is pure and high, sorrow over all that is weak and low and sad, in the life of man. Hypocrisy, superstition, fanaticism owe bim a heavy grudge. But in Scotland at least, and where The Holy Fair is remembered and Holy Willie is not unknown, spiritual religion owes him little but thanks.


On this subject only a word more need be said. Burns lives above ail, and is destined to live, in his songs. In them, at any rate, he lives for an infinitely larger public than knows much of him as the author of Halloween or The Jolly Beggars. By his songs, though they too furnish his more austere censors with complaint, the service which he rendered to morality and religion is one the value of which can hardly be over-estimated. It is a remarkable fact that a country, the history of which is so much, as that of Scotland is, a history of religious or at any rate ecclesiastical events, especially battles, a country too which has not been unprolific in poetical talent, should have given birth to almost no religious poetry worth the name. Yet hardly is religious poetry a more prolific crop in the country of Dunbar and Burns and Scott than figs or peaches or bananas. It may be after all that other passions than those spiritual ones which find expression for themselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, have been chiefly concerned in those religious movements of which Scottish history is a tedious record. But be that as it may, Burns inherited from his poetical ancestry a wealth not of hymns but of songs and ballads, chiefly of course amatory. They inspired him with harmonies compared with which they are themselves harsh and out of tunethe inimitable airs to which they were sung were reverberated from his mind in words in which there is the very soul of melody. In this process of transmitting what he received from the past to the future to which he looked forward as a better day for all mankind, he changed, as regards morality, silver into gold, dirt into the fragrance of lilies and violets, foul dirt into the breath of meadows and of shady paths through woods and by the banks of murmuring streams. As a reformer of one branch of literature, when centuries that are centuries still have dwindled into years, he may perhaps be named along with John Knox and Walter Scott in the history of the Scottish Reformation. Anyhow, judged by liis songs, Burns' fame has little to sear from any question being raised as to whether the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the instance of his poetry is really what it seems-a tree that is good for food and pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.


« AnteriorContinuar »