The Influence of Burns Over Whittier
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A SCOTCH tramp visited the house of the father of John Greenleaf Whittier in the country, when the latter was a boy. The tramp having been fed in the kitchen, sang some songs of Burns—" Highland Mary," " Bonnie Doone" and " Auld Lang Syne." The boy was wild with delight; this appreciation was evidence that he possessed poetic instinct, for Britain, since the days of Elizabeth had heard few such songs as those of Burns. When Whittier was fourteen, his first school-teacher, Joshua Coffin, while on a visit to his house read some selections from a volume of Burns' poems. The boy was so pleased with them that he asked the teacher to lend him the volume, which he did. Whittier, in a leaflet says, " This was about the first poetry I had ever read, with the exception of that of the Bible (of which I had been a close student), and it had a lasting influence upon me." The soul of the boy at this time was in such a receptive condition, that any true poet coming to him would have excited his admiration and imitation; but it was peculiarly fortunate that Burns came to him at the start. This poor Scotch gardener, with scanty wages, living in a poor man's house, struggling against all kinds of misfortune and weakness, with genius enough to be the poet-laureate of the realm, but hired by the government to a menial task at fifty pounds a year, and yet discovering the richest truth in the most unlikely places, the purest gold in the roughest rocks, the costliest pearls in the homeliest shells ; finding the splendors of a palace under the roof of straw, the beauties of paradise amid the humblest earthly scenes, the divinest instincts in the breast of the lowliest and most forgotten, with a heart of sympathy for everything God has made, even the little mice in the nest upturned by the plow, pouring the wealth of his affection without stint upon the hearts of his fellow men; this is the poet whose verses fell like a fresh revelation upon the heart of a poor son of a poor farmer at Haverhill. What a pity that the Scottish bard should have had a will so weak, and appetites so strong, and that his rising sun, which promised such a glorious day, should have gone down at noon! But he wrote some things that will last as long as the English language is spoken. What Burns was to Scotland, Whittier has been to America. Whittier had many of the virtues of Burns with none of his vices, and from first to last, made the poetry of the Bard of Ayr his model. His master piece, "Snow Bound," is in imitation of Burns' " Cotter's Saturday Night," but is in every way superior to it, and is likely to live as long as the literature of the nation endures.
Who can calculate the power of a book; the power of a book upon the mind of a child ! What care there ought to be in the selection of books for children, since the intellectual companionship is so potential ! What a power one brilliant personality has over another! The better spirit of Burns was so inbreathed into that of Whittier that his songs in melody and charm seemed akin to those of the Scottish bard. There is a law that mind is permeable by mind. Wherever in the universe there are two spirits, each may be inbreathed into the other. By this law the uncreated Spirit can dwell in the created one. The Holy Spirit can be inbreathed into a human soul ; illuminating the intellect, purifying the affections, regulating the conscience, directing the will, and filling it with songs of sweetest melody, and prompting it to the divinest service.