Robert Burns: The Voice Of The Scots People
( Originally Published 1912 )
WHEN one writes on Robert Burns with the hope of interesting Scots people, one is embarrassed by this double difficulty that the subject of this article presents so many different points of interest, and the audience to whom it is addressed is essentially though justly critical. Both difficulties point to the same solution, and assist a writer in bringing his subject to a focus. I do not, therefore, propose to discuss the technique of Burns's poetry, as, for instance, his metres, or to go into the history of his poems, as, for instance, tracing some of them in their ballad form, or to assign him his place in general literature, or to review the work which he did in English verse and prose. I shall confine myself to one point, and shall speak of Burns as the outcome of the Scots spirit; as the representative of Scots character; as the Lyric Poet of Scots life,-as being as nearly as possible the voice of the Scots people: Scotland both in her strength and in her tenderness, Scotland with her virile virtues and her virile faults, not the handful of people at the top of. society, not the refuse at the base, not the saints of Scotland, not her rascals either, but the nation, as the nation is, and the nation has done, and the nation has felt, and the nation has suffered, that Scotland speaks out in Burns:- He was with emphasis a Scotsman, and stands more perfectly for Scotland than any other writer of the first order. When he wanders into English verse or into English letter writing, he is not himself. " These English songs gravel me to death. -I have not the command of the language that I have of my native tongue, in fact I think that my ideas are more barren in English than in Scotch:` I have been at ` Duncan Gray' to dress it in English, but all I can do is desperately stupid." Some of his literary friends at one time advised him to compose in English lest he should cut himself off from the larger public, but both Mr. William Wallace, for whose admirable impartial life of Burns every Scotsman and every reading man should be most thankful, and Matthew Arnold, for whose estimate of Burns Scotsmen at least are not quite so grateful, both agree that in the English poems we have not the real Burns. The real Burns is the Burns who speaks the Scots dialect.
For the first feature in Burns which one faces is the hardness of his life from beginning to end. " Scarcely ever," says M. Taine,
was seen together more of misery and of talent:. He was born January 1759, amid the hoar-frost of a Scottish winter, in a cottage of clay built by his father, a poor farmer of Ayr-shire ='a sad condition, a sad country, a sad lot. It is hard to be born in Scotland, it is so cold there," concludes the Frenchman. Well, it has been bracing cold and has made strong men, but one may sadly admit it was a cold country for Burns; from his birth to his death he might be said to have lived and died in hoar-frost- One inevitably places Burns side by side with Scott, because the two completely represent Scotland upon all her sides and through all her traditions. Scott is possibly the finest character Scotland has ever produced, a gentleman without reproach and full of charity, and to him Tennyson paid a just tribute ---
" Oh ! great and gallant Scott,
Before Scott died he suffered cruelly and through suffering came to his height; but Scott belonged to the class which is largely shielded from hardship :he was not born into the lot of the common people, and did not taste of their cup.- That cup Burns drank to its dregs. The difference between English and Scots character may be referred among other causes to the bitter struggle which the Scots race have had with their soil and with their climate. Mr. Benjamin Swift says, " The Scotsman expects the worst, even from God . . .," while " the Englishman sees no reason for doubting that the Union Jack is flying at the gates of heaven." Whatever was arduous in life or in religion Burns experienced, as he toiled six days of the week and heard " black Jock Russel " thundering eternal woe on the seventh. He was brought up in a home where the wolf was ever at the door; he served as a ploughman in his early years; he was unsuccessful as a farmer; he had finally a poorly paid post in the Excise; he never knew the meaning of ease; at one time it seemed likely that he would have to emigrate; he had frequently to borrow from his friends; he was afraid lest his body should be seized for debt, and after his death a subscription was raised for his wife and children. He suffered at the hands of his father, whose nature was soured by adversity; and he was insulted by his future father-in-law, who did not judge him worthy of his daughter. He was disappointed of posts he wished to obtain, and he was badly treated by people who ought to have been kind to him., There was hardly any care or humiliation of common life which he did not share, and his life was one long toil from beginning to end, redeemed only by the affection of his wife and the loyalty of a few friends. When Scott visited Ireland in his old age a woman begged alms of him, and when he did not immediately respond she made this plea, " I'm an ould struggler," whereupon Scott turned. " An ould struggler," he said, " and so am I."
Burns did not live to be old; he was worn out soon as many poets have been, but throughout his seven-and-thirty years he was a struggler. He had just one pure satisfaction and that was his work, the inspiration of his soul, and he has described his own battle and his own victory.
" Now Robin lies in his last lair,
To tell the truth, they seldom fash't him,
Tho' he was bred to kintra wark,
Akin to the severity of Burns's circumstances was the virility of his character. It has not been for nothing that the thistle was assigned to Scotland as her national emblem and the rose to England, for through all their history the Scots people have been proud of their independence, jealous of every neighbour, rooted in their own ways, and difficult to coerce either in politics or religion. If they fought within their Kirk and the Calvinists and Arminians certainly fought hard in Burns's day they fought also for their Kirk and their Kirk for them. If they had some internal feuds in Scotland, they joined together almost as one man against their " auld enemie," England. The Scots have been a democratic people, and Burns is the poet of democracy.- There are two perfect war pieces in existence, and in both the note is resistance to tyranny and the victory of liberty. They are not the jingoism of militarism, or the rant of the pot-house, they are the song of patriot-ism; one is " The Marseillaise," which celebrated the deliverance of France from cruel and foul oppression under which neither the honour of a woman if she were poor nor the life of a man if he were a peasant was safe at the hands of the nobles, and the other is that war piece which Burns composed in a thunderstorm, and which` stirs the blood like the sound of pealing trumpets, " Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled." Burns was not an anarchist desiring to destroy the foundations of society, else he had not represented an orderly and law-abiding people, neither was he a cringing sycophant trembling before men of high estate. He believed that every man had a right to live and to think for himself, and that the standard of judgment must be not gold and silver, not titles and privileges, but mind and character; or as Burns calls them, sense and worth, and the very heart of the strong Scots folk beats in these verses
" A prince can mak a belted knight,
Then let us pray, that come it may,
Tyranny for Burns was embodied and localised in the factor, who has possibly been more detested in Scots country life than either Laird or Lord or any other ruler. Burns never forgot the threatening and insolent epistles which his father used to receive from what he calls the Scoundrel Tyrant, and which Burns declares used to reduce the family to tears. He was living then by himself in " the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing toil of a galley slave," and the " curse was clenched" by the hard hand of the factor. One understands what gave the spirit to " Scots wha hae " and " A man's a man for a' that."-- Burns is thinking of the humiliation and helplessness of a small farmer's home when the hand of the factor descends, and I do not know that the bitterness of the Scots heart when the countryman is trembling for his home before the local tyrant has ever been better described than in one verse of " The Twa Dogs "
" I've notic'd, on our laird's courtday,
One cannot read the story of the elder Burns's life, or Burns's own just protest against rural tyranny, without praying that the day may soon come when it will not be in the power of any man to close fifty homes at his will on a country side and drive forth fifty families of healthy, contented, loyal, God-fearing people, that the land be turned into a place of sport, and let for the amusement of some rich alien. There will never be perfect freedom in the land till the people be rooted on the soil, and the glens and straths of the land which God has given unto the nation for a heritage be studded with homes filled with country folk,
" wonderfu' contented,
The Jacobitism of Burns, which appears in some of his most agreeable poems, such as " Wha hae we gotten for a king, but a wee bit German lairdie," and " It was a' for our rightfu' king," is due partly to his heredity, since his people seem to have been out in the Fifteen, but partly of variant on the stern and ineradicable independence of the Scots people. The Scots are logical in their theology and, although this may seem a paradox, logical in their politics, for they fought the Stuarts when they were in power, and then they fought for them when they were in exile. They could not abide either home tyranny or alien tyranny, and being a romantic people also, the most romantic royal house in history appealed to their imagination much more than the Hanoverian Georges. And Burns there-fore felt no inconsistency in singing the praises of the Stuarts in one poem and celebrating the spirit of the French Revolution in the next.
Burns is distinguished even among poets by the breadth and depth of his sympathy, which indeed has no limits and no reserves. It has not been given to many to have a range which includes the " Cotter's Saturday Night," wherein Burns celebrates the excellence of simple family life
"To make a happy fireside clime
and " The Jolly Beggars," wherein he sings with utter abandonment the joys of Bohemian life. Whatever is human appeals to Burns as it did to Shakespeare, and therefore he numbers his clients among all classes, Puritans and Cavaliers, strict livers and free livers together. In the simple annals of the poor there never has been painted a kindlier or purer interior than that poem whose model is " The Farmer's Ingle," by Fergusson, where the priest of the family offers the evening prayer to God
"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,
And truly this is the highest side of Scots life
" From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs,
It was a genuine and sincere Burns who wrote those words, and in writing them he celebrated one of the high virtues of his people. It was also the same Burns expressing himself who described that other interior in Poosie-Nansie's lodging-house, where the vagabonds, male and female, are gathered at their supper. In this poem Burns lets himself go, and there is no question he goes at a rattling pace. Many have considered " The Jolly Beggars " the strongest thing which Burns ever did, and it were difficult to mention a piece with such an irresistible swing and so much unreserved sympathy with unredeemed humanity. Upon this piece Matthew Arnold's balanced criticism may be accepted. ln " The Jolly Beggars " there is more than hideousness and squalor, there is bestiality; yet the piece is a superb poetic success. It has a breadth, truth, and power which make the famous scene in " Auerbach's Cellar" of Goethe's Faust seem artificial and tame beside it, and which are only matched by Shakespeare and Aristophanes
"A fig for those by law protected!
This one also knows is a side of life, even in the Scotland of the Covenanters.
With nature in her every phase Burns's soul kept tune. With the daisy turned over by the plough on an April day,
" Wee, modest, crimson-tippθd flow'r,"
in whose doom he sees the fate of an artless maid by love's simplicity betrayed, and the fate of a simple bard,
" On life's rough ocean luckless starr'd ! "
He feels for the field-mouse, whose little nest had been turned up by the plough,
" Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie ";
and again he moralises in words better known than the perfect little poem itself
" But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
And he is furious as a wounded hare limps by which a fellow had shot
"Go live, poor wand'rer of the wood and field,
He will write good-humouredly of a creature which is not named in polite society, but which he detected airing itself upon a young lady's bonnet in the kirk, and he points the moral which is often quoted by people who do not know the subject of the poem
" O wad some power the giftie gie us
He has a kindly thought for saints and sinners, for beasts and men, for vermin and for out-casts, for witches, and even the enemy of us all is not outside his charity. And I will not say that Burns has not stirred an unconfessed echo in certain hearts with a last verse of his " Address to the Deil "
"But fare-you-weel, auld ' Nickie-ben' !
His sympathy with the wounded and the helpless was quite consistent with his merciless satire of unreality and hypocrisy, and therein he was a true Scot, for irony is the characteristic form of Scots humour. ' One can taste it in the poets before the Reformation, like Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, in Knox's History of the Reformation, and in modern days in Thomas Carlyle. The flavour is not wanting in Stevenson and Barrie, but there is only a faint suggestion in Scott, as for instance in that pious smuggling merchant of Redgauntlet. It is a pronounced and appetising trait in Scots literature, and survives pleasantly in a distinguished Edinburgh newspaper, which every Scotsman away from home reads with the greater relish because it has in its columns a breath of the snell east wind. Whether it be Lindsay or Burns, the subject of satire in Scots letters is almost always the Kirk, and this is not because the Scots are irreligious, or because the Kirk has been alien, but very largely because the Kirk has played such a part in the history of Scotland. The nation and the Kirk have been one, and the history of the people has been largely shaped by the Kirk; she has been a guardian of Scots liberty in many a crisis, but she has also been a very severe nurse of her children. The Kirk and Burns had their own special quarrel in which no one can justify the conduct of Burns, and it may be admitted that the Kirk was not very wise in her treatment of him. Apart, however, from any provocation which he gave to the guardian of morals in the land, the Kirk in the eighteenth century, or perhaps one may say conventional religion, presented two vulnerable points which a satirist could not resist attacking. Hypocrisy in its elementary sense of the double life had been raised to the level of genius, when a man like Lord Grange spent days in affecting exercises of penitence before the sacrament, and other days in immoral orgies. An extreme Calvinism was also preached which was an offence both to the reason and to the conscience, and one can easily trace the connection between the high doctrine and the low morals, since many were convinced that, as they were the elect of God's purpose, they could do as they pleased with His commandments. This was the national scandal which Burns pilloried in his " Address to the Unco Guid," and his description of the " Holy Fair," which was said have been drawn to the life, and in the most biting piece that came from his pen, where indeed the parchment was the flesh of a man, " Holy Willie's Prayer." Rabbi Duncan used to say that there was only one heresy, and that was Antinomianism, which really means that if a man holds the right creed he may live any kind of life, and this destructive delusion was never scarified in literature with such final success as in the prayer offered by the sanctimonious and evil living Ayrshire elder.
Antinomianism is pierced through the heart as with a dart when this worthless wretch lifts up his voice in all confidence ---
" O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
With this severity there has always gone in Scots character an underlying tenderness, and one makes bold to say that Strong as Burns was in that fierce satire which played like a flame of fire round the moral faults of his people, he came to his height not in bitterness but in kindness, not in comedy but in pathos. Matthew Arnold, with all his fine insight, made several memorable mistakes in criticism, and I think he was not perfectly just in his treatment of Burns. He gives him a high place, allowing that although his " world of Scotch drink, Scotch religion, and Scotch manners is against a poet," while the world of Chaucer is fairer, richer, more significant than that of the Ayrshire poet, yet Burns " is by far the greater force." He insists, however, that Burns is wanting in that note of high seriousness which is the infallible mark of the great classics. Arnold admits that Burns is not deficient in the sense of the tears of things, and one would hold that he has established his place among those who have worthily and poignantly depicted the tragedy of life in " Ae Fond Kiss, and then we sever," for has the vain regret ever been so perfectly expressed as in these lines
" Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
or in " Auld Lang Syne," especially in the two verses
"We twa hae run about the braes,
We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,
It seems to me that in another poem which it is true Burns did not so much create as adapt, and which is much less widely known, Burns comes quite as near to the heart of things as any man who ever wrote, and I think it is worth full quotation --
" It was a' for our rightfu' King
Now a' is done that men can do,
He turn'd him right and round about
The soger frae the wars returns,
When day is gane, and night is come,
Matthew Arnold, in spite of certain disabilities for the criticism of Burns, has done him on the whole so much justice that it may seem ungrateful to complain, but one must insist that if sincerity be the criterion of classical poetry, Burns is not wanting.
Here one is tempted to turn aside from the main road and make a brief comparison between Burns and that English poet who essayed the same task, and who owed himself so much to Burns. Wordsworth set himself to sing, " Of joy in widest commonalty spread," and he certainly has dealt with common life simply. There are those who object to poetry being mixed up with philosophy and on that account disparage Wordsworth, and there are those who profess themselves unable to distinguish his poetry from prose, and who permit themselves to make play with Wordsworth. On the other hand, a select number of fine minds, fine perhaps rather than strong, have always taken Wordsworth for a prophet, and one critic firmly believes that the poetical performance of Wordsworth is, " after that of Shakespeare, the most considerable in our language from the Elizabethan age to the present time."
Both Burns and Wordsworth dealt with country life, both wrote plainly, both pointed their moral, both had their message, and one need not ask which is the greater it is enough for us to note the difference of temperament. Wordsworth's gentle meditative verse is like a garden lake with goldfish swimming in it, Burns's strong stirring lines like the mountain torrent carrying everything before it. Wordsworth is a pleasure ground with simple flowers laid out in beds, but Burns is the mountain side with the billows of purple heather. One cannot forget that when Burns met Scott, who was only then a lad, the poet discerned coming greatness in him, and laying his hand upon his head conveyed to him the grace of literary succession. When Wordsworth visited Scott he received with much complacency Scott's generous tributes, but had not the heart to make any return. And when Scott went out upon one of his rambles, Wordsworth remained in the house in order to listen to the reading of his own poems. Each poet has had his own reward; Wordsworth's mission has been to an esoteric circle of self-conscious cultured people and anaemic ecclesiastics, while Burns has been the poet of the people, and with his verse so arch, so winsome, so tender, so merry, has thrust a song into the mouth of the man who holds the plough and the woman who milks the cow. No nation has such love-songs as Burns has given Scotland in " My luve's like a red, red rose," " The rigs o' barley," " Green grow the rashes, O!" " O whistle and I'll come to ye, my lad," " Comin' thro' the rye," besides many more, or such songs of pathos as " To Mary in Heaven," " Ye banks and braes o' bonnie .Doon," " John Anderson, my Jo," and "Auld Lang Syne." It is his glory and his claim upon national gratitude that he has made a proud and reserved people articulate, and has taught them to sing their loves and their wars in lines which have few rivals in the lyric poetry of the world.
When one is celebrating Burns, and especially when touching on his love-songs, one remembers Lord Rosebery's words concerning " the eternal controversy which no didactic oil will ever assuage, as to Burns's private life and morality." There are those who have done their best to minimise his faults, and I sympathise with the pious effort of Mr. William Wallace in that direction, and there are those who dwell upon his faults with gusto, and that is why one resents certain passages in the appreciation of Burns which concludes the very scholarly edition of Henley and Henderson. Why should Burns be specially selected for the pillory while the sins of other famous men are passed over?
This is a question which Lord Rosebery very justly asks, but which he does not answer. Probably the causes for this unwelcome discussion are, the close connection between Burns's poetry and his life, his poetry portraying its most deplorable passages in auto-biography; and the other reason is that the Scots Kirk was in the eighteenth century a severe censor of morals, and Burns was not able to sin in private. There never were such Pharisees as in that century, and therefore there never was a more bold Bohemian than Burns. One does not wish to linger on the subject, but I would offer with diffidence two remarks, certainly not by way of apology for evil living, but in order to place Burns's character in its right light. We cannot apply the same standard of judgment to every man, we must make some allowance for temperament, and especially for the rich and hot blood of poets from David to Burns. It would have been better without doubt for the world, for Jerusalem long ago, and for Ayrshire in the eighteenth century, if those two poets had been men of cold nature and prim respectability. They would not have sinned and they would not have suffered, and it is likely that they would not have written their masterpieces. Concerning their sinning one is inclined to quote the saying of a great Church Father regarding the fall of man, " O beata culpa." The passion which sent Burns into the far country opened his mouth in song, which is one of the arresting paradoxes of human nature.
One also would like to remind the public that Burns was not a sheer Bohemian, and to protest against the idea that unredeemed profligacy is a necessary condition of literary work. He was not a Scots Verlaine whose life was one course of foul living, abject pauperism, and occasional crime, varied by fits of remorse and a fine play of genius. Burns worked hard both in youth and manhood, he celebrated in undying verse the foolishness of sin and the virtues of domestic life. Amid a conflict of temptation he married Jean Armour, and was on the whole a kind husband to her, and a good father to his children. The faults of his early youth were many, and he never was a model of flawless perfection, but he was true to the great tradition of Scotland in magnifying the home, and his own home he dearly loved.
When one tries to estimate Burns's place, not in general literature, which is beyond the scope of this article, but in the Scots department, he has to guard against two ensnaring tendencies. One is so to emphasise his originality as to leave him a solitary phenomenon -- an Ayrshire ploughman who by miraculous inspiration suddenly opened his mouth and burst into undying song, a Melchizedec in literature without father or mother, beginning or end of days. The other is to treat him as simply a ballad improver taking old Scots verses and setting them in order. In fact there is no man without an ancestry and few are without descendants. No great poet has ever been the echo of other people, and yet no great poet could detach himself from the past. Burns was, in the genuine sense of the Scots word for poet, " a maker." He brought a mind of singular freshness and a genius of marked individuality to his work. It is also true that there stretched behind him a line of Scots poets, writing in a dialect which connects them with Chaucer. Burns had his distant ancestry in Lindsay, Montgomery, and Dunbar, and his nearer forebears in Sempill, Allan Ramsay, and poor unfortunate Robert Fergusson, whose grave Burns watered with tears, and whose tomb he built. - Many of Burns's finest poems are based on ballads which passed from mouth to mouth among the Scots people, just as Shakespeare obtained the plots of his plays from many quarters, and Chaucer reproduces Boccaccio, while that great Italian was himself only a collector. As Burns has been justly censured for the coarseness of certain verses, let it be never forgotten that every ancient ballad which he touched he purified, so that much Scots song which otherwise would have to-day been buried out of sight, having passed through Burns's hands like tainted water through a gravel bed, has flowed in purity into the main stream of literature. When Burns began to write, Scots literature was dead, for the brilliant Edinburgh school, Hume the philosopher, and Robertson the historian, and Blair the critic, were not writers of Scots literature, but Scotsmen in English literature. Burns was the heir of the national tradition, and he also was its climax. Perhaps there one must correct himself: he relit the torch of vernacular speech, and he passed it on to Scott, ordained by Burns as his successor.
One may never forget Burns's visit to Edinburgh, which is always a superior city, but was then to the last degree high and mighty. I do not say that Edinburgh treated Burns badly, for it showed him much kindness, and I do not say that Burns did not impress Edinburgh, for people never forgot his eyes, which glowed like coals of fire, and men like Dugald Stewart were enthusiastic about his conversation. But one is immensely tickled by the attitude of the Edinburgh critics to the Ayrshire poet, which was one of good-natured patronage. Dr. Hugh Blair, whose chief effort in criticism was affirming the authenticity of Macpherson's Ossian, and who was a figure of self-satisfied gentility, wrote a letter to Burns, which is altogether delightful, on the poet's return to Ayrshire. " You are now, I presume," says the old gentleman, " to retire to a more private walk of life, and I trust will con-duct yourself there with industry, prudence, and honour. In the midst of those employments which your situation will render proper, you will not, I hope, neglect to promote public esteem by cultivating your genius." And so on, concerning which one can only remark, that the idea of Dr. Blair patting Burns on the back is prodigious.
One is much interested in hearing Burns upon Blair. " In my opinion," says the poet, " Dr. Blair is merely an astonishing proof of what industry and application can do; he has a heart not of the finest water, but far from being an ordinary one; in short, he is a truly worthy and most respectable character." Admirable! That was just Dr. Blair" a most respectable character "; and when it is remembered that Blair, besides many lucrative posts, such as minister of the High Kirk and Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Edinburgh, enjoyed a pension of £20o per year for his literary attainments, one wishes that Robert Burns had been as kindly treated. Poetry is not reckoned a remunerative form of literature, and true poets are themselves rare. Why should any poet like Burns be left to toil and starve? One would not like to think of Burns as a poet laureate, a kind of higher servant attached to a palace, who comes at the summons of a bell, and takes directions about an ode on a birth or a marriage, but one would have been thankful if Pitt, who, as Lord Rosebery points out, passed on Burns " one of his rare and competent literary judgments," had placed the Scots poet beyond the reach of want, and since it was his lot to die young, had at least secured that Burns should have peace in his last days. But there is a just fate, and Blair had his good things in his own day and is now unread. Burns tasted little else but misery and now has come into his kingdom. " Don't be afraid," Burns said to his wife, " I'll be more respected a hundred years after I am dead than I am at present." The hundred years have more than passed, and Burns's hope has been more than fulfilled. While he lived Scotland had begun to love her chief poet, and now there is none born of woman, in her long history, whom Scotland loves more dearly, for Robert Burns was bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. He shared the lot of the people to its last grain in his labours, his sufferings, his sorrows, his sins. He has told what the people think and feel, and love and hate. An imperfect man, a sinning and foolish man if you please, but one of the twelve great poets of the human race, and in every drop of his blood, and in every turn of his thought, the poet of Scotland. We remember the joy he has brought to our lives, and the expression he has given to our sorrow. We remember how he stirs us as no other voice in poetry. And for the rest of it, to quote a passage of wise charity from a delightful book of letters published within recent years, " the most wholesome attitude is to be grateful for what in the way of work, of precept, of ex-ample these men achieved, and to leave the mystery of their faults to their Maker in the noble spirit of Gray's Elegy '
" No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Burns himself was ever anticipating his trial at the bar of human judgment, and he made his own irresistible plea for frail mortal man in the immortal words
" Then gently scan your brother Man,