Page images

Robert Burns,

“ The Ayrshire Ploughman,” as he was first called, -or Burns, as he shall for ages be known by a monosyllable that will need neither prefix nor adjunct to designate to whom “ of that ilk” it belongs, -Burns was so truly a born-poet (if ever there was one), that whatever tended to develop his powers must be peculiarly interesting and instructive to all who love to trace in “ the minstrel” the “

progress of genius ;" while, in this place, I trust that it will, in some measure, elucidate the main principles which I have endeavoured to establish in these papers respecting poetry and poets. Religion, patriotism, and love were, in succession or in combination, the inspirers of the poetry of Robert Burns :- when he wrote on other themes, he too frequently desecrated the talents which their sublimer impulses had awakened, trained, and perfected. In broad humour, too, and keen satire, he excelled. It is true, that in both of these he went grievously astray; yet, amid the rudest extravagances of either, that intensity of feeling which belonged to the higher sentiments above mentioned often broke out in sallies of noble thought, and splendid imagination; which showed that his spirit had not lost “all its original brightness,” when it seemed most “ fallen.”

The letter which he addressed to Dr. Moore, soon after his appearance as an author, in which he gives an account of his early life, proves that religion made a powerful impression on his mind, in the very dawn of infancy; of course, it must have influenced, in a high degree, the growth and character of his genius. Several of the most beautiful and affecting stanzas in “The Cotter's Saturday Night,” in which the bard is known to have described the felicities of his father's fireside, touch upon the principal subjects of Holy Writ with such truth and pathos as to leave no doubt that “the Day-spring from on high,” which shines through the Psalms and Prophecies, had lighted up his young imagination ; while the simplicity of evangelical narrative and the fervency of apostolic teaching had captivated his soul, and engaged the finest sensibilities of a heart not yet corrupted by commerce with a profligate world. To the cherished remembrance of early devotional enjoyments, and to a happy talent for imitating the language of the sacred penmen, the best productions of Burns are indebted for much of their energy of expression and elevation of ideas, -their purity, tenderness, and force.

But the wild minstrelsy of his native land, unrestrained and irregular, and infinitely variable,-confined indeed within a narrow circle, but that circle a magic one; and limited to a single key, but that key having a minor third of passing sweetness,-contributed likewise to rouse his fancy, exercise his feelings, and enrich his memory with images and sentiments at once noble and natural ; while its melodies, that flowed around him, were mingled in his ear and associated in his thoughts, with all the harmonies of nature heard amid forests and mountains,—the music of birds, and winds, and waters, which they resembled in unmeasured fluency and spontaneous modulation. Then, too, the tales of tradition, which he listened to from the lips of an ancient beldam, made him the inhabitant of an imaginary world, wherein all that

- Fable yet had feigned or fear conceived”.

was realized to him ; for he was a thoughtful and solitary boy, and, in solitude and thought, he peopled every scene that was dear and familiar to his eye with spirits and fairies, witches and warlocks, giants and kelpies. It is evident, from almost all his pieces, that it was his delight, indeed it was his forte, to

localize the personages of his poetry,-- whether the offspring of his brain, like Coila ; supernatural beings, like the dancers in Kirk Alloway; or national heroes, like Wallace and Bruce,-with the very woods, and hills, and streams which he frequented in his boyhood. And in his mind this assimilation was so lively and abiding, that there are few of his descriptionsdescriptions in number, diversity, and picturesque features seldom equalled-on which he has not cast such sunshine of reality, that we cannot doubt that they had their prototypes in nature, and not in nature only, but in his native district; for neither his knowledge nor his affections were ever carried far beyond the province of his birth; and beyond Scotland they scarcely extended at all. It is probable that the mind of every one of us lays the scenes of Scripture narrative, of history, of romance, of epic poetry,-in fact, of all that we hear or read of, -in the places where we spent our childhood and youth; as, for example, the garden of Eden in our father's orchard, where there were many fruit trees; the battle of Cannæ on the wide common, intersected with trenches, where a conflict is said to have been fought between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians in the civil war; the enchanted castle of some stupendous giant to have stood on the hill where the ruins of a Saxon tower rise on a mount out of a thick wood; and the pursuit of Hector by Achilles round Troy walls, as having taken place about the nearest market town that we knew when we first read Homer. Each individual, of course, will have a different series of ninemonics of this kind, which he will find himself continually associating with the scenes of great events in the world's records and traditions. It is of some advantage, then, to the poet, that the features of the landscapes amid which he first dwelt, but more especially those of the neighbourhood where he long went to school, should afford rich and plastic materials, which imagination can diversify a million-fold, and so accommodate as to make them the perpetual theatre of all that he has been taught to remember concerning those who have lived before him, and all that he invents to increase the pleasures of memory, to those that shall come after him. For it is not from the real and visible presence of things that the poet copies and displays; wherever he is, whatever clinies he sees, his “heart” is “ still untravelled ;” and it is from the cherished recollections of what early affected him, and could never afterward be forgotten (having grown up into ideal beauty, grandeur, and excellence in his own mind), that he sings, and paints, and sculptures out imperishable forms of fancy, thought, and feeling. In this respect, all the compositions of Burns are homogeneous. He is in every style, in every theme, not only the patriot, the Scotchman,-but the Scotchman, the patriot of Ayrshire ; so dear and indissoluble are the ties of locality to minds the most aspiring and independent.

Burns, according to his own account, was distinguished in childhood by a very retentive memory. In the stores of that memory we discover the hidden treasures of his muse, which enabled her, with a prodigality like that of nature, to pour forth images and objects of every form, and colour, and kind, while, with an economy like that of the most practised art, she selected and combined the endless characteristics of pleasing or magnificent scenery, with such simplicity and effect, under every aspect of sky or season, that the bard himself seems rather to be a companion pointing out to the eye the loveliness or horror of a prospect within our own horizon, than the enchanter creating a fairy scene visible only to imagination. He appears to invent nothing, while in truth he exercises a much higher faculty than what is frequently called invention, but which is little more than an arbitrary collocation of things, harmonious only when arranged by the hand

The ge

that built the universe, or faithfully copied from origi. nal models of that hand by an earthly one, which presumes not to add a lineament of its own. nius of Burns, like his native stream, confined to his native district, reflects the scenery on “the Banks of Ayr” with as much more truth and transparency than factitious landscapes are painted in the opaque pages of more ostentatious poets, as the reflections of trees, cottages, and animals are more vivid and diversified in water than the shadows of the same objects are on land.

While yet a child, in addition to his school-learn. ing, the Life of Hannibal, and afterward the History of Wallace, fell into his hands.

These were the first books that Burns had read alone,--and in all the luxury of solitary indulgence, he stole away from toil and from pastime to enjoy them without interruption. These were also the books best suited to his genius at that age : they awoke the boldest energies of his mind, and kindled an inextinguishable fame of heroic ardour and patriotic devotion in his bosom. The child became a soldier immediately, as every lad does in his turn: the drum and the bagpipe spake a new language to his ear, and were answered in corresponding tones from the recesses of his heart. He left his boyish sports, and strutted after the recruiting sergeant in the spirit of Hannibal overrunning Italy, or Wallace repelling the rav. agers of his country. Thus, the character of grandeur was stamped upon his soul while it was soft in the mould: he becaine a hero before he was a man; and, which was of much greater consequence to his future glory, before he was a lover. His genius was hewn out of the quarry with the strength and proportions of a Hercules: love, indeed, afterward touched it down into a gentler form, but love himself could not reduce it to an Adonis ; the original majesty remained after the original ruggedness had been chiselled away. The graces may be added to


« PreviousContinue »