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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 13. The Cherrie and the Slae stave

Another important stave of Burns is that used by Montgomerie in The Cherrie and the Slae. In this stave, Thomas Howell also wrote A Dreame, published in his Devises, 1581; but The Cherrie and The Slae was, probably, written before Howell’s poem; and, in any case, there is proof of the use of the stave in Scotland before Howell’s volume appeared, and of its earliest use by a Scottish poet having been by Montgomerie: Ane Ballat of ye Captane of the Castell (1571), is described as “maid to the tone of The Bankis of Helicon,” of which Montgomerie was the author. The peculiarity of the stave is the final wheel of four—properly six—lines, borrowed from a stave of the old Latin hymns, and affixed to a ten-line stave, common from an early period in English verse.

Though revived by Ramsay for The Vision and other poems, there are not any examples of it in Fergusson. With Burns, however, The Cherrie and The Slae, which he had doubtless seen in Watson’s Choice Collection, was a special favourite, and he refers to The Epistle to Davie as in the metre of that poem. Besides The Epistle to Davie, he had recourse to it for To the Guidwife of Wauchope House, and for the purely English Despondency, To Ruin, Inscribed on a Work of Hannah More’s and The Farewell. All these, more or less, are gravely reflective or didactic in tone, as, indeed, is also The Cherrie and The Slae; but, in the two opening, and the final, recitativos of the boisterous Jolly Beggars, he made use of it for humorous descriptive purposes with a picturesque felicity not surpassed in verse.

For the other descriptive recitativos of this unique cantata, he employed the ballad octave of two rimes, of which there is also an example in his Man was made to Mourn; the French octave or ballad royal (which, though not found in Ramsay or Fergusson, was used by Alexander Pennecuick for his semivernacular Truth’s Travels, but which Burns—who, later, used it for the Lament and the Address to Edinburgh—probably got from The Evergreen), very properly recommended by James VI for “heich and grave subjects,” but, on that very account, all the more effective where gravity is burlesqued; the octosyllabic couplet, used, also, in The Twa Dogs and Tam o’ Shanter; the six-line stave in rime couée; the common ballad stave of four rimes, of which there are various examples in Ramsay, and to which Burns had recourse for An Address to the Unco Guid and Epistle to a Young Friend; and the Christis Kirk stave. The cantata thus samples all his principal Scots staves, though omitting the Sir Thopas stave of The Epistle to Lord Daer and Fintry My Stay, the modified Killychrankie form of the ballad stave, as exemplified in Guildford Good and the heroic couplet of the partly English and partly Scots Brigs of Ayr. Compact and short as are the recitativos of The Jolly Beggars, Burns never employed their staves to more brilliant purpose. The songs, again, with which they are interspersed, are, as already stated, modelled after those to be found in the Choice Song-Books or in Herd’s Collection; and very similar songs, though ruder in their form and coarser in their expression may actually have been sung by different members of the ragged fraternity, in the course of the carousal of which Burns was a witness.

Burns was unacquainted with the bulk of old English plays, treatises and songs, dealing with the fortunes of beggars, vagabonds and outlaws; but he had probably read Gay’s Beggars’ Opera; he knew, of course, the clever Scottish ballads The Gaberlunzie Man and The Jolly Beggar; and he evidently got faint hints from The Happy Beggars—an excerpt from Charles Coffey’s ballad opera, The Beggar’s Wedding—and The Merry Beggars of Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany and the song-books. The poem is, also, modelled on the burlesque odes and cantatas of the period; but the wonder is that, such being the case, the curious metrical medley should be such a captivating masterpiece. True, it has a certain advantage, even in its complete singularity, as an assortment of old Scottish staves, interlaced with songs characteristically Scots or Anglo-Scots in their style and manner. All this aids the vivid picturesqueness of the presentation; but only the fact that the subject appealed, in a very special way, to peculiarities of the poet’s temperament and genius can account for the striking character of his artistic triumph.