Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 14. The Jolly Beggars; Tam o’ Shanter

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

X. Burns

§ 14. The Jolly Beggars; Tam o’ Shanter

Carlyle was the first to claim for The Jolly Beggars a superiority over Tam o’ Shanter. Few, perhaps, will admit so complete a superiority as he asserts, but the value of the criticism, so far as regards the praise of The Jolly Beggars, originally, in many quarters, only faintly tolerated, is now generally admitted. Here, we have a more varied and more intimate and vital presentation of certain types of human nature than in Tam o’ Shanter; and the detailed record of the vagabonds’ high festival affords wider scope for picturesque effects than the comparatively conventional and respectable carousal in the village alehouse. On the other hand, it seems a strange belittlement or misjudgment of Tam o’ Shanter to describe it as less a poem than “a piece of sparkling rhetoric,” and a still more questionable statement that it “might have been written all but quite as well by a man who, in place of genius, had only possessed talent.” Most other critics are still convinced that here, as in The Jolly Beggars, we have a superbly characteristic example of the rare genius of Burns, as developed by his special environment and his peculiarly mingled poetic training. Scott says: “I verily believe Tam o’ Shanter to be inimitable, both in the serious and ludicrous parts, as well as in the happy combination of both.” As to the relative merits of the two poems, Tam o’ Shanter is the more studied and mature production: when he wrote it, Burns was a more fully experienced, a better-read and a more highly trained, artist, than when, in a fit of fine inspiration, he dashed off The Jolly Beggars; and he himself says of it that it “shewed a finishing polish,” which he “despaired of ever excelling.” The felicity and terse compactness and vividness of its phrasing—notwithstanding an occasional looseness, as was customary with him, in riming—are unsurpassable; and, as for the alehouse fellowship of Tam and Souter Johnie, and the skelping ride of the primed farmer through the eerie region in the wild night, genius could hardly better these; while the thunder and lighting storm, and the witches’ hornpipes and reels at haunted Alloway, with Auld Nick himself as musician, are certainly more strictly poetical and more thrilling than the presentation of squalid revelry in the low Mauchline lodging-house. But the poems are really so dissimilar in theme and method that a comparison of their respective merits is somewhat difficult and, more or less, futile. In both, Burns affords us a more splendid glimpse than elsewhere of his poetic possibilities, had fortune favoured their full development.

But the dilemma of Burns was that the very circumstances which favoured him in making him become the unique peasant poet that he was, tended, also, to preclude the adequate fulfilment of his poetic aspirations; and there were, also, certain peculiarities in his case which made the adverse circumstances in the end all-powerful. Thus, apart from songs, Tam o’ Shanter and Captain Matthew Henderson are the only poems of any special importance produced by him after 1787; though various election pieces, if not particularly excellent specimens of wit, cleverly reproduce the manner and style of the old ballads. Except as a song-writer, the really fruitful period of his genius is confined to the year or two, when, together with other members of the family, he occupied Mossgiel, in the stable-loft bothy of which—where, for lack of room in the farmhouse, he took up his quarters with the farm-servant—he, in the evening, elaborated the verses he had been conning over during his daily avocations. Hard and toilsome as was his daily round of labour, and dreary and disappointing as were his immediate prospects as a farmer, the horizon of his future had not yet been definitely circumscribed and hope was still strong within him. While his misfortunes as a farmer overset, as he says, his wisdom, made him careless of worldly success and caused him to seek consolation in social diversions not always of a quite harmless character, they augmented, rather than diminished, his poetic ambitions; and when, after the enthusiastic reception in Ayrshire of the Kilmarnock volume, he left the plough to seek his fortune in Edinburgh, it was probably with high hopes of a possible future essentially different from his bleak and toilsome past.