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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

§ 16. His Songs and Adaptations

Happily, however, he all along found some encouragement and opportunity for the exercise of his gifts as a song writer. While in Edinburgh, he made the acquaintance of James Johnson, an engraver and music-seller, who was then preparing the first volume of his Scots Musical Museum. To the first volume, he contributed two songs; and, from the autumn of 1787 almost until his death, he was largely both literary and musical editor of the work. He wrote the prefaces probably of volume II and certainly of volumes III and IV; volume V did not appear until shortly after his death, but it includes some of his best songs and adaptations, among them A Red, Red Rose, Auld Lang Syne and It was a’ for our Richtfu’ King; while volume VI, though not published until 1803—doubtless largely due to the lack of his supervising help—was in course of preparation before his death, and contains some twenty of his contributions. All that he did for the publication was, with him, a mere labour of love. He received no remuneration for it, nor would he have accepted any. In his efforts on its behalf, he was influenced partly by the desire to help “a good, worthy, honest fellow” in a patriotic undertaking, the lucrative character of which was very doubtful, and which, without his guidance and help, seemed almost certain to collapse. But to assist in it was, besides, a pure delight: he confided to the poet Skinner that he had “been absolutely crazed about the project,” and was “collecting stanzas and every information respecting their origin, authors, etc.” Most of this did not involve any protracted mental effort. He could amend songs with easy facility, and he could even partly compose others during his labours on the farm, or in the course of his excise excursions, which, also, supplied him with opportunities for obtaining old songs and airs from tradition.

While Burns was still busy assisting Johnson, George Thomson—a government clerk in Edinburgh and an amateur musician—invited him, in September, 1792, to contribute songs to his Scottish Airs with Poetry, to which Pleyel had promised accompaniments; and, without remitting his diligence in assisting Johnson, he could not resist immediately informing Thomson how delighted he was with his proposal, which, he said, “will positively add to my enjoyment in complying with it.” But, though Thomson, also, mentioned that he would pay him any reasonable price he might demand for his contributions, Burns replied: “As to remuneration, you may think my songs either above or below price, for they shall absolutely be the one or the other.” In his difficult worldly circumstances, it was a noble, though almost Quixotic, resolve; but, apart from the fact that he was not receiving any remuneration from Johnson, he was determined to be influenced by no other considerations than love of his art, and to be perfectly free and independent in the exercise of it. He did not object to change lines and word when he thought that, while satisfying his own judgment, he might better meet the wishes of Thomson; he did not resent even Thomson’s most absurd suggestions; but he was adamant when convinced that any alterations would be for the worse, though he told Thomson repeatedly, and evidently with perfect candour, that he would not be in any degree offended by his rejection of any songs that did not please him.

The prosecution of his art, even in this circumscribed fashion, became, to Burns, the sheet-anchor of his life, and his main solace during the troubles and frustrations of his later years. On the whole, the best of his work was that which he did for Johnson. He began it when hope was still high within him, and here he was, besides, his own editor. Moreover, although, in his first letter to Thomson, he had written: “Apropos, if you are for English verses there is an end of the matter,” he was ultimately induced, entirely against his better judgment, to oblige Thomson by not unfrequently breaking his resolution. “Whether in the simplicity,” so he had written, “of the Ballad or the pathos of the Song, I can only hope to please myself in being allowed at least a sprinkling of my native tongue”; and the justness of his preference is abundantly proved by his performances.

If lyric verse did not afford Burns adequate scope for the exercise of his best poetic powers, it quite accorded with a certain strain of his complex personality. He found an entirely congenial medium for the expression of poetic emotion and sympathetic humour, and the exercise of his rare artistic sensibilities, in writing new songs to old airs, in giving a new, and an artistically improved, expression to some of the freer songs of tradition, in inimitable amendments of other old songs—sometimes merely by the substitution, here and there, of a new word, or phrase, or line, or the partial reconstruction of a stanza; often by a combined process of omission, condensation and addition, so that a merely halting and vulgar, if, in some respects, clever, doggerel ditty, becomes transformed into a noble and finished masterpiece; or, again, by utilising merely the burden or chorus of an old song, or a mere fragment of verse preserved in floating tradition, so as, while preserving the spirit and essence of the sentiment, to inspire it with higher emotional efficacy and provide it with the artistic setting necessary for its full lyrical expression. Unlike many song writers, he, also, even when the words were entirely his own, wrote his songs for particular airs, and most of them for old traditional airs, some of which he himself collected. His inspiration was thus, in part, derived from the old national music.

  • Until [so he wrote to Thomson] I am a complete master of a tune in my own singing (such as it is) I never can compose for it. My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment corresponding to my idea of the musical expression; then choose my theme.
  • Again, even of the advantage of having only the old title, when the song has been lost, and “composing the rest of the verses to suit that line,” he says:
  • This has always a finer effect than composing English words, or words with an idea foreign to the spirit of the old title. When old titles of songs convey any idea at all, they will generally be found to be quite in the spirit of the air.
  • But, apart from the burden, or the fragments, or the title, or the air, much of his direct lyrical inspiration was derived from, or modified by, the past. Here, it was not Ramsay or Fergusson, or any other bards of the revival that he strove to emulate, but “the glorious old bards” of an earlier period. The special character of his success, even when the theme was entirely his own, was largely due to his comprehensive knowledge of old minstrelsy; he was pervaded by its spirit, and, besides fashioning his verses for its music, moulded them in the manner of its expression. It was, also, mainly because of the large and various inheritance of old verse, which he was free to manipulate and reshape, that he was able to supply the world with so rich an assortment of popular songs, and, more especially, to appeal in them, so fully and irresistibly as he does, to Scottish sentiment and emotion. The best of his lyrics—both those entirely or mainly his own and those which he partly refashioned or almost re-created—differ entirely in their manner and spirit from those of the principal English poets. Much of their special virtue derives from their antique ingenuousness and simplicity, and the marvellous art of Burns is manifested in the manner in which, while preserving the antique charm, he has enriched each song with his own individual vitality. Only an exceptional poetic artist could have so finely utilised Burns’s opportunities, but his opportunities were, themselves, exceptional. His peasant origin and environment specially aided him in preserving the primitive simplicity of the old songs; and his achievements as lyrist indicate, also, extraordinary gifts of sympathy, humour, sentiment and emotion combined with a great mastery of expression and a singularly delicate artistic sense; but they could never have been so great, varied and unique as they are, except for his partial partnership with older bards.

    To give a few illustrations. The lyric by which he is best known throughout the world is Auld Lang Syne: its universal and immortal popularity depends on the fine fervour and simplicity of its appeal to old memories of social fellowship; but it is not wholly Burns’s own: he got its burden and the essence of its sentiment, however defectively it was expressed, from an old anonymous song, itself derived from an ancient and lost original. Again, of MacPherson’s Farewell and specially of the chorus, Carlyle remarks: “Who, except Burns, could have given words to such a soul?” This is true enough, but Carlyle did not know that the chorus of Burns is merely a masterly modification of that of a broadside, contemporary with MacPherson’s execution, from which, moreover, the whole outlaw sentiment of the song—matchless though its expression of the sentiment is—is borrowed. A much less striking but, so far as the theme would permit, equally complete, example of the deftness of Burns in utilising the burden and sentiment of an old song is Up in the Morning Early. “The chorus of this,” he himself tells us, “is old; the two stanzas are mine”; but, had he not got the chorus, he would not have written the stanzas, nor could he have written anything at all resembling them. Those three lyrics differ widely in their sentiment and manner, but this, mainly, because in each case, Burns borrowed the sentiment and the manner of different old songs.

    Of another, and quite dissimilar, method of utilisation we have an example in the piquantly humourous sketch of rustic courtship in Duncan Davison. The song was suggested by, and borrowed something from, an old song of the same name in The Merry Muses; but its last stanza is, as regards the first half, a mere assortment of lines borrowed from old ballads and songs, while the second half was snatched almost verbally from the Herd MS. As illustrating his art of re-creation, in which a matchless process of revision is combined with condensation, omissions and slight additions, it may suffice to mention How Lang and Drearie is the Night, Charlie he’s my Darling, A Red, Red Rose and It was a’ for our Richtfu’ King. The two last rank with the very finest specimens of lyric verse; and many would rank them above any of Burns’s songs of which the motif was entirely his own. True, most Scots probably agree with Carlyle that Scots Wha hae is the best war ode “ever written by any pen”; but, here, there is a possibility of patriotic bias. There are some, again, who think that Burns reached the height of his achievement in Is there for Honest Poverty, which, though a kind of parody of an older song, or older songs, is, like Scots Wha hae, Burns to the core, and, though not faultless as regards the temper of its philosophy, offers, on the whole, a splendidly glowing forecast of the final triumph of human worth over all artificial restrictions; but the piece is apt to be overestimated or underestimated according to the predilections of the reader.

    Of the more purely lyrical pieces which he claims as his own, though they are suggested by older songs, characteristic examples are John Anderson My Jo, O Merry Hae I been, What Can a Young Lassie, Wha is that at My Bower Door, O Leeze me on my Spinnin Wheel and Comin Thro’ the Rye. On the other hand, while the majority of his lyrics were not expressive of sentiments due to his actual experience, and, though some of this sort—especially the artificial kind produced for Thomson by putting himself “in the regimen of adoring a fine woman”—are but mediocre, they also include such varied and excellent specimens of his art as The Rantin Dog the Daddie O’t, Of a’ the Airts, The Banks o’ Doon, Ye Banks and Braes and Streams Around, Yestreen I had a pint o’ Wine, Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut, The Blue-eyed Lassie, Mary Morison and O Wert thou in the Cauld blast.

    As regards his purely English songs, it may suffice to quote two of his own remarks to Thomson: “You must not, my dear Sir, expect your English songs to have superlative merit, ’tis enough if they are passable”; and: “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 my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.” Some, even of his Scottish songs or adaptations, are not of “superlative merit”; the character of the theme or sentiment does not always permit of this; but there are few that do not, in their tone or expression exhibit traces of his felicitous art; and, taken altogether, his achievement as a lyrist—partly on account of its peculiar relations to the older bards—is, for comprehensiveness and variety, unmatched by any other poet. For the same reason, it is, in its character, in some respects, unique; and, while the general level of its excellence is very high, it often, notwithstanding a pervading rustic homeliness, exercises the complete captivating charm which is the highest triumph of lyric verse.

    Thus, while, in other respects, the poetical aims of Burns were largely frustrated, he was, as a lyrist, even, in some respects, peculiarly favoured by fate. Here, he fulfilled, and even more than fulfilled, the promise of his earlier years; and if, as seemed to Carlyle, all the writings he has left us are “no more than a poor mutilated fraction of what was in him,” his very peasant circumstances—which, in some ways, greatly hampered and narrowed his endeavours—were, also, the means of enabling him to bequeath a poetic legacy more essentially Scottish than, probably, it could otherwise have been, and, at the same time, of such vital worth as to secure him a high place among the greater poets of Britain.