Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. Burns’s Indebtedness to his Predecessors

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

X. Burns

§ 2. Burns’s Indebtedness to his Predecessors

The old school of Scottish verse did not, however, deserve its fate. As may be gathered from previous chapters, it was by no means an undistinguished one. It included one poet, Dunbar, of an outstanding genius closely akin to that of Burns and, if not possessed of so full an inspiration or so wide and deep a sympathy, vying with him in imaginative vividness, in satiric mirth, in wild and rollicking humour and in mastery of expression, while more than his equal as a polished metrist. Other names famous in their generation were Henryson, Douglas, Kennedy, Scott, Montgomerie and David Lyndsay. In addition to these were unknown authors of various pieces of high merit, and, besides, them, what Burns himself terms the “glorious old Bards,” of “the Ancient Fragments” and of various old songs of tradition: bards, whose “very names are,” as he says, “buried amongst the wreck of things that were.” This school of Scottish poetry perished, or all but perished, in its prime. Its line of succession was cut short by the reformation, which had been followed by an almost complete literary blank of a century and a half. During this interval, the spoken dialect of Scotland had been undergoing processes of change, and the language of the old verse, by the time of Burns, had become partly a dead language. The forms and methods of its metre had also become largely antiquated, and were not akin to modern English usage. Moreover, the bulk of the old poetry thathad escaped destruction was still wrapped in oblivion. It lay perdu in manuscripts, though more than a glimpse of what was best of it was obtainable from the selections that had appeared in Ramsay’s Evergreen and other publications. But, while it could thus be known to Burns in only a fragmentary fashion, he was largely indebted to it directly or indirectly. Like many Scots of past generations, he was familiar with much of the verse of “Davie Lyndsay”; as perused by him in the modernised version of Blind Harry’s poem by Hamilton of Gilbertfield, “the story of Wallace,” he tells us, had “poured a Scottish prejudice” into his veins; he had dipped, if little more, into Gawin Douglas; in addition to The Evergreen, he knew Watson’s Choice Collection (1706–11); and, before the publication of the Kilmarnock volume, he may have read Lord Hailes’s Ancient Scottish Poems (1771) and Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (1769 and 1776). At the same time, he did not know the old “makaris” as they are now known; of the individualities of some of the principal of them he had no very definite idea; and even the poetic greatness of Dunbar had not dawned upon him. Again, though he had an acquaintance with the older poets, similar to that possessed by Ramsay, Fergusson and others, from the very fact that they had preceded him, he did not come so immediately under the influence of the older writers. Later writers had already formed a kind of new poetic school, and it was more immediately on them that he sought to model himself: their achievements, rather than those of the older writers, were what he sought to emulate or surpass. His special aim, as stated in the preface to the Kilmarnock volume, was to “sing the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language.” As a lyric poet, his commission was rather more comprehensive; and, here, he could benefit but little by the example either of Ramsay—great as had been his vogue as a song writer—or even Fergusson. Other contemporaries had done as good lyric work as they; but, here, the best, and, also, the chief, exemplars of Burns were “the glorious old Bards,” of “the Ancient Fragments.”