Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 4. The Cotter’s Saturday Night

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

X. Burns

§ 4. The Cotter’s Saturday Night

The influence of his study of The Lark and of the “New Songs” was shown in various tentative efforts which he did not publish in the Kilmarnock volume—and some of which he did not publish at all—as Handsome Nell, O Tibbie I hae seen the Day, The Ruined Farmer, The Lass of Cessnock Banks, Here’s to the Health and My Father was a Farmer. The roistering songs in The Jolly Beggars are also modelled on the songs of the Collections, or of Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany, including even the bard’s song, though there is an older model for it; and neither in language nor in poetic form are they so purely Scottish as the graphic vernacular recitativos. Such experiments, again, as A Tragic Fragment and Remorse—neither of which he published—are inspired by the eighteenth century English poets. In the Kilmarnock volume, these poets, supplemented by the metrical Davidic Psalms, are responsible for such pieces as The Lament, Despondency, Man was made to Mourn, A Prayer in the Prospect of Death and To Ruin, all purely English. Then, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, in the Spenserian stanza—which Burns got from Beattie, not from Spenser, but which is of purely English descent and had not been used by any Scottish vernacular poet—is a kind of hybrid. Though partly suggested by Fergusson’s Farmer’s Ingle, and professedly descriptive of a lowly Scottish interior and of “the sentiments and manners” of the Scottish peasants in their more hallowed relations, it is not, like Fergusson’s poem, written “in their native language,” but, substantially, in modern English, with, here and there, a sparse sprinkling of Scottish, or Scoto-English, terms. Much of its tone, many of its sentiments and portions of its phraseology are reminiscent of those of the English poets whom he knew—Milton, Gray, Pope, Thomson and Goldsmith. It is a kind of medley of ideas and phrases partly borrowed from them, mingled with reflections of his own and descriptions partly in their manner but derived from his own experience, and may almost be termed a splendidly specious adaptation rather than a quite original composition. On the whole, the artistic genius and the afflatus of the poet prevail, but in a somewhat shackled, mannered, and restrained form, as becomes manifest enough when we compare it with the spontaneous brilliancy of the best of his more vernacular verses in old traditional staves.

In other important pieces in the Scots staves, such as The Vision and The Epistle to Davie, where the sentiment is mainly of a grave and lofty character, and especially when he abandons his “native language” for pure English, we have occasional echoes from English poets, though he is sometimes charged with having borrowed from poets he had never read, and with having appropriated from certain English poets sentiments and reflections which were really current coin to be found anywhere. In occasional stanzas of other poems, we also meet with traces of his English reading, but, in the case of the thoroughly vernacular poems, they are so rare and so slight as to be negligible. These poems are Scottish to the core; and it is here that we have the best, the truest and fullest, revelation of his mind and heart. The sentiments, thoughts and moods they express are of a very varied, not always consistent, and sometimes not quite reputable, character; but they are entirely his own, and, such as they are, they are set forth with peculiar freedom and honesty and with rare felicity and vigour, while, in the presentation of manners, scenes and occurrences, he manifests a vivid picturesqueness not surpassed, and seldom excelled, by other writers of verse.