Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 5. Burns’s “English” poems

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

X. Burns

§ 5. Burns’s “English” poems

At a later period of his life, Burns—it may be partly at the suggestion of Dr. Moore, that he “should abandon the Scottish stanza and dialect and adopt the measure and dialect of modern English poets”—began to consider the possibility of escaping from his vernacular bonds, and made somewhat elaborate experiments in English after the manner of eighteenth century poets. But, though the mentors of Burns might be excused for giving him this advice, it could not be carried out. It was too late for him to transform himself into a purely English poet; and, in the end, this was perceived by him. In Scots verse, as he wrote to George Thomson, he always found himself at home, but it was quite otherwise when he sought to model himself on English predecessors or contemporaries. He had a quite different poetic mission from theirs; his training, his mode of life, his social circumstances especially fitted one of his temperament and genius to excel as a rustic Scottish bard, and, in this capacity, he compassed achievements which, apart from their intrinsic merit, possess a special value due to their uniqueness. When, on the other hand, he essays purely English verse, English in method and form as well as language, his strong individuality fails to disclose itself; his artistic sensibilities cease to serve him; his genius remains unkindled; he is merely imitative and badly imitative. From Esopus to Maria and the Epistle to Graham of Fintry are very indifferent Pope. Lines on the Fall of Fyers and Written with a Pencil at Taymouth are only inferior Thomson. Such pieces as Birthday Ode for 31st December 1787, Ode Sacred to the Memory of Mrs. Oswald, Ode to the Departed Regency Bill, Inscribed to the Hon. C. J. Fox and Ode to General Washington’s Birthday are all, more or less, strained and bombastic. The ability they display is not so remarkable as its misapplication, and they are, mainly, striking illustrations of the ineffectiveness of a too monotonous and unmeasured indulgence in high-flown imagery and bitter vituperation. With certain qualifications and with outstanding exceptions, these remarks apply to his epigrams and epitaphs, but less to those in the vernacular, some of which, even when not quite good-natured, are exceedingly amusing, as, for example: In Lamington Kirk, On Captain Grose, On Tam the Chapman, On Holy Willie, On a Wag in Mauchline, On John Dove, Innkeeper and On Grizzel Grimme. The Bard’s Epitaph is unique as a pathetic anticipation of the sad results of the poet’s own temperamental infirmities; and, though in a quite opposite vein, the elegies On the Death of Robert Ruisseaux and On Willie Nicol’s Mare are evidently written con amore; but those On the Death of Sir James Hunter Blair and On the Death of Lord President Dundas, and even that On the Late Miss Burnet of Monboddo are, as he candidly confesses of one of them, “quite mediocre.” They are too elaborately artificial to stir the feelings with mourning and regret; indeed, their inveterately ornate expression of grief seems almost as purely formal and official as that represented in the trappings of funeral mutes. There is more true pathos in the admirable, though mostly humorous, vernacular Ode to The Departed Year, 1788; but his elegiac masterpieces are all in the traditional stave in rime couée.

The main benefit, as a poet, gained by Burns from what was, evidently, a close and repeated perusal of certain English poets, was an indirect one. It stimulated his thought, it quickened his sensibilities, it widened his mental outlook, it refined his tastes, it increased his facility in the apt use even of his own “native language.” In this last respect, he seems to have been specially indebted to Pope. His style is admirable, pellucidly clear and brilliantly concise, and, in his best pieces, the same “finishing polish” manifests itself. He greatly underrated his own accomplishments, even in 1786, when he modestly declared that he was “unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing Poet by rule”; and Carlyle displays a strange obliviousness or misapplication of facts in affirming that he had merely “the rhymes of a Fergusson or a Ramsay as his standard of beauty.” To accept this view, while rather slighting at least Fergusson, would ignore the relations of both to the older classics, would fail to take into account what Burns knew of the classics and of the Scottish lyrists of past generations and would disregard the minute study of certain English poets with which he started, and which, later, was not only augmented by a fairly comprehensive course of English reading, but supplemented by a perusal of the chief French poets. He had undergone some intellectual discipline, even if it were a little unsystematic and haphazard. Strikingly exceptional as was his poetic career, it was not inexplicably miraculous. It is quite the reverse of truth to state that he had “no furtherance but such knowledge as dwells in a poor man’s hut”; and, so far as he was concerned, to talk of “the fogs and darkness of that obscure region,” only tends “to darken counsel by words without knowledge.” His alleviations and his physical and mental calibre being such as to prevent him succumbing too early to the evils of his lot, he even found himself in a position which specially fitted him to become the great poet of rustic life and the representative Scottish poet that he was.

The character of his environment in itself gave Burns, as a vernacular Scottish poet, a certain advantage over both Ramsay and Fergusson. Though, in the eighteenth century, the vernacular was in fuller, and more general, use in conversation, even by the educated classes in Scotland, than it is now, both these poets made literary use of it with a certain air of condescension, and as the specially appropriate medium of lowly themes. Burns employed it more variously, and often with a more serious and higher intent, than they. He was also in closer and more perpetual contact with humble life than was either of them; the vernacular, as he says, was his “native language,” the usual medium of the thought and expression of himself and his “compeers”; and, in his verse, he seems to revel in the appropriation of its direct and graphic phraseology. While, also, as a poet of rustic life, more favourably placed than any of his later Scottish predecessors, he had a special superiority over those poets, Scottish or English, who, as he says, “with all the advantages of learned art, and perhaps amid the elegances and idlenesses of upper life, looked down on a rural theme.” In the case of a rural theme, he is entirely in his element. Here, he exhibits neither affectation, nor condescension, nor ignorant idealisation, nor cursory and superficial observation; everywhere, there is complete comprehension and living reality. He was himself largely his own rural theme, and he is unstintedly generous in his self-revelations. Apart, also, from his lyrical successes, he attains to the highest triumphs of his art in depicting the manners and circumstances of himself and his fellow-peasants; in exhibiting their idiosyncrasies, good and bad, and those of other personalities, generally, but not always, quite obscure and, sometimes, disreputable with whom he held intercourse, or who, otherwise, came within the range of his observation; in handling passing incidents and events mainly of local interest; and in dealing with rustic beliefs, superstitions, customs, scenes and occasions. He did not need to set himself to search for themes. He was encompassed by them; they almost forced themselves on his attention; and he wrote as the spirit moved him. His topics and his training being such as they were, his rare endowments are manifested in the manner of his treatment. It betokens an exceptionally penetrating insight, a peculiarly deep sympathy, yet great capacity for scorn, an abounding and comprehensive humour, a strong vitalising vision and a specially delicate artistic sense; and, thus, his opportunities being so close and abundant, he has revealed to us the antique rural life within the limits of his experience and observation with copious minuteness, and with superb vividness and fidelity. But, of course, he has, therefore—though some would fain think otherwise—his peculiar limitations. His treatment of his themes was so admirable as to secure for them almost a world-wide interest; but, ordinarily, his themes do not afford scope for the higher possibilities of poetry. He could not display his exceptional powers to such advantage as he might have done, had he been allowed a wider stage and higher opportunities; nor, in fact, were they trained and developed as they might have been, had he been sufficiently favoured of fortune.