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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

§ 6. His six-line stave

For his vernacular verse, Burns had recourse mainly to the staves already popularised by Ramsay, Fergusson and other poets of the revival. As with them, the most common medium of his verse was the favourite six-line stave in rime couée, used by Sempill in Habbie Simson. Following their and Sempill’s example, he usually adopted it for his vernacular elegies, of which we may here mention those on Poor Mailie, Tam Samson and Captain Matthew Henderson. The first, an early production, is more in the vein of Habbie than the other two, and its opening stanza is almost a parody of that of Sempill’s poem. In it and Tam Samson, he also adopts throughout the Sempill refrain ending in “dead”; but, in the more serious elegy Captain Matthew Henderson he has recourse to it in but one verse, and that accidentally. The Samson elegy, like those of Ramsay, is in a humorous, rather than in a pathetic, vein—a fact accounted for by the sequel—but the humour is strikingly superior to that of Ramsay in delicacy, in humaneness, in copious splendour, while the poem is, also, specially noteworthy for the compactness and polish of its phrasing. A marked feature of Tam Samson, but, more especially, of the Henderson elegy, is the exquisite felicity of the allusions to nature. This last, the best of the three, is pitched in a different key from the others; pathos prevails over humour, and the closing stanzas reach a strain of lofty and moving eloquence.

Following the example of Ramsay and Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Burns also employed the six-line stave for most of his vernacular epistles. In their tone and allusions, they are also partly modelled upon those of his two predecessors, and, occasionally, they parody lines and even verses, which he had by heart; but they never do this without greatly bettering the originals. Most of them are almost extempore effusions, but, on that very account, they possess a charming naturalness of their own. Special mention may be made of those to John Lapraik, James Smith and Willie Simpson. Here, we have the poet, as it were, in undress, captivating us by the frankness of his sentiments and self-revelations, by homely allusions to current cares and occupations, by plain and pithy comments on men and things and by light colloquial outbreaks of wit and humour, varied, occasionally, by enchanting, though, apparently, quite unstudied, descriptions of the aspects of nature.

One or two of his epistles, as those To John Rankine, and Reply to a Trimming Epistle received from a Taylor, are in a coarser vein; but, even so, they are equally representative of himself and of the peasant Scotland of his time. They are occupied with a theme concerning which the jocosity of the peasant was inveterate. They are not to be judged by our modern notions of decorum; and Burns, it may be added, is never so merely squalid as is Ramsay. In the epistolary form and in the same stave is A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-Begotten Daughter, in which generous human feeling is blended with sarcastic defiance of the conventions. The attitude of the peasant towards such casualties had been previously set forth in various chapbooks of the period, both in prose and verse.

In the same stave as the epistles are Scotch Drink and The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer, which mirror the strong social sentiments of the Scottish rustic, and the close association in farming communities—an association still surviving—of strong drink with good fellowship.