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If so, we have
that Burns is supreme.
What is his secret ? We are always discussing him and endeavouring to find it out. Perhaps, like the latent virtue of some medical baths, it may never be satisfactorily explained. But, at anyrate, let us discuss him again. What pleasanter or more familiar occupation can there be for Scotsmen? But the Scotsmen who enjoy it have generally, perhaps, more time than I. Pardon, then, the imperfections of my speech, for I speak of a subject which no one can altogether compass, and which a busy man has perhaps no right to attempt. The clue to Burns's extraordinary hold on mankind is possibly a complicated one ; it has, perhaps, many developments.
; not time to consider it on this occasion. But I personally believe the causes are, like most great causes, simple ; though it might take long to point out all the ways in which they operate. The secret, as it seems me,
lies in two words-inspiration and sympathy. But, if I wished to prove my contention, I should go on quoting from his poems all night, and his admirers would still declare that I had omitted the best passages. I know that profuse quotation is a familiar form of a Burns speech, but I am afraid to begin lest I should not end, and I am sure I should not satisfy. I must proceed, then, in a more summary way. Now, ladies and gentlemen, there seem to me to be two great natural forces in British literature - I use the safe adjective of British. Your applause shows me that I was right to do so. I use it partly because hardly any of Burns's poetry is strictly English, because he hated, and was, perhaps, the first to protest against the use of, the word English as including Scottish-well, I say, there are in that literature two great forces of which the power seems sheer inspiration and nothing else—I mean Shakespeare and Burns. This is not the place or the time to speak of that miracle called Shakespeare, but one must say a word of the miracle called Burns. Try and reconstruct Burns as he was. A peasant, born in a cottage that no sanitary inspector in these days would tolerate for a moment - struggling, with desperate effort, against pauperism, almost in vain, snatching at scraps of learning in the intervals of toil, as it were with his teeth—a heavy, silent lad, proud of his ploughing. All of a sudden, without preface or warning, he breaks out into exquisite song, like a nightingale from the brushwood, and continues singing as sweetly—with nightingale pauses—till he dies. A nightingale sings because he cannot help it-he can only sing exquisitely, because he knows no other. So it was with Burns. What is this but inspiration? One can no more measure or reason about it than measure or reason about Niagara. And remember, ladies and gentlemen, the poetry is only a fragment of Burns. Amazing as it may seem, all contemporary testimony is unanimous that the man was far more wonderful than his works. " It will be the misfortune of Burns's reputation,” writes an accomplished lady, who mighi well have judged him harshly, “in the records of literature, not only to future generations and to foreign countries, but even with his native Scotland and a number of his contemporaries, that he has been regarded as a poet, and nothing but a poet.
Poetry,” she continues “ (I appeal to all who had the advantage of being personally acquainted with him), was actually not his forte.
None, certainly, ever outshone Burns in the
charms—the sorcery, I would almost call it--of fascinating conversation, the spontaneous eloquence of social argument, or the unstudied poignancy of brilliant repartee.” And she goes on to describe the almost superhuman fascination of his voice and of his eyes, those balls of black fire which electrified all on whom they rested. It seems strange to be told that would be an injustice to judge Burns by his poetry alone ; but, as to the magnetism of his presence and conversation, there is only one verdict. No man's conversation ever carried me so completely off my feet," said the Duchess of Gordon—the friend of Pitt and of the London wits, the queen of Scottish society. Dugald Stewart says that “ all the faculties of Burns's mind were, so far as I could judge, equally vigorous, and his predilection for poetry was rather the result of his own enthusiastic and impassioned temper, than of a genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition. From his conversation I should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in whatever walk of ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities." And of his prose compositions the same severe judge speaks thus“Their great and varied excellences render some of them scarcely less objects of wonder than his poetical performances.” The late Dr. Robertson used to say that, “considering his education, the former seemed to him the more remarkable of the two.” “I think Burns," said Principal Robertson to a friend, "was one of the most extraordinary men I ever met with. His poetry surprised me very much, his proce surprised me still more, and his conversation surprised me more than both his poetry and prose.' We are told, too, that "he felt a strong call towards oratory, and all who heard him speak—and some of them were excellent judges-admitted his wonderful quickness of apprehension and readiness of eloquence." All this seems to me marvellous. It surely ratifies the claim of inspiration without the necessity of quoting a line of his poetry. I pass then to his sympathy. If his talents were universal, his sympathy was not less so. His tenderness was not a mere selfish tenderness for his own family, for he loved all mankind except the cruel and the base. Nay, we may go further, and say that he placed all creation, especially the suffering and despised part of it, under his protection. The oppressor in every shape, even in the comparatively innocent embodiment of the factor and the sportsman, he regarded with direct and personal hostility. But, above all, he saw the charm of the home ; he recognised it as the basis of all society, he honoured it in its humblest form, for he knew, as few know, how unpretentiously, but how sincerely, the family in the cottage is welded by mutual love and esteem. “I recollect once,” said Dugald Stewart, speaking of Burns, “he told me, when I was admiring a distant prospect in one of our morning walks, that the sight of so many smoking cottages gave a pleasure to his mind which none could understand, who had not witnessed, like himself, the happiness and worth which they contained.” He dwells repeatedly on the primary sacredness of the home and the family, the responsibility of fatherhood and narriage. " Have I not,” he once wrote to Lord Mar, "a more precious stake in my country's welfare than the richest dukedom in it? I have a large family of children, and the prospect of many more.” The lines in which he tells his faith
are not less memorable than the stately stanzas in which Gray sings the “short and simple annals of the poor.” I must quote them again, often quoted as they are
“ To mak'a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife,
Of human life.”
His verses, then, go straight to the heart of every home; they appeal to every father and mother. But that is only the beginning, perhaps the foundation of his sympathy. There is something for everybody in Burns. He has a heart even for vermin ; he has pity even for the arch-enemy of mankind. And his universality makes his poems a treasure-house in which all may find what they want. Every wayfarer in the journey of life may pluck strength and courage from it as he passes. The sore, the weary, the wounded, will all find something to heal and soothe. For this great master is the universal Samaritan. Where the priest and the Levite may have passed by in vain, this eternal heart will still afford a
But he is not only for the sick in spirit. The friend, the lover, the patriot, will all find their choicest refreshment in Burns. His touch is everywhere, and it is everywhere the touch of genius. Nothing comes amiss to him. What was said of the debating power of his eminent contemporary, Dundas, may be said of his poetry—“He went out in all weathers.” And it may be added that all weathers suited him; that he always brought back something precious, something we cherish, something that cannot die. He is, then, I think, the universal friend in an unique
But he was, poetically speaking, the special friend of Scotland, in a sense which recalls a profound remark of another eminent Scotsman, I mean Fletcher of Saltoun. In an account of a conversation between Lord Cromarty, Sir Edward Seymour, and Sir Christopher Musgrave, Fletcher writes—“I said I knew a very wise man, so much of Sir Christopher's sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” This may be rudely paraphrased, that it is more important to make the songs of a nation than to frame its laws, and this again may be interpreted that in former days, at anyrate in the days of Fletcher, even to the days of Burns, it is the familiar songs of a people that mould their thoughts, their manners, and their morals. If this be true, can we exaggerate the debt that we Scotsmen owe to Burns. He has bequeathed to his country the most exquisite casket of songs in the world primarily to his country, but others cannot be denied their share.
I will give only one example, but that is a signal one. From distant Roumania the Queen of that country wrote to Dumfries that she has no copy of Burns with her, but that she knows his songs by heart. We must remember that there is more than this to be said. Many of Burns's songs were already in existence in the lips and minds of the people—rough and coarse and obscene. Our benefactor takes them, and with a touch of inspired alchemy transmutes them and leaves them pure gold. He loved the old catches and the old tunes, and into these gracious moulds he poured his exquisite gifts of thought and expression. But for him those ancient airs, often wedded to words which no decent man could recite, would have perished from that corruption if not from neglect. He rescued them for us by his songs, and, in doing so, he hallowed the life and sweetened the breath of Scotland. (Applause.) I have also used the words patriot and lover. These draw me to different lines of thought. The word “patriot” leads me to the political side of Burns. There is no doubt that he was suspected of being a politician—(laughter)—and he is even said to have sometimes wished to enter Parliament. (Renewed laughter.) That was perhaps an excusable aberration, and my old friend Professor Masson-(applause)—has, I think, surmised that had he lived he might have been a great Liberal pressman. My frail thought shall not dally with such surmise, but it conducts us naturally to the subject of Burns's politics. From his sympathy for his own class, from his indignation against nobles like the Duke of Queensberry, and from the toasts that cost him so dear, it might be considered easy to infer his political opinions. But Burns should not be claimed for any party. A poet, be it remembered, is never a politician, and a politician is never a poet—that is to say, that a politician is never so fortunate as to be a poet, and a poet is so fortunate as never to be a politician. I do not say that the line of demarcation is never passed-a politician may have risen for a moment, or a poet may have descendedbut, where there is any confusion between the two callings, it is generally because the poet thinks he discerns, or the politician thinks he needs, something higher than politics. Burns's politics were entirely governed by the imagination. He was at once a Jacobite and a Jacobin. He had the sad sympathy which most of us have selt for the hapless house of Stuart, without the least wish to be governed by it. He had much the same sort of abstract sympathy with the French Revolution, when it was setting all Europe to rights ; but he was prepared to lay down his life to prevent its putting this island to rights. And then came his official superiors of the Excise, who, notwithstanding Mr. Pitt's admiration of his poetry, snuffed out his politics without remorse. The name of Pitt leads me to add that Burns had some sort of relation with three Prime Ministers. Colonel Jenkinson, of the Cinque Ports Fencible Cavalry-afterwards Minister for fifteen years under the title of Lord Liverpool - was on duty at Burns's funeral, though, we are told—the good man—that he disapproved of the Poet, and declined to make his acquaintance. Pitt, again, passed on Burns one of his rare and competent literary judgments, so eulogistic, indeed, that one wonders that a powerful Minister could have allowed one whom he admired so much to exist on an exciseman's pay when well, and an exciseman's half-pay when dying. And from Addington, another Prime Minister, Burns elicited a sonnet, which, in the Academy of Lagado, would surely have been held a signal triumph of the art of extracting sunshine from cucumbers. So much for politics in the party sense. 'A man's a man for a' that” is not. politics—it is the assertion of the rights of humanity in a sense far wider than politics. It erects all mankind, it is the charter of its self-respect. It binds, it heals, it revives, it invigorates; it sets the bruised and broken on their legs, it refreshes the stricken soul, it is the salve and tonic of character; it cannot be narrowed into politics. Burns's politics are indeed nothing but the occasional overflow of his human sympathy into past history and current events. And now, having discussed the two trains of thought suggested by the words “friend” and “patriot,” I come to the more dangerous word “lover.” There an eternal controversy which, appears, no didactic oil will ever assuage, as to Burns's private life and morality. Some maintain that these have nothing to do with his poems; some maintain that his life must be read into his works, and here again some think that his life damns his poems, while others aver that his poems cannot be fully appreciated without his life. Another school thinks that his vices have been exaggerated, while their opponents scarcely think such exaggeration possible. It is impossible to avoid taking a side. I walk on the ashes, knowing the fire beneath, and unable to avoid them, for the topic is inevitable. I must confess myself, then, one of those who think that the life of Burns doubles the interest of his poems, and I doubt whether the failings of his life have been much exaggerated, for contemporary testimony on that point is strong, though a high and excellent authority, Mr. Wallace, has recently taken the other side with much power and point. But the life of Burns, which I love to read with his poems, does not consist in his vices; they lie outside it. It is a life of work, and truth, and tenderness. And though, like all lives, it has its light and shade, remember that we know it all—the worst as well as the best. His was a soul bathed in crystal ; he hurried to avow everything. There was no reticence in him. The only obscure passage in his life is the love passage with Highland Mary, and as to at he was silent, not from shame, but because it was a sealed and sacred episode. “What a flattering idea,” he once wrote, “is a world to come! There shall I with speechless agony of rapture again recognise my lost, my ever dear Mary! whose bosom was fraught with truth, honour, constancy, and love." But he had, as the French say, the defects of his qualities. His imagination was a supreme and celestial gift. But his imagination often led him wrong, and never more than with women. The chivalry that made Don Quixote see the heroic in all the common events of life made Burns (as his brother tells us) see a goddess in every girl that he approached. Hence many love affairs, and some guilty ones; but even these must be judged with reference to time and circumstance. This much it is certain, had he been devoid of genius they would not have attracted attention. It is Burns's pedestal that affords a target. And why, one may ask, is not the same measure meted out to Burns as to others ? The illegitimate children of great captains and statesmen and princes are treated as historical and ornamental incidents. They strut the scene of Shakespeare, and ruff it with the best. It is for the illegitimate children of Burns, though he and his wife cherished them as if born in wedlock, that the vials of wrath are reserved. Take two brilliant figures, both descended from Stuarts, who were alive during Burns's life. We occupy ourselves endlessly and severely with the offences of Burns. We heave an elegant sigh over the kindred lapses of Charles James Fox and Charles Edward Stuart. Again, it is quite