Obrázky na stránke
PDF
ePub

few years afterwards to puzzle Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion that I raised a hue-and-cry of heresy against me which has not ceased to this hour.” On his own authority, also, we learn that “The Twa Herds” and “Holy Willie's Prayer” were both written and in circulation before he had any reason to fear the censure of the courts of the kirk. Indeed, it seems indisputable that Burns's antagonism to the ultra-evangelicals of his day was the result of his own force of mind, keenness of conscience, and ingenuousness of disposition. His religious lampoons were the expression of his contempt for the shows of religion which were in his day, as they are still, too often put in the place of its realities. Profession of piety degenerated into cant and hypocrisy, and these were ever the objects of his withering scorn. In short, in this matter, Burns's so-called irreligion was more reasonably and reverently religious than the orthodoxy he despised and denounced. To him the Church

. system of his day seemed in many of its aspects false and rotten; and he was indirectly serving the cause of religious truth and purity by exposing its errors and corruptions. In this respect the issue has completely justified his action, and from every true friend of Christian principle he deserves almost unstinted praise. Let his poems be read from beginning to end; more particularly, let examination be made of every line and phrase of those in which he satirises the beliefs and customs of conventional religiosity, and it will be found that no virtue is attacked, no moral principle is defamed, nothing really sacred violated or ridiculed. He is never, in the true sense of the word, irreligious. His purpose rather is to separate the false from the true, unchristian opinion from Christian obligation; and hypocritical practices from virtuous principles. In his deep sincerity of soul he was ever faithful in his religious reverence. He could not be the enemy of religion. He had too strong a faith in the divinity of man's nature to speak slightingly of the highest truths of conscience. But his whole being recoiled from what he felt to be false conceptions of God, and degrading notions of human duty and destiny. Hence his unsparing treatment of those who upheld those conceptions and notions. These were the "fause friends” of religion, to stigmatise whom could ne'er defame religion itself.

His polemics have been “damned with faint praise," and called unworthy of his genius. In one sense, perhaps they are ; but they afford indisputable proof, on the negative side, of his honest adherence to religious principle, and have helped more, probably, than all the religious books of the century, to broaden and modify the soulless, narrow, and ungenerous theology that once prevailed in Scotland.

As a positive religious teacher, Burns holds a place peculiarly his own.

His religion is, in the simplest and most literal meaning of the phrase, “the religion of humanity." He is, for instance, as truly a poet of nature as Wordsworth. He loved nature as intensely, depicted and dwelt upon her beauties as faithfully, and with as much delight as ever the great English singer did in his most rapturous moods. But scarcely one of his poems or songs is Wordsworthian in the sense of singing material phenomena for their own sake. His exquisite descriptions are called forth by a love of a different kind that surged ceaselessly through his heart. The world to him was full of light and of deity," because his worship was given to human beings, who lived in it with himself. Even when he pourtrays, with inimitable fidelity, the mountain daisy, it is not of it alone that he thinks.

“Such fate to suffering worth is given,

Who long with wants and woes has striven,
By human pride or cunning driven,

To misery's brink,
Till wrenched from every stay but Heaven,

He, ruined, sink.”

When he laments the ruin of the nest of the field mouse, his thoughts instinctively turn to similar calamities in human experience. And so is it in all his poems and songs. The motif is always found in some form of social affection. This is that which fires his imagination and gives him wealth of words for descriptive, satirical, elegaic, or lyric verse. In this sense he claims the title of a poet of religion, and illustrates the indissoluble connection between the truly religious and the truly poetic. The subject of both religion and poetry is harmony; and of harmony, love is the one creative cause. Beyond all others, Burns was the singer of honest, generous human affection as the unifying, joy-bringing, peace-giving, virtue-producing power of man's life; and thus he strikes the diapason note of the song of the angels at the advent of the Master.

a

Here then, we may say, we have our Poet's secret. And it must be evident that he who would worthily deal with such a far-reaching subject as that of human love must himself have a noble conception of human nature, as well as a wide, deep, and tender sympathy with all living creatures.

And if ever a man, in spite of adverse Church dogma and popular belief, formed such an estimate of humanity, and expressed this life-embracing sympathy, that man was Robert Burns. In these, indeed, lay

, . the very essence of his religion. He was constantly praying to be delivered from the revolting ideas of God and man which the accepted theology of his times promulgated. “Religion," he says in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop, "is surely a simple business, as it equally concerns the ignorant and the learned, the poor and the rich." To him it was not so much a matter for speculative theorising as a guide for virtuous practice. Nor had he any difficulty in practically determining what was good and what was bad. This was his confessed creed :“Whatever mitigates the woes, or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.” Such a creed imperatively demands the rejection of any theory that degrades or depreciates man, and thus libels the wisdom and love of God. Hence we find that Burns gave no such theory a shadow of sympathetic consideration. "Notwithstanding," he says, “the opprobious epithets with which some of our philosophers and gloomy sectarians have branded our naturethe principle of universal selfishness, the proneness to all evil they have given us ; still, the detestation in which inhumanity to the distressed, or insolence to the fallen are held, shows that they are not natives to the human mind.” Mankind,” he elsewhere affirms, “are by nature benevolent creatures, except in a few scoundrelly instances. I do not think that avarice of the good things we chance to have is born with us; but we are placed here amid so much nakedness, and hunger, and poverty, and want, that we are under the cursed necessity of studying selfishness in order that we may exist. Still there are in every age a few souls that all the wants and woes of life cannot debase to selfishness, or even to the necessary alloy of caution

[ocr errors]

and prudence. If ever I am in danger of vanity it is when I contemplate myself on this side of my disposition and character. God knows, I am no saint; I have a whole host of sins and follies to answer for ; but if I could, and I believe I do it as far as I can, I would wipe away all tears from all eyes.” Here, surely, we have a man admirably fitted, divinely commissioned to sing the social harmony which is the fruit of a pure and truly religious affection. His faith rests on a divinity “whose very self is love ”; and the power and sweetness of the lofty emotion breathe from every page of his writings. Nor is this generous sympathy a mere verbal profession. It is not only a faith ; it is the outstanding fact of Burns's life. His own lot was of the cruelest. All his days he hungered and thirsted for that which came not, and yet his repining was only for a moment. His compassion and liberality of spirit were habitual. Nor was his sympathy confined by any barrier. Every unfortunate creature—be it a brother in adversity, a sister fallen from virtue, the mouse deprived of its home, the hare wounded by the sportsman, the birds shelterless in the winter blast, the fox exposed to the biting snow, aye, or even the devil in hell—finds a friend in this magnanimous nobleman of God. Manly honour and brotherly-kindness are his fixed religious principles. These constitute the gospel he preached to the world, and stamp him as a man who assuredly had a word of hope and gladness to speak to the manhood and womanhood of his own and succeeding times.

The influence of Burns's religious message upon the whole English-speaking world can never be estimated; while its character is too well known to require detailed illustration. His best known poems will have been suggested to the reader's mind by the references already made; therefore I have resisted the temptation to quote. I would not have it supposed, however, that the religion of Burns is to be found only in those of his writings that ostensibly treat of religious themes, or directly inculcate high moral principles. His lyrics, no less truly than such productions as the “Cottar's Saturday Night,” “Man was made to Mourn,” and “To the Unco Guid,” are expressive of the spirit of his religious faith. A religion of love cannot be separated from sexual devotion or domestic felicity. Indeed, the affection they imply is the tap root whence springs the many

66

H

branched tree of our social integrity, and peace, and progress. Only by so regarding it can we preserve untainted the more impersonal emotions that bless home and country and mankind at large, and eliminate from the sacred life-union of man and woman all mercenariness and baser passion. It was so regarded by Burns. “This passion," he says " is worthy of a man, and is akin to virtue.” It was at this shrine his muse first worshipped, and to it was given the full force of his inspiration to the end. Nor can it be doubted that it was because love was to him a religion that he regarded parental responsibility as a sacred imposition, and it would be well for the members of modern society to cherish and realise more faithfully his sentiment that

“ To mak' a happy fireside clime

To weans and wife,
That's the true pathos and sublime

Of human life.Certainly all that is patriotic and humanitarian in the teaching of our national Bard is the fruit of the affections that centre in the home. The worth of the one adheres to the other, and both alike spring from the innate sense of human relationship, which is a sine qua non of all religion. Burns thus gave a new interpretation to the familiar maxim, “Love begins at home”; and the all-inclusive deduction from his loftier poetic flights is that the love which begins there, to be true to its mission, must not end there. Consequently, he applies his religious faith not merely to the sexual and domestic joys and sorrows, difficulties, disappointments, and cares which all have in some measure to endure, but to the more widely social and public customs, habits, and usages of his age. Here is his transition thought:

“ Lord help me through this warl' o' care !

I'm weary sick o't, late an air'!
No but I hae a richer share

Than mony ithers;
But why should ae man better fare,

An' a' men brithers ?" With almost God-like compassion and solicitude he regarded the oppression and poverty of which so many of his fellows were the victims. “Why,” he exclaims, “amid my generous enthusiasm, must I find myself poor and powerless, incapable of wiping one tear from the eye of pity, or of adding one com

« PredošláPokračovať »