« PredošláPokračovať »
Broughton. It will be observed that the exact date of the first meeting is not given. In M‘Kie's Bibliography it is set down as “ January 25th, 1801," but that is a palpable mistake, for, irrespective of what follows, the 29th was then believed to be the correct date of the Poet's birth. We will allow the document to speak for itself.
“In the summer of 1801, a select party of the friends of Burns proposed to dine in the cottage in which he was born, 'and to offer a tribute to the memory of departed genius. Two gentlemen of distinguished philanthropy and taste waited on the author of the following Odes, and requested him to produce a short poem on the occasion. The author never saw Burns, but was an early and enthusiastic admirer of his writings. The party was such as Burns himself would have joined with heartfelt satisfaction.
WILLIAM CRAWFORD, Esq., of Doonside.
• The twa brigs of Ayr.'
Cottar's Saturday Night.'
the Poet in the early stages of his career.
Academy, now Professor of Natural Philosophy
in the University of St Andrews.
The Rev. HAMILTON PAUL, Chaplain and Laureat. “These pine sat down to a comfortable dinner, of which sheep's head and haggis formed an interesting part.
The “Address to the Haggis ' was read, and every toast was drank by three times three, i.e., by nine. A portrait of the Poet, painted on wood, intended as a signpost to the cottage, which is a rural tavern, was presented to the company, to which there is an allusion in the poem, -
• When even his image in my burning breast,' &c. “Before breaking up, the company unanimously resolved that the Anniversary of Burns should be regularly celebrated, and that H. Paul should exhibit an annual poetical production in praise of the Bard of Coila, and that the meeting should take place on 29th January, the supposed birthday of the Poet.
“Accordingly on 29th January, 1802, the Club mustered to the number of twenty, consisting of the former nine, with the addition of :
WILLIAM BOWIE, Esq., of Cambusiscan, Provost of
WILLIAM Cowan, Esq.
etc. “To this meeting the second Ode in the collection, being the first Birthday Ode, was read by the author. The forenoon had been rainy, and the afternoon proved fine, which gave occasion to the following extemporaneous jeu d'esprit by one of the company :
· Auspicious day, rever'd by fame,
To bless our native isle :
And conscious seasons smile.' This was preserved by recollection, as the author would not allow a copy to be taken."
The foregoing occupies the first four pages of the numbered sheets already referred to, which extend to 32 pages in all. The water-mark on the paper is “1808.” It would therefore appear that Mr Paul, in that year or the following one, and while he was yet in Ayr, collected all his notes on the “ Anniversaries of Burns” (the first page bears that title), and set them down in the permanent form in which they have come down through the family to their present possessor. We may add that Mr Aird, with commendable public spirit, has intimated his intention to present the whole collection to the Trustees of the Burns Museum in his native town.
THE RELIGION OF BURNS.
HE problem of Burns's relation to religion, as a man
and as a poet, is one that nearly a century of incessant
criticism has failed to satisfactorily solve. I cannot hope, in view of what has already been written on the subject, to make any very valuable contribution to the controversy; but in these days, when more practical views of religious precept and principle are displacing the inflexible dogmatism of the past, it seems possible to indicate more correctly than hitherto the lines along which a settlement of the vexed question may and should be sought. For of late years even the professedly orthodox have shown a willingness to allow that Burns deserves to be regarded as in some sense and degree religious. It is becoming more and more evident that it is no hard task to gather from the poet's writings, religious truths and sentiments that indicate a pure and noble faith. Pointing to these we might say, "There you have the religion of Burns.” But notwithstanding the more favourable popular judgment pronounced upon his teaching from the modern religious standpoint, such a decision would be too perfunctory to be accepted by the judicious critic. It would be within the right of any objector to discredit it by a reference to other passages in Burns's poetry, and to certain incidents of his life, that seem to modify such a high estimate, if not to form the basis of quite a different conclusion. And it cannot be forgotten that objections of this sort are still urged by speakers and writers whose opinions are worthy of respect. The prevalent notion of religion has not yet become so entirely freed from the authority of tradition as to constrain the majority to include the writings of Burns within our generally received religious definitions. Hence, though we put aside thoughtless vituperation as undeserving of notice, we must still, in fairness, face the more intelligent criticism of those who honestly believe that our poet was a misguided man, of whose failure was his lack of religion,” and who never "attained to anything better than the poor platitudes of the moderate creed.” Now, that such a belief should still be cherished, shows a sad lack of discrimination on the part of both classes of critics. Neither the eulogists nor the detractors of
16 the root
Burns seem to have gone carefully over the historical ground on which they profess to have built their superstructures. They have simplified the problem at the expense of truth, by assuming that all the rancorous and spiteful rumours promulgated while Burns was alive, or shortly after his death, and perpetuated by his earliest biographers, were supported by authentic and trustworthy evidence. This is not the case. His character has become cleared of much calumny in the estimation of those who have done him the justice of going to original sources for information, and the infidelity, profanity, and licentiousness with which it was long the habit to charge him as a writer, are now seen to be virtues rather than vices when the comparative method of criticism is followed. None the less it is admitted that Burns had serious faults and failings; and as some conscientious persons still refuse, because of that fact, to accept him as a religious man or a teacher of religious principle, I shall try briefly to explain all that such an admission in my opinion signifies.
Whatever failings Burns exhibited are all adequately explained by the manners of his time, the misfortunes of his lot, and the character of his constitution-factors too seldom duly allowed for in solving the problem of his life. What have been called his irreligion and immorality were but the reflection of his age—a reflection that pales before the lustre of the light that shone forth from the inherent superiority of his individual gifts and virtues. The secret of his strength lies in his genius; the secret of his weakness is to be found in his circumstances. Both must be understood in order to form a just estimate of the religious spirit and influence of his writings. Certainly when the character of those circumstances is fully and fairly considered, the charges which have been advanced against him are by no means so forceful or serious as they at first sight appear. No vice or vicious tendency characterised his conduct in early manhood. Indeed, till his twenty-third year he seems to have been moodily pious, and expressed a strong desire to be rid of life, being, as he said, “ heartily tired of it.” This melancholy, the result of overwork upon a nervous temperament, never left him, and is the explanation of many of his reckless after-moods. His hours of hilarity illustrated the reaction from the mental gloom that a weakened constitution almost invariably induces in a strong, generous, and aspiring nature. But even were this explanation disallowed, and the whole indictment against Burns assumed to be true (an assumption which the most reliable evidence does not support), it has still to be remembered that the social habits of his time were very different from those of to-day. The standard of morality was inferior to that with which we are now familiar, and Burns cannot be judged as we should judge a contemporary writer. That he was in every respect better than his age is an undeniable fact, and is sufficient atonement for all his faults and follies. When it can be said of a man that his moral sense was keener, his honour more conspicuous, and his manliness nobler than those of his time, class, and country, we have indicated a stronger claim to praise than most great men possess. This claim can be fearlessly made on our poet's behalf, both in respect of his life and his work, and herein we have a sufficient answer to every charge that bigotry, prejudice, and prudery have preferred against him.
His irreligion, however, was most clearly evinced, we are told, by his contemptuously satirical treatment of the beliefs, ordinances, and teachers of the Christian Church of his day. This is a charge that can be refuted only, we fear, at the expense
of the prejudices of many respectable religionists of our own day. For it is based on a misconception of what religion really is. In truth we are even now only slowly advancing to the position which Burns intelligently occupied a century ago. To him, religion was not a matter of theological creeds and ecclesiastical observances, but rather a divine reality, native to the human heart, and raised far above all differences of sect or belief. He recognised the absurdity of men trying to become religious by renouncing reason, and consigning conscience to the keeping of priests. Hence his ridicule, in the most cutting and brilliant satire, of the Old Light party in the Church, the adherents of which went to the extreme of orthodoxy and unreason. This satire was not prompted by a desire for personal revenge, as has frequently been insinuated.
While he was a mere youth he had come to be regarded as a heretic. Speaking of his boyhood he says :-“Polemical divinity about this time was putting the country half-mad, and I, ambitious of shining in conversation parties on Sundays between sermons, at funerals, etc., used a