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rendered the poem "in its present form," and admits that he was not the original author, but simply gave the English version of "Old Long Syne." Rogers adds that it was probably first written by one of the earlier Scottish poets, "as the language in its original form appears very antiquated." To what "original form" does Dr Rogers allude? He neither argues the matter nor advances in evidence the work of the earlier Scottish poet. He is probably a myth, a creature of the editor's imagination. Dr Rogers had an unfortunate weakness for playing the oracle, for making a brave show of confidence upon insecure grounds, and for making reckless assertions upon no ground whatever. When he says that Ayton "has been ascertained to have given the poem its English dress, but produces no testimony to that effect, he is simply straining credulity to an extent which his reputation for accuracy will not enable it to bear. He and his statements may most safely be, in legal phrase, "put to silence."
Unaffected by either James Paterson or Dr Rogers, the claim preferred on Ayton's behalf, nevertheless, is unquestionably sound. The internal evidence is conclusive. In the first place, the weakness of the case for Sempill is his strength, his greater poetic power. He nowhere cowers his wing to the level of "Old Long Syne." There is not a line in it comparable with a single passage in any one of the above mentioned triad of lyrics ascribed to Sempill. The poet of "Maggie Lauder" could not have wandered mooning in lovesick indecision through "Old Long Syne." He would have loved a dozen before the other had forgotten one. There is nothing in it that approaches the ebullient realism of "The Blythsome Bridal." Nor does its icy breath waft even a veiled hint of the burning impulsiveness, the warmly-tinted but sincere passion throbbing in "She rose and loot me in." It serves no purpose to compare a snowball with a furnace. Who wrote the last-named song was incapable of the milder glow, the lukewarmth of "Old Long Syne." There is, moreover, a finer touch of artistry, a sweeter music in his verse.
Between Ayton's known productions, on the other hand, and "Old Long Syne" the parallel is perfect. Grant Wilson says of
the bronze bust of Ayton, in Westminster, that "in his looks. there is as much of the gentleman as the genius." Secretary to Queen Henrietta Maria, and accustomed to the atmosphere of courts, there is in his verse as much of the courtier as the poet. His verse, both sonnet and lyric, is chiefly amatory or sentimental, and dedicated to mistresses who have turned cold and disdainful. He depicts no passion, but uses the language of remonstrance and reason or argument. He likes, but never loves. He is artificial, and rings the changes upon a trifling fancy. He often pleases, but rarely charms. Two of his best verses occur in
Inconstancy Reproved," and they express only regret
"And I will sigh, while some will smile,
To see thy love for more than one,
Hath brought thee to be lov'd by none."
The climax of comparison, however, is reached in "On Woman's Inconstancy " and "The Answer." One or two selections are better than much analytical comment :
"I lov'd thee once, I'll love no more,
"He that can love unlov'd again,
Hath better store of love than brain :
"When new desires have conquer'd thee,
Not constancy, to love thee still."
"The height of my disdain shall be,
In "The Answer " the sentiment is healthier, and there are
a few good lines and couplets. There is, for instance, the rebuke of the lover for following his inconstant mistress's example :
"Example led revenge astray
When true love should have kept the way."
In respect of feeling the best verse is the third :—
"True love has no reflecting end,
The object good sets it at rest,
Without expecting interest.
To barter love for love again :
'Tis usury, yea, worse than this,
The feeling is sound, but there is little poetry in these reasonings of love. In "Inconstancy Reproved" the couplet occurs :
"Thy favours are but like the wind
and, having found a simile for his mistress in a plucked rose, "strain'd through ruder hands," from which, beauty and perfume both having vanished, the leaves fall one by one, the poet works it out in two six-line verses.
All these poems are pitched in exactly the same key of sentiment as "Old Long Syne." They are not the inspirations of a poet, but the amusements of a trifler with rhymes. They are all marked by poverty of ideas, shallowness of sentiment, and by little conceits. Thought has its habitual groove, and expression its customary phrase. In one we hear of freedom, thraldom, and a captive's captive; in "Old Long Syne" we again hear of freedom, liberty, and chains. The stamp of kinship is most plainly discernible, perhaps, in the exasperating weakness of the vacillating though discarded lover, who loves, loves not, yet loves on. His wavering explains his mistress's contempt. He is Ayton's type, the artist's model we recognise as Ayton's own. Sempill never thought him or any other sighing hermaphrodite, but lovers who are at least men. Without hesitation I ascribe "Old Long Syne" to Sir Robert Ayton.
The third form of "Auld Lang Syne" is Allan Ramsay's, published in 1724, in the "Tea Table Miscellany," a wretched string of ill-matched rhymes-haste and blast, bough and you, and the like-put into the mouth of a woman immodestly venting in words a counterfeit and unworthy passion. It is difficult to
believe it Ramsay's. In it, however, we reach the immortal title "Auld Lang Syne." In "Tullochgorum" Skinner's "Old Minister's Song," is the idea of friendship, and again in the opening line, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot," is touched what was most probably the germ of the song of Burns. The link connecting it with the Laing broadside is far less trustworthy and convincing. Aside from that, in none of the earlier forms of the song is any clear and full suggestion discoverable of the feeling inspiring Burns's matchless lyric. Skinner went towards it, but he went feebly in a tone of reproach. Burns is filled mainly with the joy of meeting, and there is little more than a back-ground or sub-structural flavour of regret, in the references to long and weary wandering and the roaring of broad separating seas. They neither dim the eye nor make the voice quaver. The long ago, "Auld Lang Syne," is only mellowed with sadness, as the ancient cronies look into the retrospect of life. They know nothing of "divine despair" concerning days that are no more. There is gladness rather than repining in the memory of childhood, the gowany brae, the burn they paidlet in together, and it is worth noting the sensitive touch of art in the "But" dividing the picture of happy morning from the severed movements of later years. The dawn was bright although the day was clouded. Reflection only warms jollity as they, the hale survivors of time's wreckage, once more clasp hands in the friendship that years and absence have not staled, but which is still living in the grey gloamin' of age. As "A Man's a Man" is the song of manhood and democracy; as "Of a' the Airts" is the song of present passionate love, and "My Nannie's Awa" its lament; so "Auld Lang Syne" is the song of friendship and good fellowship.
As such the world has accepted it. Ford tells how, after a congress of working men at Brussels, in a many-nationed company in which the interpreter was kept busy" Just at the break-up, each man at a signal got upon his feet, all joined hands, and the walls of the hall were made to resound with the words of a song which evidently required no interpreter, for every man present knew and could sing Auld Lang Syne." Dick considers it the
best-known song in the civilized world, and has this to narrate: "I have heard a mixed company of Scots, English, Germans Italians, and French Swiss sing the chorus in an upland hotel in Switzerland." In that case, at least, Burns was not "the singer of a parish," but sang for mankind.
To sum up, in truth and reality his song has no history. It was not an evolution but grew independently, with only a tiny hint from Skinner, out of a current phrase, and lang syne, sin' syne, and auld lang syne were in the mouths of Scottish schoolboys a generation ago. Burns may have seen some of the earlier verses, but he need have seen none, so perfect is his originality, so exclusively his own is his treatment of the theme. He looked into the heart of the phrase, and with an instinct unrivalled and infallible seized upon its haunting burden of bright and glowing reminiscence, ending in reunion. He cares nothing for precedents. Neither the Bannatyne moraliser nor Ayton can do anything for him. He is inspired; he shades joy lightly with reflection, for that is human nature; he hears but a whisper of pathos from thoughts of the olden time; he is too much of an artist to mix violently contrasted colours; he only sees two joyously meeting in eld who parted in youth; and there, without parentage, precedent or history, self-originating, and fresh as the dew on Nithsdale holms, is the song, "Auld Lang Syne."