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THOMAS CARLYLE AND ROBERT BURNS
"WE have often wondered how he ever found out Burns," remarked Thoreau in commenting on the fact that Carlyle was not a critic of poetry, but that his sympathy was rather with men of endeavor, "and must still refer a good share of his delight in him to neighborhood and early association." 1
There were common elements in their lives which helped to make Carlyle a sympathetic critic of Burns. Not only did both belong to the great clan of Scotchmen, but both came from the same part of Scotland, the same "neighborhood"-the Lowlands; Burns, from Ayrshire on the Firth of Clyde; Carlyle, from Dumfriesshire, bounded on the south and east by Solway Firth and the English border. Burns was born (January 25, 1759) in a clay-built cottage, reared by his father's own hands, on a farm about two miles
1 Thoreau, "Thomas Carlyle and His Works," A Yankee in Canada, p. 234.
from the town of Ayr. Carlyle was born (December 4, 1795, one year before the death of Burns) in a house also built by his father, who was a carpenter and stonemason by trade, in the small market town of Ecclefechan, Annandale, consisting at that time of but a single street. Both came of sturdy Scotch peasant stock; and both owed much to the rugged simplicity and unaffected piety—in the Roman sense of the word
- of their early home influences. The Cotter's Saturday Night, which is counted amongst the finest expressions of Burns's poetic genius, and James Carlyle in Carlyle's Reminiscences, which is different in form and substance, yet as unapproachable in its way, are in a sense tributes - high and lasting tributes, or, if you like the word, monuments — to these early home influences. Burns's and Carlyle's fathers were alike in many respects, though Carlyle's was far the sterner. What Carlyle says of Burns's father on pages 58 and 59 of this Essay on Burns could be applied almost word for word to his own father. In addition to the high and rare qualities of character dwelt upon in this passage, both possessed a native gift of speech; in the case of Carlyle's father especially, of speech bold, free, and pithy. Said Mr. John Murdock, the teacher of Burns, in describing his father: "He spoke the English language with more propriety (both with respect to diction and pro
nunciation) than any man I ever knew with no greater advantages. This had a very good effect on the boys, who began to talk and reason like men much sooner than their neighbors."
The following passage from Carlyle's tribute to his father is often quoted:
"In several respects, I consider my Father as one of the most interesting men I have known. He was a man of perhaps the very largest natural endowment of any it has been my lot to converse with: none of us will ever forget that bold glowing style of his, flowing free from the untutored soul; full of metaphors (though he knew not what a metaphor was), with all manner of potent words (which he appropriated and applied with surprising accuracy, you often could not guess whence); brief, energetic; and which I should say conveyed the most perfect picture, definite, clear not in ambitious colors but in full white sunlight, of all the dialects I have ever listened to. Nothing did I ever hear him undertake to render visible, which did not become almost ocularly so. Never shall we again hear such speech as that was: the whole district knew of it; and laughed joyfully over it, not knowing how otherwise to express the
1 Currie, The Works of Robert Burns, fifth edition, Vol. I., P. 95.
feeling it gave them. Emphatic I have heard him beyond all men. In anger he had no need of oaths: his words were like sharp arrows that smote into the very heart. The fault was that he exaggerated (which tendency I also inherit); yet only in description and for the sake chiefly of humorous effect: he was a man of rigid, even scrupulous veracity; I have often heard him turn back, when he thought his strong words were misleading, and correct them into measurative accuracy."1
As to their outward educational opportunities, however, Burns and Carlyle had little in common. The school days of the former were practically over when he was ten years of age, whereas at the same age the latter was beginning his preparation for a university
Robert Burns apparently made the most of the few opportunities for education that were thrown in his way. In the spring of 1765 his father and four of the neighbors clubbed together and engaged a young man by the name of John Murdock to take charge of a little school, which happened to be situated only a few yards from the "mud edifice" of the Burns family. "My pupil, Robert Burns, was then between six and seven years of age; his precep
1 Carlyle, Reminiscences, edited by Norton, i., p. 5.
tor about eighteen," wrote Mr. Murdock some years later. "Robert, and his younger brother Gilbert, had been grounded a little in English before they were put under my care. They both made rapid progress in reading, and a tolerable progress in writing. In reading, dividing words into syllables by rule, spelling without book, parsing sentences, etc., Robert and Gilbert were generally at the upper end of the class, even when ranged with boys by far their seniors. The books most commonly used in the school were, the Spelling Book, the New Testament, the Bible, Mason's Collection of Prose and Verse, and Fisher's English Grammar. They committed to memory the hymns, and other poems of that collection, with uncommon facility. This facility was partly owing to the method. pursued by their father and me in instructing them, which was, to make them thoroughly acquainted with the meaning of every word in each sentence that was to be committed to memory. By the bye, this may be easier done, and at an earlier period, than is generally thought." Burns's way of putting the same fact is characteristic, "Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic
1 Letter to Mr. Walker of Dublin, dated London, Feb. 22, 1799, Currie (op. cit.), pp. 86–96.