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SLEIGHT AND ROPINSON, PRINTERS.
"Entered according to act of Congress, in the year 183 by William Stodart, in the office of the Clerk of the Souther District of New York."
WRITINGS OF BURNS,
FOR THE AMERICAN EDITION.
It is a circumstance not a little remarkable, that one who consents to approach so difficult a subject as that of the fame of Burns, should have it in his power to state, that hitherto, almost to a man, his biographers, critics, and reviewers, have been either his relations, personal friends, or Scotsmen.* Supposing that these persons were all remarkable for inflexible impartiality, dispassionate judgment, and coolness of temperament, it must still be allowed that they were men, and therefore could not be totally unaffected by the incidents of consanguinity, intimacy, or nativity. In any view of the case, it is not totally immaterial to be enabled to say that if this subject be handled here with inferior skill, it is discussed on neutral ground. Generals, who would have a thorough knowledge of what is doing in all parts of the field, usually ascend an eminence to detach themselves from the obscurity which the smoke produces. Perhaps there could not exist a more fit place to discuss the nature and extent of the poetical claims of Burns, than on western ground, standing here, as we do, uninfluenced by the strong biases so well known to exist, on behalf of illustrious names, in all large and old societies. It may also be safely
These writers are Gilbert Burns, Thomson, Dr. Currie, Cromek, Walker, Peterkin, Heron, Scott, Jeffrey, Wordsworth, Campbell, and Wilson.
It need not be asked if the writers of the articles respecting Burns, found in the Edinburgh Review, are Scottish; those in the Quartely were written by Sir Walter Scott.
assumed as a position, that even literature, the filtering stone of human opinion, requires itself to be occasionally purified.
A cause, argued in the same manner, sometimes issues in a different result when carried into another court. A change of air sometimes effects in the constitution of a patient, and pari passu in a creed, what no
"poppies, mandragoras, Or drowsy syrups,”
could. At the same time, it is devoutly to be desired that it may not be inferred, from these premises, that literature and good taste are about to receive a deadly shock from the perpetration of heresies irreconcilable with their canons; these prefatory remarks are introduced simply to prepare the mind of the reader for the discussion of the con as well as the pro on the subject of the poetical merits of Robert Burns, which has at least the promise of novelty.
It is unnecessary to detain the reader longer, except to say that a preface to the republication of a volume of such literary importance as a new life of Burns, seemed to be naturally demanded, and that it appeared incumbent on one who was about to add any thing to a subject on which much had been already said, if he could not enlighten by new trains of thought, at least to show that his interference was not altogether idle or ostentatious; but a candid perusal of this notice will evince, that it does not aspire to critical profundity, nor is it claimed to be worthy of being placed by the side of the other papers already appended to the works of Burns.
As there are sceptics on all topics and creeds, so there exist questioners of the solidity of the pretensions preferred for Burns by his reviewers and countrymen. And even where such pretensions are admitted in part, it has been contended that, although he may be allowed to be a good Scottish poet, yet, from the very circumstance of the Scots being his native language, he is very naturally, à priori, disqualified from arriving at the same felicity and skill in the use of Eng
lish, and more especially when it is considered that the copia verborum is one of the essential qualities of a great poet.
It is further asserted that all his biographers, commentators, and reviewers, as before stated, have been chiefly if not altogether of his own country.
It is also said that his fame has never been so great in England as his admirers and eulogists have claimed for him; that his centenary has not yet been completed (that ordeal to which, by common consent, all cases of this sort have been referred); nay, that, dating from his death, which was premature, only thirty-five years of it have elapsed; that foreign translations of his works have not yet appeared, to such an extent as would justify the claims of his country and friends; and that yet, with regard to writers of a more recent date, (Scott and Byron,) a very ample translation of their works into the different languages of Europe has given to their fame its desired apex; that the Scots, being a highly national people, would, to carry a point on behalf of a popular native writer, at any time move heaven and earth, and that Burns has propitiated their favor by the patriotic tendencies and subject matter of many of his productions: that his works are, for the greater part, not pleasing to the English reader without a glossary; that to employ this is irksome; and that his most universally celebrated productions are altogether English, and moreover very few in number; and lastly, that one must have been born a Scotsman to relish with gout the writings of Burns.
If the question relative to the nature and extent of the poetical claims of Burns were to be argued as a disputed point, at this hour, and in the manner put in the foregoing objections, yet, under judicial impulses, we should feel inclined, for ourselves, although they are candidly placed before the reader, to treat these sceptical battalia, in their full amount, as little better than ingenious speculations, or a species of tour de force, and not entitled to grave refutation. Still is there enough about the array to deserve notice, which may be condensed to two or three special
points. First: What, in reality have the biographers and countrymen of Burns claimed for him?
It is not claimed for Burns, that he wrote an elaborate tragedy, or an epic poem, or even a connected treatise on any given subject; what is in reality demanded for him by his judicious friends, cannot perhaps be better stated, than in the language of a most eloquent writer in the Edinburgh Review:
"Burns first came upon the world as a prodigy; and was, in that character, entertained by it, in the usual fashion, with loud, vague, tumultuous wonder, speedily subsiding into censure and neglect; till his early and most mournful death again awakened an enthusiasm for him, which, especially as there was nothing now to be done, and much to be spoken, has prolonged itself even to our own time. It is true, 'the nine' days have long since elapsed; and the very continuance of this clamor proves that Burns was no vulgar wonder. Accordingly, even in sober judgments, where, as years passed by, he has come to rest more and more exclusively on his own intrinsic merits, and may now be well nigh shorn of that casual radiance, he appears not only as a true British poet, but as one of the most considerable British men of the eighteenth century. Let it not be objected that he did little; he did much, if we consider where, and how. If the work performed was small, we must remember he had his very materials to discover; for the metal he worked in lay hid under the desert, where no eye but his had guessed its existence; and we may almost say, that with his own hands he had to construct the tools for fashioning it. For he found himself in the deepest obscurity, without help, without instruction, without model, or with models only of the meanest sort. An educated man stands, as it were, in the midst of a boundless arsenal and magazine, filled with all the weapons and engines which man's skill has been able to devise from the earliest time; and he works accordingly, with a strength borrowed from all past ages. How different is his state, who stands on the outside of that storehouse, and feels that its gates must