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INTRODUCTION

BY

URNS, the poetry of Burns, the life of Burns,

are topics which eternally attract the critic. On few literary subjects has more been said, on none, perhaps, is it more difficult to say anything satisfactory. To say anything which shall satisfy all readers is quite out of the question. To English students, Robert Burns is, and must be, a foreign classic. People who decline to read the Waverley novels, because they “detest dialect,” must find the author of “Tam o' Shanter" impossible. With the best will in the world it is tedious to look up glossaries a dozen times on each page, or to desert the text for the footnotes, twice or thrice in a line. Even when the conscientious English reader does take this trouble, he finds that a Scotch phrase may mean “excitedly eager” in one passage, and “ eagerly fond” in another, while the full force, and it has a great deal, of “fidgin' fain" is only apparent to a Scot. In truth, the Scotch dialogue in the Waverley novels is classical Scotch, the Scotch of Edinburgh and the Border, while Burns delights in provincial Scotch, in Ayrshire words of which even the Scotch sometimes need an explanation. What is “muslin kail?” what is a “shangar?” what is a “stimpart?" One has put these questions to very loyal and unanglicized Scots, and they have been unable to answer. We learn little when we are told that a certain mare was a “noble fittielan',” and though “tarrow” rhymes to “ Pizarro," the word is so obscure that it escaped even the older minstrel who was so hard set for various rhymes to “Yarrow.” A little pains, a little acuteness, and the use of a Scottish dictionary, clear up these difficulties, but many persons are so indolent that they will rather take Burns for granted than busy themselves to understand him. It is extremely probable that, even in Scotland, Burns is more praised than read.

In some places the enthusiasm of his Birthday suppers would be chilled if anyone brought in a copy of the poems and asked for a few explanations. The old language is dying out, thanks to newspapers and education, and Burns's language was extraordinarily rich in local and technical terms, which make his poems even to an Eastern or Border Scot anything but plain sailing.

The very wealth of his vocabulary, which often added brilliance to his humour, is beginning to turn against him. His vogue, the national enthusiasm for him, is perhaps greater than ever, but the time may come when that will be said of Burns which Voltaire said of Dante, “he will always be praised, because he is never read.” However, the remark is no longer true of Dante, and a millennium or two must pass before it is true of the Ayrshire ploughman. Still, these mere initial difficulties, trivial in themselves, make it hard to write of Burns so as to satisfy most English readers. To take an obvious example : Cæsar, in “The Twa Dogs," talking of the amusements of the rich laird, says that he

"To Madrid takes the rout,

To thrum guitars, and fecht wi' nowt.” There is no note to the word nowt in Mr. Scott Douglas's excellent edition. Probably the ordinary English reader does not even know that nowt are horned cattle in general. He certainly cannot feel the Scot's delight in this amusingly depreciatory phrase for the heroic pastime of Bull-fighting. One must have been born to the language, to understand its delicacies. This is all the harder on Burns as his Scotch poems are, by universal consent, as well as in his own opinion, infinitely his best poems. English prose he could write excellently, but his model, in English verse, was the divine Shenstone, whereas

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