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PERCY'S “R E LIQUES.” 25

grown cold, and to invigorate a poetry which was sickly from excessive refinement. But this poetry, which Dr. Percy brought in his collection to the acquaintance of scholars and men of reading, had a life elsewhere. It was composed of winged words that had taken their flight from one generation to another. Its home was not so much in books as in floating tradition preserved by affectionate memory. It was a music in the air; for it might be heard sung by reapers in the field one harvest after another, by women lightening with its oftrepeated strains their household labours, by mothers singing over their children, or in some single chanting to a fireside group. It was a poetry dwelling chiefly in the North of Britain, secluded from Southern refinements. There was, for instance, a Scottish gardener's wife, who had an inexhaustible store of the ballads; some simple, solemn ditties, which when she chanted them could bring tears down an old man's cheeks, and others spirit-stirring, at sound of which the fire flashed in the dark eyes of her listening child. That deep dark-eyed Scottish bairn was Robert Burns. His ear was attuned in childhood to the old minstrelsy; the sounds sunk into his spirit to come forth again in after-years, his imagination giving them a more glorious poetry than they had ever echoed to before. The obligation of the poet to his other parent was careful religious instruction, which, if it did not furnish safeguards against Sad excesses of his impetuous passions in after-life, at least saved him from ever sinking into the recklessness of a reprobate. He has recorded also a debt of his infant and boyish days to an old woman domesticated under the same humble roof, remarkable, he says, for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition, and having the largest collec

tion in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and, other trumpery, “The household life of Burns's parents is represented in the imperishable portraiture of the “Cotter's Saturday Night;’ and the origin of those stanzas finely exhibits the continued presence of early salutary influences amid the tumultuous passions of the poet's heart.” There was, he said, something peculiarly venerable to his thoughts in the phrase “Let us worship God,” used by a decent, sober head of a family introducing family worship. That single simple sentiment, thus impressed in early life, was the germ which was expanded by his true poetic imagination into the admirable description above alluded to. The adversity that befell the elder Burns weighed heavily on the poet's boyhood. In consequence of the father's misfortunes, there fell to the share of the boys more labour than was good for them,--the premature pressure which is too apt to force the young heart out of its true proportions. A good plain education led Burns to a course of reading which might shame many a one with better opportunities. But the poetic instinct in him was awakened, I imagine, less by what he saw on the pages of books than by the traditionary minstrelsy by which he was led along as by the music sung, up in the air, by the invisible Ariel. The earliest stirrings of his powers were rude rhymes half uttered when he was humming the tune, or, in Scottish phrase, crooning to himself, as he has described in one of the familiar poetical epistles he was fond of writing to his friends:—

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The poetic fire was kindled by another fire; for the first of the long series of his love-stories dates in his fifteenth year, when the boy sought expression in verse for his devotion to his bonny partner in the harvest-field, where it was a Scottish custom to group the reapers in pairs, lad and lass. With one whose heart was like tinder, it was impulse enough to give speech to his imagination. The early trials of his strength were very speedily followed by the ambition of gaining for himself a name, and even more; and this shows how soon the consciousness of his might came to him, the ambition of producing something to do honour to his country, his slighted country:

“I mind it weel, in early date,
When I was beardless, young, and blate,
And first could thresh the barn,
Or haud a yokin’ at the pleugh,
An’ though forfoughten sair eneugh,
Yet unco proud to learn
When first amang the yellow corn
A man I reckoned was,
An' wi' the lave ilk merry morn
Could rank my rig and lass.

“E’en then a wish, (I mind its power,)
A wish that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast,-
That I for poor auld Scotland's sake
Some useful plan or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.

The rough burr-thistle, spreading wide
Amang the bearded bear,

I turned the weedin’-heuk aside,
An' spared the symbol dear.”

Burn’s first notoriety—his first becoming known, as he said, as a maker of rhymes—came in a way scarcely to have been expected, and less congenial with the spirit of true poetry than the simple effusions of his better feelings. The Church of Scotland was divided into two ecclesiastical parties, who were waging against each other a warfare of words the bitterness of which spread from the manse to the cottage; and, as Burns said, polemical divinity was putting the country half mad. In the midst of a general strife he was not one likely to remain unconcerned. How far he felt a real interest in the discussions of “Auld Light” and “New Light” it would be hard to say; but, be that as it may, it was a chance for him to feed his hungering after a name. He began his impetuous alliance in some of his free-spoken and irreverent productions, which were welcomed, as he described it, with a roar of applause. This was a welcome given—such was the heat of ecclesiastical factions—not only by laity, but by clergy, on the side the poet espoused. These audacious pieces wrought this effect to be noticed in tracing the progress of Burn's genius:–that they developed, and doubtless at the time increased, the nerve and force of his imaginative powers. The influence on the moral side of his genius was much more questionable. The excesses which Burns witnessed among men active in the national church of Scotland exaggerated his hatred of hypocrisy, and, at the same time, a recklessness of public opinion, a palliation of his own misdoings in the belief that the propriety

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was an assumed and superficial thing, as in the address to the “Unco Guid,” or rigidly righteous:–

“O ye wha are sae guid yoursel,

Sae pious and sae holy,

Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebors’ faults and folly

Whose life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o’ water,

The heapet happer’s ebbing still,
And still the clap plays clatter.”

Or in that better-known stanza,

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
And foolish notion :
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea’e us
And e'en devotion l’’

Burns had an ambition to distinguish himself by his conversational powers, oratory to groups of villagers: this made him a ready disputant in the polemics of the church. That soon passed; but he found another kind of intercourse, Lunhappily, a live-long intercourse, with boon companions,—a freer field for his native wit.

“The star that rules my luckless lot
Has fated me the russet coat
And damned my fortune to the groat,
But, in requit,
Has blessed me wit a random shot
0’ country wit!”

Occasional intervals of absence from the homestead had early made Burns a looker-on in scenes of freer living

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