Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

ting down their dimensions in arithmetical ciphers. Nay, it is not so much as this : for we are yet to learn by what arts or instruments the mind could be so measured and gauged.

Mr Lockhart, we are bappy to say, has avoided both these errors. He uniformly treats Burns as the high and remarkable man the public voice has now pronounced him to be : and in delineating him, he has avoided the method of separate generalities, and rather sought for characteristic incidents, habits, actions, sayings; in a word, for aspects which exhibit the whole man, as he looked and lived among his fellows. The book accordingly, with all its deficiencies, gives more insight, we think, into the true character of Burns, than any prior biography: though, being written on the very popular and condensed scheme of an article for Constable's Miscellany, it has less depth than we could bave wished and expected from a writer of such power; and contains rather more, and more multifarious quotations, than belong of right to an original production. Indeed, Mr Lockhart's own writing is generally so good, so clear, direct and nervous, that we seldom wish to see it making place for another man’s. However, the spirit of the work is throughout candid, tolerant, and anxiously conciliating ; compliments and praises are liberally distributed, on all hands, to great and small; and, as Mr Morris Birkbeck observes of the society in the backwoods of America, the courtesies of polite lifo are never lost • sight of for a moment. But there are better things than these in the volume ; and we can safely testify, not only that it is easily and pleasantly read a first time, but may even be without difficulty read again.

Nevertheless, we are far from thinking that the problem of Burns's Biography has yet been adequately solved. We do not allude so much to deficiency of facts or documents,-though of these we are still every day receiving some fresh accession,-as to the limited and imperfect application of them to the great end of Biography. Our notions upon this subject may perhaps appear extravagant; but if an individual is really of consequence enough to have his life and character recorded for public remembrance, we have always been of opinion, that the public ought to be made acquainted with all the inward springs and relations of his character. How did the world and man's life, from his particular position, represent themselves to his mind? How did coexisting circumstances modify him from without; how did be modify these from within ? With what endeavours and what efficacy rule over them; with what resistance and what suffering sink under them? In one word, what and how produced was the effect of society on him; what and how produced was bis effect on society? He who should answer these questions, in regard to any individual, would, as we believe, furnish a model of perfection in biography. Few individuals, indeed, can deserve such a study; and many lives will be written, and, for the gratification of innocent curiosity, ought to be written, and read, and forgotten, which are not in this sense biographies. But Burns, if we mistake not, is one of these few individuals; and such a study, at least with such a result, he has not yet obtained. Our own contributions to it, we are aware, can be but scanty and feeble; but we offer them with good-will, and trust they may meet with acceptance from those for whom they are intended.

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 now nothing 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 clamour 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 wellnigh 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 that he had his very materials to discover; for the metal he worked in Jay hid under the desert, where no eye but his had guessed its existence; and we may almost say that, with his own hand, he had to construct the tools for fashioning it. For he found himself in 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 be stormed, or remain for ever shut against him! His means are the commonest and rudest ; the mere work done is no measure of his strength. A dwarf behind his steam-engine may remove mountains; but no dwarf will hew them down with the pickaxe; and he must be a Titan that hurls them abroad with his arms.

It is in this last shape that Burns presents himself. Born in an age the most prosaic Britain had yet seen, and in a condition the most disadvantageous, where his mind, if it accomplished aught, must accomplish it under the pressure of continual bodily toil, nay, of penury and desponding apprehension of the worst evils, and with no furtherance but such knowledge as dwells in a poor man's hut, and the rhymes of a Ferguson or Ramsay for his standard of beauty, he sinks not under all these impediments : Through the fogs and darkness of that obscure region, his eagle eye discerns the true relations of the world and human life; he grows into intellectual strength, and trains himself to intellectual expertness. Impelled by the irrepressible movement of his inward spirit, he struggles forward into the general view, and with haughty modesty lays down before us, as the fruit of his labour, a gift, which Time has now pronounced imperishable. Add to all this, that his darksome drudging childhood and youth was by far the kindliest era of his whole life; and that he died in his thirty-seventh year : and then ask if it be strange that his poems are imperfect, and of small extent, or that his genius attained no mastery in its art ? Alas, his Sun shone as through a tropical tornado; and the pale Shadow of Death eclipsed it at noon ! Shrouded in such baleful vapours, the genius of Burns was never seen in clear azure splendour, enlightening the world : But some beams from it did, by fits, pierce through; and it tinted those clouds with rainbow and orient colours into a glory and stern grandeur, which men silently gazed on, with wonder and tears!

We are anxious not to exaggerate ; for it is exposition rather than admiration that our readers require of us here ; and yet to avoid some tendency to that side, is no easy matter. We love Burns, and we pity him; and love and pity are prone to magnify. Criticism, it is sometimes thought, should be a cold business; we are not so sure of this; but at all events, our concern with Burns is not exclusively that of critics. True and genial as his poetry must appear, it is not chiefly as a poet, but as a man, that he interests and affects us. He was often advised to write a tragedy: time and means were not lent him for this ; but through life he enacted a tragedy, and one of the deepest. We question whether the world has since witnessed so utterly sad a scene ; whether Napoleon himself, left to brawl with Sir Hudson Lowe, and perish on his rock, amid the melancholy main,' presented to the reflecting mind such a spectacle of pity and fear,' as did this intrinsically nobler, gentler, and perhaps greater soul, wasting itself away in a hopeless struggle with base entanglements, which coiled closer and closer round him, till only Death opened him an outlet. Conquerors are a race with whom the world could well dispense; nor can tbe hard intellect, the unsympathizing loftiness, and high but selfish enthusiasm of such persons, inspire us in general with any affection; at best, it may excite amazement; and their fall, like that of a pyramid, will be beheld with a certain sadness and awe. But a true Poet, a man in whose heart resides some effluence of Wisdom, some tone of the · Eternal Melodies,' is the most precious gift that can be bestowed on a generation : we see in him a freer, purer developement of whatever is noblest in ourselves ; his life is a rich lesson to us, and we mourn his death, as that of a benefactor who loved and taught us.

Such a gift had Nature in her bounty bestowed on us in Robert Burns; but with queenlike indifference she cast it from her hand, like a thing of no moment; and it was defaced and torn asunder, as an idle bauble, before we recognised it. To the illstarred Burns was given the power of making man's life more venerable, but that of wisely guiding his own was not given. Destiny-for so in our ignorance we must speak-his faults, the faults of others, proved too hard for him; and that spirit, which might have soared, could it but have walked, soon sank to the dust, its glorious faculties trodden under foot in the blossom, and died, we may almost say, without ever baving lived. And so kind and warm a soul ; so full of inborn riches, of love to all living and lifeless things! How his heart flows out in sympathy over universal Nature, and in her bleakest provinces, discerns a beauty and a meaning! The • Daisy' falls not unheeded under his ploughshare; nor the ruined nest of that “wee, cowering, • timorous beastie,' cast forth, after all its provident pains, to *thole the sleety dribble, and cranreuch cauld. The shoar vi

sage' of Winter delights him : he dwells with a sad and oft-returning fondness in these scenes of solemn desolation, but the voice of the tempest becomes an anthem to his ears; he loves to walk in the sounding woods, for it raises his thoughts to Him that walketh on the wings of the wind.' A true Poet-soul, for it needs but to be struck, and the sound it yields will be music ! But observe bim chiefly as he mingles with his brother men. What warm, all-comprehending fellow-feeling, what trustful, boundless love, what generous exaggeration of the object loved ! His rustic friend, his nut-brown maiden, are no longer mean and homely, but a hero and a queen, whom he prizes as the paragons of Earth. The rough scenes of Scottish life, not seen by him in any Arcadian illusion, but in the rude contradiction, in the smoke and soil of a too harsh reality, are still lovely to him : Poverty is indeed his companion, but Love also, and Courage; the simple feelings, the worth, the nobleness, that dwell under the straw roof, are dear and venerable to his heart: and thus over the lowest provinces of man's existence, he pours the glory of his own soul; and they rise, in shadow and sunshine, softened and brightened into a beauty which other eyes discern not in the highest. He has a just self-consciousness, which too often degenerates into pride; yet it is a noble pride, for defence, not for offence, no cold, suspicious feeling, but a frank and social one. The peasant Poet bears himself, we might say, like a King in exile : he is cast among the low, and feels himself equal to the highest ; yet he claims no rank, that none may be disputed to him. The forward he can repel, the supercilious he can subdue ; pretensions of wealth or ancestry are of no avail with him ; there is a fire in that dark eye, under which the insolence of conde

scension' cannot thrive. In his abasement, in his extreme need, he forgets not for a moment the majesty of Poetry and Manhood. And yet, far as he feels himself above common men, he wanders not apart from them, but mixes warmly in their interests; nay, throws himself into their arms; and, as it were, intreats them to love bim. It is moving to see how, in his darkest despondency, this proud being still seeks relief from friendship; unbosoms himself, often to the unworthy; and, amid tears, strains to his glowing heart a heart that knows only the name of friendship. And yet he was quick to learn;' a man of keen vision, before whom common disguises afforded no concealment. His understanding saw through the hollowness even of accomplished deceivers ; but there was a generous credulity in his Heart. And so did our Peasant show himself among us ; ' a soul like an Æo• lian harp, in whose strings the vulgar wind, as it passed through "them, changed itself into articulate melody.' And this was he for whom the world found no fitter business than quarrelling with smugglers and vintners, computing excise dues upon tallow, and gauging alebarrels! In such toils was that mighty Spirit sorrowfully wasted; and a hundred years may pass on, before another such is given us to waste.

All that remains of Burns, the Writings he has left, seem to us, as we hinted above, no more than a poor mutilated fraction of what was in him ; brief, broken glimpses of a genius that could never show itself complete ; that wanted all things for completeness : culture, leisure, true effort, nay, even length of life. His poems are, with scarcely any exception, mere occasional effusions, poured forth with little premeditation, expressing, by such means as offered, the passion, opinion, or bumour of the hour. Never in one instance was it permitted him to grap

« AnteriorContinuar »