Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

ved a life of sturt and strife, and died by treacherie,' was not be too one of the Nimrods and Napoleons of the earth, in the arena of his own remote misty glens, for want of a clearer and wider one? Nay, was there not a touch of grace given him? A fibre of love and softness, of poetry itself, must have lived in his savage heart; for he composed that air the night before his execution; on the wings of that poor melody, bis better soul would soar away above oblivion, pain, and all the ignominy and despair, which, like an avalanche, was hurling him to the abyss ! Here also, as at Thebes, and in Pelops' line, was material Fate matched against man's Free-will; matched in bitterest though obscure duel; and the ethereal soul sunk not, even in its blindness, without a cry which has survived it. But who, except Burns, could have given words to such a soul; words that we never listen to without a strange half-barbarous, balf-poetic fellowfeeling?

Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,

Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play'd a spring, and danced it round,

Below the gallows tree.' Under a lighter and thinner disguise, the same principle of Love, which we have recognised as the great characteristic of Burns, and of all true poets, occasionally manifests itself in the shape of Humour. Everywhere, indeed, in his sunny moods, a full buoyant flood of mirth rolls through the mind of Burns; he rises to the high, and stoops to the low, and is brother and playmate to all Nature. We speak not of his bold and often irresistible faculty of caricature; for this is Drollery rather than Humour: But a much tenderer sportfulness dwells in him; and comes forth here and there, in evanescent and beautiful touches; as in his Address to the Mouse, or the Farmer's Mare, or in his Elegy on Poor Mailie, which last may be reckoned his happiest effort of this kind. In these pieces, there are traits of a Humour as fine as that of Sterne; yet altogether different, original, peculiar-the Humour of Burns.

Of the tenderness, the playful pathos, and many other kindred qualities of Burns's poetry, much more might be said; but now, with these poor outlines of a sketch, we must prepare to quit this part of our subject. To speak of his individual writings, adequately, and with any detail, would lead us far beyond our limits. As already hinted, we can look on but few of these pieces as, in strict critical language, deserving the name of Poems; they are rhymed eloquence, rhymed pathos, rhymed sense; yet seldom essentially melodious, aerial, poetical. Tam o' Shanter itself, which enjoys so high a favour, does not appear

to us, at all decisively, to come under this last category. It is not so much a poem, as a piece of sparkling rhetoric; the heart and body of the story still lies hard and dead. He has not gone back, much less carried us back, into that dark, earnest, wondering age, when the tradition was believed, and when it took its rise; he does not attempt, by any new-modelling of his supernatural ware, to strike anew that deep mysterious chord of human nature, which once responded to such things; and which lives in us too, and will for ever live, though silent, or vibrating with far other notes, and to far different issues. Our German readers will understand us, when we say, that he is not the Tieck but the Musäus of this tale. Externally it is all green and living ; yet look closer, it is no firm growth, but only ivy on a rock. The piece does not properly cohere; the strange chasm which yawns in our incredulous imaginations between the Ayr publichouse and the gate of Tophet, is nowhere bridged over, nay, the idea of such a bridge is laughed at; and thus the Tragedy of the adventure becomes a mere drunken phantasmagoria, painted on ale-vapours, and the Farce alone has any reality. We do not say that Burns should have made much more of this tradition; we rather think that, for strictly poetical purposes, not much was to be made of it. Neither are we blind to the deep, varied, genial power displayed in wbat he has actually accomplished; but we find far more Shakspearean' qualities, as these of Tam o Shanter have been fondly named, in many of his other pieces ; nay, we incline to believe, that this latter might have been written, all but quite as well, by a man who, in place of genius, had ouly possessed talent.

Perhaps we may venture to say, that the most strictly poetical of all his poems' is one, which does not appear in Currie's Edition ; but has been often printed before and since, under the humble title of The Jolly Beggars. The subject truly is among the lowest in Nature; but it only the more shows our poet's gift in raising it into the domain of Art. To our minds, this piece seems thoroughly compacted; melted together, refined; and poured forth in one flood of true liquid harmony. It is light, airy, and soft of movement; yet sharp and precise in its details ; every face is a portrait; that raucle carlin, that wee Apollo, that Son of Mars, are Scottish, yet ideal ; the scene is at once a dream, and the very Rag-castle of • Poosy Nansie.' Farther, it seems in a considerable degree complete, a real self-supporting Whole, which is the highest merit in a poem. The blanket of the night is drawn asunder for a moment; in full, ruddy, and Aaming light, these rough tatterdemalions are seen in their boisterous revel ; for the strong pulse of Life vindicates its right to gladness even here ; and when the curtain closes, we prolong the action, without effort; the next day as the last, our Caird and our Balladmonger are singing and soldering; their "brats and callets' are hawking, begging, cheating; and some other night, in new combinations, they will wring from Fate another hour of wassail and good cheer. It would be strange, doubtless, to call this the best of Burns's writings : we mean to say only, that it seems to us the most perfect of its kind, as a piece of poetical composition, strictly so called. In the Beggar's Opera, in the Beggar's Bush, as otber critics have already remarked, there is nothing which, in real poetic vigour, equals this Cantata ; nothing, as we think, which comes within many degrees of it. · Bút by far the most finished, complete, and truly inspired pieces of Burns are, without dispute, to be found among his Songs. It is here that, although through a small aperture, his light shines with the least obstruction ; in its highest beauty, and pure sunny clearness. The reason may be, that Song is a brief and simple species of composition; and requires nothing so much for its perfection, as genuine poetic feeling, genuine music of heart. The Song has its rules equally with the Tragedy ; rules which in most cases are poorly fulfilled, in many cases are not so much as felt. We might write a long essay on the Songs of Burns; which we reckon by far the best that Britain has yet produced : for indeed since the era of Queen Elizabeth, we know not that, by any other hand, aught truly worth attention has been aceomplished in this department. True, we have songs enough by persons of quality'; we have tawdry, hollow, winebred, madrigals; many a rhymed speech' in the flowing and watery vein of Ossorius the Portugal Bishop, rich in sonorous words, and, for moral, dashed perhaps with some tint of a sentimental sensuality; all which many persons cease not from endeavouring to sing ; though for most part, we fear, the music is but from the throat outwards, or at best from some region far enough short of the Soul ; not in which, but in a certain inane Limbo of the Fancy, or even in some vaporous debateable land on the outside of the Nervous System, most of such madrigals and rhymed speeches seem to have originated. With the Songs of Burns we must not name these things. Independently of the clear, manly, heartfelt sentiment that ever pervades his poetry, his Songs are honest in another point of view : in form, as well as in spirit. They do not affect to be set to music, but they actually and in themselves are music; they have received their life, and fashioned themselves together, in the medium of Harmony, as Venus rose from the bosom of the sea. The story, the feeling, is not detailed, but suggested; not said, or spouted, in rhetorical completeness and coherence; but sung, in fitful gushes, in glowing hints, in fantastic breaks, in warblings not of the voice only, but of the whole mind. We consider this to be the essence of a song; and that no songs since the little careless catches, and, as it were, drops of song, which Shakspeare has here and there sprinkled over his plays, fulfil this condition in nearly the same degree as most of Burns's do. Such grace and truth of external movement, too, presupposes in general a corresponding force and truth of sentiment, and inward meaning. The Songs of Burns are not more perfect in the former quality, than in the latter. With what tenderness he sings, yet with what vehemence and entireness! There is a piercing wail in his sorrow, the purest rapture in his joy; he burns with the sternest ire, or laughs with the loudest or slyest mirth ; and yet he is sweet and soft, “sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet, 6 and soft as their parting tear! If we farther take into account the immense variety of his subjects; how, from the loud flowing revel in Willie brew'd a peck o' Maut, to the still, rapt enthu. siasm of sadness for Mary in Heaven ; from the glad kind greeting of Auld Langsyne, or the comic archness of Duncan Gray, to the fire-eyed fury of Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled, he has found a tone and words for every mood of man's heart,-it will seem a small praise if we rank him as the first of all our song-writers; for we know not where to find one worthy of being second to

him.

out of Britain British language on

It is on his Songs, as we believe, that Burns's chief influence as an author will ultimately be found to depend : nor, if our Fletcher's aphorism is true, shall we account this a small influence. Let me make the Songs of a people,' said he,' and you shall make its Laws. Surely, if ever any Poet might have equalled himself with Legislators, on this ground, it was Burns. His songs are already part of the mother-tongue not of Scotland only but of Britain, and of the millions that in all the ends of the earth speak a British language. In hut and hall, as the heart unfolds itself in the joy and woe of existence, the name, the voice of that joy and that woe, is the name and voice which Burns has given them. Strictly speaking, perhaps, no British man has so deeply affected the thoughts and feelings of so many men, as this solitary and altogether private individual, with means, apparently the humblest.

In another point of view, moreover, we incline to think that Burns's influence may have been considerable : we mean, as exerted specially on the Literature of his country, at least on the Literature of Scotland. Among the great changes which British, particularly Scottish literature, has undergone since that period, one of the greatest will be found to consist in its remarkable increase of nationality. Even the English writers most popular in Burns's time, were little distinguished for their literary patriotism, in this its best sense. A certain attenuated cosmopolitapism had, in good measure, taken place of the old insular home-feeling ; literature was, as it were, without any local environment; was not nourished by the affections which spring from a native soil. Our Grays and Glovers seemed to write almost as if in vacuo ; the thing written bears no mark of place; it is not written so much for Englishmen, as for men ; or rather, which is the inevitable result of this, for certain Generalisations which philosophy termed men. Goldsmith is an exception : not so Johnson; the scene of his Rambler is little more English than that of his Rasselas. But if such was, in some degree, the case with England, it was, in the highest degree, the case with Scotland. In fact, our Scottish literature had at that period, a very singular aspect; unexampled, so far as we know, except perhaps at Geneva, where the same state of matters appears still to continue. For a long period after Scotland became British, we had no literature : at the date when Addison and Steele were writing their Spectators, our good John Boston was writing, with the noblest intent, but alike in defiance of grammar and philosophy, his Fourfold State of Man. Then came the schisms in our National Church, and the fiercer schisms in our Body Politic: Theologic ink, and Jacobite blood, with gall enough in both cases, seemed to have blotted out the intellect of the country; however, it was only obscured, not obliterated. Lord Kames made nearly the first attempt, and a tolerably clumsy one, at writing English; and ere long, Hume, Robertson, Smith, and a whole host of followers, attracted hither the eyes of all Europe. And yet in this brilliant resuscitation of our fervid genius,' there was nothing truly Scottish, nothing indigenous; except, perhaps, the natural impetuosity of intellect, which we sometimes claim, and are sometimes upbraided with, as a characteristic of our nation. It is curious to remark that Scotland, so full of writers, had no Scottish culture, nor indeed any English; our culture was almost exclusively French. It was by studying Racine and Voltaire, Batteux and Boileau, that Kames bad trained himself to be a critic and pbilosopher : it was the light of Montesquieu and Mably that guided Robertson in his political speculations; Quesnay's lamp ihat kindled the lamp of Adam Smith. Hume was too rich a man to borrow; and perhaps he reacted on the French more than he was acted on by them: but neither had he aught to do with Scotland; Edinburgh, equally with La Flèche, was but the lodging and laboratory, in wbich he not so much morally lived, as me

« AnteriorContinuar »