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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 7


His is that language of the heart
In which the answering heart would speak—
Thought, word, that bids the warm tear start,
Or the smile light up the cheek;
And his that music to whose tone
The common pulse of man keeps time,
In cot or castle’s mirth or moan,
In cold or sunny clime
.—American Poet.

The love of literature, when once thoroughly awakened in a reflective mind, can never after cease to influence it. It first assimilates our intellectual part of those fine intellects which live in the world of books, and then renders our connection with them indispensable, by laying hold of that social principle of our nature which ever leads us to the society of our fellows as our proper sphere of enjoyment. My early habits, by heightening my tone of thought and feeling, had tended considerably to narrow my circle of companionship. My profession, too, had led me to be much alone; and now that I had been several years the master of an Indiaman, I was quite as fond of reading, and felt as deep an interest in whatever took place in the literary world as when a student at St Andrew’s. There was much in the literature of the period to gratify my pride as a Scotch man. The despotism, both political and religious, which had overlaid the energies of our country for more than a century, had long been removed, and the national mind had swelled and expanded under a better system of things, till its influence had become co-extensive with civilized man. Hume had produced his inimitable history, and Adam Smith his wonderful work, which was to revolutionize and new-model the economy of all the governments of the earth. And there, in my little library, were the histories of Henry and Robertson, the philosphy of Kaimes and Reid, the novels of Smollett and M’Kenzie, and the poetry of Beattie and Home. But, if there was no lack of Scottish intellect in the literature of the time, there was a decided lack of Scottish manners; and I knew too much of my humble countrymen not to regret it. True, I had before me the writings of Ramsay and my unfortunate friend Ferguson; but there was a radical meanness in the first that lowered the tone of his colouring far beneath the freshness of truth, and the second, whom I had seen perish--too soon, alas! for literature and his country—had given us but a few specimens of his power, when his hand was arrested for ever.

My vessel, after a profitable, though somewhat tedious voyage, had again arrived in Liverpool. It was late in December 1786, and I was passing the long evening in my cabin, engaged with a whole sheaf of pamphlets and magazines which had been sent me from the shore. The Lounger was, at this time, in course of publication. I had ever been an admirer of the quiet elegance and exquisite tenderness of M’Kenzie; and, though I might not be quite disposed to think, with Johnson, that "the chief glory of every people arises from its authors," I certainly felt all the prouder of my country, from the circumstance that so accomplished a writer was one of my countrymen. I had read this evening some of the more recent numbers, half disposed to regret, however, amid all the pleasure they afforded me, that the Addison of Scotland had not done for the manners of his country what his illustrious prototype had done for those of England, when my eye fell on the ninety-seventh number. I read the introductory sentences, and admired their truth and elegance. I had felt, in the contemplation of supereminent genius, the pleasure which the writer describes, and my thoughts reverted to my two friends—the dead and the living. "In the view of highly superior talents, as in that of great and stupendous objects," says the Essayist, "there is a sublimity which fills the soul with wonder and delight—which expands it, as it were, beyond its usual bounds, and which, investing our nature with extraordinary powers and extraordinary honours, interests our curiosity and flatters our pride."

I read on with increasing interest. It was evident, from the tone of the introduction, that some new luminary had risen in the literary horizon, and I felt somewhat like a schoolboy when, at his first play, he waits for the drawing up of the curtain. And the curtain at length rose. "The person," continues the essayist, "to whom I allude"—and he alludes to him as a genius of no ordinary class—"is Robert Burns, an Ayrshire ploughman." The effect on my nerves seemed electrical—I clapped my hands, and sprung from my seat: "Was I not certain of it! Did I not foresee it!" I exclaimed. "My noble-minded friend, Robert Burns!" I ran hastily over the warm-hearted and generous critique, so unlike the cold, timid, equivocal notices with which the professional critic has greeted, on their first appearance, so many works destined to immortality. It was M’Kenzie, the discriminating, the classical, the elegant, who assured me that the productions of this "heaven-taught ploughman were fraught with the high-toned feeling and the power and energy of expression, characteristic of the mind and voice of a poet"—with the solemn, the tender, the sublime;—that they contained images of pastoral beauty which no other writer had ever surpassed, and strains of wild humour which only the higher masters of the lyre had ever equalled; and that the genius displayed in them seemed not less admirable in tracing the manners than in painting the passions, or in drawing the scenery of nature. I flung down the essay, ascended to the deck in three huge strides, leaped ashore, and reached my bookseller’s as he was shutting up for the night.

"Can you furnish me with a copy of Burns’ Poems," I said, "either for love or money?"

"I have but one copy left," replied the man, "and here it is."

I flung down a guinea. "The change," I said, "I shall get when I am less in a hurry."

‘Twas late that evening ere I remembered that ‘tis customary to spend at least part of the night in bed. I read on and on with a still increasing astonishment and delight, laughing and crying by turns. I was quite in a new world; all was fresh and unsoiled—the thoughts, the descriptions, the images—as if the volume I read was the first that had ever been written; and yet all was easy and natural, and appealed, with a truth and force irresistible, to the recollections I cherished most fondly. Nature and Scotland met me at every turn. I had admired the polished compositions of Pope, and Gray, and Collins, though I could not sometimes help feeling that, with all the exquisite art they displayed, there was a little additional art wanting still. In most cases the scaffolding seemed incorporated with the structure which it had served to rear; and, though certainly no scaffolding could be raised on surer principles, I could have wished that the ingenuity which had been tasked to erect it had been exerted a little further in taking it down. But the work before me was evidently the production of a greater artist; not a fragment of the scaffolding remained—not so much as a mark to show how it had been constructed. The whole seemed to have risen like an exhalation, and, in this respect, reminded me of the structures of Shakspeare alone. I read the inimitable "Twa Dogs." Here, I said, is the full and perfect realization of what Swift and Dryden were hardy enough to attempt, but lacked genius to accomplish. Here are dogs—bona fide dogs—endowed indeed with more than human sense and observation, but true to character, as the most honest and attached of quadrupeds, in every line. And then those exquisite touches which the poor man, inured to a life of toil and poverty, can alone rightly understand! and those deeply-based remarks on character, which only the philosopher can justly appreciate! This is the true Catholic poetry, which addresses itself not to any little circle, walled in from the rest of the species by some peculiarity of thought, prejudice, or condition, but to the whole human family. Tread on:—"The Holy Fair," "Hallow E’en," " The Vision," the "Address to the Dell," engaged me by turns; and then the strange, uproarious, unequalled "Death and Doctor Hornbook." This, I said, is something new in the literature of the world. Shakspeare possessed above all men the power of instant and yet natural transition, from the lightly gay to the deeply pathetic—from the wild to the humorous; but the opposite states of feeling which he induces, however close the neighbourhood, are ever distinct and separate; the oil and the water, though contained in the same vessel, remain apart. Here, however, for the first time, they mix and incorporate, and yet each retains its whole nature and full effect. I need hardly remind the reader that the feat has been repeated, and with even more completeness, in the wonderful "Tam o’ Shaunter." I read on. "The Cottar’s Saturday Night" filled my whole soul--my heart throbbed and my eyes moistened; and never before did I feel half so proud of my country, know half so well on what score it was I did best in feeling proud. I had perused the entire volume, from beginning to end ere I remembered I had not taken supper, and that it was more than time to go to bed.

But it is no part of my plan to furnish a critique on the poems of my friend. I merely strive to recall the thoughts and feelings which my first perusal of them awakened, and thus only as a piece of mental history. Several months elapsed from this evening ere I could hold them out from me sufficiently at arms’ length, as it were, to judge of their more striking characteristics. At times the amazing amount of thought, feeling, and imagery which they contained—their wonderful continuity of idea, without gap or interstice—seemed to me most to distinguish them. At times they reminded me, compared with the writings of smoother poets, of a collection of medals which, unlike the thin polished coin of the kingdom, retained all the significant and pictorial roughnesses of the original dye. But when, after the lapse of weeks, months, years, I found them rising up in my heart on every occasion, as naturally as if they had been the original language of all my feelings and emotions—when I felt that, instead of remaining outside my mind, as it were, like the writings of other poets, they had so amalgamated themselves with my passions, my sentiments, my ideas, that they seemed to have become portions of my very self—I was led to a final conclusion regarding them. Their grand distinguishing characteristic is their unswerving and perfect truth. The poetry of Shakspeare is the mirror of life—that of Burns the expressive and richly modulated voice of human nature.


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