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The Genius In Robert Burns
Extracted from Professor John Stuart Blackie's The Life Of Robert Burns (1888)


In respect of genius, I think it is now universally admitted that Robert Burns, our Ayrshire bard, has gained for himself, by the number, the variety, and the brilliancy of his productions, a place in the first rank of the great singers of the intellectual world,—Pindar, Chaucer, Horace, Hafiz, Goethe, Beranger, Moore, and if there be any others who enjoy an equally wide recognition. Whatever qualities are necessary to make a lyric poet,—and in the term lyrical we include not only songs in the proper sense composed to be sung, but, for want of a better word, idylls, sketches of character, and, it may be, satirical sideshots, and other short poems meant to be read,—these qualities Burns possessed with a complete equipment; and in addition to these, he was distinguished by certain great human qualities, not always present in great singers, which add the stamp of a vigorous and manly intellect to the charm of a nice emotional sensibility. The fire and fervour without which lyrical poetry is scarce worthy of the name, Burns possessed in a high degree; but it was not merely fire from within, consuming itself in the glow of some special pet enthusiasm, but it was a fire that went out contagiously and seized on whatever fuel it might find in the motley fair of the largest human life.

If ever there was a song-writer who could say with the most catholic comprehensiveness in the words of the old comedian, "I am a man, and all things human are kin to me," it was Robert Burns. In this respect he is the Shakespeare of lyric poetry. Some have thought, indeed, that in respect of the fine objective eye, and power of self-transmutation, shown in "The Jolly Beggars," and not a few others of his poems, had he lived his genius might have risen to the dignity of the regular drama. Possibly; but I am inclined to think that, however quick his eye for dramatic peculiarities of character, and however far he was from being the votary of a purely subjective sensibility, the action of his mind was deficient in that continuity of persistent effort which enables a man to build up into a firm structure the complex materials of a drama. In connection with his power of seizing the striking features of character, must be mentioned his tremendous force as a satirist,—for a satirist of the most pungent order unquestionably he was,—too much, in fact, for his own peaceable march through life, and too much sometimes, as we have seen, for his own pleasant reflections on his deathbed, but not too much for public correction and reproof when, as in the case of "Holy Willie" and "The Holy Fair," the lash was wisely and effectively wielded. His admiring friend Mr Ramsay of Ochtertyre, anxious that his genius might reap sweet fruit with as little of the bitter element as possible, wrote to him with an earnest admonition, "to keep clear of the thorny walk of satire, which makes a man a hundred enemies for one friend;" and this was, no doubt, good advice. Only in the passionate love of the beautiful, and the reverential admiration of the sublime, can true poetry find its life-breath; but a satirical fling occasionally at dominant follies, seasoned with kindliness, is perfectly within the province of the poet in a secondary way, when touching on matters that cannot be avoided, and that deserve no better treatment. A song-writer, as we have said, must always be a warm-hearted man,—a cold song is inconceivable; but he is not always a strong man,—he may be weak, with all his warmth. Not so Burns. He was emphatically a strong man; there was, as Carlyle says, "a certain rugged sterling worth about him," which makes his songs as good as sermons sometimes, and sometimes as good as battles. And it was this notable amount of backbone, and force of arm, sensibly felt in his utterances, which gave to his pathos and his tenderness such healthy grace, and such rare freedom from anything that savoured of sentimentality. In Burns the most delicate sensibility to beauty was harmoniously combined with the firmest grip and the most manly stoutheartedness. This sensibility, of course, showed itself most largely in the electric power constantly exercised over him by the prasence of God's great masterpiece of creative skill, a lovely woman; but the heather-bell, and the field daisy, and every grassy slope and wooded fringe and wimpling brook of bonnie Ayrshire, were ever as dear, to his heart as they were near to his footstep. Nor was it the Platonic admiration of the beautiful only that moved him to sing. The Christian element of pity also had a deep fount in his rich human heart, and a tear of common-blooded affinity was ever ready to be dropt, not only over the sorrows of an injured woman, but over the pangs of a hunted hare or the terror of a startled fieldmouse. Add to all this, extraordinary quickness of apprehension, great vividness of imagination, and great powers of rhythmical utterance, and you have in the shire ploughman every element that goes to equip a master-spirit in the noble craft of song-writing. But there were also in the composition of Burns certain grand general human qualities which, though not necessary to the highest excellence of the lyrical Muse, are of a nature to adorn and to commend what they cannot create, and to extort admiration from persons the furthest removed from anything that savours of poetical inspiration. First, of course, there came the commendation that he was a man of good personal aspect and manly presentment. He had none of the pale cast of countenance that men of action expect to find in the poet and the philosopher; he was healthy and robust, and could handle the plough or the flail as vigorously as the pen.

Then, again, his general vigour of mind was as notable as his vigour of body ; he was as strong in thought as intense in emotion. If inferior to Coleridge in ideal speculation, to Wordsworth in harmonious contemplation, and to Southey in book-learning, in all that concerns living men and human life and human society he was extremely sharp-sighted, and not only wise in penetrating to the inmost springs of human thought and sentiment, but in the judgment of conduct eminently shrewd and sagacious ; gifted, in the highest degree, with that fundamental virtue of all sound Scotsmen, common-sense, without which great genius in full career is apt to lead a man astray from his surroundings, and make him most a stranger to that with which in common life he ought to be most familiar. One notable feature in his genius— a feature which has not seldom been wanting even in the greatest of minds—is humour, a certain sportive fence of the soul delighting in the significant conjunction of contraries, a quality peculiarly Scotch, and which in Scotsmen seems a counterpoise graciously provided by Nature to that overcharge of thoughtfulness and seriousness which so strikingly contrasts them with their Hibernian cousins across the channel. Burns also was strong in wit, a domain in which Scotsmen generally are weak,—kindred qualities, no doubt, in their root, but in their expression diverse, wit acting by points and by flashes, humour by a general breadth of playful light in the moral-atmosphere of the man. Another quality Burns possessed in an eminent degree, a quality which tended to make him the idol of his countrymen, and that was patriotism, a virtue which, as Carlyle remarks, was in the days of Hume and Robertson and Blair anything but common in the literary atmosphere of Scotland. The great Scottish writers of those days, he remarks, ‘had no Scottish culture, scarcely even English; it was almost exclusively French.'

Finally, let us note what in other walks of literature might have operated as a serious disadvantage, viz., his peasant breeding and rustic habitude; for in the domain of popular song, the familiar intercourse with nature and the natural forms of human life, has a saving virtue to keep a man free from that crop of splendid affectations and dainty conceits, which the hot pressure of literary competition in an age of highly stimulated culture seldom fails to produce.


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