This is the poem of which the author, in a
letter to Mrs. Dunlop, dated April, 1791, announcing the birth of his third son, William
Nicol Burns, remarked as follows:- "On Saturday morning last, Mrs Burns made me a
present of a fine boy 0 rather stouter, but not so handsome as your godson was at his time
of life. Indeed, I look on your little namesakes to be my chef d'oeuvre in that species of
manufacture, as I look on Tam o' Shanter to be my standard performance in the poetical
line. "Tis true, both the one and the other discover a spice of roguish waggery, that
might perhaps be as well spared; but then they also shew, in my opinion, a force of
genius, and a finishing polish, that I despair of ever excelling."
"A finishing polish!" - This is one characteristic of the
poem which from Cromek's time downwards, we have been told, on the authority of Mrs.
Burns, "was the work of one day." - "One day between breakfast and
dinner," according to some annotators; and, taking such things for granted, the late
Alexander Smith waggishly declared that "Tam o' Shanter is the best day's work ever
produced in Scotland, since that day THE BRUCE win BANNOCKBURN!". The poet never
plumes himself on the rapidity of his powers of composition; but with much force, he says
in one of his letters on that subject - "Though the rough material of fine writing is
undoubtedly the gift of genius, the workmanship is as certainly the united effort of
labout, attention, and pains." It was the 23rd of January, 1791, before he announced
the completion of this marvellous poem, although we find him, in the November previous,
saying to Mrs Dunlop, "I am much flattered by your approbation of my Tam o'
Shanter." His words to Alexander Cunningham in January, are these - "I have just
finished a poem - Tam o' Shanter." To the same friend he writes on 12th March, 1791.
"A thing I have just composed always appears through a double portion of that partial
medium in which an author will ever view his own works. I believe, in general, novelty has
something in it that inebriates the fancy, and not unfrequently dissipates and fumes away
like other intoxication, and leaves the poet patient, as usual, with an aching
heart." With something of this ame feeling, in sending a copy, apperently of the
present poem, to Mr Dalzell, on 19th March, 1791, he says "I have taken the liberty
to frank this letter to you, as it encloses an idle poem of mine; and God knows, you
perhaps pay dear enough for it if you read it through. Not that is my own opinion; but the
author, by the time he has composed and corrected his work, has quite pored away all his
powers of critical discrimination."
These quotations in support of the views we are now
expressing, certainly would apply with more force to the artistic skill and labourious
finish required in he composition of an effective lyric, than the production of a metrical
tale like Tam o' Shanter; for we would rather believe all that has been said of the
rapidity with which it was composed, than credit by the idle tale that Mary in Heaven was
written down by the poet in the presense of his wife, "precisely as it now
stands" immediately after having been composed on a frosty harvest midnight in the
open field, where he had been found lying on his back gazing at "a star which sone
like another moon!"
Professor Wilson argues thus, reasonably, in favour of Tam
o' Shanter having been rapidly composed:- "The fact is hardly credible, but we are
willing to believe it. Dorset merely corrected his famous 'To all ye ladies now on land'
the night before an expected sea-engagement - a proof of his self- possesion; but he had
been working at it for days. Dryden dashed off his 'Alexader's Feast' in no time; but the
labour of weeks was bestowed on it before it assumed its present state. Tam o' Shanter is
superior in force and fire to that Ode. Never did genius go at such a gallop - setting off
at score, and making play, but without whip or spur, from starting to winning- post. All
is inspiration. His wife with her weans, a little way aside the broom, watched him at work
as he was striding up and down the brow of the Scaur, and reciting to himself like one
demented - 'Now Tam, O Tam! has thae been queans,' etc. His bonie Jean must have been
sorely perplexed; but she was familiar with all his moods, and, like a good wife, left him
to his cogitations."
All the world knows that this poem was produced by the
author, and presented to Captain Gross, as an inducement to that antiquary to publish some
account and give an engraving of Alloway Kirk in his work, called Grose;s Antiquities of
Scotland, published at the end of April 1791. The poet also supplied three interesting
witch-stories in prose, as traditons concerning Alloway Kirk, and these stories are found
to contain the groundwork of the narrative portion of Burns' inimitable poem; but little
indeed to they supply of what "the poet has unveiled in penetrating the unsightly and
disgusting surfaces of things," as Worsworth finely and phiosophically remarks.
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