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Fraser's Scottish Annual
The Dramatic Element in Burns


BY PROF. WM. HOUSTON, M.A., TORONTO.

ROBERT BURNS is best known in literature as a lyric poet. He is in most of his writings intensely subjective, and subjectivity is perhaps the most characteristic rote of the true lyric. The current of the emotions ran strongly in the man, and they found natural and spontaneous suppression in his verse. It does not follow, however, that he was lyric only. There is in many of his poems ample evidence of his possession of dramatic power of a high order. With the proper training and suitable opportunity he would probably have come nearer to rivalry with Shakespeare than any modern dramatist has done.

To substantiate the correctness of this view it is necessary to consider the nature of dramatic power as manifested ill literature. The most important element iii it is the creation of character. The greatest lyric poet may he incapable of doing more than uttering his own emotions the dramatist must be able to create per- sons and endow them with individuality of thought and sentiment. Shakespeare may have been ''Prospero" or ''Prince Hal,'' but he certainly could not have been all of his great characters at the same time, and could not have been "Shylock" or ''Othello" at all. Scott had great dramatic power of the kind referred to, but lie chose to devote himself to the production of prose romances rather than dramas, for the latter of which he was in some ways quite unfitted, notably by his low grade of poetic genius as compared with that of Burns.

Hardly less important than the power just spoken of is what may be called intensity of expression. In this respect Burns, like Shakespeare, was, supremely endowed. The mild light of the genius of Wordsworth was the perfect antipodes of the fervor of Burns, which neither Tennyson nor Browning often matches. In this respect Kipling is exceptionally gifted, though he labors under serious artistic disadvantages in others. Scott's style of expression was fairly suited to the epic, but would never have done for the drama. If to these characteristics we add humor and pathos, of each of which Burns was a Perennial spring, all that was needed further was training, followed by opportunity. It has been said that Burns was incapable of the sustained application necessary to the production of a great literary work. 0mm that point no one can speak with authority. The conditions of his literary activity were not such as to stimulate him to continuous effort, but very much the reverse.

Burns has not written any strictly dramatic poem, though lie tells us that in his early years lie purposed "courting the tragic muse," and a short remnant of a play is usually published among his works under the title, "A Tragic Fragment." For proof of his possession of dramatic power, therefore, one is forced to cite such poems as "The Jolly Beggars," "The Twa Dogs," "Holy Willie's Prayer," the ''Address to the Deil,"

The Auld Farmer's New-Year Morning Salutation to his old Mare," and "Tam o' Shanter." There is in each of these the true and unmistakable dramatic character, though only time first is dramatic in forum. The differentiation of characters ill is complete, and is accomplished with marvellous ease, skill, and certainty. Time poet who wrote this cantata, indeed, almost extemporized it; if he had been fated to move in a wider sphere, and collie in contact with other dramatists and time actors who exhibited their works, might have accomplished as much as Shakespeare himself, who has done nothing better than it in the way of either character sketching or graphic description.

Three of the poems mentioned above exhibit Burns as sympathising intensely with the lower animals, while his address to Satan is characterized by qualities, ranging along the whole gamut from ,grim satire to moving pathos, that have challenged increasingly time admiration of the best judges of literary excellence. Burns' "Deil" is a perfectly original and truly dramatic creation, quite as much so as Goethe's "Mephistopheles."

While I have singled out here a few poems, the dramatic element runs through a very much larger number, and I feel quite sure that those who have not learned to recognize and appreciate it have bee deprived of most of the pleasure which all acquaintance with time poems of Robert Burns is calculated to impart.


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