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Fraser's Scottish Annual
Robert Burns, An Appreciation, by A. B. Liddel


WHEN we would estimate most correctly the size and power of a man, it is well to look at him not only along the line of his influence, but as he starts up in his own shape and with his own force from the level of his own surroundings. In other words, we must pay almost as much heed to the times which immediately preceded him as to those which he has helped to make and mould. If anyone saw the -castle- rock of Edinburgh by merely following- with his eye up the long ridge that lies behind it, until he came to the fortress that crowns the precipice, he could form only a very insufficient notion of the mass and grandeur of that central feature in the city's splendour. The long ridge which slopes down to Holyrood from the rampart, is largely the result of the castle-rock being there. The whole lie of the place was determined by the influence of the solitary crag that stood breast deep against the floods which rolled at some preliminary stage of things from the west, and silted its mud up in this continuous declivity behind. But approach from the vest and seethe rock as it rears itself sheer up from the preceding level, and then it surprises and thus seen it vindicates those who admire and praise it.

It may safely, be said that all Scottish life and literature have taken new life and shape from the influence of Robert Burns. They are quite different from what they were, not only since his time, but because of him. At our own point of view we are standing on ground the elevation and outlook of which he has clone much to determine. So his distinctive position and power are a little concealed by the very influence he has wielded. But get away round and back to the other side altogether ! look at him (so to speak) out of the first half of his .own century rather than out of the second half of ours! place yourself in the midst of the sad, grey levels of Scottish life and literature a hundred and fifty years ago, and thence advance until this form of splendid manhood comes towering into sight, and then it will be realised what manner of man Burns was. The nation had been losing heart, for times were hard, and the resources of life in Scotland were limited; the song and story of the day, as circulated at the village fair and in the bothy, were coarse and shady; the parsons were a kind of priest, hidebound in their theology, and often with something other and lower than all before them in their personal life, who vet were wielding a severe power with their cutty school here and the pains of punishment hereafter; the land was held by few owners, who were also - the makers of the laws, and both farmer and cottar were doubly under their power; and the strength and the sweetness of the nation's life were found in honest, patient peasants, silent and somewhat severe, who kept God's flame burning on cottage altars, and who were reserved and restrained both in their smiles and their tears. It was a curious period in Scottish life—that first half of the last century ! There was an effete Puritanism in kirk and kirk-sessions; and in every parish there was at the same time a resentful, mocking under-current of life playing with the commandments which the church laid down, and finding fun in evading the minister and the elder. But the point of equilibrium was found, and the balance maintained, and Scotland's salvation kept in the circle "round the ingle" of which the priest-like father and "the big ha' Bible" were the centre, and in which the focus and moment of the Eternal were realised when "'Let us worship God.' he says with solemn air."

Into the midst of that life, moving somewhat slowly in a pathetic eddy, there came with Robert Burns a sudden force. He seemed to splash into it recklessly, and he soon, in a sense, took possession of the whole pool. Scotland never before had felt the impact of any man, as it felt that of the ploughman poet. Every level of life was aware of his influence; he first agitated and then gave new current to all the thoughts and feelings of the people, and he carried both the weakness and the strength of the nation with him. He told the nation's sorrows, and he sang its hopes; he condensed into his own life the best and the worst of his fellow-countrymen, and shattered himself in the passionate process. It was no wonder that everybody claimed him, and that he swayed with a personal power both the weakest and the strongest. Half the village would rise at midnight to hear him banter and scorn when he came late to a village inn; and any ale-house club would crown him their hero. He rode rough-shod across lines which superstitious tradition had made and kept; and threw accepted notions into confusion all around him. Education was superseded by his genius, and his satire slew the learning of professions. The peasantry accepted him as the most wonderful man they had ever seen; so did the learning and culture of Edinburgh. And we think they both were right!

No man has been more candid in showing himself than Burns in his letters and poems—his letters, however, betraying him at times perhaps, and showing qualities of temper and spirit that he would never have confessed to, and likely enough never suspected himself of. But therein we see enough to make us say that if ever there was a son of Adam who was many men in one, and who lived many lives in the course of his thirty-seven years, it was our Scottish bard. There never were fiercer contradictions and antagonisms caged within one heaving breast than there were in his. For surely it was one Burns who shook with too fine a tenderness in the harvest field when he had to take a thistle out of a woman's hand and another Burns who bled women's hearts to death; one who wept at the sight of cottage homes among the trees and another who blighted their finest life; one who mingled with the culture of Edinburgh all the evening and another who vent to the tavern at midnight. It is the Burns of tenderest human heart, of deep responsive soul who walked in glory and in joy, "Following his plough along the mountain side," and of bold, daring thought who affixed to man as man the value which his Creator set upon him—it is this Burns whom his fellow-men will never cease to wonder at and admire.

The widest readings in history and literature have brought men to nothing so perfectly amazing as Robert Burns and his song. It was a dull, dreary stretch of Time—that eighteenth century in which he was born. The life of church and cottage in Scotland was monotonous and hopeless. Birds sang, rivers flowed, and flowers grew, and human life was married and given in marriage, and no one saw the beauty or sang the glory of it all. But all of a sudden a ploughboy appeared in our Scottish fields, who was a gift of many great men in one. He was a patriot:

"E'en. then a wish—I mind its power—
A wish that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast—
That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake,
Some useful plan or beuk could make,
Or sing a sang at least.
The rough bur-thistle, spreading wide
Amang the bearded hear,
I turned the weeder-clips aside,
And spared the symbol dear."

He was fuller of pity than a woman. The mouse and the daisy and the wounded hare made appeal to his sensitive, quivering, tearful heart; and the noise of the winter wind made this farmer's lad wistful and sad, as he thought at night of

"Ilk happing bird, wee helpless thing,
That in the merry months o' spring,
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
What comes o' thee?
Whare wilt thou cower thy chittering wing,
An' close thy e'e?''

and he was as much a philosopher and a statesman as a sensitive and tender poet. Dugald Stewart regarded it as a mere chance that his unrivalled powers came out in poetry. He sounded the death-knell of a mere clothes-philosophy, long before Carlyle, when he slung sharp stones at hypocrisy in the church and riddled cant into holes whenever it came within his range. He anticipated much political turmoil and readjustment that await us when with his large silent eye holding suppressed fire he saw his father struggle in vain with his land and his lease.

"I've noticed, on our Laird's court-day,
And mony a time my heart's been wae,
Poor tenant bodies, scant o' cash,
How they maun thole a factor's snash
He'll stamp and threaten, curse and swear,
He'll apprehend them, poind their gear
While they mann stan', Wi' aspect humble
An' hear it a', and fear and tremble."

He realised the beauty and dignity that were in humblest human life when lived truly, and he appreciated the value that there was in the national tradition and custom of our then despised little country; and he stood forth and vindicated and made them all glorious. Nothing was trivial, or common or unclean to him. He in his best moments—the moments of his power, the moments when he was true to himself—combines qualities within his own unique and dazzling personality which, both in themselves and in their sudden and unexpected manifestation, make Robert Burns not only one of our greatest Scotsmen, but one of the most wonderful of men. If any one wishes to know what is meant by Genius—rich, rare, copious and untutored Genius—let him set in his surroundings and study in its own circumstances the life and work of this peasant ploughman. Instinctively and without the slightest effort he appropriated and, with the skill of the finest art, he inwove with his own song any stray threads of genuine gold that he found adhering to the unworthy drift of Scottish verse that had come in his way. Lord Tennyson said that Burns did for Scottish poetry in this and in other ways what Shakespeare did for English drama. But did poet's praise ever rise higher or judge more justly than when the same voice said " Read the exquisite songs of Burns ; in shape each of them has the perfection of the berry, in light the radiance of the dewdrop."

As a lyrist Burns has no rival. More spontaneous verse, the unbidden and irresistible overflow and outflow of the heart, never has been given us. The art and craft of verse-making were only and altogether his own; he discovered the method for himself. He knew as little of the laws of verse, its metrical feet and its cesura, as the mavis or the child, and yet when emotion came over him he needed like them to make music. So with snatches of old tunes in his head, and swaying his body to their rhythm, his words began to dance into order and grace ; and with this subdued hum of quiet delight came relief to his swelling soul in the pathos or joy of his lyrics. Even the scraps of his unfinished poems have the charm of rarest melody:

The stibble rig is easy ploughed,
The fallow land is free,
But shame upon the handless coof,
That canna labour lea."

Or take this nature-picture, in which the breath of many of Scotland's holy mornings is detained for all time:

Upon a simmer Sunday morn,
When Nature's face was fair,
I walked forth to view the corn,
An' snuff the caller air.
The rising sun owre Galston muirs
\Vi' glorious light was glintin',
The hares were hirplin' down the furs,
The laverocks they were chantin'.''

Or this other vignette of early winter:-

When lyart leaves bestrew the yird,
Or wavering like the bauckie-bird,
Bedim cauld Boreas' blast.
When hailstones drive wi' bitter skyte,
And infant frosts begin to bite,
In hoary cranreuch drest."

Or this couplet, which for the pathos of it—the deep, subdued sympathy of it—stands almost unrivalled in poetry:

The sun had closed the winter day,
Time curlers quat their roarin' play,
An' hunger'd maukin ta'en her way
To kailyards green,
While faithless snaws each step betray
Whare she has been.

The thresher's weary flingin' tree
The lee lang day had tired me,
Amid, when the day had clos'd his e'e,
Far i' the west, Ben in the spence right pensivelie
I gaed to rest."

But to begin to quote from Burns is to begin an endless joy—whether one seeks for aphorisms in verse for irony of long, sharp, unerring tooth; for sobs of sorrow that tell of a large round heart breaking and that will not break for a humour that twinkles with the pawkiest glee, or for the notes of a marching music to which men will advance to their true and God-given liberty. So we must forbear. Suffice these few extracts to show the alchemy of word and feeling which this great phenomenal man, who stood sheer Lip and alone in the middle of last century, had discovered and was able to work with, and who at his own best can be ranked only with the world's best.

While Burns was striking notes which have their response in men's hearts, deeper than where nationality has its play, and more in the very essence of the human soul, he was in a very especial degree doing permanent work in the life of Scotland. He rallied the national spirit when it was flagging, and Scotsmen closed ranks to his strong assertion of patriotism and stood compact and unified. They felt a pleasant and proud constriction at their heart, when Burns rang his foot on the Scottish soil and told the world the beauty of their native land, the conscious dignity of their history, the sweetness of the daughters of their cottage homes, the sanctities of their hearth, the pleasant frolic of their homely festivals, and the daring troth which their sons plight when they woo and wed—

"Till a' the seas rin dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun.''

Scotsmen stood inches higher all along the line of their nationality, and touched one another shoulder to shoulder with a united purpose, when Burns asserted himself and them against the whole world. He put a new throb into the breast of honest poverty against all corners he measured the rustic of the Scottish fields against the soft-fed Frenchman—

"As feckless as a withered rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;"

and he did not fear to pit against big England his own Coila single- handed--

"Her moors red-brown wi' heather bells,
Her banks an' braes, her dens an' dells
Where glorious Wallace
Aft bure the gree, as story tells
Frae Southron billies."

He interpreted and justified Scotland to herself, and he wrote for her a new ''magna charta" of world-wide reference and for all time.

The field of Scotsmen was just beginning in Burns' day to be the world. The voice of new lands was then heard calling for colonists. The long old order was just be- ginning on a large scale to change, and Scotsmen were going forth and abroad to shape new countries. They vent far from their home-land, but their love for it was of so fine a quality that it never was snapped by the farthest stretching. Burns was invaluably dear to them then. He gave them fresh memory and love of Scotland every day. Burns gives the masonic touch and masonic bond that make Scotsmen brothers all the world round. They were nearer home and nearer one another whenever they read his book or hummed his song. He had so distilled the spirit of their national history, he had so perpetuated by his imaginative art the habits and customs of the people, he had told with such vividness and fulness and truth the story of the Scottish heart in its sorrow and its joy, and it was all done so simply and melodiously, that Scotland lived in their heart in his words like a continual music. They saw Scotland with his larger eyes, and they loved it in his larger love. In the remotest province or the farthest island a Scotsman cannot woo his bride without Burns helping him to feel and speak, and he cannot take her home without Burns' ideal before his eyes:

To make a happy fireside clinic
To weans and wife,
That's the true pathos and sublinie
Of human life;"

and if he succeeds where others have failed, the memory of counsels about " the pith o' sense, the pride o worth" and ''the stalk of cane hemp" may have had their secret influence deeper than he knew—his hereditary traditions and his silent learning at home that lay buried in his being like seed having been quickened by the touch of some of these magic words, and because he has been able to:

"Better reck the rede
Than ever did the adviser."

It is often said "Accept Burns' bequest to humanity in his poems and songs, and let the man himself alone!" That is a vain word to speak. The world will not listen to it; it could not obey that counsel if it tried. We now, with all our quick interest in the scenes he depicts and the customs he commemorates, are far more interested in the man himself than in all he tells us about and says; we never can read long in his book without turning back to his portrait at the beginning and trying to see the manner of man he was. This will be humanity's habit to the end. The interest in what he writes about—of Scottish life and customs —will gradually become historic, for even now the ways of Scotland in kirk and home, on Sabbath day and week day, are rapidly changing; but the swift, intense, passionate life of the man himself will so vibrate through his writings, that to the end men will ask about him many hard questions. The question will be asked and asked justly, what this rare man made of himself and all his heavenly endowment; and they who have searched this matter out the farthest, have found so much that they feared to search farther. We dare not judge him; we are forbidden to judge any man; we have not the deep divine data which make it possible to judge, and there is penalty for those who think they can and who try. But we may distinguish and wisely separate between this extraordinary man at his best and at his worst, whilst we turn from the personal mystery as insoluble and leave it calmly in the bands of One who gave the man his nature with both its rapture and its peril. The two human poles between which that life turned—with such summer and such winter, such storms and such calm, such nights of gloom and such days of glory in its year—were the holy home of his father and the waning days at Brough near the end when the Bible was his constant companion. Between two such points of cardinal spiritual power, this life so full of speed and so oft aflame, seems to have had strong keeping, and we may say as we leave this whole subject, what Wordsworth said as he left the poet's grave—

"Sighing I turned away; but ere
Night fell I heard or seemed to hear
Music that sorrow comes not near—
A ritual hymn, Chanted in love that casts out fear
By seraphim."


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