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The Intellectual Development of Scotland
Chapter X - Burns and His Epoch


Before attempting to define the place of Burns in Scottish literature it may be well to clear away some misconceptions to which Taine, the great French critic, has given currency. In his English Literature, he traces the inspirational ideas of Burns largely to German and French sources. In the words of Taine: "Thus rises the modern man impelled by two sentiments, one democratic, the other philosophic. From the shallows of his poverty and ignorance he rises with effort, lifting the weight of established society and admitted dogmas, disposed either to reform or to destroy them, and at once generous and rebellious. These two currents from France and Germany at this moment swept into England. The dykes were so strong they could hardly force their way, entering more slowly than elsewhere, but entering nevertheless. The new spirit broke out first in a Scotch peasant, Robert Burns."

Taine's tendency to sum up historic epochs in neat portable generalizations never led him farther astray than in his attempt to define the intellectual environment of Burns. Till Carlyle began to write, Scotland knew next to nothing of German speculative philosophy. True, De Quincey and Coleridge had dabbled in transcendentalism, but it will hardly be contended that these writers lived in the Burns period. There is more plausibility in the view that Burns was subject to French influence, notably Rousseau. Between Burns and Rousseau there is undoubted resemblance. Both sprang from the people, both were at war with the conventionality of their time, and both broke away from the classical standard of literature. But it is surely going beyond the mark to argue from resemblance to dis-cipleship. It does not follow that because both writers adopted a new attitude towards Nature, for instance, that Burns took his keynote from Rousseau.

The truth is, Scotland before France showed a tendency to naturalism as opposed to classic artificiality. This fact is admitted by Taine when, in dealing with the poetry of Thomson, he says: "Thirty years before Rousseau Thomson had expressed all Rousseau's sentiments, almost in the same style. Like him, he painted the country with sympathy and enthusiasm. Like him, he contrasted the golden age of primitive simplicity with modern miseries and corruptions. Like him, he praised patriotism, liberty, virtue; rose from the spectacle of Nature to the contemplation of God, and showed man glimpses of immortal life beyond the tomb." Clearly we must look elsewhere than to Rousseau for the intellectual environment of Burns. Suppose we look nearer home. We can fairly well account for the intellectual outlook of Burns without going outside our own island. Burns appeared upon the scene when two antagonistic theories of man and society were contending for mastery —Calvinism and Moderatism.

It is sometimes represented as if Burns were drawn into opposition to Calvinism by the harsh treatment which he received at the hands of the Evangelical party. That treatment no doubt inspired his attacks on Calvinism, but there is evidence that Burns in earnest Scottish fashion had silently grappled with the tremendous problems of life, was well read in the theological literature of his time, and gave the Moderate theory full intellectual consent. For evidence let us take the letter written by Burns to Mrs. Dunlop, dated June 21, 1789, in which, after distinctly repudiating the Calvinistic tenets as presented in a sermon which he had just heard, he goes on to give his own confession of faith in quite the style of Hutcheson and his disciples—the existence of God, the eternal distinction between virtue and vice, a retributive scene of existence beyond the grave. To Rousseau Burns was not indebted for his creed. It was in the main the outcome of a powerful mind, working on the facts of life, and aided in its operations by the teachings of Hutcheson, Blair and Adam Smith, whose theory of the moral sentiment he quoted in one of his letters. At the same time it would be a mistake to define Burns as a Moderate of the ordinary type. The average Moderate was terribly at ease in Zion. His theory of life with its rosy optimism, well enough suited for the literary club and drawing-room, was quite inadequate to the terrible facts of life as seen from the standpoint of the toiling peasant. Far removed from the stern realities and drudgery of existence among the poor, the philosophers of the drawing-room could talk of this as the best possible world, and close their eyes to the struggles of the common people, who were described even by a man like Hume as the "vulgar." Burns knew only too well that many things in human nature and society were more easily explained by Calvinism than by Moderatism. There was, for instance, the strange antagonism between the higher and the lower nature of man, in theological language, between the flesh and the spirit. Burns knew by sad experience what the self-satisfied Moderate with his gospel of culture did not know, the truth that lay under the Pauline distinction between Nature and grace, and he could echo in the midst of his agonizing hours of remorse the words of the Apostle: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"

Burns had intellectual breadth and religious susceptibility enough to appropriate what was best in the two phases of the religious thought of his time. Thus it happened that while the average Moderate looked upon Calvinism as represented by the Covenanters as a detestable fanaticism, an enemy to the amenities of social life, Burns paid tribute to their magnificent stand for liberty. And this brings me to the common opinion, to which Taine gives expression, that Burns owed his democratic fervour to Rousseau and the French Revolution. As a matter of fact, long before the democratic note was sounded in France, Scotland was familiar with the full-blown creed of democracy. Democratic fervour was in the blood of the Scottish people from the time of George Buchanan onward. Long before Locke and Rousseau opposed the doctrine of divine right of kings and advocated the right of rebellion against despotism, Scottish thinkers had formulated theories of government which were totally irreconcilable with all kinds of despotism. Long before Rousseau, Samuel Rutherford wrote his famous Lex Bex, the political text-book of the Covenanters, in which it is laid down that king and beggar sprang of one clay. If all men are equally free, there is no reason in Nature why one man should be king and lord over another. Royal power, according to Rutherford, is vested in the people alone, and they may take it away if the conditions upon which it is given are violated. On the basis of this the Covenanters refused to recognize the Stewarts and their divine right theory. Burns, who had Covenanting blood in his veins, had no need to go to Rousseau for his democratic fervour. His "A man's a man for a' that" owes infinitely more to Samuel Rutherford than to Rousseau.

The thought of the eighteenth century was essentially aristocratic. The people were constantly spoken of as the "vulgar." The political creed of Deism tended to Toryism. The common people were utilized in posing for artistic purposes. They were used in poetry mainly for picturesque ends. True, Allan Ramsay brings us into contact with real flesh and blood among the humbler ranks, but even with him there is an element of condescension. Burns with his "A man's a man for a' that" struck a vein which in these days has been worked out in numerous directions, religious, social and political. In harmony with his advanced views of humanity was the joy with which Burns hailed the French Revolution as the harbinger of a new day: "When man to man the world o'er shall brithers be an' a' that."

The new way of viewing man naturally led Burns to a new way of viewing Nature. With one stroke he abolished the mythological machinery of his predecessors, and used Nature as a vehicle for the expression of human thoughts and feelings. The work of Burns may be summed up as follows : He broke down the shallow deistic philosophy of human nature to which he was intellectually attracted by showing its insufficiency in his own case to satisfy the infinite hunger of the heart, or tame the wild surgings of his passions. Moreover, he broke down the shallow optimism of the Deists by revealing, outside of the drawing-room area of frigid philosophers, a world of humanity seething with sorrow, misery, and injustice; and by demanding justice in the name of humanity for the lowliest of mortals, he gave a great impetus to the democratic spirit which sprang up in Scotland at the close of the eighteenth century. Further, Burns, by bringing Nature and man into direct contact broke the spell of the classical theory of poetry, and paved the way for the great literary revolution of the opening years of the nineteenth century.

It may be justly claimed for Burns that he was a genuine product of Scottish life and thought. No attempts to dissect his environment will reach the secret of his genius, but it is something to know that the influences which made him what he was intellectually were of native origin. And Burns has repaid his debt to his country by being in a very special sense one of the makers of modern Scotland. When he began to write, leading Scotsmen had grown ashamed of their native language. Moderatism, which set the fashion in literature, thought itself too cosmopolitan to be patriotic. To be a citizen of the great world of letters was considered of greater moment than to be a genuine Scot. In one of his matchless Burns orations Lord Rosebery puts this very well when he says: "From the time of the Union of the Crowns, and still more from the legislative Union, Scotland had lapsed into obscurity. Except for an occasional Jacobite rising her existence was almost forgotten. She had, indeed, her Robertsons and her Humes writing history to general admiration, but no trace of Scottish authorship was discernible in their works; indeed, every flavour of national idiom was carefully excluded. The Scottish dialect, as Burns called it, was in danger of perishing. Burns seemed at this juncture to start to his feet and reassert Scotland's claim to national existence. His Scottish notes rang through the world, and he thus preserved the Scottish language for ever, for mankind will never let die that idiom in which his songs and poems are enshrined. That is a part of Scotland's debt to Burns." If Scotland to-day has a distinctly national spirit we owe it to Burns, and Scotsmen owe it to his memory to keep alive that spirit by fostering in our universities and schools the study of our national history and literature.


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