Lectures on the English Poets, by William Hazlitt

Lecture vii.

On Burns, and the Old English Ballads.

I am sorry that what I said in the conclusion of the last Lecture respecting Chatterton, should have given dissatisfaction to some persons, with whom I would willingly agree on all such matters. What I meant was less to call in question Chatterton’s genius, than to object to the common mode of estimating its magnitude by its prematureness. The lists of fame are not filled with the dates of births or deaths; and the side-mark of the age at which they were done, wears out in works destined for immortality. Had Chatterton really done more, we should have thought less of him, for our attention would then have been fixed on the excellence of the works themselves, instead of the singularity of the circumstances in which they were produced. But because he attained to the full powers of manhood at an early age, I do not see that he would have attained to more than those powers, had he lived to be a man. He was a prodigy, because in him the ordinary march of nature was violently precipitated; and it is therefore inferred, that he would have continued to hold on his course, “unslacked of motion.” On the contrary, who knows but he might have lived to be poet-laureat? It is much better to let him remain as he was. Of his actual productions, any one may think as highly as he pleases; I would only guard against adding to the account of his quantum meruit, those possible productions by which the learned rhapsodists of his time raised his gigantic pretensions to an equality with those of Homer and Shakspeare. It is amusing to read some of these exaggerated descriptions, each rising above the other in extravagance. In Anderson’s Life, we find that Mr. Warton speaks of him “as a prodigy of genius,” as “a singular instance of prematurity of abilities”: that may be true enough, and Warton was at any rate a competent judge; but Mr. Malone “believes him to have been the greatest genius that England has produced since the days of Shakspeare.” Dr. Gregory says, “he must rank, as a universal genius, above Dryden, and perhaps only second to Shakspeare.” Mr. Herbert Croft is still more unqualified in his praises; he asserts, that “no such being, at any period of life, has ever been known, or possibly ever will be known.” He runs a parallel between Chatterton and Milton; and asserts, that “an army of Macedonian and Swedish mad butchers fly before him,” meaning, I suppose, that Alexander the Great and Charles the Twelfth were nothing to him; “nor,” he adds, “does my memory supply me with any human being, who at such an age, with such advantages, has produced such compositions. Under the heathen mythology, superstition and admiration would have explained all, by bringing Apollo on earth; nor would the God ever have descended with more credit to himself.”— Chatterton’s physiognomy would at least have enabled him to pass incognito. It is quite different from the look of timid wonder and delight with which Annibal Caracci has painted a young Apollo listening to the first sounds he draws from a Pan’s pipe, under the tutelage of the old Silenus! If Mr. Croft is sublime on the occasion, Dr. Knox is no less pathetic. “The testimony of Dr. Knox,” says Dr. Anderson, (Essays, p. 144.), “does equal credit to the classical taste and amiable benevolence of the writer, and the genius and reputation of Chatterton.” “When I read,” says the Doctor, “the researches of those learned antiquaries who have endeavoured to prove that the poems attributed to Rowley were really written by him, I observe many ingenious remarks in confirmation of their opinion, which it would be tedious, if not difficult, to controvert.”

Now this is so far from the mark, that the whole controversy might have been settled by any one but the learned antiquaries themselves, who had the smallest share of their learning, from this single circumstance, that the poems read as smooth as any modern poems, if you read them as modern compositions; and that you cannot read them, or make verse of them at all, if you pronounce or accent the words as they were spoken at the time when the poems were pretended to have been written. The whole secret of the imposture, which nothing but a deal of learned dust, raised by collecting and removing a great deal of learned rubbish, could have prevented our laborious critics from seeing through, lies on the face of it (to say nothing of the burlesque air which is scarcely disguised throughout) in the repetition of a few obsolete words, and in the mis-spelling of common ones.

“No sooner,” proceeds the Doctor, “do I turn to the poems, than the labour of the antiquaries appears only waste of time; and I am involuntarily forced to join in placing that laurel, which he seems so well to have deserved, on the brow of Chatterton. The poems bear so many marks of superior genius, that they have deservedly excited the general attention of polite scholars, and are considered as the most remarkable productions in modern poetry. We have many instances of poetical eminence at an early age; but neither Cowley, Milton, nor Pope, ever produced any thing while they were boys, which can justly be compared to the poems of Chatterton. The learned antiquaries do not indeed dispute their excellence. They extol it in the highest terms of applause. They raise their favourite Rowley to a rivalry with Homer: but they make the very merits of the works an argument against their real author. Is it possible, say they, that a boy should produce compositions so beautiful and masterly? That a common boy should produce them is not possible,” rejoins the Doctor; “but that they should be produced by a boy of an extraordinary genius, such as was that of Homer or Shakspeare, though a prodigy, is such a one as by no means exceeds the bounds of rational credibility.”

Now it does not appear that Shakspeare or Homer were such early prodigies; so that by this reasoning he must take precedence of them too, as well as of Milton, Cowley, and Pope. The reverend and classical writer then breaks out into the following melancholy raptures:—

“Unfortunate boy! short and evil were thy days, but thy fame shall

be immortal. Hadst thou been known to the munificent patrons of genius . . . “Unfortunate boy! poorly wast thou accommodated during thy short

sojourning here among us — rudely wast thou treated — sorely did thy feelings suffer from the scorn of the unworthy; and there are at last those who wish to rob thee of thy only meed, thy posthumous glory. Severe too are the censures of thy morals. In the gloomy moments of despondency, I fear thou hast uttered impious and blasphemous thoughts. But let thy more rigid censors reflect, that thou wast literally and strictly but a boy. Let many of thy bitterest enemies reflect what were their own religious principles, and whether they had any at the age of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. Surely it is a severe and an unjust surmise that thou wouldst probably have ended thy life as a victim to the laws, if thou hadst not ended it as thou didst.”

Enough, enough, of the learned antiquaries, and of the classical and benevolent testimony of Dr. Knox. Chatterton was, indeed, badly enough off; but he was at least saved from the pain and shame of reading this woful lamentation over fallen genius, which circulates splendidly bound in the fourteenth edition, while he is a prey to worms. As to those who are really capable of admiring Chatterton’s genius, or of feeling an interest in his fate, I would only say, that I never heard any one speak of any one of his works as if it were an old well-known favourite, and had become a faith and a religion in his mind. It is his name, his youth, and what he might have lived to have done, that excite our wonder and admiration. He has the same sort of posthumous fame that an actor of the last age has — an abstracted reputation which is independent of any thing we know of his works. The admirers of Collins never think of him without recalling to their minds his Ode on Evening, or on the Poetical Character. Gray’s Elegy, and his poetical popularity, are identified together, and inseparable even in imagination. It is the same with respect to Burns: when you speak of him as a poet, you mean his works, his Tam o’Shanter, or his Cotter’s Saturday Night. But the enthusiasts for Chatterton, if you ask for the proofs of his extraordinary genius, are obliged to turn to the volume, and perhaps find there what they seek; but it is not in their minds; and it is of that I spoke. The Minstrel’s song in AElla is I think the best.

“O! synge untoe my roundelaie,

O! droppe the brynie teare wythe mee,

Daunce ne moe atte hallie daie,

Lycke a rennynge ryver bee.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Black hys cryne as the wyntere nyght,

Whyte hys rode as the sommer snowe,

Rodde hys face as the mornynge lyghte,

Cale he lyes ynne the grave belowe.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Swote hys tongue as the throstles note,

Quycke ynne daunce as thought cann bee,

Defte his taboure, codgelle stote,

O! hee lys bie the wyllowe-tree.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Harke! the ravenne flappes hys wynge,

In the briered dell belowe;

Harke! the dethe-owle loude dothe synge,

To the nygthe-mares as theie goe.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gone to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

See! the whyte moone sheenes onne hie;

Whyterre ys mie true loves shroude;

Whyterre yanne the mornynge skie,

Whyterre yanne the evenynge cloude.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Heere, upon mie true loves grave,

Schalle the baren fleurs be layde,

Ne one hallie seyncte to save

Al the celness of a mayde.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to his deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Wythe mie hondes I’ll dent the brieres

Rounde hys hallie corse to gre,

Ouphante fairies, lyghte your fyres,

Heere mie boddie stille schalle bee.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Comme, wythe acorne-coppe and thorne,

Drayne my hartys blodde awaie;

Lyfe and all yttes goode I scorne,

Daunce bie nete, or feaste by daie.

        Mie love ys dedde,

        Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

        Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Water wytches, crownede whthe reytes,

Bere mee to yer leathalle tyde.

I die; I comme; mie true love waytes.

Thos the damselle spake, and dyed.”

To proceed to the more immediate subject of the present Lecture, the character and writings of Burns. — Shakspeare says of some one, that “he was like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring.” Burns, the poet, was not such a man. He had a strong mind, and a strong body, the fellow to it. He had a real heart of flesh and blood beating in his bosom — you can almost hear it throb. Some one said, that if you had shaken hands with him, his hand would have burnt yours. The Gods, indeed, “made him poetical”; but nature had a hand in him first. His heart was in the right place. He did not “create a soul under the ribs of death,” by tinkling siren sounds, or by piling up centos of poetic diction; but for the artificial flowers of poetry, he plucked the mountain-daisy under his feet; and a field-mouse, hurrying from its ruined dwelling, could inspire him with the sentiments of terror and pity. He held the plough or the pen with the same firm, manly grasp; nor did he cut out poetry as we cut out watch-papers, with finical dexterity, nor from the same flimsy materials. Burns was not like Shakspeare in the range of his genius; but there is something of the same magnanimity, directness, and unaffected character about him. He was not a sickly sentimentalist, a namby-pamby poet, a mincing metre ballad-monger, any more than Shakspeare. He would as soon hear “a brazen candlestick tuned, or a dry wheel grate on the axletree.” He was as much of a man — not a twentieth part as much of a poet as Shakspeare. With but little of his imagination or inventive power, he had the same life of mind: within the narrow circle of personal feeling or domestic incidents, the pulse of his poetry flows as healthily and vigorously. He had an eye to see; a heart to feel:— no more. His pictures of good fellowship, of social glee, of quaint humour, are equal to any thing; they come up to nature, and they cannot go beyond it. The sly jest collected in his laughing eye at the sight of the grotesque and ludicrous in manners — the large tear rolled down his manly cheek at the sight of another’s distress. He has made us as well acquainted with himself as it is possible to be; has let out the honest impulses of his native disposition, the unequal conflict of the passions in his breast, with the same frankness and truth of description. His strength is not greater than his weakness: his virtues were greater than his vices. His virtues belonged to his genius: his vices to his situation, which did not correspond to his genius.

It has been usual to attack Burns’s moral character, and the moral tendency of his writings at the same time; and Mr. Wordsworth, in a letter to Mr. Gray, Master of the High School at Edinburgh, in attempting to defend, has only laid him open to a more serious and unheard-of responsibility. Mr. Gray might very well have sent him back, in return for his epistle, the answer of Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost:—“Via goodman Dull, thou hast spoken no word all this while.” The author of this performance, which is as weak in effect as it is pompous in pretension, shews a great dislike of Robespierre, Buonaparte, and of Mr. Jeffrey, whom he, by some unaccountable fatality, classes together as the three most formidable enemies of the human race that have appeared in his (Mr. Wordsworth’s) remembrance; but he betrays very little liking to Burns. He is, indeed, anxious to get him out of the unhallowed clutches of the Edinburgh Reviewers (as a mere matter of poetical privilege), only to bring him before a graver and higher tribunal, which is his own; and after repeating and insinuating ponderous charges against him, shakes his head, and declines giving any opinion in so tremendous a case; so that though the judgment of the former critic is set aside, poor Burns remains just where he was, and nobody gains any thing by the cause but Mr. Wordsworth, in an increasing opinion of his own wisdom and purity. “Out upon this half-faced fellowship!” The author of the Lyrical Ballads has thus missed a fine opportunity of doing Burns justice and himself honour. He might have shewn himself a philosophical prose-writer, as well as a philosophical poet. He might have offered as amiable and as gallant a defence of the Muses, as my uncle Toby, in the honest simplicity of his heart, did of the army. He might have said at once, instead of making a parcel of wry faces over the matter, that Burns had written Tam o’Shanter, and that that alone was enough; that he could hardly have described the excesses of mad, hairbrained, roaring mirth and convivial indulgence, which are the soul of it, if he himself had not “drunk full ofter of the ton than of the well”— unless “the act and practique part of life had been the mistress of his theorique.” Mr. Wordsworth might have quoted such lines as —

“The landlady and Tam grew gracious,

Wi’ favours secret, sweet, and precious” —

or,

“Care, mad to see a man so happy,

E’en drown’d himself among the nappy” —

and fairly confessed that he could not have written such lines from a want of proper habits and previous sympathy; and that till some great puritanical genius should arise to do these things equally well without any knowledge of them, the world might forgive Burns the injuries he had done his health and fortune in his poetical apprenticeship to experience, for the pleasure he had afforded them. Instead of this, Mr. Wordsworth hints, that with different personal habits and greater strength of mind, Burns would have written differently, and almost as well as he does. He might have taken that line of Gay’s,

“The fly that sips treacle is lost in the sweets,”—

and applied it in all its force and pathos to the poetical character. He might have argued that poets are men of genius, and that a man of genius is not a machine; that they live in a state of intellectual intoxication, and that it is too much to expect them to be distinguished by peculiar sang froid, circumspection, and sobriety. Poets are by nature men of stronger imagination and keener sensibilities than others; and it is a contradiction to suppose them at the same time governed only by the cool, dry, calculating dictates of reason and foresight. Mr. Wordsworth might have ascertained the boundaries that part the provinces of reason and imagination:— that it is the business of the understanding to exhibit things in their relative proportions and ultimate consequences — of the imagination to insist on their immediate impressions, and to indulge their strongest impulses; but it is the poet’s office to pamper the imagination of his readers and his own with the extremes of present ecstacy or agony, to snatch the swift-winged golden minutes, the torturing hour, and to banish the dull, prosaic, monotonous realities of life, both from his thoughts and from his practice. Mr. Wordsworth might have shewn how it is that all men of genius, or of originality and independence of mind, are liable to practical errors, from the very confidence their superiority inspires, which makes them fly in the face of custom and prejudice, always rashly, sometimes unjustly; for, after all, custom and prejudice are not without foundation in truth and reason, and no one individual is a match for the world in power, very few in knowledge. The world may altogether be set down as older and wiser than any single person in it.

Again, our philosophical letter-writer might have enlarged on the temptations to which Burns was exposed from his struggles with fortune and the uncertainty of his fate. He might have shewn how a poet, not born to wealth or title, was kept in a constant state of feverish anxiety with respect to his fame and the means of a precarious livelihood: that “from being chilled with poverty, steeped in contempt, he had passed into the sunshine of fortune, and was lifted to the very pinnacle of public favour”; yet even there could not count on the continuance of success, but was, “like the giddy sailor on the mast, ready with every blast to topple down into the fatal bowels of the deep!” He might have traced his habit of ale-house tippling to the last long precious draught of his favourite usquebaugh, which he took in the prospect of bidding farewel for ever to his native land; and his conjugal infidelities to his first disappointment in love, which would not have happened to him, if he had been born to a small estate in land, or bred up behind a counter!

Lastly, Mr. Wordsworth might have shewn the incompatibility between the Muses and the Excise, which never agreed well together, or met in one seat, till they were unaccountably reconciled on Rydal Mount. He must know (no man better) the distraction created by the opposite calls of business and of fancy, the torment of extents, the plague of receipts laid in order or mislaid, the disagreeableness of exacting penalties or paying the forfeiture; and how all this (together with the broaching of casks and the splashing of beer-barrels) must have preyed upon a mind like Burns, with more than his natural sensibility and none of his acquired firmness.

Mr. Coleridge, alluding to this circumstance of the promotion of the Scottish Bard to be “a gauger of ale-firkins,” in a poetical epistle to his friend Charles Lamb, calls upon him in a burst of heartfelt indignation, to gather a wreath of henbane, nettles, and nightshade,

                      “——— To twine

The illustrious brow of Scotch nobility.”

If, indeed, Mr. Lamb had undertaken to write a letter in defence of Burns, how different would it have been from this of Mr. Wordsworth’s! How much better than I can even imagine it to have been done!

It is hardly reasonable to look for a hearty or genuine defence of Burns from the pen of Mr. Wordsworth; for there is no common link of sympathy between them. Nothing can be more different or hostile than the spirit of their poetry. Mr. Wordsworth’s poetry is the poetry of mere sentiment and pensive contemplation: Burns’s is a very highly sublimated essence of animal existence. With Burns, “self-love and social are the same”—

“And we’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.”

Mr. Wordsworth is “himself alone,” a recluse philosopher, or a reluctant spectator of the scenes of many-coloured life; moralising on them, not describing, not entering into them. Robert Burns has exerted all the vigour of his mind, all the happiness of his nature, in exalting the pleasures of wine, of love, and good fellowship: but in Mr. Wordsworth there is a total disunion and divorce of the faculties of the mind from those of the body; the banns are forbid, or a separation is austerely pronounced from bed and board —a mensa et thoro. From the Lyrical Ballads, it does not appear that men eat or drink, marry or are given in marriage. If we lived by every sentiment that proceeded out of mouths, and not by bread or wine, or if the species were continued like trees (to borrow an expression from the great Sir Thomas Brown), Mr. Wordsworth’s poetry would be just as good as ever. It is not so with Burns: he is “famous for the keeping of it up,” and in his verse is ever fresh and gay. For this, it seems, he has fallen under the displeasure of the Edinburgh Reviewers, and the still more formidable patronage of Mr. Wordsworth’s pen.

“This, this was the unkindest cut of all.”

I was going to give some extracts out of this composition in support of what I have said, but I find them too tedious. Indeed (if I may be allowed to speak my whole mind, under correction) Mr. Wordsworth could not be in any way expected to tolerate or give a favourable interpretation to Burns’s constitutional foibles — even his best virtues are not good enough for him. He is repelled and driven back into himself, not less by the worth than by the faults of others. His taste is as exclusive and repugnant as his genius. It is because so few things give him pleasure, that he gives pleasure to so few people. It is not every one who can perceive the sublimity of a daisy, or the pathos to be extracted from a withered thorn!

To proceed from Burns’s patrons to his poetry, than which no two things can be more different. His “Twa Dogs” is a very spirited piece of description, both as it respects the animal and human creation, and conveys a very vivid idea of the manners both of high and low life. The burlesque panegyric of the first dog,

“His locked, lettered, braw brass collar

Shew’d him the gentleman and scholar”—

reminds one of Launce’s account of his dog Crabbe, where he is said, as an instance of his being in the way of promotion, “to have got among three or four gentleman-like dogs under the Duke’s table.” The “Halloween” is the most striking and picturesque description of local customs and scenery. The Brigs of Ayr, the Address to a Haggis, Scotch Drink, and innumerable others are, however, full of the same kind of characteristic and comic painting. But his master-piece in this way is his Tam o’Shanter. I shall give the beginning of it, but I am afraid I shall hardly know when to leave off.

    “When chapman billies leave the street,

And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,

As market-days are wearing late,

And folk begin to tak the gate;

While we sit bousing at the nappy,

And getting fou and unco happy,

We think na on the lang Scots miles,

The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles,

That lie between us and our hame,

Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,

Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

    This truth fand honest Tam o’Shanter,

As he frae Ayr ae night did canter;

(Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses,

For honest men and bonny lasses.)

    O Tam! hadst thou but been sae wise,

As ta’en thy ain wife Kate’s advice!

She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,

A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;

That frae November till October

Ae market-day thou was na sober;

That ilka melder, wi’ the miller,

Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;

That ev’ry naig was ca’d a shoe on,

The smith and thee gat roaring fou on;

That at the Lord’s house, ev’n on Sunday,

Thou drank wi’ Kirton Jean till Monday —

She prophesy’d, that late or soon,

Thou wad be found deep drown’d in Doon;

Or catch’t wi’ warlocks in the mirk,

By Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.

    Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,

To think how mony counsels sweet,

How mony lengthen’d, sage advices,

The husband frae the wife despises!

    But to our tale: Ae market night,

Tam had got planted unco right

Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,

Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely;

And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,

His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;

Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither;

They had been fou for weeks thegither.

The night drave on wi’ sangs an clatter,

And aye the ale was growing better:

The landlady and Tam grew gracious

Wi’ favours secret, sweet, and precious:

The Souter tauld his queerest stories;

The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:

The storm without might rair and rustle,

Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

    Care, mad to see a man sae happy,

E’en drown’d himsel amang the nappy;

As bees flee hame wi’ lades o’ treasure,

The minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure:

Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,

O’er a’ the ills of life victorious!

    But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You seize the flow’r — its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow, falls in the river,

A moment white — then melts for ever;

Or like the Borealis race,

That flit ere you can point their place;

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form,

Evanishing amid the storm. —

Nae man can tether time or tide,

The hour approaches, Tam maun ride;

That hour o’ night’s black arch the key-stane,

That dreary hour he mounts his beast in,

And sic a night he taks the road in,

As ne’er poor sinner was abroad in.

    The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;

The rattling showers rose on the blast,

The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d,

Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow’d:

That night a child might understand,

The Deil had business on his hand.

    Weel mounted on his grey mare, Meg,

A better never lifted leg,

Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire,

Despising wind, and rain, and fire;

Whiles haulding fast his gude blue bonnet;

Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;

Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,

Lest bogles catch him unawares;

Kirk–Alloway was drawing nigh,

Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry. —

    By this time Tam was cross the ford,

Whare in the snaw, the chapman smoor’d;

And past the birks and meikle stane,

Whare drunken Charlie brak’s neck-bane;

And thro’ the whins, and by the cairn,

Where hunters fand the murder’d bairn;

And near the thorn, aboon the well,

Whare Mungo’s mither hang’d hersel. —

Before him Doon pours all his floods;

The doubling storm roars thro’ the woods;

The lightnings flash from pole to pole;

Near and more near the thunders roll:

Whan, glimmering thro’ the groaning trees,

Kirk–Alloway seem’d in a bleeze;

Thro’ ilka bore the beams were glancing;

And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

    Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!

What dangers thou canst make us scorn!

Wi’ Tippenny, we fear nae evil,

Wi’ Usqueba, we’ll face the devil!

The swats sae ream’d in Tammie’s noddle,

Fair play, he car’d na de’ils a boddle.

But Maggie stood right sair astonish’d,

Till by the heel and hand admonish’d,

She ventur’d forward on the light,

And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!

Warlocks and witches in a dance,

Nae light cotillion new frae France,

But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,

Put life and mettle in their heels.

As winnock-bunker, in the east,

There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;

A touzie tyke, black, grim, and large,

To gie them music was his charge;

He screw’d the pipes, and gart them skirl,

Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl. —

Coffins stood round like open presses,

That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;

And, by some devilish cantrip slight,

Each in its cauld hand held a light —

By which heroic Tam was able

To note upon the haly table,

A murderer’s banes in gibbet-airns;

Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen’d bairns;

A thief, new cutted frae a rape,

Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape;

Five tomahawks, wi’ bluid red rusted;

Five scimitars, wi’ murder crusted;

A garter, which a babe had strangled;

A knife, a father’s throat had mangled,

Whom his ain son o’ life bereft,

The grey hairs yet stack to the heft;

Wi’ mair, o’ horrible and awfu’,

Which e’en to name wad be unlawfu’.

    As Tammie glowr’d amaz’d, and curious,

The mirth and fun grew fast and furious:

The Piper loud and louder blew;

The dancers quick and quicker flew;

They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit,

Till ilka Carlin swat and reekit,

And coost her duddies to the wark,

And linket at it in her sark!

    Now Tam, O Tam! had they been queans

A’ plump and strapping in their teens;

Their sarks, instead o’ creeshie flannen,

Been snaw-white seventeen hundred linen!

Thir breeks o’ mine, my only pair,

That ance were plush, o’ guid blue hair,

I wad hae gi’en them aff my hurdies,

For ae blink o’ the bonnie burdies!

    But wither’d beldams, auld and droll,

Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,

Louping and flinging on a crummock,

I wonder did na turn thy stomach.

    But Tam ken’d what was what fu’ brawly,

There was ae winsome wench and waly,

That night enlisted in the core,

(Lang after ken’d on Carrick shore;

For mony a beast to dead she shot,

And perish’d mony a bonnie boat,

And shook baith meikle corn and bear,

And kept the country-side in fear —)

Her cutty sark o’ Paisley harn,

That while a lassie she had worn,

In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,

It was her best, and she was vaunty. —

Ah! little ken’d thy reverend grannie,

That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,

Wi’ twa pund Scots (’twas a’ her riches),

Wad ever grac’d a dance of witches!

    But here my Muse her wing maun cour;

Sic flights are far beyond her power:

To sing how Nannie lap and flang,

(A souple jade she was, and strang)

And how Tam stood like ane bewitch’d,

And thought his very een enrich’d;

Ev’n Satan glowr’d and fidg’d fu’ fain,

And hotch’t, and blew wi’ might and main;

Till first ae caper, syne anither,

Tam tint his reason a’ thegither,

And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”

And in an instant all was dark;

And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,

When out the hellish legion sallied.

    As bees biz out wi’ angry fyke

When plundering herds assail their byke;

As open pussie’s mortal foes,

When, pop! she starts before their nose;

As eager rins the market-crowd,

When “Catch the thief!” resounds aloud;

So Maggie rins — the witches follow,

Wi’ mony an eldritch skreech and hollow,

    Ah, Tam! ah, Tam! thou ‘ll get thy fairin’!

In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin’!

In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin’!

Kate soon will be a waefu’ woman!

Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,

And win the key-stane o’ the brig;

There, at them thou thy tail may toss,

A running stream they dare na cross;

But ere the key-stane she could make,

The fient a tail she had to shake!

For Nannie, far before the rest,

Hard upon noble Maggie prest,

And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;

But little wist she Maggie’s mettle —

Ae spring brought off her master hale,

But left behind, her ain grey tail:

The Carlin claught her by the rump,

And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

    Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother’s son tak heed:

Whane’er to drink you are inclin’d,

Or Cutty Sarks rin in your mind,

Think, ye may buy the joys owre dear;

Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.”

Burns has given the extremes of licentious eccentricity and convivial enjoyment, in the story of this scape-grace, and of patriarchal simplicity and gravity in describing the old national character of the Scottish peasantry. The Cotter’s Saturday Night is a noble and pathetic picture of human manners, mingled with a fine religious awe. It comes over the mind like a slow and solemn strain of music. The soul of the poet aspires from this scene of low-thoughted care, and reposes, in trembling hope, on “the bosom of its Father and its God.” Hardly any thing can be more touching than the following stanzas, for instance, whether as they describe human interests, or breathe a lofty devotional spirit.

“The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes,

    This night his weekly moil is at an end,

Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,

    Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,

And weary, o’er the moor, his course does hameward bend.

At length his lonely cot appears in view,

    Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;

Th’ expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through

    To meet their dad, wi’ flichterin noise and glee.

His wee-bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,

    His clean hearth-stane, his thriftie wifie’s smile,

The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,

    Does a’ his weary carking cares beguile,

And makes him quite forget his labour and his toil.

Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in,

    At service out, amang the farmers roun’,

Some ca’ the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin

    A cannie errand to a neebor town;

Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman-grown,

    In youthfu’ bloom, love sparkling in her e’e,

Comes hame, perhaps, to shew a braw new gown,

    Or deposit her sair-won penny-fee,

To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.

Wi’ joy unfeign’d, brothers and sisters meet,

    An’ each for other’s welfare kindly spiers;

The social hours, swift-winged, unnotic’d fleet;

    Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears:

The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years;

    Anticipation forward points the view;

The mither, wi’ her needle an’ her shears,

    Gars auld claes look amaist as weel’s the new;

The father mixes a’ wi’ admonition due.

But, hark! a rap comes gently to the door;

    Jenny, wha kens the meaning o’ the same,

Tells how a neebor lad cam o’er the moor,

    To do some errands, and convoy her hame.

The wily mother sees the conscious flame

    Sparkle in Jenny’s e’e, and flush her cheek;

With heart-struck, anxious care, inquires his name,

    While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak;

Weel pleas’d the mother hears it’s nae wild, worthless rake.

Wi’ kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben;

    A strappan youth; he taks the mother’s eye;

Blithe Jenny sees the visit’s no ill ta’en;

    The father craks of horses, pleughs, and kye.

The youngster’s artless heart o’erflows wi’ joy,

    But blate an’ laithfu’, scarce can weel behave;

The mother, wi’ a woman’s wiles, can spy

    What makes the youth sae bashfu’ an’ sae grave;

Weel-pleas’d to think her bairn’s respected like the lave.

But now the supper crowns their simple board,

    The halesome parritch, chief o’ Scotia’s food:

The soupe their only hawkie does afford,

    That ‘yont the hallan snugly chows her cood:

The dame brings forth, in complimental mood,

    To grace the lad, her weel-hain’d kebbuck, fell,

An’ aft he’s prest, an’ aft he ca’s it guid;

    The frugal wifie, garrulous, will tell,

How ’twas a towmond auld, sin’ lint was i’ the bell.

The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face,

    They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;

The sire turns o’er, with patriarchal grace,

    The big ha’-Bible, ance his father’s pride:

His bonnet rev’rently is laid aside,

    His lyart haffets wearing thin an’ bare;

Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,

    He wales a portion wi’ judicious care;

And “Let us worship God!” he says, with solemn air.

They chant their artless notes in simple guise;

    They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim:

Perhaps Dundee’s wild-warbling measures rise,

    Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;

Or noble Elgin beets the heav’n-ward flame,

    The sweetest far of Scotia’s holy lays:

Compar’d with these, Italian trills are tame;

    The tickled ears no heart-felt raptures raise;

Nae unison hae they with our Creator’s praise.”—

Burns’s poetical epistles to his friends are admirable, whether for the touches of satire, the painting of character, or the sincerity of friendship they display. Those to Captain Grose, and to Davie, a brother poet, are among the best:— they are “the true pathos and sublime of human life.” His prose-letters are sometimes tinctured with affectation. They seem written by a man who has been admired for his wit, and is expected on all occasions to shine. Those in which he expresses his ideas of natural beauty in reference to Alison’s Essay on Taste, and advocates the keeping up the remembrances of old customs and seasons, are the most powerfully written. His English serious odes and moral stanzas are, in general, failures, such as The Lament, Man was made to Mourn, &c. nor do I much admire his “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled.” In this strain of didactic or sentimental moralising, the lines to Glencairn are the most happy, and impressive. His imitations of the old humorous ballad style of Ferguson’s songs are no whit inferior to the admirable originals, such as “John Anderson, my Joe,” and many more. But of all his productions, the pathetic and serious love-songs which he has left behind him, in the manner of the old ballads, are perhaps those which take the deepest and most lasting hold of the mind. Such are the lines to Mary Morison, and those entitled Jessy.

“Here’s a health to ane I lo’e dear —

Here’s a health to ane I lo’e dear —

Thou art sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet,

    And soft as their parting tear — Jessy!

Altho’ thou maun never be mine,

    Altho’ even hope is denied;

’Tis sweeter for thee despairing,

    Than aught in the world beside — Jessy!”

The conclusion of the other is as follows.

“Yestreen, when to the trembling string

    The dance gaed through the lighted ha’,

To thee my fancy took its wing,

    I sat, but neither heard nor saw.

Tho’ this was fair, and that was bra’,

    And yon the toast of a’ the town,

I sighed and said among them a’,

    Ye are na’ Mary Morison.”

That beginning, “Oh gin my love were a bonny red rose,” is a piece of rich and fantastic description. One would think that nothing could surpass these in beauty of expression, and in true pathos: and nothing does or can, but some of the old Scotch ballads themselves. There is in them a still more original cast of thought, a more romantic imagery — the thistle’s glittering down, the gilliflower on the old garden-wall, the horseman’s silver bells, the hawk on its perch — a closer intimacy with nature, a firmer reliance on it, as the only stock of wealth which the mind has to resort to, a more infantine simplicity of manners, a greater strength of affection, hopes longer cherished and longer deferred, sighs that the heart dare hardly heave, and “thoughts that often lie too deep for tears.” We seem to feel that those who wrote and sung them (the early minstrels) lived in the open air, wandering on from place to place with restless feet and thoughts, and lending an ever-open ear to the fearful accidents of war or love, floating on the breath of old tradition or common fame, and moving the strings of their harp with sounds that sank into a nation’s heart. How fine an illustration of this is that passage in Don Quixote, where the knight and Sancho, going in search of Dulcinea, inquire their way of the countryman, who was driving his mules to plough before break of day, “singing the ancient ballad of Roncesvalles.” Sir Thomas Overbury describes his country girl as still accompanied with fragments of old songs. One of the best and most striking descriptions of the effects of this mixture of national poetry and music is to be found in one of the letters of Archbishop Herring, giving an account of a confirmation-tour in the mountains of Wales.

“That pleasure over, our work became very arduous, for we were to

mount a rock, and in many places of the road, over natural stairs of stone. I submitted to this, which they told me was but a taste of the country, and to prepare me for worse things to come. However, worse things did not come that morning, for we dined soon after out of our own wallets; and though our inn stood in a place of the most frightful solitude, and the best formed for the habitation of monks (who once possessed it) in the world, yet we made a cheerful meal. The novelty of the thing gave me spirits, and the air gave me appetite much keener than the knife I ate with. We had our music too; for there came in a harper, who soon drew about us a group of figures that Hogarth would have given any price for. The harper was in his true place and attitude; a man and woman stood before him, singing to his instrument wildly, but not disagreeably; a little dirty child was playing with the bottom of the harp; a woman in a sick night-cap hanging over the stairs; a boy with crutches fixed in a staring attention, and a girl carding wool in the chimney, and rocking a cradle with her naked feet, interrupted in her business by the charms of the music; all ragged and dirty, and all silently attentive. These figures gave us a most entertaining picture, and would please you or any man of observation; and one reflection gave me a particular comfort, that the assembly before us demonstrated, that even here, the influential sun warmed poor mortals, and inspired them with love and music.”

I could wish that Mr. Wilkie had been recommended to take this group as the subject of his admirable pencil; he has painted a picture of Bathsheba, instead.

In speaking of the old Scotch ballads, I need do no more than mention the name of Auld Robin Gray. The effect of reading this old ballad is as if all our hopes and fears hung upon the last fibre of the heart, and we felt that giving way. What silence, what loneliness, what leisure for grief and despair!

“My father pressed me sair,

    Though my mother did na’ speak;

But she looked in my face

    Till my heart was like to break.”

The irksomeness of the situations, the sense of painful dependence, is excessive; and yet the sentiment of deep-rooted, patient affection triumphs over all, and is the only impression that remains. Lady Ann Bothwell’s Lament is not, I think, quite equal to the lines beginning —

“O waly, waly, up the bank,

    And waly, waly, down the brae,

And waly, waly, yon burn side,

    Where I and my love wont to gae.

I leant my back unto an aik,

    I thought it was a trusty tree;

But first it bow’d, and syne it brak,

    Sae my true-love’s forsaken me.

O waly, waly, love is bonny,

    A little time while it is new;

But when its auld, it waxeth cauld,

    And fades awa’ like the morning dew.

When cockle-shells turn siller bells,

    And muscles grow on every tree,

Whan frost and snaw sall warm us aw,

    Then sall my love prove true to me.

Now Arthur seat sall be my bed,

    The sheets sall ne’er be fyld by me:

Saint Anton’s well sall be my drink,

    Since my true-love’s forsaken me.

Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw,

    And shake the green leaves aff the tree?

O gentle death, whan wilt thou cum,

    And tak’ a life that wearies me!

’Tis not the frost that freezes sae,

    Nor blawing snaw’s inclemencie,

’Tis not sic cauld, that makes me cry,

    But my love’s heart grown cauld to me.

Whan we came in by Glasgow town,

    We were a comely sight to see,

My love was clad in black velvet,

    And I myself in cramasie.

But had I wist before I kist,

    That love had been sae hard to win;

I’d lockt my heart in case of gowd,

    And pinn’d it with a siller pin.

And oh! if my poor babe were born,

    And set upon the nurse’s knee,

And I mysel in the cold grave!

    Since my true-love ‘s forsaken me.”

The finest modern imitation of this style is the Braes of Yarrow; and perhaps the finest subject for a story of the same kind in any modern book, is that told in Turner’s History of England, of a Mahometan woman, who having fallen in love with an English merchant, the father of Thomas a Becket, followed him all the way to England, knowing only the word London, and the name of her lover, Gilbert.

But to have done with this, which is rather too serious a subject. — The old English ballads are of a gayer and more lively turn. They are adventurous and romantic; but they relate chiefly to good living and good fellowship, to drinking and hunting scenes. Robin Hood is the chief of these, and he still, in imagination, haunts Sherwood Forest. The archers green glimmer under the waving branches; the print on the grass remains where they have just finished their noon-tide meal under the green-wood tree; and the echo of their bugle-horn and twanging bows resounds through the tangled mazes of the forest, as the tall slim deer glances startled by.

“The trees in Sherwood Forest are old and good;

    The grass beneath them now is dimly green:

    Are they deserted all? Is no young mien,

With loose-slung bugle, met within the wood?

No arrow found — foil’d of its antler’d food —

    Struck in the oak’s rude side? — Is there nought seen

    To mark the revelries which there have been,

In the sweet days of merry Robin Hood?

Go there with summer, and with evening — go

    In the soft shadows, like some wand’ring man —

    And thou shalt far amid the forest know

The archer-men in green, with belt and bow,

    Feasting on pheasant, river-fowl, and swan,

    With Robin at their head, and Marian.” 9

9 Sonnet on Sherwood Forest, by J.H. Reynolds, Esq.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/lectures-on-the-english-poets/chapter7.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38