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North British Review, No. XXXI. — 1. —“Elliott’s Poems.” London, 1833. — 2. “Poems of Robert Nicoll.” Third Edition. Edinburgh, 1843. — 3. “Life and Poems of John Bethune.” London, 1841. — 4. “Memoirs of Alexander Bethune.” By W. M’Combie. Aberdeen, 1845. — 5. “Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver.” By William Thorn, of Inverury. Second Edition, London, 1845. — 6. “The Purgatory of Suicides.” By Thomas Cooper. London, 1845. — 7. “The Book of Scottish Song.” By Alexander Whitelaw. Edinburgh, 1848.
Four faces among the portraits of modern men, great or small, strike us as supremely beautiful; not merely in expression, but in the form and proportion and harmony of features: Shakespeare, Raffaelle, Goethe, Burns. One would expect it to be so; for the mind makes the body, not the body the mind; and the inward beauty seldom fails to express itself in the outward, as a visible sign of the invisible grace or disgrace of the wearer. Not that it is so always. A Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles, may be ordained to be “in presence weak, in speech contemptible,” hampered by some thorn in the flesh — to interfere apparently with the success of his mission, perhaps for the same wise purpose of Providence which sent Socrates to the Athenians, the worshippers of physical beauty, in the ugliest of human bodies, that they, or rather those of them to whom eyes to see had been given, might learn, that soul is after all independent of matter, and not its creature and its slave. But, in the generality of cases, physiognomy is a sound and faithful science, and tells us, if not, alas! what the man might have been, still what he has become. Yet even this former problem, what he might have been, may often be solved for us by youthful portraits, before sin and sorrow and weakness have had their will upon the features; and, therefore, when we spoke of these four beautiful faces, we alluded, in each case, to the earliest portraits of each genius which we could recollect. Placing them side by side, we must be allowed to demand for that of Robert Burns an honourable station among them. Of Shakespeare’s we do not speak, for it seems to us to combine in itself the elements of all the other three; but of the rest, we question whether Burns be not, after all, if not the noblest, still the most lovable — the most like what we should wish that of a teacher of men to be. Raffaelle — the most striking portrait of him, perhaps, is the full-face pencil sketch by his own hand in the Taylor Gallery at Oxford — though without a taint of littleness or effeminacy, is soft, melancholy, formed entirely to receive and to elaborate in silence. His is a face to be kissed, not worshipped. Goethe, even in his earliest portraits, looks as if his expression depended too much on his own will. There is a self-conscious power, and purpose, and self-restraint, and all but scorn, upon those glorious lineaments, which might win worship, and did; but not love, except as the child of enthusiasm or of relationship. But Burns’s face, to judge of it by the early portrait of him by Nasmyth, must have been a face like that of Joseph of old, of whom the Rabbis relate, that he was mobbed by the Egyptian ladies whenever he walked the streets. The magic of that countenance, making Burns at once tempter and tempted, may explain many a sad story. The features certainly are not perfectly regular; there is no superabundance of the charm of mere animal health in the outline or colour: but the marks of intellectual beauty in the face are of the highest order, capable of being but too triumphant among a people of deep thought and feeling. The lips, ripe, yet not coarse or loose, full of passion and the faculty of enjoyment, are parted, as if forced to speak by the inner fulness of the heart; the features are rounded, rich, and tender, and yet the bones show thought massively and manfully everywhere; the eyes laugh out upon you with boundless good humour and sweetness, with simple, eager, gentle surprise — a gleam as of the morning star, looking forth upon the wonder of a new-born world — altogether
A station like the herald Mercury,
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill.
Bestow on such a man the wittiest and most winning eloquence — a rich flow of spirits and fulness of health and life — a deep sense of wonder and beauty in the earth and man — an instinct of the dynamic and supernatural laws which underlie and vivify this material universe and its appearances, healthy, yet irregular and unscientific, all but superstitious — turn him loose in any country in Europe, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and it will not be difficult, alas! to cast his horoscope.
And what an age in which to be turned loose! — for loose he must go, to solve the problem of existence for himself. The grand simple old Scottish education which he got from his parents must prove narrow and unsatisfying for so rich and manifold a character; not because it was in itself imperfect; not because it did not contain implicitly all things necessary for his “salvation”— in every sense, all laws which he might require for his after-life guidance; but because it contained so much of them as yet only implicitly; because it was not yet conscious of its own breadth and depth, and power of satisfying the new doubts and cravings of such minds and such times as Burns’s. It may be that Burns was the devoted victim by whose fall it was to be taught that it must awaken and expand and renew its youth in shapes equally sound, but more complex and scientific. But it had not done so then. And when Burns found himself gradually growing beyond his father’s teaching in one direction, and tempted beyond it in another and a lower one, what was there in those times to take up his education at the point where it had been left unfinished? He saw around him in plenty animal good-nature and courage, barbaric honesty and hospitality — more, perhaps, than he would see now; for the upward progress into civilised excellences is sure to be balanced by some loss of savage ones — but reckless, shallow, above all, drunken. It was a hard-drinking, coarse, materialist age. The higher culture, of Scotland especially, was all but exclusively French — not a good kind, while Voltaire and Volney still remained unanswered, and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” were accepted by all young gentlemen, and a great many young ladies who could read French, as the best account of the relation of the sexes.
Besides, the philosophy of that day, like its criticism, was altogether mechanical, nay, as it now seems, materialist in its ultimate and logical results. Criticism was outward, and of the form merely. The world was not believed to be already, and in itself, mysterious and supernatural, and the poet was not defined as the man who could see and proclaim that supernatural element. Before it was admired, it was to be raised above nature into the region of “the picturesque,” or whatnot; and the poet was the man who gave it this factitious and superinduced beauty, by a certain “kompsologia” and “meteoroepeia,” called “poetic diction,” now happily becoming extinct, mainly, we believe, under the influence of Burns, although he himself thought it his duty to bedizen his verses therewith, and though it was destined to flourish for many a year more in the temple of the father of lies, like a jar of paper flowers on a Popish altar.
No wonder that in such a time, a genius like Burns should receive not only no guidance, but no finer appreciation. True; he was admired, petted, flattered; for that the man was wonderful no one could doubt. But we question whether he was understood; whether, if that very flowery and magniloquent style which we now consider his great failing had been away, he would not have been passed over by the many as a writer of vulgar doggrel. True, the old simple ballad-muse of Scotland still dropped a gem from her treasures, here and there, even in the eighteenth century itself — witness “Auld Robin Gray.” But who suspected that they were gems, of which Scotland, fifty years afterwards, would be prouder and more greedy than of all the second-hand French culture which seemed to her then the highest earthly attainment? The Review of Burns in an early number of the “Edinburgh Review,” said to be from the pen of the late Lord Jeffrey, shows, as clearly as anything can, the utterly inconsistent and bewildered feeling with which the world must have regarded such a phenomenon. Alas! there was inconsistency and bewilderment enough in the phenomenon itself, but that only made confusion worse confounded; the confusion was already there, even in the mind of the more practical literary men, who ought, one would have thought, also to have been the most deep-sighted. But no. The reviewer turns the strange thing over and over, and inside out — and some fifteen years after it has vanished out of the world, having said out its say and done all that it had to do, he still finds it too utterly abnormal to make up his mind about in any clear or consistent way, and gets thoroughly cross with it, and calls it hard names, because it will not fit into any established pigeon-hole or drawer of the then existing anthropological museum. Burns is “a literary prodigy,” and yet it is “a derogation” to him to consider him as one. And that we find, not as we should have expected, because he possessed genius, which would have made success a matter of course in any rank, but because he was so well educated —“having acquired a competent knowledge of French, together with the elements of Latin and Geometry,” and before he had composed a single stanza, was “far more intimately acquainted with Pope, Shakespeare, and Thomson, than nine-tenths of the youths who leave school for the university,” etc. etc. — in short, because he was so well educated, that his becoming Robert Burns, the immortal poet, was a matter of course and necessity. And yet, a page or two on, the great reason why it was more easy for Robert Burns the cottar to become an original and vigorous poet, rather than for any one of “the herd of scholars and academical literati,” who are depressed and discouraged by “perusing the most celebrated writers, and conversing with the most intelligent judges,” is found to be, that “the literature and refinement of the age do not exist for a rustic and illiterate individual; and consequently the present time is to him what the rude times of old were to the vigorous writer who adorned them.” In short the great reason of Robert Burns’s success was that he did not possess that education the possession of which proves him to be no prodigy, though the review begins by calling him one, and coupling him with Stephen Duck and Thomas Dermody.
Now if the best critic of the age, writing fifteen years after Burns’s death, found himself between the horns of such a dilemma’— which indeed, like those of an old Arnee bull, meet at the points, and form a complete circle of contradictions — what must have been the bewilderment of lesser folk during the prodigy’s very lifetime? what must, indeed, have been his own bewilderment at himself, however manfully he may have kept it down? No wonder that he was unguided, either by himself or by others. We do not blame them; him we must deeply blame; yet not as we ought to blame ourselves, did we yield in the least to those temptations under which Burns fell.
Biographies of Burns, and those good ones, according to the standard of biographies in these days, are said to exist; we cannot say that we have as yet cared to read them. There are several other biographies, even more important, to be read first, when they are written. Shakespeare has found as yet no biographer; has not even left behind him materials for a biography, such at least as are considered worth using. Indeed, we question whether such a biography would be of any use whatever to the world; for the man who cannot, by studying his dramas in some tolerably accurate chronological order, and using as a running accompaniment and closet commentary those awe-inspiring sonnets of his, attain to some clear notion of what sort of life William Shakespeare must have led, would not see him much the clearer for many folios of anecdote. For after all, the best biography of every sincere man is sure to be his own works; here he has set down, “transferred as in a figure,” all that has happened to him, inward or outward, or rather, all which has formed him, produced a permanent effect upon his mind and heart; and knowing that, you know all you need know, and are content, being glad to escape the personality and gossip of names and places, and of dates even, except in as far as they enable you to place one step of his mental growth before or after another. Of the honest man this holds true always; and almost always of the dishonest man, the man of cant, affectation, hypocrisy; for even if he pretend in his novel or his poem to be what he is not, he still shows you thereby what he thinks he ought to have been, or at least what he thinks that the world thinks he ought to have been, and confesses to you, in the most naïve and confidential way, like one who talks in his sleep, what learning he has or has not had; what society he has or has not seen, and that in the very act of trying to prove the contrary. Nay, the smaller the man or woman, and the less worth deciphering his biography, the more surely will he show you, if you have eyes to see and time to look, what sort of people offended him twenty years ago; what meanness he would have liked “to indulge in,” if he had dared, when young, and for what other meanness he relinquished it, as he grew up; of what periodical he stood in awe when he took pen in hand, and so forth. Whether his books treat of love or political economy, theology or geology, it is there, the history of the man legibly printed, for those who care to read it. In these poems and letters of Burns, we apprehend, is to be found a truer history than any anecdote can supply, of the things which happened to himself, and moreover of the most notable things which went on in Scotland between 1759 and 1796.
This latter assertion may seem startling, when we consider that we find in these poems no mention whatsoever of the discoveries of steamboats and spinning-jennies, the rise of the great manufacturing cities, the revolution in Scottish agriculture, or even in Scottish metaphysics. But after all, the history of a nation is the history of the men, and not of the things thereof; and the history of those men is the history of their hearts, and not of their purses, or even of their heads; and the history of one man who has felt in himself the heart experiences of his generation, and anticipated many belonging to the next generation, is so far the collective history of that generation, and of much — no man can say how much — of the next generation; and such a man, bearing within his single soul two generations of working-men, we take Robert Burns to have been; and his poems, as such, a contemporaneous history of Scotland, the equal to which we are not likely to see written for this generation, or several to come.
Such a man sent out into such an age, would naturally have a hard and a confused battle to fight, would probably, unless he fell under the guidance of some master-mind, end se ipso minor, stunted and sadly deformed, as Burns did. His works are after all only the disjecta membra poetæ; full of hints of a great might-have-been. Hints of the keenest and most dramatic appreciation of human action and thought. Hints of an unbounded fancy, playing gracefully in the excess of its strength, with the vastest images, as in that robe of the Scottish Muse, in which
Deep lights and shades, bold mingling, threw
A lustre grand,
And seem’d to my astonished view
A well-known land.
The image, and the next few stanzas which dilate it, might be a translation from Dante’s “Paradiso,” so broad, terse, vivid, the painter’s touch. Hints, too, of a humour, which, like that of Shakespeare, rises at times by sheer depth of insight into the sublime; as when
Hornie did the Laigh Kirk watch
Just like a winking baudrons.
Hints of a power of verbal wit, which, had it been sharpened in such a perpetual word-battle as that amid which Shakespeare lived from the age of twenty, might have rivalled Shakespeare’s own; which even now asserts its force by a hundred little never-to-be-forgotten phrases scattered through his poems, which stick, like barbed arrows, in the memory of every reader. And as for his tenderness — the quality without which all other poetic excellence is barren — it gushes forth toward every creature, animate and inanimate, with one exception, namely, the hypocrite, ever alike “spiacente a Dio e ai nemici sui;” and therefore intolerable to Robert Burns’s honesty, whether he be fighting for or against the cause of right. Again we say, there are evidences of a versatile and manifold faculty in this man, which, with a stronger will and a larger education, might have placed him as an equal by the side of those great names which we mentioned together with his at the commencement of this article.
But one thing Burns wanted; and of that one thing his age helped to deprive him — the education which comes by reverence. Looking round in such a time, with his keen power of insight, his keen sense of humour, what was there to worship? Lord Jeffrey, or whosoever was the author of the review in the “Edinburgh,” says disparagingly, that Burns had as much education as Shakespeare. So he very probably had, if education mean book-learning. Nay, more, of the practical education of the fireside, the sober, industrious, God-fearing education, and “drawing out” of the manhood, by act and example, Burns may have had more under his good father than Shakespeare under his; though the family life of the small English burgher in Elizabeth’s time would have generally presented, as we suspect, the very same aspect of staid manfulness and godliness which a Scotch farmer’s did fifty years ago. But let that be as it may, Burns was not born into an Elizabethan age. He did not see around him Raleighs and Sidneys, Cecils and Hookers, Drakes and Frobishers, Spensers and Jonsons, Southamptons and Willoughbys, with an Elizabeth, guiding and moulding the great whole, a crowned Titaness, terrible, and strong, and wise — a woman who, whether right or wrong, bowed the proudest, if not to love, yet still to obey.
That was the secret of Shakespeare’s power. Heroic himself, he was born into an age of heroes. You see it in his works. Not a play but gives patent evidence that to him all forms of human magnanimity were common and wayside flowers — among the humours of men which he and Ben Jonson used to wander forth together to observe. And thus he could give living action and speech to the ancient noblenesses of Rome and the Middle Age; for he had walked and conversed with them, unchanged in everything but in the dress. Had he known Greek literature he could have recalled to imperishable life such men as Cimon and Aristides, such deeds as Marathon and Salamis. For had we not had our own Salamis acted within a few years of his birth; and were not the heroes of it still walking among men? It was surely this continual presence of “men of worship,” this atmosphere of admiration and respect and trust, in which Shakespeare must have lived, which tamed down the wild self-will of the deer-stealing fugitive from Stratford, into the calm large-eyed philosopher, tolerant and loving, and full of faith in a species made in the likeness of God. Not so with Burns. One feels painfully in his poems the want of great characters; and still more painfully that he has not drawn them, simply because they were not there to draw. That he has a true eye for what is noble, when he sees it, let his “Lament for Glencairn” testify, and the stanzas in his “Vision,” in which, with a high-bred grace which many a courtly poet of his day might have envied, he alludes to one and another Scottish worthy of his time. There is no vein of saucy and envious “banausia” in the man; even in his most graceless sneer, his fault — if fault it be — is, that he cannot and will not pretend to respect that which he knows to be unworthy of respect. He sees around him and above him, as well as below him, an average of men and things dishonest, sensual, ungodly, shallow, ridiculous by reason of their own lusts and passions, and he will not apply to the shams of dignity and worth, the words which were meant for their realities. After all, he does but say what every one round him was feeling and thinking; but he said it; and hypocritical respectability shrank shrieking from the mirror of her own inner heart. But it was all the worse for him. In the sins of others he saw an excuse for his own. Losing respect for and faith in his brother-men, he lost, as a matter of course, respect for himself, faith in himself. The hypocrisy which persecutes in the name of law, whether political or moral, while in private it transgresses the very law which is for ever on its tongue, is turned by his passionate and sorely-tempted character into a too easy excuse for disbelieving in the obligation of any law whatsoever. He ceases to worship, and therefore to be himself worshipful — and we know the rest.
“He might have still worshipped God?” He might, and surely amid all his sins, doubts, and confusions, the remembrance of the old faith learned at his parent’s knee, does haunt him still as a beautiful regret — and sometimes, in his bitterest hours, shine out before his poor broken heart as an everlasting Pharos, lighting him homewards after all. Whether he reached that home or not, none on earth can tell. But his writings show, if anything can, that the vestal-fire of conscience still burned within, though choked again and again with bitter ashes and foul smoke. Consider the time in which he lived, when it was “as with the people, so with the priest,” and the grand old life-tree of the Scottish Kirk, now green and vigorous with fresh leaves and flowers, was all crusted with foul scurf and moss, and seemed to have ceased growing, and to be crumbling down into decay; consider the terrible contradiction between faith and practice which must have met the eyes of the man, before he could write with the same pen — and one as honestly as the other —“The Cottar’s Saturday Night,” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer.” But those times are past, and the men who acted in them gone to another tribunal. Let the dead bury their dead; and, in the meantime, instead of cursing the misguided genius, let us consider whether we have not also something for which to thank him; whether, as competent judges of him aver from their own experience, those very seeming blasphemies of his have not produced more good than evil; whether, though “a savour of death unto death,” to conceited and rebellious spirits, they may not have helped to open the eyes of the wise to the extent to which the general eighteenth-century rottenness had infected Scotland, and to make intolerable a state of things which ought to have been intolerable, even if Burns had never written.
We are not attacking the reviewer, far less the “Edinburgh Review,” which some years after this not only made the amende honorable to Burns, but showed a frank impartiality only too rare in the reviews of these days, by publishing in its pages the noble article on Burns which has since appeared separately in Mr. Carlyle’s “Miscellanies.” We only wish to show, from the reviewer’s own words, the element in which Burns had to work, the judges before whom he had to plead, and the change which, as we think, very much by the influence of his own poems, has passed upon the minds of men. How few are there who would pen now about him such a sentence as this: “He is” (that is, was, having gone to his account fifteen years before) “perpetually making a parade of his own inflammability and imprudence, and talking with much self-complacency and exultation of the offence he has occasioned to the sober and correct part of mankind”— a very small part of mankind, one would have thought, in the British Isles at least, about the end of the last century. But, it was the fashion then, as usual, to substitute the praise of virtues for the practice of them; and three-bottle and ten-tumbler men had a very good right, of course, to admire sobriety and correctness, and to denounce any two-bottle and six-tumbler man who was not ashamed to confess in print the weaknesses which they confessed only by word of mouth. Just, and yet not just. True, Burns does make a parade of his thoughtlessness, and worse; but why? because he gloried in it? He must be a very skin-deep critic who cannot see, even in the most insolent of those blameworthy utterances, an inward shame and self-reproach, which if any man had ever felt in himself, he would be in nowise inclined to laugh at it in others. Why, it is the very shame which wrings those poems out of him. They are the attempt of the strong man fettered to laugh at his own consciousness of slavery — to deny the existence of his chains — to pretend to himself that he likes them. To us, some of those wildest “Rob the Ranter” bursts of blackguardism are most deeply mournful, hardly needing that the sympathies which they stir up should be heightened by the little scraps of prayer and bitter repentance, which lie up and down among their uglier brethren, the disjecta membra of a great “De Profundis,” perhaps not all unheard. These latter pieces are most significant. The very doggrel of them, the total absence of any attempt at ornament in diction or polish in metre, is proof complete of their deep heart-wrung sincerity. They are like the wail of a lost child, rather than the remorse of a Titan. The heart of the man was so young to the last; the boy-vein in him, as perhaps in all great poets, beating on through manhood for good and for evil. No! there was parade there, as of the lost woman, who tries to hide her self-disgust by staring you out of countenance, but of complacency and exultation none.
On one point, namely politics, Burns’s higher sympathies seem to have been awakened. It had been better for him, in a worldly point of view, that they had not. In an intellectual, and even in a moral point of view, far worse. A fellow-feeling with the French Revolution, in the mind of a young man of that day, was a sign of moral health, which we should have been sorry to miss in him. Unable to foresee the outcome of the great struggle, having lost faith in those everlasting truths, religious and political, which it was madly setting at naught, what could it appear to him but an awakening from the dead, a return to young and genial health, a purifying thunderstorm. Such was his dream, the dream of thousands more, and not so wrong a one after all. For that, since that fearful outburst of the nether pit, all Europe has arisen and awakened into manifold and beautiful new life, who can deny? We are not what we were, but better, or rather, with boundless means of being better if we will. We have entered a fresh era of time for good and evil; the fact is patent in every sermon we hear, in every book we read, in every invention, even the most paltry, which we see registered. Shall we think hardly of the man who saw the dawn of our own day, and welcomed it cheerfully and hopefully, even though he fancied the mist-spectres to be elements of the true sunrise, and knew not — and who knows? — the purposes of Him whose paths are in the great deep, and His ways past finding out? At least, the greater part of his influence on the times which have followed him, is to be ascribed to that very “Radicalism” which in the eyes of the respectable around him, had sealed his doom, and consigned him to ignoble oblivion. It has been, with the working men who read him, a passport for the rest of his writings; it has allured them to listen to him, when he spoke of high and holy things, which but for him, they might have long ago tossed away as worthless, in the recklessness of ignorance and discontent. They could trust his “Cottar’s Saturday Night;” they could believe that he spoke from his heart, when in deep anguish he cries to the God whom he had forgotten, while they would have turned with a distrustful sneer from the sermon of the sleek and comfortable minister, who in their eyes, however humbly born, had deserted his class, and gone over to the camp of the enemy, and the flesh-pots of Egypt.
After the time of Burns, as was to be expected, Scottish song multiplies itself tenfold. The nation becomes awakened to the treasures of its own old literature, and attempts, what after all, alas! is but a revival; and like most revivals, not altogether a successful one. Of the twelve hundred songs contained in Mr. Whitelaw’s excellent collection, whereof more than a hundred and fifty are either wholly or partly Burns’s, the small proportion written before him are decidedly far superior in value to those written after him; a discouraging fact, though not difficult to explain, if we consider the great social changes which have been proceeding, the sterner subjects of thought which have been arising, during the last half-century. True song requires for its atmosphere a state rather of careless Arcadian prosperity, than of struggle and doubt, of earnest looking forward to an unknown future, and pardonable regret for a dying past; and in that state the mind of the masses, throughout North Britain, has been weltering confusedly for the last few years. The new and more complex era into which we are passing has not yet sufficiently opened itself to be sung about; men hardly know what it is, much less what it will be; and while they are hard at work creating it, they have no breath to spare in talking of it. One thing they do see and feel, painfully enough at times, namely, that the old Scottish pastoral life is passing away, before the combined influence of manufactures and the large-farm system; to be replaced, doubtless, hereafter, by something better, but in the meanwhile dragging down with it in its decay but too much that can ill be spared of that old society which inspired Ramsay and Burns. Hence the later Scottish song-writers seldom really sing; their proses want the unconscious lilt and flash of their old models; they will hardly go (the true test of a song) without music. The true test, we say again, of a song. Who needs music, however fitting and beautiful the accustomed air may happen to be, to “Roy’s Wife of Aldivalloch,” or “The Bride cam’ out o’ the byre,” or either of the casts of “The Flowers of the Forest,” or to “Auld Lang Syne” itself? They bubble right up out of the heart, and by virtue of their inner and unconscious melody, which all that is true to the heart has in it, shape themselves into a song, and are not shaped by any notes whatsoever. So with many, most indeed, of Burns’s; and a few of Allan Cunningham’s; the “Wet sheet and a flowing sail,” for instance. But the great majority of these later songs seem, if the truth is to be spoken, inspirations at second hand, of people writing about things which they would like to feel, and which they ought to feel, because others used to feel them in old times; but which they do not feel as their forefathers felt — a sort of poetical Tractarianism, in short. Their metre betrays them, as well as their words; in both they are continually wandering, unconsciously to themselves, into the elegiac — except when on one subject, whereon the muse of Scotia still warbles at first hand, and from the depths of her heart — namely, alas! the barley bree: and yet never, even on this beloved theme, has she risen again to the height of Burns’s bacchanalian songs.
But when sober, there is a sadness about the Scottish muse nowadays — as perhaps there ought to be — and the utterances of hers which ring the truest are laments. We question whether in all Mr. Whitelaw’s collection there is a single modern poem (placing Burns as the transition point between the old and new) which rises so high, or pierces so deep, with all its pastoral simplicity, as Smibert’s “Widow’s Lament.”
Afore the Lammas tide
Had dwin’d the birken tree,
In a’ our water-side,
Nae wife was blest like me:
A kind gudeman, and twa
Sweet bairns were round me here;
But they’re a’ ta’en awa’,
Sin’ the fa’ o’ the year.
Sair trouble cam’ our gate,
And made me, when it cam’,
A bird without a mate,
A ewe without a lamb.
Our hay was yet to maw,
And our corn was yet to shear;
When they a’ dwined awa’,
In the fa’ o’ the year.
I daurna look a-field,
For aye I trow to see,
The form that was a bield
To my wee bairns and me.
But wind, and weet, and snaw,
They never mair can fear,
Sin’ they a’ got the ca’,
In the fa’ o’ the year.
Aft on the hill at e’ens,
I see him ’mang the ferns,
The lover o’ my teens,
The father o’ my bairns:
For there his plaid I saw,
As gloamin’ aye drew near —
But my a’s now awa’,
Sin’ the fa’ o’ the year.
Our bonnie rigs theirsel’,
Reca’ my waes to mind,
Our puir dumb beasties tell
O’ a’ that I ha’e tyned;
For whae our wheat will saw,
And whae our sheep will shear,
Sin’ my a’ gaed awa’,
In the fa’ o’ the year?
My heart is growing cauld,
And will be caulder still,
And sair sair in the fauld,
Will be the winter’s chill;
For peats were yet to ca’,
Our sheep they were to smear,
When my a’ dwined awa’,
In the fa’ o’ the year.
I ettle whiles to spin,
But wee wee patterin’ feet,
Come rinnin’ out and in,
And then I first maun greet:
I ken its fancy a’
And faster rows the tear,
That my a’ dwined awa’,
In the fa’ o’ the year.
Be kind, O heav’n abune!
To ane sae wae and lane,
An’ tak’ her hamewards sune,
In pity o’ her mane:
Lang ere the March winds blaw,
May she, far far frae here,
Meet them a’ that’s awa’,
Sin’ the fa’ o’ the year.
It seems strange why the man who could write this, who shows, in the minor key of metre, which he has so skilfully chosen, such an instinct for the true music of words, could not have written much more. And yet, perhaps, we have ourselves given the reason already. There was not much more to sing about. The fashion of imitating old Jacobite songs is past, the mine now being exhausted, to the great comfort of sincerity and common sense. The peasantry, whose courtship, rich in animal health, yet not over pure and refined, Allan Ramsay sang a hundred years ago, are learning to think, and act, and emigrate, as well as to make love. The age of Theocritus and Bion has given place to — shall we say the age of the Cæsars, or the irruption of the barbarians? — and the love-singers of the North are beginning to feel, that if that passion is to retain any longer its rightful place in their popular poetry, it must be spoken of henceforth in words as lofty and refined as those in which the most educated and the most gifted speak of it. Hence, in the transition between the old animalism and the new spiritualism, a jumble of the two elements, not always felicitous; attempts at ambitious description, after Burns’s worst manner; at subjective sentiment, after the worst manner of the world in general; and yet, all the while, a consciousness that there was something worth keeping in the simple objective style of the old school, without which the new thoughtfulness would be hollow, and barren, and windy; and so the two are patched together, “new cloth into an old garment, making the rent worse.” Accordingly, these new songs are universally troubled with the disease of epithets. Ryan’s exquisite “Lass wi’ the Bonny Blue Een,” is utterly spoiled by two offences of this kind.
She’ll steal out to meet her loved Donald again,
The world’s false and vanishing scene;
as Allan Cunningham’s still more exquisite “Lass of Preston Mill” is by one subjective figure:
Six hills are woolly with my sheep,
Six vales are lowing with my kye.
Burns doubtless committed the same fault again and again; but in his time it was the fashion; and the older models (for models they are and will remain for ever) had not been studied and analysed as they have been since. Burns, indeed, actually spoiled one or two of his own songs by altering them from their first cast to suit the sentimental taste of his time. The first version, for instance, of the “Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon,” is far superior to the second and more popular one, because it dares to go without epithets. Compare the second stanza of each:
Thou’lt break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o’ the happy days
When my fause love was true.
. . . .
Thou’lt break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons through the flowery thorn;
Thou minds me o’ departed joys,
Departed never to return.
What is said in the latter stanza which has not been said in the former, and said more dramatically, more as the images would really present themselves to the speaker’s mind? It would be enough for him that the bird was bonnie, and singing; and his very sorrow would lead him to analyse and describe as little as possible a thing which so painfully contrasted with his own feelings; whether the thorn was flowery or not, would not have mattered to him, unless he had some distinct association with the thorn-flowers, in which case he would have brought out the image full and separate, and not merely thrown it in as a make-weight to “thorn”— and this is the great reason why epithets are, nine times out of ten, mistakes in song and ballad poetry; he never would have thought of “departed” before he thought of “joys.” A very little consideration of the actual processes of thought in such a case, will show the truth of our observation, and the instinctive wisdom of the older song-writers, in putting the epithet as often as possible after the noun, instead of before it, even at the expense of grammar. They are bad things at all times in song poetry, these epithets; and, accordingly, we find that the best German writers, like Uhland and Heine, get rid of them as much as possible, and succeed thereby, every word striking and ringing down with full force, no cushion of an epithet intruding between the reader’s brain-anvil and the poet’s hammer to break the blow. In Uhland’s “Three Burschen,” if we recollect right, there are but two epithets, and those of the simplest descriptive kind: “Thy fair daughter” and a “black pall.” Were there more, we question whether the poet would have succeeded, as he has done, in making our flesh creep as he leads us on from line to line and verse to verse. So Tennyson, the greatest of our living poets, eschews as much as possible, in his later writings, these same epithets, except in cases where they are themselves objective and pictorial — in short, the very things which he wants you to look at, as, for instance:
And into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove.
This is fair enough; but, indeed, after laying down our rule, we must confess that it is very difficult to keep always true to it, in a language which does not, like the Latin and German, allow us to put our adjectives very much where we choose. Nevertheless, whether we can avoid it or not, every time we place before the noun an epithet which, like “departed joys,” relates to our consciousness concerning the object, and not merely to the object itself; or an epithet which, like “flowery thorn,” gives us, before we get to the object itself, those accidents of the object which we only discern by a second look, by analysis and reflection —(for the thorn, if in the flower, would look to us, at the first glance, not “flowery,” but “white,” “snowy,” or what you will which expresses colour, and not scientific fact)— every time, we repeat, this is done, the poet descends from the objective and dramatic domain of song, into the subjective and reflective one of elegy.
But the field in which Burns’s influence has been, as was to be expected, most important and most widely felt, is in the poems of working men. He first proved that it was possible to become a poet and a cultivated man, without deserting his class, either in station or in sympathies; nay, that the healthiest and noblest elements of a lowly-born poet’s mind might be, perhaps must be, the very feelings and thoughts which he brought up with him from below, not those which he received from above, in the course of his artificial culture. From the example of Burns, therefore, many a working man, who would otherwise have “died and given no sign,” has taken courage, and spoken out the thought within him, in verse or prose, not always wisely and well, but in all cases, as it seems to us, in the belief that he had a sort of divine right to speak and be heard, since Burns had broken down the artificial ice-wall of centuries, and asserted, by act as well as song, that “a man’s a man for a’ that.” Almost every volume of working men’s poetry which we have read, seems to re-echo poor Nicoll’s spirited, though somewhat over-strained address to the Scottish genius:
This is the natal day of him
Who, born in want and poverty,
Burst from his fetters and arose,
The freest of the free.
Arose to tell the watching earth
What lowly men could feel and do,
To show that mighty heaven-like souls
In cottage hamlets grew.
Burns! thou hast given us a name
To shield us from the taunts of scorn:
The plant that creeps amid the soil
A glorious flower has borne.
Before the proudest of the earth
We stand with an uplifted brow;
Like us, thou wast a toil-worn man,
And we are noble now!
The critic, looking calmly on, may indeed question whether this new fashion of verse-writing among working men has been always conducive to their own happiness. As for absolute success as poets, that was not to be expected of one in a hundred, so that we must not be disappointed if among the volumes of working men’s poetry, of which we give a list at the head of our article, only two should be found, on perusal, to contain any writing of a very high order, although these volumes form a very small portion of the verses which have been written, during the last forty years, by men engaged in the rudest and most monotonous toil. To every man so writing, the art, doubtless, is an ennobling one. The habit of expressing thought in verse not only indicates culture, but is a culture in itself of a very high order. It teaches the writer to think tersely and definitely; it evokes in him the humanising sense of grace and melody, not merely by enticing him to study good models, but by the very act of composition. It gives him a vent for sorrows, doubts, and aspirations, which might otherwise fret and canker within, breeding, as they too often do in the utterly dumb English peasant, self-devouring meditation, dogged melancholy, and fierce fanaticism. And if the effect of verse-writing had stopped there, all had been well; but bad models have had their effect, as well as good ones, on the half-tutored taste of the working men, and engendered in them but too often a fondness for frothy magniloquence and ferocious raving, neither morally nor æsthetically profitable to themselves or their readers. There are excuses for the fault; the young of all ranks naturally enough mistake noise for awfulness, and violence for strength; and there is generally but too much, in the biographies of these working poets, to explain, if not to excuse, a vein of bitterness, which they certainly did not learn from their master, Burns. The two poets who have done them most harm, in teaching the evil trick of cursing and swearing, are Shelley and the Corn-Law Rhymer; and one can well imagine how seducing two such models must be, to men struggling to utter their own complaints. Of Shelley this is not the place to speak. But of the Corn-Law Rhymer we may say here, that howsoever he may have been indebted to Burns’s example for the notion of writing at all, he has profited very little by Burns’s own poems. Instead of the genial loving tone of the great Scotchman, we find in Elliott a tone of deliberate savageness, all the more ugly, because evidently intentional. He tries to curse; “he delights”— may we be forgiven if we misjudge the man —“in cursing;” he makes a science of it; he defiles, of malice prepense, the loveliest and sweetest thoughts and scenes (and he can be most sweet) by giving some sudden sickening revulsion to his reader’s feelings; and he does it generally with a power which makes it at once as painful to the calmer reader as alluring to those who are struggling with the same temptations as the poet. Now and then, his trick drags him down into sheer fustian and bombast; but not always. There is a terrible Dantean vividness of imagination about him, perhaps unequalled in England, in his generation. His poems are like his countenance, coarse and ungoverned, yet with an intensity of eye, a rugged massiveness of feature, which would be grand but for the seeming deficiency of love and of humour — love’s twin and inseparable brother. Therefore it is, that although single passages may be found in his writings, of which Milton himself need not have been ashamed, his efforts at dramatic poetry are utter failures, dark, monstrous, unrelieved by any really human vein of feeling or character. As in feature, so in mind, he has not even the delicate and graceful organisation which made up in Milton for the want of tenderness, and so enabled him to write, if not a drama, yet still the sweetest of masques and idyls.
Rather belonging to the same school than to that of Burns, though never degrading itself by Elliott’s ferocity, is that extraordinary poem, “The Purgatory of Suicides,” by Thomas Cooper. As he is still in the prime of life, and capable of doing more and better than he yet has done, we will not comment on it as freely as we have on Elliott, except to regret a similar want of softness and sweetness, and also of a clearness and logical connection of thought, in which Elliott seldom fails, except when cursing. The imagination is hardly as vivid as Elliott’s, though the fancy and invention, the polish of the style, and the indications of profound thought on all subjects within the poet’s reach, are superior in every way to those of the Corn-Law Rhymer; and when we consider that the man who wrote it had to gather his huge store of classic and historic anecdote while earning his living, first as a shoemaker, and then as a Wesleyan country preacher, we can only praise and excuse, and hope that the day may come when talents of so high an order will find some healthier channel for their energies than that in which they now are flowing.
Our readers may wonder at not seeing the Ettrick Shepherd’s poems among the list at the head of the article. It seems to us, however, that we have done right in omitting them. Doubtless, he too was awakened into song by the example of Burns; but he seems to us to owe little to his great predecessor, beyond the general consciousness that there was a virgin field of poetry in Scotch scenery, manners, and legends — a debt which Walter Scott himself probably owed to the Ayrshire peasant just as much as Hogg did. Indeed, we perhaps are right in saying, that had Burns not lived, neither Wilson, Galt, Allan Cunningham, or the crowd of lesser writers who have found material for their fancy in Scotch peculiarities, would have written, as they have. The three first names, Wilson’s above all, must have been in any case distinguished; yet it is surely no derogation to some of the most exquisite rural sketches in “Christopher North’s Recreations,” to claim them as the intellectual foster-children of “The Cottar’s Saturday Night.” In this respect, certainly, the Ettrick Shepherd has a place in Burns’s school, and, in our own opinion, one which has been very much overrated. But the deeper elements of Burns’s mind, those which have especially endeared him to the working man, reappear very little, or not at all, in Hogg. He left his class too much below him; became too much of the mere æsthetic prodigy, and member of a literary clique; frittered away his great talents in brilliant talk and insincere Jacobite songs, and, in fine, worked no deliverance on the earth. It is sad to have to say this: but we had it forced upon us painfully enough a few days ago, when re-reading “Kilmeny.” There may be beautiful passages in it; but it is not coherent, not natural, not honest. It is throughout an affectation of the Manichæan sentimental-sublime, which God never yet put into the heart of any brawny, long-headed, practical Borderer, and which he therefore probably put into his own head, or, as we call it, affected, for the time being; a method of poetry writing which comes forth out of nothing, and into nothing must return.
This is unfortunate, perhaps, for the world; for we question whether a man of talents in anywise to be compared with those of the Ettrick Shepherd has followed in the footsteps of Burns. Poor Tannahill, whose sad story is but too well known, perished early, at the age of thirty-six, leaving behind him a good many pretty love-songs of no great intrinsic value, if the specimens of them given in Mr. Whitelaw’s collection are to be accepted as the best. Like all Burns’s successors, including even Walter Scott and Hogg, we have but to compare him with his original to see how altogether unrivalled on his own ground the Ayrshire farmer was. In one feature only Tannahill’s poems, and those later than him, except where pedantically archaist, like many of Motherwell’s, are an improvement on Burns: namely, in the more easy and complete interfusion of the two dialects, the Norse Scotch and the Romanesque English, which Allan Ramsay attempted in vain to unite; while Burns, though not succeeding by any means perfectly, welded them together into something of continuity and harmony — thus doing for the language of his own country very much what Chaucer did for that of England — a happy union, in the opinion of those who, as we do, look on the vernacular Norse Scotch as no barbaric dialect, but as an independent tongue, possessing a copiousness, melody, terseness, and picturesqueness which makes it, both in prose and verse, a far better vehicle than the popular English for many forms of thought.
Perhaps the young peasant who most expressly stands out as the pupil and successor of Burns, is Robert Nicoll. He is a lesser poet, doubtless, than his master, and a lesser man, if the size and number of his capabilities be looked at; but he is a greater man, in that, from the beginning to the end of his career, he seems to have kept that very wholeness of heart and head which poor Burns lost. Nicoll’s story is, mutatis mutandis, that of the Bethunes, and many a noble young Scotsman more. Parents holding a farm between Perth and Dunkeld, they and theirs before them for generations inhabitants of the neighbourhood, “decent, honest, God-fearing people.” The farm is lost by reverses, and manfully Robert Nicoll’s father becomes a day-labourer on the fields which he lately rented: and there begins, for the boy, from his earliest recollections, a life of steady sturdy drudgery. But they must have been grand old folk, these parents, and in no wise addicted to wringing their hands over “the great might-have-been.” Like true Scots Bible lovers, they do believe in a God, and in a will of God, underlying, absolute, loving, and believe that the might-have-been ought not to have been, simply because it has not been; and so they put their shoulders to the new collar patiently, cheerfully, hopefully, and teach the boys to do the same. The mother especially, as so many great men’s mothers do, stands out large and heroic, from the time when, the farm being gone, she, “the ardent book-woman,” finds her time too precious to be spent in reading, and sets little Robert to read to her as she works — what a picture! — to the last sad day, when, wanting money to come up to Leeds to see her dying darling, she “shore for the siller,” rather than borrow it. And her son’s life is like her own — a most pure, joyous, valiant little epic. Robert does not even take to work as something beyond himself, uninteresting and painful, which, however, must be done courageously: he lives in it, enjoys it as his proper element, one which is no more a burden and an exertion to him than the rush of the strid is to the trout who plays and feels in it day and night, unconscious of the amount of muscular strength which he puts forth in merely keeping his place in the stream. Whether carrying “Kenilworth” in his plaid to the woods, to read while herding, or selling currants and whisky as the Perth storekeeper’s apprentice, or keeping his little circulating library in Dundee, tormenting his pure heart with the thought of the twenty pounds which his mother has borrowed wherewith to start him, or editing The Leeds Times, or lying on his early deathbed, just as life seems to be opening clear and broad before him, he
Bates not a jot of heart or hope,
but steers right onward, singing over his work, without bluster or self-gratulation, for very joy at having work to do. There is a keen practical insight about him, rarely combined, in these days, with his single-minded determination to do good in his generation. His eye is single, and his whole body full of light.
It would indeed (writes the grocer’s boy, encouraging his despondent and somewhat Werterean friend) be hangman’s work to write articles one day to be forgotten to-morrow, if that were all; but you forget the comfort — the repayment. If one prejudice is overthrown, one error rendered untenable; if but one step in advance be the consequence of your articles and mine — the consequences of the labour of all true men — are we not deeply repaid?
Or again, in a right noble letter to his noble mother:
That money of R.’s hangs like a millstone about my neck. If I had paid it, I would never borrow again from mortal man. But do not mistake me, mother; I am not one of those men who faint and falter in the great battle of life. God has given me too strong a heart for that. I look upon earth as a place where every man is set to struggle and to work, that he may be made humble and pure-hearted, and fit for that better land for which earth is a preparation — to which earth is the gate . . . If men would but consider how little of real evil there is in all the ills of which they are so much afraid — poverty included — there would be more virtue and happiness, and less world and Mammon-worship on earth than is. I think, mother, that to me has been given talent; and if so, that talent was given to make it useful to man.
And yet there is a quiet self-respect about him withal:
In my short course through life (says he in confidence to a friend at one-and-twenty), I have never feared an enemy, or failed a friend; and I live in the hope I never shall. For the rest, I have written my heart in my poems; and rude and unfinished and hasty as they are, it can be read there.
. . . . .
From seven years of age to this very hour, I have been dependent only on my own head and hands for everything — for very bread. Long years ago — ay, even in childhood — adversity made me think, and feel, and suffer; and would pride allow me, I could tell the world many a deep tragedy enacted in the heart of a poor, forgotten, uncared-for boy . . . But I thank God, that though I felt and suffered, the scathing blast neither blunted my perceptions of natural and moral beauty, nor, by withering the affections of my heart, made me a selfish man. Often when I look back I wonder how I bore the burden — how I did not end the evil day at once and for ever.
Such, is the man, in his normal state; and as was to be expected, God’s blessing rests on him. Whatever he sets his hand to succeeds. Within a few weeks of his taking the editorship of The Leeds Times its circulation begins to rise rapidly, as was to be expected with an honest man to guide it. For Nicoll’s political creed, though perhaps neither very deep nor wide, lies clear and single before him, as everything else which he does. He believes naturally enough in ultra-Radicalism according to the fashions of the Reform Bill era. That is the right thing; and for that he will work day and night, body and soul, and if needs be, die. There, in the editor’s den at Leeds, he “begins to see the truth of what you told me about the world’s unworthiness; but stop a little. I am not sad as yet. . . . If I am hindered from feeling the soul of poetry among woods and fields, I yet trust I am struggling for something worth prizing — something of which I am not ashamed, and need not be. If there be aught on earth worth aspiring to, it is the lot of him who is enabled to do something for his miserable and suffering fellow-men; and this you and I will try to do at least.”
His friend is put to work a ministerial paper, with orders “not to be rash, but to elevate the population gradually;” and finding those orders to imply a considerable leaning towards the By-ends, Lukewarm, and Facing-both-ways school, kicks over the traces, wisely, in Nicoll’s eyes, and breaks loose.
Keep up your spirits (says honest Nicoll). You are higher at this moment in my estimation, in your own, and that of every honest man, than you ever were before. Tait’s advice was just such as I should have expected of him; honest as honesty itself. You must never again accept a paper but where you can tell the whole truth without fear or favour. . . . . Tell E. (the broken-loose editor’s lady-love), from me to estimate as she ought the nobility and determination of the man who has dared to act as you have done. Prudent men will say that you are hasty: but you have done right, whatever may be the consequences.
This is the spirit of Robert Nicoll; the spirit which is the fruit of early purity and self-restraint, of living “on bread-and-cheese and water,” that he may buy books; of walking out to the Inch of Perth at four o’clock on summer mornings, to write and read in peace before he returns to the currants and the whisky. The nervous simplicity of the man come out, in the very nervous simplicity of the prose he writes; and though there be nothing very new or elevated in it, or indeed in his poems themselves, we call on our readers to admire a phenomenon so rare, in the “upper classes” at least, in these days, and taking a lesson from the peasant’s son, rejoice with us that “a man is born into the world.”
For Nicoll, as few do, practises what he preaches. It seems to him, once on a time, right and necessary that Sir William Molesworth should be returned for Leeds; and Nicoll having so determined, “throws himself, body and soul, into the contest, with such ardour, that his wife afterwards said (and we can well believe it) that if Sir William had failed, Robert would have died on the instant!”— why not? Having once made up his mind that that was the just and right thing, the thing which was absolutely good for Leeds, and the human beings who lived in it, was it not a thing to die for, even if it had been but the election of a new beadle? The advanced sentry is set to guard some obscure worthless dike-end — obscure and worthless in itself, but to him a centre of infinite duty. True, the fate of the camp does not depend on its being taken; if the enemy round it, there are plenty behind to blow them out again. But that is no reason whatsoever why he, before any odds, should throw his musket over his shoulder, and retreat gracefully to the lines. He was set there to stand by that, whether dike-end or representation of Leeds; that is the right thing for him; and for that right he will fight, and if he be killed, die. So have all brave men felt, and so have all brave deeds been done, since man walked the earth. It is because that spirit, the spirit of faith, has died out among us, that so few brave deeds are done now, except on battle-fields and in hovels, whereof none but God and the angels know.
So the man prospers. Several years of honourable and self-restraining love bring him a wife, beautiful, loving, worshipping his talents; a help meet for him, such as God will send at times to those whom he loves. Kind men meet and love and help him —“The Johnstones, Mr. Tait, William and Mary Howitt;” Sir William Molesworth, hearing of his last illness, sends him unsolicited fifty pounds, which, as we understand it, Nicoll accepts without foolish bluster about independence. Why not? — man should help man, and be helped by him. Would he not have done as much for Sir William? Nothing to us proves Nicoll’s heart-wholeness more than the way in which he talks of his benefactors, in a tone of simple gratitude and affection, without fawning and without vapouring. The man has too much self-respect to consider himself lowered by accepting a favour.
But he must go after all. The editor’s den at Leeds is not the place for lungs bred on Perthshire breezes; and work rises before him, huger and heavier as he goes on, till he drops under the ever-increasing load. He will not believe it at first. In sweet childlike playful letters, he tells his mother that it is nothing. It has done him good —“opened the grave before his eyes, and taught him to think of death.” “He trusts that he has not borne this, and suffered, and thought in vain.” This too, he hopes, is to be a fresh lesson-page of experience for his work. Alas! a few months more of bitter suffering, and of generous kindness and love from all around him — and it is over with him at the age of twenty-three. Shall we regret him? — shall we not rather believe that God knew best; and considering the unhealthy moral atmosphere of the second-class press, and the strange confused ways into which old ultra-Radicalism, finding itself too narrow for the new problems of the day, has stumbled and floundered during the last fifteen years, believe that he might have been a worse man had he been a longer-lived one, and thank heaven that “the righteous is taken away from the evil to come?”
As it is, he ends as he began. The first poem in his book is “The Ha’ Bible;” and the last, written a few days before his death, is still the death-song of a man — without fear, without repining, without boasting, blessing and loving the earth which he leaves, yet with a clear joyful eye upwards and outwards and homewards. And so ends his little epic, as we called it. May Scotland see many such another!
The actual poetic value of his verses is not first-rate by any means. He is far inferior to Burns in range of subject, as he is in humour and pathos. Indeed, there is very little of these latter qualities in him anywhere — rather playfulness, flashes of childlike fun, as in “The Provost,” and “Bonnie Bessie Lee.” But he has attained a mastery over English, a simplicity and quiet which Burns never did; and also, we need not say, a moral purity. His “Poems illustrative of the Scotch peasantry” are charming throughout — alive and bright with touches of real humanity, and sympathy with characters apparently antipodal to his own.
His more earnest poems are somewhat tainted with that cardinal fault of his school, of which he steered so clear in prose — fine words; yet he never, like the Corn-Law Rhymer, falls a cursing. He is evidently not a good hater even of “priests and kings, and aristocrats, and superstition;” or perhaps he worked all that froth safely over and off in debating-club speeches and leading articles, and left us, in these poems, the genuine metheglin of his inner heart, sweet, clear, and strong; for there is no form of lovable or right thing which this man has come across, which he does not seem to have appreciated. Besides pure love and the beauties of nature — those on which every man of poetic power, and a great many of none, as a matter of course, have a word to say — he can feel for and with the drunken beggar, and the warriors of the ruined manor-house, and the monks of the abbey, and the old mailed Normans with their “priest with cross and counted beads in the little Saxon chapel”— things which a Radical editor might have been excused for passing by with a sneer.
His verses to his wife are a delicious little glimpse of Eden; and his “People’s Anthem” rises into somewhat of true grandeur by virtue of simplicity:
Lord, from Thy blessed throne,
Sorrow look down upon!
God save the Poor!
Teach them true liberty —
Make them from tyrants free —
Let their homes happy be!
God save the Poor!
The arms of wicked men
Do Thou with might restrain —
God save the Poor!
Raise Thou their lowliness —
Succour Thou their distress —
Thou whom the meanest bless!
God save the Poor!
Give them stanch honesty —
Let their pride manly be —
God save the Poor!
Help them to hold the right;
Give them both truth and might,
Lord of all LIFE and LIGHT!
God save the Poor!
And so we leave Robert Nicoll, with the parting remark, that if the “Poems illustrative of the feelings of the intelligent and religious among the working-classes of Scotland” be fair samples of that which they profess to be, Scotland may thank God, that in spite of temporary manufacturing rot-heaps, she is still whole at heart; and that the influence of her great peasant poet, though it may seem at first likely to be adverse to Christianity, has helped, as we have already hinted, to purify and not to taint; to destroy the fungus, but not to touch the heart, of the grand old Covenant-kirk life-tree.
Still sweeter, and, alas! still sadder, is the story of the two Bethunes. If Nicoll’s life, as we have said, be a solitary melody, and short though triumphant strain of work-music, theirs is a harmony and true concert of fellow-joys, fellow-sorrows, fellow-drudgery, fellow-authorship, mutual throughout, lovely in their joint-life, and in their deaths not far divided. Alexander survives his brother John only long enough to write his “Memoirs,” and then follows; and we have his story given us by Mr. M’Combie, in a simple unassuming little volume — not to be read without many thoughts, perhaps not rightly without tears. Mr. M’Combie has been wise enough not to attempt panegyric. He is all but prolix in details, filling up some half of his volume with letters of preternatural length from Alexander to his publishers and critics, and from the said publishers and critics to Alexander, altogether of an unromantic and business-like cast, but entirely successful in doing that which a book should do — namely, in showing the world that here was a man of like passions with ourselves, who bore from boyhood to the grave hunger, cold, wet, rags, brutalising and health-destroying toil, and all the storms of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and conquered them every one.
Alexander is set at fourteen to throw earth out of a ditch so deep, that it requires the full strength of a grown man, and loses flesh and health under the exertion; he is twice blown up with his own blast in quarrying, and left for dead, recovers slowly, maimed and scarred, with the loss of an eye. John, when not thirteen, is set to stone-breaking on the roads during intense cold, and has to keep himself from being frostbitten and heart-broken by monkey gambols; takes to the weaving trade, and having helped his family by the most desperate economy to save ten pounds wherewith to buy looms, begins to work them, with his brother as an apprentice, and finds the whole outlay rendered useless the very same year by the failures of 1825-26. So the two return to day-labour at fourteenpence a-day. John, in a struggle to do task-work honestly, over-exerts himself, and ruins his digestion for life. Next year he is set in November to clean out a watercourse knee-deep in water; then to take marl from a pit; and then to drain standing water off a swamp during an intense December frost; and finds himself laid down with a three months’ cough, and all but sleepless illness, laying the foundation of the consumption which destroyed him. But the two brothers will not give in. Poetry they will write; and they write it to the best of their powers, on scraps of paper, after the drudgery of the day, in a cabin pervious to every shower, teaching themselves the right spelling of the words from some “Christian Remembrancer” or other — apparently not our meek and unbiassed contemporary of that name; and all this without neglecting their work a day or even an hour, when the weather permitted — the “only thing which tempted them to fret,” being — hear it, readers, and perpend! —“the being kept at home by rain and snow.” Then an additional malady (apparently some calculous one) comes on John, and stops by him for the six remaining years of his life. Yet between 1826 and 1832, John had saved fourteen pounds out of his miserable earnings, to be expended to the last farthing on his brother’s recovery from the second quarry accident. Surely the devil is trying hard to spoil these men. But no. They are made perfect by sufferings. In the house with one long narrow room, and a small vacant space at the end of it, lighted by a single pane of glass, they write and write untiring, during the long summer evenings, poetry, “Tales of the Scottish Peasant Life,” which at last bring them in somewhat; and a work on practical economy, which is bepraised and corrected by kind critics in Edinburgh, and at last published — without a sale. Perhaps one cause of its failure might be found in those very corrections. There were too many violent political allusions in it, complains their good Mentor of Edinburgh; and persuades them, seemingly the most meek and teachable of heroes, to omit them; though Alexander, while submitting, pleads fairly enough for retaining them, in a passage which we will give, as a specimen of the sort of English possible to be acquired by a Scotch day-labourer, self-educated, all but the rudiments of reading and writing, and a few lectures on popular poetry from “a young student of Aberdeen,” now the Rev. Mr. Adamson, who must look back on the friendship which he bore these two young men as one of the noblest pages in his life.
Talk to the many of religion, and they will put on a long face, confess that it is a thing of the greatest importance to all — and go away and forget the whole. Talk to them of education; they will readily acknowledge that it’s “a braw thing to be weel learned,” and begin a lamentation, which is only shorter than the lamentations of Jeremiah because they cannot make it as long, on the ignorance of the age in which they live; but they neither stir hand nor foot in the matter. But speak to them of politics, and their excited countenances and kindling eye show in a moment how deeply they are interested. Politics are therefore an important feature, and an almost indispensable element in such a work as mine. Had it consisted solely of exhortations to industry and rules of economy, it would have been dismissed with an “Ou ay, it’s braw for him to crack that way: but if he were whaur we are, ’deed he wad just hae to do as we do.” But by mixing up the science with politics, and giving it an occasional political impetus, a different result may be reasonably expected. In these days no man can be considered a patriot or friend of the poor, who is not also a politician.
It is amusing, by-the-bye, to see how the world changes its codes of respectability, and how, what is anathema in one generation, becomes trite orthodoxy in the next. The political sins in the work were, that “my brother had attacked the corn-laws with some severity; and I have attempted to level a battery against that sort of servile homage which the poor pay to the rich!”
There is no use pursuing the story much farther. They again save a little money, and need it; for the estate on which they have lived from childhood changing hands, they are, with their aged father, expelled from the dear old dog-kennel to find house-room where they can. Why not? —“it was not in the bond.” The house did not belong to them; nothing of it, at least, which could be specified in any known lease. True, there may have been associations: but what associations can men be expected to cultivate on fourteenpence a-day? So they must forth, with their two aged parents, and build with their own hands a new house elsewhere, having saved some thirty pounds from the sale of their writings. The house, as we understand, stands to this day — hereafter to become a sort of artisan’s caaba and pilgrim’s station, only second to Burns’s grave. That, at least, it will become, whenever the meaning of the words “worth” and “worship” shall become rightly understood among us.
For what are these men, if they are not heroes and saints? Not of the Popish sort, abject and effeminate, but of the true, human, evangelic sort, masculine and grand — like the figures in Raffaelle’s Cartoons compared with those of Fra Bartolomeo. Not from superstition, not from selfish prudence, but from devotion to their aged parents, and the righteous dread of dependence, they die voluntary celibates, although their writings show that they, too, could have loved as nobly as they did all other things. The extreme of endurance, self-restraint, of “conquest of the flesh,” outward as well as inward, is the life-long lot of these men; and they go through it. They have their share of injustice, tyranny, disappointment; one by one each bright boy’s dream of success and renown is scourged out of their minds, and sternly and lovingly their Father in heaven teaches them the lesson of all lessons. By what hours of misery and blank despair that faith was purchased, we can only guess; the simple strong men give us the result, but never dream of sitting down and analysing the process for the world’s amusement or their own glorification. We question, indeed, whether they could have told us; whether the mere fact of a man’s being able to dissect himself, in public or in private, is not proof-patent that he is no man, but only a shell of a man, with works inside, which can of course be exhibited and taken to pieces — a rather more difficult matter with flesh and blood. If we believe that God is educating, the when, the where, and the how are not only unimportant, but, considering who is the teacher, unfathomable to us, and it is enough to be able to believe with John Bethune that the Lord of all things is influencing us through all things; whether sacraments, or sabbaths, or sun-gleams, or showers — all things are ours, for all are His, and we are His, and He is ours — and for the rest, to say with the same John Bethune:
Oh God of glory! thou hast treasured up
For me my little portion of distress;
But with each draught — in every bitter cup
Thy hand hath mixed, to make its soreness less,
Some cordial drop, for which thy name I bless,
And offer up my mite of thankfulness.
Thou hast chastised my frame with dire disease,
Long, obdurate, and painful; and thy hand
Hath wrung cold sweat-drops from my brow; for these
I thank thee too. Though pangs at thy command
Have compassed me about, still, with the blow,
Patience sustained my soul amid its woe.
Of the actual literary merit of these men’s writings there is less to be said. However extraordinary, considering the circumstances under which they were written, may be the polish and melody of John’s verse, or the genuine spiritual health, deep death-and-devil-defying earnestness, and shrewd practical wisdom, which shines through all that either brother writes, they do not possess any of that fertile originality, which alone would have enabled them, as it did Burns, to compete with the literary savants, who, though for the most part of inferior genius, have the help of information and appliances, from which they were shut out. Judging them, as the true critic, like the true moralist, is bound to do, “according to what they had, not according to what they had not,” they are men who, with average advantages, might have been famous in their day. God thought it better for them to “hide them in his tabernacle from the strife of tongues;” and — seldom believed truism — He knows best. Alexander shall not, according to his early dreams, “earn nine hundred pounds by writing a book, like Burns,” even though his ideal method of spending be to buy all the boys in the parish “new shoes with iron tackets and heels,” and send them home with shillings for their mothers, and feed their fathers on wheat bread and milk, with tea and bannocks for Sabbath-days, and build a house for the poor old toil-stiffened man whom he once saw draining the hill field, “with a yard full of gooseberries, and an apple-tree!”— not that, nor even, as the world judges, better than that, shall he be allowed to do. The poor, for whom he writes his “Practical Economy,” shall not even care to read it; and he shall go down to the grave a failure and a lost thing in the eyes of men: but not in the eyes of grand God-fearing old Alison Christie, his mother, as he brings her, scrap by scrap, the proofs of their dead idol’s poems, which she has prayed to be spared just to see once in print, and, when the last half-sheet is read, loses her sight for ever — not in her eyes, nor in those of God who saw him, in the cold winter mornings, wearing John’s clothes, to warm them for the dying man before he got up.
His grief at his brother’s death is inconsolable. He feels for the first time in his life, what a lot is his — for he feels for the first time that —
Parent and friend and brother gone,
I stand upon the earth alone.
Four years he lingers; friends begin to arise from one quarter and another, but he, not altogether wisely or well, refuses all pecuniary help. At last Mr. Hugh Miller recommends him to be editor of a projected “Non-Intrusion” paper in Dumfries, with a salary, to him boundless, of 100l. a-year. Too late! The iron has entered too deeply into his soul; in a few weeks more he is lying in his brother’s grave —“Lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths not divided.”
“William Thom of Inverury” is a poet altogether of the same school. His “Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver” are superior to those of either Nicoll or the Bethunes, the little love-songs in the volume reminding us of Burns’s best manner, and the two languages in which he writes being better amalgamated, as it seems to us, than in any Scotch songwriter. Moreover, there is a terseness, strength, and grace about some of these little songs, which would put to shame many a volume of vague and windy verse, which the press sees yearly sent forth by men, who, instead of working at the loom, have been pampered from their childhood with all the means and appliances of good taste and classic cultivation. We have room only for one specimen of his verse, not the most highly finished, but of a beauty which can speak for itself.
DREAMINGS OF THE BEREAVED.
The morning breaks bonny o’er mountain and stream,
An’ troubles the hallowed breath of my dream.
The gowd light of morning is sweet to the e’e,
But ghost-gathering midnight, thou’rt dearer to me.
The dull common world then sinks from my sight,
And fairer creations arise to the night;
When drowsy oppression has sleep-sealed my e’e,
Then bright are the visions awakened to me!
Oh, come, spirit-mother! discourse of the hours
My young bosom beat all its beating to yours,
When heart-woven wishes in soft counsel fell
On ears — how unheedful, proved sorrow might tell!
That deathless affection nae sorrow could break;
When all else forsook me, ye would na forsake;
Then come, oh my mother! come often to me,
An’ soon an’ for ever I’ll come unto thee!
An’ then, shrouded loveliness! soul-winning Jean,
How cold was thy hand on my bosom yestreen!
’Twas kind — for the love that your e’e kindled there
Will burn, ay an’ burn, till that breast beat nae mair —
Our bairnies sleep round me, oh bless ye their sleep!
Your ain dark-eyed Willie will wauken and weep!
But blythe through his weepin’, he’ll tell me how you,
His heaven-hamed mammie, was dauting his brow.
Though dark be our dwellin’, our happin’ tho’ bare,
And night closes round us in cauldness and care,
Affection will warm us — and bright are the beams
That halo our hame in yon dear land o’ dreams:
Then weel may I welcome the night’s deathly reign,
Wi’ souls of the dearest I mingle me then;
The gowd light of morning is lightless to me,
But, oh for the night with its ghost revelrie!
But even more interesting than the poems themselves, is the autobiographical account prefixed, with its vivid sketches of factory life in Aberdeen, of the old regime of 1770; when “four days did the weaver’s work — Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, were of course jubilee. Lawn frills gorged (?) freely from under the wrists of his fine blue gilt-buttoned coat. He dusted his head with white flour on Sunday, smirked and wore a cane; walked in clean slippers on Monday; Tuesday heard him talk war bravado, quote Volney, and get drunk: weaving commenced gradually on Wednesday. Then were little children pirn-fillers, and such were taught to steal warily past the gate-keeper, concealing the bottle. These wee smugglers had a drop for their services, over and above their chances of profiting by the elegant and edifying discussions uttered in their hearing. Infidelity was then getting fashionable.” But by the time Thom enters on his seventeen years’ weaving, in 1814, the Nemesis has come. “Wages are six shillings a-week where they had been forty; but the weaver of forty shillings, with money instead of wit, had bequeathed his vices to the weaver of six shillings, with wit instead of money.” The introduction of machinery works evil rather than good, on account of the reckless way in which it is used, and the reckless material which it uses. “Vacancies in the factory, daily made, were daily filled by male and female workers; often queer enough people, and from all parts — none too coarse for using. The pickpocket, trained to the loom six months in Bridewell, came forth a journeyman weaver; and his precious experiences were infused into the common moral puddle, and in due time did their work.” No wonder that “the distinctive character of all sunk away. Man became less manly — woman unlovely and rude.” No wonder that the factory, like too many more, though a thriving concern to its owners, becomes “a prime nursery of vice and sorrow.” “Virtue perished utterly within its walls, and was dreamed of no more; or, if remembered at all, only in a deep and woful sense of self-debasement — a struggling to forget, where it was hopeless to obtain.” But to us, almost the most interesting passage in his book, and certainly the one which bears most directly on the general purpose of this article, is one in which he speaks of the effects of song on himself and his fellow factory-workers.
Moore was doing all he could for love-sick boys and girls, yet they had never enough! Nearer and dearer to hearts like ours was the Ettrick Shepherd, then in his full tide of song and story; but nearer and dearer still than he, or any living songster, was our ill-fated fellow-craftsman Tannahill. Poor weaver chiel! what we owe to you! — your “Braes of Balquidder,” and “Yon Burnside,” and “Gloomy Winter,” and the “Minstrel’s” wailing ditty, and the noble “Gleneiffer.” Oh! how they did ring above the rattle of a thousand shuttles! Let me again proclaim the debt which we owe to these song spirits, as they walked in melody from loom to loom, ministering to the low-hearted; and when the breast was filled with everything but hope and happiness, let only break out the healthy and vigorous chorus, “A man’s a man for a’ that,” and the fagged weaver brightens up . . . Who dare measure the restraining influences of these very songs? To us they were all instead of sermons. Had one of us been bold enough to enter a church, he must have been ejected for the sake of decency. His forlorn and curiously patched habiliments would have contested the point of attraction with the ordinary eloquence of that period. Church bells rang not for us. Poets were indeed our priests: but for those, the last relic of moral existence would have passed away. Song was the dewdrop which gathered during the long dark night of despondency, and was sure to glitter in the very first blink of the sun. You might have seen “Auld Robin Gray” wet the eyes that could be tearless amid cold and hunger, and weariness and pain. Surely, surely, then there was to that heart one passage left.
Making all allowance for natural and pardonable high-colouring, we recommend this most weighty and significant passage to the attention of all readers, and draw an argumentum à fortiori, from the high estimation in which Thom holds those very songs of Tannahill’s, of which we just now spoke somewhat depreciatingly, for the extreme importance which we attach to popular poetry, as an agent of incalculable power in moulding the minds of nations.
The popular poetry of Germany has held that great nation together, united and heart-whole for centuries, in spite of every disadvantage of internal division, and the bad influence of foreign taste; and the greatest of their poets have not thought it beneath them to add their contributions, and their very best, to the common treasure, meant not only for the luxurious and learned, but for the workman and the child at school. In Great Britain, on the contrary, the people have been left to form their own tastes, and choose their own modes of utterance, with great results, both for good and evil; and there has sprung up before the new impulse which Burns gave to popular poetry, a considerable literature — considerable not only from, its truth and real artistic merit, but far more so from its being addressed principally to the working classes. Even more important is this people’s literature question, in our eyes, than the more palpable factors of the education question, about which we now hear such ado. It does seem to us, that to take every possible precaution about the spiritual truth which children are taught in school, and then leave to chance the more impressive and abiding teaching which popular literature, songs especially, give them out of doors, is as great a niaiserie as that of the Tractarians who insisted on getting into the pulpit in their surplices, as a sign that the clergy only had the right of preaching to the people, while they forgot that, by means of a free press (of the licence of which they, too, were not slack to avail themselves), every penny-a-liner was preaching to the people daily, and would do so, maugre their surplices, to the end of time. The man who makes the people’s songs is a true popular preacher. Whatsoever, true or false, he sends forth, will not be carried home, as a sermon often is, merely in heads, to be forgotten before the week is out: it will ring in the ears, and cling round the imagination, and follow the pupil to the workshop, and the tavern, and the fireside; even to the deathbed, such power is in the magic of rhyme. The emigrant, deep in Australian forests, may take down Chalmers’s sermons on Sabbath evenings from the scanty shelf: but the songs of Burns have been haunting his lips, and cheering his heart, and moulding him, unconsciously to himself, in clearing and in pasture all the weary week. True, if he be what a Scotchman should be, more than one old Hebrew psalm has brought its message to him during these week-days; but there are feelings of his nature on which those psalms, not from defect, but from their very purpose, do not touch: how is he to express them, but in the songs which echo them? These will keep alive, and intensify in him, and in the children who learn them from his lips, all which is like themselves. Is it, we ask again, to be left to chance what sort of songs these shall be?
As for poetry written for the working classes by the upper, such attempts at it as we yet have seen, may be considered nil. The upper must learn to know more of the lower, and to make the lower know more of them — a frankness of which we honestly believe they will never have to repent. Moreover, they must read Burns a little more, and cavaliers and Jacobites a little less. As it is, their efforts have been as yet exactly in that direction which would most safely secure the blessings of undisturbed obscurity. Whether “secular” or “spiritual,” they have thought proper to adopt a certain Tommy-good-child tone, which, whether to Glasgow artisans or Dorsetshire labourers, or indeed for any human being who is “grinding among the iron facts of life,” is, to say the least, nauseous; and the only use of their poematicula has been to demonstrate practically the existence of a great and fearful gulf between those who have, and those who have not, in thought as well as in purse, which must be, in the former article at least, bridged over as soon as possible, if we are to remain one people much longer. The attempts at verse for children are somewhat more successful — a certain little “Moral Songs” especially, said to emanate from the Tractarian School, yet full of a health, spirit, and wild sweetness, which makes its authoress, in our eyes, “wiser than her teachers.” But this is our way. We are too apt to be afraid of the men, and take to the children as our pis-aller, covering our despair of dealing with the majority, the adult population, in a pompous display of machinery for influencing that very small fraction, the children. “Oh, but the destinies of the empire depend on the rising generation!” Who has told us so? — how do we know that they do not depend on the risen generation? Who are likely to do more work during our lifetime, for good and evil — those who are now between fifteen and five-and-forty, or those who are between five and fifteen? Yet for those former, the many, and the working, and the powerful, all we seem to be inclined to do is to parody Scripture, and say: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still.”
Not that we ask any one to sit down, and, out of mere benevolence, to write songs for the people. Wooden out of a wooden birthplace, would such go forth, to feed fires, not spirits. But if any man shall read these pages, to whom God has given a truly poetic temperament, a gallant heart, a melodious ear, a quick and sympathetic eye for all forms of human joy, and sorrow, and humour, and grandeur; an insight which can discern the outlines of the butterfly, when clothed in the roughest and most rugged chrysalis-hide; if the teachers of his heart and purposes, and not merely of his taste and sentiments, have been the great songs of his own and of every land and age; if he can see in the divine poetry of David and Solomon, of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and, above all, in the parables of Him who spake as never man spake, the models and elemental laws of a people’s poetry, alike according to the will of God and the heart of man; if he can welcome gallantly and hopefully the future, and yet know that it must be, unless it would be a monster and a machine, the loving and obedient child of the past; if he can speak of the subjects which alone will interest the many, on love, marriage, the sorrows of the poor, their hopes, political and social, their wrongs, as well as their sins and duties; and that with a fervour and passion akin to the spirit of Burns and Elliott, yet with more calmness, more purity, more wisdom, and therefore with more hope, as one who stands upon a vantage-ground of education and culture, sympathising none the less with those who struggle behind him in the valley of the shadow of death, yet seeing from the mountain peaks the coming dawn, invisible as yet to them: then let that man think it no fall, but rather a noble rise, to leave awhile the barren glacier ranges of pure art, for the fertile gardens of practical and popular song, and write for the many, and with the many, in words such as they can understand; remembering that that which is simplest is always deepest; that the many contain in themselves the few; and that when he speaks to the wanderer and the drudge, he speaks to the elemental and primeval man, and in him speaks to all who have risen out of him. Let him try, undiscouraged by inevitable failures; and if at last he succeeds in giving vent to one song which will cheer hard-worn hearts at the loom and the forge, or wake one pauper’s heart with the hope that his children are destined not to die as he died, or recall, amid Canadian forests or Australian sheep-walks, one thrill of love for the old country, her liberties, and her laws, and her religion, to the settler’s heart — let that man know that he has earned a higher place among the spirits of the wise and good, by doing, in spite of the unpleasantness of self-denial, the duty which lay nearest him, than if he had out-rivalled Goethe on his own classic ground, and made all the cultivated and the comfortable of the earth desert, for the exquisite creations of his fancy, Faust, and Tasso, and Iphigenie.
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