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13 January, 2012
Letters To Dead Authors|
LETTER--To Robert Burns
by Lang, Andrew
|Sir,--Among men of Genius, and especially among Poets, there are
some to whom we turn with a peculiar and unfeigned affection; there
are others whom we admire rather than love. By some we are won with
our will, by others conquered against our desire. It has been your
peculiar fortune to capture the hearts of a whole people--a people
not usually prone to praise, but devoted with a personal and
patriotic loyalty to you and to your reputation. In you every Scot
who IS a Scot sees, admires, and compliments Himself, his ideal
self--independent, fond of whisky, fonder of the lassies; you are
the true representative of him and of his nation. Next year will be
the hundredth since the press of Kilmarnock brought to light its
solitary masterpiece, your Poems; and next year, therefore,
methinks, the revenue will receive a welcome accession from the
abundance of whisky drunk in your honour. It is a cruel thing for
any of your countrymen to feel that, where all the rest love, he can
only admire; where all the rest are idolators, he may not bend the
knee; but stands apart and beats upon his breast, observing, not
adoring--a critic. Yet to some of us--petty souls, perhaps, and
envious--that loud indiscriminating praise of "Robbie Burns" (for so
they style you in their Change-house familiarity) has long been
ungrateful; and, among the treasures of your songs, we venture to
select and even to reject. So it must be! We cannot all love
Haggis, nor "painch, tripe, and thairm," and all those rural
dainties which you celebrate as "warm-reekin, rich!" "Rather too
rich," as the Young Lady said on an occasion recorded by Sam Weller.
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
You HAVE given her a Haggis, with a vengeance, and her "gratefu'
prayer" is yours for ever. But if even an eternity of partridge may
pall on the epicure, so of Haggis too, as of all earthly delights,
cometh satiety at last. And yet what a glorious Haggis it is--the
more emphatically rustic and even Fescennine part of your verse! We
have had many a rural bard since Theocritus "watched the visionary
flocks," but you are the only one of them all who has spoken the
sincere Doric. Yours is the talk of the byre and the plough-tail;
yours is that large utterance of the early hinds. Even Theocritus
minces matters, save where Lacon and Comatas quite out-do the swains
of Ayrshire. "But thee, Theocritus, wha matches?" you ask, and
yourself out-match him in this wide rude region, trodden only by the
rural Muse. "THY rural loves are nature's sel';" and the wooer of
Jean Armour speaks more like a true shepherd than the elegant
Daphnis of the "Oaristys."
Indeed it is with this that moral critics of your life reproach you,
forgetting, perhaps, that in your amours you were but as other
Scotch ploughmen and shepherds of the past and present. Ettrick may
still, with Afghanistan, offer matter for idylls, as Mr. Carlyle
(your antithesis, and the complement of the Scotch character)
supposed; but the morals of Ettrick are those of rural Sicily in old
days, or of Mossgiel in your days. Over these matters the Kirk,
with all her power, and the Free Kirk too, have had absolutely no
influence whatever. To leave so delicate a topic, you were but as
other swains, or, as "that Birkie ca'd a lord," Lord Byron; only you
combined (in certain of your letters) a libertine theory with your
practice; you poured out in song your audacious raptures, your half-
hearted repentance, your shame and your scorn. You spoke the truth
about rural lives and loves. We may like it or dislike it but we
cannot deny the verity.
Was it not as unhappy a thing, Sir, for you, as it was fortunate for
Letters and for Scotland, that you were born at the meeting of two
ages and of two worlds--precisely in the moment when bookish
literature was beginning to reach the people, and when Society was
first learning to admit the low-born to her Minor Mysteries? Before
you how many singers not less truly poets than yourself--though less
versatile not less passionate, though less sensuous not less simple-
-had been born and had died in poor men's cottages! There abides
not even the shadow of a name of the old Scotch song-smiths, of the
old ballad-makers. The authors of "Clerk Saunders," of "The Wife of
Usher's Well," of "Fair Annie," and "Sir Patrick Spens," and "The
Bonny Hind," are as unknown to us as Homer, whom in their directness
and force they resemble. They never, perhaps, gave their poems to
writing; certainly they never gave them to the press. On the lips
and in the hearts of the people they have their lives; and the
singers, after a life obscure and untroubled by society or by fame,
are forgotten. "The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth his
Had you been born some years earlier you would have been even as
these unnamed Immortals, leaving great verses to a little clan--
verses retained only by Memory. You would have been but the
minstrel of your native valley: the wider world would not have
known you, nor you the world. Great thoughts of independence and
revolt would never have burned in you; indignation would not have
vexed you. Society would not have given and denied her caresses.
You would have been happy. Your songs would have lingered in all
"the circle of the summer hills;" and your scorn, your satire, your
narrative verse, would have been unwritten or unknown. To the world
what a loss! and what a gain to you! We should have possessed but a
few of your lyrics, as
When o'er the hill the eastern star
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo;
And owsen frae the furrowed field,
Return sae dowf and wearie O!
How noble that is, how natural, how unconsciously Greek! You found,
oddly, in good Mrs. Barbauld, the merits of the Tenth Muse:
In thy sweet sang, Barbauld, survives
Even Sappho's flame!
But how unconsciously you remind us both of Sappho and of Homer in
these strains about the Evening Star and the hour when the Day
[Greek text]? Had you lived and died the pastoral poet of some
silent glen, such lyrics could not but have survived; free, too, of
all that in your songs reminds us of the Poet's Corner in the
"Kirkcudbright Advertiser." We should not have read how
Phoebus, gilding the brow o' morning,
Banishes ilk darksome shade!
Still we might keep a love-poem unexcelled by Catullus,
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met--or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
But the letters to Clarinda would have been unwritten, and the
thrush would have been untaught in "the style of the Bird of
A quiet life of song, fallentis semita vitae, was not to be yours.
Fate otherwise decreed it. The touch of a lettered society, the
strife with the Kirk, discontent with the State, poverty and pride,
neglect and success, were needed to make your Genius what it was,
and to endow the world with "Tam o' Shanter," the "Jolly Beggars,"
and "Holy Willie's Prayer." Who can praise them too highly--who
admire in them too much the humour, the scorn, the wisdom, the
unsurpassed energy and courage? So powerful, so commanding, is the
movement of that Beggars' Chorus, that, methinks, it unconsciously
echoed in the brain of our greatest living poet when he conceived
the "Vision of Sin." You shall judge for yourself. Recall:
Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!
Here's to all the wandering train!
Here's our ragged bairns and callets!
One and all cry out, Amen!
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected!
Churches built to please the priest!
Then read this:
Drink to lofty hopes that cool -
Visions of a perfect state:
Drink we, last, the public fool,
Frantic love and frantic hate.
* * *
Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance,
While we keep a little breath!
Drink to heavy Ignorance,
Hob and nob with brother Death!
Is not the movement the same, though the modern speaks a wilder
So in the best company we leave you, who were the life and soul of
so much company, good and bad. No poet, since the Psalmist of
Israel, ever gave the world more assurance of a man; none lived a
life more strenuous, engaged in an eternal conflict of the passions,
and by them overcome--"mighty and mightily fallen." When we think
of you, Byron seems, as Plato would have said, remote by one degree
from actual truth, and Musset by a degree more remote than Byron.