« PreviousContinue »
human fascination of his voice and of his eyes—“those balls of black fire which electrified all on whom they rested.” It seems strange to be told that it would be an injustice to judge Burns by his poetry alone, but as to the magnetism of his presence and conversation there is only one verdict. “No man's conversation every carried me so completely off my feet,” said the Duchess of Gordon, the friend of Pitt and of the London wits, the queen of Scottish society. Dugald Stewart says that “all the faculties of Burns' mind were, so far as I could judge, equally vigorous, and his predilection for poetry was rather the result of his own enthusiastic and impassioned temper than of a genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition. From his conversation I should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in whatever walk or ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities.” And of his prose compositions the same severe judge speaks thus: “Their great and various excellences render some of them scarcely less objects of wonder than his poetical performances.” The late Dr. Robertson used to say that, considering his education, the former seemed to him the more remarkable of the two. “I think Burns,” said Dr. Robertson, to a friend, “was one of the most extraordinary men I ever met with. His poetry surprised me very much, his prose surprised me still more, and his conversation surprised me more than both his poetry and his prose.” We are told, too, that he felt a strong call towards oratory, and all who heard him speak—and some of them were excellent judges—admitted his wonderful quickness of apprehension and readiness of eloquence. All this seems to me marvelous. It surely satisfies the claim of inspiration with: out the necessity of quoting a line of his poetry. [Cheers.] I pass then to his sympathy. 'If his talents were uni
versal his sympathy was not less so. His tenderness was: no mere selfish tenderness for his own family, for he loved all mankind, except the cruel and base—nay, we may go further and say that he placed all creation, especially : suffering and depressed part of it, under his protection The oppressor in every shape, even in the comparatively innocent embodiment of the factor and the sportsman, he
regarded with direct and personal hostility. But, above
all, he saw the charm of the home. He recognized it as the basis of all society. He honored it in its humblest form, for he knew, as few know, how sincerely the family in the cottage is welded by mutual love and esteem. “I recollect,” once said Dugald Stewart, speaking of Burns, “he told me when he was admiring a distant prospect in one of our morning walks, that the sight of so many smoking cottages gave pleasure to his mind, which none could understand who did not witness, like himself, the happiness and worth which they contained.”
He dwells repeatedly on the primary sacredness of the home and family, the responsibility of fatherhood and marriage. “Have I not,” he once wrote to Lord Mar, “a more precious stock in my country's welfare than the richest dukedom in it? I have a large family of children, and the prospect of many more.” The lines in which he tells his faith are not less memorable than the stately stanzas in which Gray sings of the “short and simple annals of the poor.” I must quote them again, often quoted as they are:
“To make a happy fireside chime
His verses then go straight to the heart of every home; they appeal to every father and mother; but that is only the beginning, perhaps the foundation, of his sympathy. There is something for everybody in Burns) [Cheers.] He has a heart even for vermin; he has pity even for the arch-enemy of mankind. And his universality makes his poems a treasure-house in which all may find what they want. Every wayfarer in the journey of life may pluck strength and courage from it as he pauses. The sore, the weary, the wounded will all find something to heal and soothe. For this great master is the universal Samaritan. Where the priest and the Levite may have passed by in vain this eternal heart will still afford resource.
But he is not only for the sick in spirit. The friend, the patriot, will all find their choicest refreshment in Burns. His touch is everywhere the touch of genius; nothing
comes amiss to him. What was said of the debating power of his eminent contemporary, Dundas, may be said of his poetry: “He went out in all weathers”; and it may be added that all weathers suited him, that he always brought back something that cannot die! [Cheers.]
He is, then, I think, a universal friend in a unique sense, but was, poetically speaking, the special friend of Scotland in a sense which recalls a profound remark of another eminent Scotsman—I mean Fletcher of Saltoun. In an account of a conversation between Lord Cromartie, Sir Edward Seymour, and Sir Christopher Musgrave, Fletcher writes: “I said I knew a very wise man, so much of Sir Christopher's sentiment that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” This may be readily paraphrased, that it is more important to make the songs of a nation than frame its laws, and this again may be interpreted, that in former days, at any rate in the days of Fletcher, even to the days of Burns, it is the familiar songs of a people that mold their thoughts, their manners and their morals. [Cheers..] If this be true, can we exaggerate the debt that Scotland owes Burns? He has bequeathed to his country the most exquisite casket of songs in the world—primarily to his country, but others cannot be denied their share. I will give only one example but that is a signal one. From distant Rumania the queen of that country wrote to Dumfries to-day that she has no copy of Burns with her, but that she knows his songs by heart. [Cheers.]
We must remember that there is more than this to be said. Many of Burns' songs were already in existence in the lips and minds of the people, rough and coarse, and obscene. Our benefactor takes them, and with a touch of inspired alchemy transmutes them and leaves them pure gold. He loved the old catches and the old tunes, and into these gracious molds he poured his exquisite gifts of thought and expression. But for him these ancient airs, often wedded to words which no decent man could recite, would have perished from that corruption if not from neglect. He rescued them for us by his songs, and in doing so he hallowed life and sweetened the breath of Scotland. [Cheers.]
I have also used the words patriot and lover. These draw me to different lines of thought. The word patriot leads me to the political side of Burns. There is no doubt that he was suspected of being a politician, and he is even said to have sometimes wished to enter Parliament. [Laughter.] That was perhaps an excusable aberration, and my old friend Professor Masson has, I think, surmised that had he lived he might have been a great Liberal pressman. [Laughter.] My frail thought shall not dally with such surmise, but it conducts us naturally to the subject of Burns' politics. From his sympathy for his own class, from his indignation against nobles like the Duke of Queensberry, and from the toasts that cost him so dear it might be considered easy to infer his political opinions.
But Burns should not be claimed for any party. A poet, be it remembered, is never a politician, and a politician is never a poet [laughter and cheers]—that is to say, a politician is never so fortunate as to be a poet, and a poet is so fortunate as never to be a politician. [Renewed laughter.] I do not say that the line of demarcation is never passed. A politician may have risen for a moment, or a poet may have descended, but where there is any confusion between the two callings it is generally because the poet thinks he discerns or the politician thinks he needs something higher than politics. Burns' politics were entirely governed by the imagination. He was at once a Jacobite and a Jacobin. He had the sad sympathy which most of us have felt for the hapless house of Stuart, without the least wish to be governed by it. He had much the same spirit of abstract sympathy with the French Revolution when it was setting all Europe to . rights, but he was prepared to lay down his life to prevent its putting this island to rights. [Laughter.] And then came his official superiors of the Excise, who, notwithstanding Mr. Pitt's admiration of his poetry, snuffed out his politics without remorse.
The name of Pitt leads me to add that Burns had some sort of relation with three Prime Ministers. Colonel Jenkinson, of the Cinque Ports Fencible Cavalry, and afterwards minister for fifteen years under the title of Liverpool, was on duty at Burns' funeral, though we are told—the good man—that he disapproved of the poet and
declined to make his acquaintance. Pitt, again, passed on Burns one of his rare and competent literary judgments, so eulogistic, indeed, that one wondered that a powerful Minister could have allowed one he admired so much to exist on an exciseman's pay, when well, and an exciseman's half-pay when he died. [Cheers..] And from Addington, another Prime Minister, Burns elicited a sonnet which in the Academy of Lagado would have surely been held a signal triumph of the art of extracting sunshine from cucumbers. [Laughter.] So much for politics in the party sense. “A man's a man for a that.” Is not Burns' politics the assertion of the rights of humanity? In a sense far wider than party politics it erects all mankind, it is the charter of its selfrespect, and it binds, it heals, it invigorates, it sets the bruised and broken on their legs, it refreshes the stricken soul, it is the salve and tonic and character, it cannot be narrowed into party politics. Burns' politics are indeed nothing but the occasional overflow of his human sy pathy into past history and current events. And now having discussed two trains of thought suggested by the words friend and patriot, I come to a more dangerous word, lover. There is an eternal controversy which it appears no didactic oil will ever assuage as to Burns' private life and morality. Some maintain that these have nothing to do with his poems, some maintain that his life must be read in his works, and again some think that his life damns his poems, while others aver that his poems cannot be fully appreciated without his life. Another school thinks that his vices have been exaggerated, while their opponents scarcely think such exaggeration possible. It is impossible to avoid taking a side. I walk on the ashes, knowing fire beneath and unable to avoid them, for the topic is inevitable. I must confess myself, then, one of those who think that the life of Burns doubles the interest of his poems, and I doubt whether the failings of his life have been much exaggerated, for contemporary testimony on that point is strong, though a high and excellent authority, Mr. Wallace, has recently taken the other side with much power and point. But the life of Burns, which I love to read with his poems, does not consist in his vices. They lie outside it. It is a life of