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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 sympathy 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 work and truth and tenderness, and though like all lives it has its light and shade, remember that we know all the worst as well as the best. His was a soul bathed in crystal. He hurried to avow everything. There was no reticence in him. The only obscure passage in his life is the love-passage with Highland Mary, and as to that he was silent not from shame, but because it was a sealed and sacred episode. “What a flattering idea,” he once wrote, “is a world to come. There shall I with speechless agony or rapture recognize my lost, my ever dear Mary, whose bosom was fraught with truth, honor, constancy and love.” But he had, as the French say, the defects of his qualities. His imagination was a supreme and celestial gift, but his imagination often led him wrong and never more than with woman. The chivalry that made Don Quixote see the heroic in all the common events of life made Burns (as his brother tells us) see a goddess in every girl he approached; hence many love affairs, and some guilty ones; but even these must be judged with reference to time and circumstances. This much is certain—had he been devoid of genius they would not have attracted attention. It is Burns' pedestal that affords a target. And why, one may ask, is not the same treatment measured out to Burns as to others? The illegitimate children of great captains and statesmen and princes are treated as historical and ornamental incidents. They strut the scene of Shakespeare and ruffle it with the best. It is for the illegitimate children of Burns, though he and his wife cherished them as if born in wedlock, that the vials of wrath are reserved. They were two brilliant figures both descended from the Stuarts who were alive during Burns' life. We occupy ourselves endlessly and severely with the offences of Burns, we heave an elegant sigh over the hundred lapses of Charles James Fox and Charles Edward Stuart. [Cheers.] Again, it is quite clear that, though exceptionally sober in his earlier years, he drank too much in later life, but this, it must be remembered, was but an occasional condescendence to the vice and habit of the age. The gentry who pressed him to their houses and who were all thronged to see him, and who could only conveniently sit with him in a tavern, are also responsible for this habit so perilously attractive to men of genius, from the decorous Addison and the brilliant Bolingbroke onward. The Eighteenth century records hard drinking as the common incident of intellectual eminence. To a man who had shone supreme in the most glowing society, and who was now an exciseman in a country town, with a home which cannot have been very exhilarating, with the nervous system highly strung, the temptation of the warm tavern and the admiring circle there may well have been almost irresistible. Some attempt to say that his intemperance was exaggerated. I neither affirm nor deny it. If he succumbed it was to good-fellowship and cheer. Remember, I do not seek to palliate or excuse, and, indeed, none will be turned to dissipation by Burns' example—he paid too dearly for it. But I will say this, that it all seems infinitely little, infinitely remote. Why do we strain at this distance to discern this dim spot on the poet's mantle? Shakespeare and Ben Jonson took their cool tankard at the “Mermaid.” We cannot afford, in the strictest view of dietary responsibility, to quarrel with them for it. When we consider Pitt and Goethe we do not concentrate our vision on Pitt's bottles of port or Goethe's bottles of Moselle. Then why, we ask, is there such a chasm between the “Mermaid” and the “Globe”; and why are the vintages of Wimbledon and Weimar so much more innocent than the simple punch-bowl of Inverary marble and its contents? [Cheers.] I should like to go a step further and affirm that we have something to be grateful for even in the weaknesses of men like Burns. Mankind is helped in its progress almost as much by the study of imperfection as by the contemplation of perfection. Had we nothing before us in our futile and halting lives but saints and the ideal, we might well fail altogether. We grope blindly along the catacombs of the world, we climb the dark ladder of life, we feel our way to futurity, but we can scarcely see an inch around or before us. We stumble and falter and fall, our hands and knees are bruised and sore, and we look up for light and guidance. Could we see nothing but distant, unapproachable impeccability we might well sink prostrate in the hopelessness of emulation, and the weariness of despair. Is it not then, when all seems blank and lightless and lifeless, when strength and courage flag, and when perfection seems remote as a star, is it not then that imperfection helps us? When we see that the greatest and choicest images of God have had their weaknesses like ours, their temptations, their hour of darkness, their bloody sweat, are we not encouraged by their lapses and catastrophes to find energy for one more effort, one more struggle? Where they failed, we feel it a less dishonor to fail; their errors and sorrows make, as it were, an easier ascent from infinite imperfection to infinite perfection.
Man, after all, is not ripened by virtue alone. Were it so, this world were a paradise of angels. No. Like the growth of the earth, he is the fruit of all seasons, the accident of a thousand accidents, a living mystery moving through the seen to the unseen; he is sown in dishonor; he is matured under all the varieties of heat and cold, in mists and wrath, in snow and vapors, in the melancholy of autumn, in the torpor of winter as well as in the rapture and fragrance of summer, or the balmy affluence of spring, its breath, its sunshine; at the end he is reaped, the product not of one climate but of all, not of good alone but of sorrow, perhaps mellowed and ripened, perhaps stricken and withered and sour. How, then, shall we judge any one?—how, at any rate, shall we judge a giant, great in gifts and great in temptation, great in strength, and great in weakness? Let us glory in his strength and be comforted in his weakness, and when we thank Heaven for the inestimable gift of Burns, we do not need to remember wherein he was imperfect, we cannot bring ourselves to regret that he was made of the same clay as ourselves. [Cheers.]