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ANOTHER VIEW OF ROBERT BURNS., Issue 10470, 13 November 1897, Supplement
ANOTHER VIEW OF ROBERT BURNS.
[From the 'Bulletin.'] About the middle of last century there was born to a decent Scottish laboring family a son whom they called Robert. His surname was Burns, and he lived to write verses—many verses ; and very many verses have been written about him. Ho uses his own name as a rhyme in the Dumfries election bullad—
0, that my e'en were flowing burns—but he did his countrymen grave injury by using up the rhyme as a nam;. Had he called himself Gums, or Murns, or Durns, it would have been far easier to make verses about him ; and an immense burden would have been lifted from the pen of a nation which rhymes, as it jokes, " wi' deeficulty." But a graver injury ha 3 been done by Burus's countrymen to Burns himself. He was a capable fellow, and he probably knew pretty nearly how good or how bad his verses were. Further, he knew pretty nearly how much he had borrowed from' the verses oi others. The average Scotchman does not know how good or how bad Burns's verses are, and he doesilot know how much Burps plagiarised. So he frequently says, eve"b in • his sober moment*, thatßurns isthegreatest poet that the world has seen—which is n: nsense, as Burns would tell him were Bums alive. The effect of such over praise is to arouae antagonists'who unduly depreciate, aud in tire strife between bias and auti-b-as the truth usually escapes through a cracked argument and is lost altogether. The Burns of the popular Sootti-h imagination is a kind of fetish, which every Scottish editor has whitewashed until hardly a bit of the divinity's true skin is visible. Barns the drunkard, Burnß the rake, is oarofully toned down in his own supposed interest and for tho sake of tho alleged morals of his nation. His editors' injunotion is the photographer's "Look pleasant!" and they make him look pleasant by as far as possible divesting him of character and individuality. But—shocking to relate I—there has been recently published ai edition of Burns which not only puts no whitewash on, but even takes some off! Great has been the consternation in the camps of orthodoxy. Yet Henley and Henderson still appreciate at a little more than their worth the universal claims of the poet. The criticisms are still screwed up a peg or two because of their reference. The • Centenary' editors are influenced in spite of themselves by the Burns mana— by the thought present all the time at the back of their heads that they are dealing with England's envy and Scotia's pride. But their illusion seems the least that is possible to Scotchmen. They call the lap-dog for which Burn wrote an epitaph " a little beast" ; they talk of " the cad in Burns " 0 Sacred Haggis '.—and expose a billet-seek-ing democrat writing slushv verses in honor of Lord President Dundas. For though Burns was a sturdy, independent fellow, he had an inherited respect for titles and dignities. He crawled unwillingly, maybe ; Bometimes he did crawl in fact and in rhyme, liberally.greasiug patrons or possible patrons from excess of gratitude or in hope of favors.
The chief value of the 'Centenary' edition lies in the evidence it provides for exaotlv estimating Burns's rank'as a poet. It ha's always been known or guessed that he was scarcely ever a completely original writer • but detailed proof was hard to come at Burns's friends and relations, with intent to heighten his reputation, deliberately destroyed many of the old ballads from which he borrowed ; some of his material was lost in the process of years; some, probably, is still suppressed by the holders : and some has remained unknown in various collections. By dint of brains and industry Henley and Henderson have placed Burns's plagiarisms more clearly before the world than ever these were placed before. They were particularly fortunate in discovering in the Britißh Museum the Herd MS., of which Burns made large use in compiling the eoDea attributed to him. And the conclusion justifies the longstanding, suspicion that Burns is BURNS largely because the average reader doesn't bother about notes and commentaries.
The * Centenary' Burns is issued in four volumes, of which three are published. In the first two volumes—containing the Kilmarnock book, the additional Edinburgh poems, and posthumous pieces—there are doubtfully ten lines that reach the elevation | of thought and style demanded from the best poetry; and two-thirds of the matter is worthless in the abstract, and only valuable or interesting because penned by Burns the man. The remaining third displays Burns in. his true poetic colors—the most genuine Burns there is—emplojing his astonishing energy in describing homely scenes like 'Hallowe'en,' or in dashing off humorous pictures like.'Tain O'Shanter.' Burns's mind was very alert and shrewd within its. range, but its range was singularly narrow. Hialackof imagination kept him from soaring far from his-facts— he is always a tethered goat grazing in an objective circle. It is true that jßurns's virile heat of ten simulates imagination, and songs like 'Corn Rigs'—husks which Burns built round others'kernels—may be classed as poetry; bub not with the highest poetry; This early # Burns is the most original Boms there is, but Burns was never original,'
His earlfe* poems are Fergusion pint hii own vitality; Ma later poena represent hii own . skill and taste plua the vitality of a hundred 4 unknown balladiste. You oan parallel nearly *yery masterpiece of Borne with a-suiter-piece-similar in kind, and as good in degree :(though;npb always in extent) by Tannahlll, J?, H °g?>" ; 9 r Ramsay,; or Cunningham, or half a dozen others. }'"■: Barns never* put more ;humor in five verses* than' Alexander Ross put into « Woo'd, and.married, and a'.? v He ?*T" P u ' fta muoh pathos in a ballad a« William Hamilton put into «The Braes of Yarrow,' or Allan Cunningham into' She's' gane to dwall in Heaven.' He never put more tender sentiment in a song than Hogg Pml *£?, ' When the kye comes name.' . .lhe btller Gun' is aB good » bit of descriptive verse as any but two or three by Burns. Certainly no Scottish poet approaches Burns as a satirist. But his characteristic virtue is that he blew others' sparks to fire; By dint of his versatile energy he summed up and excelled the achievements of a dozen poets on a dozsn lines. He ploughed with other men s ploughs in many ways, in many fields, and often cut the deepest furrow of all. Other poets show different sides of the Sfot- "' tish nation : Burns is like comprehends all sides.. And his irresistible vitality dings his poems into the universal mind.
The early Burns survives as proverbs survive—because his language is a pithy, vigorous ' concentration of what every Scotchman thinks and feels, and continually needs and wishes to express. The later Burns survives ' in virtue of the ability with which he milked other men's cows into his own bucket. The <, soogs attributed to Burns have always been considered the most intrinsically poetio part, of his literary legacy. Yet the slightest consideration would h»ve shown how unlikely ib was that Burns should write verse in his fresh and ardent youth and poetry in hia weary and embittered maturity. As a matter of fact nearly all that is best in •the songs of Burns" never belonged to Burns at all was never conceived by him, never written by him. Burns . tha songster was an inspired vamper, tinker, mender, and little more. For the most part he never claimed to be anything more. He was employed, or employed himself, to supply wordß to collections of Scottish airs —just as a pantomime writer supplies ' words and songs " —and begot them sometimes out of his memory, sometimes by research like Walter Scott's among auld wives and out-of-the-way neighborhoods, sometimes from his head. Sometimes he improved ch originals; sometimes he didn't; but the words were vamped to suit the airs, and that was the main point. -The collections for which he wrote were in essence musical, not literary ; and the words were no more meant to be-criticised alone than a frame is meant to be criticised without a picture. ' -
Bat throughout the work, almost without exception, the old balladista show by far the livelier imagination and the firmer touch. Burns's poetic judgment when he made his collection was excellent, but hia poetic faculty was much impaired, and the highest kind of faculty he never had. The results of a critical survey are startling. The original Burns pieces contain for thomost part the dull, stilted, artificial sentiments of his letters. The freshness, the spirit, the truth, and tenderness—nearly all that makes the songs worth prizing, Burns usually borrowed as he went along. The two best lines in ' Ssots wha ha'e' are not Burns. ' Auld lapg syne' is not Burns. ' Comin' through the rye' is not Burns. ' We're a' noddin' is not Burn?. The beautiful'My love is like the red, red roße' is not Burns. And so one goes on. Of 252 songs in the collection attributed to Burns, thirty-six of the be3t contain so little of him that they 3hould be forthwith struck out of his book. About 104 are more or less vamped—generally more—and practically do not belong to Burns either. The remaining 112 comprise those which are indubitably by Barns; or which cannot be traced to other sources; or which, though based on older models, have been rebuilt or ail-but. And these 112 are, with some notable exceptions, the weakest lot in the whole collection.
This notice, of course, does not profess to deal thoroughly with the adequacies'and in. adequacies of Burns ; only to hint how far the true conception of him is removed from the conception which is legendary and Scottish. In any case hapless Caledonia need not mourn for laurels reft and banners torn. The credit which is taken from Buniß is merely transferred to Scotland.
ANOTHER VIEW OF ROBERT BURNS., Issue 10470, 13 November 1897, Supplement
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