Dirt and deity

Mackintosh's Masterwork

Robert Burns,
page 14 of 17

resolved to abandon farming, which, during all his life, had only led him from disaster to disaster. Appointed exciseman in Dumfries, he went to reside in that town in December, 1791. The change from the peaceful scenes of Ellisland to the bustle and temptations a this busy centre came too soon or too late. Accustomed for some years to convivial society, he soon formed associations in Dumfries which hurried him rapidly along the current of his fate. With the generous impulses of a poet, dreaming of universal freedom and the brotherhood of man, he had, like Wordsworth and Southey, expressed a transient sympathy with the French Revolution. In the days of political bondage this was a crime which no public services could condone, and the poet could hope no longer to rise in his humble profession. The influence of blighted ambition combined with social allurements to precipitate his ruin.

It is strange that the darkest periods of the history of Burns are most splendidly illumined by the display of his genius. Caressed and courted by the wits and beauties of the metropolis, he produced nothing worthy of his fame. It was only in the silence of Ellisland that he heard the still small voice reminding him of his mission. And now at Dumfries, where the clouds of misfortune were closing over his head, the powers of his intellect recovered all their activity and tone, seeming to multiply their resources as the strength of the body declined. His conversation never exhibited greater command of the language of sympathy, scorn, and indignation than during these melancholy days. Titanic forces, which he could no longer control, rebelled against the bonds imposed by inexorable necessity and fatal imprudence. His gift of song, however, remained, and it is impossible to believe that no ray of happiness stole into the heart of the author of those melodious and passionate lyrics which have thrilled all who have read them with delight. He began the composition of these pieces in 1792 for Thomson’s “Melodies of Scotland,” and before death touched the lips of the singer he had completed more than a hundred songs. The work of Thomson in suggesting and securing these should be gratefully appreciated. He had not great ability either literary or musical, but he had industry and he had enthusiasm. His continuous letters on themes congenial called forth constantly the poet’s powers. The old tunes he sent were skeletons which incited Burns to clothe them with flesh and blood in noble song. The suggestions had no more proportion to the results than the spark has to the explosion that follows. Yet it is to Thomson we owe the songs. By virtue of these productions Burns is universally acknowledged to be the greatest song-writer in our literature — perhaps in the literature of Europe. Like the music of the brook and the warbling of the lark, they transcend the mechanical analysis of criticism. With a few exceptions, one sentiment pervades them all — a love that turns the fields of earth into enchanted places and suffuses the summer skies with a tenderer glow. Inspired generally by the recollection of some actual passion, they breathe the language of genuine feeling. They display also a singular completeness and unity of sentiment, as if they had sprung from the imagination in a moment of rapture when every other faculty was in repose. The melody of these fine compositions is unique and beautiful. It has been remarked that many poems may be set to music and sung; but the songs of Burns sing themselves through the heart of every reader.*

* In 1793 Burns made a journey to Kirkcudbright along with his friend Mr. Syme, who, among other things, says, “I told you that in the midst of the storm in the wilds of Kenmure, Burns was rapt in meditation.


:: Previous Page :: Next Page ::

Books & articles appearing here are modified adaptations
from a private collection of vintage books & magazines.
Reproduction of these pages is prohibited without written permission. © Laurel O'Donnell, 1996-2006.