How the Scots Invented the Modern World

Robert Burns

Robert Burns,
page 16 of 17

form the ultimate and infallible tests of poetical excellence. It is impossible to judge his poetry by conventional standards, gradually evolved through successive ages of culture. Burns was as little influenced by traditional system as by serious purpose. The child of impulse and passion, he wrote only from an aching heart or a brain on fire. Flung from a fervid imagination like sparks of flame from the anvil, his poems are for the most part brief inspirations; sufficiently brilliant, however, to indicate the operation of a rich and powerful intellect. “The Vision” — perhaps the most graceful in sentiment and form of all his earlier effusions-reflects the rapt enthusiasm of a poet’s hope. In “Man was made to Mourn,” and other melancholy strains, we hear the moan of manhood in chains, or the sadder wail of sleepless remorse. His tenderness is the natural result of that electric sympathy which made the joys and sorrows of others at once his own. The tears of Burns flow unbidden like the summer rain. His bright and penetrating humour, — which frequently shines through tears — is among the choicest of his gifts. It is the “silver lining” of every cloud. It surprises us in scenes and circumstances the most joyless and dark, breaking in genial drollery from the couch of pain, lighting up the gaberlunzie’s lodging, and even irradiating the gloom of Satan—s “dungeon horrible.” The fine epistles, pregnant as they are with wit, wisdom and fancy, suggest deliberate study; but in these compositions also his muse obeys independent impulses and strays into unexpected fields. Two poems — “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” and “Hallowe’en”—stand apart in their appearance of calm concentration and careful design. These serene and beautiful pictures of patriarchal piety and rural mirth enable us to conceive how much Burns might have accomplished in the sphere of poetical art had his genius been led by nobler ideals and guided by a stronger will. As it is, the works which he left behind are only incidental indications of transcendent powers — a few golden fruits shaken by a strong wind from the laden boughs.

The poetry of Burns contributed with that of Cowper to create that passionate love of nature which has passed through all the western world like a new renaissance. Yet he cannot be called a descriptive poet. In the changing phases of human existence he found more congenial themes. The mountain daisy touches his heart by the pathos of its human analogies, and the June rose is beautiful because it bids him remember a beloved face. But even in the graphic delineation of natural scenes Burns has few equals among English poets. His familiarity with a dialect, originating in a picturesque country and used for centuries by a susceptible people living much in the open-air, enabled him to give dawns and sunsets and changing seasons and fields and streams a new and more expressive language. His imagery is impressed with the pictorial vividness of primeval speech. By swift unpremeditated strokes he reveals the wild Scottish landscape white with whirling snow-wreaths, or smiling in its native bloom of heath-flower, harebell, and brier-rose. We feel that the poet has participated in the general mirth of Spring and grown pensive with Autumn’s decay; that he has listened to the woodlark’s song and mused by the running brooks. Dryden and Pope saw the external world through the eyes of Homer and Virgil, and Wordsworth beheld it through a metaphysical mirror which transfigured and glorified the objects of sense. Burns is one of the few poets whose descriptions of nature bear the stamp of truth, and breathe, at the same time, the freshness of Spring.


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