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    XIX. To Robert Burns

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    Sir,--Among men of Genius, and especially among Poets, there are some to whom
    we turn with a peculiar and unfeigned affection; there are others whom we
    admire rather than love. By some we are won with our will, by others conquered
    against our desire. It has been your peculiar fortune to capture the hearts of
    a whole people--a people not usually prone to praise, but devoted with a
    personal and patriotic loyalty to you and to your reputation. In you every
    Scot who _is_ a Scot sees, admires, and compliments Himself, his ideal self--
    independent, fond of whisky, fonder of the lassies; you are the true
    representative of him and of his nation. Next year will be the hundredth since
    the press of Kilmarnock brought to light its solitary masterpiece, your Poems;
    and next year, therefore, methinks, the revenue will receive a welcome
    accession from the abundance of whisky drunk in your honour. It is a cruel
    thing for any of your countrymen to feel that, where all the rest love, he can
    only admire; where all the rest are idolators, he may not bend the knee; but
    stands apart and beats upon his breast, observing, not adoring--a critic. Yet
    to some of us--petty souls, perhaps, and envious--that loud indiscriminating
    praise of 'Robbie Burns' (for so they style you in their Change-house
    familiarity) has long been ungrateful; and, among the treasures of your songs,
    we venture to select and even to reject. So it must be! We cannot all love
    Haggis, nor 'painch, tripe, and thairm,' and all those rural dainties which
    you celebrate as 'warm-reekin, rich!' 'Rather too rich,' as the Young Lady
    said on an occasion recorded by Sam Weller.


    Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
    That jaups in luggies;
    But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
    Gie her a Haggis!

    You _have_ given her a Haggis, with a vengeance, and her 'gratefu' prayer' is
    yours for ever. But if even an eternity of partridge may pall on the epicure,
    so of Haggis too, as of all earthly delights, cometh satiety at last. And yet
    what a glorious Haggis it is--the more emphatically rustic and even Fescennine
    part of your verse! We have had many a rural bard since Theocritus 'watched
    the visionary flocks,' but you are the only one of them all who has spoken the
    sincere Doric. Yours is the talk of the byre and the plough-tail; yours is
    that large utterance of the early hinds. Even Theocritus minces matters, save
    where Lacon and Comatas quite outdo the swains of Ayrshire. 'But thee,
    Theocritus, wha matches?' you ask, and yourself out-match him in this wide
    rude region, trodden only by the rural Muse.

    '_Thy_ rural loves are nature's sel';' and the wooer of Jean Armour speaks
    more like a true shepherd than the elegant Daphnis of the 'Oaristys.'

    Indeed it is with this that moral critics of your life reproach you,
    forgetting, perhaps, that in your amours you were but as other Scotch
    ploughmen and shepherds of the past and present. Ettrick may still, with
    Afghanistan, offer matter for idylls, as Mr. Carlyle (your antithesis, and the
    complement of the Scotch character) supposed; but the morals of Ettrick are
    those of rural Sicily in old days, or of Mossgiel in your days. Over these
    matters the Kirk, with all her power, and the Free Kirk too, have had
    absolutely no influence whatever. To leave so delicate a topic, you were but
    as other swains, or, as 'that Birkie ca'd a lord,' Lord Byron; only you
    combined (in certain of your letters) a libertine theory with your practice;
    you poured out in song your audacious raptures, your half-hearted repentance,
    your shame and your scorn. You spoke the truth about rural lives and loves. We
    may like it or dislike it; but we cannot deny the verity.

    Was it not as unhappy a thing, Sir, for you, as it was fortunate for Letters
    and for Scotland, that you were born at the meeting of two ages and of two
    worlds--precisely in the moment when bookish literature was beginning to reach
    the people, and when Society was first learning to admit the low-born to her
    Minor Mysteries? Before you how many singers not less truly poets than
    yourself--though less versatile not less passionate, though less sensuous not
    less simple--had been born and had died in poor men's cottages! There abides
    not even the shadow of a name of the old Scotch song-smiths, of the old
    ballad-makers. The authors of 'Clerk Saunders,' of 'The Wife of Usher's Well,'
    of 'Fair Annie,' and 'Sir Patrick Spens,' and 'The Bonny Hind,' are as unknown
    to us as Homer, whom in their directness and force they resemble. They never,
    perhaps, gave their poems to writing; certainly they never gave them to the
    press. On the lips and in the hearts of the people they have their lives; and
    the singers, after a life obscure and untroubled by society or by fame, are
    forgotten. 'The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth his Poppy.'

    Had you been born some years earlier you would have been even as these unnamed
    Immortals, leaving great verses to a little clan--verses retained only by
    Memory. You would have been but the minstrel of your native valley: the wider
    world would not have known you, nor you the world. Great thoughts of
    independence and revolt would never have burned in you; indignation would not
    have vexed you. Society would not have given and denied her caresses. You
    would have been happy. Your songs would have lingered in all 'the circle of
    the summer hills;' and your scorn, your satire, your narrative verse, would
    have been unwritten or unknown. To the world what a loss! and what a gain to
    you! We should have possessed but a few of your lyrics, as

    When o'er the hill the eastern star
    Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo;
    And owsen frae the furrowed field,
    Return sae dowf and wearie 0!

    How noble that is, how natural, how unconsciously Greek! You found, oddly, in
    good Mrs. Barbauld, the merits of the Tenth Muse:


    In thy sweet sang, Barbauld, survives
    Even Sappho's flame!

    But how unconsciously you remind us both of Sappho and of Homer in these
    strains about the Evening Star and the hour when the Day _metenisseto_
    _boulytoide_?* Had you lived and died the pastoral poet of some silent glen,
    such lyrics could not but have survived; free, too, of all that in your songs
    reminds us of the Poet's Corner in the 'Kirkcudbright Advertiser.' We should
    not have read how:


    Phoebus, gilding the brow o' morning,
    Banishes ilk darksome shade!

    Still we might keep a love-poem unexcelled by Catullus,

    Had we never loved sae kindly,
    Had we never loved sae blindly,
    Never met--or never parted,
    We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

    But the letters to Clarinda would have been unwritten, and the thrush would
    have been untaught in 'the style of the Bird of Paradise.'

    *Transliterated from Greek.

    A quiet life of song, _fallentis_semita_vitae_', was not to be yours. Fate
    otherwise decreed it. The touch of a lettered society, the strife with the
    Kirk, discontent with the State, poverty and pride, neglect and success, were
    needed to make your Genius what it was, and to endow the world with 'Tam o'
    Shanter,' the 'Jolly Beggars,' and 'Holy Willie's Prayer.' Who can praise them
    too highly--who admire in them too much the humour, the scorn, the wisdom, the
    unsurpassed energy and courage? So powerful, so commanding, is the movement of
    that Beggars' Chorus, that, methinks, it unconsciously echoed in the brain of
    our greatest living poet when he conceived the Vision of Sin. You shall judge
    for yourself. Recall:


    Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!
    Here's to all the wandering train!
    Here's our ragged bairns and callers!
    One and all cry out, Amen!

    A fig for those by law protected!
    Liberty's a glorious feast!
    Courts for cowards were erected!
    Churches built to please the priest!

    Then read this:
    Drink to lofty hopes that cool
    Visions of a perfect state:
    Drink we, last, the public fool,
    Frantic love and frantic hate.
    .........
    Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance,
    While we keep a little breath!
    Drink to heavy Ignorance
    Hob and nob with brother Death!
    Is not the movement the same, though the modern speaks a wilder recklessness?

    So in the best company we leave you, who were the life and soul of so much
    company, good and bad. No poet, since the Psalmist of Israel, ever gave the
    world more assurance of a man; none lived a life more strenuous, engaged in an
    eternal conflict of the passions, and by them overcome--'mighty and mightily
    fallen.' When we think of you, Byron seems, as Plato would have said, remote
    by one degree from actual truth, and Musset by a degree more remote than
    Byron.
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