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'I had felt early,' he tells us, 'some stirrings of ambition, but they were the blind gropings of Homer's Cyclops round the walls of his cave. The only two openings by which I could enter the temple of fortune, were the gate of niggardly economy, or the path of little chicaning bargain-making. The first is so contracted an aperture I never could squeeze myself into it; the last I always hated, there was contamination in the very entrance.' The gates were barred against him, and the possibilities of a career, literary or social, for which his genius. marked him out were irreducible to any trial. Although he lived in an era of dawning cosmopolitanism, and new horizons met the far-darting vision of his genius; although he has supreme right to the title of the first poet of democracy, of the creed that hopes to make true the prophecy,
'That man to man, the world o'er,
he is far from the attitude of Shelley, that flaming sword in the cause of revolution. Burns is a true revolutionary against the hollowness and affectations of his time both in poetry and life; but his strength is in his acquaintance with human affections, in tenderness of heart rather than in any iconoclastic fervour ; in a word, he is strong as a poet, because every fibre of his being was athrill with inexhaustible sympathy. For the higher poetry-poetry not of passion merely, but which, treating of action and thought, demands structural talent, wide-extended knowledge, imaginative insight, for this poetry he was disqualified by the circumstances of his life as well as by the limitations of his mind. Carlyle believed Burns to have possessed mental force equal
to all undertakings, but the evidence for such a conclusion is insufficient. He is pre-eminently the poet of passion. He sang of what all have felt, but his thought does not soar, nor do his dramatis personæ live and move. Under the gaze of Dante or of Shakespere, thought, passion, action, character, temperament, circumstance draw together, are taken in by the imagination as a whole, fall into their relations with each other, and in such art the elements of life and of nature are unified. These are not the poets of detail, of passion, or of introspection, or of circumstance; but of the round world, comprehensive of greatness and of littleness, of evil and of good, of love and of hate, of strength and of weakness, of will and of fate. Burns is a pure lyrist, his poems turn each on a single thought, his imagination. has no powerful sweep of wing, the upper æther was not for him as it was for Milton, his own natural home; but he knew the secret chambers of the heart, the pathos of its unfulfilled dreams and its broken idols, and no less the joys of its moments of ineffable rapturous content.
England was rich in song-writers during the later part of the sixteenth and the early half of the seventeenth century, for she was rich in dramatists, few of whom were unpossessed of the lighter touch that carves the cameo of verse. The most exquisite little gems of lyric poetry are set in the pure gold of their stately dramatic measure. Take one snatch of Heywood's to illustrate the fresh heartiness of that openhearted, great-minded, strong-handed age :--
'Agincourt, Agincourt, know ye not Agincourt?
All the French foemen?
With our guns and bills brown,
The art of song-writing died in Restoration times. It was kept alive by the strong loyal emotions of the Cavaliers, and by the intense spiritual zeal of the Puritans during their memorable struggle, but it languished and utterly decayed with the conventional diction and forced graces of the school of Pope and Addison. Although unsupported genius may accomplish much, the highest intellectual reaches have been attained by men who stood upon foundations previously laid. Inherited wealth in good hands may become the nucleus of a princely fortune. Sophocles' perfect art was in large measure due to a careful study of Eschylus, Shakespere was not above profiting by the genius of Marlowe, Tennyson drew into his poetic net beauties from every great literature of the world. Just as Shakespere may be said to have climbed to supreme place among the dramatists upon the shoulders of his dramatic brethren who preceded him, Burns towers pre-eminent as the lyrist who was heir to all the best qualities of a nation's songs. Only when he abandoned the Scotch dialect was Burns artificial, when he wrote English the bondage of the classical school was upon him. His real progenitors were the ballad and song-writers and the rustic rhymers of his own country, to the poetry of English culture the debt he owed was trifling and of doubtful value. Scotch song-writers, whose name was legion, had covered the whole ground before the advent of their peasant successor, who was to become their prince, the lord of song by right and by acclaim. That he was heir and master of this demesne is small reason for asserting his title to sovereignty over the whole poetic realm had he chosen to enter into possession. Carlyle regretted that 'our son of thunder should have been constrained to pour all the lightning of his genius through the narrow cranny of Scottish
song-the narrowest cranny ever vouchsafed to any son of thunder.' By an error of judgment of a like kind he regretted that Scott did not direct his powers towards some nobler end than the revival of the picturesque side of feudalism. That a man can do one thing transcendently well is small reason for supposing him capable of splendid achievement in a field foreign to that which he tills with unique success. The universal genius is a rare growth; Nature does not bestow all her favours upon one of her children, she is an impartial mother, and grants to each gifts differing in degree and in kind. To Burns she gave the 'great poetic heart,' to possess which is to be a child of sorrow as well as of joy, and a voice than which no sweeter ever broke silence; but she withheld from him that august and luminous mind in whose serene and contemplative depths all discords melt into harmony under the dominion of a reposeful, guiding will. To set the poetry of Burns beside the world-poetry of Sophocles, of Dante, or of Shakespere, or to speak of his intellectual depth and range as at all commensurable with that displayed in 'The Antigone,' 'The Divine Comedy,' or 'King Lear' is to betray incurable incapacity for the formation of sane or reliable judgment. Burns must stay with us and with the generations to come because of the essential poetry of such lines as these that recall the Elizabethan accent:—
'O, my love's like a red, red rose
O, my love's like a melody
or these, in whose pathos centres in briefest suggestion a tale as old as human nature:
'Thou'll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
For sae I sat and sae I sang,
or these that in their very movement breathe defiance :-
'Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntingly gaed he;
He play'd a spring, and danc'd it round,
These are verses of a writer who is safe beyond the reach of the tides of time that encroach upon so much fair territory, of a writer upon whom the envious years scatter no concealing dust. In these there is no false pastoralism, no pseudo-sentiment, no choicely culled images, no trite wisdom, no inert philosophy. They are appeals not to man as a member of a group of persons living under certain traditional habits and customs, calling themselves society, but to man as man. Traditional habits and customs, fashionable views and sentiments, are unceasingly undergoing change, a wind passes over them and the prevailing modes of thought are gone. The poet who reflects these changes modifying the surface of society, passes with the period he mirrors out of a nation's ken. But beneath all transient ruffles of the surface of communities lies the substance of their unchanging nature, the permanent elements of their constitution. The poet who builds upon that foundation is safe, and Burns built upon it. It matters not for his fame that his humour wears not seldom the countenance of despair-despair was the atmosphere he breathed in the latter years of his life; that his laugh is often the laugh of desperation that comes at the wit's end.