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With Burns we enter the field of what are called 'modern ideas.' In German philosophy the impetus was given to abstract thinking, an impetus which was conveyed beyond the borders of the country of Kant, and, passing into England, began to transform men's views of life. The strongholds of conventionality and tradition were stormed, a new spirit went forth, breaking up all the old moulds of thought, acting as a chemical solvent upon the crystallised, unexpansive ideas so long current, and setting up new combinations. Thus rises the modern man,' says Taine, 'impelled by two sentiments, one democratic, the other philosophic.' The current of democracy flowed from France, that of philosophy from Germany. Under the combined influences of these two forces, invigorating, electrifying the inanimate body, England put forth the powers so long lying dormant. Once more from the fields of literature, as in Shakespere's day, a free, fresh breeze strikes across our senses. Glints of Spring sunshine begin to play across the heavy atmosphere and the stagnation of Winter is at an end.
THE SPIRIT OF POETRY IN REVOLT
THE eighteenth century was an age of self-complacency. It saw no pressing necessity for sweeping reforms, it discerned no place for the enthusiast in the cause of progress. 'Things are very well as they are,' it said; 'confusion and disorder follow in the track of enthusiasm, and of all evils, confusion and disorder are the worst.' Eighteenth-century philosophers were inclined to admit that there was a God, and another world than that of which our senses give evidence, but it was not a matter about which anyone need for the present greatly exercise himself. Time would tell, and meanwhile here were numerous objects of interest to make this world sufficing to all sensible men, who might be recognised by their reluctance to abandon it even in speculation. Eighteenth-century moralists were equally sober-minded; they made a sharp division between the spiritual and the material universe, and disliked above all things the Puritan habit of attaching spiritual significance to material actions and the terms which connoted them. 'Right' and 'Wrong' were terms of relative meaning, no eternal or essential division existed between the acts to which mankind habitually referred these designations, it was a legal
fiction to speak of any divine sanction behind them. As for religion, religion was indeed an excellent thing in its way, in its own time and place, but like most things, as the Puritan excesses proved, out of its own time and place, it came near being intolerable. Religion was one thing, life was another thing; their spheres touched, but were not concentric. A religion thus separated from life was necessarily formal. Without a vitalising spirit to mould it from within, it was ruled by convention and tradition from without; and as it was with religion so it was with all social institutions, the formal man, not the natural man, was the gentleman of the period.
Burns and Byron, peasant and peer, far removed from each other in circumstances of life as well as of birth, resemble each other in a striking particular, their attitude towards Society was one of revolt. Alike in this, their treatment at its hands was not dissimilar. They suffered alternate praise and blame, extravagant and unmeaning. Both sprang at one bound into the highest niche of the temple of fame. Both were fondled and courted for a season, and in the end became exiles from the society whose darlings they had been; and in the hearts and in the poetry of both burned the ardour of indignation and scorn. Primarily intellectual as was the revolt in which Burns, and afterwards Byron, played such conspicuous parts, the passionate minds of these poets carried into the zeal of revolution an element of strong personal feeling. Thus far the likeness may be traced, but we must pause to mark differences. Burns preceded the French Revolution-Byron followed it. Although the ideas which took political shape in the proclamation and establishment of the French Republic, the ideas which group themselves
round the central conception of the brotherhood of man, were in the air when Burns published his first volume of poems, they were ideas only. The excitement of their translation into practice was yet in the future. Byron, moreover, was from the first in the world's eye, Burns toiling with his hands and in provincial obscurity; and it is strange to note that while the natural ambition of the one was thwarted by the extreme of poverty, the other affected to despise the admiration his person and genius compelled. The stability of Burns' position as poet is secured by this, the unaffected truth, sincerity and naturalness of his lyrical cry. Unfettered by rules of poetic procedure, his songs are the spontaneous gush of overflowing emotion. The passion of love or pity or rapture gathers in his breast, gathers and rises until it is no longer controllable, and finds an outlet and relief in the vibrating music that pulsates in unison with the throbbing pulses of his heart and head. What is there in
'Had we never loved sae kindly,
'Drumossie moor-Drumossie day-
I sigh'd and said amang them a'
There is nothing save the direct, simple, affecting voice of human nature deeply stirred, as every heart has been stirred, by the events of life, which, however familiar, are
never old; by the feelings which, however fresh in individual experience, living an immortal life as they do in the world's memory, are never new.
Language is not chiselled and filed and polished here to express subtle conceptions or carefully-chosen, appropriate imagery; it is not rhetoric or rhymed ideas; it is the language that Nature speaks-the language of truth and passion. Here it is scarcely legitimate to speak of the poet's art, for he seems but a chosen mouth-piece for the utterance of universal sentiment. The songs of Burns well up from the central springs of being, their beauty or melody is not analysable. We know that they formed in his mind to the accompaniment of remembered music of old and familiar airs, rose into perfect shape as when Ilion to Apollo's lyre 'like a mist rose into towers.' There is but one note which can without hesitation be said to ring resonant and pure in the poetry of the Scotch peasant, that heard in his songs. It is the only faultless part of his work, and in it he touches the highest limit; his reach in lyric poetry was higher than any since Shakespere. For some minds there will always remain the accent of insincerity, a pathetic accent sadly ironical, in his humour. His humorous poems are no doubt the work of a genius; but with very few exceptions, the more outrageously merry they are, the more distinctly do they give this impression of insincerity. A somewhat indefinable suspicion is awakened by them that the very wit and humour of the scenes he paints so graphically are recognised by Burns as a hollow wit and a humour of despair. As has been the case with so many English poets, his poetry is only a half-result, if indeed it be even a half-result. Born poor, he remained poor until the end.