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Commons, and the press gains enormously in power. The American and French Revolutions stir the very foundations of society, and there is an outburst in literature of the revolutionary spirit. Finally, we may group many of these changes about two centers: (a) that longing for a more simple and more natural life, and that revolt against accepted standards, which accompanied a rebirth of the more religious and ideal elements of society; (b) that feeling of compassion for suffering, that sense of the worth of the individual, which we associate with the growth of democracy.
In the work of Robert Burns we find English poetry making a definite and complete break with the older traditions of the eighteenth century. A great and original genius, sprung from the soil, unhampered by the learning of the schools, Burns wrote from the inner power of the soul, and introduced into English poetry a new and unmistakably sincere note of passion. We have seen how the new spirit of England found expression in the poetry of Thomson, Gray, Collins, Goldsmith, and Cowper, who in varying degrees showed a fresh love of Nature, or a new sense of brotherhood, or a wistful, half-melancholy sentiment for the romance of the past. But none of these writers had entirely escaped from the conventionalities of the older school. Their poetry had been graceful, sympathetic, imaginative, and often musical, but it had not been impassioned. None of them had had that strong grip on life, that profound sense of man's struggles, hopes, and joys, which is the
poet's greatest power, and which comes only to genius working upon the elemental facts of life at first hand. The Scotch plowman, Robert Burns, by his birthright and his heritage of poverty and labor, not only knew but lived the homespun life of the peasant, and out of its daily experiences in field, church, house, and tavern, wrought songs and poems which, by their poignancy and genuineness of feeling, their lyrical sweetness, their broad humor, and above all their power of going to the heart of man, inspired all Scotland and England, and are still among the greatest in the world.
Burns' poems are racy of the soil, as frankly local in subject as in dialect. He is not ashamed to paint the homely and everyday aspects of the life about him. The family group, after their week of toil, gathered in patriarchal simplicity about the cotter's hearthstone; the blazing ingle of the country tavern, where the drunken cronies, “o'er all the ills o' life victorious,” sing their jolly catches, oblivious of the storm without or the wrathful wife at home; the current controversy between the Auld and New Lichts in the Kirk; a wounded hare, or a flock of startled water-fowl, - such are the homely materials ready to his hand, from which his poems are fashioned. We find in them that high gift which cannot be gained by a study of any Art of Poetry, of seeing with a fresh and penetrating insight. For while in one sense Burns' poems are local, they are none the less for all the world. In the local, the temporary, and the commonplace, the poet sees the universal; and, beneath the vesture in which life clothes itself, discovers the abiding human significance, which, when told in fitting words in forms of art, becomes a source of strength to mankind.
Burns' Life. Robert Burns, the son of a small farmer in Ayrshire, in the southwestern part of the
Lowlands of Scotland, was born in 1759. The place of his birth was a clay cottage built by his father, and located in the heart of the country which Burns was afterwards to make famous. Near by was the “bonny Doon” and “the winding Ayr,” scenes of the poet's early love-ventures; and old Alloway Kirk, where, in the poem Tam O'Shanter, “Auld Nick” piped for the
dancing ghosts. Two miles away was the town of Ayr, with its "twa brigs," its market-place, and its inns,
“Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
Burns' family was poor, so that the boy got but little education. As a child, however, he was familiar with the songs and ballads of his country, and from his mother and an old nurse he heard tales of devils, ghosts, and fairies, which afterward served him well in some of his most characteristic and humorous poems. In youth, through
all his labor as "a hard-worked ploughboy," he was a great reader, having a ballad-book before him at mealtimes, and whistling the songs of Scotland while guiding the plow. On the death of his father in 1784, Robert and his brothers and sisters took a farm together, but it proved unprofitable. By this time he had written numerous songs, and had gained by them considerable local reputation. But his affairs were so involved that he thought of leaving the country, and, with that purpose in view, published his first volume of poems (1786) to defray expenses. It was well received, and the poet was encouraged to go to Edinburgh to publish a second edition. At Edinburgh, Burns, with his genius and flavor of rusticity, his massive head and glowing eyes, became the reigning sensation. But in Edinburgh he was out of his proper and native element. In 1788 he leased a farm in Dumfriesshire, married Jean Armour, and spent one of his few peaceful and happy years. In 1789 he was appointed exciseman, that is, the district inspector of goods liable to a tax. From this time the habit of intemperance gained on him. His health and spirits failed, and bouts of reckless drinking were followed by intervals of remorse and attempted recovery. His genius did not desert him, and some of his best songs were composed during this miserable time. He died in 1796, worn out and preinaturely old at thirty-seven, one of the great song-writers of the world, and Scotland's most representative poet.
His Sincerity. — In spite of those weaknesses which cut off a life "that might have grown full straight," Burns' poetry is unmistakably the utterance of a sincere, large-hearted, and essentially noble nature, pleasureloving and full of laughter as a child, yet broken by a man's grief; a nature with more than a woman's tender
ness, and with the poet's soul quivering at the throb of pain.
“Still thou art blest, compared wi' me,
The present only toucheth thee;
On prospects drear!
I guess and fear."
Here in the midst of the lingering affectations of the time vibrates the anguish of Burns' lyrical cry, quivering with the unmistakable accent of human suffering. This is the universal language of passion not to be learned in the schools. This is his "sincerity, his indisputable air of truth," which Carlyle considered to be Burns' chief excellence. Hence, Burns' love-songs, —from the impassioned flow of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, to the serene beauty of To Mary in Heaven, or to the quiet anguish of Ae Fond Kiss and then We Sever, with its fourth stanza:
“Had we never loved sae kindly,
are among the truest and best in the language.
Poet of Scotland, Nature, and Man. — Burns is more than the writer of love-lyrics; he is the poet of Nature, of the poor, and of patriotic Scotland. In The Cotter's Saturday Night, we have a rapid and faithful sketch of an autumn landscape:
“ November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh,
The short'ning winter-day is near a close;
The black’ning trains o' craws to their repose."