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We enter the dwelling, and identify ourselves with the daily life of the poor. “The toil-worn Cotter” coming home at night "weary, o'er the moor,” is met by his children, “Th' expectant wee-things.” “His wee bit ingle, blinkin' bonnily,” and his wife's smile
Does a' his weary carking cares beguile.” Like Goldsmith, Burns finds in this simple, wholesome life, with its commonplace duties and its cheerful contentment, his country's greatest pride and strength. In the last two stanzas, which he once repeated kneeling bareheaded on Coldstream Bridge across the Tweed, Burns poured out his passionate love for his country, as he did again in the stirring trumpet notes of Scots Wha Hae Wo Wallace Bled.
Poet of Democracy. — But Burns' ardent soul was not centered merely on his own love or his own country. He was the poet of democracy, extending the hand of brotherhood to the patriots of France. When Burns wrote that
“ Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn,” he expressed what thousands were coming to feel; and in his poem For A' That and A' That, he gave to Europe, then nearing a great social change, an immortal declaration of human equality and of the glory of simple manhood:
“A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and a' that;
Guid faith he mauna fa' that!
Their dignities, and a' that,
Are higher rank than a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,
It's coming yet, for a' that,
Shall brothers be for a' that.”
But Burns' comprehensive sympathy, like that of Cowper, reaches beyond the circle of human life. He stands in the furrow to look at the “tim'rous fieldmouse, whose tiny house his plow has laid in ruins, and his soul is broad enough to think of the trembling creature gently and humbly as his
“Poor earth-born companion
In fact, though Burns' life was for the most part passed in remote provincial places out of the sweeping current of political and social change, which was producing a new England and a new Europe, he was one of the great poets of revolution. He represented the humanizing tendency of the revolutionary spirit, and its healthy contempt of hypocrisy.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION Toward the close of the eighteenth century, we reach the most stormy and critical period in the history of modern Europe. The growing spirit of humanity, which we have traced in poetry, had done much for the betterment of man, working quietly in men's hearts; but it was to do still more in a way less pacific. Poet and philosopher, in France and England, were pleading the cause of the poor, and the rights of man. Made more sensitive to pain and suffering, they had come to examine the theories of government, the duties of sovereigns, and the rights of subjects. Convinced of the dignity and worth of manhood, they denounced oppres
sion, tyranny, and cruelty. Rousseau called upon men to live in accord with nature; Voltaire scoffed at the shams of mock nobility, and exalted reason in matters of government; Burns had written
“The rank is but the guinea stamp;
The man's the gowd for a' that”
Cowper, in The Task, had cried out against the Bastile (the great prison in Paris) as a shameful "house of bondage;" finally, in France, the toiling masses, starved, overtaxed, oppressed, arose in the might of their longsuffering wrath, and overthrew the Bastile (July 14, 1789). Then
“France her giant limbs upreared,
Europe looked on breathless, as the whole glittering fabric of French feudalism, rotten at the base, suddenly crashed into ruin. The ancient barriers of custom and authority were swept away as in a night; the floods were out; the French Revolution had begun.
During the early acts of that terrible drama, it seemed to many that the dreams of poets and philosophers of a Golden Age of peace and brotherhood were about to be realized. Enthusiasm was at the highest. The English poet Blake walked the streets of London wearing the red cockade of the Revolutionists. . Even the great statesman Pitt sympathized with them, while Fox, a leader of Parliament, is said to have exclaimed, on hearing of the destruction of the Bastile,
How much is this the greatest event that ever happened in the world, and how much the best!” Edmund
Burke, indeed, stood aloof from the rest, a solitary and
“Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive,
The effect of these changes upon literature was threefold. They introduced a higher sincerity and truth in art, an ever widening spirit of brotherhood, and a sense of the worth and dignity of the individual soul which led men to write in a more personal and subjective way than they had done before. The master passion of the new leaders of thought was the longing for something natural and genuine. Wordsworth and Coleridge aimed to write poems that should be true poetically and imaginatively, and be free from the artificialities of the school of Pope. Wordsworth sought to reform “poetic diction," and to set up a simpler and truer manner in its stead. A little later, Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) railed against the “shams” of life, and preached that men “should come back to reality, that they should stand upon things and not upon the shows of things."
William Wordsworth, one of the great leaders in this era of change, was born in 1770 at Cockermouth,
little village on the river Derwent in the English Lake country. On both his father's and mother's side the poet came of a family stock deeply rooted in the country soil, and he may well have inherited from his long line of provincial ancestors that sympathy with the country, and with the simple incidents of country life, which is a principal element in his verse. Born in a singularly lovely region of lake and mountain, remote from the