ART. II. Reliques of Robert Burns, consisting chiefly of original Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs. Collected and published by R. H. Cromek. 8vo. pp. 453. London, Cadell and Davies, 1808.

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ART. II. Reliques of Robert Burns, consisting chiefly of original Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs. Collected and published by R. H. Cromek. 8vo. pp. 453. London, Cadell and Davies, 1808.

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  1. WE opened a book bearing so interesting a title with no little anxiety. Literary reliques vary in species and value almost as much as those of the catholic or of the antiquary. Some deserve a golden shrine for their intrinsic merit, some are valued from the pleasing recollections and associations with which they are combined, some, reflecting little honour upon their unfortunate author, are dragged by interested editors from merited obscurity. The character of Burns, on which we may perhaps hazard some remarks in the course of this article, was such as to increase our apprehensions. The extravagance of genius with which this wonderful man was gifted, being in his later and more evil days directed to no fixed or general purpose, was, in the morbid state of his health and feelings, apt to display itself in hasty sallies of virulent and unmerited severity: sallies often regretted by the bard himself; and of which, justice to the living and to the dead, alike demanded the suppression. Neither was this anxiety lessened, when we recollected the pious care with which the late excellent Dr. Currie had performed the task of editing the works of Burns. His selection was limited, as much by respect to the fame of the living, as of the dead. He dragged from obscurity none of those satirical effusions, which ought to be as ephemeral as the transient offences which called them forth. He excluded every thing approaching to [19] licence, whether in morals or in religion, and thus rendered his collection such, as doubtless Burns himself, in his moments of sober reflection, would have most highly approved. Yet applauding, as we do most highly applaud, the leading principles of Dr. Currie's selection, we are aware that they sometimes led him into fastidious and over-delicate rejection of the bard's most spirited and happy effusions. A thin octavo published at Glasgow in 1801, under the title of 'Poems ascribed to Robert Burns, the Ayrshire bard,' furnishes valuable proofs of this assertion. It contains, among a good deal of rubbish, some of his most brilliant poetry. A cantata in particular, called The Jolly Beggars, for humorous description and nice discrimination of character, is inferior to no poem of the same length in the whole range of English poetry. The scene indeed is laid in the very lowest department of low life, the actors being a set of strolling vagrants, met to carouse, and barter their rags and plunder for liquor in a hedge ale-house. Yet even in describing the movements of such a group, the native taste of the poet has never suffered his pen to slide into any thing coarse or disgusting. The extravagant glee and outrageous frolic of the beggars are ridiculously contrasted with their maimed limbs, rags, and crutches—the sordid and squalid circumstances of their appearance are judiciously thrown into the shade. Nor is the art of the poet less conspicuous in the individual figures, than in the general mass. The festive vagrants are distinguished from each other by personal appearance and character, as much as any fortuitous assembly in the higher orders of life. The group, it must be observed, is of Scottish character, and doubtless our northern brethren are more familiar with its varieties than we are: yet the distinctions are too well marked to escape even the South'ron. The most prominent persons are a maimed soldier and his female companion, a hackneyed follower of the camp, a stroller, late the consort of an Highland ketterer or sturdy beggar,—'but weary fu' the waefu' woodie!'—Being now at liberty, she becomes an object of rivalry between a 'pigmy scraper with his fiddle' and a strolling tinker. The latter, a desperate bandit, like most of his profession, terrifies the musician out of the field, and is preferred by the damsel of course. A wandering ballad-singer, with a brace of doxies, is last introduced upon the stage. Each of these mendicants sings a song in character, and such a collection of humourous lyrics, connected by vivid poetical description, is not, perhaps, to be paralleled in the English language. [20] As the collection and the poem are very little known in England, and as it is certainly apposite to the Reliques of Robert Burns, we venture to transcribe the concluding ditty, chaunted by the ballad-singer at the request of the company, whose 'mirth and fun have now grown fast and furious,' and set them above all sublunary terrors of jails, stocks, and whipping posts. It is certainly far superior to any thing in the Beggars Opera, where alone we could expect to find its parallel.

    Then ou're again, the jovial thrang
               The poet did request,
    To loose his pack an' wale a sang,
               A ballad o' the best:

    He rising, rejoicing
               Between his twa Debórahs,
    Looks round him, an' found them
               Impatient for the chorus.

                             AIR.
    TUNE. - Jolly mortals fill your glasses.
                               I.
    See! the smoking bowl before us,
               Mark our jovial ragged ring!
    Round and round take up the chorus,
               And in raptures let us sing.

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

                              II.
    What is title? what is treasure?
               What is reputation's care?
    If we lead a life of pleasure,
               Tis no matter how or where!
               A fig, &c.

                             III.
    With the ready trick and fable,
               Round we wander all the day;
    And at night, in barn or stable,
               Hug our doxies on the hay.
               A fig, &c. [21]

                             IV.
    Does the train-attended carriage
               Through the country lighter rove?
    Does the sober bed of marriage
               Witness brighter scenes of love.?
               A fig, &c.

                            V.
    Life is all a variorum,
               We regard not how it goes;
    Let them cant about decorum
               Who have characters to lose.
               A fig, &c.

    Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!
               Here's to all the wandering train!
    Here's our ragged brats and callets!
               One and all cry out. Amen!
               A fig, &c.
  2. We are at a loss to conceive any good reason why Dr. Currie did not introduce this singular and humourous cantata, into his collection. It is true, that in one or two passages the muse has trespassed slightly upon decorum, where, in the language of Scottish song,

    High kilted was she
    As she gaed ower the lea.

    Something however is to be allowed to the nature of the subject, and something to the education of the poet: and if from veneration to the names of Swift and Dryden, we tolerate the grossness of the one, and the indelicacy of the other, the respect due to that of Burns, may surely claim indulgence for a few light strokes of broad humour. The same collection contains 'Holy Willie's Prayer,' a piece of satire more exquisitely severe than any which Burns afterwards wrote, but unfortunately cast in a form too daringly profane to be received into Dr. Currie's Collection.

  3. Knowing that these, and hoping that other compositions of similar spirit and tenor, might yet be recovered, we were induced to think that some of them, at least, had found a place in the collection now given to the public by Mr. Cromek. But he has neither risqued the censure nor laid claim to the applause, which might have belonged to such an undertaking. The contents of the volume before us are more properly gleanings [22] than reliques, the refuse and sweepings of the shop, rather than the commodities which might be deemed contraband. Yet even these scraps and remnants contain articles of curiosity and value, tending to throw light on the character of one of the most singular men by whose appearance our age has been distinguished.

  4. The first portion of the volume contains nearly two hundred pages of letters addressed by Burns to various individuals, written in various tones of feeling and modes of mind, in some instances exhibiting all the force of the writer's talents, in others only valuable because they bear his signature. The avidity with which the reader ever devours this species of publication, has been traced to the desire of seeing the mind and opinions of celebrated men in their open and undisguised moments, and of perusing and appreciating their thoughts, while the gold is yet rude ore, ere it is refined and manufactured into polished sentences or sounding stanzas. But notwithstanding these fair pretences, we doubt if this appetite can be referred to any more honourable source than the love of anecdote and private history. In fact, letters, at least those of a general and miscellaneous kind, very rarely contain the real opinions of the writer. If an author sits down to the task of formally composing a work for the use of the public, he has previously considered his subject, and made up his mind both on the opinions he is to express, and on the mode of supporting them. But the same man usually writes a letter only because the letter must be written, is probably never more at a loss than when looking for a subject, and treats it when found, rather so as to gratify his correspondent, than communicate his own feelings. The letters of Burns, although containing passages of great eloquence, and expressive of the intense fire of his disposition, are not exceptions from this general rule. They bear occasionally strong marks of affectation, with a tinge of pedantry rather foreign from the bard's character and education. The following paragraphs illustrate both the excellencies and faults of his epistolary composition. Nothing can be more humourously imagined and embodied than the sage groupe of Wisdom and Prudence in the first, while the affectation of the second amounts to absolute rant.

    'Do tell that to Lady M'Kenzie, that she may give me credit for a little wisdom. "I Wisdom dwell with Prudence."  What a blessed fire-side! How happy should I be to pass a winter evening under their venerable roof! and smoke a pipe of tobacco, or drink water-gruel [23] with them! What solemn, lengthened, laughter-quashing gravity of phiz! What sage remarks on the good-for-nothing sons and daughters of indiscretion and folly! And what frugal lessons, as we straitened the fire-side circle, on the uses of the poker and tongs!

    'Miss N. is very well, and begs to be remembered in the old way to you. I used all my eloquence, all the persuasive flourishes of the hand, and heart-melting modulation of periods in my power, to urge her out to Herveiston, but all in vain. My rhetoric seems quite to have lost its effect on the lovely half of mankind. I have seen the day—but that is a "tale of other years."—In my conscience I believe that my heart has been so oft on fire that it is absolutely vitrified. I look on the sex with something like the admiration with which I regard the starry sky in a frosty December night. I admire the beauty of the Creator's workmanship; I am charmed with the wild but graceful eccentricity of their motions, and wish them good night. I mean this with respect to a certain passion dont j' ai eu l'honneur d'être un miserable esclave: as for friendship, you and Charlotte have given me pleasure, permanent pleasure, "which the world cannot give, nor take away" I hope; and which, will out-last the heavens and the earth.'

    Burns utters such tirades as this

    'Whether in the way of my trade, I can be of any service to the Rev. Doctor*, is I fear very doubtful. Ajax's shield consisted, I think, of seven bull hides and a plate of brass, which altogether set Hector's utmost force at defiance. Alas! I am not a Hector, and the worthy Doctor's foes are as securely armed as Ajax was. Ignorance, superstition, bigotry, stupidity, malevolence, self-conceit, envy—all strongly bound in a massy frame of brazen impudence. Good God, Sir! to such a shield, humour is the peck of a sparrow, and satire the pop-gun of a school-boy. Creation disgracing scelerats such as they, God only can mend, and the Devil only can punish. In the comprehending way of Caligula, I wish they had all but one neck. I feel impotent as a child to the ardor of my wishes! O for a withering curse to blast the germins of their wicked machinations. O for a poisonous Tornado, winged from the Torrid Zone of Tartarus, to sweep the spreading crop of their villainous contrivances to the lowest hell!'

  5. These passages however, in which the author seems to have got the better of the man, in which the desire of shining and blazing, and thundering supersedes the natural expressions of [24] feeling, and passion, are less frequent in the letters of Burns than perhaps of any other professed writer. Burns was in truth the child of passion and feeling. His character was not simply that of a peasant exalted into notice by uncommon literary attainments, but bore a stamp which must have distinguished him in the highest as in the lowest situation in life. To ascertain what was his natural temper and disposition, and how far it was altered or modified by the circumstances of birth, education, and fortune, might be a subject for a long essay; but to mark a few distinctions is all that can be here expected from us.

  6. We have said that Robert Burns was the child of impulse and feeling. Of the steady principle which cleaves to that which is good, he was unfortunately divested by the violence of those passions which finally wrecked him. It is most affecting to add that while swimming, struggling, and finally yielding to the torrent, he never lost sight of the beacon which ought to have guided him to land, yet never profited by its light.

  7. We learn his opinion of his own temperament in the following emphatic burst of passion.

    'God have mercy on me! a poor damned, incautious, duped, unfortunate fool! The sport, the miserable victim, of rebellious pride, hypochondriac imagination, agonizing sensibility, and bedlam passions!'

    'Come stubborn pride and unshrinking resolution, accompany me through this to me miserable world!' In such language did this powerful but untamed mind express the irritation of prolonged expectation and disappointed hope, which slight reflection might have pointed out as the common fate of mortality. Burns neither acknowledged adversity as the 'tamer of the human breast,' nor knew the golden curb which discretion hangs upon passion. He even appears to have felt a gloomy pleasure in braving the encounter of evils which prudence might have avoided, and to have thought that there could be no pleasurable existence between the extremes of licentious frenzy and of torpid sensuality. 'There are two only creatures that I would envy. A horse in his wild state traversing the forests of Asia, and an oyster on some of the desart shores of Europe. The one has not a wish without enjoyment; the other has neither wish nor fear.' When such a sentiment is breathed by such a being, the lesson is awful: and if pride and ambition were capable of being taught, they might hence learn that a well regulated mind [25] and controuled passions are to be prized above all the glow of imagination, and all the splendour of genius.

  8. We discover the same stubborn resolution rather to endure with patience the consequences of error, than to own and avoid it in future, in the poet's singular choice of a pattern of fortitude.

    'I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments—the dauntless magnanimity; the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage, SATAN.'

    Nor was this a rash or precipitate choice, for in a more apologetic mood he expresses the same opinion of the same personage.

    'My favorite feature in Milton's Satan is his manly fortitude in supporting what cannot be remedied—in short, the wild, broken fragments of a noble, exalted mind in ruins. I meant no more by saying he was a favorite hero of mine.'

    With this lofty and unbending spirit were connected a love of independence and a hatred of controul amounting almost to the sublime rant of Almanzor.

    'He was as free as Nature first made man,
    Ere the base laws of servitude began,
    When wild in woods the noble savage ran.'
  9. In general society Burns often permitted his determination of vindicating his personal dignity to hurry him into unjustifiable resentment of slight or imagined neglect. He was ever anxious to maintain his post in society, and to extort that deference which was readily paid to him by all from whom it was worth claiming. This ill-judged jealousy of precedence led him often to place his own pretensions to notice in competition with those of the company who, he conceived, might found theirs on birth or fortune. On such occasions it was no easy task to deal with Burns. The power of his language, the vigour of his satire, the severity of illustration with which his fancy instantly supplied him, bore down all retort. Neither was it possible to excercise over the poet that restraint which arises from the chance of further personal consequences. The dignity, the spirit, the indignation of Burns was that of a plebeian, of a high-souled plebeian indeed, of a citizen of Rome or Athens, but still of a plebeian untinged with the slightest shade of that spirit of [26] chivalry which since the feudal times has pervaded the higher ranks of European society. This must not be imputed to cowardice, for Burns was no coward. But the lowness of his birth, and habits of society, prevented rules of punctilious delicacy from making any part of his education; nor did he, it would seem, see any thing so rational in the practice of duelling, as afterwards to adopt or to affect the sentiments of the higher ranks upon that subject. A letter to Mr. Clarke, written after a quarrel upon political topics, has these remarkable, and we will add manly expressions.

    'From the expressions Capt._________ made use of to me, had I had nobody's welfare to care for but my own, we should certainly have come, according to the manners of the world, to the necessity of murdering one another about the business. The words were such as, generally, I believe, end in a brace of pistols; but I am still pleased to think that I did not ruin the peace and welfare of a wife and a family of children in a drunken squabble.'

  10. In this point therefore, the pride and high spirit of Burns differed from those of the world around him. But if he wanted that chivalrous sensibility of honour which places reason upon the sword's point, he had delicacy of another sort, which those who boast most of the former do not always possess in the same purity. Although so poor as to be ever on the very brink of absolute ruin, looking forwards now to the situation of a foot-soldier, now to that of a common beggar, as no unnatural consummation of his evil fortune, Burns was, in pecuniary transactions, as proud and independent as if possessed of a prince's revenue. Bred a peasant, and preferred to the degrading situation of a common exciseman, neither the influence of the low minded crowd around him, nor the gratification of selfish indulgence, nor that contempt of futurity, which has characterised so many of his poetical brethren, ever led him to incur or endure the burden of pecuniary obligation. A very intimate friend of the poet, from whom he used occasionally to borrow a small sum for a week or two, once ventured to hint that the punctuality with which the loan was always replaced at the appointed time was unnecessary and unkind. The consequence of this hint was the interruption of their friendship for some weeks, the bard disdaining the very thought of being indebted to a human being one farthing beyond what he could discharge with the most rigid punctuality. It was a less pleasing consequence of this high spirit that Burns was utterly inaccessible to all friendly advice. To [27] lay before him his errors, or to point out their consequences, was to touch a string that jarred every feeling within him. On such occasions, his, like Churchill's, was

    'The mind which starting, heaves the heartfelt groan,
    And hates the form she knows to be her own.'

    It is a dreadful truth, that when racked and tortured by the well-meant and warm expostulations of an intimate friend, he at length started up in a paroxysm of frenzy, and drawing a sword cane, which he usually wore, made an attempt to plunge it into the body of his adviser—the next instant he was with difficulty withheld from suicide.

  11. Yet this ardent and irritable temperament had its periods, not merely of tranquillity, but of the most subduing tenderness. In the society of men of taste, who could relish and understand his conversation, or whose rank in life was not so much raised above his own as to require, in his opinion, the assertion of his dignity, he was eloquent, impressive, and instructing. But it was in female circles that his powers of expression displayed their utmost fascination. In such, where the respect demanded by rank was readily paid as due to beauty or accomplishment; where he could resent no insult, and vindicate no claim of superiority, his conversation lost all its harshness, and often became so energetic and impressive, as to dissolve the whole circle into tears. The traits of sensibility which, told of another, would sound like instances of gross affectation, were so native to the soul of this extraordinary man, and burst from him so involuntarily, that they not only obtained full credence as the genuine feelings of his own heart, but melted into unthought of sympathy all who witnessed them. In such a mood they were often called forth by the slightest and most trifling occurrences; an ordinary engraving, the wild turn of a simple Scottish air, a line in an old ballad, were, like 'the field mouse's nest' and 'the uprooted daisy,' sufficient to excite the sympathetic feelings of Burns. And it was wonderful to see those, who, left to themselves, would have passed over such trivial circumstances without a moment's reflection, sob over the picture, when its outline had been filled up by the magic art of his eloquence.

  12. The political predilections, for they could hardly be termed principles, of Burns, were entirely determined by his feelings. At his first appearance, he felt, or affected, a propensity to jacobitism. Indeed a youth of his warm imagination and ardent patriotism, brought up in Scotland thirty years ago, could hardly [28] escape this bias. The side of Charles Edward was the party, not surely of sound sense and sober reason, but of romantic gallantry and high achievement. The inadequacy of the means by which that prince attempted to regain the crown, forfeited by his fathers, the strange and almost poetical adventures which he underwent, the Scottish martial character honoured in his victories, and degraded and crushed in his defeat, the tales of the veterans who had followed his adventurous standard, were all calculated to impress upon the mind of a poet a warm interest in the cause of the house of Stuart. Yet the impression was not of a very serious cast; for Burns himself acknowledges in one of these letters that, 'to tell the matter of fact, except when my passions were heated by some accidental cause, my jacobitism was merely by way of vive la bagatelle,' p. 240. The same enthusiastic ardour of disposition swayed Burns in his choice of political tenets, when the country was agitated by revolutionary principles. That the poet should have chosen the side on which high talents were most likely to procure celebrity; that he, to whom the factitious distinctions of society were always odious, should have listened with complacence to the voice of French philosophy, which denounced them as usurpations on the rights of man, was precisely the thing to be expected. Yet we cannot but think that if his superiors in the Excise department had tried the experiment of soothing rather than of irritating his feelings, they might have spared themselves the disgrace of rendering desperate the possessor of such uncommon talents. For it is but too certain that from the moment his hopes of promotion were utterly blasted, his tendency to dissipation hurried him precipitately into those excesses which shortened his life. We doubt not that in that awful period of national discord he had done and said enough to deter, in ordinary cases, the servants of government from countenancing an avowed partizan of faction. But this partizan was Burns! Surely the experiment of lenity might have been tried, and perhaps successfully. The conduct of Mr. Graham of Fintray, our poet's only shield against actual dismission, and consequent ruin, reflects the highest credit upon that gentleman. We may dismiss these reflections on the character of Burns with his own beautiful lines.

    'I saw thy pulse's maddening play,
    Wild send thee pleasure's devious way,
               By passion driven:
    But yet the light that led astray,
               Was light from heaven.' [29]
  13. The second part of this volume contains a number of memoranda by Burns, concerning the Scottish songs and music published by Johnstone, in 6 volumes 8vo.—Many of these appear to us exceedingly trifling. They might indeed have adorned, with great propriety, a second edition of the work in question, or any other collection of Scottish songs; but, separated from the verses to which they relate, how can any one be interested in learning that 'Down the Burn Davie' was the composition of David Maigh, keeper of blood hounds to the Laird of Riddell; that ' Tarry woo' was, in the opinion of Burns, a ' very pretty song;' or even that the author of 'Polwarth on the Green' was 'Captain John Drummond Mac Grigor, of the family of Bochaldie'? Were it of consequence, we might correct the valuable information thus conveyed, in one or two instances, and enlarge it in many others. But it seems of more importance to mark the share which the poet himself took in compiling or embellishing this collection of traditional poetry, especially as it has not been distinctly explained either by Dr. Currie or Mr. Cromek. Tradition, generally speaking, is a sort of perverted alchemy which converts gold into lead. All that is abstractedly poetical, all that is above the comprehension of the merest peasant, is apt to escape in frequent recitation; and the lacunae thus created, are filled up either by lines from other ditties, or from the mother wit of the reciter or singer. The injury, in either case, is obvious and irreparable. But with all these disadvantages, the Scottish songs and tunes preserved for Burns that inexpressible charm which they have ever afforded to his countrymen. He entered into the idea of collecting their fragments with all the zeal of an enthusiast; and few, whether serious or humorous, past through his hands without receiving some of those magic touches, which, without greatly altering the song, restored its original spirit, or gave it more than it had ever possessed. So dexterously are these touches combined with the ancient structure, that the rifacciamento, in many instances, could scarcely have been detected, without the avowal of the Bard himself. Neither would it be easy to mark his share in the individual ditties. Some he appears entirely to have re-written; to others he added supplementary stanzas ; in some he retained only the leading lines and the chorus, and others he merely arranged and ornamented. For the benefit of future antiquaries, however, we may observe that many of the songs, claimed by the present editor as the exclusive composition of Burns, were, in reality, current long before he was born. Let us take one of [30] the best examples of his skill in imitating the old ballad.—M'Pherson's Lament was a well known song many years before the Ayrshire Bard wrote those additional verses which constitute its principal merit. This noted freebooter was executed at Inverness, about the beginning of the last century. When he came to the fatal tree, he played the tune to which he has bequeathed his name upon a favourite violin, and holding up the instrument, offered it to any one of his clan who would undertake to play the tune over his body at his lyke-wake: as none answered, he dashed it to pieces on the executioner's head, and flung himself from the ladder. The following are the wild stanzas, grounded, however, upon some traditional remains,* which Burns has put into the mouth of this desperado.

               M'PHERSON'S FAREWELL.

    Farewell ye dungeons dark and strong,
               The wretch's destiny!
    M'Pherson's time will not be long,
               On yonder gallows tree.            

               Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
                          Sae dauntingly gaed he;
               He play'd a spring, and danc'd it round,
               Below the gallows tree.

    Oh, what is death but parting breath?
               On mony a bloody plain
    I've dar'd his face, and in this place
    I scorn him yet again!
               Sae rantingly, &c.


    Untie these bands from off my hands,
               And bring to me my sword;
    And there's no a man in all Scotland,
               But I'll brave him at a word.
               Sae rantingly, &c.


    I've liv'd a life of sturt and strife;
               I die by treacherie
    It burns my heart I must depart
               And not avenged be.
               Sae rantingly, &c. [31]

    Now farewell light, thou sunshine bright,
               And all beneath the sky!
    May coward shame distain his name,
               The wretch that dares not die!
               Sae rantingly, &c.
  14. How much Burns delighted in the task of eking out the ancient melodies of his country, appears from the following affecting passage in a letter written to Mr. Johnstone, shortly before his death.

    'You are a good, worthy, honest fellow, and have a good right to live in this world—because you deserve it. Many a merry meeting this publication has given us, and possibly it may give us more, though, alas! I fear it. This protracting, slow, consuming illness which hangs over me, will, I doubt much, my ever dear friend, arrest my sun before he has well reached his middle career, and will turn over the Poet to far other and more important concerns than studying the brilliancy of wit, or the pathos of sentiment! However, hope is the cordial of the human heart, and I endeavour to cherish it as well as I can.'

    Notwithstanding the spirit of many of the lyrics of Burns, and the exquisite sweetness and simplicity of others, we cannot but deeply regret that so much of his time and talents was frittered away in compiling and composing for musical collections. There is sufficient evidence both in the edition of Dr. Currie, and in this supplemental volume, that even the genius of Burns could not support him in the monotonous task of writing love verses on heaving bosoms and sparkling eyes, and twisting them into such rhythmical forms, as might suit the capricious evolutions of Scotch reels, ports, and strathspeys. Besides, this constant waste of his fancy and power of verse in small and insignificant compositions, must necessarily have had no little effect in deterring him from undertaking any grave or important task. Let no one suppose that we undervalue the songs of Burns. When his soul was intent on suiting a favourite air with words humorous or tender, as the subject demanded, no poet of our tongue ever displayed higher skill in marrying melody to immortal verse. But the writing of a series of songs for large musical collections, degenerated into a slavish labour, which no talents could support, led to negligence, and above all, diverted the poet from his grand plan of dramatic composition. [32]

  15. To produce a work of this kind, neither perhaps a regular tragedy nor comedy, but something partaking of the nature of both, seems to have been long the cherished wish of Burns. He had even fixed on the subject, which was an adventure in low life, said to have happened to Robert Bruce, while wandering in danger and disguise after being defeated by the English. The Scottish dialect would have rendered such a piece totally unfit for the stage: but those who recollect the masculine and lofty tone of martial spirit which glows in the poem of Bannockburn, will sigh to think what the character of the gallant Bruce might have proved under the hand of Burns! It would undoubtedly have wanted that tinge of chivalrous feeling which the manners of the age, no less than the disposition of the monarch, imperiously demanded; but this deficiency would have been more than supplied by a bard who could have drawn from his own perceptions the unbending energy of a hero, sustaining the desertion of friends, the persecution of enemies, and the utmost malice of disastrous fortune. The scene too, being partly laid in humble life, admitted that display of broad humour and exquisite pathos, with which he could interchangeably and at pleasure adorn his cottage views. Nor was the assemblage of familiar sentiments incompatible in Burns with those of the most exalted dignity. In the inimitable tale of Tam o' Shanter, he has left us sufficient evidence of his ability to combine the ludicrous with the awful and even the horrible. No poet, with the exception of Shakespeare, ever possessed the power of exciting the most varied and discordant emotions with such rapid transitions. His humorous description of the appearance of Death (in the poem on Dr. Hornbook) borders on the terrific, and the witches dance, in the Kirk of Alloway, is at once ludicrous and horrible. Deeply must we then regret those avocations which diverted a fancy so varied and so vigorous, joined with language and expression suited to all its changes, from leaving a more substantial monument to his own fame and to the honour of his country.

  16. The next division is a collection of fugitive sentences and common places, extracted partly from the memorandum book of the poet, and partly, we believe, from letters which could not be published in their intire state. Many of these appear to be drawn from a small volume, entitled 'Letters to Clarinda, by Robert Burns,' which was printed at Glasgow, but afterwards suppressed. To these, the observations which we offered on the bard's letters in general, apply with additional force: [33] for in such a selection, the splendid patches, the showy, declamatory, figurative effusions of sentimental affectation, are usually the choice of the editor. Respect for the mighty dead, prevents our quoting instances in which Burns has degraded his natural eloquence by these meretricious ornaments. Indeed his stile is sometimes so forced and unnatural, that we must believe he knew to whom he was writing, and that an affectation of enthusiasm in platonic love and devotion, was more likely to be acceptable to the fair Clarinda, than the true language of feeling. The following loose and laboured passage shews, that the passion of Sylvander (a name sufficient of itself to damn a whole file of love-letters) had more of vanity, than of real sentiment.

    'What trifling silliness is the childish fondness of the every-day children of the world! 'Tis the unmeaning toying of the younglings of the fields and forests: but where sentiment and fancy unite their sweets; where taste and delicacy refine; where wit adds the flavor, and good sense gives strength and spirit to all, what a delicious draught is the hour of tender endearment!—beauty and grace in the arms of truth and honour, in all the luxury of mutual love!'

  17. The last part of the work comprehends a few original poems. We were rather surprised to find in the van, the beautiful song called 'Evan Banks.' Mr. Cromek ought to have known that this was published by Dr. Currie, in his first edition of Burns' works, and omitted in all those which followed, because it was ascertained to be the composition of Helen Maria Williams, who wrote it at the request of Dr. Wood. Its being found in the hand-writing of Burn [sic], occasioned the first mistake, but the correction of that leaves no apology for a second. The remainder consists of minor poems, epistles, prologues, and songs, by which, if the author's reputation had not been previously established, we will venture to say it would never have risen above the common standard. At the same time there are few of them that do not, upon minute examination, exhibit marks of Burns's hand, though not of his best manner. The following exquisitely affecting stanza contains the essence of a thousand love tales:

    'Had we never loved sae kindly,
    Had we never loved sae blindly,
    Never met or never parted,
    We had ne'er been broken-hearted.' [34]
  18. There are one or two political songs, which, for any wit or humour they contain, might have been very well omitted. The satirical effusions of Burns, when they related to persons or subjects removed from his own sphere of observation, were too vague and too coarse to be poignant. We have seen, indeed, some very pointed stanzas in two political ballads, mentioned p. 174; but Mr. Cromek apparently judged them too personal for publication. There are a few attempts at English verse, in which, as usual, Burns falls beneath himself. This is the more remarkable, as the sublimer passages of his 'Saturday Night,' 'Vision,' and other poems of celebrity, always swell into the language of classic English poetry. But although in these flights he naturally and almost unavoidably assumed the dialect of Milton and Shakespeare, he never seems to have been completely at his ease when he had not the power of descending at pleasure into that which was familiar to his ear, and to his habits. In the one case, his use of the English was voluntary, and for a short time; but when assumed as a primary and indispensable rule of composition, the comparative penury of rhimes, and the want of a thousand emphatic words which his habitual acquaintance with the Scottish supplied, rendered his expression confined and embarrassed. No man ever had more command of this ancient Doric dialect than Burns. He has left a curious testimony of his skill, in a letter to Mr. Nicol, published in this volume; an attempt to read a sentence of which, would break the teeth of most modern Scotchmen.

  19. Three or four letters from William Burns, a brother of the poet, are introduced for no purpose that we can guess, unless to shew that he wrote and thought like an ordinary journeyman saddler. We would readily have believed, without positive proof, that the splendid powers of the poet were not imparted to the rest of his family.

  20. We scarcely know, upon the whole, in what terms we ought to dismiss Mr. Cromek. If the reputation of Burns alone be considered, this volume cannot add to his fame; and it is too well fixed to admit of degradation. The Cantata already mentioned, is indeed the only one of his productions not published by Dr. Currie, which we consider as not merely justifying, but increasing his renown. It is enough to say of the very best of those now published, that they take nothing from it. What the public may gain by being furnished with additional means of estimating the character of this wonderful and self-taught genius, we have already endeavoured to state. We know not whether [35] the family of the poet will derive any advantage from this publication of his remains. If so, it is the best apology for their being given to the world; if not, we have no doubt that the editor, as he is an admirer of Chaucer, has read of a certain pardoner,

    —With his relics, when that he fond
    A poor persone dwelling up on lond,
    Upon a day he gat him more moneie
    Thau that the persone got in monethes tweie.

Published @ RC

September 2006

Continent