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Whatever he might have written, was likely to have been fraught with passion. There is always enough of interest in life to cherish the feelings of a man of genius; but it requires knowledge to enlarge and enrich his imagination. Of that knowledge which unrolls the diversities of human manners, adventures, and characters to a poet's study, he could have no great share; although he stamped the little treasure which he possessed in the mintage of sovereign genius. It has been asserted, that he received all the education which is requisite for a poet: he had learned reading, writing, and arithmetic; and he had dipped into French and geometry. To a poet, it must be owned, the three last of those acquisitions were quite superfluous. His education, it is also affirmed, was equal to Shakspeare's; but, without intending to make any comparison between the genius of the two bards, it should be recollected that Shakspeare lived in an age within the verge of chivalry, an age overflowing with chivalrous and romantic reading; that he was led by his vocation to have daily recourse to that kind of reading; that he dwelt on the spot which gave him constant access to it, and was in habitual intercourse with men of genius. Burns, after growing up to manhood under toils which exhausted his physical frame, acquired a scanty knowledge of modern books, of books tending for the most part to regulate the judgment more than to exercise the fancy. In the whole tract of his reading, there seems to be
little that could cherish his inventive faculties. One material of poetry he certainly possessed, independent of books, in the legendary superstitions of his native country. But with all that he tells us of his early love of those superstitions, they seem to have come home to his mind with so many ludicrous associations of vulgar tradition, that it may be doubted if he could have turned them to account in an elevated work of fiction. Strongly and admirably as he paints the supernatural in “ Tam o' Shanter,” yet there, as every where else, he makes it subservient to comic effect. The fortuitous wildness and sweetness of his strains may, after all, set aside every regret that he did not attempt more superb and regular structures of fancy. He describes, as he says, the sentiments which he saw and felt in himself and his rustic compeers around him. His page is a lively image of the contemporary life and country from which he sprung. He brings back old Scotland to us with all her homefelt endearments, her simple customs, her festivities, hersturdy prejudices, and orthodox zeal, with a power that excites, alternately, the most tender and mirthful sensations. After the full account of his pieces which Dr. Currie has given, the English reader can have nothing new to learn respecting them. On one powerfully comic piece Dr. Currie has not disserted, namely, “ The Holy Fair.” It is enough, however, to mention the humour of this production, without recommending its subject. Burns, indeed,
mely, « The piece Dr. Pecting them
only laughs at the abuses of a sacred institution ; but the theme was of unsafe approach, and he ought to have avoided it. .
He meets us, in his compositions, undisguisedly as a peasant. At the same time, his observations go extensively into life, like those of a man who felt the proper dignity of human nature in the character of a peasant. The writer of some of the severest strictures that ever have been passed upon his poetry conceives, that his beauties are considerably defaced by a portion of false taste and vulgar sentiment, which adhere to him from his low education, That Burns's education, or rather the want of it, excluded him from much knowledge, which might have fostered his inventive ingenuity, seems to be clear; but his circumstances cannot be admitted to have communicated vulgarity to the tone of his sentiments. They have not the sordid taste of low condition. It is objected to him, that he boasts too much of his own independence; but, in reality, this boast is neither frequent nor obtrusive; and it is in itself the expression of a manly and laudable feeling. So far from calling up disagreeable recollections of rusticity, his sentiments triumph, by their natural energy, over those false and fastidious distinctions which the mind is but too apt to form in allotting its sympathies to the sensibilities of the rich and poor. He carries us into the humble scenes of life,
Critique on the character of Burns, in the Edinburgh Review. Article, Cromek's Reliques of Burns.
not to make us dole out our tribute of charitable compassion to paupers and cottagers, but to make us feel with them on equal terms, to make us enter into their passions and interests, and share our hearts with them as with brothers and sisters of the human species.
He is taxed, in the same place, with perpetually affecting to deride the virtues of prudence, regularity, and decency; and with being imbued with the sentimentality of German novels. Any thing more remote from German sentiment than Burns's poetry could not easily be mentioned. But is he depraved and licentious in a comprehensive view of the moral character of his pieces? The overgenial freedom of a few assuredly ought not to fix this character upon the whole of them. It is a
ich we shoul charge which we should hardly expect to see preferred against the author of “ The Cotter's Saturday Night.” He is the enemy, indeed, of that selfish and niggardly spirit which shelters itself under the name of prudence; but that pharisaical disposition has seldom been a favourite with poets. Nor should his maxims, which inculcate charity and candour in judging of human frailties, be interpreted as a serious defence of them, as when he says,
“ Then gently scan your brother man,
“ Still gentlier sister woman,
“ To step aside is human.
" Who made the heart, 'tis be alone
“ Decidedly can try us;
“ Each spring its various bias.” It is still more surprising, that a critic, capable of so eloquently developing the traits of Burns's genius, should have found fault with his amatory strains for want of polish, and “ of that chivalrous tone of “ gallantry, which uniformly abases itself in the “ presence of the object of its devotion.” Every reader must recal abundance of thoughts in his love songs, to which any attempt to superadd a tone of gallantry would not be
“ To gild refined gold, to paint the rose,
“Or add fresh perfume to the violet," but to debase the metal, and to take the odour and colour from the flower. It is exactly this superiority to “abasement” and polish which is the charm that distinguishes Burns from the herd of erotic songsters, from the days of the troubadours to the present time. He wrote from impulses more sincere than the spirit of chivalry; and even Lord Surrey and Sir Philip Sidney are cold and uninteresting lovers in comparison with the rustic Burns.
The praises of his best pieces I have abstained from re-echoing, as there is no epithet of admiration which they deserve which has not been bestowed upon them. One point must be conceded to the strictures on his poetry, to which I have already