« ForrigeFortsett »
to look in, his seeing a dance of witches, with the devil playing on the bag-pipe to them, the scanty covering of one of the witches, which made him so far forget himself as to cry-Weel laupan short sark-with the melancholy catastrophe of the piece; is all a true story, that can be well attested by many respectable old people in that neighbourhood.
I do not at present recollect any circumstances respecting the other poems, that could be at all interesting; even some of those I have mentioned, I am afraid, may appear trifling enough, but you will only make use of what appears to you of consequence.
The following poems in the first Edinburgh edition, were not in that published in Kilmarnock. Death and Dr. Hornbook; The Brigs of Ayr; The Calf ; (the poet had been with Mr. Gavin Hamilton in the morning, who said jocularly to him when he was going to church, in allusion to the injunction of some parents to their children, that he must be sure to bring him a note of the sermon at mid-day; this address to the reverend gentleman on his text was accordingly produced ;) The Ordination; The Address to the Unco Guid; Tam Samson's Elegy ; A Winter Night ; Stanzas on the same occasion as the preceding Prayer ; Verses left at a Reverend Friend's house ; The first Psalm; Prayer under the pressure of violent Anguish; The first six Verses of the ninetieth Psalm ; Verses to Miss Logan, with 'Beattie's Poems; To a Haggis ; Address to Edinburgh ; John Barleycorn ; When Guilford guid; Behind yon hills where Stinchar flows ; Green grow the Rashes ; Again rejoicing Nature sees ; The gloomy Night ; No Churchman
If you have never seen the first edition, it will perhaps not be amiss to transcribe the preface, that you may see the manner in which the poet made his first awe-struck approach to the bar of public judgment.
Preface to the first edition of Burns' Poems,
published at Kilmarnock.
“ The following trifles are not the production of the poet, who, with all the advantages of learned art, and, perhaps, amid the elegancies and idle ness of upper life, looks down for a rural theme. with an eye to Theocritus or Virgil. To the author of this, these and other celebrated names, their countrymen, are, at least in their original language, A fountain shut up, and a book sealed. Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing poet by rule, he sings the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language. Though a rhymer from his earliest years, at least from the earliest impulses of the softer passions, it was not till very lately, that the applause, perhaps the partiality, of friendship, weakened his vanity so far as to make him think any thing of his worth showing; and none of the following works were composed with a view to the press.
To amuse himself with the little creations of his own fancy, amid the toil and fatigues of a laborious life; to transcribe the various feelings, the loves, the griefs, the hopes, the fears, in his own breast; to find some kind of counterpoise to the struggles of world, always an alien scene, a task uncouth to the poetical mind-these were his motives for courting the muses, and in these he found poetry to be its own reward.
"Now that he appears in the public character of an author, he does it with fear and trembling. So dear is fame to the rhyming tribe, that even, he, an obscure, nameless bard, shrinks aghast at the thought of being branded as-an impertinent blockhead, obtruding his nonsense on the world; and, because he can make a shift to jingle a few doggerel Scotch rhymes together, looking upon himself as a poet of no small consequence forsouth!
“ It is an observation of that celebrated poet, Shenstone, whose divine elegies do honour to our language, our nation, and our species, that 'Humility has depressed many a genius to a hermit, but never raised one to fame !' If any critic catches at the word genius, the author tells him once for all, that he certainly looks upon himself as possest of some poetic abilities, otherwise his publishing in the manner he has done, would be a maneuvre below the worst character, which, he hopes, his worst enemy will ever give him.
But to the genius of a Ramsay, or the glorious dawnings of the poor, unfortunate Fergusson, he, with equal unaffected sincerity, declares, that, even in his highest pulse of vanity, he has not the most distant pretensions. These two justly admired Scotch poets he has often had in his eye in the following pieces ; but rather with a view to kindle at their flan.e than for servile imitation.
“ To his subscribers, the author returns his most sincere thanks. Not the mercenary bow over a counter, but the heart-throbbing gratitude of the bard, conscious how much he owes to benevolence and friendship, for gratifying him, if he deserves it, in that dearest wish of every poetic bosom-to be distinguished. He begs his readers, particularly the learned and the polite, who may honour him with a perusal, that they will make every allowance for education and circumstances of life; but if, after a fair, candid, and impartial criticism, he shall stand convicted of dulness and nonsense, let him be done by as he would in that case do by others let him be condemned, without wercy, to contempt and oblivion."
I am, dear sir, your most obedient humble ser. vant,
GILBERT BURNS. Dr, Currie, Liverpools
To this history of the poems which are contain ed in this volume, it may be added, that our author appears to have made little alteration in them after their original composition, except in some few instances where considerable additions have been introduced. After he had attracted the notice of the public by his first edition, various criticisms were offered him on the peculiarities of his style, as well as of his sentiments, and some of these, which remain among his manuscripts, . are by persons of great taste and judgment. Some few of these criticisms he adopted, but the far greater part he rejected ; and, though something has by this means been lost in point of delicacy and correctness, yet a deeper impression is left of the strength and originality of his genius. The firmness of our poet's character, arising from a just confidence in his own powers, may, in part, explain his tenaciousness of his peculiar expressions; but it may be in some degree accounted for also, by the circumstances under which the poems were composed. Burns did not, like men of genius born under happier auspices, retire, in the moment of inspiration, to the silence and solitude of his study, and commit his verses to paper as they arranged themselves in his mind. Fortune did not afford him this indulgence. It was during the toils of daily labour that his fancy excrted itself; the muse, as he himself informas us, found him at the plough. In this situation, it was necessary to fix his verses on his memory, and it was often many days, nay weeks, after a poem was finished, before it was written down. During all this time, by frequent repetition, the association between the thought and the expression was confirmed, and the impartiality of taste with which written language is reviewed and retouched after it has faded on the memory, could not in such instances be exerted. The original manuscripts of many of his poems are preserved, and they differ in nothing material from the last printed edition. Some few variations may be noticed.
1. In The Author's earnest Cry and Prayer, after the stanza, p. 14, beginning
Erskine, a spunkie Norland Billie,
there appears, in his book of manuscripts, the following:
Thee, sodger Hugh, my watchman stented,
Ye'd lend your hand,
Ye're at a stand.
Sodger Hugh is evidently the present earl of Eglinton, then colonel Montgomery of Coilsfield, and representing in parliament the county of Ayr. Why this was left out in printing does not appear.
The noble earl will not be sorry to see this notice of him, familiar though it be, by a bard, whose genius he admired, and whose fate he lamented.
2. In The Address to the Deil, the second stanza, in page 42, ran originally thus:
Lang syne in Eden's happy scene,
My dearest part,
Wi' guiltless heart.
In The Elegy on poor Maillie, p. 48, the stanza, beginning
She was nae get o moorland tips,
was, at first, as follows:
She was nae get o’runted rams,