Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

the noblest character without degrading it, but when they precede the heroic virtues they preclude them. Two stanzas from “The Cotter's Saturday Night” will exemplify the style of his patriotic poetry :“O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!

For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent, Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil

Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content ; And O may heaven their simple lives prevent

From luxury's contagion, weak and vile; Then howe'er crowns and coronets be rent,

A virtuous populace may rise the while, And stand, a wall of fire, around their much-loved isle. "O Thou, who pour'd the patriotic tide,

That streamed through Wallace's undaunted heart, Who dared to r.obly stem tyrannic pride,

Or nobly die, the second glorious part; The patriot's God peculiarly Thou art,

His friend, inspirer, guardian, and reward;
O never, nerer Scotia's realm desert;

But still the patriot and the patriot-bard,
In bright succession raise, her ornament and guard."

Love at length found him, who was to be preeminently the poet of love. Then, as the morning mists, when they retire from the risen sun, leave the landscape more beautiful, diversified, and spacious than the traveller could have supposed it before, 50, when the selfishness of the child and the obstinacy of the boy were dissolved in the growing ardour of youth, Burns discovered a new creation of social feelings and generous sentiments in his soul, all' referring to one object, and that the dearest and the loveliest, both to his eye and his fancy, that he had ever yet beheld. Religion had already warmed his affections, and heroism exalted his imagination ; love, therefore, found him a prompt disciple, and, unfortunately for his future peace and honour, love soon became lord of the ascendant in his horoscope, and thenceforward the load-star of his genius-the master-passion of his life.

Hitherto he had gazed with admiration on the heavens as displaying the glory of God, and on the earth as being filled with his goodness; while, in more romantic mood, he had imagined his native hills and valleys the Alps overcome and the battle. fields traversed by Hannibal, or had contemplated them as the actual scenes of the achievements and misfortunes of Wallace: now he looked upon the face of nature and of his beloved with the same tenderness and enthusiasm ; whatever charms he descried in the features of the one, his lively fancy could attribute to those of the other. Sometimes he saw nature supereminently fair, because its beauties reminded him of her whom, with the idolatry of passion, he adored ; again, the beauties of his mistress appeared all perfect, because they reminded him of whatever was lovely and attractive in creation. In her presence, and even in the idea of her presence,

“The common air, the earth, the skies,
To him were opening Paradise."--GRAY.

Such joyous emotions as now began to visit his bosom were too restless to be confined there, too exhilarating to be told in ordinary language, and too evanescent to be revealed in verse, without the aid of glowing imagery. Then it was, according to his own scriptural allusion, not profanely intended, that the “ poetic genius of his country found him, as the prophet-bard Elijah did Elisha, at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over him. She bade him sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes, and rural pleasures of his native soil, in his native tongue.”

It is not expedient here to pursue his personal history; nor necessary to expose the follies, vices, and sorrows of his latter days. The powers of his mind had grown to their full stature and strength before the period of his well-known and ever to-be-lamentod arrival in Edinburgh. Thenceforward they underwent no extraordinary change either of improvement or deterioration, until their final and premature extinction, after a brief but brilliant career of fame, and a merry but miserable career of dissipation.

As a writer, when worthily employing his talents, Burns is the poet of truth, of nature, and of Scotland. Allusion has already been made to the singular advantages, neither few nor small, which he derived from the privilege of availing himself of the whole vocabulary of his mother-tongue, in addition to the whole scope of the English language, His subjects are never remote, abstracted, or factitious; they are such as come in his way, and therefore shine in his song, as the clouds which meet the sun are adorned by his rays. His scenery is purely native, and presents the very objects that engaged his attention when the themes with which they are associated were revolving in his mind. The reader sees, hears, feels with the poet in such descriptions as these :

“As I stood by yon roofless tower,

Where the wa' flower scents the dewy air,
Where the howlet mourns in her ivy bower,

And tells the midnight moon her care;
The winds were laid, the air was still,

The stars they shot along the sky;
The fox was howling on the hill,

And the distant echoing vales reply."

À poet ought to have the eye of the deaf, and the ear of the blind, with every other sense quickened in proportion, as though it alone were exercised to supply the deficiency of all the rest. Burns was thus exquisitely organized; and these lines prove it. It is manifest, also, that he wrote less consciously from memory than perception: not after slow deliberation and long choosing, but from instantaneous impulse 'acting upon abundant and susceptible materials, treasured up for any occasion that might

bring them into use. The fire which burns through his poems was not elaborated spark by spark from mechanical friction in the closet. It was in the open field, under the cope of heaven, this poetical Franklin caught his lightnings from the cloud as it passed over him; and he communicated them, too, by a touch, with electrical swiftness and effect. Thus, literally, amid the inspiration of a thunder-storm, on the wilds of Kenmore, he framed the “Address of Bruce to his Soldiers at Bannockburn,” which will only be forgotten with the battle itself; that is, with the glory and existence of his country.

The high praises here bestowed upon the compositions of this author must be confined to the best and the purest in morals and in taste. His ordinary and his satirical ones—I dare not except “Tam O'Shanter,” that prodigy of wayward fancy-are so often debased by ribaldry and profaneness, that they can scarcely be perused without shuddering by any one whose mind is not utterly corrupted. The genius of Burns resembled the pearl of Cleopatra, both in its worth and its fortune; the one moulded by nature in secret, beneath the depths of the ocean; the other was produced and perfected by the same hand, in equal obscurity, on the banks of the Ayr. The former was suddenly brought to light, and shone for a season on the forehead of imperial beauty; the latter, not less unexpectedly, emerged from the shade, and dazzled and delighted an admiring nation, in the keeping of a Scottish peasant. The fate of both was the same: each was wantonly dissolved in the cup of pleasure, and quaffed by its possessor at one intemperate draught.

T2

was

A

RETROSPECT OF LITERATURE,

FROM THE EARLIEST PERIOD TO THE TWELFTH CENTURY

OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA.

No. I.

[ocr errors]

The Permanence of Words. An eloquent, but extravagant, writer has hazarded the assertion, that “words are the only things that last for ever. Nor is this merely a splendid saying, or a startling paradox, that may be qualified by explanation into commonplace; but with respect to man, and his works on earth, it is literally true. Temples and palaces, amphitheatres and catacombs -monuments of power, and magnificence, and skill, to perpetuate the memory, and preserve even the ashes, of those who lived in past ages-must, in the revolutions of mundane events, not only perish themselves by violence or decay, but the very dust in which they perished be so scattered as to leave no trace of their material existence behind. There is no security beyond the passing moment for the most permanent, or the most precious of these; they are as much in jeopardy as ever, after having escaped the changes and chances of thousands of years. An earthquake may suddenly ingulf the pyramids of Egypt, and leave the sand of the desert as blank as

* The late Mr. William Hazlitt.

« ForrigeFortsett »