THE TREATMENT OF ROBERT BURNS, WHAT IT WAS AND WHAT IT OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN.
First published in the Peterhead Sentinel 1902.
I have said that the public paid Burns almost every species of homage except the practical homage of buying and reading his books. There was caprice in the homage; bit was by no means steadily paid; but paid it was at one time and another. One great hardship and unintentional injustice from which Burns suffered, however, was the lack of fit society. He might be said to have been born in the wrong century. The eighteenth century was, as already said, artificial and what I cannot otherwise describe than as ‘elegant.’ This word, almost out of use to us not save in the speech of drapers and milliners, was in Burns’s day applied to pictures, literature, music and, in short, to all that was best in nature and art. Now ‘beautiful’ we know, ‘handsome’ we know, ‘noble’ we know, ‘grand, sublime, magnificent, superb’ – all of these we know in art and nature; but ‘elegant’ is a word that we now apply only to dress, jewellery and the products of the cabinet-maker and the upholsterer, and not often to these. Yet this was a favourite word of the eighteenth-century critic, and it expressed the favourite conception which he seemed to entertain of what was most admirable in art and nature.
The eighteenth century is indelibly associated in our minds with what is stiff, stately, prim and affected. It was prolific of great inventors and workers in the practical arts of life; but in poetry, in philosophy, and the higher arts generally, in taste , and in the modes and manners of life, it was eminently a snobbish century. It, so to say, put its head in a wig, it carried it’s hat under its arm, it cased its calves in silk stocking and its feed in buckled shoes, and while it thus starved the extremities it sweated the trunk in enormous coats and manifold waistcoats. It was a century of crinolines, fans, farthingales, powder, patches, snuff-taking and general artificiality and perversity of taste. It was a century in which those most at home would be the footman, the confectioner, the landscape gardener, and the dancing master. Its poets were tied up to classic conventions; and cow-herds and milkmaids had to figure in its pastorals as Strephon and Phyllis and Chloris. Its stage was hampered by the absurd rules as to the ‘dramatic unities’ yet allowed the Roman Cato to appear in Court dress, including a full-bottomed wig. Shakespeare was, of course, at a discount. From the middle of the century when 80 per cent of the whole population still lived in the rural districts, a strong tide of migration set in towards the towns; and in turning their backs upon the country, it seemed as if the people had turned their backs upon Nature as a whole.
Burns had the sense and taste to refuse to take on the character of his time. Following the example of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, he scorned the Strephons and Phyllises of Georgian verse and gave us Tams and Jeans and Johnnies and Megs and Maries. For unreal shepherds, ‘piping in the dale,’ he gave us kirns and communion services, crofters with their mattocks and their hoes, and all the real, stirring, throbbing life of a Scots countryside. He does indeed make rhymes about a ‘Chloris’ (whose proper name was Jean Lorimer); and the fascinating grass widow, Mrs Meiklehose, appears as ‘Clarinda, mistress of my soul,’ (he himself writing as Sylvander); while his letters reflect the stilted modes of expression belonging to the time. But in the bulk of his work, and certainly in all the best of it, Burns breaks clear away from the conventional models, the sugar –coated sentiment, and the pinchbeck rhetoric of his day.
But while the poet could break away from the canons of his time, the man could not get away from the small-souled men and the conventions of his time. It is painfully evident that Burns was largely driven to unhappiness, to reckless scorn, and to dissipation by the boycott placed upon him in his later years by the Pharisees of Dumfries. Let us recall some of these incidents. It is right that the world should not be allowed to forget how it has treated the illustrious dead. It may in time be taught to appreciate geniuses in their lifetime.
Because the poet favoured the Americans in the War of Independence, a fire-eating captain challenged him to fight. The immediate occasion of the challenge was the proposing by Burns of the toast ‘may our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause.’ Surely Burns was right when he afterwards described this toast to one ‘that the most outrageous frenzy of loyalty cannot object to.’ Yet Lockhart, prig as he was, defends ‘a gentleman bearing the Kind’s commission in the army’ for desiring to murder the man who proposed it!
The Dumfries Tories looked askance at Burns because he favoured the French Revolution, as all people of liberal sentiment did at the time. Lockhart tells us of how Burns’s friend Mr David M’Culloch, was bitterly grieved when, riding into Dumfries one summer evening he witnessed a sample of this boycotting process. Burns walked alone on the shady side of the street, while on the farther side groups of ladies and gentlemen lounged waiting for the opening of a ball, and none of them ‘appeared willing to recognise him.’ In Lockhart’s own words
‘The horseman dismounted and joined Burns, who, on his proposing to him to cross the street, said; ‘Nay my young friend – that’s all over now’ and quoted, after a pause, some verses of Lady Grizel Bailie’s pathetic ballad:
His bonnet stood ance fu’ fair on his brow
His auld ane looked better than money ane’s new;
But now he lets’s wear ony way it will hing,
And casts himsel’ dowie upon the corn bing.
O were we young as we ance had bee
We suld had been galloping doun on yon green,
And linking it ower the lily-white lee
And wernea my heart light I wad die.
It was little in Burns’s character [continues Lockhart] to let his feelings on certain subjects escape in this fashion. He immediately after citing these verses assumed the sprightliness of his most pleasing manner; and taking his young friend home with him, entertained him with a bowl of his usual potation, and Bonnie Jeans’ singing of some verses which he had recently composed.
The Lethe of forgetfulness was song and whisky punch. Who can say how often in Burns’s case similar slights were forgotten by the same means? Yet doubtless some of these same boycotting Pharisees, who made a difference of political opinion the occasion for a personal quarrel, would attend the poet’s funeral, subscribe to his monument, and profess to honour his genius and mourn at his death.
Burns had next to nothing in common with that company. In fact, for the typical society of that century he could have nothing but scorn and repulsion. With many of those who even today profess to honour his memory he would promptly fall out. Society today would cold-shoulder Burns, not perhaps to the same extent as it did then, but cold-shoulder him more or less it certainly would. For Burns would be a non-conformist now as he was in his own day. We have become somewhat more tolerant in these days; but the odd man out has still to face th cross of suffering, the stake of petty martyrdom. The world is slow to learn – and in fact will probably never recognise in practice – that the truth resides in minorities; that on almost all new questions of great magnitude the majority are tolerably certain to be wrong; that ‘the demons of our sires become the saints whom we adore.’
The wild lawlessness of ‘The Jolly Beggars’ is Burns’s strenuous and perhaps exaggerated protest against the social conventions of his time; and we may be sure that the main reason why he sometimes kept company that was not gravely respectable was because in that sort of company he got away from the veneer and flunkeyism of polite society. He fretted away his ardent soul and ran into dissipation very largely because he found ordinary respectable society, especially in his day, so unspeakably dull and priggish. Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and many another still pass the same verdict upon society.
The hankering of Burns for strong feelings frankly and warmly expressed, his desire for naturalness and the recognition of his powers, led him to associate with his inferiors in character and his equals in social station, because from these was he most likely to receive adequate respect. With these alone would his intercourse be free from the misgivings, the patronage, and the paltry controversial opposition which the Podsnaps of society must always show to the man of genius. In almost any large city today Burns would meet with hundreds of people who would sympathise with him and upon occasion ‘go one better.’ In provincial Scotland in the eighteenth century Burns very likely had not a single thoroughly kindly spirit.
When we hear of prosy noblemen monopolising the conversation in a company where Burns was present, we are moved to disgust. On one such occasion Burns, glad to be rid of a noble bore, proposed ‘the health of the waiter who called his lordship from the room.’ When will people recognise in practice that it is the right of the wise to teach and the duty of the foolish to listen and learn? Yet how often must Burns, a man of genius in a humble social position, have had to put up with the prosy condescension of affluent nonentities and the slights of men who ought to have known better!
We find him writing thus of his friend the Earl of Glencairn:
There are few of the sore evils under the sun give me more uneasiness and chagrin, than the comparison of how a man of genius, nay of avowed worth is received everywhere with the reception which a mere ordinary character decorated with the trappings and futile distinctions of fortune meets. I imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving honour to whom honour is due. He meets at a great man’s table a Squire Somebody; he knows the noble landlord, at least, gives the Bard, or whatever he is, a share of his good wished, beyond, perhaps anyone at table; yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eightpenny tailor, and whose heart is not worthy three farthings, meet with attention and notice that are withheld from the son of genius and poverty? The noble Glencairn has wounded me to the soul her, because I dearly esteem, respect, and love him. He showed so much attention – engrossing attention – one day, to the only blockhead at table (the whole company consisted of his Lordship, dunderpate, and myself) that I was within half a point of throwing down my gage of contemptuous defiance.
Burns was quite at his ease in whatever company he was; but while he could deal with overweening condescension, and assert his dignity without effort, his sensitive nature suffered many hurts. It was inevitable that it should. Jesus Christ, if he returned to the world, would not be able to secure respect in many companies of profession Christians if he did not wear broadcloth and a starched shirt. The sensitive man of genius gets tired of defending his dignity and of having his opinions discounted because of his social position. Conscious that he is worth listening to and learning from, he turns with scorn from men who gauge a man’s right to be heard by his acres, his bank account, the loudness of his tone, or the assertiveness of his manner. Burns, as we have seen, had his experience both of slights and patronage. We have him complaining; ‘I find I can win liking but not respect.’ The probability is that he was too free and perfervid in his conversation, wearing his heart too much on his sleeve, laying bare his mind too readily. It is to his credit that that which was thus laid bare was in the long-run thought so highly of. Competent observers declare that Burns’s conversation was the most remarkable thing about him, and one lady went so far as to declare that, in her opinion, poetry actually was not his strong point. On this head Carlyle, with his great gift of picturesque language, says :-
High duchesses, and ostlers of inns, gather round the Scottish rustic, Burns – a strange feeling dwelling in each that they never heard a man like this; that, on the whole, this is the man! In the secret heart of these people it still dimly reveals itself, though there is no accredited way of uttering it at present, that this rustic with his black brows and flashing sun-eyes, and strange words moving laughter and tears, is of a dignity far beyond all others, incommensurable with all others.’
Yes; but all this was too often forgotten. The ‘superior persons’ who wanted to mangle Burns’s poetry by ridiculous alterations, treated him with increasing coldness in his later Edinburgh days. That a ploughman should want to hold his own in conversation with them was permitted and even relished so long as the ploughman was a novelty; but when the original curiosity to hear him died out, his conversation appears to have more and more evoked the usual manifestations of ‘society’ disapproval. This would arise, not from his manners – though he could upon occasion be aggressive enough – but partly from the circumstance of his position, and still more from his opinions which were necessarily quite diverse from the drawing room sentiments of his day. Dr Lawrie said of Burns’s politics, for one thing, that they ‘always smelt of the smithy.’ But the legislation and the altered sentiment of posterity have proved that Burns’s politics were nearer right than Dr Lawrie’s.
The result of this cooling in the reception accorded to Burns in ‘society’ was to make him turn from the Blairs and Stewarts and Lawries to men like William Nicol and Robert Heron, the former a reckless teacher who appropriately comes down to us as the Willie who brewed a peck o’ maut. Heron, himself neither prudent nor fortunate, testifies that Burns often resisted temptations to indulge in convivial excesses; and from this, as from other recorded circumstances in the poet’s career, it is evident that his indiscretions arose, as already claimed, not from love of drink – as might well have been, considering his physical infirmity – but from love of fellowship, and repulsion from the disfavour and stiffness of polite society. Had the right kind of associates fallen to his choice, or had Respectability worn an attractive face, Burns would undoubtedly have lived in greater happiness and dies in greater honour and prosperity.
Looking over the poet’s career as a whole, one is obliged to conclude that all that was best in Burns he owned to his own inherent qualities, and that most of what was regrettable he owed to the society of his own day and its thoughtless treatment of him. It is a saddening thought that the public still does not know how to treat its great men; does not even recognise their greatness till the man himself is dead; till the ears that would have rejoiced at praise no longer hear either praise or blame; till regrets and honours and substantial rewards are alike unavailing. Socrates, Jesus, the Gracchi, Bruno, Gallileo, Savonarola, the De Wittes, Milton, Robert Burns – all raise in history their mute yet eloquent protest against the cruelty, neglect, or crass misunderstanding of the generations in which they lived and died. Even in our own day our Steads and Zolas cannot speak out for Truth and Justice but they must go to prison or fly their country to avoid the penalty of courage, integrity, and clearness of vision.
Somebody asks: ‘When the true poet comes, how shall we know him?’ By reading his verse with what modicum of wit we possess, I would suggest. And having settled that your poet is indeed a true poet, I would further suggest that, for your own sake as for his, you make the most of him. It is a never increasing marvel that poetry should be discounted as a form of sentimental trifling. True poetry, dealing with the more universal things of life, is, if nothing else, one of the swiftest and most powerful forms of utterance. Would you have your speech emphatic, noble, or graceful; study your Shakespeare, Milton and Burns. Would you master epigrammatic brevity, blistering sarcasm, biting and sweeping invective, or the lip-labour and word passion of intense feeling; assimilate the verse of Swinburne, Clough, and Tennyson. Would you be subtly speculative or pensively reminiscent, read the poetry of Arnold, Browning and Keats. Would you see Nature throb with active life, would you penetrate somewhat of the innermost arcana of the problems of time, turn to your Shelley, your Morris, and again your Shakespeare.
A true poet is one of the greatest gifts Nature can bestow upon a prosaic world. Her influence is more lasting than the hills. Since Homer and Solomon and David sang their songs, thousands of years have run their course and continents have changed their place. Yet to each succeeding generation their message is and will continue to be renewed. Kings, statesmen and warriors have lived and died, and all their work is as if it had not been. But the great poets of the world are in good sooth immortal. The winds and snows of winter do not more purify earth and air than the great poems purify and rejuvenate the races of men who receive and pay heed to them. Do not, then, our duty and our interest alike dictate that of our great poets we should make the most, thankful to receive so much where we had neither claims nor expectations?
The great poet makes of himself – or is already fashioned and ordained to be – one great nerve, sensitised to respond to every impact and monition of the true and the beautiful in the life around him. He sees for us with his eyes, hears for us with his ears; he thinks and feels as creatures of a coarser clay cannot do, he communicates his thoughts and feelings in unforgettable language that gives to truth a new beauty and to beauty a new truth. If to acquire a language beyond our mother tongue be as the addition of another sense to those we already possess, them to know the poets is to refine and intensify all the senses. Poetry at its best is the highest wisdom in the best form of words. If the ape and tiger die out in man and he ascends higher in the scale or reason, feeling and grace, I know of no human agency that has more to do with the ascent than those who teach us in song what they have learned in the experience which is too often suffering. Of those who have suffered and sung, and, singing, taught, none deserves more at our Scottish hands than him who has seen the halo of poetry and the glamour of perennial human interest around our bare and sterile land; him who take him all in all, has shown our Scottish manhood at its supremest development.
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