Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

literary importance. He is worthy to be called the pioneer of Burns, because he had the sense and ability to combat victoriously the theory of men like Beattie, who held that the Scottish language was incapable of being made the vehicle of literary expression.

Half a century elapsed between the publication of “The Gentle Shepherd " and the boyhood of Burns, and meantime the impulse given by Ramsay and the ingenious gentlemen and ladies who co-operated with him in his publications had diffused itself all over the country. We had our group of singers here in the North : George Halket, the author of “Logie o’ Buchan”; Alexander Ross, the author of the “Fortunate Shepherdess”; Priest Geddes, author of “Lewie Gordon " and the

Wee Wifiekie"; and greatest of them all, indeed, one of the greatest of Scotch song-writers, John Skinner, the author of “Tullochgorum,” and the “Ewie wi' the Crookit Horn.” In “Tullochgorum,” especially, there is a wonderful rapidity and spirit in its music—an indefinable something that manifestly proclaims Skinner to be the fellow-countryman of William Dunbar and Burns :

"

“What needs there be sae great a fraise

Wi' dringing dull Italian lays ?
I wadna gie our ain Strathspeys

For half a hunder score o’’em.
They're dowf and dowie at the best ;

Dowf and dowie, dowf and dowie,
Dowf and dowie at the best,

Wi' a' their variorum ;
They're dowf and dowie at the best,
Their allegros and a' the rest;
They canna please a Scottish taste,

Compar'd wi' Tullochgorum.”

These are lines that, both for their music and their sentiment, were likely to appeal to Burns, and it is no surprise, therefore, to find Burns writing words so laudatory

POETICAL ASPIRATIONS OF BURNS

159

[ocr errors]

as these : “I regret, and while I live I shall regret, that, when I was in the North, I had not the pleasure of paying a younger brother's dutiful respect to the author of the best Scotch song ever Scotland saw—“Tullochgorum’s my delight. There is a certain something in the old Scotch songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression, which peculiarly marks them, not only from English songs, but also from the modern efforts of songwrights in our native manner and language. The only remains of this enchantment, these spells of the imagination, rest with you."

It is remarkable that the Northern song-writers were all educated men,-in the popular sense of the word educated,-school-masters and clergymen. In the south of Scotland poetic ambition was more universal. Then the middle years of the eighteenth witnessed something like the palmy days of the Troubadours of Provence in the thirteenth century, when every hamlet bad its laureate. We cannot wonder that the genius of Burns should have been excited by such surroundings, and that very early in life falling in love, and knowing of neighboring bards who addressed verses to the objects of their affections, he was moved by an ambition to show that he also was a song-writer. Thousands of little bards at that time limited their aspirations to fame within the parishes in which they were born. That the ambition of Burns took a wider range was due partly to the masterful strength of his nature--that, of course, is an indispensable condition of wide-reaching ambition ; but partly also to peculiar circumstances in his life that fostered his ambition and kept it from being quenched in his hard struggle for bare existence as the son of a poor farmer. Where other young men in his rank of life, like young men with a turn for versification in higher ranks of life, were eager only to gain the admiration of the women, and establish a reputation for cleverness with the men among whom they were born, Burns from a very early period aspired to make the streams of his native country as famous as the classic Ilissus and the silver-winding Thames :

“E'en then a wish, I mind its power,
A wish that to its latest hour

Shall strongly heave my breast;
That I for poor auld Scotland's sake,
Some useful plan or book could make,

Or sing a sang at least ;"

and again in a poem showing more definitely the latitude of his ambition :

" Ramsay and famous Fergusson
Gied Forth and Tay a lift aboon;
Yarrow and Tweed, to monie a tune,

Owre Scotland rings ;
While Irwin, Lugar, Ayr, and Doon,

Naebody sings.

“Th' Ilissus, Tiber, Thames, and Seine,

Glide sweet in monie a tunefu' line ;
But, Willie, set your fit to mine,

And cock your crest,
We'll gar our streams and burnies shine

Up wi' the best !”

And the natural greatness of mind that prompted this ambition was not without special influences to keep the flame alive. Had Burns been educated as other local rhymers were, he might have remained, like them, content with local fame, ignorant of the great world outside, hungering for no applause beyond his own small circle, because he was unaware of any thing more to be desired. But the education of Burns was different from that of other local rhymers, and had carried him to spiritual altitudes, the views from which were bounded by a much wider horizon.

In common with all the other young men of the time, rich and poor, Burns had the advantage for a poet of

HOW BURNS PRODUCED HIS SONGS

161

living in a poetical atmosphere ; but he had the further special advantage of coming under personal influences that helped powerfully to give his work the quality of greatness. His want of school and college instruction was fully compensated by the exceptional tastes, abilities, and literary interests of his father and his school-master. We may truly say, I think, that for his special training

Ι as a poet, for the literary part of it, that is to say, the happiest accident of his life was his contact with Mr. Murdoch, who, when a youth of eighteen, was employed by William Burness, and one or two of his neighbors, to teach their children. That this young school-master was a man of no ordinary vigor, flexibility, and breadth of interest was shown by his subsequent career. He went to London, and made a living as teacher of French, an extraordinary feat for a young country Scotchman; and gained such repute as a teacher, though he ultimately ruined his prospects by intemperate habits, that at one time he had as a pupil in English no less a person than M. Talleyrand. We can hardly overestimate the lift above provincial commonplace that was given to the future poet by his contact with a man of such activity and range of mind. Mr. Murdoch was greatly attracted by the character of William Burness,for so the father spelled his name,-and, attracted also by the character and abilities of the boys, he took a warm interest in them, and gave an unusual turn to the reading of the family, introducing them to authors not ordinarily within the knowledge of a peasant's household. Robert Burns was but a small boy when Murdoch was engaged as a teacher to the combined families ; but when he was a youth of fifteen or sixteen, the young man chanced to be appointed English teacher in the Ayr Academy, and the elder Burness, always eager to get education for his sons, sent Robert for a short time to board with him. Charmed with the aptness of his pupil, with his manly character, his enthusiasm for knowledge,

a

and his powerful grasp of intellect, Murdoch did his utmost to give a bent to his studies. It was only for a short three weeks that Burns could be spared from the work of the farm, where he was already doing the work of a man ; but during that time, so eager was the pupil to learn, and so willing was the master to com. municate, that, as Murdoch afterward stated, he and his boarder were hardly a moment silent—the one enquiring, the other answering and expounding. Among other things Murdoch gave him a start in learning French to such effect that Burns afterward by himself acquired such a knowledge of the language that he was able to read it with ease. He was rather proud, in fact, of the accomplishment, and fond of airing scraps of French in his correspondence. But this knowledge of French was the least of the benefits Burns derived from this inspiring and stimulating teacher.

Looking at his life till he was twenty-two or twentythree, we find from a memorandum-book which he kept the extent of his reading, and we may safely say that there were very few young men at that time in any rank whose acquaintance with the poets of the previous century was so great. He had read most of the English poets, including Shakespeare, Pope, Shenstone, Allan Ramsay, and collections of Scotch songs; and he not only read them, but pondered over them. His habit was always to carry a book in his pocket, in which way he is said to have worn out two copies of Mackenzie's “Man of Feeling.” This gives us a clue to his mode of mental application. He took a rigorously critical attitude. We can imagine him reading over his songs, then turning the work over in his mind and judging with his perfect taste whether it was true to nature. Burns was wont to take his own songs to pieces; word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza, all passed under review, and were critically pronounced on by their author. There could be no greater misconception than to regard

« EdellinenJatka »