Robert Burns : Contribution to Poetry

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      Introduction : In this section we shall deal with those poets who wrote in the middle and later years of the eighteenth century, and who abandoned the classical tradition. In their generation they came too early to be definitely included in the school of Wordsworth and Coleridge, but in their work they are often as romantically inclined as any of their great successors. We begin with Robert Burns, one of the latest, and probably the greatest, of Wordsworth's poetical forebears. With the appearance of Burns we can say that the day of Romanticism is come. There had been false dawns and deceptive premonitions, but with him we have, in the words of Swinburne,

A song too loud for the lark,
A light too strong for a star.

 

With the appearance of Burns we can say that the day of Romanticism is come. There had been false dawns and deceptive premonitions, but with him we have, in the words of Swinburne,  A song too loud for the lark, A light too strong for a star.
Robert Burns

      His Life : Robert Burns was born in a small clay-built cottage, the work of his father's hands, in the district of Kyle, in Ayrshire. His father, a small farmer, was a man of an unbending disposition, and the boy had to toil with the rest of the family to wring subsistence from the soil. He had not much formal education, and all his life he tried spasmodically to improve it; but it was mainly the force of his own natural ability that permitted him to absorb the moderate amount of learning he did acquire. As he grew older he showed himself to be the possessor of a powerful and lively mind, which was often afflicted with spasms of acute mental depression. The audacity of his temper soon brought him into extravagances of conduct which were visited by the censure and punishment of the rigid Scottish Church. For Burns's own sake it is unfortunate that his memory has been pursued with an infatuation of hero-worship that seeks to extenuate been and even to deny facts that are grave and indisputable. One can only say that his chief weaknesses-drink and dissipation were largely the faults of his time. He was no worse than many other men of his age; but his poetic gifts proclaimed and perhaps exaggerated his vices, of which he repented when he was sober and unwisely boasted when he was otherwise.

      His life was hard and bitter; his different attempts at farming and at other occupations met with no success, and he determined to seek his fortune in the West Indies (1786). In the nick of time he learned that the small volume of verse that he had recently issued at Kilmarnock was attracting much attention, and he was persuaded to remain in Scotland and discover what fame had in store for him. The reputation of his poems rose with prodigious rapidity, and within a year there was a demand for an Edinburgh edition. He was in Edinburgh in 1787, where he became a nine days' wonder to the lion-hunting society of the capital city. He then qualified for a small post in the Excise, and, taking a farm near Dumfries, married and essayed to lead a regular life. He found this impossible, for fame brought added temptation. His farming was a failure, and the income from his Excise post and his poems was insufficient to keep him decently. At the age of thirty-seven he died at Dumfries, of premature old age.

      His Poetry : His sole poetical work of any magnitude is his volume of Poems (1786), which he edited five times during his lifetime, with numerous additions and corrections on each occasion. At different times he contributed to The Scots Musical Museum and to Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. After the poet's death his literary editor, Dr Currie, published (1800) a large number of additional pieces, along with a considerable amount of correspondence.

      We have thus one tale, Tam O' Shanter, which was included in the third edition of the poems, that of 1793; one longish descriptive piece, The Cotter's Saturday Night; more than two hundred songs, ranging in quality from very good to middling; and a great number of short epistles, epigrams, elegies, and other types of miscellaneous verse.

      Features of his Poetry : The poetry is of such a miscellaneous character, and its - composition was often so haphazard in the matter of time, that it is almost impossible to give a detailed chronology of it. We shall therefore take it in the mass, and attempt the difficult task of giving an analysis of its various features.

(a). The best work of Burns was almost entirely lyrical in motive. He is one of the rare examples, like Shelley, of the born singer who can give to human emotion a precious and imperishable utterance. He was essentially the inspired egoist: what interested him was vivid and quickening; what lay outside his knowledge and experience was without life or flavour. He thought of reviving the Scottish drama, but, even if he had entered on the project, it is doubtful if he would have succeeded, for he lacked the faculty of putting himself completely in another man's place. His narrative gift, as it is revealed in Tam o' Shanter, becomes fused with the heat of some lyrical emotion (in this case that of drunken jollity), and then it shines with a clear flame. But with the departure of the lyrical emotion the narrative impulse ends as well.

(b). While keeping within the limits of the lyric he traverses an immense range of emotion and experience. The feelings he describes are those of the Scottish peasant, but the genius of the poet makes them germane to every member of the human race; he discovers the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. Here we have the "passion and apathy, and glory and shame" that are the inspiration of the lyrical poet, and we have them in rich abundance.

(c). His humour and pathos are as copious and varied as his subject-matter. His wit can be rollicking to coarseness, as it is in The Jolly Beggars; and there are no poems richer in bacchanalian flavour than Willie brewed a Peck o' Maut and Tam o' Shanter. He can run to the other extreme of emotion, and be graceful and senti mental, as in Afton Water and O My Luve's like a Red, Red Rose. We have beautiful homely songs in John Anderson, my Jo and Of a' the Airts; and he can be bitter and scornful in such poems as Address to the Unco Guid and The Holy Fair. His pathos ranges from the piercing cry of Ae Fond Kiss, through the pensive pessimism of Ye Banks and Braes, to the tempered melancholy of My Heart's in the Highlands. The facility of this precious lyrical gift became a positive weakness, for he wrote too freely, and much of his song-writing is of mediocre quality.

(d). The poet's political and religious views have been given prominence by his admirers, but they scarcely deserve it. His politics, as expressed in such poems as A Man's a Man for a That, are merely natural utterances of a strong and sensitive mind deeply alive to the degradation of his native people. His religious views, in so far as they are coloured by his unhappy personal experiences with the Scottish Church, are of value solely as the inspiration of capital satirical verse, but in The Cotter's Saturday Night Burns pays a spontaneous and beautiful tribute to the piety of the Scottish peasant.

(e). His style is noteworthy for the curious double tendency that is typical of the transition. When he writes in the 'correct' manner he has all the petty vices of the early school.
Here we see a paltry classicism and a metrical scrupulousness (leading to the mutilation of words like 'pow'rs) that were far below Burns's notice. The latter vice will be seen even in such poems as To Mary in Heaven, quoted above. But when he shakes himself free from such trifling arts his style is full and strong, and as redolent of the soil as his own mountain daisy.

(f). The national poet of Scotland his position is unique. He is first, and the rest nowhere. His rod, like Aaron's, has swallowed up the rods of the other Scottish poets; so that in the popular fancy he is the author of any striking Scottish song, such as Annie Laurie or Auld Robin Gray. His dominating position is due to three factors:
(1) The subject matter and tone of his work are the natural consummation of the Scottish vernacular tradition descending from the period of Dunbar and through Fergusson, to the latter of whom Burns was considerably indebted. In this traditional poetry are found the zest, pace, hilarity, and realism which are characteristic of his work.
(2) He has a matchless gift of catching traditional airs and wedding them to words of simple and searching beauty. It is almost impossible to think of Auld Lang Syne or Scots wha hae or Green grow the Rashes, O! without their respective melodies being inevitably associated with them. And these tunes were born in the blood of the Scottish peasant.
(3) He rejoices in descriptions of Scottish scenery and customs. The Cotter's Saturday Night is packed with such features, and all through his work are glimpses of typical Scottish scenes. The opening stanzas of A Winter Night are often quoted to show his descriptive power.
(4) Lastly, he came just at the time when the Scottish tongue, as a vomited.

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