In the humming city and in the crowd of men, in the backwoods and in the swamp, where the sentinel paces the black frontier or the sailor smokes the evening pipe, or where, above all, the farmer and his men pursue their summer toil, whether under the Stars and Stripes or under the Union Jack, the thought and sympathy of men are directed to Robert Burns.
I have sometimes asked myself, if a roll-call of fame were read over at the beginning of every century, how many men of eminence would answer a second time to their names. But of our poet there is no doubt or question. The adsum of Burns rings out clear and unchallenged. There are few before him on the list, and we can not now conceive a list without him. He towers high, and yet he lived in an age when the average was sublime. It sometimes seems to me as if the whole eighteenth century was a constant preparation for a constant working up to the great drama of the Revolution which closed it. The scenery is all complete when the time arrives—the dark volcanic country, the hungry, desperate people, the firefly nobles, the concentrated splendor of the court; in the midst, in her place as heroine, the dazzling queen; and during lone previous years brooding nature has been producing not merely the immediate actors, but figures worthy of the scene. What a glittering procession it is! We can only mark some of the principal figures. Burke leads the way by seniority; then come Fox, and Goethe, Nelson and Mozart, Schiller, Pitt and Burns, Wellington and Napoleon, and among these Titans Burns is a conspicuous figure—a figure which appeals most of all to the imagination and affection of mankind. Napoleon looms larger to the imagination, but on the affection he has no hold. It is in the combination of the two powers that Burns is supreme.
The clue to Burns’ extraordinary hold on mankind is possibly a complicated one. It has, perhaps, many developments. If so, we have no time to consider it to-night; but I personally believe the causes are, like most great causes, simple, tho it might take long to point out all the ways in which they operate. The secret, as it seems to me, lies in two words—inspiration and sympathy.
There are two great forces which seem sheer inspiration and nothing else—I mean Shakespeare and Burns. This is not the place or the time to speak of the miracle called Shakespeare, but one must say a word of the miracle called Burns.
Try and reconstruct Burns as he was—a peasant born in a cottage that no sanitary inspector in these days would tolerate for a moment; struggling with desperate effort against pauperism, almost in vain; snatching at scraps of learning in the intervals of toil, as it were, with his teeth; a heavy, silent lad, proud of his plow. All of a sudden, without preface or warning, he breaks out into exquisite song like a nightingale from the brushwood, and continues singing as sweetly, in nightingale pauses, till he dies. The nightingale sings because he can not help it; he can only sing exquisitely, because he knows no other. So it was with Burns. What is this but inspiration? One can no more measure or reason about it than measure or reason about Niagara; and remember, the poetry is only a fragment of Burns. Amazing as it may seem, all contemporary testimony is unanimous that the man was far more wonderful than his works.
If his talents were universal, his sympathy was not less so. His tenderness was no mere selfish tenderness for his own family, for he loved all mankind, except the cruel and base—nay, we may go further and say that he placed all creation, especially the suffering and depressed part. of it, under his protection. The oppressor in every shape, even in the comparatively innocent embodiment of the factor and the sportsman, he regarded with direct and personal hostility. But, above all, he saw the charm of the home. He recognized it as the basis of all society. He honored it in its humblest form, for he knew, as few know, how sincerely the family in the cottage is welded by mutual love and esteem.
His verses, then, go straight to the heart of every home; they appeal to every father and mother; but that is only the beginning, perhaps the foundation, of his sympathy. There is something for everybody in Burns. He has a heart even for vermin; he has pity even for the arch-enemy of mankind. And his universality makes his poems a treasure-house in which all may find what they want. Every wayfarer in the journey of life may pluck strength and courage from it as he pauses. The sore, the weary, the wounded will all find something to heal and soothe. For this great master is the universal Samaritan. Where the priest and the Levite may have passed by in vain this eternal heart will still afford resource.
There is an eternal controversy which it appears no didactic oil will ever assuage as to Burns’ private life and morality. Some maintain that these have nothing to do with his poems; some maintain that his life must be read in his works; and again some think that his life damns his poems, while others aver that his poems can not be fully appreciated without his life. Another school think that his vices have been exaggerated, while their opponents scarcely think such exaggeration possible. It is impossible to avoid taking a side. I walk on the ashes, knowing fire beneath and unable to avoid them, for the topic is inevitable. I must confess myself, then, one of those who think that the life of Burns doubles the interest of his poems, and I doubt whether the failings of his life have been much exaggerated, for contemporary testimony on that point is strong—tho a high and excellent authority, Mr. Wallace, has recently taken the other side with much power and point. But the life of Burns, which I love to read with his poems, does not consist in his vices. They lie outside it. It is a life of work and truth and tenderness, and tho like all lives it has its light and shade, remember that we know all the worst as well as the best.
His was a soul bathed in crystal. He hurried to avow everything. There was no reticence in him. The only obscure passage in his life is the love-passage with Highland Mary, and as to that he was silent not from shame, but because it was a sealed and sacred episode. “What a flattering idea,” he once wrote, “is a world to come. There shall I with speechless agony or rapture recognize my lost, my ever dear Mary, whose bosom was fraught with truth, honor, constancy and love.” But he had, as the French say, the defects of his qualities. His imagination was a supreme and celestial gift, but his imagination often led him wrong and never more than with woman. The chivalry that made Don Quixote see the heroic in all the common events of life made Burns (as his brother tells us) see a goddess in every girl he approached; hence many love affairs, and some guilty ones, but even these must be judged with reference to time and circumstances. This much is certain: had he been devoid of genius they would not have attracted attention. It is Burns’ pedestal that affords a target. And why, one may ask, is not the same treatment measured out to Burns as to others? The illegitimate children of great captains and statesmen and princes are treated as historical and ornamental incidents. They strut the scene of Shakespeare and ruffle it with the best. It is for the illegitimate children of Burns, tho he and his wife cherished them as if born in wedlock, that the vails of wrath are reserved. There were two brilliant figures both descended from the Stuarts who were alive during Burns’ life. We occupy ourselves endlessly and severely with the offenses of Burns; we heave an elegant sigh over the hundred lapses of Charles James Fox and Charles Edward Stuart.
Again, it is quite clear that, tho exceptionally sober in his earlier years, he drank too much in later life; but this, it must be remembered, was but an occasional condescendence to the vice and habit of the age. The gentry who pressed him to their houses and who were all convivial have much to answer for. His admirers, who thronged to see him, and who could only conveniently sit with him in a tavern, are also responsible for this habit so perilously attractive to men of genius, from the decorous Addison and the brilliant Bolingbroke onward. The eighteenth century records hard drinking as the common incident of intellectual eminence. To a man, who had shone supreme in the most glowing society, and who was now an exciseman in a country town, with a home which can not have been very exhilarating, with the nervous system highly strung, the temptation of the warm tavern and the admiring circle there may well have been almost irresistible.
Some attempt to say that his intemperance was exaggerated. I neither affirm nor deny it. if he succumbed it was to good-fellowship and cheer. Remember, I do not seek to palliate or excuse, and, indeed, none will be turned to dissipation by Burns’ example—he paid too dearly for it. But I will say this: that it all seems infinitely little, infinitely remote. Why do we strain at this distance to discern this dim spot on the poet’s mantle? Shakespeare and Den Jonson took their cool tankard at the “Mermaid.” We can not afford, in the strictest view of dietary responsibility, to quarrel with them for it. When we consider Pitt and Goethe we do not concentrate our vision on Pitt’s bottles of port or Goethe’s bottles of Moselle. Then why, we ask, is there such a chasm between the “Mermaid” and the “Globe”; and why are the vintages of Wimbledon and Weimar so much more innocent than the simple punch-bowl of Inverary marble and its contents?
I should like to go a step further and affirm that we have something to be grateful for even in the weaknesses of men like Burns. Mankind is helped in its progress almost as much by the study of imperfection as by the contemplation of perfection. Had we nothing before us in our futile and halting lives but saints and the ideal, we might well fail altogether. We grope blindly along the catacombs of the world, we climb the dark ladder of life, we feel our way to futurity, but we can scarcely see an inch around or before us. We stumble and falter and fall, our hands and knees are bruised and sore, and we look up for light and guidance. Could we see nothing but distant, unapproachable impeccability we might well sink prostrate in the hopelessness of emulation, and the weariness of despair. Is it not then, when all seems blank and lightless, when strength and courage flag, and when perfection seems remote as a star, is it not then that imperfection helps us? When we see that the greatest and choicest images of God have had their weaknesses like ours, their temptations, their hour of darkness, their bloody sweat, are we not encouraged by their lapses and catastrophes to find energy for one more effort, one more struggle? Where they failed, we feel it a less dishonor to fail; their errors and sorrows make, as it were, an easier ascent from infinite imperfection to infinite perfection.
Man, after all, is not ripened by virtue alone. Were it so, this world were a paradise of angels. No. Like the growth of the earth, he is the fruit of all seasons, the accident of a thousand accidents, a living mystery moving through the seen to the unseen; he is sown in dishonor; he is matured under all the varieties of heat and cold, in mists and wrath, in snow and vapors, in the melancholy of autumn, in the torpor of winter as well as in the rapture and fragrance of summer, or the balmy affluence of spring, its breath, its sunshine; at the end he is reaped, the product not of one climate but of all, not of good alone but of sorrow, perhaps mellowed and ripened, perhaps stricken and withered and sour. How, then, shall we judge anyone? How, at any rate, shall we judge a giant, great in gifts and great in temptation; great in strength, and great in weakness? Let us glory in his strength and be comforted in his weakness; and when we thank heaven for the inestimable gift of Burns, we do not need to remember wherein he was imperfect: we can not bring ourselves to regret that he was made of the same clay as ourselves.
Earl Of Rosebery Speech - A Tribute To Robert Burns