Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
'Thy rural loves are nature's sel';' and the wooer of Jean Armour speaks
more like a true shepherd than the elegant Daphnis of the 'Oaristys.'
Indeed it is with this that moral critics of your life reproach you,
forgetting, perhaps, that in your amours you were but as other Scotch
ploughmen and shepherds of the past and present. Ettrick may still, with
Afghanistan, offer matter for idylls, as Mr. Carlyle (your antithesis, and the
complement of the Scotch character) supposed; but the morals of Ettrick are
those of rural Sicily in old days, or of Mossgiel in your days. Over these
matters the Kirk, with all her power, and the Free Kirk too, have had
absolutely no influence whatever. To leave so delicate a topic, you were but
as other swains, or, as 'that Birkie ca'd a lord,' Lord Byron; only you
combined (in certain of your letters) a libertine theory with your practice;
you poured out in song your audacious raptures, your half-hearted repentance,
your shame and your scorn. You spoke the truth about rural lives and loves. We
may like it or dislike it; but we cannot deny the verity.
Was it not as unhappy a thing, Sir, for you, as it was fortunate for Letters
and for Scotland, that you were born at the meeting of two ages and of two
worlds--precisely in the moment when bookish literature was beginning to reach
the people, and when Society was first learning to admit the low-born to her
Minor Mysteries? Before you how many singers not less truly poets than
yourself--though less versatile not less passionate, though less sensuous not
less simple--had been born and had died in poor men's cottages! There abides
not even the shadow of a name of the old Scotch song-smiths, of the old
ballad-makers. The authors of 'Clerk Saunders,' of 'The Wife of Usher's Well,'
of 'Fair Annie,' and 'Sir Patrick Spens,' and 'The Bonny Hind,' are as unknown
to us as Homer, whom in their directness and force they resemble. They never,
perhaps, gave their poems to writing; certainly they never gave them to the
press. On the lips and in the hearts of the people they have their lives; and
the singers, after a life obscure and untroubled by society or by fame, are
forgotten. 'The Iniquity of Oblivion blindly scattereth his Poppy.'
Had you been born some years earlier you would have been even as these unnamed
Immortals, leaving great verses to a little clan--verses retained only by
Memory. You would have been but the minstrel of your native valley: the wider
world would not have known you, nor you the world. Great thoughts of
independence and revolt would never have burned in you; indignation would not
have vexed you. Society would not have given and denied her caresses. You
would have been happy. Your songs would have lingered in all 'the circle of
the summer hills;' and your scorn, your satire, your narrative verse, would
have been unwritten or unknown. To the world what a loss! and what a gain to
you! We should have possessed but a few of your lyrics, as
When o'er the hill the eastern star
Tells bughtin-time is near, my jo;
And owsen frae the furrowed field,
Return sae dowf and wearie 0!
In thy sweet sang, Barbauld, survives
Even Sappho's flame!
Phoebus, gilding the brow o' morning,
Banishes ilk darksome shade!
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met--or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
*Transliterated from Greek.
A quiet life of song, fallentis semita vitae', was not to be yours. Fate
otherwise decreed it. The touch of a lettered society, the strife with the
Kirk, discontent with the State, poverty and pride, neglect and success, were
needed to make your Genius what it was, and to endow the world with 'Tam o'
Shanter,' the 'Jolly Beggars,' and 'Holy Willie's Prayer.' Who can praise them
too highly--who admire in them too much the humour, the scorn, the wisdom, the
unsurpassed energy and courage? So powerful, so commanding, is the movement of
that Beggars' Chorus, that, methinks, it unconsciously echoed in the brain of
our greatest living poet when he conceived the Vision of Sin. You shall judge
for yourself. Recall:
Here's to budgets, bags, and wallets!
Here's to all the wandering train!
Here's our ragged bairns and callers!
One and all cry out, Amen!
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected!
Churches built to please the priest!
Then read this:
Drink to lofty hopes that cool
Visions of a perfect state:
Drink we, last, the public fool,
Frantic love and frantic hate.
Drink to Fortune, drink to Chance,
While we keep a little breath!
Drink to heavy Ignorance
Hob and nob with brother Death!
Is not the movement the same, though the modern speaks a wilder recklessness?
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