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Burns And His School
by [?]

A station like the herald Mercury,
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill.

Bestow on such a man the wittiest and most winning eloquence–a rich flow of spirits and fulness of health and life–a deep sense of wonder and beauty in the earth and man–an instinct of the dynamic and supernatural laws which underlie and vivify this material universe and its appearances, healthy, yet irregular and unscientific, all but superstitious–turn him loose in any country in Europe, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and it will not be difficult, alas! to cast his horoscope.

And what an age in which to be turned loose!–for loose he must go, to solve the problem of existence for himself. The grand simple old Scottish education which he got from his parents must prove narrow and unsatisfying for so rich and manifold a character; not because it was in itself imperfect; not because it did not contain implicitly all things necessary for his “salvation”–in every sense, all laws which he might require for his after-life guidance; but because it contained so much of them as yet only implicitly; because it was not yet conscious of its own breadth and depth, and power of satisfying the new doubts and cravings of such minds and such times as Burns’s. It may be that Burns was the devoted victim by whose fall it was to be taught that it must awaken and expand and renew its youth in shapes equally sound, but more complex and scientific. But it had not done so then. And when Burns found himself gradually growing beyond his father’s teaching in one direction, and tempted beyond it in another and a lower one, what was there in those times to take up his education at the point where it had been left unfinished? He saw around him in plenty animal good-nature and courage, barbaric honesty and hospitality–more, perhaps, than he would see now; for the upward progress into civilised excellences is sure to be balanced by some loss of savage ones–but reckless, shallow, above all, drunken. It was a hard-drinking, coarse, materialist age. The higher culture, of Scotland especially, was all but exclusively French–not a good kind, while Voltaire and Volney still remained unanswered, and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” were accepted by all young gentlemen, and a great many young ladies who could read French, as the best account of the relation of the sexes.

Besides, the philosophy of that day, like its criticism, was altogether mechanical, nay, as it now seems, materialist in its ultimate and logical results. Criticism was outward, and of the form merely. The world was not believed to be already, and in itself, mysterious and supernatural, and the poet was not defined as the man who could see and proclaim that supernatural element. Before it was admired, it was to be raised above nature into the region of “the picturesque,” or whatnot; and the poet was the man who gave it this factitious and superinduced beauty, by a certain “kompsologia” and “meteoroepeia,” called “poetic diction,” now happily becoming extinct, mainly, we believe, under the influence of Burns, although he himself thought it his duty to bedizen his verses therewith, and though it was destined to flourish for many a year more in the temple of the father of lies, like a jar of paper flowers on a Popish altar.

No wonder that in such a time, a genius like Burns should receive not only no guidance, but no finer appreciation. True; he was admired, petted, flattered; for that the man was wonderful no one could doubt. But we question whether he was understood; whether, if that very flowery and magniloquent style which we now consider his great failing had been away, he would not have been passed over by the many as a writer of vulgar doggrel. True, the old simple ballad-muse of Scotland still dropped a gem from her treasures, here and there, even in the eighteenth century itself–witness “Auld Robin Gray.” But who suspected that they were gems, of which Scotland, fifty years afterwards, would be prouder and more greedy than of all the second- hand French culture which seemed to her then the highest earthly attainment? The Review of Burns in an early number of the “Edinburgh Review,” said to be from the pen of the late Lord Jeffrey, shows, as clearly as anything can, the utterly inconsistent and bewildered feeling with which the world must have regarded such a phenomenon. Alas! there was inconsistency and bewilderment enough in the phenomenon itself, but that only made confusion worse confounded; the confusion was already there, even in the mind of the more practical literary men, who ought, one would have thought, also to have been the most deep-sighted. But no. The reviewer turns the strange thing over and over, and inside out–and some fifteen years after it has vanished out of the world, having said out its say and done all that it had to do, he still finds it too utterly abnormal to make up his mind about in any clear or consistent way, and gets thoroughly cross with it, and calls it hard names, because it will not fit into any established pigeon-hole or drawer of the then existing anthropological museum. Burns is “a literary prodigy,” and yet it is “a derogation” to him to consider him as one. And that we find, not as we should have expected, because he possessed genius, which would have made success a matter of course in any rank, but because he was so well educated–“having acquired a competent knowledge of French, together with the elements of Latin and Geometry,” and before he had composed a single stanza, was “far more intimately acquainted with Pope, Shakespeare, and Thomson, than nine-tenths of the youths who leave school for the university,” etc. etc.–in short, because he was so well educated, that his becoming Robert Burns, the immortal poet, was a matter of course and necessity. And yet, a page or two on, the great reason why it was more easy for Robert Burns the cottar to become an original and vigorous poet, rather than for any one of “the herd of scholars and academical literati,” who are depressed and discouraged by “perusing the most celebrated writers, and conversing with the most intelligent judges,” is found to be, that “the literature and refinement of the age do not exist for a rustic and illiterate individual; and consequently the present time is to him what the rude times of old were to the vigorous writer who adorned them.” In short the great reason of Robert Burns’s success was that he did not possess that education the possession of which proves him to be no prodigy, though the review begins by calling him one, and coupling him with Stephen Duck and Thomas Dermody.