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Burns And His School
by [?]

Now if the best critic of the age, writing fifteen years after Burns’s death, found himself between the horns of such a dilemma’– which indeed, like those of an old Arnee bull, meet at the points, and form a complete circle of contradictions–what must have been the bewilderment of lesser folk during the prodigy’s very lifetime? what must, indeed, have been his own bewilderment at himself, however manfully he may have kept it down? No wonder that he was unguided, either by himself or by others. We do not blame them; him we must deeply blame; yet not as we ought to blame ourselves, did we yield in the least to those temptations under which Burns fell.

Biographies of Burns, and those good ones, according to the standard of biographies in these days, are said to exist; we cannot say that we have as yet cared to read them. There are several other biographies, even more important, to be read first, when they are written. Shakespeare has found as yet no biographer; has not even left behind him materials for a biography, such at least as are considered worth using. Indeed, we question whether such a biography would be of any use whatever to the world; for the man who cannot, by studying his dramas in some tolerably accurate chronological order, and using as a running accompaniment and closet commentary those awe- inspiring sonnets of his, attain to some clear notion of what sort of life William Shakespeare must have led, would not see him much the clearer for many folios of anecdote. For after all, the best biography of every sincere man is sure to be his own works; here he has set down, “transferred as in a figure,” all that has happened to him, inward or outward, or rather, all which has formed him, produced a permanent effect upon his mind and heart; and knowing that, you know all you need know, and are content, being glad to escape the personality and gossip of names and places, and of dates even, except in as far as they enable you to place one step of his mental growth before or after another. Of the honest man this holds true always; and almost always of the dishonest man, the man of cant, affectation, hypocrisy; for even if he pretend in his novel or his poem to be what he is not, he still shows you thereby what he thinks he ought to have been, or at least what he thinks that the world thinks he ought to have been, and confesses to you, in the most naive and confidential way, like one who talks in his sleep, what learning he has or has not had; what society he has or has not seen, and that in the very act of trying to prove the contrary. Nay, the smaller the man or woman, and the less worth deciphering his biography, the more surely will he show you, if you have eyes to see and time to look, what sort of people offended him twenty years ago; what meanness he would have liked “to indulge in,” if he had dared, when young, and for what other meanness he relinquished it, as he grew up; of what periodical he stood in awe when he took pen in hand, and so forth. Whether his books treat of love or political economy, theology or geology, it is there, the history of the man legibly printed, for those who care to read it. In these poems and letters of Burns, we apprehend, is to be found a truer history than any anecdote can supply, of the things which happened to himself, and moreover of the most notable things which went on in Scotland between 1759 and 1796.

This latter assertion may seem startling, when we consider that we find in these poems no mention whatsoever of the discoveries of steamboats and spinning-jennies, the rise of the great manufacturing cities, the revolution in Scottish agriculture, or even in Scottish metaphysics. But after all, the history of a nation is the history of the men, and not of the things thereof; and the history of those men is the history of their hearts, and not of their purses, or even of their heads; and the history of one man who has felt in himself the heart experiences of his generation, and anticipated many belonging to the next generation, is so far the collective history of that generation, and of much–no man can say how much–of the next generation; and such a man, bearing within his single soul two generations of working-men, we take Robert Burns to have been; and his poems, as such, a contemporaneous history of Scotland, the equal to which we are not likely to see written for this generation, or several to come.