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and work, as against the ephemeral, man-made nature of
"A wit's a feather and a chief a rod;
An honest man's the noblest work of God.”
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings ;
Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refin'd."
66 For a' that and a' that”; its chorus ending,
“The rank is but the guinea stamp;
The man's the gowd for a' that
“It's coming yet for a' that
Shall brothers be for a' that”.
“ Preserve the dignity of man
With soul erect
It has often been urged or admitted that he did not always
preserve the dignity of man”; he admits himself as much
“I saw thy pulse's maddening play
By Passion driven”.
“But yet the light, that led astray,
Was light from Heaven”. He had the inspired poet's unstable equilibrium of nature, and he had come in a time when the drinking habits and loose morality of the century, handed down to it by the court of Charles the Second, had to be bold and even flippant in order to stand up in presence of the new criticism and the new demand for purity of life and sincerity of religion. Burns's enthusiastic and social disposition made him the natural prey of these customs of all classes, customs that were to suffer eclipse before his generation was out. We find him, therefore, continually sway between lapse and remorse for lapse; his poems now applaud the sin and again condemn and bewail the sinner. His repentance is as sincere as his indulgence. The misfortune is that what could be ignored and has been forgotten in most of the men of last century, both prominent and obscure, has been in his case made immortal by his poetry; there, are recorded all his breaches of what is now thought necessary to the "dignity of man”, all his championship of outrage on convention and even moral law, in verse that cannot be forgotten; he made his own “evil manners live in brass”; he had the writing of his own epitaph, and it has been so etched in by the concentration of his satire and the fire of his lyrics that his virtues and his fundamental creed have fallen into oblivion.
It is one of the most tragic spectacles of last century, this strong soul buffeted by the cross-currents of the ages, and by the tempests of revolution. How often he falls back upon his father's creed and life, and tries to get refuge in them, only to find himself driven forth by his wild passions and the epicurean practices or revolutionary theories of the
time! His Cottar's Saturday Night with its noble picture of simple peasant virtue and household religion, his Prayer and Stanzas in the Prospect of Death, almost Biblical in their phraseology, his Epistle to a Young Friend (1786), with its praise of heart religion and its
“ An atheist's laugh's a poor exchange
For Deity offended ”, his Lines Written in Glenriddel Hermitage 1788 with its
“ Life is but a day at most
Sprung from night, in darkness lost", and
“ Reverence with lowly heart
Him whose wondrous work thou art”, must be set over against his erotic and bacchanalian songs, and his satires that deal freely with religious names and ideas. In many of the latter he felt himself justified by his indignation against all hypocrisy and by the enthusiasm for revolutionism. He was with the progressive theology of the New Light preachers, who sympathised with the advance of science and philosophy, and opposed the conversatism of the Auld Light clergymen, men who would allow no tincture of reason in their sermons or creed. As in every age, the conflict between the old and the new in theology was very bitter, and especially so in Ayrshire. And Burns, following his father, naturally sympathised with the religion that took into account the new thought. His public reproof by a clergyman for seduction made him red-hot in his antagonism to all those who favoured the old-fashioned Calvinism, dogmatic preaching, fiery threats of future punishment, and authoritative interference with social life. Some of the Auld Lights were harsh and intolerant in the exercise of their functions, and a few of the most obnoxiously rigid, as, in every creed, were hypocrites; hence The Holy Fair with its caustic picture of what a scoffer might see in a sacramental gathering, The Ordination with its bitter personalities, The Calf with its flippant but clever wit, The Address to the Unco Guid with its appeal for tolerance,
(“ Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman”), the milder ridicule of two quarreling preachers in The T'wa Herds, and the vitriolic burlesque Holy Willie's Prayer. In the last he tears off the cloak of religious hypocrisy with
ruthless hand; Holy Willie addresses Heaven as his special
“ All hail Religion ! maid divine !
Can ne'er defame thee". He acknowledges that there are many "manly preachers in the church. And his satires did not a little to purge it of the faults he objected to.
12. His social satires and pictures are more genial, and some of them are even more felicitous in their phrases than these. Death and Doctor Hornbook is one of the most vivid and it has much of the biting vigour of Holy Willie's Prayer; its satire is true against quacks in all ages. Tam Samson's Elegy, Scotch Drink, To a Haggis, To the Toothache, and To a Louse are in the same stanza he borrowed from Fergusson, and are more in the style of his model, unelevated as their themes. His Hallowe'en, and The Jolly Beggars, are faithful pictures of rough life, the one full of folk-superstitions, and the other of rattling lyrics of love and drink. His Brigs of Ayr a dialogue between the new and old bridge, with satiric touches on new customs, two of his Epistles to Robert Graham, and his theatrical prologues and addresses are in the heroic couplet, and show that he was not at his ease in the verse of Dryden and Pope; he tends to be stilted and artificial. The verse, that he uses most naturally next to the stanza of Fergusson, is the octosyllabic measure of Swift. He employs it in his Twa Dogs, in his Dedication to Gavin Hamilton, in his Lines written in Friars Carse Hermitage, and in the best of his poems, Tam O'Shanter; the short line and the easy construction of the rhyme suit his most humorous mood. The last he wrote in a day at Dumfries in 1790, and, for convivial pictures, beautiful and apt similes, absorbing narrative and the mixture of irony and superstition, it is unsurpassed; he is by turns the epicurean, the poet, the satirist, and the awed rustic; the only pieces that bear separation from their context are his similes ;
“ As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
A moment white-then melts for ever", 13. But it cannot be said that he is at his very best in any of his poems. He shows himself at his feeblest in his epigrams, which exhibit more vigour in the intention than in the effect. It was as a lyrist that he fitted his nation, his age, and his own genius. No such body of song as his has ever been produced by any one period of any nation, let alone by any one man. He wrote close on three hundred lyrics, one half of which are equal to the best of any nationality. It is true, most of them were based on older songs, but, like Shakespeare, he turned the coarse metal of the originals into fine gold. They express every phase of human passion, and fit every variety of mood. There are Jacobite songs like “ Here's a health to them that's awa patriotic like “Scots wha hae” and “Does haughty Gaul invasion threat”, political like “When Guilford good our pilot stood”, and revolutionary like Address to General Dumourier, and “Is there for honest poverty”; there are ballads like “ Lord Gregory ope thy door”, and sentimental songs like Afton Water, My Nannie O, and Mary Morison, pathetic songs like “ Ye Banks and Braes o' bonny Doon”, and bacchanalian songs like “Willie brew'd a peck o' maut and Auld Lang Syne ; love songs like “ O Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad”, and The rigs o' barley, and songs of