And Time is setting wi' me, O."
For other examples of the same graphic power we may refer to the course of his stream -
"Whiles ow'r a linn the burnie plays
As through the glen it wimpled," etc.,
or to "The Birks of Aberfeldy" or the "spate" in the dialogue of "The Brigs of Ayr." The poet is as much at home in the presence of this flood as by his "trottin' burn's meander." Familiar with all the seasons he represents the phases of a northern winter with a frequency characteristic of his clime and of his fortunes; her tempests became anthems in his verse, and the sounding woods "raise his thoughts to Him that walketh on the wings of the wind"; full of pity for the shelterless poor, the "ourie cattle," the "silly sheep," and the "helpless birds," he yet reflects that the bitter blast is not "so unkind as man's ingratitude." This constant tendency to ascend above the fair or wild features of outward things, or to penetrate beneath them, to make them symbols, to endow them with a voice to speak for humanity, distinguishes Burns as a descriptive poet from the rest of his countrymen. As a painter he is rivalled by Dunbar and James I., more rarely by Thomson and Ramsay. The "lilt" of Tannahill's finest verse is even more charming. But these writers rest in their art; their main care is for their own genius. The same is true in a minor degree of some of his great English successors.
Keats has a palette of richer colours, but he seldom condescends to "human nature's daily food." Shelley floats in a thin air to stars and mountain tops, and vanishes from our gaze like his skylark. Byron, in the midst of his revolutionary fervour, never forgets that he himself belongs to the "caste of Vere de Vere." Wordsworth's placid affection and magnanimity stretch beyond mankind, and, as in "Hart-leap-well" and the "Cuckoo," extend to bird and beast; he moralizes grandly on the vicissitudes of common life, but he does not enter into, because by right of superior virtue he places himself above them. "From the Lyrical Ballads," it has been said, "it does not appear that men eat or drink, marry or are given in marriage." We revere the monitor who, consciously good and great, gives us the dry light of truth, but we love the bard, nostrae deliciae, who is all fire - fire from heaven and Ayrshire earth mingling in the outburst of passion and of power, which is his poetry and the inheritance of his race. He had certainly neither culture nor philosophy enough to have written the "Ode on the Recollections of Childhood," but to appreciate that ode requires an education.
The sympathies of Burns, as broad as Wordsworth's, are more intense; in turning his pages we feel ourselves more decidedly in the presence of one who joys with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn. He is never shallow, ever plain, and the expression of his feeling is so terse that it is always memorable. Of the people he speaks more directly for the people than any of our more considerable poets. Chaucer has a perfect hold of the homeliest phases of life, but he wants the lyric element, and the charm of his language has largely faded from untutored ears. Shakespeare, indeed, has at once a loftier vision and a wider grasp; for he sings of "Thebes and Pelops line," of Agincourt and Philippi, as of Falstaff, and Snug the joiner, and the "meanest flower that blows." But not even Shakespeare has put more thought into poetry which the most prosaic must appreciate than Burns has done. The latter moves in a narrower sphere and wants the strictly dramatic faculty, but its place is partly supplied by the vividness of his narrative. His realization of incident and character is manifested in the sketches in which the manners and prevailing fancies of his countrymen are immortalized in connexion with local scenery. Among those almost every variety of disposition finds its favourite.
The quiet households of the kingdom have received a sort of apotheosis in the "Cottar's Saturday Night." It has been objected that the subject does not afford scope for the more daring forms of the author's genius; but had he written no other poem, this heartful rendering of a good week's close in a God-fearing home, sincerely devout, and yet relieved from all suspicion of sermonizing by its humorous touches, would have secured a permanent place in literature. It transcends Thomson and Beattie at their best, and will smell sweet like the actions of the just for generations to come.
Lovers of rustic festivity may hold that the poet's greatest performance is his narrative of "Halloween," which for easy vigour, fulness of rollicking life, blended truth and fancy, is unsurpassed in its kind. Campbell, Wilson, Hazlitt, Montgomery, Burns himself, and the majority of his critics, have recorded their preference for "Tam o' Shanter," where the weird superstitious element that has played so great a part in the imaginative work of this part of our island is brought more prominently forward. Few passages of description are finer than that of the roaring Doon and Alloway Kirk glimmering through the groaning trees; but the unique excellence of the piece consists in its variety, and a perfectly original combination of the terrible and the ludicrous. Like Goethe's Walpurgis Nacht, brought into closer contact with real life, it stretches from the drunken humours of Christopher Sly to a world of fantasies almost as brilliant as those of the Midsummer Night's Dream, half solemnized by the severer atmosphere of a sterner clime.
The contrast between the lines "Kings may be blest," etc., and those which follow, beginning "But pleasures are like poppies spread," is typical of the perpetual antithesis of the author's thought and life, in which, at the back of every revelry, he sees the shadow of a warning hand, and reads on the wall the writing, Omnia mutantur. With equal or greater confidence other judges have pronounced Burns's masterpiece to be "The Jolly Beggars." Certainly no other single production so illustrates his power of exalting what is insignificant, glorifying what is mean, and elevating the lowest details by the force of his genius. "The form of the piece," says Carlyle, "is a mere cantata, the theme the half-drunken snatches of a joyous band of vagabonds, while the grey leaves are floating on the gusts of the wind in the autumn of the year. But the whole is compacted, refined and poured forth in one flood of liquid harmony. It is light, airy and soft of movement, yet sharp and precise in its details; every face is a portrait, and the whole a group in clear photography.