The blanket of the night is drawn aside; in full ruddy gleaming light these rough tatterdemalions are seen at their boisterous revel wringing from Fate another hour of wassail and good cheer." Over the whole is flung a half-humorous, half-savage satire - aimed, like a two-edged sword, at the laws and the law-breakers, in the acme of which the graceless crew are raised above the level of ordinary gipsies, footpads and rogues, and are made to sit "on the hills like gods together, careless of mankind," and to launch their Titan thunders of rebellion against the world.
"A fig for those by law protected;
Liberty's a glorious feast;
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest."
A similar mixture of drollery and defiance appears in the justly celebrated "Address to the Deil," which, mainly whimsical, is relieved by touches oan in the conception of such a being straying in lonely places and loitering among trees, or in the familiarity with which the poet lectures so awful a personage," - we may add, than in the inimitable outbreak at the close -
"O would you tak a thought an' men'."
Carlyle, in reference to this passage, cannot resist the suggestion of a parallel from Sterne. "He is the father of curses and lies, said Dr Slop, and is cursed and damned already. I am sorry for it, quoth my Uncle Toby."
Burns fared ill at the hands of those who were not sorry for it, and who repeated with glib complacency every terrible belief of the system in which they had been trained. The most scathing of his Satires, under which head fall many of his minor and frequent passages in his major pieces, are directed against the false pride of birth, and what he conceived to be the false pretences of religion. The apologue of "Death and Dr Hornbook," "The Ordination," the song "No churchman am I for to rail and to write," the "Address to the Unco Guid," "Holy Willie," and above all "The Holy Fair," with its savage caricature of an ignorant ranter of the time called Moodie, and others of like stamp, not unnaturally provoked offence. As regards the poet's attitude towards some phases of Calvinism prevalent during his life, it has to be remarked that from the days of Dunbar there has been a degree of antagonism between Scottish verse and the more rigid forms of Scottish theology.
It must be admitted that in protesting against hypocrisy he has occasionally been led beyond the limits prescribed by good taste. He is at times abusive of those who differ from him. This, with other offences against decorum, which here and there disfigure his pages, can only be condoned by an appeal to the general tone of his writing, which is reverential. Burns had a firm faith in a Supreme Being, not as a vague mysterious Power; but as the Arbiter of human life. Amid the vicissitudes of his career he responds to the cottar's summons, "Let us worship God."
"An atheist's laugh's a poor exchange
For Deity offended"
is the moral of all his verse, which treats seriously of religious matters. His prayers in rhyme give him a high place among secular Psalmists.
Like Chaucer, Burns was a great moralist, though a rough one. In the moments of his most intense revolt against conventional prejudice and sanctimonious affectation, he is faithful to the great laws which underlie change, loyal in his veneration for the cardinal virtues - Truth, Justice and Charity, - and consistent in the warnings, to which his experience gives an unhappy force, against transgressions of Temperance. In the "Epistle to a Young Friend," the shrewdest advice is blended with exhortations appealing to the highest motive, that which transcends the calculation of consequences, and bids us walk in the straight path from the feeling of personal honour, and "for the glorious privilege of being independent." Burns, like Dante, "loved well because he hated, hated wickedness that hinders loving," and this feeling, as in the lines - "Dweller in yon dungeon dark," sometimes breaks bounds; but his calmer moods are better represented by the well-known passages in the "Epistle to Davie," in which he preaches acquiescence in our lot, and a cheerful acceptance of our duties in the sphere where we are placed. This philosophie douce, never better sung by Horace, is the prevailing refrain of our author's Songs. On these there are few words to add to the acclaim of a century.
They have passed into the air we breathe; they are so real that they seem things rather than words, or, nearer still, living beings. They have taken all hearts, because they are the breath of his own; not polished cadences, but utterances as direct as laughter or tears. Since Sappho loved and sang, there has been no such national lyrist as Burns. Fine ballads, mostly anonymous, existed in Scotland previous to his time; and shortly before a few authors had produced a few songs equal to some of his best. Such are Alexander Ross's "Wooed and Married," Lowe's "Mary's Dream," "Auld Robin Gray," "The Land o' the Leal" and the two versions of "The Flowers o' the Forest." From these and many of the older pieces in Ramsay's collection, Burns admits to have derived copious suggestions and impulses. He fed on the past literature of his country as Chaucer on the old fields of English thought, and -
"Still the elements o' sang,
In formless jumble, right and wrang,
Went floating in his brain."
But he gave more than he received; he brought forth an hundredfold; he summed up the stray material of the past, and added so much of his own that one of the most conspicuous features of his lyrical genius is its variety in new paths. Between the first of war songs, composed in a storm on a moor, and the pathos of "Mary in Heaven," he has made every chord in our northern life to vibrate. The distance from "Duncan Gray" to "Auld Lang Syne" is nearly as great as that from Falstaff to Ariel. There is the vehemence of battle, the wail of woe, the march of veterans "red-wat-shod," the smiles of meeting, the tears of parting friends, the gurgle of brown burns, the roar of the wind through pines, the rustle of barley rigs, the thunder on the hill - all Scotland is in his verse. Let who will make her laws, Burns has made the songs, which her emigrants recall "by the long wash of Australasian seas," in which maidens are wooed, by which mothers lull their infants, which return "through open casements unto dying ears" - they are the links, the watchwords, the masonic symbols of the Scots race.