William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

. (page 14 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 14 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

have done, that excite our wonder and admiration. He has the same



sort of posthumous fame that an actor of the last age has — an abstracted
reputation which is independent of any thine; we know of his
works. The admirers of Collins never think of him without recalling
to their minds his Ode on Evening, or on the Poetical Character.
Grav's Elegy, and his poetical popularity, are identified together, and
inseparable even in imagination. It is the same with respect to
Burns : when you speak of him as a poet, you mean his works, his
Tarn o' Shanter, or his Cotter's Saturday Night. But the enthusiasts
for Chatterton, if you ask for the proofs of his extraordinary genius,
are obliged to turn to the volume, and perhaps find there what
thev seek ; but it is not in their minds ; and it is of that I spoke.
The Minstrel's song in -/Ella is I think the best.

' O ! synge untoc my roundelaie,
O ! droppe the brynie teare wythe mce,
Daunce ne moe atte hallie daie,
Lycke a rennynge ryver bee.
Mie love ys dedde,
Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,
Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Black hys cryne as the wyntere nvght,
Whyte hys rode as the sommer snowe,
Rodde hys face as the mornynge lyghte
Cale he lyes ynne the grave belowe.
Mie love ys dedde,
Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,
Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Swote hys tongue as the throstles note,
Quycke ynne daunce as thought cann bee,
Defte his taboure, codgelle stote,
O ! hee lys bie the wyllowe-tree.
Mie love ys dedde,
Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,
Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Harke ! the ravenne flappes hys wynge,
In the briered dell belowe ;
Harke ! the dethe-owle loude dothe synge,
To the nygthe-mares as theie goe.

Mie love ys dedde,

Gone to hys deathe-bedde,

Al under the wyllowe-tree.


See ! the whyte moone sheenes onne hie ;
Whyterre ys mie true loves shroude ;


Whyterre yanne the mornynge side,
Whyterre yanne the evenynge cloude.

Mie love ys dedde,

Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

Al under the wyllowe-tree,

Heere, upon mie true loves grave,
Schalle the baren fleurs be layde,
Ne one hallie seyncte to save
Al the celness of a mayde.

Mie love ys dedde,

Gonne to his deathe-bedde,

Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Wythe mie hondes I Ml dent the brieres
Rounde hys hallie corse to gre,
Ouphante fairies, lyghte your tyres,
Heere mie boddie stille schalle bee.

Mie love ys dedde,

Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Comme, wythe acorne-coppe and thorne,
Drayne my hartys blodde awaie ;
Lyfe and all yttes goode I scorne,
Daunce bie nete, or feaste by daie.

Mie love ys dedde,

Gonne to hys deathe-bedde,

Al under the wyllowe-tree.

Water wytches, crownede wythe revtes,
Bere mee to yer leathalle tyde.
I die 5 I comme ; mie true love waytes.
Thos the damselle spake, and dyed.'

To proceed to the more immediate subject of the present Lecture,
the character and writings of Burns. — Shakspeare says of some one,
that ' he was like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring.'
Burns, the poet, was not such a man. He had a strong mind, and a
strong body, the fellow to it. He had a real heart of flesh and
blood beating in his bosom — you can almost hear it throb. Some
one said, that if you had shaken hands with him, his hand would
have burnt yours. The Gods, indeed, ' made him poetical ' ; but
nature had a hand in him first. His heart was in the right place.
He did not 'create a soul under the ribs of death,' by tinkling siren
sounds, or by piling up centos of poetic diction ; but for the artificial
flowers of poetry, he plucked the mountain-daisy under his feet ; and
a field-mouse, hurrying from its ruined dwelling, could inspire him



with the sentiments of terror and pity. He held the plough or the
pen with the same firm, manly grasp; nor did he cut out poetry as
we cut out watch-papers, with finical dexterity, nor from the same
flimsy materials. Burns was not like Shakspeare in the range of his
genius ; but there is something of the same magnanimity, directness,
and unaffected character about him. He was not a sickly senti-
mentalist, a namby-pamby poet, a mincing metre ballad-monger, any
more than Shakspeare. He would as soon hear ' a brazen candle-
stick tuned, or a dry wheel grate on the axletree.' He was as much
of a man — not a twentieth part as much of a poet as Shakspeare
With but little of his imagination or inventive power, he had the
same life of mind : within the narrow circle of personal feeling or
domestic incidents, the pulse of his poetry flows as healthily and
vigorously. He had an eye to see ; a heart to feel : — no more.
His pictures of good fellowship, of social glee, of quaint humour, are
equal to any thing ; they come up to nature, and they cannot go
bevond it. The sly jest collected in his laughing eye at the sight of
the grotesque and ludicrous in manners — the large tear rolled down
his manly cheek at the sight of another's distress. He has made us
as well acquainted with himself as it is possible to be ; has let out the
honest impulses of his native disposition, the unequal conflict of the
passions in his breast, with the same frankness and truth of description.
His strength is not greater than his weakness : his virtues were greater
than his vices. His virtues belonged to his genius : his vices to his
situation, which did not correspond to his genius.

It has been usual to attack Burns' s moral character, and the moral
tendency of his writings at the same time ; and Mr. Wordsworth, in
a letter to Mr. Gray, Master of the High School at Edinburgh, in
attempting to defend, has only laid him open to a more serious and
unheard-of responsibility. Mr. Gray might very well have sent him
, in return for his epistle, the answer of Holofernes in Love's
I iur's Lost: — • Via goodman Dull, thou hast spoken no word all
this while.' The author of this performance, which is as weak in
effect as it is pompous in pretension, shews a great dislike of
Robespierre, Buonaparte, and of Mr. Jeffrey, whom he, by some
unaccountable fatality, classes together as the three most formidable
enemies of the human race that have appeared in his (Mr. Words-
worth's) remembrance; but he betrays very little liking to Burns.
He is, indeed, anxious to get him out of the unhallowed clutches of
the Edinburgh Reviewers (as a mere matter of poetical privilege),
only to bring him before a graver and higher tribunal, which is his
own ; and after repeating and insinuating ponderous charges against
him, shakes his head, and declines giving any opinion in so tremendous



a case ; so that though the judgment of the former critic is set aside,
poor Burns remains just where he was, and nobody gains any thing
by the cause but Mr. Wordsworth, in an increasing opinion of his
own wisdom and purity. * Out upon this half-faced fellowship ! '
The author of the Lyrical Ballads has thus missed a fine opportunity
of doing Burns justice and himself honour. He might have shewn
himself a philosophical prose-writer, as well as a philosophical poet.
He might have offered as amiable and as gallant a defence of the
Muses, as my uncle Toby, in the honest simplicity of his heart, did
of the army. He might have said at once, instead of making a parcel
of wry faces over the matter, that Burns had written Tarn o' Shanter,
and that that alone was enough ; that he could hardly have described
the excesses of mad, hairbrained, roaring mirth and convivial in-
dulgence, which are the soul of it, if he himself had not ' drunk full
ofter of the ton than of the well ' — unless ' the act and practique part
of life had been the mistress of his theorique.' Mr. Wordsworth
might have quoted such lines as —

' The landlady and Tarn grew gracious,
Wi 1 favours secret, sweet, and precious ' ; —

' Care, mad to see a man so happy,
E'en drown'd himself among the nappy' ;

and fairly confessed that he could not have written such lines from a
want of proper habits and previous sympathy ; and that till some great
puritanical genius should arise to do these things equally well without
any knowledge of them, the world might forgive Burns the injuries
he had done his health and fortune in his poetical apprenticeship to
experience, for the pleasure he had afforded them. Instead of this,
Mr. Wordsworth hints, that with different personal habits and greater
strength of mind, Burns would have written differently, and almost as
well as he does. He might have taken that line of Gay's,

' The fly that sips treacle is lost in the sweets,' —

and applied it in all its force and pathos to the poetical character.
He might have argued that poets are men of genius, and that a man
of genius is not a machine ; that they live in a state of intellectual
intoxication, and that it is too much to expect them to be distinguished
by peculiar sang froid, circumspection, and sobriety. Poets are by
nature men of stronger imagination and keener sensibilities than others;
and it is a contradiction to suppose them at the same time governed
only by the cool, dry, calculating dictates of reason and foresight.
Mr. Wordsworth might have ascertained the boundaries that part the
E 129


provinces of reason and imagination : — that it is the business of the
understanding to exhibit things in their relative proportions and
ultimate consequences — of the imagination to insist on their im-
mediate impressions, and to indulge their strongest impulses ; but it is
the poet's office to pamper the imagination of his readers and his own
with the extremes of present ecstacy or agony, to snatch the swift-
winged golden minutes, the torturing hour, and to banish the dull,
prosaic, monotonous realities of life, both from his thoughts and from
his practice. Mr. Wordsworth might have shewn how it is that all
men of genius, or of originality and independence of mind, are liable
to practical errors, from the very confidence their superiority inspires,
which makes them fly in the face of custom and prejudice, always
rashly, sometimes unjustly ; for, after all, custom and prejudice are
not without foundation in truth and reason, and no one individual is
a match for the world in power, very few in knowledge. The world
may altogether be set down as older and wiser than any single person
in it.

Again, our philosophical letter-writer might have enlarged on the
temptations to which Burns was exposed from his struggles with
fortune and the uncertainty of his fate. He might have shewn how a
poet, not born to wealth or title, was kept in a constant state of feverish
anxiety with respect to his fame and the means of a precarious liveli-
hood : that ' from being chilled with poverty, steeped in contempt, he
had passed into the sunshine of fortune, and was lifted to the very
pinnacle of public favour ' ; yet even there could not count on the
continuance of success, but was, ' like the giddy sailor on the mast,
ready with every blast to topple down into the fatal bowels of the
deep ! ' He might have traced his habit of ale-house tippling to the
last long precious draught of his favourite usquebaugh, which he took
in the prospect of bidding farewel for ever to his native land ; and his
conjugal infidelities to his first disappointment in love, which would
m> - have happened to him, if he had been born to a small estate in
land, or bred up behind a counter !

Lastly, Mr. Wordsworth might have shewn the incompatibility
between the Muses and the Excise, which never agreed well to-
gether, or met in one seat, till they were unaccountably reconciled
on Rydal Mount. He must know (no man better) the distraction
cd by the opposite calls of business and of fancy, the torment of
extents, the plague of receipts laid in order or mislaid, the disagree-
ableness of exacting penalties or paving the forfeiture ; and how all
this (together with the broaching of casks and the splashing of beer-
•ls) must have preyed upon a mind like Burns, with more than
his natural sensibility and none of his acquired firmness.



Mr. Coleridge, alluding to this circumstance of the promotion of
the Scottish Bard to be ' a gauger of ale-firkins,' in a poetical epistle
to his friend Charles Lamb, calls upon him in a burst of heartfelt
indignation, to gather a wreath of henbane, nettles, and nightshade,

' To twine

The illustrious brow of Scotch nobility.'

If, indeed, Mr. Lamb had undertaken to write a letter in defence of
Burns, how different would it have been from this of Mr. Words-
worth's ! How much better than I can even imagine it to have been
done !

It is hardly reasonable to look for a hearty or genuine defence of
Burns from the pen of Mr. Wordsworth ; for there is no common
link of sympathy between them. Nothing can be more different or
hostile than the spirit of their poetry. Mr. Wordsworth's poetry is
the poetry of mere sentiment and pensive contemplation : Burns's
is a very highly sublimated essence of animal existence. With
Burns, ' self-love and social are the same ' —

1 And we '11 tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne."

Mr. Wordsworth is ' himself alone,' a recluse philosopher, or a
reluctant spectator of the scenes of many-coloured life ; moralising on
them, not describing, not entering into them. Robert Burns has
exerted all the vigour of his mind, all the happiness of his nature, in
exalting the pleasures of wine, of love, and good fellowship : but
in Mr. Wordsworth there is a total disunion and divorce of the
faculties of the mind from those of the body ; the banns are forbid,
or a separation is austerely pronounced from bed and board — a mensd
et thoro. From the Lyrical Ballads, it does not appear that men eat
or drink, marry or are given in marriage. If we lived by every
sentiment that proceeded out of mouths, and not by bread or wine, or
if the species were continued like trees (to borrow an expression
from the great Sir Thomas Brown), Mr Wordsworth's poetry
would be just as good as ever. It is not so with Burns : he is
' famous for the keeping of it up,' and in his verse is ever fresh and
gay. For this, it seems, he has fallen under the displeasure of the
Edinburgh Reviewers, and the still more formidable patronage of
Mr. Wordsworth's pen.

'This, this was the ankindest cut of all.'
I was going to give some extracts out of this composition in


support of what I have said, but I find them too tedious. Indeed (if I
may be allowed to speak my whole mind, under correction) Mr.
Wordsworth could not be in any way expected to tolerate or give a
favourable interpretation to Burns's constitutional foibles — even his
best virtues are not good enough for him. He is repelled and driven
back into himself, not less by the worth than by the faults of others
His taste is as exclusive and repugnant as his genius. It is because
so few things give him pleasure, that he gives pleasure to so few
people. It is not every one who can perceive the sublimity of a
daisy, or the pathos to be extracted from a withered thorn !

To proceed from Burns's patrons to his poetry, than which no two
things can be more different. His ' Twa Dogs ' is a very spirited
piece of description, both as it respects the animal and human creation,
and conveys a very vivid idea of the manners both of high and low
life. The burlesque panegyric of the first dog,

' His locked, lettered, braw brass collar
Shew'd him the gentleman and scholar" —

reminds one of Launce's account of his dog Crabbe, where he is said,
as an instance of his being in the way of promotion, ' to have got
among three or four gentleman-like dogs under the Duke's table.'
The ' Halloween ' is the most striking and picturesque description of
local customs and scenery. The Brigs of Ayr, the Address to a
Haggis, Scotch Drink, and innumerable others are, however, full of
the same kind of characteristic and comic painting. But his master-
piece in this way is his Tam o' Shanter. I shall give the beginning
of it, but I am afraid I shall hardly know when to leave off.

' When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
.And folk begin to tak the gate ;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering .storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter ;
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonny lasses.)


O Tam ! hadst thou but been sae wise,
As ta'en thy ain wife Kate's advice !
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum ;
That frae November till October
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder, wi' the miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller ;
That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on ;
That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirton Jean till Monday —
She prophesy'd, that late or soon,
Thou wad be found deep drown'd in Doon ;
Or catcht wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld haunted kirk.

Ah, gentle dames ! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen'd, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises !

But to our tale : Ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo'ed him like a vera brither ;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi' sangs an clatter,
And aye the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious
Wi' favours secret, sweet, and precious i
The Souter tauld his queerest stories ;
The landlord's laugh was ready chorus :
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E'en drown'd himsel amang the nappy;
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure :
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
O'er a' the ills of life victorious!

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r — its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow, falls in the river,
A moment white — then melts for ever;



Or like the Borealis race,

That flit ere you can point their place 5

Or like the rainbow's lovely form,

Evanishing amid the storm. —

Nae man can tether time or tide,

The hour approaches, Tarn maun ride ;

That hour o' night's black arch the key-stane,

That dreary hour he mounts his beast in,

And sic a night he taks the road in,

As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.

The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast,
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow'd,
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellovv'd 1
That night a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.

Weel mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tarn skelpit on thro' dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and tire ;
Whiles haulding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares ;
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry. —

By this time Tarn was crois the lord,
Whare in the snaw, the chapman smoor'd ;
And past the birks and meikle stane.
Whare drunken Charlie brak 's neck-bane j
And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn ;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo's mither hang'd hersel. —
Before him Doon pours all his floods ;
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods ;
The lightnings flash from pole to pole ;
Near and more near the thunders roll :
Whan, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze;
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing;
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn !
What dangers thou canst make us scorn !
WT Tippenny, we fear nae evil,
Wi' Usqueba, we '11 face the devil !


The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddie,
Fair play, he car'd na de'ils a boddie.
But Maggie stood right sair astonish'd,
Till by the heel and hand admonish'd,
She ventur'd forward on the light,
And, vow ! Tam saw an unco sight !
Warlocks and witches in a dance,
Nae light cotillion new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
As winnock-bunker, in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
A touzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge ;
He screw'd the pipes, and gait them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a 1 did dirl —
Coffins stood round like open presses,
That shaw'd the dead in their last dresses;
And, by some devilish cantrip slight,
Each in its cauld hand held a light —
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murderer's banes in gibbet-airns ;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen'd bairns ;
A thief, new cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wP bluid red rusted ;
Five scimitars, wi 1 murder crusted ;
A garter, which a babe had strangled ;
A knife, a father's throat had mangled.
Whom his ain son o' life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack to the heft ;
Wi' mair, o' horrible and awfu',
Which e'en to name wad be unlawfu'.

As Tammie glowr'd amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious:
The Piper loud and louder blew ;
The dancers quick and quicker flew ;
They reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka Carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark !

Now Tam, O Tam ! had they been queans
A' plump and strapping in their teens;
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie fiannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hundred linen !



Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' guid blue hair,
1 wad hae gi'en them aff my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonnie burdies !

But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Luiiping and flinging on a crummock,
I wonder did na turn thy stomach.

But Tarn ken'd what was what fif brawly,
There was ae winsome wench and waly,
That night enlisted in the core,
(Lang after ken'd on Carrick shore ;
For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish'd mony a bonnie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear — )
Her cutty sark o' Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vaunty. —
Ah ! little ken'd thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi' twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches !

But here my Muse her wing maun cour j
Sic flights are far beyond her power:
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was, and Strang)
And how Tarn stood like ane bewitch d,
And thought his very een enrich'd ;
Ev'n Satan glowrM and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch't, and blew wi' might and main j
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tarn tint his reason a' thegither,
And roars out, ' Weel done, Cutty Sark ! *
And in an instant all was dark ;
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

As bees biz out wi' angry fyke
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As open pussie's mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts before their nose ;
As eager rins the market-crowd,
When ' Catch the thief! ' resounds aloud j
So Maggie rins — the witches follow,
Wi' mony an eldritch skreech and hollow,
1 36


Ah, Tarn ! ah, Tarn ! thou '11 get thy fairin' I
In hell they '11 roast thee like a herrin' !
In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin' !
Kate soon will be a waefif woman !
Now, do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o' the brig;
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross ;
But ere the key-stane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake !
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tarn wi' furious ettle ;
But little wist she Maggie's mettle —
Ae spring brought off her master hale,

Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 14 of 38)