MetadataShow full item record
One hundred and forty-three years ago Robert Burns died and was buried, yet today he is more alive than are a great many people who are walking about and talking. Hear a group of Burnsites discussing their poet. Is not Burns living to them? The drouthy soul speaks of him as though they two had recently sat “bousing at the nappy"; the "radical” calls on Burns as a fellow-rebel; the zealous Scot defends the poet's reputation as warmly as if he were talking about his own third cousin. All of them think of Burns as a friend. What other great poet is familiarly addressed with a nickname by men who live four or five generations after him? They mention Spenser or Milton, or even Shakespeare with respect, with admiration, or with worship, but they speak of “oor Rabbie” with affection. It is not hard to become a friend of Burns. True, one cannot present to him a letter of introduction from Gavin Hamilton or William Nicol, but the poet does not stand upon ceremony. He is accessible to anyone who will read his poems. Hazlitt, who was one of those who loved the poet as well as the poetry, said, "He has made us as well acquainted with himself as it is possible to be-----He had a real heart of flesh and blood beating in his bosom--You can almost hear it throb.” 1 The life and works of no other poet are so closely related; in his poetry Burns painted his environment, his home, his work, his emotions with almost physical verisimilitude. He had no hypocrisy or reserve. "We can see horribly clear in the works of such a man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies," wrote Keats.2 It is true, also, that a knowledge of the life of Burns is an aid to the understanding of his poetry. The condition of his country, the nature of his people, the events of his life all influenced the development of the genius of Burns. Before we begin, it is as well to shake off prejudices and to decide to ignore the comments of biographers, for Burns himself can tell us much more than can they. A study of Burns undertaken sincerely will give one a new insight into human nature and a wider tolerance for human failings. Anyone who does succeed in making a friend of Burns is well repaid for hours of careful study. His contemporaries could not praise enough the charm of his personality. "None certainly ever outshone Burns in the charms--the sorcery I would almost call it--of fascinating conversation……such was the irresistible power of attraction that encircled him--though his appearance and manner were always peculiar, he never failed to delight and to excel." 3 That was the opinion of Maria Riddel. Fortunately a good measure of Burns's "irresistible power of attraction" was woven into those poems in which we see nature and men in the light of his personality. In addition, we will see a powerful intellect and an honest judgment trained on the problem of the relation of the individual to his environment, a problem which is as pressing today as when Burns wrote. In all, an acquaintance with Burns is a sufficient reward for going back to the Scotland of the Eighteenth Century to trace from the beginning the growth of her greatest poet. 1. Lectures on the English Poets, p. 127. 2. Letters, V. i, p. 183. 3. Life and Work of Robert Burns, Chambers-Wallace, V. iv, p. 521.