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BURNS, AS A POET.
[The Burns Centenary Festival suggested the desirability of a
lecture on Scotland's national poet, but a suitable essay has not come into our hands till now. “Burns, as a Poet,” is a sequel to “ Burns, as a Man :" the latter we hope to print in a future number. Mr. Finlayson has a poetic appreciation of the genius of Burns, and utters his judicious criti. cism and fervent admiration eloquently. Our readers will remember Mr. Finlayson's excellent lectures on “Shakspere" and “Self-Culture,” in the “Popular Lecturer" for 1857 and 1858. ]
What is a Poet? What are the peculiar characteristics of the highest poets? What position does Burns occupy among the poets? Full and satisfactory answers to these questions would lead us into a very wide and a very attractive field; but as time presses, I must lead you across by as short a path, and at as rapid a pace, as is consistent with a comprehensive and an intelligent survey. My remarks on the first and second questions will be brief, as those are but preliminary to the last question, which is more particularly the subject before us, viz., the place and powers of Burns as a poet.
1st. What is a poet? God, the infinite One, has manifested Himself in two ways unto men—directly, by His Word, who was in the beginning with God; and indirectly, through His works, which were created by Him. The first mentioned form of manifestation I shall drop, as it lies out of the scope of my present purpose. The second form is closely rela
ted, yea, is the subject before us. A German philosopher has laid down as a principle in his philosophy, that the universe is merely the extended thought of God. This philosophical error is part of a profound and beautiful truth; for while the world of matter is something separate and distinct from God, His creation and not His essence; it is the manifestation of the Divine mind, the inarticulate expression of the Divine thought and feeling. Now as the human mind is created in the image of the divine, and as the divine mind is manifested though the natural world, it must follow that there are analogies and correspondences between the material objects and the elements of human thought and feeling. Men of dull hearts and dim eyes look upon natural objects like Wordsworth's Peter Bell, of whom it is said
"A primrose by the river's brim
And it was nothing more.” They can see no further than the bare fact that that object is called a flower, a tree, a river, a mountain, a man, a woman. They never get hold of the thought and feeling which those several objects were by the Divine mind intended to convey. But when a man of peculiar construction of head and heart, keen vision, and broad sympathy comes into this strange world, he reads the riddle with a different eye, he detects the hidden meaning wrapped up in every natural object, the objects are lifted out of the narrow material sphere into the region of imagination, they become transfigured before us, filled and flashing with divine thought and feeling. This man thus gives intelligible expression to the inarticulate creation, and utterance and form to the corresponding thoughts and feelings slumbering in the hearts of all men, but which few are ablo adequately to express. Such a man is a poet. The poet is thus the revealer of the Divine mind, indirectly manifested through the works of nature, and is also the expresser of the analogous thought and feeling awakened in the human mind when brought into contemplative contact with external nature. Listen to Shakspere as he gives utterance to his profound sympathy with the external works of God, and to the striking analogies which obtain between the natural and spiritual worlds:
“There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it,” Listen to Wordsworth's magnificent lines, unfolding the same profound truth:
“I have learned
a sense subline
Of all my moral being." Listen to Burns giving expression to the same thought and feeling, in simpler but equally poetic strains :
“Oh nature ! a' thy shows and forms
Wi' life and light,
The lang dark night :
And no think lang;
A heart-felt sang." This power of revealing, distinguishing, and depicting the varied and changing forms of nature to the apprehensions of ordinary men, is only one side of the poet's mind, one mode of its activity. This is the side on which he stands related to nature, and interprets its lessons to men. But there is another side by which he is touched and touches human nature, through which he experiences all the emotions that rejoice or lacerate human hearts; feeling with greater intensity than ordinary men, he becomes the fit organ of utterance to our common feelings, whether these be the exultant tremour of hope, or the restless extacy of despair, the sterner sentiment of patriotism, or the softer sentiment of love.
Some poets have a greater love for nature and a keener glance into the truths which it presents. Others have a stronger sympathy with human life, with its conspiring and conflicting feelings and pur, suits. While each province is most important, and each teaches its peculiar lessons, yet an exclusive or undue attention to the one or the other leads to onesided opinions, and unfolds only a part of the poet's power. For instance, Wordsworth was impelled by his strong love of nature to the partial neglect, not perhaps of man in the abstract, but of the concrete or individual man, and thus in fine poetry taught that which, if not error, is at least an imperfect statement of the truth :
“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach us more of man,
Than all the sages can."
On the other hand, Pope, who although alive to the beauties of nature, as all the poets must be, ever manifests a stronger tendency towards artificial human life, and displays his highest skill in depicting "the manners living as they rise.” The great and the perfect poet is he who at once and equally sympathises with man and nature, and extracts the peculiar lessons each is fitted to impart
. The next question which I proposed was, what are the peculiar characteristics of the highest poets? There are many orders and classes amongst those who have the high gift of poetic power: what a crowd hurry through your mind as you pause for a minute's recollection Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, , Shakspere, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Byron, Wordsworth, Scott, Burns, &c. It is universally allowed that Homer and Shakspere are the two greatest poets. If we find out the peculiar powers of those, we shall know what constitutes a poet of the highest order. Of the former I cannot speak, being unfortunately ignorant of the Grecian tongue; of the latter I can in some measure form an opinion, having like all who in the least affect literature, devoted many happy hours to the study of his works. What then are the peculiar characteristics of Shakspere's genius,—the poet of the highest order? The best answer is that given by Shakspere himself, if we supplement what Shakspere has apparently omitted, -I say apparently, because while all the characteristics of the poet are not in the passage explicitly expressed, they are yet implicitly contained
“The Poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
Now, when along with the glorious faculty of