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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Matthew Arnold for a world of Scotch wit

ruled out; their artificiality

does not take very good models; and their literary attraction is altogether second-rate. How far different the value of the Scots poems is, four generations have on the whole securely agreed. The moral discomfort of Principal Shairp, the academic distaste of Mr. Matthew Arnold for a world of "Scotch wit, Scotch religion, and Scotch drink," and the purely indolent and ignorant reluctance of others to grapple with Scottish dialect, need not trouble the catholic critic much. The two first may be of some use as cautions and drags; the third may be thrown aside at once. Scots, though a dialect, is not a patois; it has a great and continuous literature; it combines in an extraordinary degree the consonant virtues of English and the vowel range of the Latin tongues. It is true that Burns' range of subject, as distinct from that of sound, was not extremely wide. He could give a voice to passion--passion of war, passion of conviviality, passion above all of love--as none but the very greatest poets ever have given or will give it; he had also an extraordinary command of _genre_-painting of all kinds, ranging from the merely descriptive and observant to the most intensely satirical. Perhaps he could only do these two things--could not be (as he certainly has not been) philosophical, deeply meditative, elaborately in command of the great possibilities of nature, political, moral, argumentative. But what an "only" have we here! It amounts to this, that Burns could "only" seize, could "only"
convey the charms of poetical expression to, the more primitive thought and feeling of the natural man, and that he could do this supremely. His ideas are--to use the rough old Lockian division--ideas of sensation, not of reflection; and when he goes beyond them he is sensible, healthy, respectable, but not deep or high. In his own range there are few depths or heights to which he has not soared or plunged.

That he owed a good deal to his own Scottish predecessors, especially to Ferguson, is not now denied; and his methods of composing his songs are very different from those which a lesser man, using more academic forms, could venture upon without the certainty of the charge of plagiarism. We shall never understand Burns aright if we do not grasp the fact that he was a "folk-poet," into whom the soul of a poet of all time and all space had entered. In all times and countries where folk-poetry has a genuine existence, its forms and expressions are much less the property of the individual than of the race. The business of collecting ballads is one of the most difficult and doubtful, not to say dangerous, open to the amateur. But it is certain that any collector who was not a mere simpleton would at once reject as spurious a version which he heard in identically the same terms from two different subjects. He would know that they must have got it from a printed or at least written source. Now Burns is, if not our only example, our only example

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