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Harvard Classics Volume 28

The accent of high seriousness


'The sacred lowe o' weel-placed love Luxuriantly indulge it; But never tempt th' illicit rove, Tho' naething should divulge it. I waive the quantum o' the sin, The hazard o' concealing, But och! it hardens a' within, And petrifies the feeling.'

Or in a higher strain--

'Who made the heart, 'tis He alone Decidedly can try us; He knows each chord, its various tone; Each spring, its various bias. Then at the balance let's be mute, We never can adjust it; What's _done_ we partly may compute, But know not what's resisted.'

Or in a better strain yet, a strain, his admirers will say, unsurpassable--

'To make a happy fire-side clime To weans and wife, That's the true pathos and sublime Of human life.'

There is criticism of life for you, the admirers of Burns will say to us; there is the application of ideas to life! There is, undoubtedly. The doctrine of the last-quoted lines coincides almost exactly with what was the aim and end, Xenophon tells us, of all the teaching of Socrates. And the application is a powerful one; made by a man of vigorous understanding, and (need I say?) a master of language.

But for supreme poetical success more is required than the powerful application of ideas to life; it must be an application

under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Those laws fix as an essential condition, in the poet's treatment of such matters as are here in question, high seriousness;--the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity. The accent of high seriousness, born of absolute sincerity, is what gives to such verse as

'In la sua volontade e nostra pace . . .'

to such criticism of life as Dante's, its power. Is this accent felt in the passages which I have been quoting from Burns? Surely not; surely, if our sense is quick, we must perceive that we have not in those passages a voice from the very inmost soul of the genuine Burns; he is not speaking to us from these depths, he is more or less preaching. And the compensation for admiring such passages less, from missing the perfect poetic accent in them, will be that we shall admire more the poetry where that accent is found.

No; Burns, like Chaucer, comes short of the high seriousness of the great classics, and the virtue of matter and manner which goes with that high seriousness is wanting to his work. At moments he touches it in a profound and passionate melancholy, as in those four immortal lines taken by Byron as a motto for _The Bride of Abydos_, but which have in them a depth of poetic quality such as resides in no verse of Byron's own--

'Had we never loved sae kindly, Had we never loved sae blindly, Never met, or never parted, We had ne'er been broken-hearted.'

But a whole poem of that quality Burns cannot make; the rest, in the _Farewell to Nancy_, is verbiage.

We arrive best at the real estimate of Burns, I think, by conceiving his work as having truth of matter and truth of manner, but not the accent or the poetic virtue of the highest masters. His genuine criticism of life, when the sheer poet in him speaks, is ironic; it is not--


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