W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (eds), The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 3
pg 117TO Editor’s Note2JAMES GRAY, ESQ. Edinburgh.
Editor’s Note5I have carefully perused the Review of the Life of your friend Robert 6Burns*, which you kindly transmitted to me; the author has rendered 7a substantial service to the poet's memory; and the annexed letters 8are all important to the subject. After having expressed this opinion, 9I shall not trouble you by commenting upon the publication; but will Editor’s Note10confine myself to the request of Mr. Gilbert Burns, that I would furnish 11him with my notions upon the best mode of conducting the defence of 12his brother's injured reputation; a favourable opportunity being now 13afforded him to convey his sentiments to the world, along with a repub-Editor’s Note14lication of Dr. Currie's book, which he is about to superintend. From 15the respect which I have long felt for the character of the person who 16has thus honoured me, and from the gratitude which, as a lover of 17poetry, I owe to the genius of his departed relative, I should most gladly 18comply with this wish; if I could hope that any suggestions of mine 19would be of service to the cause. But, really, I feel it a thing of much 20delicacy, to give advice upon this occasion, as it appears to me, mainly, 21not a question of opinion, or of taste, but a matter of conscience. Mr. 22Gilbert Burns must know, if any man living does, what his brother 23was; and no one will deny that he, who possesses this knowledge, is Editor’s Note24a man of unimpeachable veracity. He has already spoken to the world 25in contradiction of the injurious assertions that have been made, and 26has told why he forbore to do this on their first appearance. If it be 27deemed adviseable to reprint Dr. Currie's narrative, without striking 28out such passages as the author, if he were now alive, would probably Editor’s Note29be happy to efface, let there be notes attached to the most obnoxious 30of them, in which the misrepresentations may be corrected, and the 31exaggerations exposed. I recommend this course, if Dr. Currie's Life 32is to be republished, as it now stands, in connexion with the poems and 33letters, and especially if prefixed to them; but, in my judgment, it Editor’s Note34would be best to copy the example which Mason has given in his 35second edition of Gray's works. There, inverting the order which had 36been properly adopted, when the Life and Letters were new matter, pg 11837the poems are placed first; and the rest takes its place as subsidiary to 38them. If this were done in the intended edition of Burns's works, I 39should strenuously recommend, that a concise life of the poet be pre-Editor’s Note40fixed, from the pen of Gilbert Burns, who has already given public 41proof how well qualified he is for the undertaking. I know no better 42model as to proportion, and the degree of detail required, nor, indeed, Editor’s Note43as to the general execution, than the life of Milton by Fenton, prefixed 44to many editions of the Paradise Lost. But a more copious narrative 45would be expected from a brother; and some allowance ought to be 46made, in this and other respects, for an expectation so natural.
47In this prefatory memoir, when the author has prepared himself by 48reflecting, that fraternal partiality may have rendered him, in some 49points, not so trust-worthy as others less favoured by opportunity, it 50will be incumbent upon him to proceed candidly and openly, as far as 51such a procedure will tend to restore to his brother that portion of 52public estimation, of which he appears to have been unjustly deprived. 53Nay, when we recal to mind the black things which have been written 54of this great man, and the frightful ones that have been insinuated 55against him; and, as far as the public knew, till lately, without com-56plaint, remonstrance, or disavowal, from his nearest relatives; I am not 57sure that it would not be best, at this day, explicitly to declare to what 58degree Robert Burns had given way to pernicious habits, and, as nearly 59as may be, to fix the point to which his moral character had been 60degraded. It is a disgraceful feature of the times that this measure 61should be necessary; most painful to think that a brother should have 62such an office to perform. But, if Gilbert Burns be conscious that the 63subject will bear to be so treated, he has no choice; the duty has been 64imposed upon him by the errors into which the former biographer has 65fallen, in respect to the very principles upon which his work ought to 66have been conducted.
67I well remember the acute sorrow with which, by my own fire-side, Editor’s Note68I first perused Dr. Currie's Narrative, and some of the letters, parti-Editor’s Note69cularly of those composed in the latter part of the poet's life. If my pity 70for Burns was extreme, this pity did not preclude a strong indignation, Editor’s Note71of which he was not the object. If, said I, it were in the power of a 72biographer to relate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the 73truth, the friends and surviving kindred of the deceased, for the sake 74of general benefit to mankind, might endure that such heart-rending 75communication should be made to the world. But in no case is this 76possible; and, in the present, the opportunities of directly acquiring Editor’s Note77other than superficial knowledge have been most scanty; for the writer 78has barely seen the person who is the subject of his tale; nor did his 79avocations allow him to take the pains necessary for ascertaining what pg 11980portion of the information conveyed to him was authentic. So much for 81facts and actions; and to what purpose relate them even were they true, 82if the narrative cannot be heard without extreme pain; unless they are 83placed in such a light, and brought forward in such order, that they 84shall explain their own laws, and leave the reader in as little uncer-85tainty as the mysteries of our nature will allow, respecting the spirit 86from which they derived their existence, and which governed the 87agent? But hear on this pathetic and awful subject, the poet himself, 88pleading for those who have transgressed!
101How happened it that the recollection of this affecting passage did not 102check so amiable a man as Dr. Currie, while he was revealing to the 103world the infirmities of its author? He must have known enough of 104human nature to be assured that men would be eager to sit in judg-105ment, and pronounce decidedly upon the guilt or innocence of Burns by 106his testimony; nay, that there were multitudes whose main interest in 107the allegations would be derived from the incitements which they found 108therein to undertake this presumptuous office. And where lies the 109collateral benefit, or what ultimate advantage can be expected, to 110counteract the injury that the many are thus tempted to do to their 111own minds; and to compensate the sorrow which must be fixed in the 112hearts of the considerate few, by language that proclaims so much, and Editor’s Note113provokes conjectures as unfavourable as imagination can furnish? Here, 114said I, being moved beyond what it would become me to express, here 115is a revolting account of a man of exquisite genius, and confessedly of 116many high moral qualities, sunk into the lowest depths of vice and 117misery! But the painful story, notwithstanding its minuteness, is in-118complete,—in essentials it is deficient; so that the most attentive and 119sagacious reader cannot explain how a mind, so well established by pg 120120knowledge, fell—and continued to fall, without power to prevent or 121retard its own ruin.
- Editor’s Note89 "One point must still be greatly dark,
- 90 The moving why they do it,
- 91 And just as lamely can ye mark
- 92 How far, perhaps, they rue it.
- 93 Who made the heart, 'tis he alone
- 94 Decidedly can try us;
- 95 He knows each chord—its various tone,
- 96 Each spring, its various bias.
- 97 Then at the balance let's be mute,
- 98 We never can adjust it;
- 99 What's done we partly may compute,
- 100 But know not what's resisted."
122Would a bosom friend of the author, his counsellor and confessor, 123have told such things, if true, as this book contains? and who, but one 124possessed of the intimate knowledge which none but a bosom friend 125can acquire, could have been justified in making these avowals? Such 126a one, himself a pure spirit, having accompanied, as it were, upon 127wings, the pilgrim along the sorrowful road which he trod on foot; 128such a one, neither hurried down by its slippery descents, nor entangled 129among its thorns, nor perplexed by its windings, nor discomfited by Editor’s Note130its founderous passages—for the instruction of others—might have 131delineated, almost as in a map, the way which the afflicted pilgrim had 132pursued till the sad close of his diversified journey. In this manner the Editor’s Note133venerable spirit of Isaac Walton was qualified to have retraced the 134unsteady course of a highly-gifted man, who, in this lamentable point, 135and in versatility of genius, bore no unobvious resemblance to the 136Scottish bard; I mean his friend Cotton—whom, notwithstanding all 137that the sage must have disapproved in his life, he honoured with the 138title of son. Nothing like this, however, has the biographer of Burns 139accomplished; and, with his means of information, copious as in some 140respects they were, it would have been absurd to attempt it. The only 141motive, therefore, which could authorize the writing and publishing 142matter so distressing to read—is wanting!
143Nor is Dr. Currie's performance censurable from these considera-144tions alone; for information, which would have been of absolute worth 145if in his capacity of biographer and editor he had known when to stop 146short, is rendered unsatisfactory and inefficacious through the absence 147of this reserve, and from being coupled with statements of improbable Editor’s Note148and irreconcileable facts. We have the author's letters discharged upon 149us in showers; but how few readers will take the trouble of comparing 150those letters with each other, and with the other documents of the 151publication, in order to come at a genuine knowledge of the writer's Editor’s Note152character!—The life of Johnson by Boswell had broken through many 153pre-existing delicacies, and afforded the British public an opportunity 154of acquiring experience, which before it had happily wanted; neverthe-155less, at the time when the ill-selected medley of Burns's correspondence 156first appeared, little progress had been made (nor is it likely that, Editor’s Note157by the mass of mankind, much ever will be made) in determining 158what portion of these confidential communications escapes the pen in 159courteous, yet often innocent, compliance—to gratify the several tastes 160of correspondents; and as little towards distinguishing opinions and 161sentiments uttered for the momentary amusement of the writer's own 162fancy, from those which his judgment deliberately approves, and his pg 121163heart faithfully cherishes. But the subject of this book was a man of 164extraordinary genius; whose birth, education, and employments had 165placed and kept him in a situation far below that in which the writers 166and readers of expensive volumes are usually found. Critics upon works 167of fiction have laid it down as a rule that remoteness of place, in fixing 168the choice of a subject, and in prescribing the mode of treating it, is 169equal in effect to distance of time;—restraints may be thrown off Editor’s Note170accordingly. Judge then of the delusions which artificial distinctions 171impose, when to a man like Doctor Currie, writing with views so 172honourable, the social condition of the individual of whom he was treat-173ing, could seem to place him at such a distance from the exalted reader, 174that ceremony might be discarded with him, and his memory sacrificed, 175as it were, almost without compunction. The poet was laid where these Editor’s Note176injuries could not reach him; but he had a parent, I understand, an 177admirable woman, still surviving; a brother like Gilbert Burns!—a 178widow estimable for her virtues; and children, at that time infants, 179with the world before them, which they must face to obtain a main-180tenance; who remembered their father probably with the tenderest 181affection;—and whose opening minds, as their years advanced, would 182become conscious of so many reasons for admiring him.—Ill-fated child 183of nature, too frequently thine own enemy,—unhappy favourite of Editor’s Note184genius, too often misguided,—this is indeed to be "crushed beneath the 185furrow's weight!"
186Why, sir, do I write to you at this length, when all that I had to 187express in direct answer to the request, which occasioned this letter, 188lay in such narrow compass?—Because having entered upon the sub-189ject, I am unable to quit it!—Your feelings, I trust, go along with mine; 190and, rising from this individual case to a general view of the subject, 191you will probably agree with me in opinion that biography, though 192differing in some essentials from works of fiction, is nevertheless, like 193them, an art,—an art, the laws of which are determined by the imper-Editor’s Note194fections of our nature, and the constitution of society. Truth is not here, 195as in the sciences, and in natural philosophy, to be sought without 196scruple, and promulgated for its own sake, upon the mere chance of 197its being serviceable; but only for obviously justifying purposes, moral 198or intellectual.
Editor’s Note199Silence is a privilege of the grave, a right of the departed: let him, 200therefore, who infringes that right, by speaking publicly of, for, or 201against, those who cannot speak for themselves, take heed that he 202opens not his mouth without a sufficient sanction. De mortuis nil nisi 203bonum, is a rule in which these sentiments have been pushed to an 204extreme that proves how deeply humanity is interested in maintaining 205them. And it was wise to announce the precept thus absolutely; both pg 122206because there exist in that same nature, by which it has been dictated, 207so many temptations to disregard it,—and because there are powers 208and influences, within and without us, that will prevent its being liter-209ally fulfilled—to the suppression of profitable truth. Penalties of law, 210conventions of manners, and personal fear, protect the reputation of 211the living; and something of this protection is extended to the recently 212dead,—who survive, to a certain degree, in their kindred and friends. 213Few are so insensible as not to feel this, and not to be actuated by the 214feeling. But only to philosophy enlightened by the affections does it 215belong justly to estimate the claims of the deceased on the one hand, 216and of the present age and future generations, on the other; and to 217strike a balance between them.—Such philosophy runs a risk of becom-218ing extinct among us, if the coarse intrusions into the recesses, the 219gross breaches upon the sanctities, of domestic life, to which we have 220lately been more and more accustomed, are to be regarded as indica-221tions of a vigorous state of public feeling—favourable to the mainten-222ance of the liberties of our country.—Intelligent lovers of freedom are 223from necessity bold and hardy lovers of truth; but, according to the 224measure in which their love is intelligent, is it attended with a finer Editor’s Note225discrimination, and a more sensitive delicacy. The wise and good (and 226all others being lovers of licence rather than of liberty are in fact slaves) 227respect, as one of the noblest characteristics of Englishmen, that jeal-228ousy of familiar approach, which, while it contributes to the mainten-229ance of private dignity, is one of the most efficacious guardians of 230rational public freedom.
Editor’s Note231The general obligation upon which I have insisted, is especially 232binding upon those who undertake the biography of authors. Assuredly, 233there is no cause why the lives of that class of men should be pried into 234with the same diligent curiosity, and laid open with the same disregard 235of reserve, which may sometimes be expedient in composing the his-236tory of men who have borne an active part in the world. Such thorough 237knowledge of the good and bad qualities of these latter, as can only 238be obtained by a scrutiny of their private lives, conduces to explain not 239only their own public conduct, but that of those with whom they have 240acted. Nothing of this applies to authors, considered merely as authors. 241Our business is with their books,—to understand and to enjoy them. 242And, of poets more especially, it is true—that, if their works be good, 243they contain within themselves all that is necessary to their being 244comprehended and relished. It should seem that the ancients thought 245in this manner; for of the eminent Greek and Roman poets, few and 246scanty memorials were, I believe, ever prepared; and fewer still are 247preserved. It is delightful to read what, in the happy exercise of his 248own genius, Horace chooses to communicate of himself and his friends; pg 123249but I confess I am not so much a lover of knowledge, independent of its 250quality, as to make it likely that it would much rejoice me, were I to 251hear that records of the Sabine poet and his contemporaries, composed 252upon the Boswellian plan, had been unearthed among the ruins of Editor’s Note253Herculaneum. You will interpret what I am writing, liberally. With 254respect to the light which such a discovery might throw upon Roman 255manners, there would be reasons to desire it: but I should dread to dis-256figure the beautiful ideal of the memories of those illustrious persons 257with incongruous features, and to sully the imaginative purity of their 258classical works with gross and trivial recollections. The least weighty 259objection to heterogeneous details, is that they are mainly superfluous, 260and therefore an incumbrance.
261But you will perhaps accuse me of refining too much; and it is, I own, 262comparatively of little importance, while we are engaged in reading 263the Iliad, the Eneid, the tragedies of Othello and King Lear, whether 264the authors of these poems were good or bad men; whether they lived Editor’s Note265happily or miserably. Should a thought of the kind cross our minds, 266there would be no doubt, if irresistible external evidence did not decide 267the question unfavourably, that men of such transcendent genius were 268both good and happy: and if, unfortunately, it had been on record that 269they were otherwise, sympathy with the fate of their fictitious person-270ages would banish the unwelcome truth whenever it obtruded itself, 271so that it would but slightly disturb our pleasure. Far otherwise is it 272with that class of poets, the principal charm of whose writings depends 273upon the familiar knowledge which they convey of the personal feelings 274of their authors. This is eminently the case with the effusions of Burns; 275—in the small quantity of narrative that he has given, he himself bears Editor’s Note276no inconsiderable part, and he has produced no drama. Neither the 277subjects of his poems, nor his manner of handling them, allow us long Editor’s Note278to forget their author. On the basis of his human character he has 279reared a poetic one, which with more or less distinctness presents itself 280to view in almost every part of his earlier, and, in my estimation, his 281most valuable verses. This poetic fabric, dug out of the quarry of 282genuine humanity, is airy and spiritual:—and though the materials, in 283some parts, are coarse, and the disposition is often fantastic and irregu-284lar, yet the whole is agreeable and strikingly attractive. Plague, then, 285upon your remorseless hunters after matter of fact (who, after all, rank 286among the blindest of human beings) when they would convince you 287that the foundations of this admirable edifice are hollow; and that its 288frame is unsound! Granting that all which has been raked up to the 289prejudice of Burns were literally true; and that it added, which it does 290not, to our better understanding of human nature and human life (for 291that genius is not incompatible with vice, and that vice leads to misery pg 124292—the more acute from the sensibilities which are the elements of 293genius—we needed not those communications to inform us) how poor 294would have been the compensation for the deduction made, by this 295extrinsic knowledge, from the intrinsic efficacy of his poetry—to 296please, and to instruct!
297In illustration of this sentiment, permit me to remind you that it is Editor’s Note298the privilege of poetic genius to catch, under certain restrictions of 299which perhaps at the time of its being exerted it is but dimly conscious, 300a spirit of pleasure wherever it can be found,—in the walks of nature, 301and in the business of men.—The poet, trusting to primary instincts, 302luxuriates among the felicities of love and wine, and is enraptured 303while he describes the fairer aspects of war: nor does he shrink from 304the company of the passion of love though immoderate—from convivial 305pleasure though intemperate—nor from the presence of war though 306savage, and recognized as the hand-maid of desolation. Frequently and 307admirably has Burns given way to these impulses of nature; both with 308reference to himself and in describing the condition of others. Who, 309but some impenetrable dunce or narrow-minded puritan in works of 310art, ever read without delight the picture which he has drawn of the 311convivial exaltation of the rustic adventurer, Tam o' Shanter? The poet 312fears not to tell the reader in the outset that his hero was a desperate 313and sottish drunkard, whose excesses were frequent as his opportuni-314ties. This reprobate sits down to his cups, while the storm is roaring, 315and heaven and earth are in confusion;—the night is driven on by song 316and tumultuous noise—laughter and jest thicken as the beverage im-317proves upon the palate—conjugal fidelity archly bends to the service 318of general benevolence—selfishness is not absent, but wearing the 319mask of social cordiality—and, while these various elements of human-320ity are blended into one proud and happy composition of elated spirits, 321the anger of the tempest without doors only heightens and sets off the 322enjoyment within.—I pity him who cannot perceive that, in all this, Editor’s Note323though there was no moral purpose, there is a moral effect.
- Editor’s Note324 ''Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
- 325 "O'er a' the ills of life victorious."
326What a lesson do these words convey of charitable indulgence for 327the vicious habits of the principal actor in this scene, and of those who 328resemble him!—Men who to the rigidly virtuous are objects almost 329of loathing, and whom therefore they cannot serve! The poet, penetra-330ting the unsightly and disgusting surfaces of things, has unveiled with 331exquisite skill the finer ties of imagination and feeling, that often bind 332these beings to practices productive of so much unhappiness to them-333selves, and to those whom it is their duty to cherish;—and, as far as pg 125334he puts the reader in possession of this intelligent sympathy, he quali-335fies him for exercising a salutary influence over the minds of those who 336are thus deplorably enslaved.
337Not less successfully does Burns avail himself of his own character 338and situation in society, to construct out of them a poetic self,—intro-339duced as a dramatic personage—for the purpose of inspiriting his 340incidents, diversifying his pictures, recommending his opinions, and 341giving point to his sentiments. His brother can set me right if I am 342mistaken when I express a belief that, at the time when he wrote his 343story of "Death and Dr. Hornbook," he had very rarely been intoxicated, 344or perhaps even much exhilarated by liquor. Yet how happily does he Editor’s Note345lead his reader into that track of sensations! and with what lively 346humour does he describe the disorder of his senses and the confusion 347of his understanding, put to test by a deliberate attempt to count the 348horns of the moon!
- 349 "But whether she had three or four
- 350 He could na' tell."
351Behold a sudden apparition that disperses this disorder, and in a 352moment chills him into possession of himself! Coming upon no more 353important mission than the grisly phantom was charged with, what 354mode of introduction could have been more efficient or appropriate?
355But, in those early poems, through the veil of assumed habits and 356pretended qualities, enough of the real man appears to shew that he was 357conscious of sufficient cause to dread his own passions, and to bewail 358his errors! We have rejected as false sometimes in the letter, and of 359necessity as false in the spirit, many of the testimonies that others have Editor’s Note360borne against him:—but, by his own hand—in words the import of 361which cannot be mistaken—it has been recorded that the order of his 362life but faintly corresponded with the clearness of his views. It is prob-363able that he would have proved a still greater poet if, by strength of 364reason, he could have controlled the propensities which his sensibility 365engendered; but he would have been a poet of a different class: and 366certain it is, had that desirable restraint been early established, many 367peculiar beauties which enrich his verses could never have existed, and 368many accessary influences, which contribute greatly to their effect, Editor’s Note369would have been wanting. For instance, the momentous truth of the 370passage already quoted, "One point must still be greatly dark," &c. 371could not possibly have been conveyed with such pathetic force by any 372poet that ever lived, speaking in his own voice; unless it were felt that, 373like Burns, he was a man who preached from the text of his own errors; 374and whose wisdom, beautiful as a flower that might have risen from 375seed sown from above, was in fact a scion from the root of personal pg 126376suffering. Whom did the poet intend should be thought of as occupying 377that grave over which, after modestly setting forth the moral discern-Editor’s Note378ment and warm affections of its "poor inhabitant," it is supposed to be 379inscribed that
382Who but himself,—himself anticipating the too probable termination 383of his own course? Here is a sincere and solemn avowal—a public 384declaration from his own will—a confession at once devout, poetical, 385and human—a history in the shape of a prophecy! What more was 386required of the biographer than to have put his seal to the writing, 387testifying that the foreboding had been realized, and that the record 388was authentic?—Lastingly is it to be regretted in respect to this 389memorable being, that inconsiderate intrusion has not left us at liberty 390to enjoy his mirth, or his love; his wisdom or his wit; without an 391admixture of useless, irksome, and painful details, that take from his 392poems so much of that right—which, with all his carelessness, and 393frequent breaches of self-respect, he was not negligent to maintain for 394them—the right of imparting solid instruction through the medium of 395unalloyed pleasure.
- 380 "—Thoughtless follies laid him low,
- 381 "And stained his name."
396You will have noticed that my observations have hitherto been con-397fined to Dr. Currie's book: if, by fraternal piety, the poison can be 398sucked out of this wound, those inflicted by meaner hands may be 399safely left to heal of themselves. Of the other writers who have given 400their names, only one lays claim to even a slight acquaintance with 401the author, whose moral character they take upon them publicly to 402anatomize. The Edinburgh reviewer—and him I single out because 403the author of the vindication of Burns has treated his offences with 404comparative indulgence, to which he has no claim, and which, from 405whatever cause it might arise, has interfered with the dispensation of Editor’s Note406justice—the Edinburgh reviewer thus writes:* "The leading vice in 407Burns's character, and the cardinal deformity, indeed, of ALL his pro-408ductions, was his contempt, or affectation of contempt, for prudence, 409decency, and regularity, and his admiration of thoughtlessness, oddity, 410and vehement sensibility: his belief, in short, in the dispensing power of 411genius and social feeling in all matters of morality and common sense;" 412adding, that these vices and erroneous notions "have communicated to 413a great part of his productions a character of immorality at once con-Editor’s Note414temptible and hateful." We are afterwards told, that he is perpetually 415making a parade of his thoughtlessness, inflammability, and impru-pg 127Editor’s Note416dence; and, in the next paragraph, that he is perpetually doing some-417thing else; i.e. "boasting of his own independence."—Marvellous Editor’s Note418address in the commission of faults! not less than Cæsar shewed in the 419management of business; who, it is said, could dictate to three secre-420taries upon three several affairs, at one and the same moment! But, to 421be serious. When a man, self-elected into the office of a public judge of 422the literature and life of his contemporaries, can have the audacity to go 423these lengths in framing a summary of the contents of volumes that are 424scattered over every quarter of the globe, and extant in almost every 425cottage of Scotland, to give the lie to his labours; we must not wonder 426if, in the plenitude of his concern for the interests of abstract morality, 427the infatuated slanderer should have found no obstacle to prevent him 428from insinuating that the poet, whose writings are to this degree Editor’s Note429stained and disfigured, was "one of the sons of fancy and of song, who 430spend in vain superfluities the money that belongs of right to the 431pale industrious tradesman and his famishing infants; and who rave 432about friendship and philosophy in a tavern, while their wives' 433hearts,' &c. &c.
Editor’s Note434It is notorious that this persevering Aristarch,* as often as a work 435of original genius comes before him, avails himself of that opportunity 436to re-proclaim to the world the narrow range of his own comprehen-437sion. The happy self-complacency, the unsuspecting vain-glory, and 438the cordial bonhommie, with which this part of his duty is performed, 439do not leave him free to complain of being hardly dealt with if any one 440should declare the truth, by pronouncing much of the foregoing attack 441upon the intellectual and moral character of Burns, to be the trespass 442(for reasons that will shortly appear, it cannot be called the venial 443trespass) of a mind obtuse, superficial, and inept. What portion of 444malignity such a mind is susceptible of, the judicious admirers of the 445poet, and the discerning friends of the man, will not trouble themselves 446to enquire; but they will wish that this evil principle had possessed 447more sway than they are at liberty to assign to it; the offender's condi-448tion would not then have been so hopeless. For malignity selects its 449diet; but where is to be found the nourishment from which vanity will 450revolt? Malignity may be appeased by triumphs real or supposed, and 451will then sleep, or yield its place to a repentance producing dispositions 452of good will, and desires to make amends for past injury; but vanity pg 128453is restless, reckless, intractable, unappeasable, insatiable. Fortunate is 454it for the world when this spirit incites only to actions that meet with 455an adequate punishment in derision; such, as in a scheme of poetical 456justice, would be aptly requited by assigning to the agents, when they Editor’s Note457quit this lower world, a station in that not uncomfortable limbo—the 458Paradise of Fools! But, assuredly, we shall have here another proof Editor’s Note459that ridicule is not the test of truth, if it prevent us from perceiving, 460that depravity has no ally more active, more inveterate, nor, from the 461difficulty of divining to what kind and degree of extravagance it may 462prompt, more pernicious than self-conceit. Where this alliance is too 463obvious to be disputed, the culprit ought not to be allowed the benefit 464of contempt—as a shelter from detestation; much less should he be 465permitted to plead, in excuse for his transgressions, that especial male-Editor’s Note466volence had little or no part in them. It is not recorded, that the ancient, 467who set fire to the temple of Diana, had a particular dislike to the 468goddess of chastity, or held idolatry in abhorrence: he was a fool, an 469egregious fool, but not the less, on that account, a most odious monster. Editor’s Note470The tyrant who is described as having rattled his chariot along a bridge 471of brass over the heads of his subjects, was, no doubt, inwardly laughed 472at; but what if this mock Jupiter, not satisfied with an empty noise of 473his own making, had amused himself with throwing fire-brands upon 474the house-tops, as a substitute for lightning; and, from his elevation, 475had hurled stones upon the heads of his people, to shew that he was 476a master of the destructive bolt, as well as of the harmless voice of 477the thunder!—The lovers of all that is honourable to humanity have Editor’s Note478recently had occasion to rejoice over the downfall of an intoxicated 479despot, whose vagaries furnish more solid materials by which the 480philosopher will exemplify how strict is the connection between the 481ludicrously, and the terribly fantastic. We know, also, that Robespierre 482was one of the vainest men that the most vain country upon earth has 483produced;—and from this passion, and from that cowardice which 484naturally connects itself with it, flowed the horrors of his administra-485tion. It is a descent, which I fear you will scarcely pardon, to compare 486these redoubtable enemies of mankind with the anonymous conductor 487of a perishable publication. But the moving spirit is the same in them 488all; and, as far as difference of circumstances, and disparity of powers, 489will allow, manifests itself in the same way; by professions of reverence 490for truth, and concern for duty—carried to the giddiest heights of 491ostentation, while practice seems to have no other reliance than on the 492omnipotence of falshood.
493The transition from a vindication of Robert Burns to these hints for 494a picture of the intellectual deformity of one who has grossly outraged 495his memory, is too natural to require an apology: but I feel, sir, that pg 129496I stand in need of indulgence for having detained you so long. Let me 497beg that you would impart to any judicious friends of the poet as much 498of the contents of these pages as you think will be serviceable to the 499cause; but do not give publicity to any portion of them, unless it be 500thought probable that an open circulation of the whole may be useful.* 501The subject is delicate, and some of the opinions are of a kind, which, 502if torn away from the trunk that supports them, will be apt to wither, 503and, in that state, to contract poisonous qualities; like the branches of 504the yew, which, while united by a living spirit to their native tree, are 505neither noxious, nor without beauty; but, being dissevered and cast 506upon the ground, become deadly to the cattle that incautiously feed 507upon them.
508To Mr. Gilbert Burns, especially, let my sentiments be conveyed, 509with my sincere respects, and best wishes for the success of his praise-510worthy enterprize. And if, through modest apprehension, he should 511doubt of his own ability to do justice to his brother's memory, let him 512take encouragement from the assurance that the most odious part of 513the charges owed its credit to the silence of those who were deemed 514best entitled to speak; and who, it was thought, would not have been 515mute, had they believed that they could speak beneficially. Moreover, 516it may be relied on as a general truth, which will not escape his recol-517lection, that tasks of this kind are not so arduous as, to those who are 518tenderly concerned in their issue, they may at first appear to be; for, 519if the many be hasty to condemn, there is a re-action of generosity 520which stimulates them—when forcibly summoned—to redress the 521wrong; and, for the sensible part of mankind, they are neither dull to 522understand, nor slow to make allowance for, the aberrations of men, 523whose intellectual powers do honour to their species.
- 524I am, dear Sir,
- 525respectfully yours,
- 526WILLIAM WORDSWORTH.
527Rydal Mount, January, 1816.
* A Review of the Life of Robert Burns, and of various criticisms on his character and writings, by Alexander Peterkin, 1814.
* From Mr. Peterkin's pamphlet, who vouches for the accuracy of his citations; omitting, however, to apologize for their length.
* A friend, who chances to be present while the author is correcting the proof sheet, observes that Aristarchus is libelled by this application of his name, and advises that "Zoilus" should be substituted. The question lies between spite and presumption; and it is not easy to decide upon a case where the claims of each party are so strong: but the name of Aristarch, who, simple man! would allow no verse to pass for Homer's which he did not approve of, is retained, for reasons that will be deemed cogent.
* It was deemed that it would be so, and the letter is published accordingly.
There is little alteration in this pocket edition from the two in quarto which preceded it, except that the Poems of Mr. Gray are here placed before the Memoirs of his Life. The Editor, when he compiled those Memoirs, and made them the vehicle of communicating to Persons of learning and taste, so many of the Author's unpublished compositions, both in latin and english, thought, that, on account of their novelty, they ought to take the lead: This reason ceasing, it seemed proper that such posthumous pieces should give place to what was published in his life time.
Of Burns's early life his proofs, as published, are abundant and satisfactory; but of the latter part there are none of a similar description. From what private information Dr Currie framed his statement that Burns was perpetually inflamed with liquor, and in the practice of such vices as humanity and delicacy veil from description, we know not. But we have authority to state, that Dr Currie's MS. was not shewn to the brother or friends of Burns at Dumfries previously to publication, so as to afford them an opportunity of correcting so fatal an error. And with every reverence for the candour and decorum of the worthy biographer, we are inclined to think he should either have been more specific, or altogether silent.
Burns was a poor ploughman,—a humble excise-officer. His hand had not the distribution of wealth and honour: his tongue is now mute, and cannot, as when he lived, awe the boldest assailants of his fame. And, therefore, the feelings of his surviving friends and relations, are to be lacerated by the publication of defamatory libels, which, had he been in life, would have entitled him to seek redress in a court of justice [cf. 209]. To rake up the faults … of any great man, we consider of doubtful utility; but to do so when his head is laid low, is an action equally destitute of usefulness, of courage, and of generosity.
It is not our intention to say much on the subject of Burns's Works, farther than to affirm that they are eminently friendly to good morals…. The writings of Burns may be considered in two points of view: either as indicative of his real personal character, and therefore possessing an influence over society on the score of example—or as having a tendency in their intrinsic qualities to affect the morals of the community in which they circulate. If they are regarded in the first of these lights, we ought to consider strictly, whether, even with all their blemishes, as published since his death, they afford conclusive evidence, with respect to his character. The writings of no man afford such evidence. It is quite a common-place fact, that authors, like other men, are very artificial animals—that they are not always what they seem in their writings; and that the force of any presumptions arising as to personal qualities, from the mere complexion of their compositions, whether published or not, must be modified by the circumstances under which these exist. A man may divest himself of all sincerity, and write a book or paper in discordance with his real sentiments. Another may, in a moment of elevation, or thoughtlessness, or confidence, write a letter to an intimate friend, either in jest or under casual and passing emotions, not accordant with the ordinary tenor of his feelings and opinions; and therefore, any inferences as to personal character, deduced from writings of any description, must be drawn with great limitations. Many of Burns's compositions were written in such circumstances as to render it impossible to learn any thing very decisive from them concerning his moral feelings—for opposite conclusions may easily be drawn from different parts of his works. To assume dogmatically any positions on the subject is absurd; and to assert that he was irreligious or vicious, because he satirised some of the fanatical clergy, and wrote private letters to his confidential friends, in which there are occasional deviations from the circumspection observed in the works that he published, is by no means a legitimate mode of induction. The indications of character disclosed in the public and private writings of Burns, to the effect of operating as an example, are so equivocal, therefore, as to afford no satisfactory proof, without a collateral view of his life.
even where [Burns] was really [morally] faulty in such representations [of himself], it surely required but a moderate portion of that charity which thinketh no evil… to consider them the arguments of a man galled by the honest reproaches of his own mind for occasional deviations from the path of virtue, mustered up as a palliation (dictated by feelings natural to us all,) rather than the effusions [cf. 274] of determined profligacy, as they have been most erroneously supposed.
That profligacy is almost always selfishness … must be apparent … even to the least reflecting of those sons of fancy and song. It requires no habit of deep thinking … to perceive that it is cruel and base to spend, in vain superfluities, that money which belongs of right to the pale industrious tradesman and his famishing infants; or that it is a vile prostitution of language to talk of that man's generosity or goodness of heart, who sits raving about friendship and philanthropy [sic] in a tavern, while his wife's heart is breaking at her cheerless fireside, and his children pining in solitary poverty [citing Edin. Rev. xiii. 253–4].