English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.


If Moore was, in the opinion of his age, an Irish prodigy, Burns is, for all time, a Scottish marvel.  The one was polished and musical, but artificial and insidiously immoral; the other homely and simple, but powerful and effective to men of all classes in society.  The one was the poet of the aristocracy; the other the genius whose sympathies were with the poor.  One was most at home in the palaces of the great; and the other, in the rude Ayrshire cottage, or in the little sitting-room of the landlord in company with Souter John and Tam O’Shanter.  As to most of his poems, Burns was really of no distinct school, but seems to stand alone, the creature of circumstance rather than of the age, in an unnatural and false position, compared by himself to the daisy he uprooted with his ploughshare: 

Even thou who mourn’st the daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine—­no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives elate,
Full on thy bloom,
Till crushed beneath the furrow’s weight
Shall be thy doom!

His life was uneventful.  He was the son of a very poor man who was gardener to a gentleman at Ayr.  He was born in Alloway on the 25th of January, 1759.  His early education was scanty; but he read with avidity the few books on which he could lay his hands, among which he particularly mentions, in his short autobiography, The Spectator, the poems of Pope, and the writings of Sterne and Thomson.  But the work which he was to do needed not even that training:  he drew his simple subjects from surrounding nature, and his ideas came from his heart rather than his head.  Like Moore, he found the old tunes or airs of the country, and set them to new words—­words full of sentiment and sense.

HIS POEMS.—­Most of his poems are quite short, and of the kind called fugitive, except that they will not fly away. The Cotter’s Saturday Night is for men of all creeds, a pastoral full of divine philosophy.  His Address to the Deil is a tender thought even for the Prince of Darkness, whom, says Carlyle, his kind nature could not hate with right orthodoxy.  His poems on The Louse, The Field-Mouse’s Nest, and The Mountain Daisy, are homely meditations and moral lessons, and contain counsels for all hearts.  In The Twa Dogs he contrasts, in fable, the relative happiness of rich and poor.  In the beautiful song

    Ye banks and braes of bonnie Doun,

he expresses that hearty sympathy with nature which is one of the most attractive features of his character.  His Bruce’s Address stirs the blood, and makes one start up into an attitude of martial advance.  But his most famous poem—­drama, comedy, epic, and pastoral—­is Tam o’ Shanter:  it is a universal favorite; and few travellers leave Scotland without standing at the window of “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk,” walking over the road upon which Meg galloped, pausing

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