[Editor: This letter to the editor from Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 22 August 1896. It was written in reply to two letters which appeared in The Bulletin, on 1 August 1896, and 15 August 1896.]
“The Burns Myth.”
“Tom Collins” writes to The Bulletin:—
This hypercritical disparagement of Robert Burns — a healthy reaction in the first place, but now tiresomely conventional — has far overstepped justice. It is scarcely reasonable to compare the motley word-garb of his provincial lays with a century-end standard, which the nobly rebellious spirit of that poetry has done much to make popularly attainable. If his verse is often slovenly, his thought is not so.
To his present critics, “A man’s a man for a’ that” may appear as a platitude clothed in doggerel; but the song, when first written, embodied the greatest discovery of modern times. The magnitude of that discovery may best be apprehended by considering what a terrible thing it was to be brought up under Cotter’s Saturday-Night conditions — brought up in the literal and hair-raising fear of an anthropomorphic Phantasm such as Paganism has seldom evolved; a Ruler whose arrangements for the eternal future were aptly prefigured in the present life by that hopelessly-inscrutable dispensation which had told off a few actors in the world-drama to extract the third nettle and call it rent, and a few million others to work in sleet and muck and humility for 16 hours per diem on the rascalliest variety of brose, with the option of being transported with thankfulness, or of sulking in the collar.
It was something for Burns, of his own initiation, to detect, impeach, and laugh to scorn this devil-worship which, as the mawkish saying goes, he had learned at his mother’s knee. Booth’s cab-horse standard stands out in sinfully luxurious contrast with the lot of the Lowland agriculturist in an era which, according to Thorold Rogers, witnessed the nadir of the peasant’s condition; and, of those squalid millions, Burns alone gave articulate challenge to the system he had been taught to revere.
Across the border, his contemporaries, Cowper and Crabbe, both exceptionally humane men, and both writing copiously of the poor, have no protest against the unnatural social-economics of the day. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in their eyes — that’s all. Burns’ sister (Isabel, was it not?), who lived far into the present century, could not read or write; and this — notwithstanding the equivocation of glozing biographers of the Morris type — because the right-thinking guid-man, in a spirit of child-sacrifice reminiscent of Baal-worship, had seen to it that his plebeian daughter should have no notions above her station. Think, now, through what thickets of moral obstruction, and through what sulphur-fumes from the Gehenna of his fathers this warm-blooded prophet burst, seeking the light of day!
If he sometimes felt, and oftener affected, loyalty to an order of things at which his higher thought revolted, it was because no man can be always at his best. If he lunched with Sargood whenever he got the chance, it was because in his day there was no democratic etiquette — no democracy, indeed — and the resilient manhood which equally resented insolence and condescension was well balanced by a frank camaraderie toward man as man.
If his light no longer dazzles, it is because the torch taken from his dead hand has found worthy bearers. But whilst he lived, the fitful inspiration of the fearless truth-seeker was upon him. Appealing to the emotions, as his contemporary, Paine, appealed to the reason, he stands in history as one of society’s redeemers. And if he did flirt with two vocabularies, and manufactured rhymes ad arbitrium, the licentia vatum, though admittedly malum in se, was in reality no more en dehors de saison than our own weaving a soupçon of Latin or French into our text, as per present example. Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons, as we say when we try to show off.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 22 August 1896, pp. 6-7 (columns 4, 1)
This letter is attributed to “Tom Collins” (with quotation marks), indicating that the name is a pseudonym; this is in contrast to the treatment of the pseudonyms of Joseph Furphy in earlier instances in The Bulletin (whereby his pseudonyms were printed without any quotation marks).
See: 1) The Mythical Sundowner [by Warrigal Jack (Joseph Furphy), 5 October 1889]
2) Black Australia [by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy), 30 October 1902]
a’ = (Scottish vernacular) all
ad arbitrium = (Latin) at pleasure, at will; according to one’s choice, according to one’s decision, according to one’s pleasure, according to one’s will, according to one’s judgement (from “ad”, meaning “at”, “to”, “toward”, “towards”; and “arbitrium”, meaning “arbitration”, “adjudication”, “choice”, “decision”, “judgement”, “opinion”)
Baal = (Hebrew) lord, master, owner; the name of several Middle Eastern or Semitic gods, being a god of fertility, of the rain, of storms, of the sun, and of the heavens, as well as being the king of the gods; a false god or idol
See: 1) “Baal: ancient deity”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
2) “Baal”, Wikipedia
brose = (Scottish) an uncooked form of porridge made by pouring boiling water or milk into oatmeal (or died peas) and stirring the mixture, commonly eaten with salt and butter, milk, or buttermilk
Burns = Robert Burns (1759-1796), a famous Scottish poet
cotter = a poor peasant who was given the use of a “cot” (cottage) by a land owner in exchange for labour (instead of having to paying rent)
Cotter’s Saturday-Night = a reference to the poem “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, by Robert Burns (1759-1796)
See: 1) “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, Burns Country
2) “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, Wikipedia
Cowper = William Cowper (1731-1800), an English poet and writer of hymns
Crabbe = George Crabbe (1754-1832), an English poet, clergyman, and surgeon
diem = (Latin) day
doggerel = poorly written poetry; comedic or burlesque poetry, irregular in style; poetry of a trivial nature
en dehors de saison = (French) out of season (from “en dehors”, meaning “outside”, “apart”, “beside”, “out in front of”; and “saison” , meaning “season”, “seasonal”)
extract the third nettle and call it rent = a reference to a quote from Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881): “The widow is gathering nettles for her children’s dinner; a perfumed Seigneur, delicately lounging in the Oeil-de-Boeuf, has an alchemy whereby he will extract from her the third nettle, and name it Rent and Law: such an arrangement must end. Ought it not? But, O most fearful is such an ending!”
See: Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, London: Chapman and Hall, 1896, p. 229
See also: “Chartism”, in: Thomas Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays: Collected and Republished (vol. 6), London: Chapman and Hall, 1896, p. 120 (see the last 5 lines, which includes the same quote, albeit with some minor changes in wording)
garb = clothing, apparel, attire (especially clothing of a distinctive or professional nature, e.g. medical, military, religious, historical, national folk costume, native culture, sub-culture)
Gehenna = a place or state of torment or suffering, hell; a Latin word, from the Greek Geenna, which came from the Hebrew Gē’ Hinnōm, a reference to the valley of Hinnom (a valley south of Jerusalem) which had gained a fearsome and evil reputation among Jews because of barbarous events that took place there (by the time of the New Testament, it had come to mean a reference to Hell, e.g. Matthew 5:22, 5:29; Mark 9:43)
glozing = to gloze: to downplay or minimize the importance of a matter (often used in the same sense as “gloss”, such as “to gloss over” or “to gloze over” a matter)
guid = (Scottish) good
lay = song, tune; ballad (may also refer to ballads or narrative poems, as sung by medieval minstrels or bards)
licentia vatum = (Latin) poetic license, poetical license, license of the poets, permission of the bards (from “licentia”, meaning “license”, “freedom”, “liberty”; and “vatum”, meaning “bards”, “poets”)
malum in se = (Latin) bad in itself, evil in itself, wrong in itself; inherently evil (from “malum”, meaning “bad”, “evil”, “wrong”; and “se”, meaning “itself”, “herself”, “himself”, “oneself”) (plural: “mala in se”)
mawkish = sentimental in an exaggerated or false manner; demonstrating or displaying emotion, love, or sentimentality in an awkward, childish, or silly manner; (archaic) having a sickly or unpleasant flavour, smell, or taste
nadir = the lowest or deepest level or point; the lowest, most unsuccessful or worst point in a situation; the point of least achievement, least hope, or least value in a situation; the point of greatest adversity, greatest despair, greatest depression, or greatest loss in a situation
Paganism = a non-Christian religion; a polytheistic religion; heathenism, especially the religions or religious beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Norse peoples; any heathenistic religion or practices
Paine = Thomas Paine (1737-1809), an English-born American political theorist, who was a major ideological influence upon the American Revolution
per diem = (Latin) per day; in each day, for each day (in financial terms, an amount that is earned, paid, received, sold, spent, or used each day)
Phantasm = a fantasy, figment of the imagination; apparition, illusion; or, ghost, specter
platitude = a remark or statement which is supposed to be meaningful or containing some moral content, but which has so been often said, that it has become banal, boring, trite, uninteresting, unoriginal, unthoughtful, or a cliché, due to its overuse; a remark or statement which is supposed to give hope or convey support, but which is so obvious in its content, or so full of false assurance, or without concrete evidence of its eventuality or success (even if technically possible), that it is annoying to the recipient rather than being helpful or supportive
plebeian = someone (or something) common, coarse, unrefined, or vulgar in manner or nature; from the name for a member of the lower social classes of ancient Rome (the plebs, or common people, of Rome)
rascalliest = most rascally, very rascally (of or relating to a rascal: a person who is dishonest, disreputable, unprincipled; a rogue, a scoundrel, a trickster, a villain)
Saturday-Night = [see: Cotter’s Saturday-Night]
scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons = (Latin) a line which has been variously translated as “the origin and source of good writing is good judgment”, “to have good sense is the first principle and fountain of writing well”, “wisdom is the source and fount of excellent writing”; the quote comes from the writings of Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65BC-8BC), from “Ars Poetica” (“The Art of Poetry), line 309
See: “Q. Horatii Flacci Ars Poetica”, The Latin Library
soupçon = (French) a little bit, a slight amount, a very small amount, a trace; a hint, an inkling, a slight idea, a suggestion; (in cooking) a dash; (archaic) a suspicion
station = station in life, rank in life, place in a class system, standing in society
sulphur = in the context of Hell, a reference to the smell and fumes of sulphur (also spelt: sulfur)
Thorold Rogers = (1823-1890), an English economist, historian and politician
told off = (archaic) allocate or assign a particular duty or duties; to count off a number (especially a person, or a number of persons), and then separate that number from the rest (e.g. to count off six soldiers from a company), especially so as to assign them to a particular duty; can also mean: to admonish, rebuke, reprimand, or scold, especially to do so in an angry manner to someone who has done something wrong
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]