[Editor: This letter to the editor was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 1 August 1896. At least two letters were written in reply to this article, the first from “Anglo-Australian”, on 15 August 1896, and the second from Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy), on 22 August 1896.]
The Burns Myth.
A blasphemous person, himself no mean poet, sends the following to The Bulletin under the outrageous heading above printed:—
It is true that even Carlyle, who professed to care nothing for any poetry that was not epic, turned on his full orchestra in praise of Burns. But then Carlyle was also a Scotchman; and blood, especially Scotch blood, is thicker than water. Robert Burns was certainly a poet, but by no means a great poet. The light that never was on sea or land was to him at times visible, but the vision was never long sustained. His was not
—— the ample pinion
That the Theban eagles bear,
Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure fields of air.
How, then, was his world-wide reputation obtained? In the first place, through his having — at a particularly barren period in British literature — dared to compose verses while following the ploughtail. The Scottish reading public of that day — a very small minority of the population — accustomed to the academic verses of their Beatties and Blairs, were paralysed with astonishment when they heard an authentic human voice singing lyrically in the fields of Ayr. It was to them as though the shovel-headed mole had become vocal. And so they regarded Burns as a sort of incarnated Scotch miracle. They, in their learned ignorance, looked upon him as an example of daemonic inspiration because he had (what they had not) the eyes to see the beauty and the poetry of “common things.” As though a ploughman, starting at the beginning of his furrow at dawn, and having the sky above him and the air around him all through the day, had not (if he had the singing-gift) a better schooling in the Poetic Academy of Nature than the cultured gentlemen who wrote about the dawn by lamplight!
As a matter of fact, the odds were all on the side of Burns. But none of his innumerable critics and laudators appear to have had even a dim suspicion of this fact. Another reason why Robert Burns is so idolised by his compatriots: he was a humorist, and, as such, a phenomenon in the kingdom north of the Tweed.
To alter the lines of Pope to suit the occasion —
Humor in Scotland is so very rare
Scots wonder how the devil it got there.
And, therefore, it is not unnatural that they should combine to worship the Bard of Ayr. He supplied a national want — or, let me say, a national deficiency.
But supposing that the songs of Burns were divested of the original airs to which they were written — “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonny Boon,” for example — would they stir the hearts of men as they now do? Hardly. And, however the Pattersons and Johnstones and Armstrongs and their ilks may like to hear it, all Scottish poetry — wherein is contained the vision and the faculty divine — is either emphatically and absolutely Celtic, or Celtic by suggestion. Nearly all the old airs, to which Burns wrote words, were Celtic. The Lowland Saxon could never have composed them. It wasn’t in him to let his soul go forth into the night as is the way of the Celt.
Take for another instance “Robin Adair.” This is supposed to be a Lowland Scottish song, and this is how it begins:—
What made th’ Assembly shine? —
What made the ball so fine?
And so forth, in the same Cockney strain. The air to which these fifth-rate dance-saloon words were written is Irish, and, in its own country, is called “Aileen Aroon.” It is said to have been improvised by an Irish harper of the 13th century who was in love with the daughter of the De Burgos — now called Burke. His horse was standing in charge of one of his clansmen outside the castle gate, and he gave the signal of elopement to his sweetheart by playing upon his harp and singing in Irish a song, the first verse of which is feebly and faintly translated as below:
A hundred thousand welcomes,
With welcomes more and more
And welcomes still in store
Till love and life be o’er,
The foregoing, though worlds away from the true spirit of the original, is, at least, many times better than the pinchbeck rhymes associated with “Robin Adair.” The author of them was one Carroll O’Daley, and it was his elopement with the heiress of the De Burgos which gave to Scott the idea of his ballad, “Young Lochinvar.”
If any Scotchman should feel aggrieved by what has been said up to this point, the writer is ready to apologise to him in the whisky of his country. Furthermore, to show that he (the writer) has also a soft spot for Scotchmen in his heart, he will quote the following lines from a poem — which ninety-nine out of one hundred Scotchmen have not seen — written by an almost-forgotten American poet named Fitzgreen Halleck concerning the Scottish idol:—
There have been loftier themes than his,
And longer scrolls and louder lyres,
And lays lit up with poesy’s
Purer and holier fires;
Yet read the names that know not death,
Few nobler ones than Burns’ are there,
And few have won a greener wreath
Than that which binds his hair.
* * * * * *
And still, as on his funeral-day,
Men stand his cold earth-couch around
With the mute homage that we pay
To consecrated ground.
* * * * * *
Such graves as his are pilgrim-shrines —
Shrines for no code or creed confined:
The Delphic vales, the Palestines,
The Meccas of the mind.
* * * * * *
But what to us the sculptor’s art,
His funeral-column, wreaths, and urns?
Wear we not, graven on our heart
The name of Robert Burns?
Nevertheless, Burns is not a great poet per se. But he is a great Scotch poet. And as a Scotch humorist he is unique and miraculous — a distinct and quaint interposition of Providence.
An English vandal proceeds to pour out his bile:—
Ed. Bulletin, — The average Scotchman’s inability to perceive a joke shows itself very plainly in the national worship of Bobbie Burns. It was the fate of Martin Tupper to be exploded, pretty soon after he became famous, by the very Englishmen who quoted his “Proverbial Philosophy.” They handled the stuff until the nap was worn off and the poor quality of the warp became apparent, and then they “guyed” their former idol with great pleasure. They “took it out” of Tupper for having taken them in awhile.
Scotchmen are clannish and altogether different. They cannot, or will not, understand that Burns is the most over-rated bard on earth, and they continue to give Bobbie away in quotations, under the impression that they are conferring some more honor on the Land o’ Cakes. Worse still, they write Scotch verses themselves on the Burns system, although to imitate the inspired ploughman is to expose the fustian character of his sentiments and the ridiculous effrontery of his verse.
Burns, in a general way, was a puerile rhymester who talked Scotch or English just as the metrical requirements moved him. Take an imitation, manufactured for Melbourne Herald by Robert Kennedy, a veteran member of the Kennedy Family warblers of Scottish ditties. Kennedy’s imitation is fully worthy of the other Bobbie. He chants a little rhyme to the effect that he was visited by a vision of his Caledonian god, and here is one verse of it:—
“Weel are ye welcome, Rab, my man,
E’en to this distant Southern lan’,
And, mair by token, there’s my han’
And heartsome gill.
But hoo is’t that ye’re let a-gaun
Wi’ sic guid will?
“My man” is good English.. In Scotch it would be “ma mon” or something to the same effect in sound, but the cannie vocalist conveniently drops his native dialect and seizes the language of Shakespeare. See how the above verse looks when put into a consistent form—
“Well are you welcome, Rob, my man,
E’en to this distant Southern land,
And, more by token, there’s my hand
And hearty cheek.
But, how is it that you’re let a-going
With such good will?”
Bobbie Burns’s mongrel poesy doesn’t present a better appearance than this when stripped of its license and reduced to common sense. The bard lives because he’s Scotch, like a number of other frauds that are much less reprehensible. The centenary of his physical decease was “celebrated” with a special outbreak of clannish mutual admiration last week, concerning which I would like to say Dam, or Dom if preferred.
— Yours, Hinglish.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 1 August 1896, pp. 6-7 (columns 4, 1)
1) “The Celtic Myth”, The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 8 August 1896, p. 7 (column 2)
2) “The Burns Myth”, The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 15 August 1896, p. 6 (columns 3-4)
3) Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy), “The Burns Myth”, The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 22 August 1896, pp. 6-7 (columns 4, 1)
The line “Humor in Scotland is so very rare Scots wonder how the devil it got there” is an allusion to a line in the poem “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”, by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), which says “The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare, But wonder how the devil they got there.”
See: “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”, Bartleby.com
a-gaun = (Scottish) a-going
See: 1) “dayligaun”, Dictionaries of the Scots Language [a word combing “daylicht” and “gaun” (going)]
2) “dayligaun”, Electric Scotland [see “The’r nae thrift in gaun aerlie ti bed” (“There is no economy in going early to bed”)]
air = melody, short melodious song, tune
awhile = for a time; in modern times it is usually rendered as two words, “a while”
Ayr = a town situated on the southwest coast of Scotland (on the River Ayr, in Ayrshire); the River Ayr (Ayrshire, Scotland)
azure = the blue of a clear unclouded sky
the Bard of Ayr = Robert Burns (1759-1796), a famous Scottish poet, who was born in the village of Alloway (located south of Ayr, in Ayrshire, Scotland; in modern times, Alloway is now considered a suburb of Ayr)
Beattie = James Beattie (1735-1803), a Scottish poet and philosopher (he was especially well-known for his poem The Grave, written in blank verse)
Blair = Robert Blair (1699-1746), a Scottish poet
Bobbie Burns = Robert Burns (1759-1796), a famous Scottish poet
Burns = Robert Burns (1759-1796), a famous Scottish poet
Caledonian = (Latin) Scottish; of or relating to Scotland or its people; of or relating to Caledonia (the northern part of Great Britain, especially the land north of the River Forth; Scotland); a person belonging to one of the Scottish tribes (especially during Roman times); a citizen or resident of Scotland; someone from Scotland or of Scottish ethnicity
cannie = (Scottish) clever, knowing, shrewd, wise; careful, cautious, prudent; frugal, thrifty; agreeable, fair, favorable, pleasant; gentle, quiet, steady (also spelt: canny)
Carlyle = Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) a Scottish author, essayist, historian, mathematician, philosopher, and satirist [along with various other books, Thomas Carlyle wrote Life of Robert Burns]
daemonic = of or relating to a daemon: a supernatural being; the attendant spirit or inner spirit of a person or place; (archaic) demon
Delphic = of or relating to the ancient Greek precinct of Delphi (including the Temple of Apollo); of or relating to the Oracle of Delphi, also known as Pythia (from Pytho, the original name of Delphi in Greek myth) or the Pythoness; ambiguous or obscure prophecies or utterances
earth-couch = a grave, a place of burial
e’en = (archaic) a contraction of “even”
Fitzgreen Halleck = Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867), an American poet
fustian = bombastic, inflated, overblown, pompous, or pretentious talk or writing (can also refer to a thick rough twill cotton cloth)
gill = (Scottish) cheek (also: a unit of measurement; a narrow valley; a gully, a ravine)
guid = (Scottish) good
guyed = to good-humoredly annoy, or make fun of (possibly derived from the treatment dealt to the “Guy” in celebrations of the capture of Guy Fawkes, wherein an effigy of him would be abused and mistreated)
han’ = (Scottish vernacular) hand
heartsome = (Scottish) hearty, heartwarming, cheerful, full of joy or good spirits; cheering, encouraging
Hinglish = English (a reference to the way in which some upper-class English pronounce their words); can also refer to hybrid blend or mixture of Hindi and English, a type of English used by Hindi speakers
hoo = (Scottish) who (also: how; a hood, a coif, a head covering, a nightcap; to cry out; to shout; to hoot like an owl)
is’t = a contraction of “is it”
lan’ = (Scottish vernacular) land
Land o’ Cakes = Scotland was called “the land of cakes” as the Scottish populace was well-known for its widespread consumption of oatmeal cakes
lay = song, tune; ballad (may also refer to ballads or narrative poems, as sung by medieval minstrels or bards)
lyre = a stringed musical instrument, similar to a small harp, although with a U-shaped frame with strings attached to a crossbar (especially known for its use in ancient Greece)
mair = (Scottish) more (also: bigger, greater; more generous, more lavish)
Martin Tupper = Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) an English author, essayist, and poet [along with various other books, Martin Tupper wrote Proverbial Philosophy]
mean = inferior, low quality; dirty, poor, rundown, shabby; of low importance, of little regard, not worthy of high regard
Mecca = a city in Saudi Arabia; being the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, it is regarded by Muslims as a holy city, and is visited annually by millions of Muslims, especially during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah; by tradition, Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca; also, a place that is regarded as a centre or focal point for any group of people may be called a “mecca” (e.g. “Hollywood is a mecca for actors”)
nap = the top layer of raised hairs or short threads of a carpet or of a cloth, which normally flow or lie smoothly in one direction
o’ = a vernacular abbreviation of the word “of”
o’er = (archaic) over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)
per se = (Latin) by itself, in itself, of itself; commonly used to express the following: as such, by its very nature, essentially, in essence, intrinsically, taken alone (e.g. “These are not shorts per se, but rather are short trousers”; “I am not opposed to free education per se, but I believe that it would be too expensive”)
pinchbeck = something counterfeit or spurious; something which is valuable in appearance, but which is actually cheap or tawdry; something counterfeit or fake; something cheap, an imitation; a fraud, a sham; an alloy made of copper and zinc, which looks like gold, and could be used as a substitute for gold, used in the manufacture of jewellery and watches; something made from the pinchbeck alloy; named after Christopher Pinchbeck (ca.1670-1732), a London clockmaker, who invented the alloy to use as a cheap substitute for gold
pinion = a bird’s wing; in more specific usage, the outer section of a bird’s wing; in broader usage, “pinions” refers to the wings of a bird (“pinion” may also refer specifically to a feather, especially a flight feather, or a quill)
ploughtail = the handle, or handles, of a plough (spelt as: ploughtail, plough-tail, plowtail, plow tail; also known as a ploughstaff); the back or rear of a plough (e.g. a plow tail wheel); a reference to a labourer on a farm (e.g. he worked at the plough-tail, he of the ploughtail)
poesy = poetry or the art of poetic composition
Pope = Alexander Pope (1688-1744), an English poet, translator, and satirist
Providence = (usually capitalized) God, or benevolent care from God; care, guidance, or protection as provided by God, or as provided by coincidental circumstances or Nature
puerile = childish, silly, childishly silly; behaving in a childish manner; juvenile, immature
Rab = (Scottish) Rob, Robert
Scott = Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Scottish poet and novelist
sic = (Scottish) such
th’ = (vernacular) the
Theban = of or relating to the ancient Greek city of Thebes
Tweed = the River Tweed, a river which flows through south-east Scotland (for about 17 miles, or 27 km, it marks the border between Scotland and England)
weel = (Scottish) well
wi’ = a contraction of “with”
ye = (archaic) you (however, still in use in some places, e.g. in Cornwall, Ireland, Newfoundland, and Northern England; it can used as either the singular or plural form of “you”, although the plural form is apparently the more common usage)
ye’re = you’re (a contraction of “you are”)
[Editor: Changed “The averag Scotchman’s” to “The average Scotchman’s”; “Martin Topper” to “Martin Tupper”; “With such good will.” to “With such good will?” (replaced full stop with a question mark).]
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]