[Editor: This letter to the editor was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 15 August 1896. It was written in reply to a letter which appeared in The Bulletin on 1 August 1896. Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) also wrote a reply on the same subject, which appeared in The Bulletin on 22 August 1896.]
“The Burns Myth.”
Dear Bulletin, — Apart from the opinion of Carlyle and Scotchmen generally, why was not Burns a great poet per se? The case does not stand proved that he is only a great Scotch poet. Thousands of Lowland Saxons, who hate Gaelic like poison, love and admire Burns. And Gaelic is a sair dose to gulp down, even when strongly diluted with whisky. The point that all Scottish poetry is Celtic is, however, true. The Celtic race, which traces its source back about 1000 years before Christ to a locality in Turkey, includes the Gaelic. Brittany, Wales, Isle of Man, Highlands of Scotland, West of Ireland are its strongholds — and Ayr was once the seat of one of the earliest known native rulers of the Celts. Consequently all Scotchmen are Turks, and that is perhaps why Burns was so fond of the women.
It is true that Burns produced no great epic, no classic drama. But does the production of great epics and classic dramas alone constitute greatness in poetry? Sometimes there is greatness in the poetic atmosphere of the thought, in the note that runs through the work. Burns was nothing if not the poet of Democracy, and it is the Democratic note expressed lyrically that makes him great. His eternal theme is the dignity of labor, the brotherhood of man. He is direct, potential, tender, humorous, stirring the deepest chords. He was ahead of his time, and we are not abreast of him yet. Like Heine, but without Heine’s culture, and far below the German in intellectual strength, he fought, a brave soldier in the cause of Humanity.
At his best his thought is robust, world-embracing, scintillating with wit; his lyrics of the purest; his fire not surpassed by any poet in the English and Celtic anthology. In spontaneity he was the equal of Byron, but with saner, more catholic, truer insight. Wordsworth was not above him as a nature poet, nor Shelley as a lyric. In pure poetic strength and originality, Keats, Shelley, and even Tennyson are but beautiful children beside him — weavers of wondrous words, makers of delicious music, but charged with no electric message to thrill the hearts of men.
“No one,” says Laing, in his essay on the creeds of great poets, “equals Burns in the keenness of insight with which he looks through the outer husks and habiliments of things to their real essence.” Carlyle’s clothes philosophy in “Sartor Resartus” is but a sermon on the text:—
The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man’s the gold for a’ that.
Of course, Burns wrote an intolerable deal of trash, but so did Tennyson. And to compare him to Tupper is enough to make Saint-Beuve turn in his grave.
Anyhow, how much of the Victorian poetry is going to live at the end of the twenty-second century? It is only about a thousandth part of what a poet writes that really lives, becomes incorporated with the language and crystallised into the thought of the world. And Burns has just as good, if not a better, chance than Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne. And if (in Matthew Arnold’s words on Goethe) Burns cannot be said “to have seen Life steadily and seen it whole,” he saw with a piercing vision everything in life that related to mankind. His intensity, his grasp, and his splendid enthusiasm for Humanity — fighting grimly to a higher goal — make him of more use to the world than all the cold, universal culture of the Sage of Weimar.
Perhaps the best words ever said on Burns are by the English poet, William Watson, himself a lyric poet not inferior to Keats. I give a few disjointed stanzas from a long poem:—
He came when poets had forgot
How rich and strange the human lot;
How warm the tints of Life; how hot
Are Love and Hate;
And what makes Truth divine, and what
Makes Manhood great.
For, ’mid an age of dust and dearth,
Once more had bloomed immortal worth.
There, in the strong, splenetic north,
The Spring began —
A mighty mother had brought forth
A mighty man.
And though thrice statelier names decay,
His own can wither not away
While plighted lass and lad shall stray
Among the broom,
Where evening touches glen and brae
With rosy gloom;
While nations see in holy trance
That vision of the world’s advance,
Which glorified his countenance
When from afar
He hailed the Hope that shot o’er France
Its crimson star;
While, plumed for flight, the soul deplores
The cage that foils the wing that soars;
And while, through adamantine doors
In dreams flung wide,
We hear resound, on mortal shores,
The immortal tide.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 15 August 1896, p. 6 (columns 3-4)
The paragraph which quotes Samuel Laing’s comments on Robert Burns and on Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus comes from: S. Laing, Problems of the Future, London: Chapman and Hall, 1889, p. 320
The section which says “The Celtic race, which traces its source back about 1000 years before Christ to a locality in Turkey” may be a reference to the Celts who migrated to Galatia (in Anatolia, i.e. Turkey), and became known as the Galatians; modern research suggests that central Europe was the original location of the Celtic peoples.
See: 1) “Celt”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
2) “Celts”, Wikipedia
3) Simon Young, The Celtic Revolution, [London], Gibson Square, 2010, pp. 85-96
a’ = (Scottish vernacular) all
adamantine = impenetrable, unbreakable, unyielding; something with the properties of adamant (being an extremely hard substance, such as diamond, or, in literature and mythology, a substance which is unbreakable, such as an adamantine stone or sword); may also refer to someone who holds very solid or unyielding attitudes or views
Ayr = a town situated on the southwest coast of Scotland (on the River Ayr, in Ayrshire); the River Ayr (Ayrshire, Scotland)
brae = a slope, steep bank, or hillside, especially one situated alongside a river
broom = several types of leguminous yellow-flowered shrubs with long slender branches, of the family Fabaceae (particularly from the genera Cytisus, Genista, and Spartium), including Cytisus scoparius (also known as common broom, or Scotch broom)
Browning = Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), an English poetess (née Moulton-Barrett)
Burns = Robert Burns (1759-1796), a famous Scottish poet
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]
catholic = all-embracing, all-encompassing, general in range, wide variety of different things, varied, universal; broad range of interests or tastes (e.g. to have a catholic taste in music); broad-minded; all kinds or types of people; of or relating to the Roman Catholic Church
Gaelic =  of or relating to the Gaelic language, including Irish Gaelic (from Ireland), Manx Gaelic (from the Isle of Man), and Scottish Gaelic (from Scotland)
Gaelic =  of or relating to Gaelic people, Gaelic culture, or Gaelic language; of or relating to the Scottish Highlands or its people and culture
glen = a narrow valley, especially one in a secluded location, and especially one located in the mountains of Ireland and Scotland
Goethe = Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a German poet, playwright, and novelist
habiliments = clothes, clothing, attire
Heine = Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), a German poet, writer, and literary critic
Keats = John Keats (1795-1821), an English poet
Laing = Samuel Laing (1812-1897), a Scottish author, politician, and railway administrator
Matthew Arnold = (1822-1888), an English poet and cultural critic
’mid = an abbreviation of “amid” or “amidst”: of or in the middle of an area, group, position, etc.
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”)
Q. = an abbreviation of Queensland (a colony in Australia from 1859, then a state in 1901)
Saint-Beuve = Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869), a French literary critic
Sage of Weimar = Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a German poet, playwright, and novelist
sair = (Scottish vernacular) causing physical distress or pain; a grievous ailment; causing mental distress or grief; a hard business, a trying matter; grievous misfortune; an activity, incident, or process involving danger, difficulty, or hardship; a hard struggle; sore, aching, painful, throbbing (especially regarding the head; a headache); a sore, a bruise, a wound; grief-stricken, heart-broken, sorrowful
Shelley = Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), an English poet
splenetic = bad-tempered, disagreeable, ill-humored, ill-natured, ill-tempered, irritable, peevish, spiteful; easily roused to anger or annoyance; (archaic) of or relating to the spleen (splenic); (archaic) affected by melancholy, having a tendency towards melancholy
statelier = more stately, very stately (having a high amount or level of graceful and imposing dignity, loftiness, high-born manner)
Swinburne = Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), an English poet, playwright, novelist, and critic
Tennyson = Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), an English poet
thrice = three times, threefold
Tupper = Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889) an English author, essayist, and poet
William Watson = (1858-1935), an English poet
Wordsworth = William Wordsworth (1770-1850), an English poet