Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Mackenzie on Burns
By Henry Mackenzie (17451831)
From The Lounger
THE POWER of genius is not less admirable in tracing the manners, than in painting the passions, or in drawing the scenery of nature. That intuitive glance with which a writer like Shakespeare discerns the characters of men, with which he catches the many changing hues of life, forms a sort of problem in the science of mind, of which it is easier to see the truth than assign the cause. Though I am very far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, his Dialogue of the Dogs; his Dedication to G H, Esq.; his Epistles to a young Friend, and to W. Sn, will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners.
Against some passages of these last mentioned poems it has been objected that they breathe a spirit of libertinism and irreligion. But if we consider the ignorance and fanaticism of the lower class of people in the country where these poems were written, a fanaticism of that pernicious sort which sets faith in opposition to good works, the fallacy and danger of which a mind so enlightened as our poets would not but perceive; we shall not look upon his lighter muse as the enemy of religion (of which in several places he expresses the justest sentiments), though she has sometimes been a little unguarded in her ridicule of hypocrisy.
In this, as in other respects, it must be allowed that there are exceptionable parts of the volume he has given to the public, which caution would have suppressed, or correction struck out; but poets are seldom cautious, and our poet had, alas! no friends or companions from whom correction could be obtained. When we reflect on his rank in life, the habits to which he must have been subject, and the society in which he must have mixed, we regret perhaps more than wonder, that delicacy should be so often offended in perusing a volume in which there is so much to interest and to please us.
Burns possesses the spirit as well as the fancy of a poet. That honest pride and independence of soul, which are sometimes the muses only dower, break forth on every occasion in his works. It may be, then, I shall wrong his feelings, while I indulge my own, in calling the attention of the public to his situation and circumstances. That condition, humble as it was, in which he found content, and wooed the muse, might not have been deemed uncomfortable; but grief and misfortune have reached him there; and one or two of his poems hint, what I have learnt from some of his countrymen, that he has been obliged to form the resolution of leaving his native land, to seek under a West Indian clime that shelter and support which Scotland has denied him. But I trust means may be found to prevent this resolution from taking place; and that I do my country no more than justice, when I suppose her ready to stretch out her hand to cherish and retain this native poet, whose wood-notes wild possess so much excellence. To repair the wrongs of suffering or neglected merit; to call forth genius from the obscurity in which it had pined indignant, and place it where it may profit or delight the world. These are exertions which give to wealth an enviable superiority, to greatness and to patronage a laudable pride.