from the English Review [London], 9:2 (February 1787), 89-93.


Care has been taken to maintain the line- and page-breaks of the original text. However, in the interests of readability, the long-s symbol—“ƒ”—has been silently changed to the standard “s”.


page 89
Art. II. Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert
  Burns.
8vo. 5s. Wilson, Kilmarnoch. 1786.

IN an age that is satiated with literary pleasures, nothing
 is so grateful to the public taste as novelty. This ingre-
dient will give a gust to very indifferent fare, and lend a
flavour to the produce of the home-brewed vintage. What-
ever excites the jaded appetite of an epicure will be prized;
and a red herring from Greenock of Dunbar will be reckoned
a delice. From this propensity to human nature, a musical
child, a rhyming milkwoman, a learned pig, or a Russian
poet, will “strut their hour upon the stage,” and gain the
applause of the moment. From this cause, and this alone,
Stephen Duck the threasher, and many other nameless names,
have glittered and disappeared like those bubbles of the atmo-
sphere which are called falling stars.
    Robert Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman, whose Poems are
now before us, does not belong to this class of obscurorum
virorum
. Although he is by no means such a poetical pro-
digy as some of his malicious friends have represented, he
has a genuine title to the attention and approbation of the
public, as a natural, though not a legitimate, son of the
muses.

The

page 90
    The first poems in this collection are the humorous
and satirical kind; and in these our author appears to be
most at home. In his serious poems we can trace imitations
of almost every English author of celebrity*; but his hu-
mour is entirely his own. His address to the Deil (Devil),
The hoy fair (a country sacrament), and his Epistle, in
which he sidguises an amour under the veil of patridge-
shooting, are his masterpieces in this line; and happily in
these instances his humoure is neither local nor transient;
for the devil, the world, and the flesh, will always keep
their ground. “ The vision” is perhaps the most poetical
of all his performances. Revolving his obscure situation,
in which there was nothing to animate pursuit or gratify
ambition; comparing his humble lot with the more flou-
rishing condition of mercantile adventures; and vowing to
renounce the unprofitable trade of verse for ever; there ap-
peared to him a celestial figure; not one of the nine muses,
celebrated in fiction; but the real muse of every inspired
poet, the GENIUS of his native district and frequented
scenes. This is an elegant and happy imagination. The
form of Nature, that first met his enamoured eyes, is the
muse of the rural poet. The mountains, the forests, and
the streams, are the living volumes that impregnate his
fancy, and kindle the fire of genius. The address of this ru-
ral deity to him marks the character, and describes the feel-
ings of a poet.

        ‘ With future hope I oft would gaze,
      Fond, on thy little, early ways,
      Thy rudely-caroll’d, chiming phrase,
          In uncouth rhymes,
      Fir’d at the simple, artless lays
          Of other times.

        I saw thee seek the founding shore,
      Delighted with the dashing roar;
      Or when the North his fleecy store

          Drove through the sky,
      I saw grim Nature’s visage hoar,
          Struck thy young eye.


    * Robert Burns, though he has been represented as an ordinary
ploughman, was a farmer, or what they call a tenant in Scotland, and
rented land which he cultivated whith his own hands. He is better
acquainted with the English poets than most authors that have come
under our review.

Or

page 91
        Or when the deep-green-mantl’d earth
      Warm-cherish’d ev’ry flowret’s birth,
      And joy and music pouring forth
          In ev’ry grove,
      I saw thee eye the gen’ral mirth
          With boundless love.

        When ripen’d field and azure skies
      Call’d forth the reaper’s rustling noise
      I saw thee leave their ev’ning joys,

          And lonely stalk,
      To vent thy bosom’s swelling rise
          In pensive walk.

        When youthful Love, warm blushing, strong,
      Keen-shivering shot thy nerves along,
      Those accents, grateful to thy tongue,

          Th’ adored Name,
      I taught thee how to pour in song,
          To sooth they flame.

        I saw thy pulse’s madding play
      Wild send thee Pleasure’s devious way,
      Misled by Fancy’s meteor-ray,

          By Passion driven:
      But yet the light that led astray
          Was light from Heav’n.’

    “ Halloween,” or Even, gives a just and literal account
of the principal spells and charms that are practised, on
that anniversary, among the peasants of Scotland, from the
desire of prying into futurity, but it is not happily executed.
A mixture of the solemn and burlesque can never be agree-
able.
    “The Cotter's (cottager's) Saturday Night,”" is, without
exception, the best poem in the collection. It is written in
the stanza of Spencer, which probably our bard acquired
from Thomson’s “ Castle of Indolence,” and Beattie’s
“ Minstrel.” It describes one of the happiest and most af-
fecting scenes to be found in a country life; and draws a
domestic picture of rustic simplicity, natural tenderness, and
innocent passiong, that must please every reader whose feelings
are not perverted.
    The “ Odes to a Mouse on turning up her Nest,” and to a
“ Mountain Daisy,” are of a similar nature, and will strike
every reader for elegant fancy and the vein of sentimental
reflection that runs throught them. As the latter contains
few provincial phrases we shall present it to the reader.

‘ To

page 92
      ‘ To a MOUNTAIN-DAISY, on turning one down with the
          Plough in April 1786.

        ‘ Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r,
      Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
      For I maun crush amang the stoure

          Thy slender stem;
      To spare thee now is past my pow’r,
          Thou bonie gem.

        Alas! it’s no thy neebor sweet
      The bonie lark, companion meet!
      Bending thee ’mang the dewy weet!

          Wi’s speckl’d breast,
      When upward-springing blythe to greet
          The purpling east.

        Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
      Upon thy early, humble birth;
      Yet chearfully thou glinted forth

          Amid the storm,
      Scarce rear’d above the parent-earth
          Thy tender form.

        The flaunting flow’rs our gardens yield,
      High sheltr’ing woods and wa’s maun shield,
      But thou, beneath the random bield

          O’ clod or stane,
      Adorns the histie stibble-field,
          Unseen, alane.

        There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
      Thy snawie bosom sunward spread,
      Thou lifts thy unassuming head

          In humble guise;
      But now the share uptears thy bed,
          And low thou lies!

        Such is the fate of artless maid,
      Sweet flow’ret of the rural shade!
      By love’s simplicity betray’d

          And guileless trust,
      Till she, like thee, all foil’d, is laid
          Low i’ the dust.

        Such is the fate of simple bard,
      On life’s rough ocean luckless starr’d!
      Unskilful he to note the card

          Of prudent lore,
      Till billow rage, and gales blow hard,
          And whelm him o’er!
      Such

page 93
        Such fate to suffering worth is giv’n,
      Who long with wants and woes has striv’n,
      By human pride or cunning driv’n
          To Mis’ry’s brink,
      Till wrench’d to ev’ry stay but HEAV’N,
          He, ruin’d, sink!

        Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
      That fate is thine—no distant date;
      Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives elate,

          Full on the bloom,
      Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight,
          Shall be thy doom!

    The stanza of Mr. Burns is generally ill-chosen, and his
provincial dialect confines his beauties to one half of the
island. but he possesses the genuine characteristics of a poet;
a vigorous mind, a lively fancy, a surpizing knowledge of
human nature, and an expression rich, various, and abun-
dant. In the plaintive or pathetic he does not excel; his
love-poems (though he confesses, or rather professes, a penchant
to the belle passion) are execrable; but in the midst of vul-
garity and common-place, which occupy one half of the vo-
lume, we meet with many striking beauties that make ample
compensation. One happy touch on the Eolian harp from
fairy fingers awakes emotions in the soul that makes us forget
the antecedent mediocrity or harshness of that natrual music.
    The liberal patronage which Scotland has extended to this
self-taught bard reflects honour on the country. If Mr.
Burns has flourished in the shade of obscurity, his country
will form higher expectations from him when basking in
the sunshine of appluase. His situation, however, is criti-
cal. He seems to possess too great a facility of composition,
and is too easily satisfied with his own productions. Fame
may be procured by novelty, but it must be supported by
merit. We have thrown our these hints to our young and
ingenious author, because we discern faults in him, which, if
not corrected, like the fly in the apothecary‘s ointment, may
give an unfortunate tincture and colour to his future com-
positions.


This page last updated 20 June 2002 by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.