Emerson on Burns, pp.104-105.

[Anecdotes of Burns Contents]

AT the Burns’ Centenary Dinner at Boston in 1859, Emerson concluded his speech as follows:- 

“Yet how true a poet is he; and the poet, too, of poor men, of grey hodden, and the guernsey coat, and the blouse. He has given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farm-house and cottage, patches and poverty, beans and barley; ale the poor man’s wine; hardship, the fear of debt, the dear society of weans and wife; brothers and sisters, proud of each other, knowing so few, and finding amends for want and obscurity in books and thought. What a love of nature, and shall I say it middle-class nature. Not great like Goethe in the stars, or like Byron on the ocean, or like Moore in the luxurious East; but in the lonely landscape which the poor see around them; bleak leagues of pasture and stubble, ice, and sleet, and rain, and snow-clothed brooks; birds, hares, field-mice, thistles, and heather, which he daily knew. How many ‘Bonnie Doons,’ and ‘John Anderson my Joes,’ and ‘Auld Lang-synes,’ all around the earth have his verses been applied to! And his love songs still woo and melt the youths and maids; the farm work, the country holiday, the fishing coble, are still his debtors to-day. And as he was thus the poet of poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity, so he had the language of low life. He grew up in a rural district speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made that lowland Scotch a doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this, he had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. But I am detaining you too long. The memory of Burns – I am afraid heaven and earth have taken too good care of it, to leave us anything to say. The west winds are murmuring it. Open the windows behind you, and hearken for the incoming tide what the waves say of it. The doves perching always on the eaves of the stone chapel opposite, may know something about it. Every name in broad Scotland keeps his fame bright. The memory of Burns – every man’s, and boy’s and girl’s head carries snatches of his songs, and can say them by heart, and what is strangest of all, never learned them from a book, but from mouth to mouth. The wind whispers them, the birds whistle them, the corn, barley, and bulrishes hoarsely rustle them; nay, the music-boxes at Geneva are framed and toothed to play them; the hand-organs of the Savoyards in all cities repeat them, and the chimes of bells ring them in the spires. They are the property and the solace of mankind.” 

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