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First Issue of this Edition, March 1906 Reprinted August 1906, January 1909, September 1910
BURNS has no rival in the art of singing the soul into song and setting the heart to music. His poetry is pure passion. Other lyrists are literary at their best: when Burns is literary he is at his worst. His note falls like the note of the lark straight from the throat of life. It is not an imitation of life, but life itself running into laughter and tears. Being life, it is not a grey moral thing, but a lovely riot of good that is not wholly good, and evil that is not wholly evil. There is no consistency in it save the consistent inconsistency of life. It is a beautiful energy flashing in the nonmoral imagination. Its movements are beyond the venue of convention. You cannot arrest a lyric or imprison a song. The conduct of Burns morality may lash: his poetry is unscourgeable. In it life flaunts her deathless rebellion, for life goes on from generation to generation without heeding the wisdom of the wise or the goodness of the good. Her force breaks out afresh in every child that is born. In Burns it charges with irresistible violence, chanting a ringing challenge to the past, for it is against the past that life is always fighting, against the bequeathed prudence of dead men, the legacy of crafty experience called "virtue."
Burns was so full of life that he could not drug his imagination with theology or literature, although he persistently dosed himself with Shenstone and the Shorter Catechism. He saw the world as not one of his contemporaries saw it. He saw it without their illusions and without ours. He saw it bathed in that clear air of philosophic humour which is the perspective of the imagination. He looked neither up nor down on god or man, louse or lord, daisy or devil. He looked all round all the shows of existence and laughed at the sweet witchery and ripe wonder of conscious being. He saw the map of life on so large a scale that the minor opportunisms shrank into
nothingness. He broke the tables of stone to the sound of his lyre. He challenged everything that speaks with authority, reverencing nothing save irreverence and fearing nothing save fear. Being but a man, he fell at times into cant and compromise.
His hot heart was sometimes chilled by his country and his countrymen, by Calvin and custom, but not long, for his brain was a rebel and his soul an incendiary. Society idolised him because society is too stupid to fear its deadliest enemy, the poet. If it were not stupid it would have burned him alive with his living books. Society does not know that thought is more dangerous than action, imagination more dangerous than thought, and humour more dangerous than all three. It does not dread the anarchy of laughter which thunders in this stanzą of "The Jolly Beggars" :
"A fig for those by law protected!
Churches built to please the priest."
Yet in those lines began the Revolution of Revolutions, compared with which the French Revolution is but a ripple on the sea of change. (The Revolution of Burns is an insurrection of the naked spirit of man.) It goes deeper than the pimples and blotches of wars and legislations, those cutaneous abrasions and stains on the skin of society produced by kings and soldiers, priests and politicians; for it transforms not the outer surface but the inner soul of humanity. It affects not merely the physical arrangement of units, but the unit itself. The tendency of physical science is to simplify the universe and to disintegrate the elements of matter into their ultimate ingredients. The same tendency is at work in the science which explores the form of matter which we call mind. The old revolutions sought to liberate the many from the tyranny of the individual. The new revolution seeks to liberate the individual from the tyranny of the many. The old revolutions sought to free men in the mass from physical oppressions. The new revolution seeks to free the personality of the separate man from spiritual and intellectual oppressions. Burns foresaw the future revolt of the soul against all the external compulsions of collective opinion. He descried the dawn of law that is
lawless and lawlessness that is law. He grasped the great principle that each man ought to be a law unto himself, and ought to do that which is right in his own eyes, regulating his conduct by no outer coercions of corporate conventions, but solely by the statutes of his own conscience. He realised that the only moral law is that which is enacted in the parliament of the spirit, and that the highest standard is set up not outside but inside the soul. He し perceived that there is only one person who can never forgive sin, namely, the sinner.) He knew that the virtue which is rooted in conformity to external menace is an immoral cowardice, and that the free play of the free mind in the free body is the ideal goal towards which man is marching over the ruins of philosophies and civilisations,
moralities and creeds.
That Burns the Man was meaner than Burns the Poet need not dismay us, for the imagination is always greater than the will. He never mistook his weakness for strength, although the late Mr Henley fell a victim to that delusion, being in this respect more royalist than the king. Burns knew better than he builded. He fought against the incompetence of facts and the brutality of nature. He dashed himself to pieces against the insanity of an illogical world. If man were a perfect machine, like a chronometer or a gas-meter, his physical passions would not war against his spiritual pride. Nature would be natural. Sex would be normal. There would be no duel between the brain and the body. But nature is fiendishly unnatural and sex is diabolically abnormal in the only animal which suffers from the disease of thought and the cancer of imagination. Man's super-cerebration has sophisticated with shame the supreme function of life, while leaving unsophisticated the minor physical absurdities of alimentation and excretion. But nature cares nothing for man's self-critical brain and fastidious soul. She tramples upon his spiritual pride. It is only the non-moral functions that she consigns to atrophy. Our caudal and aural muscles are almost extinct. The olfactory nerve is vanishing. But the disease of thought and the cancer of imagination serve only to stimulate sex and to retard the elimination of passion, that far-off divine event towards which the whole creation moves. It is, therefore, not extravagant to assert that asceticism is
a pander and chastity a procuress. Burns, with his volcanic vision, pierced through the filmy makeshifts and makebelieves of provisional morality. He saw sex as Blake and Shelley saw it, a splendour and not a shame. He sided with hardpressed nature. He envisaged an impossible harmony between the obscenity of nature and the decency of man. He postulated the impossible and tried to live it. Like Samson, he blindly tugged at the pillars of Philistia's chief temple, and was buried in its ruins. Before we knout him, let us try to see what he saw and look beyond the squalor of his debauchery to the sublimity of his dreams.
Steeped as we are in moral acquiescence, we cannot easily purge our sight of conventional cataract. But we can, at least, measure the advance of man since Burns wrote "Holy Willie's Prayer," "The Holy Fair," "The Jolly Beggars," and "The Address to the Deil." Where is Calvin to-day? Where is Calvin's Deity, Calvin's Hell, and Calvin's Devil? Let the Churches answer which have slain that triple horror. If Burns has been so swiftly justified in his assault upon a ferocious theology, may he not also be justified before time expires in his assault upon a no less ferocious morality? The superstition of licensed parentage has survived its cog. nate superstitions. How much longer will it survive? Already it is crumbling before the silent sap and mine of its chief martyr, womanhood. The revolt of womanhood against its hallowed ferocities is no longer a figment. It is a fact. Throughout the civilised world womanhood is in full rebellion against a system which immolates one half of her on the other half. Womanhood is out on strike. Neither patriotism nor religion can overcome her passive resistance. Revolutions are not made with rose-water, and this insurrection of womanhood is more merciless than any Reign of Terror. Deplore it we may: ignore it we cannot.
Burns proclaimed the legitimacy of the illegitimate. His "Welcome to his Illegitimate Child" is not mere bravado, It is a noble vindication of fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood against the ban of the Church and the penal code of the State. It repudiates their right to grant or to refuse moral licences and indulgences. It rejects their right to permit or to prohibit parentage. It annuls alike their veto and their exequatur. It excommunicates their excommunication, and anathematises their anathema. We no longer defend