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He grasped the great
lawless and lawlessness that is law. 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 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. 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. 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 cognate 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
the monstrous barbarism of bastardy, but we still acquiesce in it. The licensed parent is the keystone of a social order which is founded upon the anguish of womanhood and childhood. Burns sanctified the unmarried parent and the uncertificated child. If we hold that he was wrong, we must be logical and penalise the unlicensed father as severely as the unlicensed mother and the unlicensed infant. Otherwise our conscience must condemn what our cowardice condones. It may be said that Burns puts nothing in the place of the morality he destroys. But that is not the poet's business, which is simply to see and to sing. He saw and sang with dauntless purity of vision and of voice. He did not barter new lies for old. He bade the soul suffice. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but truth does not. She exults in the ungyved light and the unchained air. She does not see licence in liberty. She shuns the vassalage of the dungeoned spirit. She rejoices in the infinite space of the open conscience.
Liberty, then, is the lyric cry of Burns. He flings the hot riot of life in the cold face of cant. Enough for him the rapture of being, the exuberance of the senses. No poet sings so triumphantly the joy of the exulting flesh. He is the flesh made word. The senses sing in his voice. His bitter Calvinistic breeding serves only to edge his appetites and spur his lusts. He is the Puritan Pantagruel. It is a singular fact that Pantagruelism is the common offspring of belief and disbelief. In order to drain the cup of life to the lees you must either believe everything or believe nothing. You must attain either the blessedness of absolute faith or the blessedness of absolute scepticism. Between these two blessed moods lie the torments of all the Hamlets of humanity. The Middle Ages accepted the protection of Holy Church against the jealous anger of the supernatural. They insured themselves against hell-fire by taking a policy from the priest and paying a moderate premium. They revelled in absolute immunity from moral retribution. That is the mood of
Rabelais. The antithesis of this mood is the mood of Burns. He insured himself. He accepted the protection of his own reason against the jealous anger of the supernatural. He issued his own bulls and his own indulgences. He administered plenary absolution to his own soul. The difference between the Pantagruelism of Rabelais and the
Pantagruelism of Burns is simply the difference between spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom, between servile reliance and frank defiance, between absolute acceptance and absolute rejection of authority. Pantagruelism is not possible to the intermediate mood of a Christianity which is caught in two minds and falls between two stools. When the soul is indemnified against the flesh, the flesh is set free from the rack of conscience. Whether it be indemnified by the Church or by the intellect, the result is the same, although the flesh defiant probably fails to achieve the ripe serenity of the flesh reliant. The flesh defiant in Burns carouses madly like a condemned criminal, feverishly making the most of its hour, and stung into a delirious rapture that is less placidly joyous than your true Rabelaisian content. hectic flush on the cheek of Burns is the virus of puritanism. There is a perpetual challenge in his hilarity, but it is a challenge hurled not at the angry unseen but at its discredited ambassadors:
"The mair they talk I'm kenned the better."
Burns, like Byron, is untroubled by the burthen of the mystery of all this unintelligible world. He does not take earth seriously. He laughs at the hobgoblins of theology. If he had written an "Address to the Deity" it would have been in the same key as his " Address to the Deil," the key of tolerant humour. He would not even have excluded the possibility of divine amelioration which he allowed to "Auld Hornie" :
"But, fare you weel, auld Nickie-ben!
O wad ye tak a thought an' men'!
I'm wae to think upo' yon den
The temper of Burns is not corrosively irreligious or venomously atheistic. There is no malignity in his agnosticism, for it is based upon the imaginative humour that flies where reason crawls. His humour places the phenomena of consciousness in relation to each other by gently adjusting the lenses of the imagination. Under its scrutiny
the grotesque distortions of theology silently fade away and the outline of truth shows sharp and clear. The mood of the mystic is the opposite of the mood of the humorist. The great mystics are all humourless. Theology, which is the science of mysticism, is as humourless as mathematics. The mystic looks at the universe through the prism of his own soul. The humorist looks at his own soul through the prism of the universe. The mystic regards the cosmos as a marginal note on his own life. The humorist regards his own life as a marginal note on the cosmos. The mystic conceives man as the most important being in the scheme of things. The humorist conceives man as the least important. Humour is a solvent of morality. The humorist treats ethics as a collection of by-laws which vary with time and place, climate and culture. He sees no moral sanction save collective opportunism. He descries no foothold in the mirage of creeds. He finds only one rock in the mist of illusions-the personality of the separate soul. The soul makes its own laws, drafts its own commandments, obeys its own behests, erects its own standards. Conduct is merely the echo of the soul. You cannot expect from every soul the same echo. Therefore Burns upholds the right of each soul to its own echo. "The Jolly
Beggars" is the most immoral poem in all literature. does not merely defy morality. It treats morality as a fantastic fable. It creates a world in which morality does not exist. There are few exploits of the imagination so tremendous. It would be easy to create a world in which there should be no sense of space and no sense of time, a pure world of conscious personality without fleshly envelope or gregarious propriety. But it is not so easy to create a world where the soul and the flesh are completely insulated against the forebodings of conscience and the presage of moral responsibility. Yet Burns does it without an effort. The audacity of "The Jolly Beggars" is so stupendous that it has hitherto escaped attention, for nobody takes seriously a creative act which annihilates the whole fabric of human society and rases civilization to the ground. If the philosophy upon which "The Jolly Beggars" is based were to be established as the official religion of the earth, there would be a cataclysm such as has never been seen since the last ape turned into the first man. This philosophy is ex