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By G. Douglas Nicoll, guest contributer

In November 2002 Scotland's leading newspaper, The Scotsman, bemoaned the exclusion of the study of Robert Burns among the Romantic poets by academics in England and America.i Reporting on a lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on November 7 by Scottish academic Murray Pittock, journalist Mike Wade went so far as to refer to Keats and Shelley as being among the "so-called Romantic poets" who receive primary attention. "Romantic?" he wrote. "None of them could have come up with anything like 'My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose.'" Professor Pittock's response to this slight of Scotland's most famous bard was a reminder that Coleridge, Keats and Shelley all honored Burns by writing poetry about him. What were these tributes?

Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth both encouraged Samuel Taylor Coleridge to read Burns. Coleridge probably did not appreciate the Scot's hardy humor and love songs, but this was before the English poet forsook his political radicalism for German philosophy, so he may have identified with Burns' concern for liberty. In any case, shortly after Burns' death, out of loyalty to his literary friends, Coleridge wrote a poem to raise money for Burns' family. It appeared before the end of 1796 in a Bristol newspaper.ii

Coleridge addressed the poem to Lamb and sent it to him without a title. Speaking to Lamb's loss of his early idol, the crucial lines of tribute begin:

    ". . . Is thy Burns dead?
    And shall he die unwept, and sink to Earth
    'Without the meed of one melodious tear?'
    Thy Burns, and Nature's own beloved Bard,"

He then refers to Burns' effort to seek patronage from the Caledonian Hunt, an exclusive Edinburgh club, and rues his need to seek the career of an exciseman. The poem concludes with a vision of Burns' eternal resting place halfway up the Helicon, the mountain home of ancient Greek Muses.iii

There may have been reserve in Coleridge's appreciation of Burns and other motives behind his poems praising the late Scot, but John Keats' admiration of Burns was enthusiastic and more comprehensive. In the Ayrshire bard he found a kindred spirit in many ways. They both had a sensuous and an earthy openness toward humanity and nature, as well as a distaste for puritanism and the manner in which the poor were encouraged to accept their plight in the name of thrift.iv

In his short life, Keats gave poetic praise to Burns three times. At twenty (1815) he addressed almost one hundred lines "To George Felton Matthew." Extolling poetry's capacity to portray heroism as well as nature, he places Burns among the historic champions of freedom:

    " . . . We next could tell
    Of those who in the cause of freedom fell;
    Of our own Alfred, of Helvetian Tell;
    Of him whose name to ev'ry heart's a solace,
    High-minded and unbending William Wallace.
    While to the rugged north our musing turns
    We well might drop a tear for him, and Burns."v

His walking tour with his friend Charles Brown in northern Britain in the summer of 1818 gave Keats the opportunity for a mini-Burns pilgrimage and led to two short poems. In Dumfries he stopped at Burns' tomb, hastily penning the following:

    On Visiting the Tomb of Burns

    The town, the churchyard, and the setting sun,
    The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all weem,
    Though beautiful, cold -- strange -- as in a dream
    I dreamed long ago. Now new begun,
    The short-lived, paly summer is but won
    From winter's ague, for one hour's gleam;
    Though saphire warm, their stars do never beam;
    All is cold beauty; pain is never done
    For who has mind to relish, Minos-wise,
    The real of beauty, free from that dead hue
    Sickly imagination and sick pride
    Cast wan upon it! Burns! With honour due
    I have oft honoured thee. Great shadow, hide
    Thy face -- I sin against thy native

The two friends crossed to Ireland for a few days, then returned to Ayr and visited the Burns cottage, which led to this poetic toast.

    Written in the Cottage Where Burns Was Born

    This mortal body of a thousand days
    Now fills, O Burns, a space in thine own room,
    Where thou didst dream alone on budded bays,
    Happy and thoughtless of thy day of doom!
    My pulse is warm with thine own Barley-bree
    My head is light with pledging a great soul,
    My eyes are wandering, and I cannot see,
    Fancy is dead and drunken at its goal;
    Yet can I stamp my foot upon thy floor,
    Yet can I ope thy window-sash to find
    The meadow thou hast tramped o'er and o'er, --
    Yet can I think of thee till thought is blind, --
    Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name, --
    O smile among the shades, for this is fame!vii

Percy Bysshe Shelley, like Coleridge, was not only separated from Robert Burns by a generation. He was also at the other end of the spectrum in terms of background, personality and style. Yet, when he chastised poets whom he deemed "dull" and had forsaken their liberal values, in his lengthy satire "Peter Bell the Third", Shelley cites Burns as a model of the correct way to write poetry. He has the dull poet Peter Bell briefly amusing Nature, but she tells him he has not come close to portraying her as Burns has.

    "He touched the hem of Nature's shift,
    Felt faint -- and never dared uplift
    The closest, all-concealing tunic.

    She laughed the while, with an arch smile,
    And kissed him with a sister's kiss,
    And said -- 'My best Diogenes,
    I love you well -- but, if you please,
    Tempt not again my deepest bliss.

    'Tis you are cold -- for I, not coy,
    Yield love for love, frank, warm and true;
    And Burns, a Scottish peasant boy --
    His errors prove it -- knew my joy
    More, learned friend, than you.'"viii

For these three great Romantics to extol Robert Burns may not be sufficient argument to include him among their ranks in the study of the poets of the Romantic Era, but it does remind us that the Scottish bard's art was appreciated my the major aesthetes of his time.

  2. Low, Donald A, Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London & Boston, 1974, 22, 28.
  3. For complete text of poem see Mays, J.C.C. (ed.), The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Princeton University Press, 2001, I, 270-71.
  4. Low, Donald A, op cit 40.
  5. Stillinger, Jack (ed.), John Keats. Complete Poems Harvard University Press, 1978), 14-16.
  6. Ibid, 266.
  7. Briggs, Harold E. The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Keats, Modern Library, 1951, 215.
  8. Keats, John; Sheely, Percy Bysshe, The Complete Poetical Works of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley Modern Library, 1931, 383.
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