Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1711/Burns and Washington

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From The Philadelphia Press.


Robert Burns, born in January, 1759, was not seventeen years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. Not until the following year did he write the first poem of his (eulogizing a lass under the name of "Handsome Nell") that has been discovered and preserved, and his compositions between 1777 and 1783, when the American War was ended, were neither numerous nor important. The fecundity of his genius became apparent, in the number and merit of his productions, between the latter date and the summer of 1786, when his poems were first collected and published in book form. It was his youth, then, when our War of Independence was in progress, and at its conclusion, that prevented Burns, a man of the most liberal opinions, from alluding to it or to its heroes in his verse. In his second edition, in 1787, he introduced "A Fragment" of nine stanzas, narrating, in the quaintly familiar language of a rustic, the events of, and connected with, the American War. As a poem this is poor, and chiefly to be valued as showing its author's political feeling.

It has been regarded as singular that Burns, who cannot have been ignorant of Washington's career as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," did not allude to him in prose or verse. Yet, in a letter to Mrs. Dunlap, in June, 1794, only two years before his death, he says: "I am just going to trouble your critical patience with the first sketch of a stanza I have been framing as I passed along the road "(he wrote, he said, "in a solitary inn, in a solitary village, of Castle Douglas"). "The subject is 'Liberty.' You know, my honored friend, how dear the theme is to me. I design it as an irregular ode for General Washington's birthday. After having mentioned the degeneracy of other kingdoms I come to Scotland, thus: —

Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,
Thee, famed for martial deed and sacred song,
To thee I turn with swimming eyes;
Where is that soul of freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead,
Beneath the hallowed turf where Wallace lies!
Here it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death!
Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep,
Disturb ye not the hero's sleep,
Nor give the coward secret breath.
Is this the power in freedom's war,
That wont to bid the battle rage?

"With the additions of, —

Behold that eye which shot immortal hate,
Braved Usurpation's boldest daring;
That arm which, nerved with thundering fate,
Crushed the despot's proudest bearing:
One quenched in darkness like the sinking star,
And one the palsied arm of tottering, powerless age."

It was not known to the general public that this poem, begun nearly sixty-three years ago, was ever completed. All who admire Burns, and their name is legion, will be glad to see it in full. It runs thus:


No Spartan tale, no Attic shell,
No lyre Eolian I awake:
'Tis liberty's bold note I swell,
Thy harp, Columbia, let me take.
See, gathering thousands, while I sing,
A broken chain exulting bring
And dash it in a tyrant's face,
And dare him to his very beard,
And tell him he no more is feared!
No more the despot of Columbia's race;
A tyrant's proudest insults braved,
They shout, a people freed! they hail an empire saved.

Where is man's godlike form?
Where is that brow erect and bold,
That eye that can, unmoved, behold
The wildest rage, the wildest storm,
That e'er created fury dared to raise?
Avaunt! thou caitiff, servile, base,
That tremblest at a despot's nod;
Yet, crouching under the iron rod,
Can'st laud the arm that struck the insulting blow?
Art thou of man's imperial line?
Dost boast that countenance divine?
Each skulking feature answers, No!
But come, ye sons of liberty,
Columbia's offspring, brave as free,
In danger's hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the royalty of man.

Alfred, on thy starry throne,
Surrounded by the tuneful choir,
The bards that erst have struck the patriot lyre,
And roused the free-born Briton's soul of fire.
No more thy England own.
Dare injured nations form the great design
To make detested tyrants bleed?
Thy England execrates the glorious deed!
Beneath her hostile banners waving,
Every pang of honor braving,
England in thunder calls — "The tyrant's cause is mine!"
That hour accurst, how did the fiends rejoice,
And hell thro' all her confines raise th' exulting voice —
That hour which saw the generous English name
Linkt with such damned deeds of everlasting shame!

Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,
Famed for the martial deed, the heaven-taught song,
To thee I turn with swimming eyes.
Where is that soul of freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead,
Beneath that hallowed turf where Wallace lies!
Hear it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death!
Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep,
Disturb not ye the hero's sleep,
Nor give the coward secret breath.
Is this the ancient Caledonian form,
Firm as her rock, resistless as her storm?
Show me that eye which shot immortal hate,
Braved usurpation's boldest daring!
Dark quenched as yonder sinking star,
No more that glance lightens afar;
That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war.

Judging from internal evidence, there can be no doubt of the authenticity of this lay of liberty, although it has never appeared in any edition of Burns. To Mrs. Dunlap, the gentle, highly intellectual, and well-informed lady, who, on the first accidental perusal of "The Cotter's Saturday Night," solicited his acquaintance, and was his best and wisest friend ever after, Burns had communicated a few stanzas of his Washington ode, and we find them in the above poem with a few alterations, which prove the authorship. Considering that when he wrote it Burns was himself an official under "the despot" he condemned, and that he seems to have endorsed the execution of poor Louis Capet, a weak rather than a bad man, it must be confessed that the poet was as bold as thoughtless. As it is, the poem evidently did not receive its maker's latest touches.

The question, "'Whence comes it now?" is to be answered in a little narrative. About the year 1833 William Wilson, of gentle blood and culture, arrived in the United States, with his family, from Scotland, and settled in Poughkeepsie, on the Hudson, as bookseller and publisher, and continued there until his death, in his fifty-ninth year, in August, 1860. Like Pope, he might have said: "I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." He was an early friend of the late Robert Chambers. Between 1826 and his emigration to this country Mr. Wilson had contributed, most acceptably, to Blackwood's Magazine, H. G. Bell's Edinburgh Literary Journal, Chambers' Journal, and other periodicals, and he continued to write, chiefly poetry, all his life. A selection of his poems, edited by Benson J. Lossing, appeared in 1870, and a second edition was published in 1875.

William Wilson, himself "one of the mildest-mannered men that ever lived," must have had fighting blood in his veins. His eldest brother was with Wellington in all his Peninsula battles, and finally at Waterloo. Three of his own sons were in the army of the Union during the civil war, and one was mortally wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg. General James Grant Wilson, one of his sons, who served all through the war, and rose to his rank by good conduct and bravery, is a distinguished man of letters, best known, perhaps, as the editor and biographer of Fitz-Greene Halleck. His latest, which promises to be a perpetually popular, work, is "The Poets and Poetry of Scotland," published some months ago, by Harper & Brothers, New York. It gives a comprehensive view of Scottish song, from Thomas the Rhymer, who wrote in the thirteenth century, to the Marquis of Lome, born in 1845, whose narrative poem of "Guido and Lita," with illustrations by the Princess Louise, Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, was published in 1875, and is now in the third edition.

In this work is the essence, so to say, of six centuries of Scottish song. Two hundred and twenty poets of "auld Caledonia" are thus made known to the world, by specimens of their best productions, prefaced, in every instance, by biographical notices of the poets and their productions, with impartial criticisms. General Wilson has given several poems in full, such as Allan Ramsay's "Gentle Shepherd," Beattie's "Minstrel," Blair's "Grave," John Home's "Douglas," John Grahame's "Sabbath" and Pollok's "Course of Time," which, notwithstanding their merit, are out of print. He also gives, printed from the author's autograph, the ode which we print to-day, and unpublished poems by several other Scottish writers. In an appendix will be found some waifs worthy of preservation. Each volume opens with a list of authors and the specimens selected. There is an index of the titles of the poems, ballads, dramatic pieces, etc., an index of the first lines of the songs, and also an excellent and copious glossary. Ten portraits of eminent writers, engraved on steel, suitably illustrate these volumes.

A short time ago the London Times, noticing this work, complained that, "with the exception of Douglas of Fingland, whose beautiful and well-known ballad of 'Annie Laurie' is relegated to the appendix, the earliest writer quoted is Thomas Campbell," and asked why Allan Ramsay, William Dunbar, Sir David Lyndesay, the Marquis of Montrose — even Robert Burns and Walter Scott — had not been mentioned. In a subsequent notice the critic had to confess that not General Wilson, but himself, had made a mistake — the fact being that the critic had seen only the second volume, in which, beginning with Thomas Campbell's "Pleasures of Hope," published in 1799, only the Scottish poesy of the present century is dealt with! So rarely has the Jupiter Tonans of European journalism been "caught napping" that this instance is worth noticing — particularly as it affects the character of the book in question. There are no extracts from W. E. Aytoun, author of "Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers" — simply because Messrs. Blackwood, his publishers, refused their permission to have any made.