Page:Merry Muses of Caledonia.djvu/12

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( vi )

stock of ribaldry, obscenity, and licentiousness, he feasted the world with the fruits of Hesperides. He employed no labourer; he did the navvy work himself. Small wonder is it, then, that the skirts of his mantle shew some traces of the scavenger work which was the self-imposed task of his life. On this point, Robert Chambers, in his Life and Works of the Poet, out of the fulness and ripeness of his knowledge, writes:—

"With a strange contradiction to the grave and religious character of the Scottish people, they possessed a wonderful quantity of indecorous traditionary verse, not of an inflammatory character, but simply expressive of a profound sense of the ludicrous in connection with the sexual affections. Such things, usually kept from public view, oozed out in merry companies such as Burns loved to frequent. Men laughed at them for the moment, and in the sober daylight of next morning had forgotten them. When our poet was particularly struck by any free-spoken ditty of the old school he would scribble it down and transfer it to a commonplace book. In time, what he thus collected he was led to imitate, apparently for no other object than that of amusing his merry companions in their moments of conviviality. … I am, nevertheless, convinced that his conduct originated mainly in nothing worse than his strong sense of the ludicrous. Of this, I venture to say, there could be no doubt entertained by the public if it were allowable to bring the proper evidence into Court. It is also to be admitted that, to heighten the effect, he was too apt to bring in a dash of levity respecting Scriptural characters and incidents—a kind of bad taste, however, for which an example was set to him in the common conversation of his countrymen; for certain it is that the piety of the old Scottish people did not exclude a very considerable share of what may be called an unconscious profanity."

In boyhood and early youth, we are told, he consumed with eager mind-hunger everything that partook of the complexion of his genius, and when the slender stores at his command were exhausted he betook himself to the volume of traditionary lore written on the memories of the men and women around him; chronicling with faithful pen all their uncouth utterances—eliminating, restoring, amending—till the crooked