Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Burns
By Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850)
 
From Essays

BUT the leading vice in Burns’s character, and the cardinal deformity, indeed, of all his productions, was his contempt, or affectation of contempt, for prudence, decency, and regularity; and his admiration of thoughtlessness, oddity, and vehement sensibility;—his belief, in short, in the dispensing power of genius and social feeling, in all matters of morality and common sense. This is the very slang of the worst German plays, and the lowest of our town-made novels, nor can anything be more lamentable, than that it should have found a patron in such a man as Burns, and communicated to many of his productions a character of immorality at once contemptible and hateful. It is but too true that men of the highest genius have frequently been hurried by their passions into a violation of prudence and duty, and there is something generous, at least, in the apology which their admirers may make for them on the score of their keener feelings and habitual want of reflection. But this apology, which is quite unsatisfactory in the mouth of another, becomes an insult and absurdity whenever it proceeds from their own. A man may say of his friend that he is a noble-hearted fellow, too generous to be just, and with too much spirit to be always prudent and regular. But he cannot be allowed to say even this of himself, and still less to represent himself as a hair-brained sentimental soul constantly carried away by fine fancies and visions of love and philanthropy, and born to confound and despise the cold-blooded sons of prudence and sobriety. This apology indeed evidently destroys itself: for it shows that conduct to be the result of deliberate system, which it affects at the same time to justify as the fruit of mere thoughtlessness and casual impulse. Such protestations, therefore, will always be treated as they deserve, not only with contempt, but with incredulity; and their magnanimous authors set down as determined profligates, who seek to disguise their selfishness under a name somewhat less revolting. That profligacy is almost always selfishness, and that the excuse of impetuous feeling can hardly ever be justly pleaded for those who neglect the ordinary duties of life, must be apparent, we think, even to the least reflecting of those sons of fancy and song. It requires no habit of deep thinking, nor anything more, indeed, than the information of an honest heart, to perceive that it is cruel and base to spend in vain superfluities, that money which belongs of right to the pale industrious tradesman and his famishing infants; or that it is a vile prostitution of language to talk of that man’s generosity or goodness of heart, who sits raving about friendship and philanthropy in a tavern, while his wife’s heart is breaking at her cheerless fireside, and his children pining in solitary poverty.
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