Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. XI. Miscellanies
 
XXII. Robert Burns
 
Speech Delivered at the Celebration of the Burns Centenary, Boston
January 25, 1859

  “HIS was the music to whose tone
  The common pulse of man keeps time
In cot or castle’s mirth or moan,
  In cold or sunny clime.
  
Praise to the bard! his words are driven,
  Like flower-seeds by the far winds sown,
Where’er, beneath the sky of heaven,
  The birds of fame have flown.”
HALLECK.    

MR. PRESIDENT, AND GENTLEMEN: 1 I do not know by what untoward accident it has chanced, and I forbear to inquire, that, in this accomplished circle, it should fall to me, the worst Scotsman of all, to receive your commands, and at the latest hour too, to respond to the sentiment just offered, and which indeed makes the occasion. But I am told there is no appeal, and I must trust to the inspirations of the theme to make a fitness which does not otherwise exist. Yet, Sir, I heartily feel the singular claims of the occasion. At the first announcement, from I know not whence, that the 25th of January was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, a sudden consent warmed the great English race, in all its kingdoms, colonies and states, all over the world, to keep the festival. We are here to hold our parliament with love and poesy, as men were wont to do in the Middle Ages. Those famous parliaments might or might not have had more stateliness and better singers than we,—though that is yet to be known,—but they could not have better reason. I can only explain this singular unanimity in a race which rarely acts together, but rather after their watchword, Each for himself,—by the fact that Robert Burns, the poet of the middle class, represents in the mind of men to-day that great uprising of the middle class against the armed and privileged minorities, that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and social order, has changed the face of the world.
  1
  In order for this destiny, his birth, breeding and fortunes were low. His organic sentiment was absolute independence, and resting as it should on a life of labor. No man existed who could look down on him. They that looked into his eyes saw that they might look down the sky as easily. 2 His muse and teaching was common sense, joyful, aggressive, irresistible. Not Latimer, nor Luther struck more telling blows against false theology than did this brave singer. The Confession of Augsburg, the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the Marseillaise, are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns. His satire has lost none of its edge. His musical arrows yet sing through the air. He is so substantially a reformer that I find his grand plain sense in close chain with the greatest masters,—Rabelais, Shakspeare in comedy, Cervantes, Butler, and Burns. If I should add another name, I find it only in a living countryman of Burns. 3  2
  He is an exceptional genius. The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns. It was indifferent—they thought who saw him—whether he wrote verse or not: he could have done anything else as well. Yet how true a poet is he! And the poet, too, of poor men, of gray hodden and the guernsey coat and the blouse. He has given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottage, patches and poverty, beans and barley; ale, the poor man’s wine; hardship; the fear of debt; the dear society of weans and wife, of brothers and sisters, proud of each other, knowing so few and finding amends for want and obscurity in books and thoughts. 4 What a love of Nature, and, shall I say it? of middle-class Nature. Not like Goethe, in the stars, or like Byron, in the ocean, or Moore, in the luxurious East, but in the homely landscape which the poor see around them,—bleak leagues of pasture and stubble, ice and sleet and rain and snow-choked brooks; birds, hares, field-mice, thistles and heather, which he daily knew. How many “Bonny Doons” and “John Anderson my jo’s” and “Auld lang synes” all around the earth have his verses been applied to! And his love-songs still woo and melt the youths and maids; the farm-work, the country holiday, the fishing-cobble are still his debtors to-day.  3
  And as he was thus the poet of the poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity, so had he the language of low life. He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. But I am detaining you too long. The memory of Burns,—I am afraid heaven and earth have taken too good care of it to leave us anything to say. The west winds are murmuring it. Open the windows behind you, and hearken for the incoming tide, what the waves say of it. The doves perching always on the eaves of the Stone Chapel opposite, may know something about it. Every name in broad Scotland keeps his fame bright. The memory of Burns,—every man’s, every boy’s and girl’s head carries snatches of his songs, and they say them by heart, and, what is strangest of all, never learned them from a book, but from mouth to mouth. The wind whispers them, the birds whistle them, the corn, barley, and bulrushes hoarsely rustle them, nay, the music-boxes at Geneva are framed and toothed to play them; the hand-organs of the Savoyards in all cities repeat them, and the chimes of bells ring them in the spires. They are the property and the solace of mankind. 5  4
 
Note 1. It is pleasant to be able to let Dr. Holmes, who was present at the Burns Festival, speak for himself and Lowell and Judge Hoar of Mr. Emerson’s speech on that day. I have heard the Judge tell the story of his friend’s success with the same delight.
  “On the 25th of January, 1859, Emerson attended the Burns Festival, held at the Parker House in Boston, on the Centennial Anniversary of the poet’s birth. He spoke, after the dinner, to the great audience with such beauty and eloquence that all who listened to him have remembered it as one of the most delightful addresses they ever heard. Among his hearers was Mr. Lowell, who says of it that ‘every word seemed to have just dropped down to him from the clouds.’ Judge Hoar, who was another of his hearers, says that, though he has heard many of the chief orators of his time, he never witnessed such an effect of speech upon men. I was myself present on that occasion, and underwent the same fascination that these gentlemen and the varied audience before the speaker experienced. His words had a passion in them not usual in the calm, pure flow most natural to his uttered thoughts; white-hot iron we are familiar with, but white-hot silver is what we do not often look upon, and his inspiring address glowed like silver fresh from the cupel.”
  The strange part of all the accounts given by the hearers is that Mr. Emerson seemed to speak extempore, which can hardly have been so.
  No account of the Festival, or Mr. Emerson’s part therein, appears in the journals, except a short page of praise of the felicitous anecdotes introduced by other after-dinner speakers. [back]
Note 2. Here comes out that respect for labor which affected all Mr. Emerson’s relations to the humblest people he met. In the Appendix to the Poems it appears in the verses beginning,—
  Said Saadi, When I stood before
Hassan the camel-driver’s door.
 [back]
Note 3. Thomas Carlyle. [back]
Note 4. Mr. Emerson here recalls his childhood and that of his brothers, as in the passage in “Domestic Life,” in Society and Solitude, that has been often referred to in these notes. [back]
Note 5. Among some stray lecture-sheets was the following on the scholar or poet:—
  “Given the insight, and he will find as many beauties and heroes and strokes of genius close by him as Dante or Shakspeare beheld. It was in a cold moor farm, in a dingy country inn, that Burns found his fancy so sprightly. You find the times and places mean. Stretch a few threads over an Æolian harp, and put it in the window and listen to what it says of the times and of the heart of Nature. You shall not believe the miracle of Nature is less, the chemical power worn out. Watch the breaking morning, or the enchantments of the sunset.” [back]
 
 
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