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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Scott, Sir Walter (1770-1832)

By the nature of his genius, Burns saved the Scots language from decline, if not extinction, so far as literature is concerned. By his new method of presenting history, Scott complemented Burns's achievement. Each of the six or so greatest of the Waverley Novels deals with the confrontation between the old and the new as a major turning point in Scottish history. Contrary to popular belief, Scott always comes down, however reluctantly, on the side of change. By the means of these novels Scott so popularized the story of Scotland's past that he effectively reinforced the renewed sense of Scotland's nationhood stimulated by Burns. Together, they put paid to the incorporating 'North British' concept of Scotland, for the rest of the nineteenth century and for the greater part of the twentieth.

The two writers met only once. The encounter occurred in 1786, in Adam Ferguson's house, in the Sciennes district of Edinburgh. Scott wrote down the circumstances in a letter to Lockhart dated 10th April 1827. Lockhard duly quoted it in his Life of Burns (1828):

'As for Burns, I may truly say, Virigilium vidi tantum. I was a lad of fifteen in 1786-7, when he came first to Edinburgh, but had sense and feeling enough to be much interested in his poetry, and would have given the world to know him; but I had very little acquaintance with any literary people, and still less with the gentry of the west country, the two sets that he most frequented. Mr Thomas Grierson was at that time a clerk of my father's. He knew Burns, and promised to ask him to his lodgings to dinner, but had no opportunity to keep his word, otherwise I might have seen more of this distinguished man. As it was, I saw him one day at the late venerable Professor Fergusson's, where there were several gentlemen of literary reputation, among whom I remember the celebrated Mr Dugald Stewart. Of course we youngsters sate silent, looked and listened. The only thing I remember which was remarkable in Burns' manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print of Bunbury's, representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on the one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. These lines were written beneath, -

"Cold on Canadian hills, or Mindens' plain,
Perhaps that parent wept her soldiers slain:
Bent o'er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew,
The big drops, mingling with the milk he drew,
Gave the sad presage of his future years,
The child of misery baptized in tears."

Burns seemed much affected by the print, or rather the ideas which it suggested to his mind. He actually shed tears. He asked whose the lines were, and it chanced that nobody but myself remembered that they occur in a half-forgotten poem of Langhorne's, called by the uncompromising title of 'The Justice Of The Piece'. I whispered my information to a friend present, who mentioned it to Burns, who rewarded me with a look and a word, which, though of mere civility, I then received and still recollect, with very great pleasure.

His person was strong and robust: his manners rustic, not clownish; a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity, which received part of its effect perhaps from one's knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are represented in Mr Nasmyth's picture, but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. I would have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school — i.e. none of your modern agriculturists, who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated, the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the slightest presumption. Among the men who were the most learned of their country, he expressed himself with perfect firmness, but without the least intrusive forwardness; and when he differed in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty. I do not remember any part of his conversation distinctly enough to be quoted, nor did I ever see him again, except in the street, where he did not recognise me, as I could not expect he should. He was much caressed in Edinburgh, but (considering what literary emoluments have been since his day) the efforts for his relief were extremely trifling.

I remember on this occasion I mention, I thought Burns' acquaintance with English poetry was rather limited, and also, that having twenty times the abilities of Allan Ramsay and Ferguson, he talked of them with too much humility as his models; there was doubtless national predilection in his estimate.'

Scott's later wide knowledge of the work of his predecessor is reflect in an unsigned review in the Quarterly Review (February 1809) of Cromek's Reliques of Robert Burns (1808), in which Scott censured Currie for suppressing 'The Jolly Beggars', and Cromek for also omitting it, as well as for leaving out 'Holy Willie's Prayer'.

In an undated note printed in Works of Lord Byron, Letters and Journals ed. R. E. Prothero (1898), Scott comments:

'A gross blunder of the English public has been talking of Burns as if the character of his poetry ought to be estimated with an eternal recollection that he was a peasant. It would be just as proper to say that Lord Byron ought always to be thought of as a Peer. Rank in life was nothing to either in his true moments. Then, they were both great Poets. Some silly and sickly affectation connected with the accidents of birth and breeding may be observed in both, when they are not under the influence of "the happier star". Witness Burns's prate about independence, when he was an exciseman, and Byron's ridiculous pretence of Republicanism, when he never wrote sincerely about the Multitude without expressing or insinuating the very soul of scorn.'

To that most warmingly personal of testaments, his Journal, Scott reflected on 10th February 1826:

'[Byron] wrote from impulse, never from effort, and therefore I have always reckoned Burns and Byron the most genuine poetical geniuses of my time and half an century before me. We have however many men of high poetical talent, but none of that ever-gushing, and perennial fountain of natural water.'

Finally, in the Journal entry for 11th December 1826, Scott burst out:

'Long life to thy fame and peace to thy soul, Rob Burns! When I want to express a sentiment which I feel strongly, I find the phrase in Shakespeare — or thee.'

(See Ferguson, Dr Adam, and Ferguson, Sir Adam)

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