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THE RELIGIOUS MESSAGE
OF ROBERT BURNS1
SCOTCHMEN generally affirm that the Scottish Muse gave her fullest inspiration and her fairest crown to Robert Burns, and accept his poetry as the most perfect expression in their own tongue of the thoughts and feelings native to the Scottish soul.
The admiration of the poet, which has grown with the increasing years, has justified his way of looking at things and proved how congenial his ideas and emotions are to the Scottish mind and heart. His humour and pathos, his wit and wisdom, his freedom and reverence come home to the soul of the enthusiastic Scot as the bird to its nest and the bee to its hive. His sayings have become part of the classic literature of Scotland, and his
1 Address by Rev. Alex. Webster, Aberdeen.
spirit is a vivifying influence in the very constitution of the Scottish man. discussion regarding his sentiments is possible; they have in their favour the intuition of a century. His writings represent the mother-wit of the Scottish intellect.
Being thus universally accepted, the works of Burns form a ready basis on which some things necessary for earnestminded Scotchmen to hear and consider may be freely and fitly said.
The words that follow are written from the point of view of Burns as a prophet having an important religious and moral message to deliver to the people of Scotland. He set forth an ideal religion and morality which are as yet unrealized.
The theology of the orthodox churches of Scotland, as represented by their standards, is not that which he believed and sang. The religion which is conventionally upheld is not that with which he was in sympathy. The social conditions existing in Scotland to-day are not those of which he gave the glad forecast in the
lines which were his prayer for brotherhood. Scotchmen sing his songs, recite his poems, raise monuments to him, buy luxurious editions of his works, and drink to his immortal memory, and yet uphold the very things which he set himself to pull down. This is to our shame.
Burns still stands before us speaking to us more directly and deeply than any Hebrew bard. His words are in our
mither-tongue'; they correspond to our character; they are in the direct line of our spiritual evolution, and therefore are to us' sacred writ.' They come to us with more than Attic point: they carry with them the sacredness belonging to the sanity of our reason and the holiness of our affection. They confront us like our native mountains and streams; we cannot ignore or gainsay them.
The epistles of Burns are to us more homely and applicable than any of the epistles of Paul. We naturally look with more interest to Mossgeil than to Tarsus. Ayr is more real to us than even Jerusalem can ever be. We do not place his writings
on a level with those of the New Testament, but still we may affirm that they have proved their right to be regarded as part of the 'Bible of the race,' regarding which Lowell says:
Each age, each kindred, adds a verse to it,
In the Cotter's Saturday Night Burns explicitly deals with the religious side of the Scottish character, and very distinctly expresses his thoughts regarding it. The poem was written on a wintry day, at Mossgeil, in 1795, as a memorial of his father's intelligence and piety. The scene in the Aul' Clay Biggan' at the taking of the book by his father made a profound impression on his memory, and after his father's death the remembrance of the solemn hour came up before him with pathetic freshness. While toiling with pain of heart on the luckless farm and thinking of boyish days spent under the most thoughtful, fatherly care ever experienced by any boy, the picture of the lowly worshippers formed itself vividly in his mind
and was put into words in all its sublimely simple graphicness.
No incident round which poetic concern ever gathered could be lowlier than that which took place in the kitchen of the now famous cot, but Burns elevated it to a national importance in his treatment of it. The central figure in the scene is the poet's father-the 'toil-worn cotter,' the sire' who, with ' patriarchal grace,' turns over the pages of the 'big ha' Bible,' the saint' who prays who prays so devoutly. William Burness, thus immortalized, we have set before us a type of 'God-fearing Scotchmen.' The ingle round which the Cotter's family formed a circle wide,' represents the Altar-fire of Scotland, round which Scottish piety gathers worshipfully. Though the incident is particular and the details are local, Burns lets us see that in his purpose the worship has a wide reference. He thinks of the night on a national scale, and says:
From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs.
And so the piece grows from the loving