19 SEPTEMBER 1925, Page 21


THE origins of folk-poetry are buried in such a remote unwritten past that we tend to regard them with too much mystery. Folk-poetry is looked upon rather as something springing naturally to birth, like green leaves to a tree, than as the conscious creative effort of single minds. Yet folk-songs and nursery-rhymes had their authors no less than modern lyrics : the folk element in them is only the accretion of after years as, from lip to lip, they have passed down the unlettered ages. It is, of course, the same with the names of flowers : Goldilocks and Nipple-wort, Hearts' Ease and Ladysmock were all bright images that sprang to a ready simple mind and, for very aptness, were clung to by the common mind also. For the mass mind is sluggish and needs the impetus of a leader in whose clear fancy it can recognize the apotheosis of its own unspoken fancy too.

Such a leader was Robert Burns. He was born of the people and he spoke for the people. He was one with that genius who first called a blue-eyed flower Speedwell, with him who first spoke of a drift of violets and a triumph of peacocks, and with the forgotten author of " Waly Waly." Yet there was a difference. When Burns came to voice the general fancy, the press was already waiting, like a matrix, to fix his creative efforts, and to render impotent the folk-mind that would work its will upon his songs ; so they are called Art, though they are as devoid of artifice as " How many miles to Babylon " or the names of Tansy, Honeysuckle or Forget- me-not.

And to Burns belongs the distinction of being the last of these generative leaders of the folk-mind. Sophistication has wormed its way into the most rural places now, and we shall never see another Burns. That time is gone when genius could, in rhyme and song and fancy, give voice to the general mind. It turns now to conscious Art instead ; and with Art the folk have no traffic whatever—so they turn to the maudlin balladry of the musical comedy type and forget, slowly but irrevocably, their heritage of rhyme and song. Indeed, Burns himself came only just in time. In the still fastnesses of Ayrshire where he was born, sophistication had hardly won its way. In the fields there, and by the hearth, the true folk-song might be abundantly heard. It had entered into Bums' blood. To say (as is so often said complainingly of him) that it was the limitation of his genius that it needed the impetus of the original lines or opening sentiment of some well-known song to set it going, is wrongly to state the case. It was not so much that out of the ruins and the fragments of an old song he made a new one, as that, with pure spontaneity, he loved to improvise upon a well- known theme, embroidering it and colouring it, as he went, with his own clear fancy. Mr. Robert Graves comes near to the heart of the matter when in his recent book of poetic psychology he gives an imaginative analysis of John Barleycorn. What was originally a pagan folk-expression of the ever-recurring idea of death and resurrection becomes, in Burns' version, he says, an allegory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ballad reveals that prime conflict in Burns between the good and evil angels of his life, " the good angel his pious upbringing, the bad angel the whiskey bottle goading him to degradation." In improvising upon that old pagan theme, then, something of Burns' essentially Puritanical make-up crept in, but unconsciously. For Burns had not enough constructive imagination con- sciously to convert such a theme. That lack is obvious, for instance, in the way he always writes with his eye on the object, in the way in which he constantly draws upon past actual exirrience both for incident and for imagery, and in the way in which, even in his most original verses, he jogs along in the first folk-metre that his opening lines suggest. Nor had he any ideas. Yet it was just this lack of constructive imagination and of ideas that was his saving grace. His mind, under the influence of his upbringing, remained simple, remained single. It was like an untroubled pool ; trees and all the coloured margin life were clearly reflected in it ; and sometimes there were dark clouds mirrored there, hiding the blue of the sky. In its non-intellectuality his mind could be quiet ; and only in such a peace can be heard the still small voice of intuition.

That is why Burns is almost the greatest of our song-writers. No impeding intellectualism prevented the native spontaneity ' of his singing. The. embroidering melodies of song were his from birth. He had no ideas, and song needs but the flimsiest excuse to float into being : it is sufficient that it sings. When Burns sang, it was as loiterers sing along a flowery lane in summer, because they are in harmony with the green bounty that surrounds them. Indeed, his songs have only this difference from folk-songs, that, for the conventional imagery that is the fruit of the laziness of the folk-mind they substitute Burns' own accurate and clearly seen pictures of the natural objects around him. His humour is folk-humour. When he sings in serious mood it is of those emotions that are the core of folk-songs. And there is a folk-sanity in his senti- ments—for mother-wit is his guide, and because he has no ideas he can sing as uncritically of war and sport as of love and death. If he quits this realm of the folk-song he gets soon lost on uncharted seas. That is why Mr. Coppard's selection (with the exception of those rural poems which, for the directness of their description and the nativeness of their sentiments, have another worth) contains almost all that we would wish to save ; and, being beautifully printed and handsomely produced, it has a double attraction. Sir James Wilson's edition has an academic value. On one page the poems are given as printed originally in the Kilmarnock edition ; on the opposite page they are printed as phonetically pronounced in the Ayrshire Scotch ; and in the footnotes a free English version is supplied.