25 OCTOBER 1930, Page 37

A Life of Burns

The Life of Robert Burns. By Catherine Carswell. (Chatto and Windus. 15s.) The Life of Robert Burns. By Catherine Carswell. (Chatto and Windus. 15s.) Thosa of us who are not Scots are, when we come to a feast of Burns, like the dogs who lick up the crumbs that fall from the masters' tables. We dare not say we have tasted more. " I have always found," Elia protested, " that a true Scot resents your admiration of his compatriot more than he would your contempt of him." But at least we may say that we never read Bums, or a book about him, without feeling that we love mankind the better for it, and, perhaps, the society to which we belong a little less, and that we could do with a few more men like him.

In Mrs. Carswell he has a sympathetic biographer, who has spared no pains of industry or thought to fashion the man for herself ; and if she exalts his procreative vigour a little too high (for, after all, it was not that which made the goet),1this will serve to redress the balance unduly weighted on the other side by some previous critics. Not that she praises everything Burns did : she regrets the political sub- missions of the Dumfries years, and same of the formal letters of other times. The former, however, were due to a loss of vitality ; the latter to unfamiliarity with the social medium, to being astray in strange waters. The only unforgivable thing Burns ever did was to write to Clarinda in depreciation of Jean Armour on the top of a meeting with Jean which he had found eminently satisfactory. That is the only episode we really wish away : the other things that we might wish otherwise are faults we should be wary of blaming ; unless indeed we are of those fabulous beings who do not live in glass houses. But if ever there was a poet who sang because singing was in him, who sang of the earth because the earth was in him, and who sang of life because he possessed so unusual, so shining a quantity of it, that poet was Robert Burns.

This is a book that is difficult to put down ; it is written in good nervous prose, the subject-matter is admirably handled, the picture of life in both country and town is very Well done. But it is doubtful if it is altogether a satisfactory biography. On the otherhand, it is without doubt a most satis- faeforynovel. Itraises the question, which in the last few years has risen in aggravated form, of the difference between writing biography and writing fiction. Not that Mrs. Carswell has written a " romantic " biography, " that most detestable field for the exercise of human ingenuity," as Mr. Thorn Drury has called that dubiously honourable activity. But it is time some attempt were made to distinguish between these two art forms ; and, as in all other distinctions of this kind, the clue must be found in our own feelings. This, of course, opens the door into the august but not very well lighted chambers of :esthetic criticism ; we already hear echoes of such phrases as " vision,' " general truth," " part jolter truth," and so on. But let us avoid all that. There is a simpler test. In reading a novel—a good novel that is, say Madame Bovary or War and Peace (to avoid insular prejudice)—we accept what the author tells us. If he declares that such and such a thing was so, it was so. But in bio- graphy we want the question answered " Was that so ? " We ask for chapter and verse. We are lawyers who have to be satisfied of the evidence (we need not be jury, for we have not to decide between guilty and not guilty, still less are we judges who are expected to condemn) ; and we demand the various " exhibits " to be put before us. A good novel and a good biography give us different kinds of satisfaction : in the latter we want to be allowed to do half the creating ourselves.

Mrs. Carswell was quite aware of what she was at, and took the risk bravely and uncompromisingly.

" Where the incidents of the poet's life are obscure" (she says in her preface), " I have felt obliged for the sake of a plain narrative to mak.e my choice after prolonged study of the evidence at my disposal and to relate my finding as definitely as though it were the only one possible. This method is liable to criticism and the conviction of error, but it has the advantage of being the procedure of life itself, and the way in which we all deal with the individual lives around us."

Here, begging her pardon, we must disagree. First, the method would not be liable to criticism if we were ourselves given the evidence, and the arguments on the other side. A biographer is entitled to say :—" This is what we know, and here is what has been said about it. Now I believe that it happened like this. . . ." As to her method being the procedure of life and the way we all deal with the individual lives around us, that is precisely its disadvantage. The whole point of art is that it clarifies the procedure of life, and that in it we are removed from the practical necessity of making makeshift judgments and in coming to utilitarian conclusions. Nor do we want to have our minds made up for us in biography. Thus when Mrs. Carswell says in a footnote —" The evidence points unmistakably to a renewal of love relations, anyhow of a fitful sort between Burns and Jean Armour at this time " ; we murmur : " Possibly ; but let us have the evidence.

Not that we feel that Mrs. Carswell at any time distorts facts (except maybe in over-emphasizing Burns' Priapic side) ; nor is her honesty any way in doubt : but the question arises whether she has not lost more than she has gained by her narrative method, or rather whether her readers do not lose more than they gain. For they lose the delight of making their own certainty, without being able to abandon themselves, as they may in a novel, to a thing which exists only in so far as it is stated to exist. It is dillicult to answer this question with certainty, for Mrs. Carswell has undoubtedly painted a vivid and most charming portrait, though the shadows might be more heavily laid on. But if ever a book made this question of method worth asking, it is this one ; with a less excellent book it might well be allowed to fall : it so very nearly succeeds, because though we need not altogether accept Mrs. Carsweirs philosophy, we are ill the while confident in the vigour of her mind. Again, if this form is to be completely successful it must rid itself of certain novelistic tricks. For instance :— " On Monday evening, November 28t11, a jaded pony Mumbled down the rough causeway atones of the Graasmarket and its rider, a heavy, round-shouldered, short-necked, swarthy young fellow, in buckskin breeches that were obviously new, dismounted and stared about him . . . : in short, Robert Burns had arrived in Edinburgh. We hear of a bookseller with a " beady grey eye," but the name Creech is withheld for some pages : and so en. It seems unfair, perhaps, to gird at details in a book which must give great pleasure, in which we see Burns moving in all his

vitality, his youth, his amorous propensities, his courage, and his misfortunes ; but it is just because these details mar a hook that is otherwise so fine an essay in a very difficult and dangerous form that it is worth while] considering them. Certainly it is a book no lover of Burns can afford to neglect, and that no idle reader should wish to miss ; but it is not a hook which can stand alone on our shelves without the support of other " lives " where authorities, or at least a