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BURNS has no rival in the art of singing the soul into song and setting the heart to music. His poetry is pure passion. Other lyrists are literary at their best: when Burns is literary he is at his worst. His note falls like the note of the lark straight from the throat of life. It is not an imitation of life, but life itself running into laughter and tears. Being life, it is not a grey moral thing, but a lovely riot of good that is not wholly good, and evil that is not wholly evil. There is no consistency in it save the consistent inconsistency of life. It is a beautiful energy flashing in the nonmoral imagination. Its movements are beyond the venue of convention. You cannot arrest a lyric or imprison a song. The conduct of Burns morality may lash: his poetry is unscourgeable. In it life flaunts her deathless rebellion, for life goes on from generation to generation without heeding the wisdom of the wise or the goodness of the good. Her force breaks out afresh in every child that is born. In Burns it charges with irresistible violence, chanting a ringing challenge to the past, for it is against the past that life is always fighting, against the bequeathed prudence of dead men, the legacy of crafty experience called "virtue."
Burns was so full of life that he could not drug his imagination with theology or literature, although he persistently dosed himself with Shenstone and the Shorter Catechism. He saw the world as not one of his contemporaries saw it. He saw it without their illusions and without ours. He saw it bathed in that clear air of philosophic humour which is the perspective of the imagination. He looked neither up nor down on god or man, louse or lord, daisy or devil. He looked all round all the shows of existence and laughed at the sweet witchery and ripe wonder of conscious being. He saw the map of life on so large a scale that the minor opportunisms shrank into
nothingness. He broke the tables of stone to the sound of his lyre. He challenged everything that speaks with authority, reverencing nothing save irreverence and fearing nothing save fear. Being but a man, he fell at times into cant and compromise. His hot heart was sometimes chilled by his country and his countrymen, by Calvin and custom, but not long, for his brain was a rebel and his soul an incendiary. Society idolised him because society is too stupid to fear its deadliest enemy, the poet. If it were not stupid it would have burned him alive with his living books. Society does not know that thought is more dangerous than action, imagination more dangerous than thought, and humour more dangerous than all three. It does not dread the anarchy of laughter which thunders in this stanza of "The Jolly Beggars" :
"A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Churches built to please the priest."
and regu con He
Yet in those lines began the Revolution of Revolutions,