Burns Centenary Poetry Competition

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The Burns Centenary Poetry  Competition.


IT seems not altogether out of place to pause for a brief moment on the threshold of our work, to glance at the history of the celebration of which the contents of the following pages are the chief and golden fruit; to measure, if possible, the height and the depth of that sentiment, which, kindled by one master-mind, thus burns out bright and strong, even after the snows of seventy winters have fallen cold upon his grave; and which even  at this distant day so sympathetically stirs the Saxon heart, not only in the quiet seats of learning and peaceful arts at home, but alike where it beats and boils in its struggle with rude nature and ruder man, as it leads the triumphal march of civilisation onward round the globe.  Whether among the populous cities of the old world, or amid the turmoil of Eastern war, or in those newer worlds where our race is building up new empires and consecrating new homes—wherever two or three British hearts have gathered together—they have rejoiced to renew the bond of old sympathies by celebrating the hundredth birthday of ROBERT BURNS.

    If any doubts existed before as to the standing of Burns as a man and as a poet, they have been dispelled by the universality and fervour of the recent celebration.  The world never saw the like before—its old ovations to kings and conquerors pale away before a triumph like this.  War has ever had its pomps and its glories, but Peace has its triumphs too, and this surely is one of its worthiest; for in honouring the Peasant Poet of Scotland, we honour the manliest and truest man Scotland ever saw.

    In this attribute of entire manliness lies the master-spell of Burns' influence.  It was not only because he had genius and intellectual power, "the vision and the faculty divine," but because, in addition to these in an eminent degree, he had so many points of sympathy that appeal to and sway our hearts.   With the manly energy he had also the man's weakness—with the passions, the frailties—with the joys, the sufferings—the doubts and the fears, the aspirations and the hopes.

    Heaven-raptured spirits, like Milton or Dante, that are gifted to utter the glories of heaven and to grapple the horrors of hell, have, no doubt, a loftier inspiration than descended on Burns; but glorious as such mission is, we may well doubt if the magic power to will and rule men's passions and affections, as Burns does, be not the more beneficial influence even in the highest interests of humanity.

    Burns was essentially and entirely one of the people, born among them and living his whole life with them; yet the lowly circumstances in which he was placed exercised no prejudicial influence over his genius, but, on the contrary, were well adapted to produce the full development of mental power of a high order, and no doubt largely aided in enabling him to accomplish the great mission of his life.  Nurtured in a pious Presbyterian home, he had before him the example of a high morality, while the somewhat stern principles of the father came softened to him by the more tender grace and gentler influence of the mother.  His education was decidedly superior to his class; his labours in the open field gave a healthy stimulus to the poetic temperament, and ample scope for the study of Nature in her simplest and grandest phases; among his lowly companions he imbibed the thoughts, customs, language, and legendary lore of his country, all which, acting on a strong mind, deep feelings, and a moral sense of naturally high tone, inspired him with a lofty patriotism, an ardent devotion in the cause of suffering humanity, and an uncompromising hatred of oppression and wrong.

    Richly endowed with the gift of song, he became through that the bosom friend and teacher of the people, and did much to purify and refine the literature of his age.  Prior to his day the ballads recited and sung in cottage and hall were of the most objectionable kind, but the coarse old words soon died out before the purer sentiments to which he for ever wedded the plaintive music of his native land.  Beneath his inspiration the rude Doric assumed new forms of beauty, and with a purer morality, acquired all the tenderness and grace of a classic tongue.

    But if Burns had been no more than a reformer of his own age, his fame and his works would have lived only in the history of his time, whereas the spirit of his teachings is a living influence still.  His songs are a perennial fountain of high principle and manly worth; still do our people, for their own consolation, imbibe there, independence, self-reliance, and hope; for the common weal, honesty, patriotism, and love—that large­hearted love that embraces all things noble, good, or suffering.

    Hence it is that in all men's hearts he holds so lofty a place, and that the time was ripe for all occasion to do him honour.  It matters not who first mooted the idea of a centenary festival; probably our American cousins were the first; but if the feeling ill which it originated had not been universal, the idea would have fallen still-born; instead of that, it met an instant and eager response, not only over the length and breadth of our own land, but in America, India, and the Colonies; wherever the English tongue is spoken, preparations were made for the celebration.  In Scotland, of course, this feeling was pre-eminent; the smallest villages had their commemorative gatherings, while the cities and towns held high festival.  At these meetings the foremost men of the day were the speakers, and they have put on record such an aggregate of loving eloquent thoughts about Burns, such lofty appreciation of his merits, that envy and detraction are humbled and silenced for ever.

    Very conspicuous among the celebrations was that at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham; beneath its lofty domes fourteen thousand people assembled; letters and relics of the Bard were exhibited, and selections from his works read; but the chief attraction of the fete was the reading of the Prize Poem, and the announcement of the author's name.

    The directors had offered a prize of fifty guineas for the best poem in honour of Burns; the conditions were that it should be in English, in any measure, and of from one hundred to two hundred lines in length.  The extraordinary number of six hundred and twenty-one poems had been sent in, and it was rumoured that the first writers of the day were among them. Three gentlemen of high literary rank had been selected as Judges, and, after weeks of labour, they had unanimously awarded first place to a beautiful ode by Miss Isa Craig; at the same time, however, they stated that "many of the unsuccessful poems were of remarkable merit," and they recommended the best six for publication, one of which (that by Mr Myers) they considered so nearly equal to the first, that they had difficulty in deciding between them.  They further particularised other twenty-six as worthy of special commendation, "evincing much power of thought and poetic culture."

    The Prize Poem was of course published, but the consent of the other six authors could not be got, and, notwithstanding that the public expressed much interest in them, it appeared highly probable, and at the same time very much to be regretted, that works stamped with such high praise might remain lost to the world.  It occurred to the Editors of this Volume that some effort ought to be made to collect these poems, and to publish them along with others that had been written else where on the occasion.  They thought that such a collection, if attainable, would form, of all tributes, by far the highest and fittest that could be paid to the memory of the Bard; and that, whether successful as a publication or not, it should be handed down as a loving legacy of song from this centenary to the next, to tell the men of all the intervening time, what the age succeeding his own, thought and felt about Burns, as these thoughts and feelings should be reflected from the minds of so many of its best average writers.

    The difficulties in the way, however, appeared considerable.   The names of the authors were not known—no adequate remuneration could well be offered for so many poems, and it was doubtful if even that would bring them out; at the same time, copyrights could not be asked for, gratis, to publish for private profit; that course would have been repugnant to the spirit in which the Editors desired to enter upon a labour of love, and would certainly have failed.  The only course that gave hope of success, was to enlist the authors' sympathies in the scheme, by undertaking a disinterested risk, and by devoting all profits to some public or charitable object in connection with Burns, giving, at the same time, to each accepted contributor, a vote in that disposal.

    This plan has succeeded beyond the most sanguine anticipations of the Editors; without other fee or reward than the pleasure of aiding in so good a cause, to their high credit be it stated, nearly four hundred authors have sent in their poems, freely, heartily, and with their best wishes for the success of the scheme.  Among these are all the six above mentioned, and a large number of the twenty-six, as well as prize poems from Belfast and many other productions of great merit.  The Editors have been embarrassed by their wealth: to publish all was impossible, and the difficulty of selection has been so great, that though they have accepted more than double the number that some of their friends recommended as the maximum, many have been left out with regret.

    It will be readily understood that in a whole book of poems, all on one subject, the greatest danger to be avoided was a sameness of treatment, which, even with great excellence, might have been tedious; and therefore originality and variety of style had to be considered fully as much as other qualities. It seems necessary to make this explanation, because a considerable number that have not been accepted, possess merits in many respects equal to some of the more fortunate.

    The Editors have made their selection with a sole and earnest endeavour to make the book, in every respect, worthy of the object in view.  It might have been more complete had it contained the Prize Poem, and in this belief they exhausted every reasonable proposal to secure it; but Messrs Bradbury & Evans, the proprietors of the copyright, very fairly attached high pecuniary value to it, and recognised no other considerations.  True, they had asked for six, but to give one was, of course, another affair.  The readers of the present day are, fortunately, already familiar with Miss Craig's poem, and may be expected to look forward with more interest to those they have not seen: unquestionable as are the merits of that ode, it by no means exhausts the subject; no single poem well could do that, but what one mind could hardly do, may have been approximated, by united effort; the entire collection, therefore, should be regarded as one grand poem, composed indeed of many parts, the offspring of many minds, each with a poetic power and an individuality of its own, yet collectively forming a rich and harmonious whole, unfolding in vivid and varied pictures the many-sided beauties of Burns, and lovingly broadening the foundations of his fame.

    The assertion has been frequently made, of late days, that this is a practical and unpoetic age; the Editors with confidence present this collection as irrefragable proof of the fallacy of such an idea; they venture to assert, without fear of contradiction, that no previous period of the world's history could have produced, on any one subject, a collection of poems so extensive and of such high quality.  It may, indeed, be admitted that all the passions, feelings, and yearnings, of our common humanity have been so sweetly and so powerfully sung already, that there is little room for novelty, and our poetic bees prefer feeding on old honey to laying up new stores.  Be that as it may, only let a fitting theme arise, and the poets of the present day, with their enlarged ideas and rich culture, will not be wanting in lofty thought, nor in high and worthy utterance, and certainly, on this one subject, the great names of the past have even now been eclipsed.

    In Scottish song the case is different indeed; the Editors have to express their surprise, that the language in which Burns wrote, seems now to have no master-hand left to strike its chords, even in his honour.  The poems submitted to them in the Scottish tongue have been, as a class, the poorest of any, and not one possessed such merit as to give it a claim to place.  As Scotchmen they may express their unavailing regrets at this decadence in the national minstrelsy, but the fact seems beyond dispute, that the genius and literature of Scotland now speak in a foreign tongue; that what Lord Brougham calls " the pure classical language of Scotland" may, like the other classical languages, repose on its old glories, but has ceased to gather any that are new.

    In conclusion, the Editors desire to convey their most grateful acknowledgments and thanks for the cordial spirit in which their efforts have been met, not only by the authors who have contributed their poems, but by various literary friends and well-wishers; they beg to particularise Messrs Finlay & Son of the Northern Whig, who themselves gave prizes for a Belfast competition, and have contributed free choice of all their poems, of which six have been accepted; also to the Editor of the Scotsman for Mrs Norton's poem, and others; to the Editors of the Atlas, the Critic, the Dublin University Magazine, the Amateur's Magazine, the Glasgow Citizen, the Ayr Observer, Ayr Advertiser, etc."

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