A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-one
BURNS

THE poetry of Robert Burns ( 1759- 1796) presents a crowning example of the complex relation between Scots and English which has existed ever since the fifteenth century. The Scottish tongue is a distinct variety of English, with a history of its own, and, as such, continued to be spoken by people of all classes till into the first quarter of the nineteenth century. "Scotch was a language which we have heard spoken by the learned and the wise and witty and the accomplished, and which had not a trace of vulgarity in it but, on the contrary, sounded rather graceful and genteel . . . it was different from English as the Venetian is from the Tuscan dialect of Italy, but it never occur'd to anyone that the Scottish, any more than the Venetian, was more vulgar than those who spoke the purer and more classical.--But that is all gone." So Scott writes in 1822, and ten or more years later Cockburn gives evidence of the use of Scottish on the Bench and at the Bar, but also of its gradual disappearance in the mouths of cultivated and professional people, its gradual supersession by what might be called "lingua inglese in bocca scozzese."

Moreover in this Scottish tongue literary work of a distinguished and distinct character had been produced by the great makaris of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even in this poetry the influence of Chaucer and his southern forms is traceable, but nevertheless the genius of their language is Scottish throughout. It was the Reformation and the change in the stratification of Scottish thought and feeling which followed from the close of the "auld alliance," and the suppression of the old Faith, from the dependence of the Reformers on English support, and finally from the accession of a Scottish king to the throne of England, which determined what was to be the interrelation of the tongues. From the sixteenth century onwards an educated Scot is aware that he has two tongues to choose from according to his purpose, that if he will (say) preach

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