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Our English poetry has not assumed any extraordinary prerogative in modifying words to meet its exigences, or the caprices of its professors. One only of the latter, Spenser, has dared to frame an almost arbitrary vocabulary, varying the diction of his "Faerie Queene" from that of his "Shepheard's Calender," and again in his minor pieces employing a dialect between the ruggedness of the latter, and the romantic stateliness of the former. But Spenser was one of the masters of the lyre, and if he lengthened and abridged the strings, or added to their number, according to his fancy, it was to produce harmony otherwise unattainable, and to give others, less adventurous than he, scope as well as courage to follow him into the heights and depths of our noble language, which has never yet, perhaps, been essayed through the whole compass of its scale. To suit the rhyme, the cadence, the length, or the euphony of his lines, he adopted old words, or new, added or curtailed syllables, varied terminations, violated syntax, and wrote the larger portion of his imperishable, though for ever unpopular (since his own age), compositions in what, without consummate art and management, would have very much resembled the "Babylonish dialect" of Butler's hero,
"A party-colour'd dress
But when he pleased to show 't, his speech
His ninth eclogue begins thus:—
"Diggon Davie! I bid her good day;
Her was her, while it was day-light,
And now at earst the di ke night doth haste."
Surely this is neither Welsh nor English; nothing in Chaucer is more uncouth. I need not quote from the "Faerie Queene," having given a stanza in a former paper. The quaint yet sweet, the homely yet venerable style in which it is composed has become well known; less, indeed, from the original than from the numerous imitations of it, especially Thomson's "Castle of Indolence;" a structure of genuine talent, certainly not piled when that "bard, more fat than bard beseems," was, where he delighted to be, on the spot itself, though so witchingly framed for voluptuous ease, that the reader is ready to lie down under its influence,-not, however, to sleep.
The language (shall I call it?) of our northern neighbours, in which so much popular poetry has been preserved, and so much more compiled of late years, has the same peculiar character as Spenser's; namely, that it is fluctuating, not fixed; a conventional, not an actual, language. Its basis was, undoubtedly, a national dialect now nearly obsolete; but its superstructure consists of vulgar idioms, and its embellishments of pure English phrases. Hence, as it is written (for I confine these strictures to its written forms), this admired" Scotch" is an arbitrary system of terms, only remotely akin; and its force and elegance depend principally on the skill with which each particular author combines its constituent parts, to make a common chord of its triple tones. That style, therefore, may, in general, be pronounced the most harmonious and perfect in which the national dialect is the key-note, while the vulgar and the English (like the third and fifth in music) are subordinate. This flexible and untameable tongue-which the Doric muse, when she fled from Greece, might have invented for herself, while learning the old Erse, among the mountains and glens of Caledonia,-has
also a minor scale, of touching tenderness, as well as a major, of spirit-stirring strength.
Burns, "the glory" of his country, or "the shame," as he worthily or ignominiously exercised his vein of versatile genius, disdained to confine his strains to any peculiar accordance of these: but, according to the theme, ran through the whole vernacular diapason, as well as the falsetto English, in which his feebler pieces are composed. Of the latter, it would be wasting time to offer an example, because a longer quotation than convenient might be required, to prove a point of little significance. Three specimens, however, to show the gradations, of what is vulgarly called the Scotch dialect, employed by him, may be expedient and acceptable, as they will be quite in place, while we are considering poetic diction and poetic license. Brief though they be, these extracts from long poems, quite distinct from each other, in their general diction, will at once discover to the unsuspecting admirers of north country song what prodigious advantages its minstrels possess over their "southron" brethren, who are confined to sheer English, and dare not touch a provincial accent with the tip of their tongue, on pain of excommunication from classic society. The boundless resources enjoyed by the former, to select and link together words and phrases at will, high or low, antique or new-fangled, polished or barbarian,-not only prepossess the reader in favour of every real beauty struck out by such grotesque combinations, and make him eagerly relish it, but they likewise (unconsciously to himself) influence his judgment, to make large allowance for frequent defects and excesses, as necessary, and not offensive ingredients, in a style released from all obligations to law and precedent.
I begin with the rudest, which I scarcely can hope to read intelligibly in English ears, so unskilled am I in the accents of my mother tongue. The
"Farmer's New Year's Morning Salutation to his auld Mare Maggie" is written in such uncouth strains as these:
"A guid new-year, I wish thee, Maggie!
"When first I gaed to woo my Jenny,
But hamely, tawie,|| quiet, an' cannie,¶
Thou never braindg't,tt an' fetcht,‡‡ an' fliskit ;§§
In the "Advice to a Young Friend," we have nearly the national Scotch, as it is used among persons of the middle rank; most characteristically in culcating, among others, this shrewd lesson:
A handful of unthrashed corn. Mischievous. + Dam (Mother): **Lively. tt Stunibled. Spread abroad thy chest. uprooted, and thrown down.
"Aye free, aff han', your story tell,
Fra' critical dissection,
† Hump-backed and bare-boned. ¶ Gentle. Easily handled. Fretted. Pulled hard. *** Crashed, TT Brushwood hillocks. ttt Peep.
In "the Cottar's Saturday Night," the poet has so varied his dialect that there are scarcely two consecutive stanzas written according to the same model. An hour of winter evening music on the Æolian harp, when all the winds are on the wing, would hardly be more wild, and sweet, and stern, and changeable than the series. Some of the strains are as purely English as the author could reach; others so racily Scottish as often to require a glossary; while in a third class the two are so enchantingly combined, that no poetic diction can excel the pathos and sublimity, blended with beauty and homeliness, that equally mark them. Of the latter description is the following:
"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The big ha-Bible, ance his father's pride:
His lyart haffetst wearing thin an' bare;
He walest a portion with judicious care:
The latitudinarianism of the Scottish dialect in ryming, jingling, or merely alliterative vowel sounds, in dissonant words at the end of lines, may be thus exemplified :
"O pale, pale now, those rosy lips,
And closed for aye the sparkling glance,
Fondly and kindly,—dearly and Mary could never
† Gray side-locks.