BEFORE the dawning of the twenty-fifth day of January, eighteen hundred and fifty-nine, it might have been reasonably supposed that all intelligent people in these realms were well acquainted with the nature of the obligations which society owes to ROBERT BURNS. We all knew, as well as we know anything, that the Ayrshire Ploughman had written some of the noblest poetry that ever fell from mortal pen. We all knew that this great genius had established undying claims on our gratitude by contributing in the highest degree to the most ennobling and the most intellectual of our pleasures. And, lastly, we all knew, from the story of his life, how gloriously his own example had helped to enforce the great and useful truth, that the means of winning the highest and the most enduring of earthly distinctions, rest with the man himself, and not with the station, high or low, in which he may be placed by the accident of his birth.

We knew all this long before the present year. Was it possible to know more? Yes: on the twenty-fifth of last January another discovery burst on the world. We of the Public had only learnt to regard Burns previously as a great Poet. On that memorable day he was revealed to us in a new light,—as a great Hat-Peg.

This is very gratifying; and these are, indeed, remarkable times. To be well aware  that the memory of Burns is something to be proud of, is only to possess an idea which has been the common property of former generations. But to know that the memory of Burns is likewise something on which the smallest of us can hang up his own individual importance; something which may help the greediest of us to grub up our little handful of money, and the obscurest of us to emit our little speech, is to make one of those rare and remunerative discoveries which we of the present generation may claim as peculiarly our own.

So far as mere Englishmen are concerned (we write of ourselves deferentially, in consideration of the Scottish nature of the subject), the honour of discovering that the memory of Burns might be profitably used in the capacity of a Hat-Peg, rests with the Directors of the Crystal Palace Company. Who first started the idea, has not transpired; but, the discovery once made, there can be no question of its vast capabilities of application to the commercial necessities of the great Sydenham speculation. Here we are, a struggling Crystal Palace Company, taking, in a theoretical point of view, the highest ground as dispensers of public instruction; but reduced, in a practical point of view, to descend to the humbler position which is occupied by proprietors of public amusements generally; and forced to consider the great and difficult money question under these two aspects only: first, how to make as much as possible flow in; secondly, how to let as little as possible flow out again. What in the world will help us, on some early, given day, to answer this complicated double purpose, and to look impressively intellectual and literary, at the same time?

The memory of Burns. What in the world will provide us with an excuse—when we have taken the public shillings—for giving the cheapest and shabbiest of musical entertainments, and trying to palm it off as a compliment to the visitors, by granting them permission to join in the choruses? The memory of Burns. What in the world will enable our enterprising contractors for feeding the public, to get a fresh start; to try some striking novelties; to appeal to economical nationality on one side of the Tweed; and to rash curiosity on the other, with cock-a-leekie and haggis, at three shillings a-head? The memory of Burns. Was there ever a Hat Peg discovered before on which so many small personal necessities could so profitably be hung up as great public benefits to the general view? Here is a new use found out, not in Burns only, but in all other great men besides. A few more inexpensive commemorations—easily arranged beforehand by a reference to the almanac for the current year—and who shall say what prodigal dividends the Crystal Palace Company may not end in paying, after all?

But, the expansive utility of the new discovery is not confined to Companies. The convenient Burns Hat Peg, which serves assembled bodies of men, will answer the purposes of solitary individuals just as well. I am a member of any national society; and, which is more, an orator, if the world only knew it; and, which is more, as pretty a piece of Scotch flesh as any in Caledonia; and one that likes to dine to the sound of bagpipes. Go to! And all this is generally private, and unknown to everybody but me and my own set. What will help me, Mr. MacAnybody, to make a long speech, and to get it reported in all the newspapers? What will procure me the privilege of telling an assembly of my much-enduring fellow-creatures that I have “sauntered with delight along the Banks o’Doon; that I have stood in rapture on that spot where Ayr gurgling kissed its pebbled bed;” that I have “climbed” up this place, and “wandered through” that; and “looked with emotion” here, and “gazed with sorrow” there; and what will give me the pride and pleasure of actually seeing it in print the next morning? Hech, sirs! Just the memory of Burns.

Leaving London, and ranging over provincial England and Scotland, we discover all sorts of distinguished and undistinguished people swarming in clusters on the new Hat Peg, and publicly humming together to their hearts’ content. Sometimes we find the most benevolent sentiments hung up to be aired, as it were, at the memory of Burns. At Glasgow, for example, we discover, to our unspeakable gratification, that our friend Sir Archibald Alison does not think the worse of Burns because he was a Radical. There is something affecting in this. It does honour to Tory human nature. Very interesting, also, is Sir Archibald’s account of how Burns came by his fame. Towards the close of the eighteenth century, Nature, it appears, had “a passport to immortality” to dispose of; and she seems to have set about her work, as our English government has generally set about its work, by carefully going to the wrong place, and looking for the wrong man. She sets out to’ look for Burns in the “halls of princes;’ and doesn’t find him there. She tries “the senates of nobles;” and doesn’t find him there. She wanders into the “forums of commerce;” and doesn’t find him there. She looks for him at last, where she ought to have looked for him at first, in her own solitudes—under her very nose, so to speak—and pounces on him at the plough, “with his eye fixed on the mountain daisy.”

At Newcastle-on-Tyne, a refreshing originality appears to have characterised the proceedings. Here the Burns Hat-Peg seems to have given way altogether early in the evening, and to have been skilfully replaced by local and living hat-pegs. Here, we learn from an after-dinner orator, that one of the grand characteristic merits of the Northumbrian peasant is his “looking with an eye of suspicion on the questionable sentimentality of the present day.” This singularly clear and intelligible tribute to local virtue having been offered in the words just quoted, an  appropriate living commentary on the observation. of the speaker was presented in the shape of a new pitman-poet, who typified, we presume, that unquestionable sentimentality which Northumbrians look on with an eye of approval; for he contrived to get all the surplus cash of the company, after paying the expenses of the meeting, laid out in the purchase of copies of his poems.

We have reserved the demonstration at Edinburgh for the last, because the Festival at the Music Hall is the only one of the Burns Festivals which has, in any single respect, produced a favourable impression. We are not disposed to single out this particular assembly on account of anything that was done at it. One thing, indeed, was done at it, the taste of which seems to our mind rather questionable. Relics of Burns were exhibited, of course, at all the Commemorations. His hair, his toddy-ladle, his wife’s hair, his snuff-box, his pistols, his punch-bowl, and even a print over which he is reported to have once shed tears, were all displayed at different places. But the Edinburgh Gathering went a step farther, and exhibited a living relic, in the shape of a poor old man, who had lived one hundred years in this weary world, and who at that great age was hung up in public on the Hat-Peg, because he had been brought, as a carrier, into personal contact with Burns, as an exciseman. It seems scarcely consistent with the respect and the consideration which are due to great age to make a show of this old man; and, when one assembly had done staring at him, to pass him on to another.

The claim of our Edinburgh friends to be singled out for favourable distinction, arises, in our estimation, from the circumstance that one man happened to be present, who has done something for the memory of Burns besides talk about it. Among the list of toasts and speeches, we find just two lines, reporting that the company drank, “The Biographers of Burns,” and that Mr. Robert Chambers acknowledged the toast. What Mr. Robert Chambers said for Burns, on this occasion, is not mentioned in the report we read. The infinitely more important question of what he has done for Burns, we are in a position to answer without referring to reports. About seventeen years ago, a grateful country had left Burns a sister, Mrs. Begg and her daughters, in the most impoverished circumstances; and Mr. Robert Chambers set on foot a subscription for them. The result of the appeal thus made, and of a solemn Branch-Burns Commemoration, got up in Ayrshire, was a subscription amounting to something less than four hundred pounds; of which the Queen and Court gave sixty-four. As much was done with this pittance as could be done; and it was sunk in an annuity for the three poor souls to live upon.

Mrs. Begg and her daughters were settled in a cottage in Ayrshire. Mr. Robert Chambers then went bravely to work with his own hands and brains to help Burns’s kindred for Burns’s sake. After devoting admirable industry and research to the task, he produced The Life and Poems of Burns, in four volumes; published the work in eighteen hundred and fifty-one; and devoted the first proceeds of the sale, two hundred pounds, to the necessities of Mrs. Begg and her daughters—thus giving from his own individual exertion more than half as much as the entire sum which all Scotland had given. We hope Mr. Robert Chambers will forgive us for filling up an omission in the newspaper history of the twenty-sixth of January, and mentioning, by way of contrast, the nature of his tribute to the memory of Burns.

If there be a brighter and better side to the Burns centenary picture than we have discovered, there happens, at any rate, as circumstances at present exist, to be one easy means of showing it to us. In the Times’ report of the Crystal Palace Festival, a document is printed, with names attached, which asks help for the only surviving daughter of Burns; and the plain question is put below it, whether that daughter would derive any benefit from the proceedings of the day, so far as the Palace at Sydenham was concerned. To our knowledge, that question has not been answered yet. We looked carefully at the reports of all the Dinners in England and Scotland, and found no reference made to the subject anywhere. Everywhere, the company sang, and took tea and coffee, and admired the relics with the tenderest curiosity; but we can find no instance in which the hand of the company is reported to have entered the pocket of the company with a view to Burns’s daughter, at the close of the evening. Until we are favoured with some satisfactory explanation of this singular circumstance, we can only repeat the question in the Times; putting it, in our case, not to the Crystal Palace Company only, but to every other company, small and large, which commemorated the anniversary of the twenty-fifth of January last. What has this grand outburst of enthusiasm done for the last surviving daughter of Robert Burns?


First published in Household Words 12 February 1859 XIX 241-243


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