The Immortal Memory
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Immortal Memory is a toast given by Arthur Conan Doyle at the Burns Club Dinner in Edinburgh (Scotland, UK) on 23 march 1901. The speech was warmly applauded and the chairman suggested that it should be printed "in a form that could be bound up with the menu card". It was then printed and published by R. Mitchell & Sons in april 1901.
- The Immortal Memory (april 1901, R. Mitchell & Sons [UK])
- The Immortal Memory (19 march 1993, The Arthur Conan Doyle Society [UK])
The Immortal Memory
It is my privilege, gentlemen, to rise among you to-night to ask you to drink to the memory of that great man in whose honour this Club has been founded. He has been in his grave a hundred and five years, yet here, in the capital of Scotland, a company of Scotsmen have met, as Scotsmen meet all the world over, to do him honour. The fact speaks for itself. There is no longer room for the critic, no longer space for speculation as to whether his work will stand the test of time. The great ultimate critic, the critic who is slow to speak, but never speaks amiss, has passed judgment upon it, and it has become part of the great heritage of our immortal literature. There was neither fortune nor title in this man's pedigree, and yet he came of high descent, for he sprang from that Lowland Scottish peasant class who are, as I hold, of the salt of the earth. I know not why there should be such virtue in these people. Their limitations are not to be denied, hard and dour, unlovely in many ways. But there is among them such a store of primitive qualities, such a hunger for knowledge, such a grim virility, such a depth and earnestness in their habit of thought, that I for one do not know where one shall find their fellows. Is it that blend of races which has mixed Celt and Saxon, Pict and Dane, in one grand deep strain? Or is it the unfruitful northern earth which has given to those who tilled it a more precious harvest than any which they had sown? a harvest of hereditary patience and capacity for earnest toil. These questions I may leave to others. But this fact alone I would emphasize, that from this great race, a race of silent and humble heroes, there comes from time to time one who is articulate, and can show before all the world the qualities which characterise his class. Such a man was Robert Burns; a true Scotsman, a true peasant, and on top of all, a true poet as well. There have lived in the last hundred and fifty years three Scotsmen who are now placed beyond all doubt among the immortals. Those three are Burns, Carlyle, and Scott. It is a grand thing for a country to be able to say that of those three men, the peers of the highest of all the world, two were born in cottages which their fathers had built with their own hands. Neither Burns' nor Carlyle's father ever possessed a hundred pounds of income in any year of their life. Yet these are the springs from which great deep streams have flowed. In many countries poverty represents failure, represents degeneracy. In Scotland it has been the nursery of the virtues; what has been highest and best in the nation's thought has sprung from it. I can imagine no prouder, no more legitimate national boast. Elsewhere it is the special classes, the highly trained classes which produce the notable men. Here they need no artificial forcing — they spring unaided from the very soil itself. If there is one class of men upon earth to whom Scotland owes gratitude it is to the Scottish schoolmaster. As far back as we can trace we find these men — scholarly, conscientious, poorly paid, with no horizon in life, no ultimate reward save the recollection of duty done. We are proud of the Scottish soldier, of the Scottish colonist, of the Scotsman in many capacities; but these men labour unseen and unpraised at the very root of the national greatness, and the whole fabric of the nation is one huge monument in their honour. They have little career themselves, and yet how many a career have they shaped and how much indirect glory have they won. Such a man, the excellent Murdoch, presided, as we know, over Burns' boyhood, and from him came much of that love of letters which is the only possible road which leads to success in letters. It is from him that we learn what class of literature it was which found its way into that humble home. It reads strangely in these days of popular penny papers. There was, of course, the Bible, which, apart from its higher claims, remains always in its stately sonorous English a grand piece of literature, one which for many generations has been the staple nourishment of the young Scotsman's mind. What else did these young peasants read — at a time when their yearly wage was £7 a year? We have the list. There was the "Spectator," with the essays of Addison and Steele, the most polished English of a polished age. There was Pope's "Homer," no bad substitute for the original. There were some plays of Shakespeare. There was Locke on "The Human Understanding." There was Hervey's "Meditations." There was Allan Ramsay. There was Richardson's "Pamela." There was "Peregrine Pickle," — and perhaps the list would have been better without it, — and there was Taylor's "Doctrine of Original Sin," which was, no doubt, an excellent corrective to "Peregrine Pickle." One is tempted to ask as one surveys this list whether, in any other country, such a library would now be found in a mud cottage. And these books were not for show. There is that to be said for the books of the very poor; every one represented an event, an act of self-denial in the purchaser, a welcome gift, an adventure of some sort to make it precious. From cover to cover, again and again, these books had been read. The man who sits in his spacious library never realises how precious a thing a book is. To do so he must have only won it by much labour. Then he will fall upon it with a hungry mind, and take it into his very soul. Cheap literature has been a boon, but it has also taken away from us something of the awe and reverence and intense desire with which in those days a man looked upon a book. We read of Carlyle hurrying home with the eight volumes of Gibbon under his arm, and consuming a volume a day for the eight successive days. There was the man with the hungry mind. It stretches out after nourishment as the young plant shoots out its roots and its tendrils. And so Burns fastened on to these books and extracted the last morsel from them. They were few in number, but surely tons of cheaper and more ephemeral literature would not have equipped him so well for lofty and independent thought. But of all the books which fashioned his early thoughts and led his genius into its true channel, the most potent was that collection of songs which chance — or, as I should prefer to say, something higher than chance — threw in his way. He describes in his own words how they became part of himself, how he conned them over, how he repeated them, how their rhythm clanged in his head until at last we can imagine how he was led on into imitating them, and so at last was informed by the applause of his auditors, and still more by the thrill of his own soul, that he also could play upon this instrument — that he also had the divine power of voicing the joys and the sorrows of his kind. It is unlikely that any thought of fame or of literature was in his mind. The best literature is always the unconscious literature — the literature which takes no thought of grace or style or the right word, but comes in a deep strong stream from a human soul. He wrote as the bird sings, because he had a God-given power, and it was a pleasure — the highest pleasure — for him to exercise it. There was no money in it. Some money was, it is true, earned in his lifetime by the sale of the Kilmarnock Edition, but up to the end of his life I do not know that he ever sold any single poem. For seventeen years he spoke because he must speak, and never for the sake of speaking. It would be a dishonest and fulsome admirer who would not own that he spoke sometimes when he had better have been silent, but good or evil, wise or foolish, it was his own genuine thought, free from cant or pretense, which he gave out from his heart, little thinking that the day would come when a great race, spread over the whole globe, would treasure every word of it as one of their dearest national possessions. And what an instrument it was upon which he played — a harp with a thousand strings, every one of them sounding full and true. He was a fit spokesman for his fellows, for what emotion was there which any of them could feel which had not thrilled him also. There are his love poems — we might wish, perhaps, that there was less variety in the names which we find in them — but when have love lyrics been more genuine and more melodious? There are his tender emotional poems, which show the very fairest side of the man, his great heart which went out to the sorrows of the frightened mouse, of the dying ewe, of the faithful dog, of all the dumb creatures around him. There are his patriotic strains — when was the sturdy Scottish spirit ever so aptly expressed as in "Scots wha hae". There are his idyllic pictures of Scottish life, "The Cottar's Saturday Night," and others; there are romantic ballads where his wild fancy had a free rein, and there were, most important of all, those polemical poems in which he scourged with a most bitter satire that hypocrisy and undue ecclesiastical interference which seem to have hung like a cloud over the Scottish country life of those days. I say that these were the most important of his works, for it always seems to me that genius up in the clouds is an empty thing compared to genius which is actually moulding the world and shaping the thoughts of men. I had rather have been the author of "Holy Wullie's Prayer" than of all the odes to skylarks and to rainbows that have ever been penned. Here was, as it seems to me, the most important mission which Burns had upon earth, to stand up for the freedom of human thought, to proclaim the eternal rights of the individual, and of common sense against dogmatic religious intolerance from whatever creed it had come. In all times of the world's history an unresisted creed has become a degenerate creed. It is in the face of criticism and opposition that a Church grows strong. In this sense Burns, by his bitter satire, was a good friend not only to the laity whose cause he championed, but to the Church which he handled so roughly. If Scottish religious thought has broadened since then, if more attention is paid to the spirit, and less to the letter, if life has been freed from an eternal and yet petty inquisition, it is partly to the poet that we owe it. Some of those incisive verses have done what no amount of learned theological argument could do, — they have made certain things ridiculous, and when you have made certain things ridiculous, you have gone a long way to making them impossible. If you should look with a kindly and yet discriminating eye upon Burns' life and work, and if you should ask yourself what is the main characteristic which makes both the man and the poems so well-beloved, how would you answer it? Is it his virtue? I fear that is the last claim which he could make for himself save at the expense of that honesty which was one of his great redeeming qualities. Is it his learning? It was not great. Is it his wisdom? He was not always wise. Is it his wit? It was great, but wit in itself makes enemies rather than friends. What was it then? It is, I think, all summed up in the word heart. He spoke as a man to men, as a sinner to sinners, as a creature of impulse to creatures of impulse. His great heart was full of sympathy for others, and craved for sympathy for itself. He was intensely alive, intensely human, and intensely honest. In love and in hate, in religion and in politics, he was vividly in earnest, and said boldly out, often to his own great detriment, the thought that was in him. But always it was a human utterance, an utterance from the heart — and it is because our own hearts recognise this that we respond to him as to no other poet. Shakespeare is greater, Tennyson is more learned, Browning more spiritual — but I do not know where we shall find the poet who has more heart. Enough — too much, perhaps — has been said of the poet's failings. They are largely the failings of his age and of his environment. Life at that time was simple, vigorous, and coarse. He was in touch with life at all points. It would be absurd to conceal a fact which is so obvious in his own writings. But this I would say which I feel to be a truth, that both in life and in literature a man is judged by his best and not his worst. The evil dies, but the good lives, and that is the permanent harvest of his life. Do not ask what vices a man has, but ask what virtues he has, and there you get a really just estimate of the man, otherwise in looking at the motes you lose sight of the sunbeam in which they are suspended. Carlyle in talking of religious thought has used a beautiful simile. You throw a handful of seed mixed with chaff and dust and all manner of refuse into the ground. The seed will sprout, but good mother nature absorbs the rest, or uses it for her own good purpose. And so the chaff and the refuse of Robert Burns may pass away, but ever there remains the memory of the honest man, the man of heart, the true poet, and the true Scotsman — that is the true harvest of his life. A very little more and I have done. I feel that this is neither the time nor the occasion for a lengthened literary lecture, but that it is more fitting that I should endeavour to convey an impression of that which is essential in the man and in his work, without descending to those details of fact which are probably as familiar to you as they are to me. But of all the incidents of Burns' life, the ending of it seems the most remarkable. He was but thirty-seven when he died, an age when most men of genius have hardly begun to show the gifts which are in them. It is singular how at that time, and in the generation which followed, a strange blight seemed to fall on the younger British poets. Chatterton died in his early youth. Keats was under thirty. Shelley was little older. Byron was thirty-six. Burns was actually the longest lived of all that band. And yet he was still a young man, brown-haired and bright-eyed, when he laid his pen aside for the last time. It was a piteous thing, and to me an inexplicable one, for he was no pathological genius, but a sturdy, strong-spirited man, sprung from a robust stock to whom eighty years might have seemed a reasonable span of life. We have evidence enough of the vigour of his own nature as a practical man of affairs. On the rumour of a French invasion — though we can hardly think that Dumfries was ever in imminent danger — he threw down his gauger's measure and seized a musket. We know also that when a smuggler's crew held the ship against the revenue officers, it was Burns himself who led the boarding party against them. This was a lad of metal — a proper man of his hands — and it is strange indeed that such a one should have sunk into a premature grave. Partly it may have been due to his profession, one which entailed much hardship and also much exposure to temptation. Partly also to his popularity, which caused no revel to be complete without his presence. But most of all it may be that the man all his life had been living on his nerves, he had passed from passion to passion, from thrill to thrill, and life is not to be measured by years, but by sensation and by accomplishment. "Burned out," is the terrible and expressive phrase used by his brother in describing Robert's condition a year before his death. He was burned out — and he died. But there is a more terrible fate than that — and he was mercifully preserved from it. He was "burned out," and he died. But how infinitely sadder had he been "burned out" and not died. There lies the supreme tragedy of life, the last outrage which a cruel fate can inflict. That a man should survive his powers, that the workman should sit impotent with a palsied hand in front of his work, that is the true terror of life. To cumber the stage when you are of no use to the play — who would choose such a part? Burns went forth with his work done. There is no reason to think that his fame could have been increased by a longer life. But consider how terrible would have been his fate, how dreadful a memory it would have been to every Scottish man, had his habits of good fellowship increased to absolute dissipation, and had he spent an unhonoured old age, an object of curiosity to travellers, and of compassion to his own people, with a ruined intellect and an enfeebled body. Better far that early death with the brown hair and the bright eyes, leaving his love fresh in the hearts of women and his memory in the minds of men. Death is lofty and dignified. There is nothing vulgar in death. And so, if he was in truth "burned out," if his life's work was done, the crowning mercy of Providence was the kindly death which sealed his work and riveted his fame. We will not therefore regret it. But we will cast a kindly and a reverent thought back across the century, and with admiration for the poet, and with love for the man, we will drink in silence to his memory.