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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander B. Grosart

James Drummond Burns (1823–1864)

THIS “sweet singer” was born in Edinburgh on the 18th of February, 1823. His father held the privilege of burgess-freeman, whereby this his eldest son inherited the right of being one of the hundred and eighty boys in residence in George Heriot’s Hospital—an endowment answering in Scotland to Christ’s Hospital of London. So early as his twelfth year he was passed to the Rector’s class of the High School, though he continued a resident in the great hospital. Dr. Carson, the then rector, was a ripe scholar and effective teacher. He “took” to young Burns. In his sixteenth year (November 1837) he was transferred to the University, as one of Heriot’s bursars. Sir William Hamilton and “Christopher North” (John Wilson) became his most stimulating instructors. He graduated M.A. Having completed the usual course of Presbyterian students, he proceeded, in November 1841, to the Theological Hall of the “Kirk” of Scotland, then illustrious through Welsh and Thomas Chalmers. He speedily won distinction as Essayist and strenuous debater. His first two “sessions” in the Hall were the last two of what is known in ecclesiastical history as the “Ten Years’ Conflict,” and the summer of 1843 saw the national Church rent into unequal halves. He threw in his lot with the “Free Church of Scotland,” and followed his old professors, and the new, to its New College. In 1845 Dr. Chalmers persuaded him to go as temporary “supply” to the vacant congregation of Dunblane—a Scottish shrine through saintly Archbishop Leighton—and this issued in his becoming its first minister. It was an arduous post, and the young pastor was of a delicate constitution and of foreboding though not at all gloomy temperament, as witness his pathetic sonnet on reaching his twenty-fifth year. He broke down after about two years of laborious and consecrate service. He left Dunblane for Madeira. There he did noble work among the invalids and native converts. In leisure hours he cultivated an unmistakable poetic gift that had revealed itself in his early boyhood. He is found again in Dunblane in 1848, but only to complete the resignation of his church and to return to Madeira. His further stay there was brief, as a universal blight of the island’s vines and other calamities scattered his congregation. In 1853 he returned to England, and, alter occasional service elsewhere, was finally settled, on the 22nd of May, 1855, as minister of the Presbyterian Church of Hampstead. His fine intellect, his ripened culture, his accurate and varied scholarship, and his lovable nature found expression in sermons of an exceptionally high order, and as a corollary in a considerable body of literary work. For details on these the reader is referred to Dr. James Hamilton’s Life and Remains—a fascinating book. Here we have only to do with him as a poet. His poetry is found (α) in two small volumes respectively designated “The Evening Hymn: A Book of Prayers and Hymns for Family Use,” and “Heavenly Jerusalem, or Glimpses within the Gates”; (β) a volume entitled “The Vision of Prophecy and other poems”: First Edition 1854; Second 1858 (enlarged). His prose is steeped in poetry, and often surprises with exquisitely wrought word-painting—e.g., his description of the earthly and heavenly rainbow is worthy of Ruskin. All too soon and sorrowfully his constitutional weakness reasserted itself. In 1859 he had married inestimably, and three children brightened his home. But he had to give way. Amidst manifold tokens of his congregation’s affection and thoughtfulness he removed to Mentone. At first there were gleams of hope of recovery, but they were speedily quenched. He died on the 27th of November, 1864, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Two things have militated against Burns’ adequate recognition as a poet of more than common genius: (α) The error in judgment of giving the leading place in title-page and book to his long blank verse poem of the “Vision of Prophecy,” inasmuch as while it has felicitous lines and haunting images, it lacks inspiration as a whole; (β) “The inclusion of a number of weak and poor pieces that your chance dipper into the volume was sure to hap on. But from HUGH MILLER onward, he has been accepted as a genuine Maker (in the old sense). His splendid tribute to Wordsworth (pp. 94–116, 1858) confirms the impression left throughout, that he was his master in observation and love of Nature. His unique place as a hymn writer is recognised in Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology (s.v.). We give examples in our selections. We shall be disappointed if these and our other selections do not send readers to the complete volumes. I close our necessarily compressed notice with Dr. Julian’s well-put estimate: “His poems are distinguished by vivid colouring and poetic imagination, along with directness, delicacy of execution, pensive sweetness and tenderness. Included are twenty-seven hymns and meditations, some of which rank among the very best of our modern hymns for beauty, simplicity of diction, and depth of religious feeling. His hymns and prayers alike are characterised by reverence, beauty, simplicity, and pathos.” Very humble was his own self-estimate, before his volume of 1854–58:—

  • “No laurel leaves, no sweet unfading flowers
  • Bloom in the garden of these simple lines;
  • They are but rushes woven in random hours,
  • Like those some lonely shepherd-boy entwines.
  • The while his fingers plait the scentless wreath,
  • He finds some pleasure in his idle skill;
  • At even, he leaves it withering on the heath,
  • Or strews its fragments on the moorland rill.”