Robert Burns - Famous Scots Series
by Gabriel Setoun
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The designs and ornaments of this volume are by Mr. Joseph Brown, and the printing from the press of Morrison & Gibb Limited, Edinburgh.

June 1896.

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Of the many biographies of Robert Burns that have been written, most of them laboriously and carefully, perhaps not one gives so luminous and vivid a portrait, so lifelike and vigorous an impression of the personality of the poet and the man, as the picture the author has given of himself in his own writings. Burns's poems from first to last are, almost without exception, the literary embodiment of his feelings at a particular moment. He is for ever revealing himself to the reader, even in poems that might with propriety be said to be purely objective. His writings in a greater degree than the writings of any other author are the direct expression of his own experiences; and in his poems and songs he is so invariably true to himself, so dominated by the mood of the moment, that every one of them gives us some glimpse into the heart and soul of the writer. In his letters he is rarely so happy; frequently he is writing up to certain models, and ceases to be natural. Consequently we often miss in them the character and spirituality that is never absent from his poetry. But his poems and songs, chronologically arranged, might make in themselves, and without the aid of any running commentary, a tolerably complete biography. Reading them, we note the development of his character and the growth of his powers as a poet; we can see at any particular time his attitude towards the world, and the world's attitude towards him; we have, in fine, a picture of the man in his relations to his fellow-man and in relation to circumstances, and may learn if we will what mark he made on the society of his time, and what effect that society had on him. And that surely is an important essential of perfect biography.

But otherwise the story of Burns's life has been told with such minuteness of detail, that the internal evidence of his poetry would seem only to be called in to verify or correct the verdict of tradition and the garbled gossip of those wise after the fact of his fame. It is so easy after a man has compelled the attention of the world to fill up the empty years of his life when he was all unknown to fame, with illustrative anecdotes and almost forgotten incidents, revealed and coloured by the light of after events! This is a penalty of genius, and it is sometimes called fame, as if fame were a gift given of the world out of a boundless and unintelligent curiosity, and not the life-record of work achieved. It is easier to collect ana and to make them into the patchwork pattern of a life than to read the character of the man in his writings; and patchwork, of necessity, has more of colour than the homespun web of a peasant-poet.

Burns has suffered sorely at the hands of the anecdote-monger. One great feature of his poems is their perfect sincerity. He pours out his soul in song; tells the tale of his loves, his joys and sorrows, of his faults and failings, and the awful pangs of remorse. And if a man be candid and sincere, he will be taken at his word when he makes the world his confessional, and calls himself a sinner. There is pleasure to small minds in discovering that the gods are only clay; that they who are guides and leaders are men of like passions with themselves, subject to the same temptations, and as liable to fall. This is the consolation of mediocrity in the presence of genius; and if from the housetops the poet proclaims his shortcomings, the world will hear him gladly and believe; his faults will be remembered, and his genius forgiven. What more easy than to bear out his testimony with the weight of collateral evidence, and the charitable anecdotage of acquaintances who knew him not? Information that is vile and valueless may ever be had for the seeking; and it needs only to be whispered about for a season to find its way ultimately into print, and to flourish.

It might naturally be expected at this time of day that all that is merely mythical and traditional might have been sifted from what is accredited and attested fact, that the chaff might have been winnowed from the grain in the life of Burns. In some of the most recently-published biographies this has been most carefully and conscientiously done; but through so many years wild and improbable stories had been allowed to thrive and to go unchallenged, that fiction has come to take the colour and character of fact, and to pass into history. 'The general impression of the place,' that unfortunate phrase on which the late George Gilfillan based an unpardonable attack on the character of the poet, has grown by slow degrees, and gained credence by the lapse of time, till it is accepted as the general impression of the country. Those who would speak of the poet Robert Burns are expected to speak apologetically, and to point a moral from the story of a wasted life. For that has become a convention, and convention is always respectable. But after all is said and done, the devil's advocate makes a wretched biographer. It seems strange and unaccountable that men should dare to become apologists for one who has sung himself into the heart and conscience of his country, and taken the ear of the world. Yet there have been apologists even for the poetry of Burns. We are told, wofully, that he wrote only short poems and songs; was content with occasional pieces; did not achieve any long and sustained effort—to be preserved, it is to be expected, in a folio edition, and assigned a fitting place among other musty and hide-bound immortals on the shelves of libraries under lock and key. As well might we seek to apologise for the fields and meadows, in so far as they bring forth neither corn nor potatoes, but only grasses and flowers, to dance to the piping of the wind, and nod in the sunshine of summer.

It is a healthier sign, however, that the more recent biographers of Burns snap their fingers in the face of convention, and, looking to the legacy he has left the world, refuse to sit in sackcloth and ashes round his grave, either in the character of moralising mourners or charitable mutes. Whatever has to be said against them nowadays, the 'cant of concealment'—to adopt another of Gilfillan's phrases—is not to be laid to their charge. Rather have they rushed to the other extreme, and in their eagerness to do justice to the memory of the poet, led the reader astray in a wilderness of unnecessary detail. So much is now known of Burns, so many minute and unimportant details of his life and the lives of others have been unearthed, that the poet is, so to speak, buried in biography; the character and the personality of the man lost in the voluminous testimony of many witnesses. Reading, we note the care and conscientiousness of the writer; we have but a confused and blurred impression of the poet. Although a century has passed since his death, we do not yet see the events of Burns's life in proper perspective. Things trifling in themselves, and of little bearing on his character, have been preserved, and are still recorded with painful elaboration; while the sidelights from friends, companions, and acquaintances, male and female, are many and bewildering.

Would it not be possible out of this mass of material to tell the story of Robert Burns's life simply and clearly, neither wandering away into the family histories and genealogies of a crowd of uninteresting contemporaries, nor wasting time in elaborating inconsequential trifles? What is wanted is a picture of the man as he was, and an understanding of all that tended to make him the name and the power he is in the world to-day.

William Burness, the father of the poet, was a native of Kincardineshire, and 'was thrown by early misfortunes on the world at large.' After many years' wanderings, he at last settled in Ayrshire, where he worked at first as a gardener before taking a lease of some seven acres of land near the Bridge of Doon, and beginning business as a nurseryman. It was to a clay cottage which he built on this land that he brought his wife, Agnes Broun, in December 1757; and here the poet was born in 1759. The date of his birth is not likely to be forgotten.

'Our monarch's hindmost year but ane Was five-and-twenty days begun, 'Twas then a blast o' Jan'war' win' Blew hansel in on Robin.'

To his father Burns owed much; and if there be anything in heredity in the matter of genius, it was from him that he inherited his marvellous mental powers. His mother is spoken of as a shrewd and sagacious woman, with education enough to enable her to read her Bible, but unable to write her own name. She had a great love for old ballads, and Robert as a boy must often have listened to her chanting the quaint old songs with which her retentive memory was stored. The poet resembled his mother in feature, although he had the swarthy complexion of his father. Attempts have been made now and again to trace his ancestry on the father's side, and to give to the world a kind of genealogy of genius. Writers have demonstrated to their own satisfaction that it was perfectly natural that Burns should have been the man he was. But the other children of William Burness were not great poets. It has even been discovered that his genius was Celtic, whatever that may mean! Excursions and speculations of this kind are vain and unprofitable, hardly more reputable than the profanities of the Dumfries craniologists who, in 1834, in the early hours of April 1st,—a day well chosen,—desecrated the poet's dust. They fingered his skull, 'applied their compasses to it, and satisfied themselves that Burns had capacity enough to write Tam o' Shanter, The Cotter's Saturday Night, and To Mary in Heaven.' Let us take the poet as he comes to us, a gift of the gods, and be thankful. As La Bruyere puts it, 'Ces hommes n'ont ni ancetres ni posterites; ils forment eux seuls toute une descendance.'

What Burns owed particularly to his father he has told us himself both in prose and verse. The exquisite and beautiful picture of the father and his family at their evening devotions is taken from life; and William Burness is the sire who

'turns o'er with patriarchal grace The big ha'-bible ance his father's pride';

and in his fragment of autobiography the poet remarks: 'My father picked up a pretty large quantity of observation and experience, to which I am indebted for most of my pretensions to wisdom. I have met with few men who understood men, their manners and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn, ungainly integrity and headlong, ungovernable irascibility are disqualifying circumstances; consequently I was born a very poor man's son.... It was his dearest wish and prayer to have it in his power to keep his children under his own eye till they could discern between good and evil; so with the assistance of his generous master, he ventured on a small farm in that gentleman's estate.'

This estimate of William Burness is endorsed and amplified by Mr. Murdoch, who had been engaged by him to teach his children, and knew him intimately.

'I myself,' he says, 'have always considered William Burness as by far the best of the human race that ever I had the pleasure of being acquainted with. He was an excellent husband; a tender and affectionate father. He had the art of gaining the esteem and goodwill of those that were labourers under him. He carefully practised every known duty, and avoided everything that was criminal; or, in the apostle's words, Herein did he exercise himself in living a life void of offence towards God and man.'

Even in his manner of speech he was different from men in his own walk in life. 'He spoke the English language with more propriety (both with respect to diction and pronunciation) than any man I ever knew with no greater advantages.'

Truly was Burns blessed in his parents, especially in his father. Naturally such a father wished his children to have the best education his means could afford. It may be that he saw even in the infancy of his firstborn the promise of intellectual greatness. Certain it is he laboured, as few fathers even in Scotland have done, to have his children grow up intelligent, thoughtful, and virtuous men and women.

Robert Burns's first school was at Alloway Mill, about a mile from home, whither he was sent when in his sixth year. He had not been long there, however, when the father combined with a few of his neighbours to establish a teacher in their own neighbourhood. That teacher was Mr. Murdoch, a young man at that time in his nineteenth year.

This is an important period in the poet's life, although he himself in his autobiography only briefly touches on his schooling under Murdoch. He has more to say of what he owed to an old maid of his mother's, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. 'She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, enchanted towers, giants, dragons, and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp lookout in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical in these matters than I, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors.'

It ought not to be forgotten that Burns had a better education than most lads of his time. Even in the present day many in better positions have not the advantages that Robert and Gilbert Burns had, the sons of such a father as William Burness, and under such an earnest and thoughtful teacher as Mr. Murdoch. It is important to notice this, because Burns is too often regarded merely as a lusus naturae; a being gifted with song, and endowed by nature with understanding from his birth. We hear too much of the ploughman poet. His genius and natural abilities are unquestioned and unquestionable; but there is more than mere natural genius in his writings. They are the work of a man of no mean education, and bear the stamp—however spontaneously his songs sing themselves in our ears—of culture and study. In a letter to Dr. Moore several years later than now, Burns himself declared against the popular view. 'I have not a doubt but the knack, the aptitude to learn the Muses' trade is a gift bestowed by Him who forms the secret bias of the soul; but I as firmly believe that excellence in the profession is the fruit of industry, attention, labour, and pains. At least I am resolved to try my doctrine by the test of experience.' There is a class of people, however, to whom this will sound heretical, forbidding them, as it were, the right to babble with grovelling familiarity of Rab, Rob, Robbie, Scotia's Bard, and the Ploughman Poet; and insisting on his name being spoken with conscious pride of utterance, Robert Burns, Poet.

Gilbert Burns, writing to Dr. Currie of the school-days under Mr. Murdoch, says: 'We learnt to read English tolerably well, and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English Grammar. I was too young to profit much by his lessons in grammar, but Robert made some proficiency in it—a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character, as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book.'

After the family removed to Mount Oliphant, the brothers attended Mr. Murdoch's school for two years longer, until Mr. Murdoch was appointed to a better situation, and the little school was broken up. Thereafter the father looked after the education of his boys himself, not only helping them with their reading at home after the labours of the day, but 'conversing familiarly with them on all subjects, as if they had been men, and being at great pains, as they accompanied him on the labours of the farm, to lead conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase their knowledge or confirm them in virtuous habits.' Among the books he borrowed or bought for them at that period were Salmon's Geographical Grammar, Derham's Physico-Theology, Ray's Wisdom of God in the Works of Creation, and Stackhouse's History of the Bible. It was about this time, too, that Robert became possessed of The Complete Letter-Writer, a book which Gilbert declared was to Robert of the greatest consequence, since it inspired him with a great desire to excel in letter-writing, and furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language. Perhaps this book was a great gain. It is questionable. What would Robert Burns's letters have been had he never seen a Complete Letter-Writer, and never read 'those models by some of the first writers in our language'? Easier and more natural, we are of opinion; and he might have written fewer. Those in the Complete Letter-Writer style we could easily have spared. His teacher, Mr. Murdoch, furnishes some excellent examples of the stilted epistolary style that was then fashionable.

'But now the plains of Mount Oliphant began to whiten, and Robert was summoned to relinquish the pleasing scenes that surrounded the grotto of Calypso, and, armed with a sickle, to seek glory by signalising himself in the fields of Ceres.' Though Robert Burns never perpetrated anything like this, his models were not without their pernicious effect on his prose compositions.

When Robert was about fourteen years old, he and Gilbert were sent for a time, week about, to a school at Dalrymple, and the year following Robert was sent to Ayr to revise his English grammar under Mr. Murdoch. While there he began the study of French, bringing with him, when he returned home, a French Dictionary and Grammar and Fenelon's Telemaque. In a little while he could read and understand any French author in prose. He also gave some time to Latin; but finding it dry and uninteresting work, he soon gave it up. Still he must have picked up a little of that language, and we know that he returned to the rudiments frequently, although 'the Latin seldom predominated, a day or two at a time, or a week at most.' Under the heading of general reading might be mentioned The Life of Hannibal, The Life of Wallace, The Spectator, Pope's Homer, Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, Allan Ramsay's Works, and several Plays of Shakspeare. All this is worth noting, even at some length, because it shows how Burns was being educated, and what books went to form and improve his literary taste.

Yet when we consider the circumstances of the family we see that there was not much time for study. The work on the farm allowed Burns little leisure, but every spare moment would seem to have been given to reading. Father and sons, we are told by one who afterwards knew the family at Lochlea, used to sit at their meals with books in their hands; and the poet says that one book in particular, A Select Collection of English Songs, was his vade mecum. He pored over them, driving his cart or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting the true, tender, or sublime from affectation or fustian. 'I am convinced,' he adds, 'I owe to this practice much of my critic craft, such as it is.'

The years of their stay at Mount Oliphant were years of unending toil and of poverty bravely borne. The whole period was a long fight against adverse circumstances. Looking back on his life at this time, Burns speaks of it as 'the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley slave'; and we can well believe that this is no exaggerated statement. His brother Gilbert is even more emphatic. 'Mount Oliphant,' he says, 'is almost the poorest soil I know of in a state of cultivation.... My father, in consequence of this, soon came into difficulties, which were increased by the loss of several of his cattle by accident and disease. To the buffetings of misfortune we could only oppose hard labour and the most rigid economy. We lived very sparingly. For several years butcher's meat was a stranger in the house, while all the members of the family exerted themselves to the utmost of their strength, and rather beyond it, in the labours of the farm. My brother, at the age of thirteen, assisted in thrashing the crop of corn, and at fifteen was the principal labourer on the farm; for we had no hired servant, male or female. The anguish of mind we felt at our tender years under these straits and difficulties was very great. To think of our father growing old (for he was now above fifty), broken down with the long-continued fatigues of his life, with a wife and five other children, and in a declining state of circumstances, these reflections produced in my brother's mind and mine sensations of the deepest distress. I doubt not but the hard labour and sorrow of this period of his life was in a great measure the cause of that depression of spirits with which Robert was so often afflicted through his whole life afterwards. At this time he was almost constantly afflicted in the evenings with a dull headache, which at a future period of his life was exchanged for a palpitation of the heart and a threatening of fainting and suffocation in his bed in the night-time.'

This, we doubt not, is a true picture—melancholy, yet beautiful. But not only did this increasing toil and worry to make both ends meet, injure the bodily health of the poet, but it did harm to him in other ways. It affected, to a certain extent, his moral nature. Those bursts of bitterness which we find now and again in his poems, and more frequently in his letters, are assuredly the natural outcome of these unsocial and laborious years. Burns was a man of sturdy independence; too often this independence became aggressive. He was a man of marvellous keenness of perception; too frequently did this manifest itself in a sulky suspicion, a harshness of judgment, and a bitterness of speech. We say this in no spirit of fault-finding, but merely point it out as a natural consequence of a wretched and leisureless existence. This was the education of circumstances—hard enough in Burns's case; and if it developed in him certain sterling qualities, gave him an insight into and a sympathy with the lives of his struggling fellows, it at the same time warped, to a certain extent, his moral nature.

What was his outlook on the world at this time? He measured himself with those he met, we may be sure, for Burns certainly (as he says of his father) 'understood men, their manners and their ways,' as it is given to very few to be able to do. Of the ploughmen, farmers, lairds, or factors, he saw round about him there was none to compare with him in natural ability, few his equal in field-work. 'At the plough, scythe, or reap-hook,' he remarks, 'I feared no competitor.' Yet, conscious of easy superiority, he saw himself a drudge, almost a slave, while those whom nature had not blessed with brains were gifted with a goodly share of this world's wealth.

It's hardly in a body's power To keep at times frae being sour, To see how things are shar'd; How best o' chiels are whiles in want, While coofs on countless thousands rant, An' ken na how to wair 't.'

His father, his brother, and himself—all the members of the family indeed—toiled unceasingly, yet were unable to better their position. Matters, indeed, got worse, and worst of all when their landlord died, and they were left to the tender mercies of a factor. The name of this man we do not know, nor need we seek to know it. We know the man himself, and he will live for ever a type of tyrannous, insolent insignificance.

'I've noticed, on our Laird's court-day, An' mony a time my heart's been wae, Poor tenant bodies, scant o' cash, How they maun thole a factor's snash: He'll stamp an' threaten, curse an swear, He'll apprehend them, poind their gear: While they maun stan', wi' aspect humble, An' hear it a', an' fear an' tremble.'

Is it to be wondered at that Burns's blood boiled at times, or that he should now and again look at those in easier circumstances with snarling suspicion, and give vent to his feelings in words of rankling bitterness? Robert Burns and his father were just such men as an insolent factor would take a fiendish delight in torturing. 'My indignation yet boils,' Burns wrote years afterwards, 'at the recollection of the scoundrel factor's insolent, threatening letters, which used to set us all in tears.' Had they 'boo'd and becked' at his bidding, and grovelled at his feet, he might have had some glimmering sense of justice, and thought it mercy. But the Burnses were men of a different stamp. 'William Burness always treated superiors with a becoming respect, but he never gave the smallest encouragement to aristocratical arrogance'; and his son Robert was not less manly and independent. He was too sound in judgment; too conscious of his own worth, to sink into mean and abject servility. But this factor, perhaps more than anyone else, did much to pervert, if he could not kill, the poet's spirit of independence.

Curiously enough, the opening sentences of his autobiographical sketch have a suspicious ring of the pride that apes humility. There is something harsh and aggressive in his unnecessary confidence. 'I have not the most distant pretensions to assume the character which the pye-coated guardians of escutcheons call a gentleman. When at Edinburgh last winter I got acquainted at the Herald's office; and, looking through that granary of honours, I there found almost every name in the kingdom; but for me,

"My ancient but ignoble blood Had crept through scoundrels ever since the flood."

Gules, Purpure, Argent, etc., quite disowned me.' All this is quite gratuitous and hardly in good taste.

Yet, in spite of untoward circumstances, ceaseless drudgery, and insufficient diet, the family of Mount Oliphant was not utterly lost to happiness. With such a shrewd mother and such a father as William Burness—a man of whom Scotland may be justly proud—no home could be altogether unhappy. In Burns's picture of the family circle in The Cotter's Saturday Night there is nothing of bitterness or gloom or melancholy.

'With joy unfeign'd brothers and sisters meet, An' each for other's welfare kindly spiers: The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnotic'd fleet; Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears. The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years; Anticipation forward points the view: The mother, wi' her needle an' her shears, Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new; The father mixes a' wi' admonition due.'

In the work of the farm, too, hard as it was, there was pleasure, and the poet's first song, with the picture he gives of the partners in the harvest field, breaks forth from this life of cheerless gloom and unceasing moil like a blink of sunshine through a lowering sky. Burns's description of how the song came to be made is worthy of quotation, because it gives us a very clear and well-defined likeness of himself at the time, a lad in years, but already counting himself among men. 'You know our country custom of coupling a man and a woman together in the labours of harvest. In my fifteenth autumn my partner was a bewitching creature who just counted an autumn less. In short, she, unwittingly to herself, initiated me into a certain delicious passion, which ... I hold to be the first of human joys.... I did not well know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind her when returning in the evening from our labours; why the tones of her voice made my heart-strings thrill like an AEolian harp; and particularly why my pulse beat such a furious rantann when I looked and fingered over her hand to pick out the nettle-stings and thistles. Among her other love-inspiring qualifications she sang sweetly; and 'twas her favourite Scotch reel that I attempted to give an embodied vehicle to in rhyme. I was not so presumptive as to imagine I could make verses like printed ones composed by men who had Greek and Latin; but my girl sung a song which was said to be composed by a small country laird's son, on one of his father's maids with whom he was in love; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he.'

He had already measured himself with this moorland poet, and admits no inferiority; and what a laird's son has done he too may do. Writing of this song afterwards, Burns, who was always a keen critic, admits that it is 'very puerile and silly.' Still, we think there is something of beauty, and much of promise, in this early effusion. It has at least one of the merits, and, in a sense, the peculiar characteristic of all Burns's songs. It is sincere and natural; and that is the beginning of all good writing.

'Thus with me,' he says, 'began love and poetry, which at times have been my only and ... my highest enjoyment.' This was the first-fruit of his poetic genius, and we doubt not that in the composition, and after the composition, life at Mount Oliphant was neither so cheerless nor so hard as it had been. A new life was opened up to him with a thousand nameless hopes and aspirations, though probably as yet he kept all these things to himself, and pondered them in his heart.



The farm at Mount Oliphant proved a ruinous failure, and after weathering their last two years on it under the tyranny of the scoundrel factor, it was with feelings of relief, we may be sure, that the family removed to Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. This was a farm of 130 acres of land rising from the right bank of the river Ayr. The farm appeared to them more promising than the one they had left. The prospect from its uplands was extensive and beautiful. It commanded a view of the Carrick Hills, and the Firth of Clyde beyond; but where there are extensive views to be had the land is necessarily exposed. The farm itself was bleak and bare, and twenty shillings an acre was a high rent for fields so situated.

The younger members of the family, however, were now old enough to be of some assistance in the house or in the fields, and for a few years life was brighter than it had been before; not that labour was lighter to them here, but simply because they had escaped the meshes and machinations of a petty tyrant, and worked more cheerfully, looking to the future with confidence. Father, mother, and children all worked as hard as they were able, and none more ungrudgingly than the poet.

We know little about those first few years of life at Lochlea, which should be matter for special thanksgiving. Better we should know nothing at all than that we should learn of misfortunes coming upon them, and see the family again in tears and forced to thole a factor's snash; better silence than the later unsavoury episodes, which have not yet been allowed decent burial. Probably life went evenly and beautifully in those days. The brothers accompanied their father to the fields; Agnes milked the cows, reciting the while to her younger sisters, Annabella and Isabella, snatches of song or psalm; and in the evening the whole family would again gather round the ingle to raise their voices in Dundee or Martyrs or Elgin, and then to hear the priest-like father read the sacred page.

The little that we do know is worth recording. 'Gilbert,' to quote from Chambers's excellent edition of the poet's works, 'used to speak of his brother as being at this period a more admirable being than at any other. He recalled with delight the days when they had to go with one or two companions to cut peats for the winter fuel, because Robert was sure to enliven their toil with a rattling fire of witty remarks of men and things, mingled with the expressions of a genial glowing heart, and the whole perfectly free from the taint which he afterwards acquired from his contact with the world. Not even in those volumes which afterwards charmed his country from end to end, did Gilbert see his brother in so interesting a light as in those conversations in the bog, with only two or three noteless peasants for an audience.'

This is a beautiful picture: the poet enlivening toil with talk, lighting and illustrating all he said with his lively imagination; Gilbert listening silently, and a group of noteless peasants dumb with wonder. No artist has yet painted this picture of Burns, as his brother saw him, at his best. Writers have glanced at the scene and passed it by. It needed to be looked at with naked, appreciative eyes; they had come with microscopes to the study of Burns. Far more interesting material awaited them farther on: The Poet's Welcome, for example! They could amplify that. Here, too, is the first hint of Burns's brilliant powers as a talker; a glimpse on this lonely peat moss of the man who, not many years afterwards, was to dazzle literary Edinburgh with the sparkle and force of his graphic speech.

Probably it was about this time that Burns went for a summer to a school at Kirkoswald. In his autobiography he says it was his seventeenth year, and, if so, it must have been before the family had left Mount Oliphant. Gilbert's recollection was that the poet was then in his nineteenth year, which would bring the incident into the Lochlea period. In the new edition of Chambers's Burns, William Wallace accepts Robert's statement as correct; yet we hardly think the poet would have spent a summer at school at a time when the family was under the heel of that merciless factor. Besides, although he speaks of his seventeenth year, he has just made mention of the fact that he was in the secret of half the amours of the parish; and it was in the parish of Tarbolton that we hear of him acting 'as the second of night-hunting swains.' Probably also it would be after the family had found comparative peace and quiet in their new home that it would occur to Burns to resume his studies in a methodical way. The point is a small one. The important thing is, that in his seventeenth or nineteenth summer he went to a noted school on a smuggling coast to learn mathematics, surveying, dialling, etc., in which he made a pretty good progress. 'But,' he says, 'I made a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind. The contraband trade was at this time very successful; scenes of swaggering riot and roaring dissipation were as yet new to me, and I was no enemy to social life. Here, though I learnt to look unconcernedly on a large tavern bill and mix without fear in a drunken squabble, yet I went on with a high hand in my geometry.'

The glimpses we have of Burns during his stay here are all characteristic of the man. We see a young man looking out on a world that is new to him; moving in a society to which he had hitherto been a stranger. His eyes are opened not only to the knowledge of mankind, but to a better knowledge of himself. Thirsting for information and power, we find him walking with Willie Niven, his companion from Maybole, away from the village to where they might have peace and quiet, and converse on subjects calculated to improve their minds. They sharpen their wits in debate, taking sides on speculative questions, and arguing the matter to their own satisfaction. No doubt in these conversations and debates he was developing that gift of clear reasoning and lucid expression which afterwards so confounded the literary and legal luminaries of Edinburgh. They had made a study of logic, but here was a man from the plough who held his own with them, discussing questions which in their opinion demanded a special training. For an uncouth country ploughman gifted with song they were prepared, but they did not expect one who could meet them in conversation with the fence and foil of a skilled logician. We may see also his burning desire for distinction in that scene in school when he led the self-confident schoolmaster into debate and left him humiliated in the eyes of the pupils. Even in his contests with John Niven there was the same eagerness to excel. When he could not beat him in wrestling or putting the stone, he was fain to content himself with a display of his superiority in mental calisthenics. The very fact that a charming fillette overset his trigonometry, and set him off at a tangent, is a characteristic ending to this summer of study. Peggy Thomson in her kail-yard was too much for the fiery imagination of a poet: 'it was in vain to think of doing more good at school.'

Too much stress is not to be laid on Burns's own mention of 'scenes of swaggering riot and dissipation' at Kirkoswald. Such things were new to him, and made a lasting impression on his mind. We know that he returned home very considerably improved. His reading was enlarged with the very important addition of Thomson's and Shenstone's works. He had seen human nature in a new phasis, and now he engaged in literary correspondence with several of his schoolfellows.

It was not long after his return from Kirkoswald that the Bachelor's Club was founded, and here could Burns again exercise his debating powers and find play for his expanding intellect. The members met to forget their cares in mirth and diversion, 'without transgressing the bounds of innocent decorum'; and the chief diversion appears to have been debate.

If we are to believe Gilbert, the seven years of their stay in Tarbolton parish were not marked by much literary improvement in Robert. That may well have been Gilbert's opinion at the time; for the poet was working hard on the farm, and often spending an evening at Tarbolton or at one or other of the neighbouring farms. But he managed all the same to get through a considerable amount of reading; and though, perhaps, he did not devote himself so sedulously to books as he had been accustomed to do in the seclusion of Mount Oliphant, he was storing his mind in other ways. His keen observation was at work, and he was studying what was of more interest and importance to him than books—'men, their manners and their ways.' 'I seem to be one sent into the world,' he remarks in a letter to Mr. Murdoch, 'to see and observe; and I very easily compound with the knave who tricks me of my money, if there be anything original about him, which shows me human nature in a different light from anything I have seen before.' Partly it was this passion to see and observe, partly it was another passion that made him the assisting confidant of most of the country lads in their amours. 'I had a curiosity, zeal, and intrepid dexterity in these matters which recommended me as a proper second in duels of that kind.' His song, My Nannie, O, which belongs to this period, is not only true as a lyric of sweet and simple love, but is also true to the particular style of love-making then in vogue.

'The westlin wind blaws loud an' shill; The night's baith mirk and rainy, O: But I'll get my plaid, an' out I'll steal, An' owre the hills to Nannie, O.'

According to Gilbert, the poet himself was constantly the victim of some fair enslaver, although, being jealous of those richer than himself, he was not aspiring in his loves. But while there was hardly a comely maiden in Tarbolton to whom he did not address a song, we are not to imagine that he was frittering his heart away amongst them all. A poet may sing lyrics of love to many while his heart is true to one. The one at this time to Robert Burns was Ellison Begbie, to whom some of his songs are addressed—notably Mary Morrison, one of the purest and most beautiful love lyrics ever poet penned. Nothing is more striking than the immense distance between this composition and any he had previously written. In this song he for the first time stepped to the front rank as a song-writer, and gave proof to himself, if to nobody else at the time, of the genius that was in him. A few letters to Ellison Begbie are also preserved, pure and honourable in sentiment, but somewhat artificial and formal in expression. It was because of his love for her, and his desire to be settled in life, that he took to the unfortunate flax-dressing business in Irvine. That is something of an unlovely and mysterious episode in Burns's life. Suffice it to say in his own words: 'This turned out a sadly unlucky affair. My partner was a scoundrel of the first water, and, to finish the whole business, while we were giving a welcome carousal to the New Year, our shop, by the drunken carelessness of my partner's wife, took fire and burned to ashes, and I was left, like a true poet, not worth a sixpence.'

His stay at Irvine was neither pleasant for him at the time nor happy in its results. He met there 'acquaintances of a freer manner of thinking and living than he had been used to'; and it needs something more than the family misfortunes and the deathbed of his father to account for that terrible fit of hypochondria when he returned to Lochlea. 'For three months I was in a diseased state of body and mind, scarcely to be envied by the hopeless wretches who have just got their sentence, Depart from me, ye cursed.'

Up to this time, the twenty-fifth year of his age, Burns had not written much. Besides Mary Morrison might be mentioned The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, and another bewitching song, The Rigs o' Barley, which is surely an expression of the innocent abandon, the delicious rapture of pure and trustful love. But what he had written was work of promise, while at least one or two of his songs had the artistic finish as well as the spontaneity of genuine poetry. In all that he had done, 'puerile and silly,' to quote his own criticism of Handsome Nell, or at times halting and crude, there was the ring of sincerity. He was not merely an echo, as too many polished poetasters in their first attempts have been. Such jinglers are usually as happy in their juvenile effusions as in their later efforts. But Burns from the first tried to express what was in him, what he himself felt, and in so far had set his feet on the road to perfection. Being natural, he was bound to improve by practice, and if there was genius in him to become in time a great poet. That he was already conscious of his powers we know, and the longing for fame, 'that last infirmity of noble mind,' was strong in him and continually growing stronger.

'Then out into the world my course I did determine, Though to be rich was not my wish, yet to be great was charming; My talents they were not the worst, nor yet my education; Resolved was I at least to try to mend my situation.'

Before this he had thought of more ambitious things than songs, and had sketched the outlines of a tragedy; but it was only after meeting with Fergusson's Scotch Poems that he 'struck his wildly resounding lyre with rustic vigour.' In his commonplace book, begun in 1783, we have ever-recurring hints of his devoting himself to poetry. 'For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love, and then Rhyme and Song were in a measure the spontaneous language of my heart.'

The story of Wallace from the poem by Blind Harry had years before fired his imagination, and his heart had glowed with a wish to make a song on that hero in some measure equal to his merits.

'E'en then, a wish, I mind its power— A wish that to my latest hour Shall strongly heave my breast— That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake, Some usefu' plan or beuk could make, Or sing a sang at least.'

This was written afterwards, but it is retrospective of the years of his dawning ambition.

For a time, however, all dreams of greatness are to be set aside as vain. The family had again fallen on evil days, and when the father died, his all went 'among the hell-hounds that grovel in the kennel of justice.' This was no time for poetry, and Robert was too much of a man to think merely of his own aims and ambitions in such a crisis. It was only by ranking as creditors to their father's estate for arrears of wages that the children of William Burness made a shift to scrape together a little money, with which Robert and Gilbert were able to stock the neighbouring farm of Mossgiel. Thither the family removed in March 1784; and it is on this farm that the life of the poet becomes most deeply interesting. The remains of the father were buried in Alloway Kirkyard; and on a small tombstone over the grave the poet bears record to the blameless life of the loving husband, the tender father, and the friend of man. He had lived long enough to hear some of his son's poems, and to express admiration for their beauty; but he had also noted the passionate nature of his first-born. There was one of his family, he said on his deathbed, for whose future he feared; and Robert knew who that one was. He turned to the window, the tears streaming down his cheeks.

Mossgiel, to which the brothers now removed, taking with them their widowed mother, was a farm of about one hundred and eighteen acres of cold clayey soil, close to the village of Mauchline. The farm-house, having been originally the country house of their landlord, Mr. Gavin Hamilton, was more commodious and comfortable than the home they had left. Here the brothers settled down, determined to do all in their power to succeed. They made a fresh start in life, and if hard work and rigid economy could have compelled success, they might now have looked to the future with an assurance of comparative prosperity. Mr. Gavin Hamilton was a kind and generous landlord, and the rent was only L90 a year; considerably lower than they had paid at Lochlea.

But misfortune seemed to pursue this family, and ruin to wait on their every undertaking. Burns says: 'I entered on this farm with a full resolution, "Come, go to, I will be wise." I read farming books; I calculated crops; I attended markets; and, in short, in spite of the devil, the world, and the flesh, I should have been a wise man; but the first year, from unfortunately buying in bad seed; the second from a late harvest, we lost half of both our crops. This overset all my wisdom, and I returned like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.'

That this resolution was not just taken in a repentant mood merely to be forgotten again in a month's time, Gilbert bears convincing testimony. 'My brother's allowance and mine was L7 per annum each, and during the whole time this family concern lasted, which was four years, as well as during the preceding period at Lochlea, his expenses never in any one year exceeded his slender income. His temperance and frugality were everything that could be wished.'

Honest, however, as Burns's resolution was, it was not to be expected that he would—or, indeed, could—give up the practice of poetry, or cease to indulge in dreams of after-greatness. Poetry, as he has already told us, had become the spontaneous expression of his heart. It was his natural speech. His thoughts appeared almost to demand poetry as their proper vehicle of expression, and rhythmed into verse as inevitably as in chemistry certain solutions solidify in crystals. Besides this, Burns was conscious of his abilities. He had measured himself with his fellows, and knew his superiority. More than likely he had been measuring himself with the writers he had studied, and found himself not inferior. The great misfortune of his life, as he confessed himself, was never to have an aim. He had felt early some stirrings of ambition, but they were like gropings of Homer's Cyclops round the walls of his cave. Now, however, we have come to a period of his life when he certainly did have an aim, but necessity compelled him to renounce it as soon as it was recognised. It was not a question of ploughing or poetry. There was no alternative. However insidiously inclination might whisper of poetry, duty's voice called him to the fields, and that voice he determined to obey. Reading farming books and calculating crops is not a likely road to perfection in poetry. Yet, in spite of all noble resolution, the voice of Poesy was sweet, and he could not shut his ears to it. He might sing a song to himself, even though it were but to cheer him after the labours of the day, and he sang of love in 'the genuine language of his heart.'

'There's nought but care on every hand, In every hour that passes, O: What signifies the life o' man, An' 'twere na for the lasses, O?'

For song must come in spite of him. The caged lark sings, though its field be but a withered sod, and the sky above it a square foot of green baize. Nor was his commonplace book neglected; and in August we come upon an entry which shows that poetical aspirations were again possessing him; this time not to be cast forth, either at the timorous voice of Prudence or the importunate bidding of Poverty. Burns has calmly and critically taken stock—so to speak—of his literary aptitudes and abilities, and recognised his fitness for a place in the ranks of Scotland's poets. 'However I am pleased with the works of our Scotch poets, particularly the excellent Ramsay, and the still more excellent Fergusson, yet I am hurt to see other places of Scotland, their towns, rivers, woods, haughs, etc., immortalised in such celebrated performances, whilst my dear native country, the ancient Bailieries of Carrick, Kyle, and Cunningham, famous both in ancient and modern times for a gallant and warlike race of inhabitants; a country where civil and particularly religious liberty have ever found their first support and their last asylum, a country the birthplace of many famous philosophers, soldiers, and statesmen, and the scene of many important events in Scottish history, particularly a great many of the actions of the glorious Wallace, the saviour of his country; yet we have never had one Scottish poet of any eminence to make the fertile banks of Irvine, the romantic woodlands and sequestered scenes of Aire, and the heathy mountainous source and winding sweep of Doon, emulate Tay, Forth, Ettrick, Tweed, etc. This is a complaint I would gladly remedy; but, alas! I am far unequal to the task, both in native genius and education. Obscure I am, and obscure I must be, though no young poet nor young soldier's heart ever beat more fondly for fame than mine.' The same thoughts and aspirations are echoed later in his Epistle to William Simpson

'Ramsay and famous Fergusson Gied Forth and Tay a lift aboon; Yarrow and Tweed, to mony a tune, Owre Scotland rings, While Irwin, Lugar, Ayr, and Doon, Naebody sings.

* * * * *

We'll gar our streams and burnies shine Up wi' the best!'

The dread of obscurity spoken of here was almost a weakness with Burns. We hear it like an ever-recurring wail in his poems and letters. In the very next entry in his commonplace book, after praising the old bards, and drawing a parallel between their sources of inspiration and his own, he shudders to think that his fate may be such as theirs. 'Oh mortifying to a bard's vanity, their very names are buried in the wreck of things that were!'

Close on the heels of these entries came troubles on the head of the luckless poet, troubles more serious than bad seed and late harvests. During the summer of 1784, we know that he was in bad health, and again subject to melancholy. His verses at this time are of a religious cast, serious and sombre, the confession of fault, and the cry of repentance.

'Thou know'st that Thou hast formed me With passions wild and strong; And listening to their witching voice Has often led me wrong.'

Perhaps this is only the prelude to his verses to Rankine, written towards the close of the year, and his poem, A Poet's Welcome. They must at least be all read together, if we are to have any clear conception of the nature of Burns. It is not enough to select his Epistle to Rankine, and speak of its unbecoming levity. This was the time when Burns was first subjected to ecclesiastical discipline; and some of his biographers have tried to trace the origin of that wonderful series of satires, written shortly afterwards, to the vengeful feelings engendered in the poet by this degradation. But Burns's attack on the effete and corrupt ceremonials of the Church was not a burst of personal rancour and bitterness. The attack came of something far deeper and nobler, and was bound to be delivered sooner or later. His own personal experience, and the experience of his worthy landlord, Gavin Hamilton, may have given the occasion, but the cause of the attack was in the Church itself, and in Burns's inborn loathing of humbug, hypocrisy, and cant.

Well was it the satires were written by so powerful a satirist, that the Church purged itself of the evil thing and cleansed its ways. This, however, is an episode of such importance in the life of Burns, and in the religious history of Scotland, as to require to be taken up carefully and considered by itself.



Before we can clearly see and understand Burns's attitude to the Church, we must have studied the nature of the man himself, and we must know something also of his religious training. It will not be enough to select his series of satires, and, from a study of them alone, try to make out the character of the man. His previous life must be known; the natural bent of his mind apprehended, and once that is grasped, these satires will appeal to the heart and understanding of the reader with a sense of naturalness and expectedness. They are as inevitable as his love lyrics, and are read with the conviction that his merciless exposure of profanity masquerading in the habiliments of religion, was part of the life-work and mission of this great poet. He had been born, it is recognised, not only to sing the loves and joys and sorrows of his fellow men and women, but to purge their lives of grossness, and their religion of the filth of hypocrisy and cant. Let it be admitted, that he himself went 'a kennin wrang.' What argument is there? We do not deny the divine mission of Samson because of Delilah. Surely that giant's life was a wasted one, yet in his very death he was true to his mission, and fulfilled the purpose of his birth. In other lands and in other times the satirist is recognised and his work appraised; the abuses he scourged, the pretensions he ridiculed, are seen in all their hideousness; but when a great satirist arises amongst ourselves to probe the ulcers of pharisaism, he is banned as a profaner of holy things, touching with impious hands the ark of the covenant. Why should the cloth—as it is so ingenuously called—be touched with delicate hands, unless it be that it is shoddy? Yet the man who would stand well in the eyes of society must not whisper a word against pharisaism; for the Pharisee is a highly respectable person, and observes the proprieties; he typifies the conventional righteousness and religion of his time.

Let us have done with all this timidity and coward tenderness. If the Church is filthy, it must be cleansed; if there be money-changers within its gates, let them be driven out with a whip of small cords. This awe of the cloth, not yet stamped out in Scotland, is but the remains of a pagan superstition, and has nothing to do with the manliness and courage of true religion. But prophets have no honour in their own country, rarely in their own time; they have ever been persecuted, and it is the Church's martyrs that have handed down through the ages the light of the world.

The profanities and religious blasphemies Burns attacked were evils insidious and poisonous, eating to the very heart of the religious life of the country, and they required a desperate remedy. Let us be thankful that the remedy was applied in time; and, looking to the righteousness he wrought, let us bless the name of Burns.

Burns's father, stern and severe moralist as he was, was not a strict Calvinist. Anyone who takes the trouble to read 'The Manual of Religious Belief in a Dialogue between Father and Son, compiled by William Burness, Farmer, Mount Oliphant, and transcribed with Grammatical Corrections by John Murdoch, Teacher,' will see that the man was of too loving and kindly a nature to be strictly orthodox. What was rigid and unlovely to him in the Calvinism of the Scottish Church of that day has been here softened down into something not very far from Arminianism. He had had a hard experience in the world himself, and that may have drawn him nearer to his suffering fellow-men and into closer communion with his God. He had learned that religion is a thing of the spirit, and not a matter of creeds and catechisms. Of Robert Burns's own religion it would be impertinent to inquire too curiously. The religion of a man is not to be paraded before the public like the manifesto of a party politician. After all, is there a single man who can sincerely, without equivocation or mental reservation, label himself Calvinist, Arminian, Socinian, or Pelagian? If there be, his mind must be a marvel of mathematical nicety and nothing more. All that we need know of Burns is that he was naturally and sincerely religious; that he worshipped an all-loving Father, and believed in an ever-present God; that his charity was boundless; that he loved what was good and true, and hated with an indignant hatred whatever was loathsome and false. He loved greatly his fellow-creatures, man and beast and flower; he could even find something to pity in the fate of the devil himself. That he was not orthodox, in the narrow interpretation of orthodoxy in his day, we are well enough aware, else had he not been the poet we love and cherish.

In his early days at Mount Oliphant there is a hint of these later satires. 'Polemical divinity about this time was,' he says, 'putting the country half-mad, and I, ambitious of shining on Sundays, between sermons, in conversation parties, at funerals, etc., in a few years more, used to puzzle Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion that I raised a hue and cry of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour.' And heresy is a terrible cry to raise against a man in Scotland. In those days it was Anathema-maranatha; even now it is still the war-slogan of the Assemblies.

The polemical divinity which he refers to as putting the country half-mad was the wordy war that was being carried on at that time between the Auld Lights and the New Lights. These New Lights, as they were called, were but a birth of the social and religious upheaval that was going on in Scotland and elsewhere. The spirit of revolution was abroad; in France it became acutely political; in Scotland there was a desire for greater religious freedom. The Church, as reformed by Knox, was requiring to be re-reformed. The yoke of papacy had been lifted certainly, but the yoke of pseudo-Protestantism which had taken its place was quite as heavy on the necks of the people. So long as it had been new; so long as it had been of their own choosing, it had been endured willingly. But a generation was springing up—stiff-necked they might have been called, in that they fretted under the yoke of their fathers—that sought to be delivered from the tyranny of their pastors and the fossilised formalism of their creed. To the people in their bondage a prophet was born, and that prophet was Robert Burns.

It was natural that a man of Burns's temperament and clearness of perception should be on the side of the 'common-sense' party. In one of his letters to Mr. James Burness, Montrose, wherein he describes the strange doings of a strange sect called the Buchanites,—surely in itself a convincing proof of the degeneracy of the times in the matter of religion,—we have an interesting reflection which gives us some insight into the poet's mind. 'This, my dear Sir, is one of the many instances of the folly in leaving the guidance of sound reason and common sense in matters of religion. Whenever we neglect or despise those sacred monitors, the whimsical notions of a perturbed brain are taken for the immediate influences of the Deity, and the wildest fanaticism and the most inconsistent absurdities will meet with abettors and converts. Nay, I have often thought that the more out of the way and ridiculous their fancies are, if once they are sanctified under the name of religion, the unhappy, mistaken votaries are the more firmly glued to them.'

The man who wrote that was certainly not the man, when the day of battle came, to join himself with the orthodox party, the party that stuck to the pure, undiluted Puritanism of Covenanting times. Yet many biographers have not seen the bearing that such a letter has on Burns's attitude to the Church. Principal Shairp seems to say that Burns, had it not been for the accident of ecclesiastical discipline to which he had been subjected, would have joined the orthodox party. The notion is absurd. Burns had attacked orthodox Calvinism even in his boyhood, and was already tainted with heresy. 'These men,' the worthy Principal informs us, 'were democratic in their ecclesiastical views, and stout protesters against patronage. All Burns's instincts would naturally have been on the side of those who wished to resist patronage and "cowe the lairds" had not this, his natural tendency, been counteracted by a stronger bias drawing him in an opposite direction.' This is a narrowing—if not even a positive misconception—of the case with a vengeance. The question was not of patronage at all, but of moral and religious freedom; while the democracy of those ministers was a terribly one-sided democracy. The lairds may have dubbed them democrats, but they were aristocratic enough, despotic even, to their herds. But Principal Shairp has been led altogether wrong by imagining that 'Burns, smarting under the strict church discipline, naturally threw himself into the arms of the opposite or New Light party, who were more easy in their life and in their doctrine.' More charitable also, and Christ-like in their judgments, I should fain hope; less blinded by a superstitious awe of the Church. 'Nothing could have been more unfortunate,' he continues, 'than that in this crisis of his career he should have fallen into intimacy with those hard-headed but coarse-minded men.' Surely this zeal for the Church has carried him too far. Were these men all coarse minded? Nobody believes it. The coarse-minded Dr. Dalrymple of Ayr, and the coarse-minded Mr. Lawrie of Loudon! This is not argument. Besides, it is perfectly gratuitous. The question, again, is not one of men—that ecclesiastical discipline has been an offence and a stumbling-block—either coarse minded or otherwise. It is a question of principle, and Burns fought for it with keen-edged weapons.

It would be altogether a mistake to identify Burns with the New Light party, or with any other sect. He was a law unto himself in religion, and would bind himself by no creed. Because he attacked rigid orthodoxy as upheld by Auld Light doctrine, that does not at all mean that he was espousing, through thick and thin, the cause of the New Light party. He fought in his own name, with his own weapons, and for humanity. It ought to be clearly understood that in his series of satires he was not attacking the orthodoxy of the Auld Lights from the bulwarks of any other creed. His criticism was altogether destructive. From his own conception of a wise and loving God he satirised what he conceived to be their irrational and inhuman conception of Deity, whose attitude towards mankind was assuredly not that of a father to his children. Burns's God was a God of love; the god they worshipped was the creation of their creed, a god of election. It is quite true that Burns made many friends amongst the New Lights, but we are certain he did not hold by all their tenets or subscribe to their doctrine. In the Dictionary of National Biography we read: 'Burns represented the revolt of a virile and imaginative nature against a system of belief and practice which, as he judged, had degenerated into mere bigotry and pharisaism.... That Burns, like Carlyle, who at once retained the sentiment and rejected the creed of his race more decidedly than Burns, could sympathise with the higher religious sentiments of his class is proved by The Cotter's Saturday Night.'

Principal Shairp, however, has not seen the matter in this broad light. All he sees is a man of keen insight and vigorous powers of reasoning, who 'has not only his own quarrel with the parish minister and the stricter clergy to revenge, but the quarrel also of his friend and landlord, Gavin Hamilton, a county lawyer who had fallen under church censure for neglect of church ordinances,'—a question of new potatoes in fact,—'and had been debarred from the communion.'

It is pleasing to see that the academic spirit is not always so blinding and blighting. Professor Blackie recognises that the abuses Burns castigated were real abuses, and admits that the verdict of time has been in his favour. 'In the case of Holy Willie and The Holy Fair,' he remarks, 'the lash was wisely and effectively wielded'; and on another occasion he wrote, 'Though a sensitive pious mind will naturally shrink from the bold exposure of devout abuses in holy things, in The Holy Fair and other similar satires, on a broad view of the matter we cannot but think that the castigation was reasonable, and the man who did it showed an amount of independence, frankness, and moral courage that amply compensates for the rudeness of the assault.'

Rude, the assault certainly was and overwhelming. Augean stables are not to be cleansed with a spray of rose-water.

Lockhart, whilst recognising the force and keenness of these satires, has regretfully pointed out that the very things Burns satirised were part of the same religious system which produced the scenes described in The Cotter's Saturday Night. But is this not really the explanation of the whole matter? It was just because Burns had seen the beauty of true religion at home, that he was fired to fight to the death what was false and rotten. It was the cause of true religion that he espoused.

'All hail religion! Maid divine, Pardon a muse so mean as mine, Who in her rough imperfect line Thus dares to name thee. To stigmatise false friends of thine Can ne'er defame thee.'

Compare the reading of the sacred page, when the family is gathered round the ingle, and 'the sire turns o'er with patriarchal grace the big ha'-bible' and 'wales a portion with judicious care,' with the reading of Peebles frae the Water fit

'See, up he's got the word o' God, And meek and mim has viewed it.'

What a contrast! The two readings are as far apart as is heaven from hell, as far as the true from the false. It is strange that both Lockhart and Shairp should have stumbled on the explanation of Burns's righteous satire in these poems; should have been so near it, and yet have missed it. It was just because Burns could write The Cotter's Saturday Night that he could write The Holy Tulzie, Holy Willie's Prayer, The Ordination, and The Holy Fair. Had he not felt the beauty of that family worship at home; had he not seen the purity and holiness of true religion, how could such scenes as those described in The Holy Fair, or such hypocrisy as Holy Willie's, ever have moved him to scathing satire? Where was the poet's indignation to come from? That is not to be got by tricks of rhyme or manufactured by rules of metre; but let it be alive and burning in the heart of the poet, and all else will be added unto him for the perfect poem, as it was to Burns. That Burns, though he wrote in humorous satire, was moved to the writing by indignation, he tells us in his epistle to the Rev. John M'Math—

'But I gae mad at their grimaces, Their sighin', cantin', grace-prood faces, Their three-mile prayers, and half-mile graces, Their raxin' conscience, Whase greed, revenge, and pride disgraces Waur nor their nonsense.'

The first of Burns's satires, if we except his epistle to John Goudie, wherein we have a hint of the acute differences of the time, is his poem The Twa Herds, or The Holy Tulzie. The two herds were the Rev. John Russell and the Rev. Alexander Moodie, both afterwards mentioned in The Holy Fair. These reverend gentlemen, so long sworn friends, bound by a common bond of enmity against a certain New Light minister of the name of Lindsay, 'had a bitter black outcast,' and, in the words of Lockhart, 'abused each other coram populo with a fiery virulence of personal invective such as has long been banished from all popular assemblies.' This degrading spectacle of two priests ordained to preach the gospel of love, attacking each other with all the rancour of malice and uncharitableness, and foaming with the passion of a pothouse, was too flagrant an occasion for satire for Burns to miss. He held them up to ridicule in The Holy Tulzie, and showed them themselves as others saw them. It has been objected by some that Burns made use of humorous satire; did not censure with the fiery fervour of a righteous indignation. Burns used the weapon he could handle best; and a powerful weapon it is in the hands of a master. We acknowledge Horace's satires to be scathing enough, though they are light and delicate, almost trifling and flippant at times. He has not the volcanic utterance of Juvenal, but I doubt not his castigations were quite as effective. 'Quamquam ridentem dicere verum quid vetat?' Burns might have well replied to his censors with the same question. Quick on the heels of this poem came Holy Willie's Prayer, wherein he took up the cudgels for his friend, Mr. Gavin Hamilton, and fought for him in his own enthusiastic way. The satire here is so scathing and scarifying that we can only read and wonder, shuddering the while for the wretched creature so pitilessly flayed. Not a word is wasted; not a line without weight. The character of the self-righteous, sensual, spiteful Pharisee is a merciless exposure, and, hardest of all, the picture is convincing. For Burns believed in his own mind that these men, Holy Willie and the crew he typified, were thoroughly dishonest. They were not in his judgment—and Burns had keen insight—mere bigots dehumanised by their creed, but a pack of scheming, calculating scoundrels.

'They take religion in their mouth, They talk o' mercy, grace, and truth, For what? to gie their malice skouth On some puir wight, And hunt him down, o'er right and ruth To ruin straight.'

But it must be noted in Holy Willie that the poet is not letting himself out in a burst of personal spleen. He is again girding at the rigidity of a lopped and maimed Calvinism, and attacking the creed through the man. The poem is a living presentment of the undiluted, puritanic doctrine of the Auld Light party, to whom Calvinism meant only a belief in hell and an assurance of their own election. It is evident that Burns was not sound on either essential. The Address to the Unco Guid is a natural sequel to this poem, and, in a sense, its culmination. There is the same strength of satire, but now it is more delicate and the language more dignified. There is the same condemnation of pharisaism; but the poem rises to a higher level in its appeal for charitable views of human frailty, and its kindly counsel to silence; judgment is to be left to Him who

'Knows each cord, its various tone, Each spring its various bias.'

Of all the series of satires, however, The Holy Fair is the most remarkable. It is in a sense a summing up of all the others that preceded it. The picture it gives of the mixed and motley multitude fairing in the churchyard at Mauchline, with a relay of ministerial mountebanks catering for their excitement, is true to the life. It is begging the question to deplore that Burns was provoked to such an attack. The scene was provocation sufficient to any right-thinking man who associated the name of religion with all that was good and beautiful and true. Such a state of things demanded reformation. The churchyard—that holy ground on which the church was built and sanctified by the dust of pious and saintly men—cried aloud against the desecration to which it was subjected; and Burns, who alone had the power to purify it from such profanities, would have been untrue to himself and a traitor to the religion of his country had he merely shrugged his shoulders and allowed things to go on as they were going. And after all what was the result? For the poem is part and parcel of the end it achieved. 'There is a general feeling in Ayrshire,' says Chambers, 'that The Holy Fair was attended with a good effect; for since its appearance the custom of resorting to the occasion in neighbouring parishes for the sake of holiday-making has been much abated and a great increase of decorous observance has taken place.' To that nothing more need be added.

In this series of satires The Address to the Deil ought also to be included. Burns had no belief at all in that Frankenstein creation. It was too bad, he thought, to invent such a monster for the express purpose of imputing to him all the wickedness of the world. If such a creature existed, he was rather sorry for the maligned character, and inclined to think that there might be mercy even for him.

'I'm wae to think upon yon den, Even for your sake.'

Speaking of this address, Auguste Angellier says: 'All at once in their homely speech they heard the devil addressed not only without awe, but with a spice of good-fellowship and friendly familiarity. They had never heard the devil spoken of in this tone before. It was a charming address, jocund, full of raillery and good-humour, with a dash of friendliness, as if the two speakers had been cronies and companions ready to jog along arm in arm to the nether regions. He simply laughs Satan out of countenance, turns him to ridicule, pokes his fun at him, scolds and defies him just as he might have treated a person from whom he had nothing to fear. Nor is that all. He must admonish him, tell him he has been naughty long enough, and wind up by giving him some good advice, counselling him to mend his ways. This was certainly without theological precedent. It was, however, a simple idea which would have arranged matters splendidly.... Even to-day to speak well of the devil is an abomination almost as serious as to speak evil of the Deity. There was assuredly a great fortitude of mind as well as daring of conduct to write such a piece as this.'

The poem has done more than anything else to kill the devil of superstition in Scotland. After his death he found, it is averred, a quiet resting-place in Kirkcaldy, where pious people have built a church on his grave.

When Burns later in life made the witches and warlocks dance to the piping of the devil in Alloway's auld haunted kirk, he was but assembling them in their fit and proper house of meeting. Here had they been called into being; here had they the still-born children of superstition been thrashed into life and trained in unholiness. One can imagine them oozing out from the walls that had echoed their names so often through centuries of Sabbath days. The devil himself, by virtue of his rank, takes his place in the east, rising we have no doubt from the very spot on which the pulpit once had stood. In the church had superstition exorcised this hellish legion out of the dead mass of ignorance into the swarming maggots that batten on corruption; and it was in accordance with the eternal fitness of things that here their spirits should abide, and, when they took bodily shape, that they should assume the form and feature in which their mother Superstition had conceived them.

Upon the holy table too lay 'twa span-lang wee unchristened bairns.' For this hell the poet pictures is the creation of a creed that throngs it with the souls of innocent babes. 'Suffer little children to come unto me,' Christ had said; 'for of such is the kingdom of heaven.' 'But unbaptized children must come unto me,' the devil of superstition said; 'for of such is the kingdom of hell.'

What pathos is in this line of Burns! There is in its slow spondaic movement an eternity of tears. Could satire or sermon have shown more forcibly the revolting inhumanity of a doctrine upheld as divine? Yet were there devout men, in other things gentle and loving and charitable, who preached this as the law of a loving God. With one stroke of genius they were brought face to face with the logical sequence of their barbarous teaching, and that without a word of coarseness or a touch of caricature.

Only once again did Burns return to this attack on bigotry and superstition, and that was when he was induced to fight for Dr. Macgill in The Kirk's Alarm. But he had done his part in the series of satires of this year to expose the loathsomeness of hypocrisy and to purge holy places and the most solemn ceremonies of what was blasphemous and grossly profane. That in this Burns was fulfilling a part of his mission as a poet, we can hardly doubt; and that his work wrought for righteousness, the purer religious life that followed amply proves. The true poet is also a prophet; and Robert Burns was a prophet when he spoke forth boldly and fearlessly the truth that was in him, and dared to say that sensuality was foul even in an elder of the kirk, and that profanities were abhorred of God even though sanctioned and sanctified under the sacred name of religion.



The Holy Tulzie had been written probably in April 1785, and the greatest of the satires, The Holy Fair, is dated August of the same year. It may, however, have been only drafted, and partly written, when the recent celebration of the sacrament at Mauchline was fresh in the poet's mind. At the very latest, it must have been taken up, completed, and perfected, in the early months of 1786. That is a period of some ten months between the first and the last of this series of satires; and during that time he had composed Holy Willie's Prayer, The Address to the Deil, The Ordination, and The Address to the Unco Guid. But this represents a very small part of the poetry written by Burns during this busy period. From the spring of 1785 on to the autumn of 1786 was a time of great productiveness in his life, a productiveness unparalleled in the life of any other poet. If, according to Gilbert, the seven years of their stay at Lochlea were not marked by much literary improvement in his brother, we take it that the poet had been 'lying fallow' all those years; and what a rich harvest do we have now! Here, indeed, was a reward worth waiting for. To read over the names of the poems, songs, and epistles written within such a short space of time amazes us. And there is hardly a poem in the whole collection without a claim to literary excellence. A month or two previous to the composition of his first satire he had written what Gilbert calls his first poem, The Epistle to Davie, 'a brother poet, lover, ploughman, and fiddler.' It is worthy of notice that, in the opening lines of this poem—

'While winds frae aff Ben Lomond blaw, And bar the doors wi' driving snaw, And hing us ower the ingle'—

we see the poet and his surroundings, as he sets himself down to write. He plunges, as Horace advises, in medias res, and we have the atmosphere of the poem in the first phrase. This is Burns's usual way of beginning his poems and epistles, as well as a great many of his songs. The metre of this poem Burns has evidently taken from The Cherry and the Slae, by Alexander Montgomery, which he must have read in Ramsay's Evergreen. The stanza is rather complicated, although Burns, with his extraordinary command and pliancy of language, uses it from the first with masterly ease. But there is much more than mere jugglery of words in the poem. Indeed, such is this poet's seeming simplicity of speech that his masterly manipulation of metres always comes as an afterthought. It never disturbs us in our first reading of the poem. Gilbert's opinion of this poem is worth recording, the more especially as he expressly tells us that the first idea of Robert's becoming an author was started on this occasion. 'I thought it,' he says, 'at least equal to, if not superior, to many of Allan Ramsay's epistles, and that the merit of these and much other Scottish poetry seemed to consist principally in the knack of the expression; but here there was a strain of interesting sentiment, and the Scotticism of the language scarcely seemed affected, but appeared to be the natural language of the poet.' It startles us to hear Gilbert talking thus of the Scotticism, after having heard so much of Robert Burns writing naturally in the speech of his home and county. In this poem we have, at least, the first proof of that graphic power in which Burns has never been excelled, and in it we have the earliest mention of his Bonnie Jean. In his next poem, Death and Dr. Hornbook, his command of language and artistic phrasing are more apparent, while pawky humour and genial satire sparkle and flash from every line. The poem is written in that form of verse which Burns has made particularly his own. He had become acquainted with it, it is most likely, in the writings of Fergusson, Ramsay, and Gilbertfield, who had used it chiefly for comic subjects; but Burns showed that, in his hands at least, it could be made the vehicle of the most pensive and tender feeling. In an interesting note to the Centenary Burns, edited by Henley and Henderson, it is pointed out that 'the six-line stave in rime couee built on two rhymes,' was used by the Troubadours in their Chansons de Gestes, and that it dates at the very latest from the eleventh century. Burns's happiest use of it was in those epistles which about this time he began to dash off to some of his friends; and it is with these epistles that the uninterrupted stream of poetry of this season may be said properly to begin. Perhaps it was in the use of this stanza that Burns first discovered his command of rhymes and his felicity of phrasing. Certain it is, that after his first epistle to Lapraik, we have epistles, poems, songs, satires flowing from his pen, uninterrupted for a period, and apparently with marvellous ease. It has to be remembered, too, that he was now inspired by the dream of becoming an author—in print. When or where or how, had not been determined; but the idea was delightful all the same; the hope was inspiration itself. Some day his work would be published, and he would be read and talked about! He would have done something for poor auld Scotland's sake. The one thing now was to make the book, and to that he set himself deliberately. Poetry was at last to have its chance. Farming had been tried, with little success. The crops of 1784 had been a failure, and this year they were hardly more promising. In these discouraging circumstances the poet was naturally driven in upon himself. His eyes were turned ad intra, and he sought consolation in his Muse. He was conscious of some poetical ability, and he knew that his compositions were not destitute of merit. Poetry, too, was to him, and particularly so at this time, its own exceeding great reward. He rhymed 'for fun'; and probably he was finding in the exercise that excitement his passionate nature craved. Herein was his stimulant after the routine of farm-work—spiritless work that was little better than slavery, incessant and achieving nothing. We can imagine him in those days returning from the fields, 'forjesket, sair, with weary legs,' and becoming buoyant as soon as he has opened the drawer of that small deal table in the garret.

'Leeze me on rhyme! it's aye a treasure, My chief, amaist, my only pleasure; At hame, afield, at wark or leisure, The Muse, poor hizzie, Though rough and raploch be her measure, She's seldom lazy.'

But, lazy or not, she becomes 'ramfeezled' with constant work, when he vows if 'the thowless jad winna mak it clink,' to prose it,—a terrible threat. For he must write, though it be but to keep despondency at arm's length. Yet it had become more than a pleasure and a recreation to him; and this he was beginning to understand. This, after all, was his real work, not the drudgery of the fields; in it he must live his life, and fulfil his mission. The more he wrote the more he accustomed himself with the idea of being an author. He knew that the critic-folk, deep read in books, might scoff at the very suggestion of a ploughman turning poet, but he recognised also that they might be wrong. It was not by dint of Greek that Parnassus was to be climbed. 'Ae spark o' Nature's fire' was the one thing needful for poetry that was to touch the heart.

'The star that rules my luckless lot, Has fated me the russet coat, And damned my fortune to the groat; But, in requit, Has blest me with a random shot O' countra wit.

This while my notion's ta'en a sklent, To try my fate in guid, black prent; But still the mair I'm that way bent, Something cries, "Hoolie! I red you, honest man, tak tent! Ye'll shaw your folly.

"There's ither poets, much your betters, Far seen in Greek, deep men o' letters, Hae thought they had ensured their debtors, A' future ages; Now moths deform in shapeless tatters Their unknown pages."'

The works of such scholars enjoyed of the moths! There is gentle satire here. They themselves had grubbed on Greek, and now is Time avenged.

It is in his epistles that we see Burns most vividly and clearly, the man in all his moods. They are just such letters as might be written to intimate friends when one is not afraid of being himself, and can speak freely. In sentiment they are candid and sincere, and in language transparently unaffected. Whatever occurs to him as he writes goes down; we have the thoughts of his heart at the time of writing, and see the varying expressions of his face as he passes from grave to gay, from lively to severe. Now he is tender, now indignant; now rattling along in good-natured raillery without broadening into burlesque; now becoming serious and pensively philosophic without a suggestion of mawkish morality. For Burns, when he is himself, is always an artist; says his say, and lets the moral take care of itself; and in his epistles he lets himself go in a very revelry of artistic abandon. He does not think of style—that fetich of barren minds—and style comes to him; for style is a coquette that flies the suppliant wooer to kiss the feet of him who worships a goddess; a submissive handmaiden, a wayward and moody mistress. But along with delicacy of diction, force and felicity of expression, pregnancy of phrase and pliancy of language, what knowledge there is of men—the passions that sway, the impulses that prompt, the motives that move them to action. Clearness of vision and accuracy of observation are evidenced in their vividness of imagery; naturalness and truthfulness—the first essential of all good writing—in their convincing sincerity of sentiment. Wit and humour, play and sparkle of fancy, satire genial or scathing, a boundless love of nature and all created things, are harmoniously unified in the glowing imagination of the poet, and welded into the perfect poem. Behind all is the personality of the writer, captivating the reader as much by his kindliness and sympathy as by his witchery of words. Others have attempted poetic epistles, but none has touched familiar intercourse to such fine issues; none has written with such natural grace or woven the warp and woof of word and sentiment so cunningly into the web of poetry as Robert Burns. Looseness of rhythm may be detected, excruciating rhymes are not awanting, but all are forgiven and forgotten in the enjoyment of the feast as a whole.

Besides the satires and epistles we have during this fertile period poems as different in subject, sentiment, and treatment as The Cotter's Saturday Night and The Jolly Beggars; Hallowe'en and The Mountain Daisy; The Farmer's Address to his Auld Mare Maggie and The Twa Dogs; Address to a Mouse, Man was made to Mourn, The Vision, A Winter's Night, and The Epistle to a Young Friend. Perhaps of all these poems The Vision is the most important. It is an epoch-marking poem in the poet's life. All that he had previously written had been leading to this; the finer the poem the more surely was it bringing him to this composition. The time was bound to come when he had to settle for himself finally and firmly what his work in life was to be. Was poetry to be merely a pastime; a recreation after the labours of the day were done; a solace when harvests failed and ruin stared the family in the face? That question Burns answered when he sat down by the ingle-cheek, and, looking backward, mused on the years of youth that had been spent 'in stringing blethers up in rhyme for fools to sing.' He saw what he might have been; he knew too well what he was—'half-mad, half-fed, half-sarket.' Yet the picture of what he might have been he dismissed lightly, almost disdainfully; for he saw what he might be yet—what he should be. Turning from the toilsome past and the unpromising present, he looked to the future with a manly assurance of better things. He should shine in his humble sphere, a rustic bard; his to

'Preserve the dignity of Man, With soul erect; And trust, the Universal Plan Will all protect.'

The poem is pitched on a high key; the keynote is struck in the opening lines, and the verses move to the end with stateliness and dignity. It is calm, contemplative, with that artistic restraint that comes of conscious power. Burns took himself seriously, and knew that if he were true to his genius he would become the poet and prophet of his fellow-men.

It is worth while dwelling a little on this particular poem, because it marks a crisis in Burns's life. At this point he shook himself free from the tyranny of the soil. He had considered all things, and his resolution for authorship was taken. Some of the other poems will be mentioned afterwards; meantime we have to consider another crisis in his life—some aspects of his nature less pleasing, some episodes in his career dark and unlovely.

Speaking of the effect Holy Willie's Prayer had on the kirk-session, he says that they actually held three meetings to see if their holy artillery could be pointed against profane rhymers. 'Unluckily for me,' he adds, 'my idle wanderings led me on another side, point-blank within reach of their heaviest metal. This is the unfortunate story alluded to in my printed poem The Lament. 'Twas a shocking affair, which I cannot yet bear to recollect, and it had very nearly given me one or two of the principal qualifications for a place with those who have lost the chart and mistaken the reckoning of rationality.'

Throughout the year 1785 Burns had been acquainted with Jean Armour, the daughter of a master mason in Mauchline. Her name, besides being mentioned in his Epistle to Davie, is mentioned in The Vision, and we know from a verse on the six belles of Mauchline that 'Armour was the jewel o' them a'.' From the depressing cares and anxieties of that gloomy season the poet had turned to seek solace in song, but he had also found comfort and consolation in love.

'When heart-corroding care and grief Deprive my soul of rest, Her dear idea brings relief And solace to my breast.'

Now in the spring of 1786 Burns as a man of honour must acknowledge Jean as his wife. The lovers had imprudently anticipated the Church's sanction to marriage, and it was his duty, speaking in the homely phrase of the Scottish peasantry, to make an honest woman of his Bonnie Jean. But, unfortunately, matters had been going from bad to worse on the farm of Mossgiel, and about this time the brothers had come to a final decision to quit the farm. Robert, as Gilbert informs us, durst not then engage with a family in his poor, unsettled state, but was anxious to shield his partner by every means in his power from the consequences of their imprudence. It was agreed, therefore, between them, that they should make a legal acknowledgment of marriage, that he should go to Jamaica to push his fortune, and that she should remain with her father till it should please Providence to put the means of supporting a family in his power. He was willing even to work as a common labourer so that he might do his duty by the woman he had already made his wife. But Jean's father, whatever were his reasons, would allow her to have nothing whatever to do with a man like Burns. A husband in Jamaica was, in his judgment, no husband at all. What inducement he held out, or what arguments he used, we may not know, but he prevailed on Jean to surrender to him the paper acknowledging the irregular marriage. This he deposited with Mr. Aitken of Ayr, who, as Burns heard, deleted the names, thus rendering the marriage null and void. This was the circumstance, what he regarded as Jean's desertion, which brought Burns, as he has said, to the verge of insanity.

Now it was that he finally resolved to leave the country. It was not the first time he had thought of America. Poverty, before this, had led him to think of emigrating; the success of others who had gone out as settlers tempted him to try his fortune beyond the seas, even though he 'should herd the buckskin kye in Virginia.' Now, imprudence as well as poverty urged him, while, wounded so sorely by the action of the Armours both in his love and his vanity, he had little desire to remain at home. There is no doubt that, prior to the birth of his twin children and the publication of his poems, he would have quitted Scotland with little reluctance. But he was so poor that, even after accepting a situation in Jamaica, he had not money to pay his passage; and it was at the suggestion of Gavin Hamilton that he began seriously to prepare for the publication of his poems by subscription, in order to raise a sum sufficient to buy his banishment. Accordingly we find him under the date April 3, 1786, writing to Mr. Aitken, 'My proposals for publishing I am just going to send to press.'

But what a time this was in the poet's life! It was a long tumult of hope and despair, exultation and despondency, poetry and love; revelry, rebellion, and remorse. Everything was excitement; calmness itself a fever. Yet through it all inspiration was ever with him, and poem followed poem with miraculous, one might almost say, unnatural rapidity. Now he is apostrophising Ruin; now he is wallowing in the mire of village scandal; now he is addressing a mountain daisy in words of tenderness and purity; now he is scarifying a garrulous tailor, and ranting with an alien flippancy; now it is Beelzebub he addresses, now the King; now he is waxing eloquent on the virtues of Scotch whisky, anon writing to a young friend in words of wisdom that might well be written on the fly-leaf of his Bible.

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