HOW TO KNOW HIM
By WILLIAM ALLAN NEILSON Professor of English, Harvard University
Author of Essentials of Poetry, etc.
INDIANAPOLIS THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT 1917 THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
PRESS OF BRAUNWORTH & CO. BOOK MANUFACTURERS BROOKLYN, N.Y.
TO MY BROTHER
LIST OF POEMS
Address to the Deil 282 Address to the Unco Guid 176 Ae Fond Kiss 56 Afton Water 116 Auld Farmer's New-Year Morning Salutation, The 278 Auld Lang Syne 100 Auld Rob Morris 121 Bannocks o' Barley 165 Bard's Epitaph, A 308 Bessy and Her Spinnin'-Wheel 145 Blue-Eyed Lassie, The 117 Bonnie Lad that's Far Awa, The 139 Bonnie Lesley 118 Braw Braw Lads 140 Ca' the Yowes 115 Charlie He's My Darling 168 Clarinda 58 Come Boat Me o'er to Charlie 163 Comin' through the Rye 154 Contented wi' Little 126 Cotter's Saturday Night, The 8 Death and Doctor Hornbook 287 Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, The 23 De'il's Awa wi' th' Exciseman, The 154 Deuk's Dang o'er My Daddie, The 155 Duncan Davison 153 Duncan Gray 152 Elegy on Capt. Matthew Henderson 298 Epistle to a Young Friend 200 Epistle to Davie 193 For the Sake o' Somebody 136 Gloomy Night, The 40 Go Fetch to Me a Pint o' Wine 88 Green Grow the Rashes 123 Had I the Wyte? 148 Halloween 209 Handsome Nell 20 Highland Balou, The 151 Highland Laddie, The 164 Highland Mary 113 Holy Fair, The 228 Holy Willie's Prayer 173 How Lang and Dreary 138 I Hae a Wife 59 I Hae Been at Crookieden 167 I'm Owre Young to Marry Yet 143 It Was a' for Our Rightfu' King 162 John Anderson, My Jo 146 Jolly Beggars, The 241 Kenmure's On and Awa 165 Lassie wi' the Lint-White Locks 119 Last May a Braw Wooer 135 Lea-Rig, The 120 MacPherson's Farewell 150 Man's a Man for a' that, A 158 Mary Morison 28 Montgomerie's Peggy 120 My Father Was a Farmer 126 My Heart's in the Highlands 140 My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose 102 My Love She's but a Lassie Yet 144 My Nannie O 29 My Nannie's Awa 57 My Wife's a Winsome Wee Thing 108 O for Ane an' Twenty, Tam! 129 O Merry Hae I Been 148 O This Is No My Ain Lassie 107 O, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast 123 Of a' the Airts 106 On a Scotch Bard, Gone to the West Indies 42 On John Dove, Innkeeper 205 Open the Door to Me, O! 137 Poet's Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter, The 33 Poor Mailie's Elegy 26 Poortith Cauld 107 Prayer in the Prospect of Death, A 32 Rantin' Dog the Daddie o't, The 134 Rigs o' Barley, The 30 Scotch Drink 301 Scots, Wha Hae 160 Simmer's a Pleasant Time 131 Tam Glen 133 Tam o' Shanter 257 Tam Samson's Elegy 294 There Was a Lad 125 There'll Never Be Peace till Jamie Comes Hame 166 To a Haggis 306 To a Louse 274 To a Mountain Daisy 276 To a Mouse 272 To Daunton Me 142 To Mary in Heaven 114 To the Rev. John McMath 181 Twa Dogs, The 219 Wandering Willie 138 Weary Pund o' Tow, The 147 Wha Is that at My Bower Door? 156 What Can a Young Lassie 142 Whistle, and I'll Come to Ye, My Lad 132 Will Ye Go to the Indies, My Mary? 40 Willie Brew'd a Peck o' Maut 238 Willie's Wife 156 Ye Banks and Braes (two versions) 130 Yestreen I Had a Pint o' Wine 104
I BIOGRAPHY 1 1. Alloway, Mount Oliphant, and Lochlea 3 2. Mossgiel 31 3. Edinburgh 44 4. Ellisland 58 5. Dumfries 62
II INHERITANCE: LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE 69
III BURNS AND SCOTTISH SONG 90
IV SATIRES AND EPISTLES 171
V DESCRIPTIVE AND NARRATIVE POETRY 206
VI CONCLUSION 310
"I have not the most distant pretence to what the pye-coated guardians of Escutcheons call a Gentleman. When at Edinburgh last winter, I got acquainted at the Herald's office; and looking thro' the granary of honors, I there found almost every name in the kingdom; but for me,
My ancient but ignoble blood Has crept thro' scoundrels since the flood.
Gules, purpure, argent, etc., quite disowned me. My forefathers rented land of the famous, noble Keiths of Marshal, and had the honor to share their fate. I do not use the word 'honor' with any reference to political principles: loyal and disloyal I take to be merely relative terms in that ancient and formidable court known in this country by the name of 'club-law.' Those who dare welcome Ruin and shake hands with Infamy, for what they believe sincerely to be the cause of their God or their King, are—as Mark Antony in Shakspear says of Brutus and Cassius—'honorable men.' I mention this circumstance because it threw my Father on the world at large; where, after many years' wanderings and sojournings, he 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 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."
"You can now, Sir, form a pretty near guess of what sort of Wight he is, whom for some time you have honored with your correspondence. That Whim and Fancy, keen sensibility and riotous passions, may still make him zig-zag in his future path of life is very probable; but, come what will, I shall answer for him—the most determinate integrity and honor [shall ever characterise him]; and though his evil star should again blaze in his meridian with tenfold more direful influence, he may reluctantly tax friendship with pity, but no more."
These two paragraphs form respectively the beginning and the end of a long autobiographical letter written by Robert Burns to Doctor John Moore, physician and novelist. At the time they were composed, the poet had just returned to his native county after the triumphant season in Edinburgh that formed the climax of his career. But no detailed knowledge of circumstances is necessary to rouse interest in a man who wrote like that. You may be offended by the self-consciousness and the swagger, or you may be charmed by the frankness and dash, but you can not remain indifferent. Burns had many moods besides those reflected in these sentences, but here we can see as vividly as in any of his poetry the fundamental characteristics of the man—sensitive, passionate, independent, and as proud as Lucifer—whose life and work are the subject of this volume.
1. Alloway, Mount Oliphant, and Lochlea
William Burnes, the father of the poet, came of a family of farmers and gardeners in the county of Kincardine, on the east coast of Scotland. At the age of twenty-seven, he left his native district for the south; and when Robert, his eldest child, was born on January 25, 1759, William was employed as gardener to the provost of Ayr. He had besides leased some seven acres of land, of which he planned to make a nursery and market-garden, in the neighboring parish of Alloway; and there near the Brig o' Doon built with his own hands the clay cottage now known to literary pilgrims as the birthplace of Burns. His wife, Agnes Brown, the daughter of an Ayrshire farmer, bore him, besides Robert, three sons and three daughters. In order to keep his sons at home instead of sending them out as farm-laborers, the elder Burnes rented in 1766 the farm of Mount Oliphant, and stocked it on borrowed money. The venture did not prosper, and on a change of landlords the family fell into the hands of a merciless agent, whose bullying the poet later avenged by the portrait of the factor in The Twa Dogs.
I've noticed, on our Laird's court-day,— And 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 and threaten, curse and swear, He'll apprehend them, poind their gear; While they maun stan', wi' aspect humble, And hear it a', and fear and tremble!
In 1777 Mount Oliphant was exchanged for the farm of Lochlea, about ten miles away, and here William Burnes labored for the rest of his life. The farm was poor, and with all he could do it was hard to keep his head above water. His health was failing, he was harassed with debts, and in 1784 in the midst of a lawsuit about his lease, he died.
In spite of his struggle for a bare subsistence, the elder Burnes had not neglected the education of his children. Before he was six, Robert was sent to a small school at Alloway Mill, and soon after his father joined with a few neighbors to engage a young man named John Murdoch to teach their children in a room in the village. This arrangement continued for two years and a half, when, Murdoch having been called elsewhere, the father undertook the task of education himself. The regular instruction was confined chiefly to the long winter evenings, but quite as important as this was the intercourse between father and sons as they went about their work.
"My father," says the poet's brother Gilbert, "was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us, as if we had been men; and was at great pains, as we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge, or confirm our virtuous habits. He borrowed Salmon's Geographical Grammar for us, and endeavoured to make us acquainted with the situation and history of the different countries in the world; while, from a book-society in Ayr, he procured for us Derham's Physics and Astro-Theology, and Ray's Wisdom of God in the Creation, to give us some idea of astronomy and natural history. Robert read all these books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a subscriber to Stackhouse's History of the Bible ...; from this Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history; for no book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so antiquated as to dampen his researches. A brother of my mother, who had lived with us some time, and had learned some arithmetic by our winter evening's candle, went into a book-seller's shop in Ayr to purchase the Ready Reckoner, or Tradesman's Sure Guide, and a book to teach him to write letters. Luckily, in place of the Complete Letter-Writer, he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers, with a few sensible directions for attaining an easy epistolary style. This book was to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language."
Interesting as are the details as to the antiquated manuals from which Burns gathered his general information, it is more important to note the more personal implications in this account. Respect for learning has long been wide-spread among the peasantry of Scotland, but it is evident that William Burnes was intellectually far above the average of his class. The schoolmaster Murdoch has left a portrait of him in which he not only extols his virtues as a man but emphasizes his zest for things of the mind, and states that "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." Though tender and affectionate, he seems to have inspired both wife and children with a reverence amounting to awe, and he struck strangers as reserved and austere. He recognized in Robert traces of extraordinary gifts, but he did not hide from him the fact that his son's temperament gave him anxiety for his future. Mrs. Burnes was a devoted wife and mother, by no means her husband's intellectual equal, but vivacious and quick-tempered, with a memory stored with the song and legend of the country-side. Other details can be filled in from the poet's own picture of his father's household as given with little or no idealization in The Cotter's Saturday Night.
THE COTTER'S SATURDAY NIGHT
My lov'd, my honour'd, much respected friend! No mercenary bard his homage pays: With honest pride I scorn each selfish end, My dearest meed a friend's esteem and praise: To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays, The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene; The native feelings strong, the guileless ways; What Aiken in a cottage would have been— Ah! tho' his worth unknown, far happier there, I ween.
November chill blaws load wi' angry sough; [wail] The shortening winter-day is near a close; The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh; The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose: The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes, This night his weekly moil is at an end, Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes, Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend, And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend.
At length his lonely cot appears in view, Beneath the shelter of an aged tree; Th' expectant wee-things, toddlin', stacher through [stagger] To meet their dad, wi' flichterin' noise an' glee. [fluttering] His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonnilie, [fire] His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie's smile, The lisping infant prattling on his knee, Does a' his weary kiaugh and care beguile, [worry] An' makes him quite forget his labour an' his toil.
Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in, [Soon] At service out, amang the farmers roun'; Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin [drive, heedful run] A cannie errand to a neibor town: [quiet] Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman-grown, In youthfu' bloom, love sparkling in her e'e, [eye] Comes hame, perhaps to shew a braw new gown, [fine] Or deposite her sair-won penny-fee, [hard-won wages] To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.
With joy unfeign'd brothers and sisters meet, An' each for other's weelfare kindly spiers: [asks] The social hours, swift-wing'd, unnoticed fleet; Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears; [wonders] The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years; Anticipation forward points the view. The mother, wi' her needle an' her sheers, Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new; [Makes old clothes] The father mixes a' wi' admonition due.
Their master's an' their mistress's command The younkers a' are warned to obey; [youngsters] An' mind their labours wi' an eydent hand, [diligent] An' ne'er, tho' out o' sight, to jauk or play: [trifle] 'And O! be sure to fear the Lord alway, An' mind your duty, duly, morn an' night! Lest in temptation's path ye gang astray, [go] Implore His counsel and assisting might: They never sought in vain that sought the Lord aright!'
But hark! a rap comes gently to the door; Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same, [knows] Tells how a neibor lad cam o'er the moor, To do some errands, and convoy her hame. The wily mother sees the conscious flame Sparkle in Jenny's e'e, and flush her cheek; Wi' heart-struck anxious care, inquires his name, While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak; [half] Weel pleased the mother hears it's nae wild worthless rake.
Wi' kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben; [in] A strappin' youth; he takes the mother's eye; Blythe Jenny sees the visit's no ill ta'en; The father cracks of horses, pleughs, and kye. [chats, cows] The youngster's artless heart o'erflows wi' joy, But blate and laithfu', scarce can weel behave; [shy, bashful] The mother, wi' a woman's wiles, can spy What makes the youth sae bashfu' an' sae grave; Weel-pleased to think her bairn's respected like the lave. [child, rest]
O happy love! where love like this is found; O heart-felt raptures! bliss beyond compare! I've paced much this weary mortal round, And sage experience bids me this declare:— 'If Heaven a draught of heavenly pleasure spare, One cordial in this melancholy vale, 'Tis when a youthful, loving, modest pair In other's arms breathe out the tender tale, Beneath the milk-white thorn that scents the evening gale.'
Is there, in human form, that bears a heart— A wretch, a villain, lost to love and truth— That can, with studied, sly, ensnaring art, Betray sweet Jenny's unsuspecting youth? Curse on his perjur'd arts, dissembling, smooth! Are honour, virtue, conscience, all exil'd? Is there no pity, no relenting ruth, Points to the parents fondling o'er their child? Then paints the ruin'd maid, and their distraction wild?
But now the supper crowns their simple board, The halesome parritch, chief of Scotia's food: [wholesome] The sowpe their only hawkie does afford, [milk, cow] That 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood; [beyond, partition, The dame brings forth in complimental mood, cud] To grace the lad, her weel-hain'd kebbuck, fell; [well-saved cheese, And aft he's prest, and aft he ca's it good; strong] The frugal wifie, garrulous, will tell How 'twas a towmond auld sin' lint was i' the bell. [twelve-month, flax, flower] The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face They round the ingle form a circle wide; The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace, The big ha'-bible, ance his father's pride: [family-Bible] His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside, His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare; [gray hair on temples] Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide— He wales a portion with judicious care, [chooses] And 'Let us worship God!' he says with solemn air.
They chant their artless notes in simple guise; They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim; Perhaps Dundee's wild warbling measures rise, Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name; Or noble Elgin beets the heav'nward flame, [fans] The sweetest far of Scotia's holy lays: Compared with these, Italian trills are tame; The tickled ears no heartfelt raptures raise; Nae unison hae they with our Creator's praise. [No, have]
The priest-like father reads the sacred page, How Abram was the friend of God on high; Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage With Amalek's ungracious progeny; Or how the royal bard did groaning lie Beneath the stroke of Heaven's avenging ire; Or Job's pathetic plaint, and wailing cry; Or rapt Isaiah's wild seraphic fire; Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre.
Perhaps the Christian volume is the theme, How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed; How He who bore in Heaven the second name Had not on earth whereon to lay His head; How His first followers and servants sped; The precepts sage they wrote to many a land: How he, who lone in Patmos banished, Saw in the sun a mighty angel stand, And heard great Bab'lon's doom pronounced by Heaven's command.
Then kneeling down to Heaven's Eternal King The saint, the father, and the husband prays: Hope 'springs exulting on triumphant wing' That thus they all shall meet in future days: There ever bask in uncreated rays, No more to sigh, or shed the bitter tear, Together hymning their Creator's praise, In such society, yet still more dear; While circling Time moves round in an eternal sphere.
Compared with this, how poor Religion's pride, In all the pomp of method and of art, When men display to congregations wide Devotion's every grace, except the heart! The Power, incensed, the pageant will desert, The pompous strain, the sacerdotal stole; But haply, in some cottage far apart, May hear, well pleased, the language of the soul; And in His Book of Life the inmates poor enrol.
Then homeward all take off their several way; The youngling cottagers retire to rest: The parent-pair their secret homage pay, And proffer up to Heav'n the warm request, That He who stills the raven's clamorous nest, And decks the lily fair in flowery pride, Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best, For them and for their little ones provide; But chiefly in their hearts with grace divine preside.
From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs, That makes her loved at home, revered abroad: Princes and lords are but the breath of kings, 'An honest man's the noblest work of God;' And certes, in fair Virtue's heavenly road, The cottage leaves the palace far behind; What is a lordling's pomp? a cumbrous load, Disguising oft the wretch of human kind, Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refin'd!
O Scotia! my dear, my native soil! For whom my warmest wish to Heaven is sent! Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content! And O may Heaven their simple lives prevent From luxury's contagion, weak and vile; Then, howe'er crowns and coronets be rent, A virtuous populace may rise the while, And stand a wall of fire around their much-loved isle.
O Thou! who poured the patriotic tide That streamed thro' Wallace's undaunted heart, Who dared to nobly stem tyrannic pride, Or nobly die—the second glorious part, (The patriot's God, peculiarly thou art, His friend, inspirer, guardian, and reward!) O never, never, Scotia's realm desert; But still the patriot, and the patriot-bard, In bright succession raise, her ornament and guard!
No less impressive than that of his father is the intellectual hunger of the future poet himself. We have had Gilbert's testimony to the eagerness with which he devoured such books as came within his reach, and the use he made of his later fragments of schooling points the same way. He had a quarter at the parish school of Dalrymple when he was thirteen; and in the following summer he attended the school at Ayr under his former Alloway instructor. Murdoch's own account of these three weeks gives an idea of Burns's quickness of apprehension; and the style of it is worth noting with reference to the characteristics of the poet's own prose.
"In 1773," says Murdoch, "Robert Burns came to board and lodge with me, for the purpose of revising English grammar, etc., that he might be better qualified to instruct his brothers and sisters at home. He was now with me day and night, in school, at all meals, and in all my walks. At the end of one week, I told him as he was now pretty much master of the parts of speech, etc., I should like to teach him something of French pronunciation, that when he should meet with the name of a French town, ship, officer, or the like, in the newspapers, he might be able to pronounce it something like a French word. Robert was glad to hear this proposal, and immediately we attacked the French with great courage.
"Now there was little else to be heard but the declension of nouns, the conjugation of verbs, etc. When walking together, and even at meals, I was constantly telling him the names of different objects, as they presented themselves, in French; so that he was hourly laying in a stock of words, and sometimes little phrases. In short, he took such pleasure in learning, and I in teaching, that it was difficult to say which of the two was most zealous in the business; and about the end of the second week of our study of the French, we began to read a little of the Adventures of Telemachus in Fenelon's own words.
"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; and so he did, for although but about fifteen, I was told that he performed the work of a man."
The record of Burns's school-days is completed by the mention of a sojourn, probably in the summer of 1775, in his mother's parish of Kirkoswald. Hither he went to study mathematics and surveying under a teacher of local note, and, in spite of the convivial attractions of a smuggling village, seems to have made progress in his geometry till his head was turned by a girl who lived next door to the school.
So far the education gained by Burns from his schoolmasters and his father had been almost exclusively moral and intellectual. It was in less formal ways that his imagination was fed. From his mother he had heard from infancy the ballads, legends, and songs that were traditionary among the peasantry; and the influence of these was re-enforced by a certain Betty Davidson, an unfortunate relative of his mother's to whom the family gave shelter for a time.
"In my infant and boyish days, too," he writes in the letter to Doctor Moore already quoted, "I owed much to an old maid of my 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 look-out 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."
His private reading also contained much that must have stimulated his imagination and broadened his interests. It began with a Life of Hannibal, and Hamilton's modernized version of the History of Sir William Wallace, which last, he says, with the touch of flamboyancy that often recurs in his style, "poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins, which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest." By the time he was eighteen he had, in addition to books already mentioned, become acquainted with Shakespeare, Pope (including the translation of Homer), Thomson, Shenstone, Allan Ramsay, and a Select Collection of Songs, Scotch and English; with the Spectator, the Pantheon, Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, Sterne, and Henry Mackenzie. To these must be added some books on farming and gardening, a good deal of theology, and, of course, the Bible.
The pursuing of intellectual interests such as are implied in this list is the more significant when we remember that it was carried on in the scanty leisure of a life of labor so severe that it all but broke the poet's health, and probably left permanent marks on his physique. Yet he had energy left for still other avocations. It was when he was no more than fifteen that he first experienced the twin passions that came to dominate his life, love and song. The girl who was the occasion was his partner in the harvest field, Nelly Kilpatrick; the song he addressed to her is the following:
O, once I lov'd a bonnie lass, Aye, and I love her still, And whilst that virtue warms my breast I'll love my handsome Nell.
As bonnie lasses I hae seen, And mony full as braw, [fine] But for a modest gracefu' mien The like I never saw.
A bonnie lass, I will confess, Is pleasant to the e'e, [eye] But without some better qualities She's no a lass for me.
But Nelly's looks are blithe and sweet, And what is best of a', [all] Her reputation is complete, And fair without a flaw.
She dresses aye sae clean and neat, Both decent and genteel; And then there's something in her gait Gars ony dress look weel. [Makes]
A gaudy dress and gentle air May slightly touch the heart, But it's innocence and modesty That polishes the dart.
'Tis this in Nelly pleases me, 'Tis this enchants my soul! For absolutely in my breast She reigns without control.
Since there may still be readers who suppose that Burns was a mere unsophisticated singer, without power of self-criticism, it may be as well to insert here a passage from a Commonplace Book written in 1783, ten years after the composition of the song.
Criticism on the Foregoing Song
"Lest my works should be thought below Criticism; or meet with a Critic who, perhaps, will not look on them with so candid and favorable an eye; I am determined to criticise them myself.
"The first distich of the first stanza is quite too much in the flimsy strain of our ordinary street ballads; and on the other hand, the second distich is too much in the other extreme. The expression is a little awkward, and the sentiment too serious. Stanza the second I am well pleased with; and I think it conveys a fine idea of that amiable part of the Sex—the agreeables, or what in our Scotch dialect we call a sweet sonsy Lass. The third Stanza has a little of the flimsy turn in it; and the third line has rather too serious a cast. The fourth Stanza is a very indifferent one; the first line is, indeed, all in the strain of the second Stanza, but the rest is mostly an expletive. The thoughts in the fifth Stanza come fairly up to my favorite idea [of] a sweet sonsy Lass. The last line, however, halts a little. The same sentiments are kept up with equal spirit and tenderness in the sixth Stanza, but the second and fourth lines ending with short syllables hurts the whole. The seventh Stanza has several minute faults; but I remember I composed it in a wild enthusiasm of passion, and to this hour I never recollect it but my heart melts, and my blood sallies at the remembrance."
In spite of the early start in poetry given him by Nelly Kilpatrick, he did not produce more than a few pieces of permanent value during the next ten years. He did, however, go on developing and branching out in his social activities, in spite of the depressing grind of the farm. He attended a dancing school (much against his father's will), helped to establish a "Bachelors' Club" for debating, and found time for further love-affairs. That with Ellison Begbie, celebrated by him in The Lass of Cessnock Banks, he took very seriously, and he proposed marriage to the girl in some portentously solemn epistles which remain to us as the earliest examples of his prose. In order to put himself in a position to marry, he determined to learn the trade of flax-dressing; and though Ellison refused him, he went to the neighboring seaport of Irvine to carry out his purpose in the summer of 1781. The flax-dressing experiment ended disastrously with a fire which burned the workshop, and Burns returned penniless to the farm. The poems written about this time express profound melancholy, a mood natural enough in the circumstances, and aggravated by his poor nervous and physical condition.
But his spirit could not remain permanently depressed, and shortly after his return to Lochlea, a trifling accident to a ewe he had bought prompted him to the following delightful and characteristic production.
THE DEATH AND DYING WORDS OF POOR MAILIE, THE AUTHOR'S ONLY PET YOWE
As Mailie, an' her lambs thegither, [together] Was ae day nibbling on the tether, [one] Upon her cloot she coost a hitch, [hoof, looped] An' owre she warsled in the ditch; [over, floundered] There, groaning, dying, she did lie, When Hughoc he cam doytin by. [doddering] Wi glowrin' een, an' lifted han's, [staring] Poor Hughoc like a statue stan's; He saw her days were near-hand ended, But wae's my heart! he could na mend it! He gaped wide, but naething spak; At length poor Mailie silence brak:—
'O thou, whase lamentable face Appears to mourn my woefu' case! My dying words attentive hear, An' bear them to my Master dear. 'Tell him, if e'er again he keep [own] As muckle gear as buy a sheep,— [much money] O bid him never tie them mair Wi' wicked strings o' hemp or hair! Bat ca' them out to park or hill, [drive] An' let them wander at their will; So may his flock increase, an' grow To scores o' lambs, an' packs o' woo'! [wool] 'Tell him he was a Master kin', An' aye was guid to me an' mine; An' now my dying charge I gie him, [give] My helpless lambs, I trust them wi' him. 'O bid him save their harmless lives Frae dogs, an' tods, an' butchers' knives! [foxes] But gie them guid cow-milk their fill, Till they be fit to fend themsel: [look after] An' tent them duly, e'en an' morn, [tend] Wi' teats o' hay an' ripps o' corn. [bunches, handfuls] 'An' may they never learn the gates [ways] Of ither vile wanrestfu' pets— [restless] To slink thro' slaps, an' reave an' steal, [holes in fences] At stacks o' pease, or stocks o' kail. [plants] So may they, like their great forbears, For mony a year come thro' the shears; So wives will gie them bits o' bread, An' bairns greet for them when they're dead. [weep] 'My poor tup-lamb, my son an' heir, O bid him breed him up wi' care! An', if he live to be a beast, To pit some havins in his breast! [put, behavior] An' warn him, what I winna name, [will not] To stay content wi' yowes at hame; [ewes] An' no to rin an' wear his cloots, [hoofs] Like ither menseless graceless brutes. [unmannerly] 'An neist my yowie, silly thing, [next] Gude keep thee frae a tether string! O may thou ne'er forgather up [make friends] Wi' ony blastit moorland tup; But ay keep mind to moop an' mell, [nibble, meddle] Wi' sheep o' credit like thysel! 'And now, my bairns, wi' my last breath I lea'e my blessin' wi' you baith; An' when you think upo' your mither, Mind to be kind to ane anither. 'Now, honest Hughoc, dinna fail To tell my master a' my tale; An' bid him burn this cursed tether; An', for thy pains, thou'se get my blether.' [bladder]
This said, poor Mailie turn'd her head, An' closed her een amang the dead! [eyes]
POOR MAILIE'S ELEGY
Lament in rhyme, lament in prose, Wi' saut tears tricklin' down your nose, [salt] Our bardie's fate is at a close, Past a' remead; [remedy] The last sad cape-stane of his woes— [cope-stone] Poor Mailie's dead!
It's no the loss o' warl's gear [worldly lucre] That could sae bitter draw the tear, Or mak our bardie, dowie, wear [downcast] The mourning weed: He's lost a friend and neibor dear In Mailie dead.
Thro' a' the toun she trotted by him; A lang half-mile she could descry him; Wi' kindly bleat, when she did spy him, She ran wi' speed: A friend mair faithfu' ne'er cam nigh him Than Mailie dead.
I wat she was a sheep o' sense, [wot] An' could behave hersel wi' mense; [manners] I'll say't, she never brak a fence Thro' thievish greed. Our bardie, lanely, keeps the spence [parlor] Sin' Mailie's dead. [Since]
Or, if he wanders up the howe, [glen] Her living image in her yowe [ewe-lamb] Comes bleating to him, owre the knowe, [knoll] For bits o' bread, An' down the briny pearls rowe [roll] For Mailie dead.
She was nae get o' moorland tups, [issue] Wi' tawted ket, an' hairy hips; [matted fleece] For her forbears were brought in ships Frae 'yont the Tweed; A bonnier fleesh ne'er cross'd the clips [fleece, shears] Than Mailie's, dead.
Wae worth the man wha first did shape [Woe to] That vile wanchancie thing—a rape! [dangerous] It maks guid fellows girn an' gape, [growl] Wi' chokin' dread; An' Robin's bonnet wave wi' crape For Mailie dead.
O a' ye bards on bonnie Doon! An' wha on Ayr your chanters tune! [bagpipes] Come, join the melancholious croon O' Robin's reed; His heart will never get aboon! [rejoice] His Mailie's dead!
How long he continued to mourn for Ellison Begbie, it is hard to say; but the three following songs, inspired, it would seem, by three different girls, testify at once to his power of recuperation and the rapid maturing of his talent. All seem to have been written between the date of his return from Irvine and the death of his father.
O Mary, at thy window be, It is the wish'd, the trysted hour! Those smiles and glances let me see, That make the miser's treasure poor: How blythely wad I bide the stoure, [bear, struggle] A weary slave frae sun to sun, Could I the rich reward secure, The lovely Mary Morison.
Yestreen, when to the trembling string [Last night] The dance gaed thro' the lighted ha', [went] To thee my fancy took its wing, I sat, but neither heard nor saw: Tho' this was fair, and that was braw, [fine] And yon the toast of a' the town, [the other] I sigh'd, and said amang them a', 'Ye are na Mary Morison.'
O Mary, canst thou wreck his peace, Wha for thy sake wad gladly die? Or canst thou break that heart of his, Whase only faut is loving thee? [fault] If love for love thou wilt na gie, At least be pity to me shown! A thought ungentle canna be The thought o' Mary Morison.
MY NANNIE O
Behind yon hills where Lugar flows, 'Mang moors an' mosses many, O, The wintry sun the day has clos'd, And I'll awa' to Nannie, O.
The westlin wind blaws loud an' shill, [western, keen] The night's baith mirk and rainy, O; [both dark] But I'll get my plaid, an' out I'll steal, An' owre the hill to Nannie, O. [over]
My Nannie's charming, sweet, an' young: Nae artfu' wiles to win ye, O: May ill befa' the flattering tongue That wad beguile my Nannie, O.
Her face is fair, her heart is true, As spotless as she's bonnie, O: The opening gowan, wat wi' dew, [daisy, wet] Nae purer is than Nannie, O.
A country lad is my degree, An' few there be that ken me, O; But what care I how few they be, I'm welcome aye to Nannie, O.
My riches a's my penny-fee, [wages] An' I maun guide it cannie, O; [carefully] But warl's gear ne'er troubles me, [lucre] My thoughts are a'—my Nannie, O.
Our auld guidman delights to view His sheep an' kye thrive bonnie, O. [cows] But I'm as blythe that hauds his pleugh, [holds] An' has nae care but Nannie, O.
Come weel, come woe, I care na by, [reck not] I'll tak what Heav'n will send me, O; Nae ither care in life have I, But live, an' love my Nannie, O.
THE RIGS O' BARLEY
It was upon a Lammas night, When corn rigs are bonnie, [ridges] Beneath the moon's unclouded light I held awa to Annie: [took my way] The time flew by wi' tentless heed, [careless] Till, 'tween the late and early, Wi' sma' persuasion she agreed To see me thro' the barley.
The sky was blue, the wind was still, The moon was shining clearly; I set her down wi' right good will Amang the rigs o' barley; I kent her heart was a' my ain; [knew, own] I loved her most sincerely; I kissed her owre and owre again [over] Amang the rigs o' barley.
I locked her in my fond embrace; Her heart was beating rarely; My blessings on that happy place, Amang the rigs o' barley! But by the moon and stars so bright, That shone that hour so clearly, She aye shall bless that happy night Amang the rigs o' barley.
I hae been blythe wi' comrades dear; I hae been merry drinking; I hae been joyfu' gatherin' gear; [property] I hae been happy thinking: But a' the pleasures e'er I saw, Tho' three times doubled fairly, That happy night was worth them a', Amang the rigs o' barley.
Corn rigs, an' barley rigs, An' corn rigs are bonnie: I'll ne'er forget that happy night, Amang the rigs wi' Annie.
On the death of their father, Robert and Gilbert Burns moved with the family to the farm of Mossgiel in the next parish of Mauchline. By putting in a claim for arrears of wages, they succeeded in drawing enough from the wreck of their father's estate to supply a scanty stock for the new venture. The records of the first summer show the poet in anything but a happy frame of mind. His health was miserable; and the loosening of his moral principles, which he ascribes to the influence of a young sailor he had met at Irvine, bore fruit in the birth to him of an illegitimate daughter by a servant girl, Elizabeth Paton. The verses which carry allusion to this affair are illuminating for his character. One group is devout and repentant; the other marked sometimes by cynical bravado, sometimes by a note of exultation. Both may be regarded as genuine enough expressions of moods which alternated throughout his life, and which corresponded to conflicting sides of his nature. Here is a typical example of the former:
A PRAYER IN THE PROSPECT OF DEATH
O Thou unknown Almighty Cause Of all my hope and fear! In whose dread presence ere an hour, Perhaps I must appear!
If I have wander'd in those paths Of life I ought to shun; As something, loudly in my breast, Remonstrates I have done;
Thou know'st that Thou hast formed me With passions wild and strong; And list'ning to their witching voice Has often led me wrong.
Where human weakness has come short, Or frailty stept aside, Do thou, All-Good! for such Thou art, In shades of darkness hide.
Where with intention I have err'd, No other plea I have, But thou art good; and Goodness still Delighteth to forgive.
In his Epistle to John Rankine, with a somewhat hard and heartless humor, he braves out the affair; in the following Welcome he treats it with a tender pride, as sincere as his remorse:
THE POET'S WELCOME TO HIS LOVE-BEGOTTEN DAUGHTER
Thou's welcome, wean! Mishanter fa' me, [child! Misfortune befall] If ought of thee, or of thy mammy, Shall ever daunton me, or awe me, My sweet wee lady, Or if I blush when thou shalt ca' me Tit-ta or daddy.
What tho' they ca' me fornicator, An' tease my name in kintra clatter: [country gossip] The mair they talk I'm kent the better, [more] E'en let them clash; [tattle] An auld wife's tongue's a feckless matter [feeble] To gie ane fash. [give one annoyance]
Welcome, my bonnie, sweet wee dochter— Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for, An' tho' your comin' I hae fought for Baith kirk an' queir; [choir] Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for! That I shall swear!
Sweet fruit o' mony a merry dint, My funny toil is no a' tint, [not all lost] Tho' thou came to the warl' asklent, [askew] Which fools may scoff at; In my last plack thy part's be in't— [a small coin] The better half o't.
Tho' I should be the waur bested, [worse off] Thou's be as braw an' bienly clad, [finely, comfortably] An' thy young years as nicely bred Wi' education, As ony brat o' wedlock's bed In a' thy station.
Wee image of my bonnie Betty, As fatherly I kiss and daut thee, [pet] As dear an' near my heart I set thee Wi' as guid will, As a' the priests had seen me get thee That's out o' hell.
Gude grant that thou may aye inherit [God] Thy mither's looks and gracefu' merit, An' thy poor worthless daddy's spirit, Without his failins; 'Twill please me mair to see thee heir it, Than stockit mailins. [farms]
An' if thou be what I wad hae thee, [would have] An' tak the counsel I shall gie thee, I'll never rue my trouble wi' thee— The cost nor shame o't— But be a loving father to thee, And brag the name o't.
At Mossgiel the Burns family was no more successful than in either of its previous farms. Bad seed and bad weather gave two poor harvests, and by the summer of 1786 the poet's financial condition was again approaching desperation. His situation was made still more embarrassing by the consequences of another of his amours. Shortly after moving to the parish of Mauchline he had fallen in love with Jean Armour, the daughter of a mason in the village. What was for Burns a prolonged courtship ensued, and in the spring of 1786 he learned that Jean's condition was such that he gave her a paper acknowledging her as his wife. To his surprise and mortification the girl's father, who is said to have had a personal dislike to him and who well may have thought a man with his reputation and prospects was no promising son-in-law, opposed the marriage, forced Jean to give up the paper, and sent her off to another town. Burns chose to regard Jean's submission to her father as inexcusable faithlessness, and proceeded to indulge in the ecstatic misery of the lover betrayed. There is no doubt that he suffered keenly from the affair: he writes to his friends that he could "have no nearer idea of the place of eternal punishment" than what he had felt in his "own breast on her account. I have tried often to forget her: I have run into all kinds of dissipation and riot ... to drive her out of my head, but all in vain." This is in a later letter than that in which he has "sunk into a lurid calm," and "subsided into the time-settled sorrow of the sable widower."
Yet other evidence shows that at this crisis also Burns's emotional experience was far from simple. It was probably during the summer of the same year that there occurred the passages with the mysterious Highland Mary, a girl whose identity, after voluminous controversy, remains vague, but who inspired some of his loftiest love poetry. Though Burns's feeling for her seems to have been a kind of interlude in reaction from the "cruelty" of Jean, he idealized it beyond his wont, and the subject of it has been exalted to the place among his heroines which is surely due to the long-suffering woman who became his wife.
In this same summer Burns formed the project of emigrating. He proposed to go to the West Indies, and return for Jean when he had made provision to support her. This offer was refused by James Armour, but Burns persevered with the plan, obtained a position in Jamaica, and in the autumn engaged passage in a ship sailing from Greenock. The song, Will Ye Go to the Indies; My Mary, seems to imply that Highland Mary was invited to accompany him, but substantial evidence of this, as of most things concerning his relations with Mary Campbell, is lacking. From Thee, Eliza, I Must Go, supposed to be addressed to Elizabeth Miller, also belongs to this summer, and is taken to refer to another of the "under-plots in his drama of love."
Meantime, at the suggestion of his friend and patron, Gavin Hamilton, Burns had begun to arrange for a subscription edition of his poems. It seems to have been only after he went to Mossgiel that he had seriously conceived the idea of writing for publication, and the decision was followed by a year of the most extraordinary fertility in composition. To 1785-1786 are assigned such satires as Holy Willie and the Address to the Unco Guid; a group of the longer poems including The Cotter's Saturday Night, The Jolly Beggars, Halloween, The Holy Fair, The Twa Dogs and The Vision; some shorter but no less famous pieces, such as the poems To a Louse, To a Mouse, To the Deil, To a Mountain Daisy and Scotch Drink; and a number of the best of his Epistles. Many of these, especially the church satires, had obtained a considerable local fame through circulation in manuscript, so that, proposals having been issued for an edition to be printed by Wilson of Kilmarnock, it was not found difficult to obtain subscriptions for more than half the edition of six hundred and twelve copies. The prospect of some return from this enterprise induced James Armour to take legal measures to obtain support for Jean's expected child, and Burns, fearing imprisonment, was forced to go into hiding while his book was passing the press. The church, too, had taken cognizance of his offense, and both Jean and he had to stand up before the congregation on three occasions to receive rebuke and make profession of repentance. He was at the same time completing the preparations for his voyage. In such extraordinary circumstances appeared the famous Kilmarnock edition, the immediate success of which soon produced a complete alteration in the whole outlook of the poet.
In the first place, the consideration Burns gained from his volume induced Armour to relax his pursuit, and in September, when Jean became the mother of twins, the poet was in such a mood that the sentiment of paternity began to weigh against the proposed emigration. Some weeks later he learned through a friend that Doctor Blacklock, a poet and scholar of standing in literary circles in Edinburgh, had praised his volume highly, and urged a second and larger edition. The upshot was that he gave up his passage (his trunk had been packed and was part way to Greenock), and determined instead on a visit to Edinburgh. The only permanent result of the whole West Indian scheme was thus a sheaf of amorous and patriotic farewells, of which the following may be taken as examples:
WILL YE GO TO THE INDIES, MY MARY?
Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia's shore? Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, Across the Atlantic's roar?
O sweet grows the lime and the orange, And the apple on the pine; But a' the charms o' the Indies Can never equal thine.
I hae sworn by the Heavens to my Mary, I hae sworn by the Heavens to be true; And sae may the Heavens forget me, When I forget my vow!
O plight me your faith, my Mary, And plight me your lily-white hand; O plight me your faith, my Mary, Before I leave Scotia's strand.
We hae plighted our troth, my Mary, In mutual affection to join; And curst be the cause that shall part us! The hour, and the moment o' time!
THE GLOOMY NIGHT
The gloomy night is gathering fast, Loud roars the wild inconstant blast, Yon murky cloud is foul with rain, I see it driving o'er the plain; The hunter now has left the moor, The scatter'd coveys meet secure, While here I wander, prest with care, Along the lonely banks of Ayr.
The Autumn mourns her ripening corn By early Winter's ravage torn; Across her placid azure sky, She sees the scowling tempest fly: Chill runs my blood to hear it rave, I think upon the stormy wave, Where many a danger I must dare, Far from the bonnie banks of Ayr.
'Tis not the surging billow's roar, 'Tis not that fatal, deadly shore; Tho' death in ev'ry shape appear, The wretched have no more to fear: But round my heart the ties are bound, That heart transpierc'd with many a wound: These bleed afresh, those ties I tear, To leave the bonnie banks of Ayr.
Farewell, old Coila's hills and dales, Her heathy moors and winding vales; The scenes where wretched fancy roves, Pursuing past unhappy loves! Farewell, my friends! Farewell, my foes! My peace with these, my love with those; The bursting tears my heart declare, Farewell, my bonnie banks of Ayr!
ON A SCOTCH BARD, GONE TO THE WEST INDIES
A' ye wha live by sowps o' drink, [sups] A' ye wha live by crambo-clink, [rhyme] A' ye wha live an' never think, Come mourn wi' me! Our billie's gi'en us a' a jink, [fellow, the slip] An' owre the sea.
Lament him, a' ye rantin core, [jovial set] Wha dearly like a random-splore; [frolic] Nae mair he'll join the merry roar, In social key; For now he's taen anither shore, An' owre the sea!
The bonnie lasses weel may wiss him, [wish for] And in their dear petitions place him, The widows, wives, an' a' may bless him Wi' tearfu' e'e; For weel I wat they'll sairly miss him [wot, sorely] That's owre the sea!
O Fortune, they hae room to grumble! Hadst thou taen aff some drowsy bummle, [drone] Wha can do nought but fyke an' fumble, [fuss] 'Twad been nae plea; [grievance] But he was gleg as ony wumble, [lively, auger] That's owre the sea!
Auld cantie Kyle may weepers wear, [cheerful, mourning bands] An' stain them wi' the saut, saut tear: [salt] 'Twill mak her poor auld heart, I fear, In flinders flee; [fragments] He was her Laureat mony a year, That's owre the sea!
He saw misfortune's cauld nor-west Lang mustering up a bitter blast; A jillet brak his heart at last— [jilt] Ill may she be! So took a berth afore the mast, An' owre the sea.
To tremble under Fortune's cummock [cudgel] On scarce a bellyfu' o' drummock, [meal and water] Wi' his proud independent stomach, Could ill agree; So row't his hurdies in a hammock, [rolled, buttocks] An' owre the sea.
He ne'er was gi'en to great misguidin', Yet coin his pouches wad na bide in; [pockets would] Wi' him it ne'er was under hidin', He dealt it free: The Muse was a' that he took pride in, That's owre the sea.
Jamaica bodies, use him weel, An' hap him in a cozie biel; [cover, shelter] Ye'll find him aye a dainty chiel, [fellow] And fu' o' glee; He wad na wrang'd the vera deil, That's owre the sea.
Fareweel, my rhyme-composing billie! Your native soil was right ill-willie; [unkind] But may ye flourish like a lily, Now bonnilie! I'll toast ye in my hindmost gillie, [last gill] Tho' owre the sea!
On the twenty-seventh of November, 1786, mounted on a borrowed pony, Burns set out for Edinburgh. He seems to have arrived there without definite plans, for, after having found lodging with his old friend Richmond, he spent the first few days strolling about the city. At home Burns had been an enthusiastic freemason, and it was through a masonic friend, Mr. James Dalrymple of Orangefield, near Ayr, that he was introduced to Edinburgh society. A decade or two earlier, that society, under the leadership of men like Adam Smith and David Hume had reached a high degree of intellectual distinction. A decade or two later, under Sir Walter Scott and the Reviewers it was again to be in some measure, if for the last time, a rival to London as a literary center. But when Burns visited it there was a kind of interregnum, and, little though he or they guessed it, none of the celebrities he met possessed genius comparable to his own. In a very few weeks it was evident that he was to be the lion of the season. By December thirteenth he is writing to a friend at Ayr:
"I have found a worthy warm friend in Mr. Dalrymple, of Orangefield, who introduced me to Lord Glencairn, a man whose worth and brotherly kindness to me I shall remember when time shall be no more. By his interest it is passed in the Caledonian Hunt, and entered in their books, that they are to take each a copy of the second edition [of the poems], for which they are to pay one guinea. I have been introduced to a good many of the Noblesse, but my avowed patrons and patronesses are the Duchess of Gordon, the Countess of Glencairn, with my Lord and Lady Betty—the Dean of Faculty [Honorable Henry Erskine]—Sir John Whitefoord. I have likewise warm friends among the literati; Professors [Dugald] Stewart, Blair, and Mr. Mackenzie—the Man of Feeling."
Through Glencairn he met Creech the book-seller, with whom he arranged for his second edition, and through the patrons he mentions and the Edinburgh freemasons, among whom he was soon at home, a large subscription list was soon made up. In the Edinburgh Magazine for October, November, and December, James Sibbald had published favorable notices of the Kilmarnock edition, with numerous extracts, and when Henry Mackenzie gave it high praise in his Lounger for December ninth, and the London Monthly Review followed suit in the same month, it was felt that the poet's reputation was established.
Of Burns's bearing in the fashionable and cultivated society into which he so suddenly found himself plunged we have many contemporary accounts. They are practically unanimous in praise of the taste and tact with which he acquitted himself. While neither shy nor aggressive, he impressed every one with his brilliance in conversation, his shrewdness in observation, and criticism, and his poise and common sense in his personal relations. One of the best descriptions of him was given by Sir Walter Scott to Lockhart. Scott as a boy of sixteen met Burns at the house of Doctor Adam Ferguson, and thus reports:
"His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish; a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity, which received part of its effect perhaps from one's knowledge of his extraordinary talents.... I would have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school; that is, none of your modern agriculturists who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce guidman who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments: the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a cast which glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the slightest presumption. Among the men who were the most learned of their time and country, he expressed himself with perfect firmness, but without the least intrusive forwardness; and when he differed an opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty.... I have only to add, that his dress corresponded with his manner. He was like a farmer dressed in his best to dine with the laird. I do not speak in malam partem, when I say I never saw a man in company with his superiors in station and information, more perfectly free from either the reality or the affectation of embarrassment. I was told, but did not observe it, that his address to females was extremely deferential, and always with a turn either to the pathetic or humorous, which engaged their attention particularly. I have heard the Duchess of Gordon remark this."
Burns's letters written at this time show an amused consciousness of his social prominence, but never for a moment did he lose sight of the fact that it was only the affair of a season, and that in a few months he would have to resume his humble station. Yet this intellectual detachment did not prevent his enjoying opportunities for social and intellectual intercourse such as he had never known and was never again to know. Careful as he was to avoid presuming on his new privileges, he clearly threw himself into the discussions in which he took part with all the zest of his temperament; and in the less formal convivial clubs to which he was welcomed he became at once the king of good fellows. To the noblemen and others who befriended him he expressed himself in language which may seem exaggerated; but the warmth of his disposition, and the letter writers of the eighteenth century on whom he had formed his style, sufficiently account for it without the suspicion of affectation or flattery. Whatever his vices, ingratitude to those who showed him kindness was not among them; and the sympathetic reader is more apt to feel pathos than to take offense in his tributes to his patrons. The real though not extraordinary kindness of the Earl of Glencairn, for example, was acknowledged again and again in prose and verse; and the Lament Burns wrote upon his death closes with these lines which rewarded the noble lord with an immortality he might otherwise have missed:
The bridegroom may forget the bride Was made his wedded wife yestreen; The monarch may forget the crown That on his head an hour has been; The mother may forget the child That smiles sae sweetly on her knee; But I'll remember thee, Glencairn, And a' that thou hast done for me!
After a sojourn of a little more than five months, Burns left Edinburgh early in May for a tour in the south of Scotland. The poet was mounted on an old mare, Jenny Geddes, which he had bought in Edinburgh, and which he still owned when he settled at Ellisland. He was accompanied by his bosom friend, Robert Ainslie. The letters and journals written during the four weeks of this tour give evidence of his appreciation of scenery and his shrewd judgment of character. He was received with much consideration in the houses he visited, and was given the freedom of the burgh of Dumfries. On the ninth of June, 1787, he was back at Mauchline; and, calling at Armour's house to see his child, he was revolted by the "mean, servile complaisance" he met with—the result of his Edinburgh triumphs. His disgust at the family, however, did not prevent a renewal of his intimacy with Jean. After a few days at home, he seems to have made a short tour in the West Highlands. July was spent at Mossgiel, and early in August he returned to Edinburgh in order to settle his accounts with Creech, his publisher. On the twenty-fifth he set out for a longer tour in the North accompanied by his friend Nicol, an Edinburgh schoolmaster, the Willie who "brewed a peck o' maut." They proceeded by Linlithgow, Falkirk, Stirling, Crieff, Dunkeld, Aberfeldie, Blair Athole, Strathspey, to Inverness. The most notable episode of the journey northwards was a visit at the castle of the Duke of Athole, which passed with great satisfaction to both Burns and his hosts, and of which his Humble Petition of Bruar Water is a poetical memorial. At Stonehaven and Montrose he extended his acquaintance among his father's relatives. He reached Edinburgh again on September sixteenth, having traveled nearly six hundred miles. In October he made still another excursion, through Clackmannanshire and into the south of Perthshire, visiting Ramsay of Ochtertyre, near Stirling, and Sir William Murray of Ochtertyre in Strathearn. In all these visits made by Burns to the houses of the aristocracy, it is interesting to note his capacity for pleasing and profitable intercourse with people of a class and tradition far removed from his own. Sensitive to an extreme and quick to resent a slight, he was at the same time finely responsive to kindness, and his conduct was governed by a tact and frank naturalness that are among the not least surprising of his powers. In spite of the fervor and floridness of some of his expressions of gratitude for favors from his noble friends, Burns was no snob; and it was characteristic of him to give up a visit to the Duchess of Gordon rather than separate from his companion Nicol, who, in a fit of jealous sulks, refused to accompany him to Castle Gordon.
The settlement with Creech proved to be a very tedious affair, and in the beginning of December the poet was about to leave the city in disgust when an accident occurred which gave opportunity for one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of his relations with women. Just before, he had met a Mrs. McLehose who lived in Edinburgh with her three children, while her husband, from whom she had separated on account of ill-treatment, had emigrated to Jamaica. A correspondence began immediately after the first meeting, with the following letter:
"I had set no small store by my tea-drinking tonight, and have not often been so disappointed. Saturday evening I shall embrace the opportunity with the greatest pleasure. I leave this town this day se'ennight, and probably I shall not return for a couple of twelvemonths; but I must ever regret that I so lately got an acquaintance I shall ever highly esteem, and in whose welfare I shall ever be warmly interested. Our worthy common friend, Miss Nimmo, in her usual pleasant way, rallied me a good deal on my new acquaintance, and, in the humour of her ideas, I wrote some lines, which I enclose to you, as I think they have a good deal of poetic merit; and Miss Nimmo tells me that you are not only a critic but a poetess. Fiction, you know, is the native region of poetry; and I hope you will pardon my vanity in sending you the bagatelle as a tolerable offhand jeu d'esprit. I have several poetic trifles, which I shall gladly leave with Miss Nimmo or you, if they were worth house-room; as there are scarcely two people on earth by whom it would mortify me more to be forgotten, though at the distance of nine score miles. I am, Madam, With the highest respect,
"Your very humble servant,
[December 6, 1787.]
The night before Burns was to take tea with his new acquaintance, he was overturned by a drunken coachman, and received an injury to his knee which confined him to his rooms for several weeks. Meantime the correspondence went on with ever-increasing warmth, from "Madam," through "My dearest Madam," "my dear kind friend," "my lovely friend," to "my dearest angel." They early agreed to call each other Clarinda and Sylvander, and the Arcadian names are significant of the sentimental nature of the relation. By the time of their second meeting—about a month after the first,—they had exchanged intimate confidences, had discovered endless affinities, and had argued by the page on religion, Clarinda striving to win Sylvander over to her orthodox Calvinism. When he was again able to go out, his visits became for both of them "exquisite" and "rapturous" experiences, Clarinda struggling to keep on the safe side of discretion by means of "Reason" and "Religion," Sylvander protesting his complete submission to her will. The appearance of passion in their letters goes on increasing, and Clarinda's fits of perturbation in the next morning's reflections grow more acute. She does not seem to have become the poet's mistress, and it is impossible to gather what either of them expected the outcome of their intercourse to be. With a few notable exceptions, the verses which were occasioned rather than inspired by the affair are affected and artificial; and in spite of the warmth of the expressions in his letters it is hard to believe that his passion went very deep. In any case, on his return to Mauchline to find Jean Armour cast out by her own people after having a second time borne him twins, he faced his responsibilities in a more manly and honorable fashion than ever before, and made Jean his wife. The explanation of his final resolution is given repeatedly in almost the same words in his letters: "I found a much loved female's positive happiness or absolute misery among my hands, and I could not trifle with such a sacred deposit." It would appear that, however far the affair between him and Clarinda had passed beyond the sentimental friendship it began with, he did not regard it as placing in his hands any such "sacred deposit" as the fate of Jean, nor had one or two intrigues with obscure girls in Edinburgh shaken an affection which was much more deep-rooted than he often imagined. Clarinda was naturally deeply wounded by his marriage, and her reproaches of "villainy" led to a breach which was only gradually bridged. At one time, just before she set out for Jamaica to join her husband in an unsuccessful attempt at a reconciliation, Burns's letters again became frequent, the old fervor reappeared, and a couple of his best songs were produced. But at this time he had the—shall we say reassuring?—belief that he was not to see her again, and could indulge an emotion that had always been largely theatrical without risk to either of them. On her return he wrote her, it would seem, only once. For the character of Burns the incident is of much curious interest; for literature its importance lies in the two songs, Ae fond Kiss and My Nannie's Awa. The former was written shortly before her departure for the West Indies; the second in the summer of her absence. It is noteworthy that in them "Clarinda" has given place to "Nancy" and "Nannie." Beside them is placed for contrast, one of the pure Clarinda effusions.
AE FOND KISS
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever! [One] Ae farewell, and then for ever! Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee, Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee. Who shall say that Fortune grieves him While the star of hope she leaves him? Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me, Dark despair around benights me.
I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy, Naething could resist my Nancy; But to see her was to love her, Love but her, and love for ever. Had we never lov'd sae kindly, Had we never lov'd sae blindly, Never met—or never parted, We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest! Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest! Thine be ilka joy and treasure, [every] Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure, Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, alas, for ever! Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee, Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.
MY NANNIE'S AWA
Now in her green mantle blythe Nature arrays, And listens the lambkins that bleat o'er the braes, [hillsides] While birds warble welcomes in ilka green shaw; [wooded dell] But to me it's delightless—my Nannie's awa.
The snawdrap and primrose our woodlands adorn And violets bathe in the weet o' the morn: [wet (dew)] They pain my sad bosom, sae sweetly they blaw, They mind me o' Nannie—and Nannie's awa.
Thou laverock, that springs frae the dews o' the lawn [lark] The shepherd to warn o' the grey-breaking dawn, And thou, mellow mavis, that hails the night-fa', [thrush] Give over for pity—my Nannie's awa.
Come, autumn, sae pensive, in yellow and gray, And soothe me wi' tidings o' nature's decay; The dark, dreary winter, and wild-driving snaw Alane can delight me—now Nannie's awa.
Clarinda, mistress of my soul, The measured time is run! The wretch beneath the dreary pole So marks his latest sun.
To what dark cave of frozen night Shall poor Sylvander hie, Depriv'd of thee, his life and light, The sun of all his joy?
We part—but by these precious drops That fill thy lovely eyes! No other light shall guide my steps Till thy bright beams arise.
She, the fair sun of all her sex, Has blest my glorious day; And shall a glimmering planet fix My worship to its ray?
In the spring of 1788 when Burns married Jean Armour, he took two other steps of the first importance for his future career. The Edinburgh period had come and gone, and all that his intercourse with his influential friends had brought him was the four or five hundred pounds of profit from his poems and an opportunity to enter the excise service. With part of the money he relieved his brother Gilbert from pressing obligations at Mossgiel by the loan of one hundred and eighty pounds, and with the rest leased the farm of Ellisland on the bank of the Nith, five or six miles above Dumfries. But before taking up the farm he devoted six weeks or so to tuition in the duties of an exciseman, so that he had this occupation to fall back on in case of another farming failure. During the summer he superintended the building of the farm-house, and in December Jean joined her husband. His satisfaction in his domestic situation is characteristically expressed in a song composed about this time.
I HAE A WIFE
I hae a wife o' my ain, I'll partake wi' naebody; I'll tak cuckold frae nane, I'll gie cuckold to naebody.
I hae a penny to spend, There—thanks to naebody; I hae naething to lend, I'll borrow frae naebody.
I am naebody's lord, I'll be slave to naebody; I hae a guid braid sword, I'll tak dunts frae naebody. [blows]
I'll be merry and free, I'll be sad for naebody; Naebody cares for me, I care for naebody.
Early in his residence at Ellisland he formed a close relation with a neighboring proprietor, Colonel Robert Riddel. For him he copied into two volumes a large part of what he considered the best of his unpublished verse and prose, thus forming the well-known Glenriddel Manuscript. Had not one already become convinced of the fact from internal evidence, it would be clear enough from this prose volume that Burns's letters were often as much works of art to him as his poems. This is of supreme importance in weighing the epistolary evidence for his character and conduct. Even when his words seem to be the direct outpourings of his feelings—of love, of friendship, of gratitude, of melancholy, of devotion, of scorn—a comparative examination will show that in prose as much as in verse we are dealing with the work of a conscious artist, enamored of telling expression, aware of his reader, and anything but the naif utterer of unsophisticated emotion. To recall this will save us from much perplexity in the interpretation of his words, and will clear up many an apparent contradiction in his evidence about himself.
Burns was never very sanguine about success on the Ellisland farm. By the end of the summer of 1789 he concluded that he could not depend on it, determined to turn it into a dairy farm to be conducted mainly by his wife and sisters, and took up the work in the excise for which he had prepared himself. He had charge of a large district of ten parishes, and had to ride some two hundred miles a week in all weathers. With the work he still did on the farm one can see that he was more than fully employed, and need not wonder that there was little time for poetry. Yet these years at Ellisland were on the whole happy years for himself and his family; he found time for pleasant intercourse with some of his neighbors, for a good deal of letter-writing, for some interest in politics, and for the establishing, with Colonel Riddel, of a small neighborhood library. As an excise officer he seems to have been conscientious and efficient, though at times, in the case of poor offenders, he tempered justice with mercy. Ultimately, despairing of making the farm pay and hoping for promotion in the government service, he gave up his lease, sold his stock, and in the autumn of 1791 moved to Dumfries, where he was given a district which did not involve keeping a horse, and which paid him about seventy pounds a year. Thus ended the last of Burns's disastrous attempts to make a living from the soil.
The house in which the Burnses with their three sons first lived in Dumfries was a three-roomed cottage in the Wee Vennel, now Banks Street. Though his income was small, it must be remembered that the cost of food was low. "Beef was 3d. to 5d. a lb.; mutton, 3d. to 4-1/2d.; chickens, 7d. to 8d. a pair; butter (the lb. of 24 oz.), 7d. to 9d.; salmon, 6d. to 9-1/2d. a lb.; cod, 1d. and even 1/2d. a lb." Though hardly in easy circumstances then, Burns's situation was such that it was possible to avoid his greatest horror, debt.
Meantime, his interest in politics had greatly quickened. He had been from youth a sentimental Jacobite; but this had little effect upon his attitude toward the parties of the day. In Edinburgh he had worn the colors of the party of Fox, presumably out of compliment to his Whig friends, Glencairn and Erskine. During the Ellisland period, however, he had written strongly against the Regency Bill supported by Fox; and in the general election of 1790 he opposed the Duke of Queensberry and the local Whig candidate. But in his early months in Dumfries we find him showing sympathy with the doctrines of the French Revolution, a sympathy which was natural enough in a man of his inborn democratic tendencies. A curious outcome of these was an incident not yet fully cleared up. In February, 1792, Burns, along with some fellow officers, assisted by a body of dragoons, seized an armed smuggling brig which had run aground in the Solway, and on her being sold, he bought for three pounds four of the small guns she carried. These he is said to have presented "to the French Convention," but they were seized by the British Government at Dover. As a matter of fact, the Convention was not constituted till September, and the Legislative Assembly which preceded it was not hostile to Britain. Thus, Burns's action, though eccentric and extravagant, was not treasonable in law or in spirit, and does not seem to have entailed on him any unfortunate consequences.
In the course of that year symptoms of the infection of part of the British public with revolutionary principles began to be evident, and the government was showing signs of alarm. The Whig opposition was clamoring for internal reform, and Burns sided more and more definitely with it, and was rash enough to subscribe for a Reform paper called The Gazetteer, an action which would have put him under suspicion from his superiors, had it become known. Some notice of his Liberal tendencies did reach his official superiors, and an inquiry was made into his political principles which caused him no small alarm. In a letter to Mr. Graham of Fintry, through whom he had obtained his position, he disclaimed all revolutionary beliefs and all political activity. No action was taken against him, nor was his failure to obtain promotion to an Examinership due to anything but the slow progress involved in promotion by seniority. Hereafter, he exercised considerable caution in the expression of his political sympathies, though he allowed himself to associate with men of revolutionary opinions. The feeling that he was not free to utter what he believed on public affairs was naturally chafing to a man of his independent nature.
Burns's chief enjoyment in these days was the work he was doing for Scottish song. While in Edinburgh he had made the acquaintance of an engraver, James Johnson, who had undertaken the publication of the Scots Musical Museum, a collection of songs and music. Burns agreed to help him by the collection and refurbishing of the words of old songs, and when these were impossible, by providing new words for the melodies. The work finally extended to six volumes; and before it was finished a more ambitious undertaking, managed by a Mr. George Thomson, was set on foot. Burns was invited to cooperate in this also, and entered into it with such enthusiasm that he was Thomson's main support. In both of these publications the poet worked purely with patriotic motives and for the love of song, and had no pecuniary interest in either. Once Thomson sent him a present of five pounds and endangered their relations thereby; later, when Burns was in his last illness, he asked and received from Thomson an advance of the same amount. Apart from these sums Burns never made or sought to make a penny from his writings after the publication of the first Edinburgh edition. Twice he declined journalistic work for a London paper. Poetry was the great consolation of his life, and even in his severest financial straits he refused to consider the possibility of writing for money, regarding it as a kind of prostitution.
By the autumn of 1795 signs began to appear that the poet's constitution was breaking down. The death of his daughter Elizabeth and a severe attack of rheumatism plunged him into deep melancholy and checked for a time his song-writing; and though for a time he recovered, his disease returned early in the next year. It seems clear, too, that though the change from Ellisland to Dumfries relieved him of much of the severer physical exertion, other factors more than counterbalanced this relief. Burns had never been a slave to drink for its own sake; it had always been the accompaniment—in those days an almost inevitable accompaniment—of sociability. Some of his wealthier friends in the vicinity were in this respect rather excessive in their hospitality; in Dumfries the taverns were always at hand; and as Burns came to realize the comparative failure of his career as a man, he found whisky more and more a means of escape for depression. Even if we distrust the local gossip that made much of the dissipations of his later years, it appears from the evidence of his physician that alcohol had much to do with the rheumatic and digestive troubles that finally broke him down. In July, 1796, he was sent, as a last resort, to Brow-on-Solway to try sea-bathing and country life; but he returned little improved, and well-nigh convinced that his illness was mortal. His mental condition is shown by the fact that pressure from a solicitor for the payment of a tailor's debt of some seven pounds, incurred for his volunteer's uniform, threw him into a panic lest he should be imprisoned, and his last letters are pitiful requests for financial help, and two notes to his father-in-law urging him to send her mother to Jean, as she was about to give birth to another child. In such harassing conditions he sank into delirium, and died on July 21, 1796. The child, who died in infancy, was born on the day his father was buried.
With Burns's death a reaction in popular opinion set in. He was given a military funeral; and a subscription which finally amounted to one thousand two hundred pounds was raised for his family. The official biography, by Doctor Currie of Liverpool, doubled this sum, so that Jean was enabled to bring up the children respectably, and end her days in comfort. Scotland, having done little for Burns in his life, was stricken with remorse when he died, and has sought ever since to atone for her neglect by an idolatry of the poet and by a more than charitable view of the man.
INHERITANCE: LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
Three forms of speech were current in Scotland in the time of Burns, and, in different proportions, are current to-day: in the Highlands, north and west of a slanting line running from the Firth of Clyde to Aberdeenshire, Gaelic; in the Lowlands, south and east of the same line, Lowland Scots; over the whole country, among the more educated classes, English. Gaelic is a Celtic language, belonging to an entirely different linguistic group from English, and having close affinities to Irish and Welsh. This tongue Burns did not know. Lowland Scots is a dialect of English, descended from the Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon. It has had a history of considerable interest. Down to the time of Chaucer, whose influence had much to do with making the Midland dialect the literary standard for the Southern kingdom, it is difficult to distinguish the written language of Edinburgh from that of York, both being developments of Northumbrian. But as English writers tended more and more to conform to the standard of London, Northern Middle English gradually ceased to be written; while in Scotland, separated and usually hostile as it was politically, the Northern speech continued to develop along its own lines, until in the beginning of the sixteenth century it attained a form more remote from standard English and harder for the modern reader than it had been a century before. The close connection between Scotland and France, continuing down to the time of Queen Mary, led to the introduction of many French words which never found a place in English; the proximity of the Highlands made Gaelic borrowings easy; and the Scandinavian settlements on both coasts contributed additional elements to the vocabulary. Further, in its comparative isolation, Scots developed or retained peculiarities in grammar and pronunciation unknown or lost in the South. Thus by 1550, the form of English spoken in Scotland was in a fair way to become an independent language.
This process, however, was rudely halted by the Reformation. The triumph of this movement in England and its comparative failure in France threw Scotland, when it became Protestant, into close relations with England, while the "auld Alliance" with France practically ended when Mary of Scots returned to her native country. Leaders like John Knox, during the early struggles of the Reformation, spent much time in England; and when they came home their speech showed the effect of their intercourse with their southern brethren of the reformed faith. The language of Knox, as recorded in his sermons and his History, is indeed far from Elizabethan English, but it is notably less "broad" than the Scots of Douglas and Lindesay. Scotland had no vernacular translation of the Bible; and this important fact, along with the English associations of many of the Protestant ministers, finally made the speech of the Scottish pulpit, and later of Scottish religion in general, if not English, at least as purely English as could be achieved.
The process thus begun was carried farther in the next generation when, in 1603, James VI of Scotland became King of England, and the Court removed to London. England at that time was, of course, much more advanced in culture than its poorer neighbor to the north, and the courtiers who accompanied James to London found themselves marked by their speech as provincial, and set themselves to get rid of their Scotticisms with an eagerness in proportion to their social aspirations. Scottish men of letters now came into more intimate relation with English literature, and finding that writing in English opened to them a much larger reading public, they naturally adopted the southern speech in their books. Thus men like Alexander, Earl of Stirling, and William Drummond of Hawthornden belong both in language and literary tradition to the English Elizabethans.
Religion, society, and literature having all thrown their influence against the native speech of Scotland, it followed that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the progressive disuse of that speech among the upper classes of the country, until by the time of Burns, Scots was habitually spoken only by the peasantry and the humbler people in the towns. The distinctions between social classes in the matter of dialect were, of course, not absolute. Occasional members even of the aristocracy prided themselves on their command of the vernacular; and among the country folk there were few who could not make a brave attempt at English when they spoke with the laird or the minister. With Burns himself, Lowland Scots was his customary speech at home, about the farm, in the tavern and the Freemasons' lodge; but, as we have seen, his letters, being written mainly to educated people, are almost all pure English, as was his conversation with these people when he met them.
The linguistic situation that has been sketched finds interesting illustration in the language of Burns's poems. The distinction which is usually made, that he wrote poetry in Scots and verse in English, has some basis, but is inaccurately expressed and needs qualification. The fundamental fact is that for him Scots was the natural language of the emotions, English of the intellect. The Scots poems are in general better, not chiefly because they are in Scots but because they are concerned with matters of natural feeling; the English poems are in general poetically poorer, not because they are in English but because they are so frequently the outcome of moods not dominated by spontaneous emotion, but intellectual, conscious, or theatrical. He wrote English sometimes as he wore his Sunday blacks, with dignity but not with ease; sometimes as he wore the buff and blue, with buckskins and top-boots, which he donned in Edinburgh—"like a farmer dressed in his best to dine with the laird." In both cases he was capable of vigorous, common-sense expression; in neither was he likely to exhibit the imagination, the tenderness, or the humor which characterized the plowman clad in home-spun.
The Cotter's Saturday Night is an interesting illustration of these distinctions. The opening stanza is a dedicatory address on English models to a lawyer friend and patron; it is pure English in language, stiff and imitatively "literary" in style. The stanzas which follow describing the homecoming of the cotter, the family circle, the supper, and the daughter's suitor, are in broad Scots, the language harmonizing perfectly with the theme, and they form poetically the sound core of the poem. In the description of family worship, Burns did what his father would do in conducting that worship, adopted English as more reverent and respectful, but inevitably as more restrained emotionally; and in the moralizing passage which follows, as in the apostrophes to Scotia and to the Almighty at the close, he naturally sticks to English, and in spite of a genuine enough exaltation of spirit achieves a result rather rhetorical than poetical.
Contrast again songs like Corn Rigs or Whistle and I'll Come To Thee, My Lad, with most of the songs to Clarinda. The former, in Scots, are genial, whole-hearted, full of the power of kindling imaginative sympathy, thoroughly contagious in their lusty emotion or sly humor. The latter, in English, are stiff, coldly contrived, consciously elegant or marked by the sentimental factitiousness of the affair that occasioned them. But their inferiority is due less to the difference in language than to the difference in the mood. When, especially at a distance, his relation to Clarinda really touched his imagination, we have the genuinely poetical My Nannie's Awa and Ae Fond Kiss. The latter poem can be, with few changes, turned into English without loss of quality; and its most famous lines have almost no dialect:
Had we never lov'd sae kindly, Had we never lov'd sae blindly, Never met—or never parted, We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
Finally, there are the English poems to Highland Mary. For some reason not yet fully understood, the affair with Mary Campbell was treated by him in a spirit of reverence little felt in his other love poetry, and this spirit was naturally expressed by him in English. But in the almost English
"Ye banks and braes and streams around The Castle of Montgomery,"
and in the pure English To Mary in Heaven, he is not at all hampered by the use of the Southern speech, Scots would not have heightened the poetry here, and for Burns Scots would have been less appropriate, less natural even, for the expression of an almost sacred theme.
The case, then, seems to stand thus. Burns commanded two languages, which he employed instinctively for different kinds of subject and mood. The subjects and moods which evoked vernacular utterance were those that with all writers are more apt to yield poetry, and in consequence most of his best poetry is in Scots. But when a theme naturally evoking English was imaginatively felt by him, the use of English did not prevent his writing poetically. And there were themes which he could handle equally well in either speech—as we see, for example, in the songs in The Jolly Beggars.
Yet the language had an importance in itself. Though its vocabulary is limited in matters of science, philosophy, religion, and the like, Lowland Scots is very rich in homely terms and in humorous and tender expressions. For love, or for celebrating the effects of whisky, English is immeasurably inferior. The free use of the diminutive termination in ie or y—a termination capable of expressing endearment, familiarity, ridicule, and contempt as well as mere smallness—not only has considerable effect in emotional shading, but contributes to the liquidness of the verse by lessening the number of consonantal endings that make English seem harsh and abrupt to many foreign ears. Moreover, the very indeterminateness of the dialect, the possibility of using varying degrees of "broadness," increased the facility of rhyming, and added notably to the ease and spontaneity of composition. Thus in Scots Burns was not only more at home, but had a medium in some respects more plastic than English.
Language, however, was not the only element in his inheritance which helped to determine the nature and quality of Burns's production. He was extremely sensitive to suggestion from his predecessors, and frankly avowed his obligations to them, so that to estimate his originality it is necessary to know something of the men at whose flame he kindled.
As the Northern dialect of English was, before the Reformation, in a fair way to become an independent national speech, so literature north of the Tweed had promise of a development, not indeed independent, but distinct. Of the writers of the Middle Scots period, Henryson and Dunbar, Douglas and Lindesay, Burns, it is true, knew little; and the tradition that they founded underwent in the latter part of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries an experience in many respects parallel to that which has been described in the matter of language. The effect of the Reformation upon all forms of artistic creation will be discussed when we come to speak particularly of the history of Scottish song; for the moment it is sufficient to say that the absorption in theological controversy was unfavorable to the continuation of a poetical development. Under James VI, however, there were a few writers who maintained the tradition, notably Alexander Montgomery, Alexander Scott, and the Sempills. To the first of these is to be credited the invention of the stanza called, from the poems in which Montgomery used it, the stanza of The Banks of Helicon or of The Cherry and the Slae. It was imitated by some of Montgomery's contemporaries, revived by Allan Ramsay, and thus came to Burns down a line purely Scottish, as it never seems to have been used in any other tongue. He first employed it in the Epistle to Davie, and it was made by him the medium of some of his most characteristic ideas.
It's no in titles nor in rank: It's no in wealth like Lon'on Bank, To purchase peace and rest. It's no in makin muckle, mair, [much, more] It's no in books, it's no in lear, [learning] To make us truly blest: If happiness hae not her seat An' centre in the breast, We may be wise, or rich, or great, But never can be blest! Nae treasures nor pleasures Could make us happy lang; The heart aye's the part aye That makes us right or wrang.
The Piper of Kilbarchan, by Sir Robert Sempill of Beltrees (1595?-1661?), set a model for the humorous elegy on the living which reached Burns through Ramsay and Fergusson, and was followed by him in those on Poor Mailie and Tam Samson. The stanza in which it is written is far older than Sempill, having been traced as far back as the troubadours in the twelfth century, and being found frequently in both English and French through the Middle Ages; but from the time of Sempill on, it was cultivated with peculiar intensity in Scotland, and is the medium of so many of Burns's best-known pieces that it is often called Burns's stanza.
Lament in rhyme, lament in prose, Wi' saut tears tricklin' down your nose; Our Bardie's fate is at a close, Past a' remead; The last, sad cape-stane o' his woe's— Poor Mailie's dead!
The seventeenth century was a barren one for Scottish literature. The attraction of the larger English public and the disuse of the vernacular among the upper classes already discussed, drew to the South or to the Southern speech whatever literary talent appeared in the North, and it seemed for a time that, except for the obscure stream of folk poetry, Scottish vernacular literature was at an end. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, interest began to revive. In 1706-9-11 James Watson published the three volumes of his Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems, and in the third decade began to appear Allan Ramsay's Tea Table Miscellany (1724-40). These collections rescued from oblivion a large quantity of vernacular verse, some of it drawn from manuscripts of pre-Reformation poetry, some of it contemporary, some of it anonymous and of uncertain date, having come down orally or in chap-books and broadsides. The welcome given to these volumes was an early instance of that renewed interest in older and more primitive literature that was manifested still more strikingly when Percy published his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. Its influence on the production of vernacular literature was evident at once in the original work of Ramsay himself; and the movement which culminated in Burns, though having its roots far back in the work of Henryson and Dunbar, was in effect a Scottish renascence, in which the chief agents before Burns were Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Ramsay himself, Robert Fergusson, and song-writers like Mrs. Cockburn and Lady Anne Lindsay.
Of this fact Burns was perfectly aware, and he was not only candid but generous in his acknowledgment of his debt to his immediate predecessors.
My senses wad be in a creel, [head would be turned] Should I but dare a hope to speel, [climb] Wi' Allan, or wi' Gilbertfield, The braes o' fame; [hills] Or Fergusson, the writer-chiel, [lawyer-fellow] A deathless name.
He knew Ramsay's collection and had a perhaps exaggerated admiration for The Gentle Shepherd. This poem, published in 1728, not only holds a unique position in the history of the pastoral drama, but is important in the present connection as being to Burns the most signal evidence of the possibility of a dignified literature in the modern vernacular. Hamilton and Ramsay had exchanged rhyming epistles in the six-line stanza, and in these Burns found the model for his own epistles. Hamilton's Last Dying Words of Bonny Heck—a favorite grey-hound—had been imitated by Ramsay in Lucky Spence's Last Advice and the Last Speech of a Wretched Miser, and the form had become a Scottish convention before Burns produced his Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie. As important as any of these was the example set by Ramsay and bettered by Burns of refurbishing old indecent or fragmentary songs. Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) was regarded by Burns still more highly than Ramsay, and his influence was even more potent. In his autobiographical letter to Doctor Moore he tells that about 1782 he had all but given up rhyming: "but meeting with Fergusson's Scotch Poems, I strung anew my wildly-sounding, rustic lyre with emulating vigour." In the preface to the Kilmarnock edition he is still more explicit as to his attitude.
"To the poems of a Ramsay, or the glorious dawnings of the poor, unfortunate Fergusson, he, with equal unaffected sincerity, declares, that, even in the highest pulse of vanity, he has not the most distant pretensions. These two justly admired Scotch Poets he has often had in his eye in the following pieces; but rather with a view to kindle at their flame, than for servile imitation."
To be more specific, Burns found the model for his Cotter's Saturday Night in Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle, for The Holy Fair in his Leith Races, for Scotch Drink in his Caller Water, for The Twa Dogs and The Brigs of Ayr in his Planestanes and Causey, and Kirkyard Eclogues. In later years Burns grew somewhat more critical of Ramsay, especially as a reviser of old songs; but for Fergusson he retained to the end a sympathetic admiration. When he went to Edinburgh, one of his first places of pilgrimage was the grave of him whom he apostrophized thus,
O thou, my elder brother in misfortune, By far my elder brother in the muse!
And he later obtained from the managers of the Canongate Kirk permission to erect a stone over the tomb.
The fact, then, that Burns owed much to the tradition of vernacular poetry in Scotland and especially to his immediate predecessors is no new discovery, however recent critics may have plumed themselves upon it. Burns knew it well, and was ever ready to acknowledge it. What is more important than the mere fact of his inheritance is the use he made of it. In taking from his elders the fruits of their experience in poetical conception and metrical arrangement, he but did what artists have always done; in outdistancing these elders and in almost every case surpassing their achievement on the lines they had laid down, he did what only the greater artists succeed in doing. It is not in mere inventiveness and novelty but in first-hand energy of conception, in mastering for himself the old thought and the old form and uttering them with his personal stamp, in making them carry over to the reader with a new force or vividness or beauty, that the poet's originality consists. In these respects Burns's originality is no whit lessened by an explicit recognition of his indebtedness to the stock from which he grew.