[Transcriber's note: Obvious printer's errors have been corrected, all other inconsistencies are as in the original. Author's spelling has been maintained. Missing page numbers correspond to blank pages.]
PROFESSOR OF POETRY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited
NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
All rights reserved
First Edition April 1879
Reprinted December 1879, 1883, 1887, 1895, 1902, 1906
Page CHAPTER I.
Youth in Ayrshire 1
First Winter in Edinburgh 42
Border and Highland Tours 60
Second Winter in Edinburgh 79
Life at Ellisland 94
Migration To Dumfries 135
Last Years 155
Character, Poems, Songs 188
ROBERT BURNS. (p. 001)
YOUTH IN AYRSHIRE.
Great men, great events, great epochs, it has been said, grow as we recede from them; and the rate at which they grow in the estimation of men is in some sort a measure of their greatness. Tried by this standard, Burns must be great indeed, for during the eighty years that have passed since his death, men's interest in the man himself and their estimate of his genius have been steadily increasing. Each decade since he died has produced at least two biographies of him. When Mr. Carlyle wrote his well-known essay on Burns in 1828, he could already number six biographies of the Poet, which had been given to the world during the previous thirty years; and the interval between 1828 and the present day has added, in at least the same proportion, to their number. What it was in the man and in his circumstances that has attracted so much of the world's interest to Burns, I must make one more attempt to describe.
If success were that which most secures men's sympathy, Burns would have won but little regard; for in all but his poetry his was a (p. 002) defeated life—sad and heart-depressing to contemplate beyond the lives even of most poets.
Perhaps it may be the very fact that in him so much failure and shipwreck were combined with such splendid gifts, that has attracted to him so deep and compassionate interest. Let us review once more the facts of that life, and tell again its oft-told story.
It was on the 25th of January, 1759, about two miles from the town of Ayr, in a clay-built cottage, reared by his father's own hands, that Robert Burns was born. The "auld clay bigging" which saw his birth still stands by the side of the road that leads from Ayr to the river and the bridge of Doon. Between the banks of that romantic stream and the cottage is seen the roofless ruin of "Alloway's auld haunted kirk," which Tam o' Shanter has made famous. His first welcome to the world was a rough one. As he himself says,—
A blast o' Janwar' win' Blew hansel in on Robin.
A few days after his birth, a storm blew down the gable of the cottage, and the poet and his mother were carried in the dark morning to the shelter of a neighbour's roof, under which they remained till their own home was repaired. In after-years he would often say, "No wonder that one ushered into the world amid such a tempest should be the victim of stormy passions." "It is hard to be born in Scotland," says the brilliant Parisian. Burns had many hardships to endure, but he never reckoned this to be one of them.
His father, William Burness or Burnes, for so he spelt his name, was a native not of Ayrshire, but of Kincardineshire, where he had been reared on a farm belonging to the forfeited estate of the noble (p. 003) but attainted house of Keith-Marischal. Forced to migrate thence at the age of nineteen, he had travelled to Edinburgh, and finally settled in Ayrshire, and at the time when Robert, his eldest child, was born, he rented seven acres of land, near the Brig o' Doon, which he cultivated as a nursery-garden. He was a man of strict, even stubborn integrity, and of strong temper—a combination which, as his son remarks, does not usually lead to worldly success. But his chief characteristic was his deep-seated and thoughtful piety. A peasant-saint of the old Scottish stamp, he yet tempered the stern Calvinism of the West with the milder Arminianism more common in his northern birthplace. Robert, who, amid all his after-errors, never ceased to revere his father's memory, has left an immortal portrait of him in The Cotter's Saturday Night, when he describes how
The saint, the father, and the husband prays.
William Burness was advanced in years before he married, and his wife, Agnes Brown, was much younger than himself. She is described as an Ayrshire lass, of humble birth, very sagacious, with bright eyes and intelligent looks, but not beautiful, of good manners and easy address. Like her husband, she was sincerely religious, but of a more equable temper, quick to perceive character, and with a memory stored with old traditions, songs, and ballads, which she told or sang to amuse her children. In his outer man the poet resembled his mother, but his great mental gifts, if inherited at all, must be traced to his father.
Three places in Ayrshire, besides his birthplace, will always be remembered as the successive homes of Burns. These were Mount (p. 004) Oliphant, Lochlea (pronounced Lochly), and Mossgiel.
MOUNT OLIPHANT.—This was a small upland farm, about two miles from the Brig o' Doon, of a poor and hungry soil, belonging to Mr. Ferguson, of Doon-holm, who was also the landlord of William Burness' previous holding. Robert was in his seventh year when his father entered on this farm at Whitsuntide, 1766, and he had reached his eighteenth when the lease came to a close in 1777. All the years between these two dates were to the family of Burness one long sore battle with untoward circumstances, ending in defeat. If the hardest toil and severe self-denial could have procured success, they would not have failed. It was this period of his life which Robert afterwards described, as combining "the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of galley-slave." The family did their best, but a niggard soil and bad seasons were too much for them. At length, on the death of his landlord, who had always dealt generously by him, William Burness fell into the grip of a factor, whose tender mercies were hard. This man wrote letters which set the whole family in tears. The poet has not given his name, but he has preserved his portrait in colours which are indelible:—
I've noticed, on our Laird's court-day, An' mony a time my heart's been wae, Poor tenant bodies, scant o' cash, How they maun thole a factor's snash; He'll stamp an' threaten, curse and swear, He'll apprehend them, poind their gear, While they maun stan', wi aspect humble, And hear it a', an' fear an' tremble.
In his autobiographical sketch the poet tells us that, "The farm proved a ruinous bargain. I was the eldest of seven children, and (p. 005) my father, worn out by early hardship, was unfit for labour. His spirit was soon irritated, but not easily broken. There was a freedom in the lease in two years more; and to weather these two years we retrenched expenses, and toiled on." Robert and Gilbert, the two eldest, though still boys, had to do each a grown man's full work. Yet for all their hardships these Mount Oliphant days were not without alleviations. If poverty was at the door, there was warm family affection by the fireside. If the two sons had, long before manhood, to bear toil beyond their years, still they were living under their parents' roof, and those parents two of the wisest and best of Scotland's peasantry. Work was no doubt incessant, but education was not neglected—rather it was held one of the most sacred duties. When Robert was five years old, he had been sent to a school at Alloway Mill, and when the family removed to Mount Oliphant, his father combined with four of his neighbours to hire a young teacher, who boarded among them, and taught their children for a small salary. This young teacher, whose name was Murdoch, has left an interesting description of his two young pupils, their parents, and the household life while he sojourned at Mount Oliphant. At that time Murdoch thought that Gilbert possessed a livelier imagination, and was more of a wit than Robert. "All the mirth and liveliness," he says, "were with Gilbert. Robert's countenance at that time wore generally a grave and thoughtful look." Had their teacher been then told that one of his two pupils would become a great poet, he would have fixed on Gilbert. When he tried to teach them church music along with other rustic lads, they two lagged far behind the rest. Robert's voice especially was untuneable, and his ear so dull, that it was with difficulty he could distinguish one tune from another. Yet this was he who was to (p. 006) become the greatest song-writer that Scotland—perhaps the world—has known. In other respects the mental training of the lads was of the most thorough kind. Murdoch taught them not only to read, but to parse, and to give the exact meaning of the words, to turn verse into the prose order, to supply ellipses, and to substitute plain for poetic words and phrases. How many of our modern village schools even attempt as much? When Murdoch gave up, the father himself undertook the education of his children, and carried it on at night after work-hours were over. Of that father Murdoch speaks as by far the best man he ever knew. Tender and affectionate towards his children he describes him, seeking not to drive, but to lead them to the right, by appealing to their conscience and their better feelings, rather than to their fears. To his wife he was gentle and considerate in an unusual degree, always thinking of her ease and comfort; and she repaid it with the utmost reverence. She was a careful and thrifty housewife, but, whenever her domestic tasks allowed, she would return to hang with devout attention on the discourse that fell from her wise husband. Under that father's guidance knowledge was sought for as hid treasure, and this search was based on the old and reverential faith that increase of knowledge is increase of wisdom and goodness. The readings of the household were wide, varied, and unceasing. Some one entering the house at meal-time found the whole family seated, each with a spoon in one hand and a book in the other. The books which Burns mentions as forming part of their reading at Mount Oliphant surprise us even now. Not only the ordinary school-books and geographies, not only the traditional life of Wallace and other popular books of that (p. 007) sort, but The Spectator, odd plays of Shakespeare, Pope (his Homer included), Locke on the Human Understanding, Boyle's Lectures, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, Allan Ramsay's works, formed the staple of their reading. Above all there was a collection of songs, of which Burns says, "This was my vade mecum. I pored over them driving my cart, or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse; carefully noting the true tender or sublime, from affectation and fustian, I am convinced I owe to this practice much of my critic-craft, such as it is!" And he could not have learnt it in a better way.
There are few countries in the world which could at that time have produced in humble life such a teacher as Murdoch and such a father as William Burness. It seems fitting, then, that a country which could rear such men among its peasantry should give birth to such a poet as Robert Burns to represent them. The books which fed his young intellect were devoured only during intervals snatched from hard toil. That toil was no doubt excessive. And this early over-strain showed itself soon in the stoop of his shoulders, in nervous disorder about the heart, and in frequent fits of despondency. Yet perhaps too much has sometimes been made of these bodily hardships, as though Burns's boyhood had been one long misery. But the youth which grew up in so kindly an atmosphere of wisdom and home affection, under the eye of such a father and mother, cannot be called unblest.
Under the pressure of toil and the entire want of society, Burns might have grown up the rude and clownish and unpopular lad that he has been pictured in his early teens. But in his fifteenth summer there came to him a new influence, which at one touch unlocked the springs of (p. 008) new emotions. This incident must be given in his own words:—"You know," he says, "our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labours of the harvest. In my fifteenth summer my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language, but you know the Scottish idiom. She was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she, altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me in that delicious passion, which, in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence, and book-worm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys here below! How she caught the contagion I cannot tell.... Indeed I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her, when returning in the evening from our labours; why the tones of her voice made my heartstrings thrill like an AEolian harp; and especially why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand, to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Among her love-inspiring qualities, she sung sweetly; and it was her favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme. I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like printed ones, composed by men who read Greek and Latin; but my girl sung a song which was said to be composed by a country laird's son, on one of his father's maids with whom he was in love; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he; for, excepting that he could shear sheep, and cast peats, his father living in the moorlands, he had no more scholar-craft than myself. Thus with me began love and poetry."
The song he then composed is entitled "Handsome Nell," and is the (p. 009) first he ever wrote. He himself speaks of it as very puerile and silly—a verdict which Chambers endorses, but in which I cannot agree. Simple and artless it no doubt is, but with a touch of that grace which bespeaks the true poet. Here is one verse which, for directness of feeling and felicity of language, he hardly ever surpassed:—
She dresses aye sae clean and neat, Baith decent and genteel, And then there's something in her gait Gars ony dress look weel.
"I composed it," says Burns, "in a wild enthusiasm of passion, and to this hour I never recollect it but my heart melts, my blood sallies at the remembrance."
LOCHLEA.—Escaped from the fangs of the factor, with some remnant of means, William Burness removed from Mount Oliphant to Lochlea in the parish of Tarbolton (1777), an upland undulating farm, on the north bank of the River Ayr, with a wide outlook, southward over the hills of Carrick, westward toward the Isle of Arran, Ailsa Craig, and down the Firth of Clyde, toward the Western Sea. This was the home of Burns and his family from his eighteenth till his twenty-fifth year. For a time the family life here was more comfortable than before, probably because several of the children were now able to assist their parents in farm labour. "These seven years," says Gilbert Burns, "brought small literary improvement to Robert," but I can hardly believe this when we remember that Lochlea saw the composition of The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, and of My Nannie, O, and one or two more of his most popular songs. It was during those days that Robert, (p. 010) then growing into manhood, first ventured to step beyond the range of his father's control, and to trust the promptings of his own social instincts and headlong passions. The first step in this direction was to go to a dancing school, in a neighbouring village, that he might there meet companions of either sex, and give his rustic manners "a brush," as he phrases it. The next step was taken when Burns resolved to spend his nineteenth summer in Kirkoswald, to learn mensuration and surveying from the schoolmaster there, who was famous as a teacher of these things. Griswold, on the Carrick coast, was a village full of smugglers and adventurers, in whose society Burns was introduced to scenes of what he calls "swaggering riot and roaring dissipation." It may readily be believed that with his strong love of sociality and excitement he was an apt pupil in that school. Still the mensuration went on till one day, when in the kail-yard behind the teachers house, Burns met a young lass, who set his heart on fire, and put an end to mensuration. This incident is celebrated in the song beginning—
Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns Bring Autumn's pleasant weather,—
"the ebullition," he calls it, "of that passion which ended the school business at Kirkoswald."
From this time on for several years, love making was his chief amusement, or rather his most serious business. His brother tells us that he was in the secret of half the love affairs of the parish of Tarbolton, and was never without at least one of his own. There was not a comely girl in Tarbolton on whom he did not compose a song, and then he made one which included them all. When he was thus inly (p. 011) moved, "the agitations of his mind and body," says Gilbert, "exceeded anything of the kind I ever knew in real life. He had always a particular jealousy of people who were richer than himself, or had more consequence. His love therefore rarely settled on persons of this description." The jealousy here noted, as extending even to his loves, was one of the weakest points of the poet's character. Of the ditties of that time, most of which have been preserved, the best specimen is My Nannie, O. This song, and the one entitled Mary Morison render the whole scenery and sentiment of those rural meetings in a manner at once graphic and free from coarseness. Yet, truth to speak, it must be said that those gloaming trysts, however they may touch the imagination and lend themselves to song, do in reality lie at the root of much that degrades the life and habits of the Scottish peasantry.
But those first three or four years at Lochlea, if not free from peril, were still with the poet times of innocence. His brother Gilbert, in the words of Chambers, "used to speak of his brother as at this period, to himself, a more admirable being than at any other. He recalled with delight the days when they had to go with one or two companions to cut peats for the winter fuel, because Robert was sure to enliven their toil with a rattling fire of witty remarks on men and things, mingled with the expressions of a genial glowing heart, and the whole perfectly free from the taint which he afterwards acquired from his contact with the world. Not even in those volumes which afterwards charmed his country from end to end, did Gilbert see his brother in so interesting a light as in these conversations in the bog, with only two or three noteless peasants for an audience."
While Gilbert acknowledges that his brother's love-makings were at (p. 012) this time unceasing, he asserts that they were "governed by the strictest rules of virtue and modesty, from which he never deviated till he reached his twenty-third year." It was towards the close of his twenty-second that there occurs the record of his first serious desire to marry and settle in life. He had set his affections on a young woman named Ellison Begbie, daughter of a small farmer, and at that time servant in a family on Cessnock Water, about two miles from Lochlea. She is said to have been not a beauty, but of unusual liveliness and grace of mind. Long afterwards, when he had seen much of the world, Burns spoke of this young woman as, of all those on whom he ever fixed his fickle affections, the one most likely to have made a pleasant partner for life. Four letters which he wrote to her are preserved, in which he expresses the most pure and honourable feelings in language which, if a little formal, is, for manliness and simplicity, a striking contrast to the bombast of some of his later epistles. Songs, too, he addressed to her—The Lass of Cessnock Banks, Bonnie Peggy Alison, and Mary Morison. The two former are inconsiderable; the latter is one of those pure and beautiful love-lyrics, in the manner of the old ballads, which, as Hazlitt says, "take the deepest and most lasting hold on the mind."
Yestreen, when to the trembling string, The dance gaed thro' the lighted ha', To thee my fancy took its wing, I sat, but neither heard nor saw: Tho' this was fair, and that was braw, And yon the toast of a' the town, I sigh'd, and said amang them a', "Ye are na Mary Morison."
Oh, Mary, canst thou wreck his peace, (p. 013) Wha for thy sake wad gladly die; Or canst thou break that heart of his, Whase only faut is loving thee? 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.
In these lines the lyric genius of Burns was for the first time undeniably revealed.
But neither letters nor love-songs prevailed. The young woman, for some reason untold, was deaf to his entreaties, and the rejection of this his best affection fell on him with a malign influence, just as he was setting his face to learn a trade which he hoped would enable him to maintain a wife.
Irvine was at that time a centre of the flax-dressing art, and as Robert and his brother raised flax on their farm, they hoped that if they could dress as well as grow flax, they might thereby double their profits. As he met with this heavy disappointment in love just as he was setting out for Irvine, he went thither downhearted and depressed, at Midsummer, 1781. All who met him at that time were struck with his look of melancholy, and his moody silence, from which he roused himself only when in pleasant female society, or when he met with men of intelligence. But the persons of this sort whom he met in Irvine were probably few. More numerous were the smugglers and rough-living adventurers with which that seaport town, as Kirkoswald, swarmed. Among these he contracted, says Gilbert, "some acquaintance of a freer manner of thinking and living than he had been used to, whose society prepared him for over-leaping the bonds of rigid virtue which had hitherto restrained him." One companion, a sailor-lad of wild life (p. 014) and loose and irregular habits, had a wonderful fascination for Burns, who admired him for what he thought his independence and magnanimity. "He was," says Burns, "the only man I ever knew who was a greater fool than myself, where woman was the presiding star; but he spoke of lawless love with levity, which hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a mischief."
Another companion, older than himself, thinking that the religious views of Burns were too rigid and uncompromising, induced him to adopt "more liberal opinions," which in this case, as in so many others, meant more lax opinions. With his principles of belief, and his rules of conduct at once assailed and undermined, what chart or compass remained any more for a passionate being like Burns over the passion-swept sea of life that lay before him? The migration to Irvine was to him the descent to Avernus, from which he never afterwards, in the actual conduct of life, however often in his hours of inspiration, escaped to breathe again the pure upper air. This brief but disastrous Irvine sojourn was brought to a sudden close. Burns was robbed by his partner in trade, his flax-dressing shop was burnt to the ground by fire during the carousal of a New Year's morning, and himself, impaired in purse, in spirits, and in character, returned to Lochlea to find misfortunes thickening round his family, and his father on his death-bed. For the old man, his long struggle with scanty means, barren soil, and bad seasons, was now near its close. Consumption had set in. Early in 1784, when his last hour drew on, the father said that there was one of his children of whose future he could not think without fear. Robert, who was in the room, came up to his bedside (p. 015) and asked, "O father, is it me you mean?" The old man said it was. Robert turned to the window, with tears streaming down his cheeks, and his bosom swelling, from the restraint he put on himself, almost to bursting. The father had early perceived the genius that was in his boy, and even in Mount Oliphant days had said to his wife, "Whoever lives to see it, something extraordinary will come from that boy." He had lived to see and admire his son's earliest poetic efforts. But he had also noted the strong passions, with the weak will, which might drive him on the shoals of life.
MOSSGIEL.—Towards the close of 1783, Robert and his brother, seeing clearly the crash of family affairs which was impending, had taken on their own account a lease of the small farm of Mossgiel, about two or three miles distant from Lochlea, in the parish of Mauchline. When their father died in February, 1784, it was only by claiming the arrears of wages due to them, and ranking among their father's creditors, that they saved enough from the domestic wreck, to stock their new farm. Thither they conveyed their widowed mother, and their younger brothers and sisters, in March, 1784. Their new home was a bare upland farm, 118 acres of cold clay-soil, lying within a mile of Mauchline village. Burns entered on it with a firm resolution to be prudent, industrious, and thrifty. In his own words, "I read farming books, I calculated crops, I attended markets, and, in short, in spite of the devil, the world, and the flesh, I should have been a wise man; but the first year from unfortunately buying bad seed—the second, from a late harvest, we lost half our crops. This overset all my wisdom, and I returned like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire." Burns was in the beginning (p. 016) of his twenty-sixth year when he took up his abode at Mossgiel, where he remained for four years. Three things those years and that bare moorland farm witnessed,—the wreck of his hopes as a farmer, the revelation of his genius as a poet, and the frailty of his character as a man. The result of the immoral habits and "liberal opinions" which he had learnt at Irvine were soon apparent in that event of which he speaks in his Epistle to John Rankine with such unbecoming levity. In the Chronological Edition of his works it is painful to read on one page the pathetic lines which he engraved on his father's headstone, and a few pages on, written almost at the same time, the epistle above alluded to, and other poems in the same strain, in which the defiant poet glories in his shame. It was well for the old man that he was laid in Alloway Kirkyard before these things befell. But the widowed mother had to bear the burden, and to receive in her home and bring up the child that should not have been born. When silence and shame would have most become him, Burns poured forth his feelings in ribald verses, and bitterly satirized the parish minister, who required him to undergo that public penance which the discipline of the Church at that time exacted. Whether this was a wise discipline or not, no blame attached to the minister, who merely carried out the rules which his Church enjoined. It was no proof of magnanimity in Burns to use his talent in reviling the minister, who had done nothing more than his duty. One can hardly doubt but that in his inmost heart he must have been visited with other and more penitential feelings than those unseemly verses express. But, as Lockhart has well observed, "his false pride recoiled from letting his jovial associates know (p. 017) how little he was able to drown the whispers of the still small voice; and the fermenting bitterness of a mind ill at ease within himself escaped—as may be often traced in the history of satirists—in angry sarcasms against those who, whatever their private errors might be, had at least done him no wrong." Mr. Carlyle's comment on this crisis of his life is too weighty to be omitted here. "With principles assailed by evil example from without, by 'passions raging like demons' from within, he had little need of sceptical misgivings to whisper treason in the heat of the battle, or to cut off his retreat if he were already defeated. He loses his feeling of innocence; his mind is at variance with itself; the old divinity no longer presides there; but wild Desires and wild Repentance alternately oppress him. Ere long, too, he has committed himself before the world; his character for sobriety, dear to a Scottish peasant as few corrupted worldlings can even conceive, is destroyed in the eyes of men; and his only refuge consists in trying to disbelieve his guiltiness, and is but a refuge of lies. The blackest desperation gathers over him, broken only by the red lightnings of remorse." Amid this trouble it was but a poor vanity and miserable love of notoriety which could console itself with the thought
The mair they talk, I'm kent the better, E'en let them clash.
Or was this not vanity at all, but the bitter irony of self-reproach?
This collision with the minister and Kirk Session of his parish, and the bitter feelings it engendered in his rebellious bosom, at once launched Burns into the troubled sea of religious controversy that was at that time raging all around him. The clergy of the West were divided into two parties, known as the Auld Lights and the New Lights. (p. 018) Ayrshire and the west of Scotland had long been the stronghold of Presbyterianism and of the Covenanting spirit; and in Burns's day—a century and a half after the Covenant—a large number of the ministers still adhered to its principles, and preached the Puritan theology undiluted. These men were democratic in their ecclesiastical views, and stout protestors against Patronage, which has always been the bugbear of the sects in Scotland. As Burns expresses it, they did their best to stir up their flocks to
Join their counsel and their skills To cowe the lairds, An' get the brutes the power themsels To chuse their herds.
All Burns's instincts would naturally have been on the side of those who wished to resist patronage and "to cowe the lairds," had not this his natural tendency been counteracted by a stronger bias drawing him in an opposite direction. The Auld Lights, though democrats in Church politics, were the upholders of that strict church discipline under which he was smarting, and to this party belonged his own minister, who had brought that discipline to bear upon him. Burns, therefore, naturally threw himself into the arms of the opposite, or New Light party, who were more easy in their life and in their doctrine. This large and growing section of ministers were deeply imbued with rationalism, or, as they then called it, "common-sense," in the light of which they pared away from religion all that was mysterious and supernatural. Some of them were said to be Socinians or even pure Deists, most of them shone less in the pulpit, than at the festive board. (p. 019) With such men a person in Burns's then state of mind would readily sympathize, and they received him with open arms. Nothing could have been more unfortunate than that in this crisis of his career he should have fallen into intimacy with those hard-headed but coarse-minded men. They were the first persons of any pretensions to scholarly education with whom he had mingled freely. He amused them with the sallies of his wit and sarcasm, and astonished them by his keen insight and vigorous powers of reasoning. They abetted those very tendencies in his nature which required to be checked. Their countenance, as clergymen, would allay the scruples and misgivings he might otherwise have felt, and stimulate to still wilder recklessness whatever profanity he might be tempted to indulge in. When he had let loose his first shafts of satire against their stricter brethren, those New Light ministers heartily applauded him; and hounded him on to still more daring assaults. He had not only his own quarrel with his parish minister and the stricter clergy to revenge, but the quarrel also of his friend and landlord, Gavin Hamilton, a county lawyer, who had fallen under Church censure for neglect of Church ordinances, and had been debarred from the Communion. Burns espoused Gavin's cause with characteristic zeal, and let fly new arrows one after another from his satirical quiver.
The first of these satires against the orthodox ministers was The Twa Herds, or the Holy Tulzie, written on a quarrel between two brother clergymen. Then followed in quick succession Holy Willie's Prayer, The Ordination, and The Holy Fair. His good mother and his brother were pained by these performances, and remonstrated against them. But Burns, though he generally gave ear to their counsel, in this (p. 020) instance turned a deaf ear to it, and listened to other advisers. The love of exercising his strong powers of satire and the applause of his boon-companions, lay and clerical, prevailed over the whispers of his own better nature and the advice of his truest friends. Whatever may be urged in defence of employing satire to lash hypocrisy, I cannot but think that those who have loved most what is best in Burns' poetry must have regretted that these poems were ever written. Some have commended them on the ground that they have exposed religious pretence and Pharisaism. The good they may have done in this way is perhaps doubtful. But the harm they have done in Scotland is not doubtful, in that they have connected in the minds of the people so many coarse and even profane thoughts with objects which they had regarded till then with reverence. Even The Holy Fair, the poem in this kind which is least offensive, turns on the abuses that then attended the celebration of the Holy Communion in rural parishes, and with great power portrays those gatherings in their most mundane aspects. Yet, as Lockhart has well remarked, those things were part of the same religious system which produced the scenes which Burns has so beautifully described in The Cotter's Saturday Night. Strange that the same mind, almost at the same moment, should have conceived two poems so different in spirit as The Cotter's Saturday Night and The Holy Fair!
I have dwelt thus long on these unpleasant satires that I may not have again to return to them. It is a more welcome task to turn to the other poems of the same period. Though Burns had entered on Mossgiel resolved to do his best as a farmer, he soon discovered that it was not in that way he was to attain success. The crops of 1784 and (p. 021) 1785 both failed, and their failure seems to have done something to drive him in on his own internal resources. He then for the first time seems to have awakened to the conviction that his destiny was to be a poet; and he forthwith set himself, with more resolution than he ever showed before or after, to fulfil that mission. Hitherto he had complained that his life had been without an aim; now he determined that it should be so no longer. The dawning hope began to gladden him that he might take his place among the bards of Scotland, who, themselves mostly unknown, have created that atmosphere of minstrelsy which envelopes and glorifies their native country. This hope and aim is recorded in an entry of his commonplace book, of the probable date of August, 1784:—
"However I am pleased with the works of our Scotch poets, particularly the excellent Ramsay, and the still more excellent Fergusson, yet I am hurt to see other places of Scotland, their towns, rivers, woods, and haughs, immortalized in such celebrated performances, while my dear native country,—the ancient bailieries of Carrick, Kyle, and Cunningham, famous both in ancient and modern times for a gallant and warlike race of inhabitants—a country where civil, and particularly religious liberty, have ever found their first support, and their last asylum—a country, the birthplace of many famous philosophers, soldiers, and statesmen, and the scene of many important events recorded in Scottish history, particularly a great many of the actions of the glorious Wallace, the saviour of his country—yet we have never had one Scotch poet of any eminence to make the fertile banks of Irvine, the romantic woodlands and sequestered scenes of Ayr, and the heathy mountainous source and winding sweep of Doon, emulate Tay, Forth, Ettrick, (p. 022) Tweed. This is a complaint I would gladly remedy; but, alas! I am far unequal to the task, both, in native genius and in education. Obscure I am, obscure I must be, though no young poet nor young soldier's heart ever beat more fondly for fame than mine."
Though the sentiment here expressed may seem commonplace and the language hardly grammatical, yet this extract clearly reveals the darling ambition that was now haunting the heart of Burns. It was the same wish which he expressed better in rhyme at a later day in his Epistle to the Gude Wife of Wauchope House.
E'en then, a wish, I mind its power, A wish that to my latest hour Shall strongly heave my breast, That I for poor Auld Scotland's sake Some usefu' plan or beuk could make, Or sing a sang at least. The rough burr-thistle, spreading wide Amang the bearded bear, I turn'd the weeder-clips aside, An' spar'd the symbol dear.
It was about his twenty-fifth year when he first conceived the hope that he might become a national poet. The failure of his first two harvests, 1784 and '85, in Mossgiel may well have strengthened this desire and changed it into a fixed purpose. If he was not to succeed as a farmer, might he not find success in another employment that was much more to his mind?
And this longing so deeply cherished, he had, within less than two years from the time that the above entry in his diary was written, amply fulfilled. From the autumn of 1784 till May 1786 the fountains of poetry were unsealed within, and flowed forth in a continuous stream. That period so prolific of poetry that none like it ever (p. 023) afterwards visited him, saw the production not only of the satirical poems already noticed, and of another more genial satire, Death and Dr. Hornbook, but also of those characteristic epistles in which he reveals so much of his own character, and of those other descriptive poems in which he so wonderfully delineates the habits of the Scottish peasantry.
Within from sixteen to eighteen months were composed, not only seven or eight long epistles to rhyme-composing brothers in the neighbourhood, David Sillar, John Lapraik, and others, but also, Halloween, To a Mouse, The Jolly Beggars, The Cotter's Saturday Night, Address to the Deil, The Auld Farmer's Address to his Auld Mare, The Vision, The Twa Dogs, The Mountain Daisy. The descriptive poems above named followed each other in rapid succession during that spring-time of his genius, having been all composed, as the latest edition of his works shows, in a period of about six months, between November, 1785, and April, 1786. Perhaps there are none of Burns' compositions which give the real man more naturally and unreservedly than his epistles. Written in the dialect he had learnt by his father's fireside, to friends in his own station, who shared his own tastes and feelings, they flow on in an easy stream of genial happy spirits, in which kindly humour, wit, love of the outward world, knowledge of men, are all beautifully intertwined into one strand of poetry, unlike anything else that has been seen before or since. The outward form of the verse and the style of diction are no doubt after the manner of his two forerunners whom he so much admired, Ramsay and Fergusson; but the play of soul and power of expression, the natural grace with which they rise and fall, the vividness of every image, (p. 024) and transparent truthfulness of every sentiment, are all his own. If there is any exception to be made to this estimate, it is in the grudge which here and there peeps out against those whom he thought greater favourites of fortune than himself and his correspondents. But taken as a whole, I know not any poetic epistles to be compared with them. They are just the letters in which one friend might unbosom himself to another without the least artifice or disguise. And the broad Doric is so pithy, so powerful, so aptly fitted to the thought, that not even Horace himself has surpassed it in "curious felicity." Often, when harvests were failing and the world going against him, he found his solace in pouring forth in rhyme his feelings to some trusted friend. As he says in one of these same epistles,—
Leeze me on rhyme! it's aye a treasure, My chief, amaist my only pleasure, At hame, a-fiel', at wark, at leisure, The Muse, poor hizzie! Tho' rough an' raploch be her measure, She's seldom lazy.
Of the poems founded on the customs of the peasantry, I shall speak in the sequel. The garret in which all the poems of this period were written is thus described by Chambers:—"The farmhouse of Mossgiel, which still exists almost unchanged since the days of the poet, is very small, consisting of only two rooms, a but and a ben as they are called in Scotland. Over these, reached by a trap stair, is a small garret, in which Robert and his brother used to sleep. Thither, when he had returned from his day's work, the poet used to retire, and seat himself at a small deal table, lighted by a narrow skylight in the roof, to transcribe the verses which he had composed in the fields. His (p. 025) favourite time for composition was at the plough. Long years afterwards his sister, Mrs. Begg, used to tell how when her brother had gone forth again to field work, she would steal up to the garret and search the drawer of the deal table for the verses which Robert had newly transcribed."
In which of the poems of this period his genius is most conspicuous it might not be easy to determine. But there can be little question about the justice of Lockhart's remark, that "The Cotter's Saturday Night is of all Burns's pieces the one whose exclusion from the collection would be most injurious, if not to the genius of the poet, at least to the character of the man. In spite of many feeble lines, and some heavy stanzas, it appears to me that even his genius would suffer more in estimation by being contemplated in the absence of this poem, than of any other single poem he has left us." Certainly it is the one which has most endeared his name to the more thoughtful and earnest of his countrymen. Strange it is, not to say painful, to think that this poem, in which the simple and manly piety of his country is so finely touched, and the image of his own religious father so beautifully portrayed, should have come from the same hand which wrote nearly at the same time The Jolly Beggars, The Ordination, and The Holy Fair.
During those two years at Mossgiel, from 1784 to 1786, when the times were hard, and the farm unproductive, Burns must indeed have found poetry to be, as he himself says, its own reward. A nature like his required some vent for itself, some excitement to relieve the pressure of dull farm drudgery, and this was at once his purest and noblest excitement. In two other more hazardous forms of excitement he was by temperament disposed to seek refuge. These were conviviality and (p. 026) love-making. In the former of these, Gilbert says that he indulged little, if at all, during his Mossgiel period. And this seems proved by his brother's assertion that during all that time Robert's private expenditure never exceeded seven pounds a year. When he had dressed himself on this, and procured his other necessaries, the margin that remained for drinking must have been small indeed. But love-making—that had been with him, ever since he reached manhood, an unceasing employment. Even in his later teens he had, as his earliest songs show, given himself enthusiastically to those nocturnal meetings, which were then and are still customary among the peasantry of Scotland, and which at the best are full of perilous temptation. But ever since the time when, during his Irvine sojourn, he forsook the paths of innocence, there is nothing in any of his love-affairs which those who prize what was best in Burns would not willingly forget. If here we allude to two such incidents, it is because they are too intimately bound up with his life to be passed over in any account of it. Gilbert says that while "one generally reigned paramount in Robert's affections, he was frequently encountering other attractions, which formed so many underplots in the drama of his love." This is only too evident in those two loves which most closely touched his destiny at this time.
From the time of his settlement at Mossgiel frequent allusions occur in his letters and poems to flirtations with the belles of the neighbouring village of Mauchline. Among all these Jean Armour, the daughter of a respectable master-mason in that village, had the chief place in his affections. All through 1785 their courtship had continued, but early in 1786 a secret and irregular marriage, with (p. 027) a written acknowledgment of it had to be effected. Then followed the father's indignation that his daughter should be married to so wild and worthless a man as Burns; compulsion of his daughter to give up Burns, and to destroy the document which vouched their marriage; Burns's despair driving him to the verge of insanity; the letting loose by the Armours of the terrors of the law against him; his skulking for a time in concealment; his resolve to emigrate to the West Indies, and become a slave-driver. All these things were passing in the spring months of 1786, and in September of the same year Jean Armour became the mother of twin children.
It would be well if we might believe that the story of his betrothal to Highland Mary was, as Lockhart seems to have thought, previous to and independent of the incidents just mentioned. But the more recent investigations of Mr. Scott Douglas and Dr. Chambers have made it too painfully clear that it was almost at the very time when he was half distracted by Jean Armour's desertion of him, and while he was writing his broken-hearted Lament over her conduct, that there occurred, as an interlude, the episode of Mary Campbell. This simple and sincere-hearted girl from Argyllshire was, Lockhart says, the object of by far the deepest passion Burns ever knew. And Lockhart gives at length the oft-told tale how, on the second Sunday of May, 1786, they met in a sequestered spot by the banks of the River Ayr, to spend one day of parting love; how they stood, one on either side of a small brook, laved their hands in the stream, and, holding a Bible between them, vowed eternal fidelity to each other. They then parted, never again to meet. In October of the same year Mary came from Argyllshire, as far as Greenock, in the hope of meeting Burns, but she was (p. 028) there seized with a malignant fever which soon laid her in an early grave.
The Bible, in two volumes, which Burns gave her on that parting day, has been recently recovered. On the first volume is inscribed, in Burns's hand, "And ye shall not swear by My Name falsely, I am the Lord. Levit. 19th chap. 12th verse;" and on the second volume, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oath. Matth. 5th chap. 33rd verse." But the names of Mary Campbell and Robert Burns, which were originally inscribed on the volumes, have been almost obliterated. It has been suggested by Mr. Scott Douglas, the most recent editor who has investigated anew the whole incident, that, "in the whirl of excitement which soon followed that Sunday, Burns forgot his vow to poor Mary, and that she, heart-sore at his neglect, deleted the names from this touching memorial of their secret betrothal."
Certain it is that in the very next month, June, 1786, we find Burns, in writing to one of his friends about "poor, ill-advised, ungrateful Armour," declaring that, "to confess a truth between you and me, I do still love her to distraction after all, though I won't tell her so if I were to see her." And Chambers even suggests that there was still a third love interwoven, at this very time, in the complicated web of Burns's fickle affections. Burns, though he wrote several poems about Highland Mary, which afterwards appeared, never mentioned her name to any of his family. Even, if there was no more in the story than what has been here given, no wonder that a heart like Burns, which, for all its unsteadfastness, never lost its sensibility, nor even a sense of conscience, should have been visited by the remorse which forms the burden of the lyric to Mary in heaven, written three years after. (p. 029)
See'st thou thy lover lowly laid? Hear'st thou the pangs that rend his breast?
The misery of his condition, about the time when Highland Mary died, and the conflicting feelings which agitated him, are depicted in the following extract from a letter which he wrote probably about October, 1786, to his friend Robert Aiken:—
"There are many things that plead strongly against it [seeking a place in the Excise]: the uncertainty of getting soon into business; the consequences of my follies, which perhaps make it impracticable for me to stay at home; and, besides, I have been for some time pining under secret wretchedness, from causes which you pretty well know—the pang of disappointment, the sting of pride, with some wandering stabs of remorse, which never fail to settle on my vitals like vultures, when attention is not called away by the calls of society or the vagaries of the Muse. Even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner. All these reasons urge me to go abroad, and to all these reasons I have only one answer—the feelings of a father. This, in the present mood I am in, overbalances everything that can be laid in the scale against it. You may perhaps think it an extravagant fancy, but it is a sentiment which strikes home to my very soul; though sceptical in some points of our current belief, yet I think I have every evidence for the reality of a life beyond the stinted bourne of our present existence: if so, then how should I, in the presence of that tremendous Being, the Author of existence, how should I meet the reproaches of those who stand to me in the dear relation of children, whom I deserted in (p. 030) the smiling innocency of helpless infancy? Oh, Thou great unknown Power! Thou Almighty God! who hast lighted up reason in my breast, and blessed me with immortality! I have frequently wandered from that order and regularity necessary for the perfection of Thy works, yet Thou hast never left me nor forsaken me...."
* * * * *
"You see, sir, that if to know one's errors were a probability of mending them, I stand a fair chance; but, according to the reverend Westminster divines, though conviction must precede conversion, it is very far from always implying it."
This letter exhibits the tumult of soul in which he had been tossed during the last six months before it was written. He had by his own conduct wound round himself complications from which he could not extricate himself, yet which he could not but poignantly feel. One cannot read of the "wandering stabs of remorse" of which he speaks, without thinking of Highland Mary.
Some months before the above letter was written, in the April of the same year, at the time when he first fell into trouble with Jean Armour and her father, Burns had resolved to leave his country and sail for the West Indies. He agreed with a Mr. Douglas to go to Jamaica and become a book-keeper on his estate there. But how were funds to be got to pay his passage-money? His friend Gavin Hamilton suggested that the needed sum might be raised, if he were to publish by subscription, the poems he had lying in his table-drawer.
Accordingly, in April, the publication of his poems was resolved on. His friends, Gavin Hamilton of Mauchline, Aiken and Ballantyne of Ayr, Muir and Parker of Kilmarnock, and others—all did their best to (p. 031) get the subscription lists quickly filled. The last-named person put down his own name for thirty-five copies. The printing of them was committed to John Wilson, a printer in Kilmarnock, and during May, June, and July of 1786, the work of the press was going forward. In the interval between the resolution to publish and the appearance of the poems, during his distraction about Jean Armour's conduct, followed by the episode of Highland Mary, Burns gave vent to his own dark feelings in some of the saddest strains that ever fell from him—the lines on The Mountain Daisy, The Lament, the Odes to Despondency and to Ruin. And yet so various were his moods, so versatile his powers, that it was during that same interval that he composed, in a very different vein, The Twa Dogs, and probably also his satire of The Holy Fair. The following is the account the poet gives of these transactions in the autobiographical sketch of himself which he communicated to Dr. Moore:—
"I now began to be known in the neighbourhood as a maker of rhymes. The first of my poetic offspring that saw light was a burlesque lamentation of a quarrel between two reverend Calvinists; both of them were dramatis personae in my Holy Fair. I had a notion myself, that the piece had some merit; but to prevent the worst, I gave a copy of it to a friend who was fond of such things, and told him that I could not guess who was the author of it, but that I thought it pretty clever. With a certain description of the clergy as well as the laity, it met with a roar of applause.
"Holy Willie's Prayer next made its appearance, and alarmed the Kirk Session so much, that they held several meetings to look over their spiritual artillery, if haply any of it might be pointed against (p. 032) profane rhymers. Unluckily for me, my wandering led me on another side, within point-blank shot of their heaviest metal. This is the unfortunate incident which gave rise to my printed poem, The Lament. This was a most melancholy affair, which I cannot yet bear to reflect on, and had very nearly given me one or two of the principal qualifications for a place among those who have lost the chart and mistaken the reckoning of Rationality.
"I gave up my part of the farm to my brother, and made what little preparation was in my power for Jamaica. But, before leaving my native country for ever, I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my productions as impartially as was in my power; I thought they had merit; and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears—a poor negro-driver, or perhaps a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits! I can truly say, that pauvre inconnu as I then was, I had pretty nearly as high an idea of my works as I have at this moment, when the public has decided in their favour....
"I threw off about six hundred copies, of which I got subscriptions for about three hundred and fifty. My vanity was highly gratified by the reception I met with from the public; and besides, I pocketed, all expenses deducted, nearly twenty pounds. This sum came very seasonably, as I was thinking of indenting myself, for want of money, to procure a passage. As soon as I was master of nine guineas, the price of wafting me to the torrid zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde, for
Hungry ruin had me in the wind.
"I had been for some days skulking from covert to covert, under (p. 033) all the terrors of a jail, as some ill-advised people had uncoupled the merciless pack of the law at my heels. I had taken the last farewell of my friends; my chest was on the way to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Caledonia, 'The gloomy night is gathering fast,' when a letter from Dr. Blackwood to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening up new prospects to my poetic ambition."
It was at the close of July while Burns was, according to his own account, "wandering from one friend's house to another," to avoid the jail with which he was threatened by Jean Armour's father, that the volume appeared, containing the immortal poems (1786). That Burns himself had some true estimate of their real worth is shown by the way in which he expresses himself in his preface to his volume.
Ushered in with what Lockhart calls, a "modest and manly preface," the Kilmarnock volume went forth to the world. The fame of it spread at once like wild-fire throughout Ayrshire and the parts adjacent. This is the account of its reception given by Robert Heron, a young literary man, who was at that time living in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright:—"Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I can well remember how even ploughboys and maid-servants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might procure the works of Burns." The edition consisted of six hundred copies—three hundred and fifty had been subscribed for before publication, and the remainder seems to have been sold off in about two mouths from their first (p. 034) appearance. When all expenses were paid, Burns received twenty pounds as his share of the profits. Small as this sum was, it would have more than sufficed to convey him to the West Indies; and, accordingly, with nine pounds of it he took a steerage passage in a vessel which was expected to sail from Greenock at the beginning of September. But from one cause or another the day of sailing was postponed, his friends began to talk of trying to get him a place in the Excise, his fame was rapidly widening in his own country, and his powers were finding a response in minds superior to any which he had hitherto known. Up to this time he had not associated with any persons of a higher grade than the convivial lawyers of Mauchline and Ayr, and the mundane ministers of the New Light school. But now persons of every rank were anxious to become acquainted with the wonderful Ayrshire Ploughman, for it was by that name he now began to be known, just as in the next generation another poet of as humble birth was spoken of as The Ettrick Shepherd. The first persons of a higher order who sought the acquaintanceship of Burns were Dugald Stewart and Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. The former of these two was the celebrated Scotch metaphysician, one of the chief ornaments of Edinburgh and its University at the close of last and the beginning of this century. He happened to be passing the summer at Catrine, on the Ayr, a few miles from Burns's farm, and having been made acquainted with the poet's works and character by Mr. Mackenzie, the surgeon of Mauchline, he invited the poet and the medical man to dine with him at Catrine. The day of this meeting was the 23rd of October, only three days after that on which Highland Mary died. Burns met on that day not only the professor (p. 035) and his accomplished wife, but for the first time in his life dined with a live lord—a young nobleman, said to have been of high promise, Lord Daer, eldest son of the then Earl of Selkirk. He had been a former pupil of Dugald Stewart, and happened to be at that time his guest. Burns has left the following humorous record of his own feelings at that meeting:—
This wot ye all whom it concerns, I, Rhymer Robin, alias Burns, October twenty-third, A ne'er to be forgotten day, Sae far I sprachled up the brae [clambered], I dinner'd wi' a Lord.
* * * * *
But wi' a Lord! stand out my shin, A Lord,—a Peer, an Earl's Son! Up higher yet my bonnet! And sic a Lord! lang Scotch ells twa, Our Peerage he o'erlooks them a', As I look o'er a sonnet.
But oh for Hogarth's magic power! To show Sir Bardie's willyart glower [bewildered], And how he stared and stammered, When goavan, as if led in branks, [moving stupidly], And stumpin' on his ploughman shanks, He in the parlour hammered.
I sidling sheltered in a nook, An' at his Lordship steal't a look Like some portentous omen; Except good sense and social glee, An' (what surprised me) modesty, I marked nought uncommon.
I watched the symptoms o' the great, The gentle pride, the lordly state, The arrogant assuming; The fient a pride, nae pride had he, Nor sauce, nor state, that I could see, Mair than an honest ploughman.
From this record of that evening given by Burns, it is interesting (p. 036) to turn to the impression made on Professor Stewart by this their first interview. He says,—
"His manners were then, as they continued ever afterwards, simple, manly, and independent; strongly expressive of conscious genius and worth, but without anything that indicated forwardness, arrogance, or vanity. He took his share in conversation, but not more than belonged to him; and listened with apparent attention and deference on subjects where his want of education deprived him of the means of information. If there had been a little more of gentleness and accommodation in his temper, he would, I think, have been still more interesting; but he had been accustomed to give law in the circle of his ordinary acquaintance, and his dread of anything approaching to meanness or servility rendered his manner somewhat decided and hard. Nothing perhaps was more remarkable among his various attainments than the fluency, and precision, and originality of his language, when he spoke in company; more particularly as he aimed at purity in his turn of expression, and avoided, more successfully than most Scotchmen, the peculiarities of Scottish phraseology."
Burns parted with Dugald Stewart, after this evening spent with him in Ayrshire, to meet him again in the Edinburgh coteries, amid which the professor shone as a chief light.
Not less important in the history of Burns was his first introduction to Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop, a lady who continued the constant friend of himself and of his family while she lived. She was said to be a lineal descendant of the brother of the great hero of Scotland, William Wallace. Gilbert Burns gives the following account of the way in (p. 037) which his brother's acquaintance with this lady began.
"Of all the friendships, which Robert acquired in Ayrshire or elsewhere, none seemed more agreeable to him than that of Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop, nor any which has been more uniformly and constantly exerted in behalf of him and his family, of which, were it proper, I could give many instances. Robert was on the point of setting out for Edinburgh before Mrs. Dunlop heard of him. About the time of my brother's publishing in Kilmarnock, she had been afflicted with a long and severe illness, which had reduced her mind to the most distressing state of depression. In this situation, a copy of the printed poems was laid on her table by a friend; and happening to open on The Cotter's Saturday Night, she read it over with the greatest pleasure and surprise; the poet's description of the simple cottagers operating on her mind like the charm of a powerful exorcist, expelling the demon ennui, and restoring her to her wonted inward harmony and satisfaction. Mrs. Dunlop sent off a person express to Mossgiel, distant fifteen or sixteen miles, with a very obliging letter to my brother, desiring him to send her half a dozen copies of his poems, if he had them to spare, and begging he would do her the pleasure of calling at Dunlop House as soon as convenient. This was the beginning of a correspondence which ended only with the poet's life. Nearly the last use he made with his pen was writing a short letter to this lady a few days before his death."
The success of the first edition of his poems naturally made Burns anxious to see a second edition begun. He applied to his Kilmarnock printer, who refused the venture, unless Burns could supply ready money to pay for the printing. This he could not do. But the (p. 038) poems by this time had been read and admired by the most cultivated men in Edinburgh, and more than one word of encouragement had reached him from that city. The earliest of these was contained in a letter from the blind poet, Dr. Blacklock, to whom Mr. Laurie, the kindly and accomplished minister of Loudoun, had sent the volume. This Mr. Laurie belonged to the more cultivated section of the Moderate party in the Church, as it was called, and was the friend of Dr. Hugh Blair, Principal Robertson, and Dr. Blacklock, and had been the channel through which Macpherson's fragments of Ossian had first been brought under the notice of that literary circle, which afterwards introduced them to the world. The same worthy minister had, on the first appearance of the poems, made Burns' acquaintance; and had received him with warm-hearted hospitality. This kindness the poet acknowledged, on one of his visits to the Manse of Loudoun, by leaving in the room in which he slept a short poem of six very feeling stanzas, which contained a prayer for the family. This is the last stanza,—
When soon or late they reach that coast, O'er life's rough ocean driven, May they rejoice, no wanderer lost, A family in heaven!
As soon as Mr. Laurie received the letter from Dr. Blacklock, written on the 4th September, in which warm admiration of the Kilmarnock volume was expressed, he forwarded it to Burns at Mossgiel. The result of it fell like sunshine on the young poet's heart; for as he says, "The doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope." The next word of approval from Edinburgh was a highly appreciative criticism of the poems, which appeared in a number (p. 039) of The Edinburgh Magazine at the beginning of November. Up till this time Burns had not abandoned his resolution to emigrate to the West Indies. But the refusal of the Kilmarnock printer to undertake a new edition, and the voices of encouragement reaching him from Edinburgh, combining with his natural desire to remain, and be known as a poet, in his native country, at length made him abandon the thought of exile. On the 18th November we find him writing to a friend, that he had determined on Monday or Tuesday, the 27th or 28th November, to set his face toward the Scottish capital and try his fortune there.
At this stage of the poet's career, Chambers pauses to speculate on the feelings with which the humble family at Mossgiel would hear of the sudden blaze of their brother's fame, and of the change it had made in his prospects. They rejoiced, no doubt, that he was thus rescued from compulsory banishment, and were no way surprised that the powers they had long known him to possess had at length won the world's admiration. If he had fallen into evil courses, none knew it so well as they, and none had suffered more by these aberrations. Still, with all his faults, he had always been to them a kind son and brother, not loved the less for the anxieties he had caused them. But the pride and satisfaction they felt in his newly-won fame, would be deep, not demonstrative. For the Burns family were a shy, reserved race, and like so many of the Scottish peasantry, the more they felt, the less they would express. In this they were very unlike the poet, with whom to have a feeling and to express it were almost synonymous. His mother, though not lacking in admiration of her son, is said to have been chiefly concerned lest the praises of his genius should make him forget the Giver of it. Such may have been the feelings of (p. 040) the poet's family.
What may we imagine his own feeling to have been in this crisis of his fate? The thought of Edinburgh society would naturally stir that ambition which was strong within him, and awaken a desire to meet the men who were praising him in the capital, and to try his powers in that wider arena. It might be that in that new scene something might occur which would reverse the current of his fortunes, and set him free from the crushing poverty that had hitherto kept him down. Anyhow, he was conscious of strong powers, which fitted him to shine, not in poetry only, but in conversation and discussion; and, ploughman though he was, he did not shrink from encountering any man or any set of men. Proud, too, we know he was, and his pride often showed itself in jealousy and suspicion of the classes who were socially above him, until such feelings were melted by kindly intercourse with some individual man belonging to the suspected orders. He felt himself to surpass in natural powers those who were his superiors in rank and fortune, and he could not, for the life of him, see why they should be full of this world's goods, while he had none of them. He had not yet learned—he never did learn—that lesson, that the genius he had received was his allotted and sufficient portion, and that his wisdom lay in making the most of this rare inward gift, even on a meagre allowance of the world's external goods. But perhaps, whether he knew it or not, the greatest attraction of the capital was the secret hope that in that new excitement he might escape from the demons of remorse and despair which had for many months been dogging him. He may have fancied this, but the pangs which Burns had created for himself (p. 041) were too deep to be in this way permanently put by.
The secret of his settled unhappiness lay in the affections that he had abused in himself and in others who had trusted him. The course he had run since his Irvine sojourn was not of a kind to give peace to him or to any man. A coarse man of the world might have stifled the tender voices that were reproaching him, and have gone on his way uncaring that his conduct—
Hardened a' within, And petrified the feeling.
But Burns could not do this. The heart that had responded so feelingly to the sufferings of lower creatures, the unhoused mouse, the shivering cattle, the wounded hare, could not without shame remember the wrongs he had done to those human beings whose chief fault was that they had trusted him not wisely but too well. And these suggestions of a sensitive heart, conscience was at hand to enforce—a conscience wonderfully clear to discern the right, even when the will was least able to fulfil it. The excitements of a great city, and the loud praises of his fellow-men might enable him momentarily to forget, but could not permanently stifle inward voices like these. So it was with a heart but ill at ease, bearing dark secrets he could tell to no one, that Burns passed from his Ayrshire cottage into the applause of the Scottish capital.
CHAPTER II (p. 042)
FIRST WINTER IN EDINBURGH
The journey of Burns from Mossgiel to Edinburgh was a sort of triumphal progress. He rode on a pony, lent him by a friend, and as the journey took two days, his resting-place the first night was at the farm-house of Covington Mains, in Lanarkshire, hard by the Clyde. The tenant of this farm, Mr. Prentice, was an enthusiastic admirer of Burns' poems, and had subscribed for twenty copies of the second edition. His son, years afterwards, in a letter to Christopher North, thus describes the evening on which Burns appeared at his father's farm:—"All the farmers in the parish had read the poet's then published works, and were anxious to see him. They were all asked to meet him at a late dinner, and the signal of his arrival was to be a white sheet attached to a pitchfork, and put on the top of a corn-stack in the barn-yard. The parish is a beautiful amphitheatre, with the Clyde winding through it—Wellbrae Hill to the west, Tinto Hill and the Culter Fells to the south, and the pretty, green, conical hill, Quothquan Law, to the east. My father's stack-yard, lying in the centre, was seen from every house in the parish. At length Burns arrived, mounted on a borrowed pownie. Instantly was the white flag hoisted, and as instantly were seen the farmers issuing from their (p. 043) houses, and converging to the point of meeting. A glorious evening, or rather night, which borrowed something from the morning, followed, and the conversation of the poet confirmed and increased the admiration created by his writings. On the following morning he breakfasted with a large party at the next farm-house, tenanted by James Stodart; ... took lunch with a large party at the bank in Carnwath, and rode into Edinburgh that evening on the pownie, which he returned to the owner in a few days afterwards by John Samson, the brother of the immortal Tam."
This is but a sample of the kind of receptions which were henceforth to await Burns wherever his coming was known. If such welcomes were pleasing to his ambition, they must have been trying both to his bodily and his mental health.
Burns reached Edinburgh on the 28th of November, 1786. The one man of note there with whom he had any acquaintance was Professor Dugald Stewart, whom, as already mentioned, he had met in Ayrshire. But it was not to him or to any one of his reputation that he first turned; but he sought refuge with John Richmond, an old Mauchline acquaintance, who was humbly lodged in Baxter's Close, Lawnmarket. During the whole of his first winter in Edinburgh, Burns lived in the lodging of this poor lad, and shared with him his single room and bed, for which they paid three shillings a week. It was from this retreat that Burns was afterwards to go forth into the best society of the Scottish capital, and thither, after these brief hospitalities were over, he had to return. For some days after his arrival in town, he called on no one—letters of introduction he had none to deliver. But he is said to have wandered about alone, "looking down from Arthur's Seat, (p. 044) surveying the palace, gazing at the castle, or looking into the windows of the booksellers' shops, where he saw all books of the day, save the poems of the Ayrshire Ploughman." He found his way to the lowly grave of Fergusson, and, kneeling down, kissed the sod; he sought out the house of Allan Ramsay, and, on entering it, took off his hat. While Burns is thus employed, we may cast a glance at the capital to which he had come, and the society he was about to enter.
Edinburgh at that time was still adorned by a large number of the stars of literature, which, although none of those then living may have reached the first magnitude, had together made a galaxy in the northern heavens, from the middle till the close of last century. At that time literature was well represented in the University. The Head of it was Dr. Robertson, well known as the historian of Charles V., and as the author of other historic works. The chair of Belles Lettres was filled by the accomplished Dr. Hugh Blair, whose lectures remain one of the best samples of the correct and elegant, but narrow and frigid style, both of sentiment and criticism, which then flourished throughout Europe, and nowhere more than in Edinburgh. Another still greater ornament of the University was Dugald Stewart, the Professor of Moral Philosophy, whose works, if they have often been surpassed in depth and originality of speculation, have seldom been equalled for solid sense and polished ease of diction. The professors at that time were most of them either taken from the ranks of the clergy, or closely connected with them.
Among the literary men unconnected with the University by far the greatest name, that of David Hume, had disappeared about ten years (p. 045) before Burns arrived in the capital. But his friend, Dr. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, still lingered. Mr. Henry Mackenzie, 'The Man of Feeling,' as he was called from his best known work, was at that time one of the most polished as well as popular writers in Scotland. He was then conducting a periodical called the Lounger, which was acknowledged as the highest tribunal of criticism in Scotland, and was not unknown beyond it.
But even more influential than the literary lights of the University were the magnates of the Bench and Bar. During the eighteenth century and the earlier part of the nineteenth, the Scottish Bar was recruited almost entirely from the younger sons of ancient Scottish families. To the patrician feelings which they brought with them from their homes these men added that exclusiveness which clings to a profession claiming for itself the highest place in the city where they resided. Modern democracy has made rude inroads on what was formerly something of a select patrician caste. But the profession of the Bar has never wanted either then or in more recent times some genial and original spirits who broke through the crust of exclusiveness. Such, at the time of Burns's advent, was Lord Monboddo, the speculative and humorous judge, who in his own way anticipated the theory of man's descent from the monkey. Such, too, was the genial and graceful Henry Erskine, the brother of the Lord Chancellor of that name, the pride and the favourite of his profession—the sparkling and ready wit who, thirteen years before the day of Burns, had met the rude manners of Dr. Johnson with a well-known repartee. When the Doctor visited the Parliament House, Erskine was presented to him by Boswell, and was somewhat gruffly received. After having made his bow, Erskine (p. 046) slipped a shilling into Boswell's hand, whispering that it was for the sight of his bear!
Besides these two classes, the occupants of the Professorial chair and of the Bar, there still gathered every winter in Edinburgh a fair sprinkling of rank and beauty, which had not yet abandoned the Scottish for the English capital. The leader at that time in gay society was the well-known Duchess of Gordon,—a character so remarkable in her day that some rumour of her still lives in Scottish memory. The impression made upon her by Burns and his conversation shall afterwards be noticed.
Though Burns for the first day or two after his arrival wandered about companionless, he was not left long unfriended. Mr. Dalrymple, of Orangefield, an Ayrshire country gentleman, a warm-hearted man, and a zealous Freemason, who had become acquainted with Burns during the previous summer, now introduced the Ayrshire bard to his relative, the Earl of Glencairn. This nobleman, who had heard of Burns from his Ayrshire factor, welcomed him in a very friendly spirit, introduced him to his connexion, Henry Erskine, and also recommended him to the good offices of Creech, at that time the first publisher in Edinburgh. Of Lord Glencairn, Chambers says that "his personal beauty formed the index to one of the fairest characters." As long as he lived he did his utmost to befriend Burns, and on his death, a few years after this time, the poet, who seldom praised the great unless he respected and loved them, composed one of his most pathetic elegies.
It was not, however, to his few Ayrshire connexions only, Mr. Dalrymple, Dugald Stewart, and others, that Burns was indebted for his introduction to Edinburgh society. His own fame was now enough to secure it. (p. 047) A criticism of his poems, which appeared within a fortnight after his arrival in Edinburgh, in the Lounger, on the 9th of December, did much to increase his reputation. The author of that criticism was The Man of Feeling, and to him belongs the credit of having been the first to claim that Burns should be recognized as a great original poet, not relatively only, in consideration of the difficulties he had to struggle with, but absolutely on the ground of the intrinsic excellence of his work. He pointed to his power of delineating manners, of painting the passions, and of describing scenery, as all bearing the stamp of true genius; he called on his countrymen to recognize that a great national poet had arisen amongst them, and to appreciate the gift that in him had been bestowed upon their generation. Alluding to his narrow escape from exile, he exhorted them to retain and to cherish this inestimable gift of a native poet, and to repair, as far as possible, the wrongs which suffering or neglect had inflicted on him. The Lounger had at that time a wide circulation in Scotland, and penetrated even to England. It was known and read by the poet Cowper, who, whether from this or some other source, became acquainted with the poems of Burns within the first year of their publication. In July, 1787, we find the poet of The Task telling a correspondent that he had read Burns's poems twice; "and though they be written in a language that is new to me ... I think them, on the whole, a very extraordinary production. He is, I believe, the only poet these kingdoms have produced in the lower rank of life since Shakespeare (I should rather say since Prior), who need not be indebted for any part of his praise to a charitable consideration of his origin, and (p. 048) the disadvantages under which he has laboured." Cowper thus endorses the verdict of Mackenzie in almost the same language.
It did not however require such testimonials, from here and there a literary man, however eminent, to open every hospitable door in Edinburgh to Burns. Within a month after his arrival in town he had been welcomed at the tables of all the celebrities—Lord Monboddo, Robertson, the historian, Dr. Hugh Blair, Dugald Stewart, Dr. Adam Ferguson, The Man of Feeling, Mr. Fraser Tytler, and many others. We are surprised to find that he had been nearly two months in town before he called on the amiable Dr. Blacklock, the blind poet, who in his well-known letter to Dr. Laurie had been the first Edinburgh authority to hail in Burns the rising of a new star.
How he bore himself throughout that winter when he was the chief lion of Edinburgh society many records remain to show, both in his own letters and in the reports of those who met him. On the whole, his native good sense carried him well through the ordeal. If he showed for the most part due respect to others, he was still more bent on maintaining his respect for himself; indeed, this latter feeling was pushed even to an exaggerated independence. As Mr. Lockhart has expressed it, he showed, "in the whole strain of his bearing, his belief that in the society of the most eminent men of his nation he was where he was entitled to be, hardly deigning to flatter them by exhibiting a symptom of being flattered." All who heard him were astonished by his wonderful powers of conversation. These impressed them, they said, with a greater sense of his genius than even his finest poems.
With the ablest men that he met he held his own in argument, astonishing all listeners by the strength of his judgment, and the keenness (p. 049) of his insight both into men and things. And when he warmed on subjects which interested him, the boldest stood amazed at the flashes of his wit, and the vehement flow of his impassioned eloquence. With the "high-born ladies" he succeeded even better than with the "stately patricians,"—as one of those dames herself expressed it, fairly carrying them off their feet by the deference of his manner, and the mingled humour and pathos of his talk.
It is interesting to know in what dress Burns generally appeared in Edinburgh. Soon after coming thither he is said to have laid aside his country clothes for "a suit of blue and buff, the livery of Mr. Fox, with buckskins and top-boots." How he wore his hair will be seen immediately. There are several well-known descriptions of Burns's manner and appearance during his Edinburgh sojourn, which, often as they have been quoted, cannot be passed by in any account of his life.
Mr. Walker, who met him for the first time at breakfast in the house of Dr. Blacklock, says, "I was not much struck by his first appearance. His person, though strong and well-knit, and much superior to what might be expected in a ploughman, appeared to be only of the middle size, but was rather above it. His motions were firm and decided, and, though without grace, were at the same time so free from clownish constraint as to show that he had not always been confined to the society of his profession. His countenance was not of that elegant cast which is most frequent among the upper ranks, but it was manly and intelligent, and marked by a thoughtful gravity which shaded at times into sternness. In his large dark eye the most striking index of his genius resided. It was full of mind.... He was plainly but properly dressed, in a style midway between the holiday costume of a (p. 050) farmer and that of the company with which he now associated. His black hair without powder, at a time when it was generally worn, was tied behind, and spread upon his forehead. Had I met him near a seaport, I should have conjectured him to be the master of a merchant vessel.... In no part of his manner was there the slightest affectation; nor could a stranger have suspected, from anything in his behaviour or conversation, that he had been for some months the favourite of all the fashionable circles of the metropolis. In conversation he was powerful. His conceptions and expressions were of corresponding vigour, and on all subjects were as remote as possible from commonplaces. Though somewhat authoritative, it was in a way which gave little offence, and was readily imputed to his inexperience in those modes of smoothing dissent and softening assertion, which are important characteristics of polished manners.
"The day after my first introduction to Burns, I supped with him at Dr. Blair's. The other guests were few, and as they had come to meet Burns, the Doctor endeavoured to draw him out, and to make him the central figure of the group. Though he therefore furnished the greatest proportion of the conversation, he did no more than what he saw evidently was expected. From the blunders often committed by men of genius Burns was unusually free; yet on the present occasion he made a more awkward slip than any that are reported of the poets or mathematicians most noted for absence of mind. Being asked from which of the public places he had received the greatest gratification, he named the High Church, but gave the preference as a preacher to the colleague of our worthy entertainer, whose celebrity rested on his pulpit eloquence, in a tone so pointed and decisive as to throw (p. 051) the whole company into the most foolish embarrassment!" Dr. Blair, we are told, relieved their confusion by seconding Burns's praise. The poet saw his mistake, but had the good sense not to try to repair it. Years afterwards he told Professor Walker that he had never spoken of this unfortunate blunder, so painful to him had the remembrance of it been.
There seems little doubt from all the accounts that have been preserved, that Burns in conversation gave forth his opinions with more decision than politeness. He had not a little of that mistaken pride not uncommon among his countrymen, which fancies that gentle manners and consideration for others' feelings are marks of servility. He was for ever harping on independence, and this betrayed him into some acts of rudeness in society which have been recorded with perhaps too great minuteness.
Against these remarks, we must set the testimony of Dugald Stewart, who says,—"The attentions he received from all ranks and descriptions of persons would have turned any head but his own. I cannot say that I perceived any unfavourable effect which they left on his mind. He retained the same simplicity which had struck me so forcibly when first I saw him in the country, nor did he seem to feel any additional self-importance from the number and rank of his new acquaintance. He walked with me in spring, early in the morning, to the Braid Hills, when he charmed me still more by his private conversation than he had ever done in company. He was passionately fond of the beauties of nature; and he once told me, when I was admiring a distant prospect in one of our morning walks, that the sight of so many smoking cottages gave a pleasure to his mind which none could understand who had (p. 052) not witnessed, like himself, the happiness and worth which they contained.... The idea which his conversation conveyed of the powers of his mind exceeded, if possible, that which is suggested by his writings. All his faculties were, as far as I could judge, equally vigorous, and his predilection for poetry was rather the result of his own enthusiastic and impassioned temper, than of a genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition. I should have pronounced him fitted to excel in whatever walk of ambition he had chosen.... The remarks he made on the characters of men were shrewd and pointed, though frequently inclining too much to sarcasm. His praise of those he loved was sometimes indiscriminate and extravagant.... His wit was ready, and always impressed with the marks of a vigorous understanding; but, to my taste, not often pleasing or happy."