Robert Burns - Engraving 1844
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Artist: A. Carse  Engraver: A. H. Payne

In a claybuilt cottage, the work of his father's hands, Robert Burns first saw the light, on the 25th of January, 1759. His birth-place is about two miles south-west of the town of Ayr. A few days afterwards the frail tenement gave way at midnight, and the infant with his mother were forced to take shelter in neigbouring hovel from the pitiless pelting of the storm. William Burns, his father although in very humble circumstances, has been portrayed by his immorta1 son, in the beautiful poem of "The Cotter's Saturday Night," in a manner equally honourable to the memory of both. As in the cases of, most distinguished persons, his mother, whom in general address he greatly resembled, seems to have exercised a great influence in the formation of his youthful mind, and her inexhaustible and traditionary tales doubtless made a great impression upon his infant imagination. In his boyish days, as Burns himself tells us, he owed much to an old woman, who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, .credulity, and superstition. She had the country of tailes and songs concerning denis, ghosts, feiries, brownies, witches, warlocks, spiunkies, kelpies, elfceandles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, draaroas, and-other telanpery.

The earliest breathings: of Burn's muse were inspired by the passion to which he, unfortunately for himself, was too often a slave. His first ballad, "O, dnce loved a bonnie lass," was composed when he was about fifteen, " This with me began and poetry; which at times have been my only enjoyments." In his nineteenth, year he spent the summer on a smuggling coast. "Scenes of swaggering riot said roaring dissipation were, till this time, new to me; but I was no enemy On eoiall life." He contiaaued'to: labour and to study, but his new associates' probably called forth the slumberings' of weaknesses and vices for which he was to pay so des.

 "As his numerous connexions," his excellent brother Gilbert," were governed by the strictest rules of virtue and modesty, (from which he never deviated till his twenty-third year,) he became anxious to be in a situation to marry." But the shop in which he was learning his new trade of flax-dressing caught fire, and he was obliged to give up the plan.

A belle-Jille whom he adored, and who had pledged her soul to meet him in the field of matrimony, jilted him with peculiar circumstances of mortification. His letter, in reply to hers, in which she finally rejects him, is extraordinary considering he was only in his twentieth year. " It would be weak and unmanly to say that without you I never can be happy, but sure I am that sharing life with you would have given it a relish, that, wanting you, I never can taste." It was about this time that he wrote to his father-" The weakness of my nerves has so debilitated my mind, that I dare neither review past wants, nor look forward into futurity, for the least anxiety or perturbation in my breast produces most unhappy effects on my whole frame. Sometimes, indeed, when for an hour or two my spirits are alightened, glimmer a little into futurity, but my principal, and indeed my only pleasurable employment, is looking backwards and forwards in a moral and religious way." It was also about this time that he became a freemason, " his first introduction to the life of a boon companion." Rhyme he had now given Up, but meeting with Jerffuson's Scottish Poems, he strung anew his wildly sounding lyre with emulating vigour.

His father died in the beginning of the year 1784, and thus escaped the sorrow of seeing his son do penance, according to the Scotch custom in village churches, before the congregation, in consequence of the birth of an illegitimate child. Shortly before the death of their father, the two brothers took the farm of Mossgiel together, and it was during the four years that he lived on it, with yearly wages of seven pounds for his labour, that his best poems were produced, and that the nobler and generous feelings of this extraordinary man, with, alas! his great failings, more fully developed themselves. The talents and genius of Burns had now begun to attract attention in his neighbourhood, and an acquaintance with some of the clergy induced him to take an active part in the clerical disputes of the times. The Holy Fair, the Ordination, the Holy Tuilzie) or Twa Herds, with Holy Villie's Prayer, and other poems, while they proved the high and daring powers of the writer, displayed occasionally a profaneness that gave legitimate cause of scandal to others, who would have shown no mercy to their opponent, even if he had kept within the bounds of fair discussion. The beautiful poem of Hallowe'en was composed about the same time as the Holy Fair, and in general the purest specimens of his genius were strangely mingled with those productions in which he proclaimed himself a master of reckless satire. Many of his smaller romances too were penned about this time, and his fervent admiration of beauty called up many of his best songs, for Burns was no Platonic admirer of imaginary heroines. One of these, Jean Armour, who afterwards became his wife, he thus besings;

"Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland's divine,

Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw;

There's beauty and fortune to get wi' Miss Morton,

But Armour'g the jewel for me o' them &'."

Poor in the extreme, and alarmed for the consequences of this new connexion, he now formed the idea of going to Jamaica, in hopes of bettering his broken fortunes; but in a last interview with his mistress, he gave her a written acknowledgment of marriage, which is in Scotland legal evidence, although such marriages are irregular. Her father, who had but an unfavourable opinion of Burns's character, persuaded her to burn this paper, a proceeding the more strange as it was the only means of restoring her reputation. It is evident that this part of the poet's history is yet but partially known. A short time afterwards Jean Armour bore him twins; his situation was now truly deplorable. The farm had proved a failure, he had offered to provide for his wife and children as a day labourer; his wife's relations refused to acknowledge him, and such was his poverty that he could not find sufficient security for the paltry parish maintenance of his children.

He now resumed his intention of going to Jamaica; after trying in vain to raise his passage-money, his friends encouraged him in the idea of trying a subscription edition of his poems. His spirits rose with the prospect of success, and he composed some other pieces, amongst others the Twa Dogs, during the progress of publication. "I had been skulking," says he, "from covert to covert, under 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 Dn Blacklock, to a friend of mine, overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition." The poems fixed the public attention immediately. Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. Even ploughboys and maid-servants would gladly have given the wages they earned most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might but procure the works of Burns. His society was courted by the most celebrated of his countrymen. 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. If there had been a little more of gentleness and accommodation in his temper, says anacute observer, 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, precision, and originality of his language, when he spoke in company, and avoided more successfully than most Scotchmen, the peculiarities of Scottish phraseology. Mackenzie in the Lounger gave him his full meed of praise, and pointed out to his countrymen "with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered condition, had looked on men, and manners." . . "To repair the wrongs of suffering or neglected merit, to call forth genius from the obscurity in which it had pined indignant, and place it where it may profit or delight the world- these are exertions which give to wealth an enviable superiority, to greatness and to patronage a laudable prize." Sir Walter Scott says of him, "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 dark 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 in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the same time with modesty. I do not remember any part of his conversation distinctly enough to be quoted, nor did I ever see him again, except in the street) where he did not recognize me, as I could not expect he should. He was much caressed in Edinburgh, but (considering what literary emoluments have been since his day) the efforts made for his relief were extremely trifling."

The unfortunate Heron, who spoke from sad experience, confirms the testimonies that in Edinburgh he yielded to temptations, which, notwithstanding his noble and generous impulses, he had not sufficient strength to withstand. " The enticements of pleasure too often unman our virtuous resolution, even while we wear the air of rejecting them with a stern brow. We resist and resist, and resist; but at last suddenly turn, and passionately embrace the enchantress. The bucks of Edinburgh accomplished, in regard to Burns, that in which the boors of Ayrshire had failed. After residing some months in Edinburgh, he began to estrange himself, not altogether, but in some measure, from his graver friends. Too many of his hours were now spent at the tables of persons who delighted to urge conviviality to drunkenness, in the tavern, and in the brothel."

Why do we extract these remarks ? Certainly not with the wish to detract from the fame due to a great man. We are of opinion that much that has been given to the world respecting Burns ought to have been withheld, for if all the biographies of celebrated men had been placed in the same transparent light, in which this ill-fated son of genius and of passion has been exhibited, how few would come out of the furnace unscathed! Instead of treating his faults with delicacy, or leaving his vices unrecorded, for which the poet paid the severe but just penalty, in years of mental misery, even his brother .Gilbert, and his first biographer, Dr. Currie, set the pernicious example of revealing to the public failings for which his sufferings should have been considered a sufficient expiation, without " damning him to everlasting fame." But as these memoirs have now become known to all, the chronicler has no choice left him but in some measure to show the faults of his predecessors. The failings of such a man as Burns inculcate a great moral lesson, that the most admirable genius, the most generous and noble impulses are but a poor substitute for active principle, which alone can form and confirm real strength of character. We may, and we ought to draw the inference for ourselves, far be it from us to sit in judgment upon one whose finely gifted and sensitive mind exposed him to temptations which others feel less acutely, and therefore overcome without merit to themselves. " Take a being of our kind," says he, in a short sketch of himself which throws great light on his character, " give him a stronger imagination and more delicate sensibility, which between them will ever engender a more ungovernable set of passions than are the usual lot of man; implant in him an irresistible impulse to some idle vagary, such as arranging wild flowers in fantastic nosegays, tracing the grasshopper to his haunt, by his chirping song, watching the frisks of the little minnows in the sunny pool, or hunting after the intrigues of butterflies; in short, send him adrift after some pursuit which shall eternally mislead him from the paths of lucre, and yet curse him with a keener relish than any man living for the pleasures that lucre can bestow; lastly, fill up the measure of his woes by bestowing on him a spurning sense of his own dignity, and you have created a wight nearly as miserable as the poet."

The profits of a subsequent edition of his poems amounted to between five hundred and six hundred pounds, but it soon dwindled away. He married Miss Armour, took a farm, which, as might be expected, did not succeed; his friends procured for him-what seems to us almost a satire-a place in the excise, with a salary of fifty pound a year, afterwards raised to seventy, and even this paltry pittance he was in danger of losing, owing to some observations upon the French Revolution, which some vile informer had reported against him. It was in allusion to this appointment that Coleridge invites his friend Charles Lamb to gather a wreath of henbane, nettles, and nightshade, "The illustrious brow of Scotch nobility to twine."

He closed his life in great misery on the 21st of July, 1796, in his thirty-seventh year, with all the horrors of a jail before him. His proud spirit, which had refused to receive from Thomson the remuneration for his songs, in a publication which owed to them its chief value, was forced, in the last days of his existence, to write a pressing letter for the loan of five pounds. His remains enjoyed the empty honours of a public funeral, at which persons of all ranks volunteered in crowds to do honour to the memory of the national poet of Scotland.

The poetry of Bums at once reaches the heart. Dealing with subjects and images that are familiar to all, he wants no interpreter, for all feel instinctively the truth and beauty with which the genius of the poet has invested them. However humble the scene, it is never vulgar, he looks upon nature with the eye of a poet, there is a mingled tenderness and passion in his verse that carry his reader irresistibly with him. Unlike most poets of all ranks and almost all poets from the lower ranks of life, he never writes for the sake of writing, but from the fullness of a heart overflowing with genial passion. If his verse has little grandeur or imagination, it is because the subjects on which he felt himself impelled to write afforded little room for the development of these qualities.

Sir Walter Scott has expressed his regret that Burns confined his genius to lyrical effusions, and that he did not attempt a greater poem. We maybe allowed, with all diffidence, to suggest a doubt, whether the poet would have been equally successful in the attempt. The fire and energy of Burns's style are eminently suited for shorter pieces, in longer poems, they might fatigue the reader, or have tempted the poet to artificial excitement, to the loss of those exquisite touches of natural feeling in which he so greatly excelled. The weaknesses of the poet's character are manifest in the events of his life, he that runs may read them;-its strength is to be seen in his poems, these represent him erring indeed, but full of generous and noble emotions, of gushing tenderness, in some poems, of childlike purity of sentiment. Labouring under the disadvantages of being written in dialect, they will doubtless last as long as the English language shall endure.