The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart

 

 

CHAPTER II

"O enviable early days,

When dancing thoughtless pleasure's maze,
    To care and guilt unknown!
How ill exchanged for riper times,
To feel the follies or the crimes
    Of others—or my own ! "

As has been already mentioned, William Burnes now quitted Mount Oliphant for Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton, where, for some little space, fortune appeared to smile on his industry and frugality. Robert and Gilbert were employed by their father as regular labourers—he allowing them £7 of wages each per annum, from which sum, however, the value of any home-made clothes received by the youths was exactly deducted. Robert Burns's person, inured to daily toil and continually exposed to all varieties of weather, presented before the usual time every characteristic of robust and vigorous manhood. He says himself that he never feared a competitor in any species of rural exertion ; and Gilbert Burns, a man of uncommon bodily strength, adds that neither he nor any labourer he ever saw at work was equal to the youthful poet, either in the cornfield or the severer tasks of the thrashing-floor. Gilbert says that Robert's literary zeal slackened considerably after their removal to Tarbolton. He was separated from his acquaintances of the town of Ayr, and probably missed not only the stimulus of their conversation, but the kindness that had furnished him with his supply, such as it was, of books. But the main source of his change of habits about this period was, it is confessed on all hands, the precocious fervour of one of his own turbulent passions.

" In my seventeenth year," says Burns, " to give my manners a brush, I went to a country dancing-school. My father had an unaccountable antipathy against these meetings ; and my going was, what to this moment I repent, in opposition to his wishes. My father was subject to strong passions ; from that instance of disobedience in me he took a sort of dislike to me, which I believe was one cause of the dissipation which marked my succeeding years.(13) I say dissipation comparatively with the strictness, and sobriety, and regularity of Presbyterian country life ; for though the Will-o-Wisp meteors of thoughtless whim were almost the sole lights of my path, yet early ingrained piety and virtue kept me for several years afterwards within the line of innocence. The great misfortune of my life was to want an aim. I saw my father's situation entailed on me perpetual labour. The only two openings by which I could enter the temple of fortune were the gate of niggardly economy or the path of little chicaning bargain-making. The first is so contracted an aperture, I could never squeeze myself into it ; the last I always hated—there was contamination in the very entrance ! Thus abandoned of aim or view in life, with a strong appetite for sociability, as well from native hilarity as from a pride of observation and remark ; a constitutional melancholy or hypochondriacism that made me fly solitude 5 add to these incentives to social life my reputation for bookish knowledge, a certain wild logical talent, and a strength of thought something like the rudiments of good sense, and it will not seem surprising that I was generally a welcome guest where I visited, or any great wonder that, always where two or three met together, there was I among them. But far beyond all other impulses of my heart was un penchant four Tadorahle moitie du genre humain. My heart was completely tinder, and was eternally lighted up by some goddess or other: and, as in every other warfare in this world, my fortune was various ; sometimes I was received with favour, and sometimes I was mortified with a repulse. At the plough, scythe, or reap-hook I feared no competitor, and thus I set absolute want at defiance ; and as I never cared farther for my labours than while I was in actual exercise, I spent the evenings in the way after my own heart. A country lad seldom carries on a love adventure without an assisting confidant. I possessed a curiosity, zeal, and intrepid dexterity that recommended me as a proper second on these occasions, and I dare say I felt as much pleasure in being in the secret of half the loves of the parish of Tarbolton as ever did statesman in knowing the intrigues of half the Courts of Europe."

 

(13) "I wonder," says Gilbert, "how Robert could attribute to our father that lasting resentment of his going to a dancing-school against his will, of which he was incapable. I believe the truth was, that about this time he began to see the dangerous impetuosity of my brother's passions, as well as his not being amenable to counsel, which often irritated my father, and which he would naturally think a dancing-school was not likely to correct. But he was proud of Robert's genius, which he bestowed more expense on cultivating than on the rest of the family—and he was equally delighted with his warmth of heart and conversational powers. He had, indeed, that dislike of dancing-schools which Robert mentions ; but so far overcame it during Robert's first month of attendance that he permitted the rest of the family that were fit for it to accompany him during the second month. Robert excelled in dancing, and was for some time distractedly fond of it."

 

Of the same critical period of Burns's life his excellent brother writes as follows: "The seven years we lived in Tarbolton parish—extending from the seventeenth to the twenty-fourth of Robert's age—were not marked by much literary improvement ; but during this time the foundation was laid of certain habits in his character which afterwards became but too prominent, and which malice and envy have taken delight to enlarge on. Though, when young, he was bashful and awkward in his intercourse with women, yet when he approached manhood, his attachment to their society became very strong, and he was constantly the victim of some fair enslaver. The symptoms of his passion were often such as nearly to equal those of the celebrated Sappho. I never, indeed, knew that he fainted, sunk, and died away ; but the agitations of his mind and body 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 who had more consequence in life. His love, therefore, rarely settled on persons of this description. When he selected any one out of the sovereignty of his good pleasure to whom he should pay his particular attention, she was instantly invested with a sufficient stock of charms out of the plentiful stores of his own imagination ; and there was often a great dissimilitude between his fair captivator, as she appeared to others, and as she seemed when invested with the attributes he gave her. One generally reigned paramount in his affections ; but as Yorick's affections flowed out toward Madame de L .— at the remise door, while the eternal vows of Eliza were upon him, so Robert was frequently encountering other attractions, which formed so many under-plots in the drama of his love."

Thus occupied with labour, love, and dancing, the youth, "without an aim," found leisure occasionally to clothe the sufficiently various moods of his mind in rhymes. It was as early as seventeen, he tells us,(14) that he wrote some stanzas which begin beautifully :

" I dream'd I lay where flowers were springing
    Gayly in the sunny beam;
Listening to the wild birds singing,
    By a falling crystal stream. Straight the
sky grew black and daring,
    Thro' the woods the whirlwinds rave,
Trees with aged arms were warring,
    O'er the swelling drumlie wave.

Such was life's deceitful morning," etc.

(14) Reliques p242

 

On comparing these verses with those on " Handsome Nell," the advance achieved by the young bard in the course of two short years must be regarded with admiration ; nor should a minor circumstance be entirely overlooked, that in the piece which we have just been quoting there occurs but one Scotch word. It was about this time also that he wrote a ballad of much less ambitious vein, which, years after, he says, he used to con over with delight, because of the faithfulness with which it recalled to him the circumstances and feelings of his opening manhood.

" My father was a farmer upon the Carrick Border, And carefully he bred me up in decency and order. He bade me act a manly part, tho' I had ne'er a farthing ; For without an honest manly heart, no man was worth regarding.

 

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

 

No help, nor hope, nor view had I, nor person to befriend me ; So I must toil, and sweat, and broil, and labour to sustain me. To plough and sow, to reap and mow, my father bred me early ; For one, he said to labour bred, was a match for fortune fairly.

 

Thus all obscure, unknown and poor, thro' life I'm doom'd to wander; Till down my weary bones I lay, in everlasting slumber. No view, nor care, but shun whate'er might breed me pain or sorrow ; I live to-day, as well's I may, regardless of to-morrow," etc.

 

These are the only two of his very early productions in which we have nothing expressly about love. The rest were composed to celebrate the charms of those rural beauties who followed each other in the dominion of his fancy, or shared the capacious throne between them ; and we may easily believe that one who possessed, with his other qualifications, such powers of flattering, feared competitors as little in the diversions of his evenings as in the toils of his day.

The rural lover in those districts pursues his tender vocation in a style the especial fascination of which town-bred swains may find it somewhat difficult to comprehend. After the labours of the day are over, nay, very often after he is supposed by the inmates of his own fireside to be in his bed, the happy youth thinks little of walking many long Scotch miles to the residence of his mistress, who, upon the signal of a tap at her window, comes forth to spend a soft hour or two beneath the harvest moon ; or, if the weather be severe (a circumstance which never prevents the journey from being accomplished), amidst the sheaves of her father's barn. This " chappin' out," as they call it, is a custom which parents commonly wink at, if they do not openly approve the observance ; and the consequences are far, very far, more frequently quite harmless than persons not familiar with the peculiar manners and feelings of our peasantry may find it easy to believe. Excursions of this class form the theme of almost all the songs which Burns is known to have produced about this period,—and such of these juvenile performances as have been preserved are, without exception, beautiful. They show how powerfully his boyish fancy had been affected by the old rural minstrelsy of his own country, and how easily his native taste caught the secret of its charm. The truth and simplicity of nature breathe in every line; the images are always just, often originally happy ; and the growing refinement of his ear and judgment may be traced in the terser language and more mellow flow of each successive ballad.

The best of his songs written at this time is that beginning :

" It was upon a Lammas night,

    When corn rigs are bonnie,

Beneath the moon's unclouded light,

    I held awa to Annie.


The time flew by wi' tentless heed,
    Till, 'tween the late and early,

Wi' sma' persuasion she agreed
    To see me through the barley," etc.

The heroine of this ditty was a daughter of the poet's friend, " rude, rough, ready-witted Ranken."

We may let him carry on his own story. " A circumstance," says he,(15) " which made some alteration on my mind and manners, was, that I spent my nineteenth summer on a smuggling coast, a good distance from home, at a noted school,(16) to learn mensuration, surveying, dialling, etc., in which I made a good progress. But I made a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind. The contraband trade was at that time very successful, and it sometimes happened to me to fall in with those who carried it on. Scenes of swaggering riot and roaring dissipation were till this time new to me; but I was no enemy to social life. Here, though I learnt to fill my glass and to mix without fear in a drunken squabble, yet I went on with a high hand with my geometry, till the sun entered Virgo, a month which is always a carnival in my bosom, when a charming fillette, who lived next door to the school, overset my trigonometry, and set me off at a tangent from the sphere of my studies. I, however, struggled on with my sines and cosines for a few days more ; but stepping into the garden one charming noon to take the sun's altitude, there I met my angel, like

 

    'Proserpine, gathering flowers,

Herself a fairer flower' —

 

It was in vain to think of doing any more good at school. The remaining week I staid, I did nothing but craze the faculties of my soul about her, or steal out to meet her ; and the two last nights of my stay in this country, had sleep been a mortal sin, the image of this modest and innocent girl had kept me guiltless. I returned home very considerably improved. My reading was enlarged with the very important addition of Thomson's and Shenstone's works ; I had seen human nature in a new phasis ; and I engaged several of my schoolfellows to keep up a literary correspondence with me. This improved me in composition. I had met with a collection of letters by the wits of Queen Anne's reign, and I pored over them most devoutly ; I kept copies of any of my own letters that pleased me ; and a comparison between them and the composition of most of my correspondents nattered my vanity. I carried this whim so far that, though I had not three farthings' worth of business in the world, yet almost every post brought me as many letters as if I had been a plodding son of day-book and ledger.

 

(15) Letter to Dr. Moore.

(16) This was the school of Kirkoswald.

 

" My life flowed on much in the same course till the twenty-third year. Vive l'amour, et vive la bagatelle, were my sole principles of action. The addition of two more authors to my library gave me great pleasure ; Sterne and Mackenzie—Tristram Shandy and The Man of Feeling—were my bosom favourites. Poesy was still a darling walk for my mind ; but it was only indulged in according to the humour of the hour. I had usually half a dozen or more pieces on hand ; I took up one or other, as it suited the momentary tone of the mind, and dismissed the work as it bordered on fatigue. My passions, once lighted up, raged like so many devils, till they found vent in rhyme j and then the conning over my verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet."

Of the rhymes of those days, few, when he wrote his letter to Moore, had appeared in print. Winter, a Dirge, an admirably versified piece, is of their number ; The Death of Poor Mailie, Mailie's Elegy, and John Barleycorn, and one charming song inspired by the Nymph of Kirkoswald, whose attractions put an end to his trigonometry.

" Now westling winds, and slaughtering guns,
    Bring Autumn's pleasant weather ;

The moorcock springs, on whirring wings,
    Amang the blooming heather, . . .
—Peggy dear, the evening's clear,
    Thick flies the skimming swallow;
The sky is blue, the fields in view
    All fading green and yellow—

Come let us stray our gladsome way," etc.

John Barleycorn is a clever old ballad, very cleverly new-modelled and extended ; but The Death and Elegy of Poor Mailie deserve more attention. The expiring animal's admonitions touching the education of the "poor toop lamb, her son and heir," and the " yowie sillie thing," her daughter, are from the same peculiar vein of sly homely wit, embedded upon fancy, which he afterwards dug with a bolder hand in The Twa Dogs, and perhaps to its utmost depth in his Death and Doctor Hornbook. It need scarcely be added that Poor Mailie was a real personage, though she did not actually die until some time after her last words were written. She had been purchased by Burns in a frolic, and became exceedingly attached to his person.

 

"Thro' all the town she trotted by him ;
A lang half-mile she could descry him;
Wi' kindly bleat, when she did spy him,

                      She ran wi' speed,

A friend mair faithfu' ne'er came nigh him,

                       Than Mailie dead."

 

These little pieces are in a much broader dialect than any of their predecessors. His merriment and satire were, from the beginning, Scotch.

Notwithstanding the luxurious tone of some of Burns's verses produced in those times, we are assured by himself (and his brother unhesitatingly confirms the statement) that no positive vice mingled in any of his loves until after he reached his twenty-third year. He has already told us that his short residence " away from home" at Kirkoswald, where he mixed in the society of seafaring men and smugglers, produced an unfavourable alteration on some of his habits ; but in 1781-2 he spent six months at Irvine ; and it is from this period that his brother dates a serious change.

" As his numerous connexions," says 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. This was not likely to be the case while he remained a farmer, as the stocking of a farm required a sum of money he saw no probability of being master of for a great while. He and I had for several years taken land of our father, for the purpose of raising flax on our own account; and in the course of selling it, Robert began to think of turning flax-dresser, both as being suitable to his grand view of settling in life and as subservient to the flax-raising."(17)

(17) Mr. Silar assured Mr. Robert Chambers that this notion originated with William Burnes, who thought of becoming entirely a lint-farmer; and, by way of keeping as much of the profits as he could within his family, of making his eldest son a flax-dresser.

Burns, accordingly, went to a half-brother of his mother's, by name Peacock, a flax-dresser in Irvine, with the view of learning this new trade, and for some time he applied himself diligently ; but misfortune after misfortune attended him. The shop accidentally caught fire during the carousal of a New-Year's-Day morning, and Robert " was left, like a true poet, not worth a sixpence." "I was obliged," says he, " to give up this scheme ; the clouds of misfortune were gathering thick round my father's head : and what was worst of all, he was visibly far gone in a consumption ; and, to crown my distresses, a belle fille whom I adored, and who had pledged her soul to meet me in the field of matrimony, jilted me, with peculiar circumstances of mortification.(18) The finishing evil that brought up the rear of this infernal file was my constitutional melancholy being increased to such a degree, that for three months I was in a state of mind scarcely to be envied by the hopeless wretches who have got their mittimus—' Depart from Me, ye cursed! '"

(18) Some letters referring to this affair are omitted in the " General Correspondence" of Gilbert's edition; for what reason I know not. They are surely as well worth preserving as many in the collection, particularly when their early date is considered. The first of them begins thus: "I verily believe, my dear E., that the pure, genuine feelings of love are as rare in the world as the pure genuine principles of virtue and piety. This, I hope, will account for the uncommon style of all my letters to you. By uncommon I mean their being written in such a serious manner, which, to tell you the truth, has made me often afraid lest you should take me for some zealous bigot, who conversed with his mistress as he would converse with his minister. I don't know how it is, my dear; for though, except your company, there is nothing on earth gives me so much pleasure as writing to you, yet it never gives me those giddy raptures so much talked of among lovers. I have often thought that if a well-grounded affection be not really a part of virtue, 'tis something extremely akin to it. Whenever the thought of my E. warms my heart, every feeling of humanity, every principle of generosity kindles in my breast. It extinguishes every dirty spark of malice and envy, which are but too apt to invest me. I grasp every creature in the arms of universal benevolence, and equally participate in the pleasures of the happy, and sympathise with the miseries of the unfortunate. I assure you, my dear, I often look up to the divine Disposer of events with an eye of gratitude for the blessing which I hope He intends to betow on me in bestowing you."
 
What follows is from Burns's letter in answer to that in which the young woman intimated her final rejection of his vows. '' I ought in good manners to have acknowledged the receipt of your letter before this time, but my heart was so shocked with the contents of it that I can scarcely yet collect my thoughts so as to write to you on the subject. I will not attempt to describe what I felt on receiving your letter. I read it over and over, again and again; and though it was in the politest language of refusal, still it was peremptory: ' you were sorry you could not make me a return, but you wish me' what, without you, I never can obtain—' you wish me all kind of happiness.' 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." In such excellent English did Burns woo his country maidens in at most his twentieth year.

The following letter, addressed by Burns to his father, three days before the unfortunate fire took place, will show abundantly that the gloom of his spirits had little need of-that aggravation. When we consider by whom, to whom, and under what circumstances it was written, the letter is every way a remarkable one :

 

                                  " To Mr. William Burness—Lochlea.

"HONOURED SIR,

" I HAVE purposely delayed writing, in the hope that I should have the pleasure of seeing you on New-year's day ; but work comes so hard upon us, that I do not choose to be absent on that account, as well as for some other little reasons, which I shall tell you at meeting. My health is nearly the same as when you were here, only my sleep is a little sounder ; and, on the whole, I am rather better than otherwise, though I mend by very slow degrees. 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, I 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. I am quite transported at the thought, that ere long, perhaps very soon, I shall bid an eternal adieu to all the pains and uneasiness, and disquietudes of this weary life ; for I assure you I am heartily tired of it; and, if I do not very much deceive myself, I could contentedly and gladly resign it.

' The soul, uneasy, and confined at home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.'

" It is for this reason I am more pleased with the 15th, 16th, and 17th verses of the 7th chapter of Revelations, than with any ten times as many verses in the whole Bible, and would not exchange the noble enthusiasm with which they inspire me for all that this world has to offer.(19) As for this world, I despair of ever making a figure in it. I am not formed for the bustle of the busy, nor the nutter of the gay. I shall never again be capable of entering into such scenes. Indeed, I am altogether unconcerned at the thoughts of this life. I foresee that poverty and obscurity probably await me, and I am in some measure prepared, and daily preparing, to meet them. I have but just time and paper to return you my grateful thanks for the lessons of virtue and piety you have given me, which were too much neglected at the time of giving them, but which I hope have been remembered ere it is yet too late. Present my dutiful respects to my mother, and my compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Muir; and, with wishing you a merry New-year's day, I shall conclude.

"I am, honoured Sir, your dutiful Son            ,

"ROBERT BURNS        .

(19) The verses of Scripture here alluded to are as follows : " 15. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. 16. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. 17. For the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."

 

" P.S.—My meal is nearly out ; but I am going to borrow, till I get more."

" This letter," says Dr. Currie, " written several years before the publication of his Poems, when his name was as obscure as his condition was humble, displays the philosophic melancholy which so generally forms the poetical temperament, and that buoyant and ambitious spirit which indicates a mind conscious of its strength. At Irvine, Burns at this time possessed a single room for his lodgings, rented, perhaps, at the rate of a shilling a week. He passed his days in constant labour as a flax-dresser, and his food consisted chiefly of oatmeal, sent to him from his father's family. The store of this humble, though wholesome, nutriment, it appears, was nearly exhausted, and he was about to borrow till he should obtain a supply. Yet even in this situation his active imagination had formed to itself pictures of eminence and distinction. His despair of making a figure in the world, shows how ardently he wished for honourable fame ; and his contempt of life, founded on this despair, is the genuine expression of a youthful and generous mind. In such a state of reflection and of suffering, the imagination of Burns naturally passed the dark boundaries of our earthly-horizon, and rested on those beautiful representations of a better world, where there is neither thirst, nor hunger, nor sorrow, and where happiness shall be in proportion to the capacity of happiness."

Unhappily for himself and for the world, it was not always in the recollections of his virtuous home and the study of his Bible that Burns sought for consolation amidst the heavy distresses which "his youth was heir to." Irvine is a small seaport ; and here, as at Kirkoswald, the adventurous spirits of a smuggling coast, with all their jovial habits, were to be met with in abundance. " He contracted some acquaintance," says Gilbert, "of a freer manner of thinking and living than he had been used to, whose society prepared him for overleaping the bounds of rigid virtue, which had hitherto restrained him."

I owe to Mr. Robert Chambers (author of Traditions of Edinburgh) the following note of a conversation which he had in June, 1826, with a respectable old citizen of this town : " Burns was at the time of his residence among us an. older-looking man than might have been expected from his age— very darkly complexioned, with a strong dark eye,—of a thoughtful appearance, amounting to what might be called a gloomy attentiveness ; so much so, that when in company which did not call forth his brilliant powers of conversation, he might often be seen, for a considerable space together, leaning down on his palm, with his elbow resting on his knee. He was in common silent and reserved ; but when he found a man to his mind, he constantly made a point of attaching himself to his company, and endeavouring to bring out his powers. It was among women alone that he uniformly exerted himself, and uniformly shone. People remarked even then that, when Robert Burns did speak, he always spoke to the point, and in general with a sententious brevity. His moody thoughtfulness, and laconic style of expression, were both inherited from his father, who, for his station in life, was a very singular person."

Burns himself thus sums up the results of his residence at Irvine :

"From this adventure I learned something of a town life ; but the principal thing which gave my mind a turn was a friendship I formed with a young fellow, a very noble character, but a hapless son of misfortune. He was the son of a simple mechanic ; but a great man in the neighbourhood, taking him under his patronage, gave him a genteel education, with a view of bettering his situation in life. The patron dying just as he was ready to launch out into the world, the poor fellow in despair went to sea ; where, after a variety of good and ill fortune, a little before I was acquainted with him, he had been set ashore by an American privateer, on the wild coast of Connaught, stripped of everything. . . . His mind was fraught with independence, magnanimity, and every manly virtue. I loved and admired him to a degree of enthusiasm, and of course strove to imitate him. In some measure I succeeded ; I had pride before, but he taught it to flow in proper channels. His knowledge of the world was vastly superior to mine ; and I was all attention to learn. He was the only man I ever saw who was a greater fool than myself, where-woman was the presiding star ; but he spoke with the levity of a sailor of illicit love—-which hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a mischief. "

Professor Walker, when preparing to write his Sketch of the Poet's Life, was informed by an aged inhabitant of Irvine that Burns's chief delight while there was in discussing religious topics, particularly in those circles which usually gather in a Scotch churchyard after service. The senior added that Burns commonly took the high Calvinistic side in such debates ; and concluded with a boast that " the lad" was indebted to himself in a great measure for the gradual adoption of " more liberal opinions."

It was during the same period that the poet was initiated in the mysteries of freemasonry, " which was," says his brother, "his first introduction to the life of a boon companion." He was introduced to St. Mary's lodge of Tarbolton by John Ranken, a very dissipated man, of considerable talents, to whom he afterwards indited a poetical epistle, which will be noticed in its place.

" Rhyme," Burns says, " I had given up" (on going to Irvine) ; " but meeting with Fergusson's Scottish Poems, I strung anew my wildly-sounding lyre with emulating vigour." Neither flax-dressing nor the tavern could keep him long from his proper vocation. But it was probably this accidental meeting with Fergusson that in a great measure finally determined the Scottish character of Burns's poetry ; and, indeed, but for the lasting sense of this obligation, and some natural sympathy with the misfortunes of Fergusson's life, it would be difficult to account for the very high terms in which Burns always mentions his productions.

Shortly before he went to Irvine, he, his brother Gilbert, and some seven or eight young men besides, all of the parish of Tarbolton, had formed themselves into a society, which they called the Bachelors' Club ; and which met one evening in every month for the purpose of mutual entertainment and improvement. That their cups were but modestly filled is evident, for the rules of the club did not permit any member to spend more than threepence at a sitting. A question was announced for discussion at the close of each meeting ; and at the next they came prepared to deliver their sentiments upon the subject-matter thus proposed. Burns and David Sillar (to whom the " Epistle to Davie, a brother-poet," was addressed, and who subsequently published a volume of verses not without merit) were employed by the rest to draw up the regulations of the society ; and some stanzas prefixed to Sitter's Scroll of Rules " first introduced Burns and him to each other as brother rhymers." (20) Of the sort of questions discussed we may form some notion from the minute of one evening, still extant in Burns's handwriting : "QUESTION FOR HALLOWE'EN (NOV. II. 1780) : Suppose a young man, bred a farmer, but 'without any fortune, has it in his power to marry either of two women, the one a girl of large fortune, but neither handsome in person, nor agreeable in conversation, but who can manage the household affairs of a farm well enough; the other of them a girl every way agreeable in person, conversation, and behaviour, but without any fortune: which of them shall he choose ? " Burns, as may be guessed, took the imprudent side in this discussion. " On one solitary occasion," says he, " we resolved to meet at Tarbolton in July, on the race-night, and have a dance in honour of our society. Accordingly, we did meet, each one with a partner, and spent the night in such innocence and merriment, such cheerfulness and good humour, that every brother will long remember it with delight."

(20) I quote from a letter of Mr. Sillar, November 29th, 1828. The lines were:

" Of birth and blood we do not boast,

     No gentry does our Club afford,

But ploughmen and mechanics we

     In Nature's simple dress record:

Let nane e'er join us who refuse

To aid the lads that hand the ploughs,
To choose their friends and wale their wives,

To ease the labours of their lives," etc.

These lines, therefore (hitherto ascribed to Burns), are in fact the lawful property of Mr. Sillar

 

There can be no doubt that Burns would not have patronised this sober association so long, unless he had experienced at its assemblies the pleasure of a stimulated mind ; and as little that to the habit of arranging his thoughts, and expressing them in somewhat of a formal shape, thus early cultivated, we ought to attribute much of that conversational skill which, when he first mingled with the upper world, was generally considered as the most remarkable of all his personal accomplishments. Burns's associates of the Bachelors' Club must have been young men possessed of talents and acquirements, otherwise such minds as his and Gilbert's could not have persisted in measuring themselves against theirs ; and we may believe that the periodical display of the poet's own vigour and resources at these club meetings and (more frequently than his brother approved) at the Freemason lodges of Irvine and Tarbolton, extended his rural reputation, and by degrees prepared persons not immediately included in his own circle for the extraordinary impression which his poetical efforts were ere long to create all over "The Carrick Border."

Mr. David Sillar (21) gives an account of the beginning of his own acquaintance with Burns and introduction into this Bachelors' Club, which will always be read with much interest. " Mr. Robert Burns was some time in the parish of Tarbolton prior to my acquaintance with him. His social disposition easily procured him acquaintance ; but a certain satirical seasoning with which he and all poetical geniuses are in some degree influenced, while it set the rustic circle in a roar, was not unaccompanied with its kindred attendant, suspicious fear. I recollect hearing his neighbours observe, he had a great deal to say for himself, but that they suspected his principles. He wore the only tied hair in the parish : and in the church, his plaid, which was of a particular colour, I think fillemot, he wrapped in a particular manner round his shoulders. These surmises, and his exterior, had such a magnetical influence on my curiosity, as made me particularly solicitous of his acquaintance. Whether my acquaintance with Gilbert was casual or premeditated, I am not now certain. By him I was introduced, not only to his brother, but to the whole of that family, where in a short time I became a frequent, and, I believe, not unwelcome visitant. After the commencement of my acquaintance with the bard, we frequently met upon Sundays at church, when, between sermons, instead of going with our friends, or our lasses, to the inn, we often took a walk in the fields. In these walks I have frequently been struck with his facility in addressing the fair sex : many times, when I have been bashfully anxious how to express myself, he would have entered into conversation with them with the greatest ease and freedom ; and it was generally a death-blow to our conversation, however agreeable, to meet a female acquaintance. Some of the few opportunities of a noontide walk that a country life allows her laborious sons, he spent on the banks of the river, or in the woods, in the neighbourhood of Stair, a situation peculiarly adapted to the genius of a rural bard. Some book (generally one of those mentioned in his letter to Mr. Murdoch) he always carried, and read, when not otherwise employed. It was likewise his custom to read at table. In one of my visits to Lochlea, in time of a sowens supper,(22) he was so intent on reading; I think Tristram Shandy, that his spoon falling out of his hand, made him exclaim in a tone scarcely imitable, ' Alas, poor Yorick !' Such was Burns, and such were his associates, when I was admitted a member of the Bachelors' Club."

(21) David Sillar, a native of Tarbolton, became in 1784 a schoolmaster at Irvine ; and having, in the course of a long life, realised considerable property, still survives as chief magistrate of that town (1828).

(22) Sowens is a coarse flummery made of soured oatmeal. {There's a recipe for this at the bottom of Burn's Halloween page!}

The misfortunes of William Burnes thickened apace, as has already been seen, and were approaching their crisis at the time when Robert came home from his flax-dressing experiment at Irvine. I have been favoured with copies of some letters addressed by the poet soon afterwards to his cousin, Mr. James Burness, writer in Montrose, which cannot but gratify every reader. They are worthy of the strong understanding and warm heart of Burns; and, besides opening a pleasing view of the manner in which domestic affection was preserved between his father and the relations from whom the accidents of life had separated that excellent person in boyhood, they appear to me, written by a young and unknown peasant in a wretched hovel, the abode of poverty, care, and disease, to be models of native good taste and politeness.

 

                                  " To Mr. James Burness.

                                                 " LOCHLEA, 21st June, 1783.

"DEAR SIR,—My father received your favour of the 10th currt. ; and as he has been for some months very poorly in health, and is in his own opinion, and indeed in almost everybody's else, in a dying condition—he has only, with great difficulty, written a few farewell lines to each of his brothers-in-law. For this melancholy reason, I now hold the pen for him, to thank you for your kind letter, and to assure you, sir, that it shall not be my fault if my father's correspondence in the North die with him. My brother writes to John Caird; and to him I must refer you for the news of our family. I shall only trouble you with a few particulars relative to the present wretched state of this country. Our markets are exceedingly high; oatmeal l7d. and 18d. per peck, and not to be got even at that price. We have indeed been pretty well supplied with quantities of white peas from England and elsewhere : but that resource is likely to fail us; and what will become of us then, particularly the very poorest sort, Heaven only knows. This country, till of  late, was flourishing incredibly in the manufacture of silk, lawn, and carpet-weaving ; and we are still carrying on a good deal in that way, but much reduced from what it was. We had also a fine trade in the shoe way, but now entirely ruined, and hundreds driven to a starring condition on account of it. Farming is also at a very low ebb with us. Our lands, generally speaking, are mountainous and barren; and our landholders, full of ideas of farming gathered from the English and the Lothians, and other rich soils in Scotland, make no allowance for the odds of the quality of land, and consequently stretch us much beyond what, in the event, we will be found able to pay. We are also much at a loss for want of proper methods in our improvements of farming. Necessity compels us to leave our old schemes, and few of us have opportunities of being well informed in new ones. In short, my dear sir, since the unfortunate beginning of this American war, and its as unfortunate conclusion, this country has been, and still is, decaying very fast. Even in higher life, a couple of our Ayrshire noblemen, and the major part of our knights and squires, are all insolvent. A miserable job of a Douglas, Heron, and Co. Bank, which no doubt you have heard of, has undone numbers of them; and imitating English and French, and other foreign luxuries and fopperies, has ruined as many more. There is a great trade of smuggling carried on along our coasts, which, however destructive to the interests of the kingdom at large, certainly enriches this corner of it; but too often at the expense of our morals. However, it enables individuals to make, at least for a time, a splendid appearance; but Fortune, as is usual with her when she is uncommonly lavish of her favours, is generally even with them at the last; and happy were it for numbers of them if she would leave them no worse than when she found them.

" My mother sends you a small present of a cheese ; 'tis but a very little one, as our last year's stock is sold off ; but if you could fix on any correspondent in Edinburgh or Glasgow, we would send you a proper one in the season. Mrs. Black promises to take the cheese under her care so far, and then to send it to you by the Stirling carrier.

" I shall conclude this long letter with assuring you, that I shall be very happy to hear from you, or any of our friends in your country, when opportunity serves. My father sends you, probably for the last time in this world, his warmest wishes for your welfare and happiness ; and my mother and the rest of the family desire to enclose their compliments to you, Mrs. Burness, and the rest of your family, along with,

               " Dear Sir, your affectionate cousin,

                               " ROBERT BURNESS."

 

In the second of these letters the poet announces the death of his father. It is dated Lochlea, February 17th, 1784.

 

" DEAR COUSIN,—I would have returned you my thanks for your kind favour of the 13th Dec. sooner, had it not been that I waited to give you an account of that melancholy event, which, for some time past, we have from day to day expected. On the 13th currt. I lost the best of fathers. Though, to be sure, we have had long warning of the impending stroke, still the feelings of nature claim their part ; and I cannot recollect the tender endearments and parental lessons of the best of friends and the ablest of instructors, without feeling what perhaps the calmer dictates of reason would partly condemn. I hope my father's friends in your country will not let their connection in this place die with him. For my part I shall ever with pleasure—with pride—acknowledge my connection with those who were allied by the ties of blood and friendship to a man whose memory I will ever honour and revere. I expect, therefore, my dear sir, you will not neglect any opportunity of letting me hear from you, which will ever very much oblige,

                 "My dear cousin, yours sincerely,

                                    "ROBERT BURNESS."

 

Among other evils from which the excellent William Burness thus escaped was an affliction that would, in his eyes, have been severe. Our youthful poet had not, as he confesses, come unscathed out of the society of those persons of " liberal opinions " with whom he consorted in Irvine ; and he expressly attributes to their lessons the scrape into which he fell soon after "he put his hand to the plough again." He was compelled, according to the then all but universal custom of rural parishes in Scotland, to do penance in church, before the congregation, in consequence of the birth of an illegitimate child ; and whatever may be thought of the propriety of such exhibitions, there can be no difference of opinion as to the culpable levity with which he describes the nature of his offence, and the still more reprehensible bitterness with which, in his Epistle to Ranken,(23) he inveighs against the clergyman, who, in rebuking him, only performed what was then a regular part of the clerical duty, and a part of it that could never have been at all agreeable to the worthy man whom he satirises under the appellation of "Daddie Auld." The Poet's Welcome to an Illegitimate Child was composed on the same occasion—a piece in which some very manly feelings are expressed, along with others which it can give no one pleasure to contemplate. There is a song in honour of the same occasion, or a similar one about the same period, The rantin' Dog the Daddie o't, which exhibits the poet as glorying, and only glorying, in his shame.

When I consider his tender affection for the surviving members of his own family, and the reverence with which he ever regarded the memory of the father whom he had so recently buried, I cannot believe that Burns has thought fit to record in verse all the feelings which this exposure excited in his bosom. " To wave," in his own language, " the quantum of the sin," he who, two years afterwards, wrote The Cottar's Saturday Night, had not, we may be sure, hardened his heart to the thought of bringing additional sorrow and unexpected shame to the fireside of a widowed mother. But his false pride recoiled from letting his jovial associates guess 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 itself escaped (as may be too often traced in the history of satirists) in the shape of angry sarcasms against others, who, whatever their private errors might be, had at least done him no wrong.

It is impossible not to smile at one item of consolation which Burns proposes to himself on this occasion :

" The mair they talk, I'm kend the better;

                                  E'en let them clash !"

 

This is indeed a singular manifestation of " the last infirmity of noble minds."

 

(23) There is much humour in some of the verses; as,

"'Twas ae night lately, in my fun,

 I gaed a roving wi' my gun,

An brought a paitrick to the grun',
                       A bonnie hen,
And, as the twilight was begun,

                       Thought nane wad ken," etc.

 

  


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