The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart

 

 

CHAPTER III

"The star that rules my luckless lot
Has fated me the russet coat,

And damn'd my fortune to the groat;
                                But in requit,

Has bless'd me wi' a random shot
                               O' country wit."

THREE months before the death of William Burnes, Robert and Gilbert took the farm of Mossgiel, in the neighbouring parish of Mauchline, with the view of providing a shelter for their parents in the storm which they had seen gradually thickening, and knew must soon burst ; and to this place the whole family removed on William's death. The farm consisted of 119 acres, and the rent was £90. " It was stocked by the property and individual savings of the whole family," says Gilbert, " and was a joint concern among us. Every member of the family was allowed ordinary wages for the labour he performed on the farm. My brother's allowance and mine was £7 per annum each. And during the whole time this family concern lasted, as well as during the preceding period at Lochlea, Robert's expenses never, in any one year, exceeded his slender income."

" I entered on this farm," says the poet,(24) " with a full resolution, Come, go, I will be wise. I read farming books, I calculated crops, I attended markets ; and, in short, in spite of the devil, and the world, and the flesh, I believe 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"

" At the time that our poet took the resolution of becoming wise, he procured," says Gilbert, " a little book of blank paper, with the purpose expressed on the first page of making farming memorandums. These farming memorandums are curious enough," Gilbert slyly adds, " and a specimen may gratify the reader " Specimens accordingly he gives, as :

"O why the deuce should I repine
    And be an ill foreboder?

I'm twenty-three, and five foot nine—

    I'll go and be a sodger.


O leave novells, ye Mauchline belles,
Ye're safer at your spinning wheel;
Such witching books are baited hooks
For rakish rooks—like Rob Mossgiel.
Your fine Tom Jones and Grandisons,
They make your youthful fancies reel,
They heat your veins, and fire your brains,
And then ye're prey for Rob Mossgiel," etc., etc.

(24) Letter to Dr. Moore.

 

The four years during which Burns resided on this cold and ungrateful farm of Mossgiel were the most important of his life. It was then that his genius developed its highest energies ; on the works produced in those years his fame was first established, and must ever continue mainly to rest : it was then also that his personal character came out in all its brightest lights and in all but its darkest shadows 5 and, indeed, from the commencement of this period the history of the man may be traced, step by step, in his own immortal writings.

Burns now began to know that Nature had meant him for a poet, and diligently, though as yet in secret, he laboured in what he felt to be his destined vocation. Gilbert continued for some time to be his chief, often, indeed, his only confidant ; and anything more interesting and delightful than this excellent man's account of the manner in which the poems included in the first of his brother's publications were composed is certainly not to be found in the annals of literary history.

The reader has already seen that, long before the earliest of them was known beyond the domestic circle, the strength of Burns's understanding and the keenness of his wit, as displayed in his ordinary conversation, and more particularly at masonic meetings and debating clubs (of which he formed one in Mauchline, on the Tarbolton model, immediately on his removal to Mossgiel), had made his name known to some considerable extent in the country about him, and thus prepared the way for his poetry. Professor Walker gives an anecdote on this head which must not be omitted : Burns already numbered several clergymen among his acquaintances ; indeed, we know from himself that at this period he was not a little flattered, and justly so, no question, with being permitted to mingle occasionally in their society.(25) One of these gentlemen told the professor that after entering on the clerical profession, he had repeatedly met Burns in company, "where," said he, "the acuteness and originality displayed by him, the depth of his discernment, the force of his expressions, and the authoritative energy of his understanding, had created a sense of his power of the extent of which I was unconscious, till it was revealed to me by accident. On the occasion of my second appearance in the pulpit, I came with an assured and tranquil mind ; and though a few persons of education were present, advanced some length in the service with my confidence and self-possession unimpaired ; but when I saw Burns, who was of a different parish, unexpectedly enter the church, I was affected with a tremor and embarrassment which suddenly apprised me of the impression which my mind, unknown to itself, had previously received." The professor adds that the person who had thus unconsciously been measuring the stature of the intellectual giant was not only a man of good talents and education, but "remarkable for a more than ordinary portion of constitutional firmness." (26)

 

(25) Letter to Dr. Moore, sui initio.

(26) Life prefixed to Morrison's Burns, p. 45.

 

Every Scotch peasant who makes any pretension to understanding is a theological critic—at least, such was the case; and Burns, no doubt, had long ere this time distinguished himself considerably among those hard-headed groups that may usually be seen gathered together in the churchyard after the service is over. It may be guessed that from the time of his residence at Irvine, his strictures were too often delivered in no reverent vein. "Polemical divinity," says he to Dr. Moore, in 1787, "about this time was putting the country half mad,(27) and I, ambitious of shining in conversation-parties on Sundays, at funerals, etc., used to puzzle Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion that I raised the hue-and-cry of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour." There are some plain allusions to this matter in Mr. David Sillar's letter, already quoted ; and a surviving friend told Allan Cunningham "that he first saw Burns on the afternoon of the Monday of a Mauchline Sacrament, lounging on horseback at the door of a public-house, holding forth on religious topics to a whole crowd of country people, who presently became so much shocked with his levities that they fairly hissed him from the ground."

(27) The following account of the Buchanites, a set of fanatics, now forgotten, who made much noise in the South and West of Scotland about the period in question, is taken from one of the poet's letters to his cousin (Mr. Burnesof Montrose), with which I have been favoured since this narrative was first published. It is dated Mossgiel, August, 1784. "We have been surprised with one of the most extraordinary phenomena in the moral world which, I dare say, has happened in the course of this half-century. We have had a party of the Presbytery of Relief, as they call themselves, for some time in this country. A pretty thriving society of them has been in the burgh of Irvine for some years past, till, about two years ago, a Mrs. Buchan from Glasgow came among them, and began to spread some fanatical notions of religion among them, and, in a short time, made many converts among them, and, among others, their preacher, one Mr. Whyte, who, upon that account, has been suspended and formally deposed by his brethren. He continued, however, to preach in private to his party, and was supported, both he and their spiritual mother, as they affect to call old Buchan, by the contributions of the rest, several of whom were in good circumstances; till, in spring last, the populace rose and mobbed the old leader Buchan, and put her out of the town; on which, all her followers voluntarily quitted the place likewise, and with such precipitation, that many of them never shut their doors behind them; one left a washing on the green, another a cow bellowing at the crib without meat, or anybody to mind her; and, after several stages, they are fixed at present in the neighbourhood of Dumfries. Their tenets are a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon ; among others, she pretends to give them the Holy Ghost by breathing on them, which she does with posturesfand practices that are scandalously indecent; they have likewise disposed of all their effects, and hold a community of goods, and live nearly an idle life, carrying on a great farce of pretended devotion in barns and woods, where they lodge and lie all together, and hold likewise a community of women, as it is another of their tenets that they can commit no moral sin. I am personally acquainted with most of them, and I can assure you the above-mentioned are facts.
" This, my dear sir, is one of the many instances of the folly of leaving the guidance of sound reason and common sense in matters of religion. Whenever we neglect or despise these sacred monitors, the whimsical notions of a perturbated brain are taken for the immediate influences of the Deity, and the wildest fanaticism and the most inconsistent absurdities will meet with abettors and converts. Nay, I have often thought that the more out of the way and ridiculous the fancies are, if once they are sanctified under the sacred name of religion the unhappy mistaken votaries are the more firmly glued to them."

To understand Burns's situation at this time, at once patronised by a number of clergymen and attended with a " hue-and-cry of heresy," we must remember his own words, that " polemical divinity was putting the country half mad." Of both the parties which, ever since the Revolution of 1688, have pretty equally divided the Church of. Scotland, it so happened that some of the most zealous and conspicuous leaders and partisans were then opposed to each other, in constant warfare, in this particular district : and their feuds being of course taken up among their congregations, and spleen and prejudice at work, even more furiously in the cottage than in the manse, he who, to the annoyance of the one set of belligerents, could talk like Burns, might count pretty surely, with whatever alloy his wit happened to be mingled, in whatever shape the precious "circulating medium " might be cast, on the applause and countenance of the enemy. And it is needless to add, they were the less scrupulous sect of the two that enjoyed the co-operation, such as it was then, and far more important, as in the sequel it came to be, of our poet.

William Burnes, as we have already seen, though a most exemplary and devout man, entertained opinions very different from those which commonly obtained among the rigid Calvinists of his district. The worthy and pious old man himself, therefore, had not improbably infused into his son's mind its first prejudice against these persons; though, had he lived to witness the manner in which Robert assailed them, there can be no doubt his sorrow would have equalled their anger. The jovial spirits with whom Burns associated at Irvine and afterwards, were of course habitual deriders of the manners as well as the tenets of the

"Orthodox, orthodox, wha believe in John Knox."

We have already observed the effect of the young poet's own first collision with the ruling powers of Presbyterian discipline ; but it was in the very act of settling at Mossgiel that Burns formed the connection which, more than any circumstance besides, influenced him as to the matter now in question. The farm belonged to the estate of the Earl of Loudoun, but the brothers held it on a sub-lease from Mr. Gavin Hamilton, writer (i.e. attorney) in Mauchline, a man, by every account, of engaging manners, open, kind, generous, and high-spirited, between whom and Robert Burns, in spite of considerable inequality of condition, a close and intimate friendship was ere long formed. Just about this time it happened that Hamilton was at open feud with Mr. Auld, the minister of Mauchline (the same who had already rebuked the poet), and the ruling elders of the parish, in consequence of certain irregularities in his personal conduct and deportment, which, according to the usual strict notions of kirk discipline, were considered as fairly demanding the vigorous interference of these authorities. The notice of this person, his own landlord, and, as it would seem, one of the principal inhabitants of the village of Mauchline at the time, must, of course, have been very flattering to our polemical young farmer. He espoused Gavin Hamilton's quarrel warmly. Hamilton was naturally enough disposed to mix up his personal affair with the standing controversies whereon Auld was at variance with a large and powerful body of his brother clergymen ; and by degrees the Mauchline writer's ardent protege came to be as vehemently interested in the church politics of Ayrshire as he could have been in politics of another order, had he happened to be a freeman of some open borough and his patron a candidate for the honour of representing it in St. Stephen's.

Cromek has been severely criticised for some details of Gavin Hamilton's dissensions with his parish minister(28); but perhaps it might have been well to limit the censure to the tone and spirit of the narrative,(29) since there is no doubt that these petty squabbles had a large share in directing the early energies of Burns's poetical talents. Even in the west of Scotland such matters would hardly excite much notice nowadays, but they were quite enough to produce a world of vexation and controversy forty years ago; and the English reader, to whom all such details are denied, will certainly never be able to comprehend either the merits or the demerits of many of Burns's most remarkable productions. Since I have touched upon this matter at all, I may as well add, that Hamilton's family, though professedly adhering (as, indeed, if they were to be Christians at all in that district, they must needs have done) to the Presbyterian Establishment, had always lain under a strong suspicion of Episcopalianism. Gavin's ancestor had been curate of Kirkoswald in the troubled times that preceded the Revolution, and incurred great and lasting popular hatred in consequence of being supposed to have had a principal hand in bringing a thousand of the Highland host into that region in 1667-8. The district was commonly said not to have entirely recovered the effects of that savage visitation in less than a hundred years; and the descendants and representatives of the Covenanters, whom the curate of Kirkoswald had the reputation at least of persecuting, were commonly supposed to regard with anything rather than ready good will his descendant, the witty writer of Mauchline. A well-nursed prejudice of this kind was likely enough to be met by counter-spleen, and such seems to have been the truth of the case. The lapse of another generation has sufficed to wipe out every trace of feuds that were still abundantly discernible in the days when Ayrshire first began to ring with the equally zealous applause and vituperation of

" Poet Burns,

And his priest-skelping turns."

 

(28)  Edinburgh Review, vol. xiii., p. 273.

(29) Keliques, p. 164, etc.

 

It is impossible to look back now to the civil war, which then raged among the Churchmen of the west of Scotland, without confessing that on either side there was much to regret and not a little to blame. Proud and haughty spirits were unfortunately opposed to each other ; and in the superabundant display of zeal as to doctrinal points, neither party seems to have mingled much of the charity of the Christian temper. The whole exhibition was most unlovely: the spectacle of such indecent violence among the leading ecclesiastics of the district acted unfavourably on many men's minds j and no one can doubt that in the at best unsettled state of Robert Burns's principles the unhappy effect must have been powerful indeed as to him.

Macgill and Dalrymple, the two ministers of the town of Ayr, had long been suspected of entertaining heterodox opinions on several points, particularly the doctrine of original sin, and the Trinity ; and the former at length published an essay which was considered as demanding the notice of the Church courts. More than a year was spent in the discussions which arose out of this ; and at last Dr. Macgill was fain to acknowledge his errors, and promise that he would take an early opportunity of apologising for them to his own congregation from the pulpit ; which promise, however, he never performed. The gentry of the country took, for the most part, the side of Macgill, who was a man of cold, unpopular manners, but of unreproached moral character, and possessed of some accomplishments, though certainly not of distinguished talents. The bulk of the lower orders espoused, with far more fervid zeal, the cause of those who conducted the prosecution against this erring doctor. Gavin Hamilton, and all persons of his stamp, were of course on the side of Macgill ; Auld and the Mauchline elders, with his enemies. Mr. Robert Aiken, a writer in Ayr, a man of remarkable talents, particularly in public speaking, had the principal management of Macgill's cause before the presbytery, and, I believe, also before the synod. He was an intimate friend of Hamilton, and through him had about this time formed an acquaintance, which soon ripened into a warm friendship, with Burns. Burns, therefore, was from the beginning a zealous, as in the end he was perhaps the most effective, partisan of the side on which Aiken had staked so much of his reputation. Macgill, Dalrymple, and their brethren, suspected, with more or less justice, of leaning to heterodox opinions, are the New Light pastors of his earliest satires.

The prominent antagonists of these men, and chosen champions of the Auld Light in Ayrshire, it must now be admitted on all hands, presented, in many particulars of personal conduct and demeanour, as broad a mark as ever tempted the shafts of a satirist. These men prided themselves on being the legitimate and undegenerate descendants and representatives of the haughty Puritans, who chiefly conducted the overthrow of Popery in Scotland, and who ruled for a time, and would fain have continued to rule, over both king and people with a more tyrannical dominion than ever the Catholic priesthood itself had been able to exercise amidst that high-spirited nation. With the horrors of the Papal system for ever in their mouths, these men were in fact as bigoted monks, and almost as relentless inquisitors, in their hearts, as ever wore cowl and cord— austere and ungracious of aspect, coarse and repulsive of address and manners j very Pharisees as to the lesser matters of the law, and many of them, to all outward appearance at least, overflowing with pharisaical self-conceit, as well as monastic bile. That admirable qualities lay concealed under this ungainly exterior, and mingled with and checked the worst of these gloomy passions, no candid man will permit himself to doubt ; and that Burns has grossly overcharged his portraits of them, deepening shadows that were of themselves sufficiently dark, and excluding altogether those brighter, and perhaps softer, traits of character, which redeemed the originals within the sympathies of many of the worthiest and best of men, seems equally clear. Their bitterest enemies dared not at least to bring against them, even when the feud was at its height of fervour, charges of that heinous sort which they fearlessly, and I fear justly, preferred against their antagonists. No one ever accused them of signing the Articles, administering the sacraments, and eating the bread of a Church whose fundamental doctrines they disbelieved, and, by insinuation at least, disavowed.

The law of Church patronage was another subject on which controversy ran high and furious in the district at the same period, the actual condition of things on this head being upheld by all the men of the New Light, and condemned as equally at variance with the precepts of the gospel and
the rights of freemen by not a Few of the other party, and in particular by certain conspicuous zealots in the immediate neighbourhood of Burns. While this warfare raged there broke out an intestine discord within the camp of the faction which he loved not. Two of the foremost leaders of the Auld Light party quarrelled about a question of parish boundaries ; the matter was taken up in the presbytery of Irvine, and there, in the open court, to which the announcement of the discussion had drawn a multitude of the country people, and Burns among the rest, the reverend divines, hitherto sworn friends and associates, lost all command of temper, and abused each other coram populo, with a fiery virulence of personal invective such as has long been banished from all popular assemblies wherein the laws of courtesy are enforced by those of a certain unwritten code.

" The first of my poetic offspring that saw the light," says Burns, " was a burlesque lamentation on a quarrel between two reverend Calvinists, both of them dramatis persona: 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 very fond of such things, and told him 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 laity, it met with a roar of applause''

This was The Holy Tuilzie, or Twa Herds, a piece not given either by Currie or Gilbert Burns, though printed by Mr. Paul, and omitted, certainly for no very intelligible reason, in editions where The Holy Fair, The Ordination, etc., found admittance. The two herds, or pastors, were Mr. Moodie, minister of Riccarton, and that favourite victim of Burns's, John Russell, then minister at Kilmarnock, and afterwards of Stirling.

"From this time," Burns says, "I began to be known in the country as a maker of rhymes. 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, and see if any of it might be pointed against profane rhymers" : and to a place among profane rhymers the author of this terrible infliction had unquestionably established his right. Sir Walter Scott speaks of it as " a piece of satire more exquisitely severe than any which Burns ever afterwards wrote—but unfortunately cast in a form too daringly profane to be received into Dr. Currie's collection."(30) Burns's reverend editor, Mr. Paul, nevertheless, presents Holy Willie's Prayer at full length,(31) and even calls on the friends of religion to bless the memory of the poet who took such a judicious method of "leading the liberal mind to a rational view of the nature of prayer."

(30) Quarterly Review, No. I., p. 22.

(31) I leave this passage as it stood originally; but am happy in having it in my power to add, on Mr. Paul's own authority, that he had no hand either in selecting the poems for the edition in question, or superintending the printing of it. He merely contributed the brief memoir prefixed, and critical notes appended to it; and '' considered his contributions as a jeu d'esprit." After this explanation, my text may safely be left to the interpretation of every candid reader (1829).

"This," says that bold commentator, "was not only the prayer of Holy Willie, but it is merely the metrical version of every prayer that is offered up by those who call themselves the pure reformed Church of Scotland. In the course of his reading and polemical warfare, Burns embraced and defended the opinions of Taylor of Norwich, Macgill, and that school of divines. He could not reconcile his mind to that picture of the Being whose very essence is love, which is drawn by the High Calvinists, or the representatives of the Covenanters—namely, that He is disposed to grant salvation to none but a few of their sect; that the whole Pagan world, the disciples of Mahomet, the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, aud even the Calvinists who differ from them in certain tenets must, like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, descend to the pit of perdition, man, woman, and child, without the possibility of escape; but such are the identical doctrines of the Cameronians of the present day, and such was Holy Willie's style of prayer. The hypocrisy and dishonesty of the man, who was at the time a reputed saint, were perceived by the discerning penetration of Burns ; and to expose them he considered it his duty. The terrible view of the Deity exhibited in that able production is precisely the same view which is given of Him, in different words, by many devout preachers at present. They inculcate that the greatest sinner is the greatest favourite of Heaven ; that a reformed bawd is more acceptable to the Almighty than a pure virgin, who has hardly ever transgressed even in thought; that the lost sheep alone will be saved, and that the ninety and nine out of the hundred will be left in the wilderness, to perish without mercy ; that the Saviour of the world loves the elect, not from any lovely qualities which they possess, for they are hateful in His sight, but 'He loves them because He loves them.' Such are the sentiments which are breathed by those who are denominated High Calvinists, and from which the soul of a poet who loves mankind recoils with horror. . . . The gloomy, forbidding representation which they give of the Supreme Being has a tendency to produce insanity and lead to suicide." (32)Life of Burns, pp. 40, 41.

(32) According to every account, Holy Willie was no very consistent character. I find it stated in Cromek's MSS. that he met with his death by falling, when drunk, into a wet ditch; and indeed this story seems to be alluded to in more than one of Burns's own letters.

Mr. Paul may be considered as expressing in the above, and in other passages of a similar tendency, the sentiments with which even the most audacious of Burns's anti-Calvinistic satires were received among the Ayrshire divines of the New Light. That performances so blasphemous should have been not only pardoned, but applauded, by ministers of religion is a singular circumstance, which may go far to make the reader comprehend the exaggerated state of party feeling in Burns's native county at the period when he first appealed to the public ear ; nor is it fair to pronounce sentence upon the young and reckless satirist, without taking into consideration the undeniable fact that, in his worst offences of this kind, he was encouraged and abetted by those who, to say nothing more about their professional character and authority, were almost the only persons of liberal education whose society he had any opportunity of approaching at the period in question. Had Burns received, at this time, from his clerical friends and patrons, such advice as was tendered, when rather too late, by a layman who was as far from bigotry on religious subjects as any man in the world, this great genius might have made his first approaches to the public notice in a very different character.

"Let your bright talents" (thus wrote the excellent John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, in October, 1787)—"let those bright talents which the Almighty has bestowed on you be henceforth employed to the noble purpose of supporting the cause of truth and virtue. An imagination so varied and forcible as yours may do this in many different modes; nor is it necessary to be always serious, which you have been to good purpose : good morals may be recommended in a comedy, or even in a song. Great allowances are due to the heat and inexperience of youth ;—and few poets can boast, like Thomson, of never having written a line which, dying, they would wish to blot. In particular, I wish you to keep clear of the thorny walks of satire, which makes a man an hundred enemies for one friend, and is doubly dangerous when one is supposed to extend the slips and weaknesses of individuals to their sect or party. About modes of faith, serious and excellent men have always differed ; and there are certain curious questions which may afford scope to men of metaphysical heads, but seldom mend the heart or temper. Whilst these points are beyond human ken, it is sufficient that all our sects concur in their views of morals. You will forgive me for these hints." Few such hints, it is likely, ever reached his ears in the days when they might have been most useful—days of which the principal honours and distinctions are thus alluded to by himself:

" I've been at drunken writers' feasts ;

Nay, been bitch-fou 'mang godly priests."

It is amusing to observe how soon even really bucolic bards learn the tricks of their trade. Burns knew already what lustre a compliment gains from being set in sarcasm when he made Willie call for special notice to

" Gaun Hamilton's deserts:—
He drinks, and swears, and plays at carts
Yet has sae mony takin' arts
                       Wi' great and sma',
Frae God's ain priests the people's hearts
                       He steals awa," ete.

Nor is his other patron, Aiken, introduced with inferior skill,
as having merited Willie's most fervent execrations by his " glib-tongued " defence of the heterodox doctor of Ayr :

" Lord ! visit them wha did employ him,
And for Thy people's sake destroy 'em."

Burns owed a compliment to this gentleman's elocutionary talents. " 1 never knew there was any merit in my poems," said he, " until Mr. Aiken read them into repute."

Encouraged by the " roar of applause " which greeted these pieces, thus orally promulgated and recommended, he produced in succession various satires, wherein the same set of persons were lashed, as The Ordination, The Kirk's Alarm, etc., etc., and last, and best, undoubtedly, The Holy Fair, in which, unlike the others that have been mentioned, satire keeps its own place, and is subservient to the poetry of Burns. This was, indeed, an extraordinary performance : no partisan of any sect could whisper that malice had formed its principal inspiration, or that its chief attraction lay in the boldness with which individuals, entitled and accustomed to respect, were held up to ridicule. It was acknowledged, amidst the sternest mutterings of wrath, that national manners were once more in the hands of a national poet, and hardly denied by those who shook their heads the most gravely over the indiscretions of particular passages, or even by those who justly regretted a too prevailing tone of levity in the treatment of a subject essentially solemn, that the muse of Christ's Kirk on the Green had awakened, after the slumber of ages, with all the vigour of her regal youth about her, in "the auld clay biggin" of Mossgiel.

The Holy fair, however, created admiration, not surprise, among the circle of domestic friends who had been admitted to watch the steps of his progress in an art of which, beyond that circle, little or nothing was heard until the youthful poet produced, at length, a satirical masterpiece. It is not possible to reconcile the statements of Gilbert and others as to some of the minutiæ of the chronological history of Burns's previous performances ; but there can be no doubt that, although from choice or accident his first provincial fame was that of a satirist, he had some time before any of his philippics on the Auld Light divines made their appearance, exhibited, to those who enjoyed his personal confidence, a range of imaginative power hardly inferior to what The Holy Fair itself displays, and, at least, such a rapidly improving skill in poetical language and versification as must have prepared them for witnessing, without wonder, even the most perfect specimens of his art.

Gilbert says that " among the earliest of his poems was the Epistle to Davie"; and Mr. Walker believes that this was written very soon after the death of his father. This piece is in the very intricate and difficult measure of The Cherry and the Slae; and, on the whole, the poet moves with ease and grace in his very unnecessary trammels. But young poets are careless beforehand of difficulties which would startle the experienced ; and great poets may overcome any difficulties if they once grapple with them : so that I should rather ground my distrust of Gilbert's . statement, if it must be literally taken, en the celebration of Jean, with which the epistle terminates :—and, after all, those concluding stanzas may have been added some time after the first draught. The gloomy circumstances of the poet's personal condition, as described in this piece, were common, it cannot be doubted, to all the years of his youthful history ; so that no particular date is to be founded upon these : and if this was the first, certainly it was not the last, occasion on which Burns exercised his fancy in the colouring of the very worst issue that could attend a life of unsuccessful toil.

" The last o't, the warst o't,
Is only just to beg—"

But Gilbert's recollections, however on trivial points inaccurate, will always be more interesting than anything that could be put in their place.

" Robert," says he, " often composed without any regular plan. When anything made a strong impression on his mind, so as to rouse it to poetical exertion, he would give way to the impulse, and embody the thought in rhyme. If he hit on two or three stanzas to please him, he would then think of proper introductory, connecting, and concluding stanzas ; hence the middle of a poem was often first produced. It was, I think, in summer 1784,(33) when, in the interval of harder labour, he and I were weeding in the garden (kail-yard), that he repeated to me the principal part of The Epistle to Davie. I believe the first idea of Robert's becoming an author was started on this occasion. I was much pleased with the epistle, and said to him I was of opinion it would bear being printed, and that it would be well received by people of taste ; that I thought it at least equal, if not superior, to many of Allan Ramsay's epistles: that the merit of these, and much other Scotch poetry, seemed to consist principally in the knack of the expression : but here there was a strain of interesting sentiment; and the Scotticism of the language scarcely seemed affected, but appeared to be the natural language of the poet ; that, besides, there was certainly some novelty in a poet pointing out the consolations that were in store for him when he should go a-begging. Robert seemed very well pleased with my criticism, and we talked of sending it to some magazine ; but as this plan afforded no opportunity of knowing how it would take, the idea was dropped.

(33) It has been already mentioned that Sillar removed from Tarbolton to Irvine in 1784, which circumstance seems to confirm the account in the text.

" It was, I think, in the winter following, as we were going together with carts for coal to the family (and I could yet point out the particular spot), that the author first repeated to me the Address to the Deil. The curious idea of such an address was suggested to him by running over in his mind the many ludicrous accounts and representations we have, from various quarters, of this august personage. Death and Doctor Hornbook, though not published in the Kilmarnock edition, was produced early in the year 1785. The schoolmaster of Tarbolton parish, to eke out the scanty subsistence allowed to that useful class of men, had set up a shop of grocery goods. Having accidentally fallen in with some medical books, and become most hobby-horseically attached to the study of medicine, he had added the sale of a few medicines to his little trade. He had got a shop-bill printed, at the bottom of which, overlooking his own incapacity, he had advertised that 'Advice would be given, in common disorders, at the shop, gratis.' Robert was at a mason meeting in Tarbolton, when the Dominie unfortunately made too ostentatious a display of his medical skill. As he parted in the evening from this mixture of pedantry and physic, at the place where he describes his meeting with Death, one of those floating ideas of apparitions, he mentions in his letter to Dr. Moore, crossed his mind : this set him to work for the rest of the way home. These circumstances he related when he repeated the verses to me next afternoon, as I was holding the plough and he was letting the water off the field beside me. The Epistle to John Lapraik was produced exactly on the occasion described by the author. He says in that poem, On Fasten-e'en we had a rockin' :—I believe he has omitted the word rocking in the glossary. It is a term derived from those primitive times when the countrywomen employed their spare hours in spinning on the rock or distaff. This simple implement is a very portable one, and well fitted to the social inclination of meeting in a neighbour's house ; hence the phrase of going a-rocking, or with the rock. As the connexion the phrase had with the implement was forgotten when the rock gave place to the spinning-wheel, the phrase came to be used by both sexes on social occasions, and men talk of going with their rocks as well as women. It was at one of these rockings at our house, when we had twelve or fifteen young people with their rocks, that Lapraik's song, beginning, 'When I upon thy bosom lean,' (34) was sung, and we were informed who was the author. The verses to the Mouse and Mountain Daisy were composed on the occasions mentioned, and while the author was holding the plough. I could point out the particular spot where each was composed. Holding the plough was a favourite situation with Robert for poetic compositions, and some of his best verses were produced while he was at that exercise. Several of the poems were produced for the purpose of bringing forward some favourite sentiment of the author. He used to remark to me that he could not well conceive a more mortifying picture of human life than a man seeking work. In casting about in his mind how this sentiment might be brought forward, the elegy, Man was made to mourn, was composed. Robert had frequently remarked to me that he thought there was something peculiarly venerable in the phrase, 'Let us worship God,' used by a decent, sober head of a family, introducing family worship. To this sentiment of the author the world is indebted for The Cottar's Saturday Night. The hint of the plan and title of the poem were taken from Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle.

 

(34) Burns was never a fastidious critic; but it is not very easy to understand his admiration of Lapraik's poetry. Emboldened by Burns's success, he, too, published ; but the only one of his productions that is ever remembered now is this, and even this survives chiefly because Burns has praised it. The opening verse, however, is pretty. It may be seen at length in Allan Cunningham's Scottish Songs, vol. iii., p. 290.

 

"When Robert had not some pleasure in view in which I was not thought fit to participate we used frequently to walk together, when the weather was favourable, on the Sunday afternoons (those precious breathing-times to the labouring part of the community), and enjoyed such Sundays as would make one regret to see their number abridged. It was in one of these walks that I first had the pleasure of hearing the author repeat The Cottar's Saturday Night. I do not recollect to have read or heard anything by which I was more highly electrified. The fifth and sixth stanzas, and the eighteenth, thrilled with peculiar ecstasy through my soul."

The poems here mentioned by Gilbert Burns are among the most popular of his brother's performances, and there may be a time for recurring to some of their peculiar merits as works of art. It may be mentioned here that John Wilson, alias Dr. Hornbook, was not merely compelled to shut up shop as an apothecary, or druggist rather, by the satire which bears his name, but so irresistible was the tide of ridicule that his pupils, one by one, deserted him, and he abandoned his school craft also. Removing to Glasgow, and turning himself successfully to commercial pursuits, Dr. Hornbook survived the local storm which he could not effectually withstand, and was often heard in his latter days, when waxing cheerful and communicative over a bowl of punch " in the Salt-market," to bless the lucky hour in which the dominie of Tarbolton provoked the castigation of Robert Burns, In
those days the Scotch universities did not turn out doctors of physic by the hundred, according to the modern fashion, introduced by the necessities of the French revolutionary war. Mr. Wilson's was, probably, the only medicine-chest from which salts and senna were distributed for the benefit of a considerable circuit of parishes ; and his advice, to say the least of the matter, was, perhaps, as good as could be had, for love or money, among the wise women, who were the only rivals of his practice. The poem which drove him from Ayrshire was not, we may believe, either expected or designed to produce any such serious effect. Poor Hornbook and the poet were old acquaintances, and, in some sort, rival wits at the time in the mason lodge.

In Man was made to mourn, whatever might be the casual idea that set the poet to work, it is but too evident that he wrote from the habitual feelings of his own bosom. The indignation with which he, through life, contemplated the inequality of human condition, and particularly—and who shall say with absolute injustice ?—the contrast between his own worldly circumstances and intellectual rank, was never more bitterly nor more loftily expressed than in some of these stanzas ;

"See yonder poor o'erlabour'd wight,
    So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
    To give him leave to toil !

If I'm design'd yon lordling's slave—
    By Nature's laws design'd—
Why was an independent wish
    E're planted in my mind ? "

The same feeling, strong, but triumphed over in the moment of inspiration, as it ought ever to have been in the plain exercise of such an understanding as his, may be read in every stanza of The Epistle to Davie:

' It's no in titles nor in rank,

It's no in wealth like Lon'on bank,
    To purchase peace and rest;
It's no in books, it's no in lear.
    To mak us truly blest. . . .

Think ye, that such as you and I,

Wha drudge and drive through wet and dry,
    Wi' never-ceasing toil;

Think ye, are we less blest than they,
Wha scarcely tent us in their way,

    As hardly worth their while?"

 

In Man was made to mourn Burns appears to have taken many hints from an ancient ballad entitled, The Life and Age of Man, which begins thus :

" Upon the sixteen hunder year of God, and fifty-three,

Frae Christ was born, that bought us dear, as writings testifie ;

On January, the sixteenth day, as I did lie alone,

With many a sigh and sob did say—Ah ! man is made to moan !"

" I had an old grand-uncle," says the poet in one of his letters to Mrs. Dunlop, " with whom my mother lived in her girlish years. The good old man, for such he was, was blind long ere he died, during which time his highest enjoyment was to sit down and cry, while my mother would sing the simple old song of The Life and Age of Man'' (35)

 

(35) This ballad may be seen in Cromek's Select Scottish Songs.

 

The Cottars Saturday Night is, perhaps, of all Burns's pieces, the one whose exclusion from the collection would be most injurious, if not to his genius, at least to his character. 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 performance he has left us. Loftier nights he certainly has made; but in these he remained but a short while on the wing, and effort is too often perceptible : here the motion is easy, gentle, placidly undulating. There is more of the conscious security of power than in any other of his serious pieces of considerable length ; the whole has the appearance of coming in a full stream from the fountain of the heart—a stream that soothes the ear and has no glare on the surface. It is delightful to turn from any of the pieces, which present so great a genius as writhing under an inevitable burden, to this, where his buoyant energy seems not even to feel the pressure. The miseries of toil and penury, who shall affect to treat as unreal ? Yet they shrink to small dimensions in the presence of a spirit thus exalted at once and softened by the purities of virgin love, filial reverence, and domestic devotion.

That he, who thus enthusiastically apprehended, and thus exquisitely painted, the artless beauty and solemnity of the feelings and thoughts that ennoble the life of the Scottish peasant, could witness observances in which the very highest of these redeeming influences are most powerfully and gracefully displayed, and yet describe them in a vein of unmixed merriment—that the same man should have produced The Cottar's Saturday Night and The Holy Fair about the same time—will ever continue to move wonder and regret.

" The annual celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, in the rural parishes of Scotland, has much in it," says the unfortunate Heron, " of those old Popish festivals in which superstition, traffic, and amusement used to be strangely intermingled. Burns saw and seized in it one of the happiest of all subjects to afford scope for the display of that strong and piercing sagacity by which he could almost intuitively distinguish the reasonable from the absurd, and the becoming from the ridiculous ;—of that picturesque power of fancy which enables him to represent scenes, and persons, and groups, and looks, and attitudes, and gestures, in a manner almost as lively and impressive, even in words, as -if all the artifices and energies of the pencil had been employed ;—of that knowledge which he had necessarily acquired of the manners, passions, and prejudices of the rustics around him ; —of whatever was ridiculous, no less than whatever was affectingly beautiful in rural life."(36) This is very good so far as it goes ; but who ever disputed the exquisite graphic truth, so far as it goes, of the poem to which the critic refers ? The question remains as it stood. Is there, then, nothing besides a strange mixture of superstition, traffic, and amusement in the scene which such an annual celebration in a rural parish of Scotland presents ? Does nothing of what is " affectingly beautiful in rural life " make a part in the original which was before the poet's eyes ? Were superstition, hypocrisy, and fun the only influences which he might justly have impersonated ? It would be hard, I think, to speak so even of the old Popish festivals to which Mr. Heron alludes ; it would be hard, surely, to say it of any festival in which, mingled as they may be with sanctimonious pretenders, and surrounded with giddy groups of onlookers, a mighty multitude of devout men are assembled for the worship of God beneath the open heaven and above the tombs of their fathers.

(36) Heron's Memoirs of Burns (Edinburgh, 1797), p. 14. See for a short account of this writer Mr. D'Israeli's Calamities of Authors.

Let us beware, however, of pushing our censure ot a young poet, mad with the inspiration of the moment, from what-ever source derived, too far. It can hardly be doubted that the author of The Cottar's Saturday Night had felt, in his time, all that any man can feel in the contemplation of the most sublime of the religious observances of his country ; and as little that, had he taken up the subject of this rural sacrament in a solemn mood, he might have produced a piece as gravely beautiful as his Holy Fair is quaint, graphic, and picturesque. A scene of family worship, on the other hand, I can easily imagine to have come from his hand as pregnant with the ludicrous as that Holy Fair itself. The family prayers of the Saturday night and the rural celebration of the Eucharist are parts of the same system—the system which has made the people of Scotland what they are, and what, it is to be hoped, they will continue to be. And when men ask of themselves what this great national poet really thought of a system in which minds immeasurably inferior to his can see so much to venerate, it is surely just that they should pay more attention to what he has delivered under the gravest sanction. In noble natures, we may be sure, the source of tears lies nearer the heart than that of smiles.

Mr. Hamilton Paul does not desert his post on occasion of The Holy Fair : he defends that piece as manfully as Holy Willie; and, indeed, expressly applauds Burns for having endeavoured to explode " abuses discountenanced by the General Assembly." The General Assembly would, no doubt, say, both of the poet and the commentator, non tali auxilio.

Hallowe'en, a descriptive poem, perhaps even more exquisitely wrought than The Holy Fair, and containing nothing that could offend the feelings of anybody, was produced about the same period.

Burns's art had now reached its climax ; but it is time that we should revert more particularly to the personal history of the poet.

He seems to have very soon perceived that the farm of Mossgiel could, at the best, furnish no more than the bare means of existence to so large a family ; and, wearied with the " prospects drear," from which he only escaped in occasional intervals of social merriment, or when gay flashes of solitary fancy, for they were no more, threw sunshine on everything, he very naturally took up the notion of trying his fortune in the West Indies, where, as is well known, the managers of the plantations are, in the great majority of cases, Scotchmen of Burns's own rank and condition. His letters show that on two or three different occasions, long before his poetry had excited any attention, he had applied for, and nearly obtained, appointments of this sort, through the intervention of his acquaintances in the seaport of Irvine. Petty accidents, not worth describing, interfered to disappoint him from time to time ; but at last a new burst of misfortune rendered him doubly anxious to escape from his native land, and but for an accident, which no one will call petty, his arrangements would certainly have been completed.

But we must not come quite so rapidly to the last of his Ayrshire love-stories.

How many lesser romances of this order were evolved and completed during his residence at Mossgiel it is needless to inquire ; that they were many his songs prove, for in those days he wrote no love-songs on imaginary heroines.(37) Mary Morison—Behind yon hills were Stinchar flows—On Cessnock bank there li'ves a lass—belong to this period ; and there are three or four inspired by Mary Campbell—the object of by far the deepest passion that Burns ever knew, and which he has, accordingly, immortalised in the noblest of his elegiacs.

 

(37) Letters to Mr. Thomson, No. IV.

 

In introducing to Mr. Thomson's notice the song

"Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,
And leave auld Scotia's shore?—

Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary,

Across the Atlantic's roar?"

Burns says, " In my early years, when I was thinking of going to the West Indies, I took this farewell of a dear girl" ; and afterwards, in a note on

" Ye banks, and braes, and streams around
    The Castle o' Montgomerie ;

Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
    Your waters never drumlie ;

There summer first unfauld her robes,
    And there the langest tarry,

For there I took the last farewell
    O' my sweet Highland Mary."

he adds : "After a pretty long trial of the most ardent reciprocal affection, we met by appointment, on the second Sunday of May, in a sequestered spot by the banks of Ayr, where we spent a day in taking a farewell, before she should embark for the West Highlands, to arrange matters among her friends for our projected change of life. At the close of the autumn following, she crossed the sea to meet me at Greenock, where she had scarce landed when she was seized with a malignant fever, which hurried my dear girl to her grave, in a few days, before I could even hear of her illness."

Cromek, speaking of the same " day of parting love," gives, though without mentioning his authority, some further particulars, which no one would willingly believe to be apocryphal. "This adieu," says that zealous inquirer into the details of Burns's story, " was performed with all those simple and striking ceremonials which rustic sentiment has devised to prolong tender emotions, and to impose awe. The lovers stood on each side of a small purling brook—they laved their hands in the limpid stream—and, holding a Bible between them, pronounced their vows to be faithful to each other. They parted—never to meet again."(38) It is proper to add that Mr. Cromek's story has recently been confirmed by the accidental discovery of a Bible, presented by Burns to Mary Campbell, in the possession of her still surviving sister, at Ardrossan. Upon the boards of the first volume is inscribed, in Burns's handwriting, " And ye shall not swear by my name falsely : I am the Lord.—Levit. chap. xix. v. 12." On the second volume, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths.—St. Matth. chap, v. 33," and, on a blank leaf of either, "Robert Burns, Mossgiel," with his mason mark.

 

(38) Cromek, p. 238.

 

How lasting was the poet's remembrance of this pure love and its tragic termination will be seen hereafter.

Highland Mary, however, seems to have died before her lover had made any of his more serious attempts in poetry. In The Epistle to Mr. Sillar, the very earliest, according to Gilbert, of these essays, the poet celebrates "his Davie and his Jean''

This was Jean Armour, the daughter of a respectable man, a mason, in the village of Mauchline, where she was at the time the reigning toast,(39) and who still survives (1828) as the respected widow of our poet. There are numberless allusions to her maiden charms in the best pieces which he produced at Mossgiel.

The time is not yet come in which all the details of this story can be expected. Jean Armour found herself " as ladies wish to be that love their lords;" and how slightly such a circumstance might affect the character and reputation of a young woman in her sphere of rural life, at that period, every Scotchman will understand—to any but a Scotchman it might, perhaps, be difficult to explain. The manly readiness with which the young rustics commonly come forward to avert, by marriage, the worst consequences of such indiscretions cannot be denied ; nor, perhaps, is there any class of society, in any country, in which matrimonial infidelity is less known than among the female peasantry of Scotland.

(39) " In Mauchline there dwells six proper young belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a';
Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess,
In Lon'on or Paris they'd gotten it a'. Miss
Miller is fine, Miss Maryland's divine,
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw;
There's beauty and fortune to get wi' Miss Morton,
But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'."

Burns's worldly circumstances were in a most miserable state when he was informed of Miss Armour's condition, and the first announcement of it staggered him like a blow. He saw nothing for it but to fly the country at once ; and in a note to James Smith of Mauchline, the confidant of his amour, he thus wrote : " Against two things I am fixed as fate— staying at home, and owning her conjugally. The first, by Heaven ! I will not do ;—the last, by hell ! I will never do. A good God bless you, and make you happy, up to the warmest weeping wish of parting friendship. ... If you see Jean, tell her I will meet her ; so help me God in my hour of need."

The lovers met accordingly, and the result of the meeting was what was to be anticipated from the tenderness and the manliness of Burns's feelings. All dread of personal inconvenience yielded at once to the tears of the woman he loved, and, ere they parted, he gave into her keeping a written acknowledgment of marriage, which, when produced by a person in Miss Armour's condition, is, according to the Scots law, to be accepted as legal evidence of an irregular marriage having really taken place, it being of course understood that the marriage was to be formally avowed as soon as the consequences of their imprudence could no longer be concealed from her family.

The disclosure was deferred to the last moment ; and it was received by the father of Miss Armour with equal surprise and anger. Bums, confessing himself to be unequal to the maintenance of a family, proposed to go immediately to Jamaica, where he hoped to find better fortunes. He offered, if this were rejected, to abandon his farm, which was, ere now, a hopeless concern, and earn bread, at least, for his wife and child as a daily labourer at home ; but nothing could appease the indignation of Armour, who, Professor Walker hints, had entertained previously a very bad opinion of Burns's whole character. By what arguments he prevailed on his daughter to take so strange and so painful a step we know not ; but the fact is certain that, at his urgent entreaty, she destroyed the document, which must have been to her the most precious of her possessions—the only evidence of her marriage.

It was under such extraordinary circumstances that " Bonny Jean " became the mother of twins.(40)

(40) The comments of the Rev. Hamilton Paul on this delicate part of the poet's story are too meritorious to be omitted.
"The scenery of the Ayr," says he, "from Sorn to the ancient burgh at its mouth, though it may be equalled in grandeur, is scarcely anywhere surpassed in beauty. To trace its meanders, to wander amid its green woods, to lean over its precipitous and rocky banks, to explore its coves, to survey its Gothic towers, and to admire its modern edifices, is not only highly delightful, but truly inspiring. If the poet, in his excursions along the banks of the river, or in penetrating into the deepest recesses of the grove, be accompanied by his favourite fair one, whose admiration of rural and sylvan beauty is akin to his own, however hazardous the experiment, the bliss is ecstatic. To warn the young and unsuspecting of their danger is only to stimulate their curiosity. The well-meant dissuasive of Thomson is more seductive in its tendency than the admirers of that poet's morality are aware:

                    "Ah! then, ye fair,
Be greatly cautious of your sliding hearts ;

Dare not the infectious sigh ; nor in the bower.

Where woodbines flaunt, and roses shed a couch,

While evening draws her crimson curtains round,

Trust your soft minutes with betraying man."

We are decidedly of opinion that the inexperienced fair will be equally
disposed to disregard this sentimental prohibition, and to accept the
invitation of another bard, whose libertinism is less disguised :

'' Will you go to the bower I have shaded for you ?
Your bed shall be roses bespangled with dew."

" ' To dear deluding woman, the joy of joys,' " continues Mr. Paul, " Burns was partial in the extreme. This was owing as well to his constitutional temperament as to the admiration which he drew from the female world, and the facility with which they met his advances. Hut his aberrations must have been notorious when a man in the rank of Miss Armour's father refused his consent to his permanent union with his unfortunate daughter. Among the lower classes of the community subsequent marriage is reckoned an ample atonement for former indiscretion, and ante-nuptial incontinency is looked upon as scarcely a transgression."

Burns's love and pride, the two most powerful feelings of his mind, had been equally wounded. His anger and grief together drove him, according to every account, to the verge of insanity ; and some of his letters on this occasion, both published and unpublished, have certainly all the appearance of having been written in as deep a concentration of despair as ever preceded the most awful of human calamities. His first thought had been, as we have seen, to fly at once from the scene of his disgrace and misery ; and this course seemed now to be absolutely necessary. He was summoned to find security for the maintenance of the children whom he was prevented from legitimating; and such was his poverty that he could not satisfy the parish officers. I suppose security for some four or five pounds a year was the utmost that could have been demanded from a person of his rank; but the man who had in his desk the immortal poems to which we have been referring above, either disdained to ask, or tried in vain to find, pecuniary assistance in his hour of need; and the only alternative that presented itself to his view was America or a gaol. Who can ever learn without grief and indignation that it was the victim of such miseries who, at such a moment, could pour out such a strain as the Lament ?

" O thou pale orb! that silent shines
   While care-untroubled mortals sleep,
Thou seest a wretch that inly pines,
   And wanders here to wail and weep I
With woe I nightly vigils keep,
   Beneath thy wan unwarming beam ;

And mourn, in lamentation deep,

   How life and love are all a dream.

 

No idly-feigned poetic plaints,
   My sad love-lorn lamentings claim;

No shepherd's pipe—Arcadian strains—
   No fabled tortures, quaint and tame.
The plighted faith, the mutual flame,
   The oft attested pow'rs above,

The promised Father's tender name,
   These were the pledges of my love !"

 

  


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