The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart



"He saw misfortune's cauld nor'-wast
Lang mustering up a bitter blast;

A gillet brak his heart at last,
111 may she be!

So took a birth afore the mast."

JAMAICA was now his mark; and, after some little time and trouble, the situation of assistant-overseer on the estate of a Dr. Douglas in that colony was procured for him by one of his
friends in Irvine. Money to pay for his passage, however, he had not; and it at last occurred to him that the few pounds requisite for this purpose might be raised by the publication of some of the finest poems that ever delighted mankind.

Gavin Hamilton, Aiken, and other friends encouraged him warmly ; and, after some hesitation, he at length resolved to hazard an experiment which might, perhaps, better his circumstances, and, if any tolerable number of subscribers were procured, could not make them worse than they were already. His rural patrons exerted themselves with success in the matter ; and so many copies were soon subscribed for that Burns entered into terms with Wilson, a printer,(41) in Kilmarnock, and began to copy out his performances for the press. He carried his MSS. piecemeal to Wilson ; and, encouraged by the ray of light which unexpected patronage had begun to throw on his affairs, composed, while the printing was in progress, some of the best poems of the collection. The tale of The Twa Dogs, for instance, with which the volume commenced, is known to have been written in the short interval between the publication being determined on and the printing begun. His own account of the business to Dr. Moore is as follows :

(41) Among other jokes, Burns made this man print the Epitaph on Wee Johnnie, without giving him any hint that Wee Johnnie was John Wilson.

" I gave up my part of the farm to my brother—in truth, it was only nominally mine—and made what little preparation was in my power for Jamaica. But before leaving my native land, I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my productions as impartially as was in my power ; I thought they had merit; and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears—a poor negro-driver—or, perhaps, a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits. I can truly say that, pawvre inconnu as I then was, I had pretty nearly as high an idea of myself and of my works as I have at this moment, when the public has decided in their favour It ever was my opinion that the mistakes and blunders, both in a rational and religious point of view, of which we see thousands daily guilty, are owing to their ignorance of themselves. To know myself had been all along my constant study. I weighed myself alone ; I balanced myself with others ; I watched every means of information, to see how much ground I occupied as a man and as a poet ; I studied assiduously Nature's design in my formation— where the lights and shades in character were intended. I was pretty confident my poems would meet with some applause ; but, at the worst, the roar of the Atlantic would deafen the voice of censure, and the novelty of West Indian scenes make me forget neglect. I threw off six hundred copies, of which I got subscriptions for about three hundred and fifty.(42) My vanity was highly gratified by the reception I met with from the public ; and besides, I pocketed, all expenses deducted, nearly twenty pounds. This sum came very seasonably, as I was thinking of indenturing myself, for want of money, to procure my passage. As soon as I was master of nine guineas, the price of wafting me to the torrid zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde ; for

" Hungry ruin had me in the wind."

" I had been for some days skulking from covert to covert, under all the terrors of a gaol, as some ill-advised people had uncoupled the merciless pack of the law at my heels. I had taken the last farewell of my few friends ; my chest was on the way to Greenock ; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Caledonia, The gloomy night is gathering fast, when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition."

(42) Gilbert Burns mentions that a single individual, Mr. William Parker, merchant in Kilmarnock, subscribed for thirty-five copies. By merchant we are, I suppose, to understand the keeper of a little shop of all wares in the village—for Kilmarnock was then nothing more.

To this rapid narrative of the poet we may annex a few details, gathered from his various biographers and from his own letters.

While his sheets were in the press (June to July, 1786) it appears that his friends Hamilton and Aiken revolved various schemes for procuring him the means of remaining in Scotland ; and, having studied some of the practical branches of mathematics, as we have seen, and, in particular, gauging, it occurred to himself that a situation in the Excise might be better suited to him than any other he was at all likely to obtain by the intervention of such patrons as he possessed.

He appears to have lingered longer after the publication of the volume than one might suppose from his own narrative, in the hope that these gentlemen might at length succeed in their efforts in his behalf. The poems were received with favour, even with rapture, in Ayrshire, and, ere long, over the adjoining counties. " Old and young,"—thus speaks Robert Heron,—" high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I can well remember how even ploughboys and maidservants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned the most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might but procure the works of Burns." The poet soon found that his person had also become an object of general curiosity, and that a lively interest in his fortunes was excited among some of the gentry of the district when the detail of his story reached them, as it was pretty sure to do, along with his modest and manly preface.(43) Among others, the celebrated Professor Dugald Stewart of Edinburgh, and his accomplished lady, then resident at their beautiful seat of Catrine, began to notice him with much polite and friendly attention. Dr Hugh Blair, who then held an eminent place in the literary society of Scotland, happened to be paying Mr. Stewart a visit, and, on reading The Holy fair, at once pronounced it the "work of a very fine genius ;" and Mrs. Stewart, herself a poetess, flattered him, perhaps, still more highly by her warm commendations. But, above all, his little volume happened to attract the notice of Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop,(44) a lady of high birth and ample fortune, enthusiastically attached to her country, and interested in whatever appeared to concern the honour of Scotland. This excellent woman, while slowly recovering from the languor of an illness, laid her hands accidentally on the new production of the provincial press, and opened the volume at The Cottar's Saturday Night. " She read it over," says Gilbert, " with the greatest pleasure and surprise : the poet's description of the simple cottagers operated on her mind like the charm of a powerful exorcist, repelling the demon ennui, and restoring her to her wonted inward harmony and satisfaction." Mrs. Dunlop instantly sent an express to Mossgiel, distant sixteen miles from her residence, with a very kind letter to Burns, requesting him to supply her, if he could, with half a dozen copies of the book, and to call at Dunlop as soon as he could find it convenient. Burns was from home, but he acknowledged the favour conferred on him in an interesting letter still extant; and shortly afterwards commenced a personal acquaintance with one that never afterwards ceased to befriend him to the utmost of her power. His letters to Mrs. Dunlop form a very large proportion of all his subsequent correspondence, and, addressed, as they were, to a person whose sex, age, rank, and benevolence inspired at once profound respect and a graceful confidence, will ever remain the most pleasing of all the materials of our poet's biography.

(43) Preface to the First Edition.

" The following trifles are not the production of the poet who, with all the advantages of learned art, and, perhaps, amid the elegancies and idleness of upper life, looks down for a rural theme, with an eye to Theocritus or Virgil. To the author of this, these and other celebrated names, their countrymen, are, at least in their original language, a fountain shut -up, and a book sealed. Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing poet by rule, he sings the sentiments and manners he felt and saw in himself and rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language. Though a rhymer fiom his earliest years, at least from the earliest impulse of the softer passions, it was not till very lately that the applause, perhaps the partiality, of friendship wakened his vanity so far as to make him think anything of his worth showing ; and none of the following works were composed with a view to the press. To amuse himself with the little creations of his own fancy, amid the toil and fatigues of a laborious life ; to transcribe the various feelings, the loves, the griefs, the hopes, the fears, in his own breast; to find some kind of counterpoise to the struggles of a world, always an alien scene, a task uncouth to the poetical mind; these were his motives for
courting the Muses, and in these he found poetry to be its own reward.

" Now that he appears in the public character of an author, he does it with fear and trembling. So dear is fame to the rhyming tribe, that even he, an obscure, nameless bard, shrinks aghast at the thought of being branded as—an impertinent blockhead, obtruding his nonsense on the world ; and, because he can make a shift to jingle a few doggerel Scotch rhymes together, looking upon himself as a poet of no small consequence, forsooth !

" It is an observation of that celebrated poet, Shenstone, whose divine elegies do honour to our language, our nation, and our species, that ' Humility has depressed many a genius to a hermit, but never raised one to fame !' If any critic catches at the word genius, the author tells him, once for all, that he certainly looks upon himself as possessed of some poetic abilities, otherwise his publishing, in the manner he has done, would be a manoeuvre below the worst character which, he hopes, his worst enemy will ever give him. But to the genius of a Ramsay, or the glorious dawnings of the poor unfortunate Fergusson, he, with equal unaffected sincerity, declares that, even in his highest pulse of vanity, he has not the most distant pretensions. These two justly admired Scotch poets he had often had in his eye in the following pieces; but rather with a view to kindle at their flame than for servile imitation.

" To his subscribers the author returns his most sincere thanks. Not the mercenary bow over a counter, but the heart-throbbing gratitude of the bard, conscious how much he owes to benevolence and friendship for gratifying him, if he deserves it, in that dearest wish of every poetic bosom—to be distinguished. He begs his readersi particularly the learned and the polite, who may honour him with a perusal, that they will make every allowance for education and circumstances of life; but if, after a fair, candid, and impartial criticism, he shall stand convicted of dulness and nonsense, let him be done by as he would in that case do by others—let him be condemned, without mercy, to contempt and oblivion."


(44) This lady was the daughter, of Sir Thomas Wallace, Baronet, of Craigie, supposed to represent the family of which the great hero of Scotland was a cadet.

At the residences of these new acquaintance Burns was introduced into society of a class which he had not before approached, and of the manner in which he stood the trial Mr. Stewart thus writes to Dr. Currie :

" His manners were then, as they continued ever afterwards, simple, manly, and independent ; strongly expressive of conscious genius and worth, but without anything that indicated forwardness, arrogance, or vanity. He took his share in conversation, but not more than belonged to him, and listened, with apparent attention and deference, on subjects where his want of education deprived him of the means of information. If there had been a little more of gentleness and accommodation in his temper, he would, I think, have been still more interesting ; but he had been accustomed to give law in the circle of his ordinary acquaintance, and his dread of anything approaching to meanness or servility rendered his manner somewhat decided and hard. Nothing, perhaps, was more remarkable, among his various attainments, than the fluency and precision and originality of his language when he spoke in company, more particularly as he aimed at purity in his turn of expression, and avoided, more successfully than most Scotchmen, the peculiarities of Scottish phraseology. At this time Burns's prospects in life were so extremely gloomy that he had seriously formed a plan of going out to Jamaica in a very humble situation, not, however, without lamenting that his want of patronage should force him to think of a project so repugnant to his feelings, when his ambition aimed at no higher an object than the station of an Exciseman or gauger in his own country."

The provincial applause of his publication, and the consequent notice of his superiors, however flattering such things must have been, were far from administering any essential relief to the urgent necessities of Burns's situation. Very shortly after his first visit to Catrine—where he met with the young and amiable Basil, Lord Daer, whose condescension and kindness on the occasion he celebrates in some well-known verses—we find the poet writing to his friend, Mr. Aiken, of Ayr, in the following sad strain : " I have been feeling all the various rotations and movements within respecting the Excise. There are many things plead strongly against it; the uncertainty of getting soon into business, the consequences of my follies, which may, perhaps, make it impracticable for me to stay at home ; and, besides, I have for some time been pining under secret wretchedness from causes which you pretty well know—the pang of disappointment, the sting of pride, with some wandering stabs of remorse, which never fail to/Settle on my vitals, like vultures, when attention is not called away by the calls of society or the vagaries of the muse. Even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner. All these reasons urge me to go abroad ; and to all these reasons I have only one answer—the feelings of a father. This, in the present mood I am in, overbalances everything that can be laid in the scale against it."

He proceeds to say that he claims no right to complain. " The world has, in general, been kind to me, fully up to my deserts. I was, for some time past, fast getting into the pining distrustful snarl of the misanthrope. I saw myself alone, unfit for the struggle of life, shrinking at every rising cloud in the chance-directed atmosphere of fortune, while, all defenceless, I looked about in vain for a cover. It never occurred to me—at least, never with the force it deserved—that this world is a busy scene, and man a creature destined for a progressive struggle ; and that, however I might possess a warm heart and inoffensive manners (which last, by-the-bye, was rather more than I could well boast), still, more than these passive qualities, there was something to be done. When all my schoolfellows and youthful compeers were striking off, with eager hope and earnest intent, on some one or other of the many paths of busy life, I was ' standing idle in the market-place," or only left .the chase of the butterfly from flower to flower to hunt fancy from whim to whim. You see, sir, that, if to know one's errors were a probability of mending them, I stand a fair chance ; but, according to the reverend Westminster divines, though conviction must precede conversion, it is very far from always implying it.' In the midst of all the distresses of this period of suspense, Burns found time, as he tells Mr. Aiken, for some " vagaries of the muse ;" and one or two of these may deserve to be noticed here, as throwing light on his personal demeanour during this first summer of his fame. The poems appeared in July ; and one of the first persons of superior condition (Gilbert, indeed, says the first) who courted his acquaintance, in consequence of having read them, was Mrs. Stewart, of Stair, a beautiful and accomplished lady. Burns presented her, on this occasion, with some MS. songs, and, among the rest, with one in which her own charms were celebrated in that warm strain of compliment which our poet seems to have all along considered the most proper to be used whenever fair lady was to be addressed in rhyme.

"Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;

My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream ;

Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

" How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,

Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow—
There oft, as mild evening sweeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me."

It was in the spring of the same year that he had happened, in the course of an evening ramble on the banks of the Ayr, to meet with a young and lovely unmarried lady of the family of Alexander of Ballochmyle ; and now (September, 1786), emboldened, we are to suppose, by the reception his volume had met with, he enclosed to her some verses which he had written in commemoration of that passing glimpse of her beauty, and conceived in a strain of luxurious fervour, which certainly, coming from a man of Burns's station and character, must have sounded very strangely in a delicate maiden's ear.

" Oh, had she been a country maid,
And I the happy country swain,
Though sheltered in the lowest shed,
That ever rose on Scotia's plain ;
Through weary winter's wind and rain,
With joy, with rapture, I would toil.
And nightly to my bosom strain
The bonny lass of Ballochmyle," etc.

Burns is said to have resented bitterly the silence in which Miss Willelmina Alexander received this tribute to her charms. I suppose we may account for his over-tenderness to young ladies in pretty much the same way that Professor Dugald Stewart does, in the letter above quoted, for "a certain want of gentleness " in his method of addressing persons of his own sex. His rustic experience among the fair could have had no tendency to whisper the lesson of reserve.

The autumn of this eventful year was drawing to a close, and Burns, who had already lingered three months in the hope, which he now considered vain, of an Excise appointment, perceived that another year must be lost altogether unless he made up his mind and secured his passage to the West Indies. The Kilmarnock edition of his poems was, however, nearly exhausted, and his friends encouraged him to produce another at the same place, with the view of equipping himself the better for his voyage. But " Wee Johnnie" would not undertake the new impression unless Burns advanced the price of the paper required for it, and with this demand the poet had no means of complying. Mr. Ballantyne, the chief magistrate of Ayr (the same gentleman to whom the poem on The Twa Brigs was afterwards inscribed), offered to furnish the money; and probably his kind offer would have been accepted, but ere this matter could be arranged, the prospects of the poet were, in a very unexpected manner, altered and improved.

Burns went to pay a parting visit to Dr. Laurie, minister of Loudoun, a gentleman from whom and his accomplished family he had previously received many kind attentions. After taking farewell of this benevolent circle, the poet proceeded, as the night was setting in, " to convoy his chest," as he says, " so far on the road to Greenock, where he was to embark in a few days for America;" and it was under these circumstances that he composed the song already referred to, which he meant as his farewell dirge to his native land, and which ends thus :

"Farewell, old Coila's hills and dales,

Her heathy moors and winding vales;

The scenes where wretched fancy roves

Pursuing past unhappy loves.

Farewell, my friends ! farewell, my foes!

My peace with these—my love with those—

The bursting tears my heart declare;
Farewell the bonny banks of Ayr."

Dr. Laurie had given Burns much good counsel and what comfort he could at parting, but prudently said nothing of an effort which he had previously made in his behalf. He had sent a copy of the poems, with a sketch of the author's history, to his friend, Dr. Thomas Blacklock, of Edinburgh, with a request that he would introduce both to the notice of those persons whose literary opinions were at the time most listened to in Scotland, in the hope that, by their intervention, Burns might yet be rescued from the necessity of expatriating himself. Dr. Blacklock's answer reached Dr. Laurie a day or two after Burns had made his visit and composed his dirge ; and it was not yet too late. Laurie forwarded it immediately to Gavin Hamilton, who carried it to Burns. It is as follows :


" I ought to have acknowledged your favour long ago, not only as a testimony of your kind remembrance, but as it gave me an opportunity of sharing one of the finest, and, perhaps, one of the most genuine, entertainments of which the human mind is susceptible. A number of avocations retarded my progress in reading the poems : at last, however, I have finished that pleasing perusal. Many instances have I seen of Nature's force or beneficence, exerted under numerous and formidable disadvantages ; but none equal to that with which you have been kind enough to present me. There is a pathos and delicacy in his serious poems, a vein of wit and humour in those of a more festive turn, which cannot be too much admired nor too warmly approved ; and I think I shall never open the book without feeling my astonishment renewed and increased. It was my wish to have expressed my approbation in verse ; but, whether from declining life or a temporary depression of spirits, it is at present out of my power to accomplish that intention.

" Mr. Stewart, Professor of Morals in this university, had formerly read me three of the poems, and I had desired him to get my name inserted among the subscribers ; but whether this was done or not, I never could learn. I have little intercourse with Dr. Blair, but will take care to have the poems communicated to him by the intervention of some mutual friend. It has been told me by a gentleman to whom I showed the performances, and who bought a copy with diligence and ardour, that the whole impression is already exhausted. It were, therefore, much to be wished, for the sake of the young man, that a second edition, more numerous than the former, could immediately be printed, as it appears certain that its intrinsic merit and the exertion of the author's friends might give it a more universal circulation than anything of the kind which has been published in my memory." (45)


(45) Reliques, p. 279.


We have already seen with what surprise and delight Burns read this generous letter. Although he had, ere this, conversed with more than one person of established literary reputation, and received from them attentions for which he was ever after grateful, the despondency of his spirit appears to have remained as dark as ever, up to the very hour when his landlord  produced Dr. Blacklock's letter ; and one may be pardoned for fancying that in his Vision he has himself furnished no unfaithful representation of the manner in which he was spending what he looked on as one of the last nights, if not the very last, he was to pass at Mossgiel, when the friendly Hamilton unexpectedly entered the melancholy dwelling.

"There, lanely, by the ingle-cheek

I sat, and eyed the spewing reek,

That fill'd wi' hoast-provoking smerk
                     The auld clay-biggin,
And heard the restless rattans squeak
                     About the riggin.

All in this mottie mistie clime,
I backward mused on wasted time,
How I had spent my youthfu' prime,
                     An' done nae thing,

But stringin' blethers up in rhyme
                     For fools to sing.

Had I to gude advice but harkit,
I might by this hae led a market.
Or strutted in a bank an" clarkit
                     My cash account,

While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-sarkit,
                     Is a' the amount."

 " Dr. Blacklock," says Burns, " belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh fired me so much that away I posted for that city without a single acquaintance or a single letter of introduction. The baneful star that had so long shed its blasting influence on my zenith for once made a revolution to the nadir."(46)


(46) Letter to Moore.


Two of the biographers of Burns have had the advantage of speaking, from personal knowledge, of the excellent man whose interposition was thus serviceable. " It was a fortunate circumstance," says Walker, " that the person whom Dr Laurie applied to, merely because he was the only one of his literary acquaintances with whom he chose to use that freedom, happened, also, to be the person best qualified to render the application successful. Dr. Blacklock was an enthusiast in his admiration of an art which he had practised himself with applause. He felt the claims of a poet with paternal sympathy ; and he had in his constitution a tenderness and sensibility that would have engaged his beneficence for a youth in the circumstances of Burns, even though he had not been indebted to him for the delight which he received from his works ; for if the young men were enumerated whom he drew from obscurity and enabled by education to advance themselves in life, the catalogue would naturally excite surprise. . . . He was not of a disposition to discourage with feeble praise, and to shift off the trouble of future patronage, by bidding him relinquish poetry and mind his plough."(47)

(47) Morrison, vol. i., p. 9. In the same passage Mr. Walker contrasts Blacklock's conduct to Burns with Horace Walpole's to Chatterton. If the professor had ever read Walpole's defence of himself, he could not have fallen into this once common, but now exploded, error.

"There was never, perhaps,"—thus speaks the unfortunate Heron, whose own unmerited sorrows and sufferings would not have left so dark a stain on the literary history of Scotland had the kind spirit of Blacklock been common among his lettered countrymen,—" there was never, perhaps, one among all mankind whom you might more truly have called an angel upon earth than Dr. Blacklock. He was guileless and innocent as a child, yet endowed with manly sagacity and penetration. His heart was a perpetual spring of benignity. His feelings were all tremblingly alive to the sense of the sublime, the beautiful, the tender, the pious, the virtuous. Poetry was to him the dear solace of perpetual blindness."

Such was the amiable old man whose life Mackenzie has written, and on whom Johnson "looked with reverence."(48) The writings of Blacklock are forgotten (though some of his songs in The Museum deserve another fate), but the memory of his virtues will not pass away until mankind shall have ceased to sympathise with the fortunes of genius and to appreciate the poetry of Burns.

(48) " This morning I saw at breakfast Dr. Blacklock, the blind poet, who does not remember to have seen light, and is read to by a poor scholar in Latin, Greek, and French. He was, originally, a poor scholar himself. I looked on him with reverence. Letter to Mrs. Thrale. Edinburgh, August 17th, 1773.



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