The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart

 

CHAPTER VII

"To make a happy fireside clime

                For weans and wife—

That's the true pathos and sublime

                Of human life."

BURNS, as soon as his bruised limb was able for a journey, rode to Mossgiel, and went through the ceremony of a justice-of-peace marriage with Jean Armour, in the writing-chambers of his friend Gavin Hamilton. He then crossed the country to Dalswinton, and concluded his bargain with Mr. Miller as to the farm of Elliesland, on terms which must undoubtedly have been considered by both parties as highly favourable to the poet; they were, indeed, fixed by two of Burns's own friends, who accompanied him for that purpose from Ayrshire. The lease was for four successive terms, of nineteen years each—in all, seventy-six years ; the rent for the first three years and crops, £50 ; during the remainder of the period, £70. Mr. Miller bound himself to defray the expense of any plantations which Burns might please to make on the banks of the river ; and the farmhouse and offices being in a dilapidated condition, the new tenant was to receive £300 from the proprietor for the erection of suitable buildings. " The land," says Allan Cunningham, " was good, the rent moderate, and the markets were rising."

Burns entered on possession of his farm at Whitsuntide, 1788, but the necessary rebuilding of the house prevented his removing his wife thither until the season was far advanced. He had, moreover, to qualify himself for holding his Excise commission by six weeks' attendance on the business of that profession at Ayr. From these circumstances, he led all the summer a wandering and unsettled life, and Dr. Currie mentions this as one of his chief misfortunes. " The poet," as he says, " was continually riding between Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire 5 and, often spending a night on the road, sometimes fell into company, and forgot the resolutions he had formed."

What these resolutions were the poet himself shall tell us. On the third day of his residence at Elliesland he thus writes to Mr. Ainslie : " I have all along hitherto, in the warfare of life, been bred to arms among the light-horse, the piquet guards of fancy, a kind of hussars and highlanders of the brain ; but I am firmly resolved to sell out of these giddy battalions. Cost what it will, I am determined to buy in among the grave squadrons of heavy-armed thought, or the artillery-corps of plodding contrivance. . . . Were it not for the terrors of my ticklish situation respecting a family of children, I am decidedly of opinion that the step I have taken is vastly for my happiness." (86)

 

(86) Reliques p. 63.

 

To all his friends he expresses himself in terms of similar satisfaction in regard to his marriage (on the 13th of June). " Your surmise, madam," he writes to Mrs. Dunlop, " is just. I am indeed a husband. I found a once much-loved, and still much-loved female, literally and truly cast out to the mercy of the naked elements, but as I enabled her to purchase a shelter ; and there is no sporting with a fellow-creature's happiness or misery. The most placid good nature and sweetness of disposition ; a warm heart, gratefully devoted with all its powers to love me ; vigorous health and sprightly cheerfulness, set off to the best advantage by a more than commonly handsome figure ; these, I think, in a woman, may make a good wife, though she should never have read a page but the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, nor danced in a brighter assembly than a penny-pay wedding. . . . To jealousy or infidelity I am an equal stranger ; my preservative from the first is the most thorough consciousness of her sentiments of honour and her attachment to me ; my antidote against the last is my long and deep-rooted affection for her. In housewife matters, of aptness to learn, and activity to execute, she is eminently mistress ; and during my absence in Nithsdale, she is regularly and constantly an apprentice to my mother and sisters in their dairy, and other rural business. . . . You are right, that a bachelor state would have ensured me more friends ; but from a cause you will easily guess, conscious peace in the enjoyment of my own mind, and unmistrusting confidence in approaching my God, would seldom have been of the number." (87)

 

(87) See General Correspondence, No. 53, and Reliques, p. 60.

 

Some months later he tells Miss Chalmers that his marriage " was not, perhaps, in consequence of the attachment of romance," —he is addressing a young lady,—" but," he continues, " I have no cause to repent it. If I have not got polite tattle, modish manners, and fashionable dress, I am not sickened and disgusted with the multiform curse of boarding-school affectation ; and I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kindest heart in the country. Mrs. Burns believes as firmly as her creed, that I am le plus bel esprit et le plus bonnéte bomme in the universe; although she scarcely ever, in her life, except the Scriptures and the Psalms of David in metre, spent five minutes together on either prose or verse, I must except also a certain late publication of Scott's Poems, which she has perused very devoutly, and all the ballads of the country, as she has (O the partial lover ! you will say) the finest woodnote-wild I ever heard." (88)

(88) One of Burns's letters, written not long after this, contains a passage strongly marked with his haughtiness of character. "I have escaped," says he, " the fantastic caprice, the apeish affectation, with all the other blessed boarding-school acquirements, which are sometimes to be found among females of the upper ranks, but almost universally pervade the misses of the would-be gentry."—General Correspondence, No. 55.

It was during this honeymoon, as he calls it, while chiefly resident in a miserable hovel at Elliesland,(89) and only occasionally spending a day or two in Ayrshire, that he wrote the beautiful song: (90)

(89) Reliques, p. 75.

(90) Ibid., p. 273.

" Of a' the airts the wind can blaw, I dearly like the west,

For there the bonnie lassie lives, the lassie I lo'e best ;

There wildwoods grow, and rivers row, and many a hill between,

But day and night my fancy's flight is ever wi' my Jean.

O blaw, ye westlin winds, blaw saft amang the leafy trees,

Wi' gentle gale, frae muir and dale, bring hame the laden bees.

And bring the lassie back to me, that's aye sae neat and clean,

Ae blink o' her wad banish care, sae lovely is my Jean."

" A discerning reader," says Mr. Walker, " will perceive that the letters in which he announces his marriage to some of his most respected correspondents are written in that state when the mind is pained by reflecting on an unwelcome step and finds relief to itself in seeking arguments to justify the deed, and lessen its disadvantages in the opinion of others." (91) I confess I am not able to discern any traces of this kind of feeling in any of Bums's letters on this interesting and important occasion. Mr. Walker seems to take it for granted that because Burns admired the superior manners and accomplishments of women of the higher ranks of society, he must necessarily, whenever he discovered " the interest which he had the power of creating," in such persons, have aspired to find a wife among them. But it is, to say the least of the matter, extremely doubtful that Burns, if he had had a mind, could have found any high-born maiden willing to partake such fortunes as his were likely to be, and yet possessed of such qualifications for making him a happy man as he had ready for his acceptance in his " Bonny Jean." The proud heart of the poet could never have stooped itself to woo for gold ; and birth and high breeding could only have been introduced into' a farmhouse to embitter, in the upshot, the whole existence of its inmates. It is very easy to say that had Burns married an accomplished woman, he might have found domestic evenings sufficient to satisfy all the cravings of his mind —abandoned tavern haunts and jollities for ever—and settled down into a regular pattern character. But it is at least as possible that consequences of an exactly opposite nature might have ensued. Any marriage such as Professor Walker alludes to would in his case have been more unequal than either of those that made Dryden and Addison miserable for life.

 

(91) Morrison, vol. i., p. lxxxvii.

 

Sir Walter Scott, in his life of the former of these great men, has well described the difficult situation of her who has "to endure the apparently causeless fluctuation of spirits incident to one doomed to labour incessantly in the feverish exercise of the imagination." " Unintentional neglect," says he, " and the inevitable relaxation, or rather sinking of spirit, which follows violent mental exertion, are easily misconstrued into capricious rudeness or intentional offence; and life is embittered by mutual accusation, not the less intolerable because reciprocally unjust."(92) Such were the difficulties under which the domestic peace of Addison and Dryden went to wreck ; and yet, to say nothing of manners and habits of the highest elegance and polish in either case, they were both of them men of strictly pure and correct conduct in their conjugal capacities ; and who can doubt that all these difficulties must have been enhanced tenfold, had any woman of superior condition linked her fortunes with Robert Burns—a man at once of the very warmest animal temperament and the most wayward and moody of all his melancholy and irritable tribe, who had little vanity that could have been gratified by a species of connection which, unless he had found a human angel, must have been continually wounding his pride ? But, in truth, these speculations are worse than worthless. Burns, with all his faults, was an honest and a high-spirited man, and he loved the mother of his children ; and had he hesitated to make her his wife, he must have sunk into the callousness of a ruffian, or that misery of miseries the remorse of a poet.

 

(92) Life of Dryden, p. 90.

 

The Reverend Hamilton Paul takes an original view of this business. " Much praise," says he, " has been lavished on Burns for renewing his engagement with Jean when in the blaze of his fame. The praise is misplaced. We do not think a man entitled to credit or commendation for doing what the law could compel him to perform. Burns was in reality a married man ; and it is truly ludicrous to hear him, aware, as he must have been, of the indissoluble power of the obligation, though every document was destroyed, talking of himself as a bachelor."(93) There is, I believe, no justice in these remarks. It is very true that, by a merciful fiction of the law of Scotland, the female in Jean Armour's condition who produces a written promise of marriage is considered as having furnished evidence of an irregular marriage having taken place between her and her lover. But, in this case, the female herself had destroyed the document, and lived for many months not only not assuming, but rejecting, the character of Burns's wife ; and had she, under such circumstances, attempted to establish a marriage, with no document in her hand, and with no parole evidence to show that any such document had ever existed, to say nothing of proving its exact tenor, but that of her own father, no ecclesiastical court in the world could have failed to decide against her. So far from Burns's having all along regarded her as his wife, it is extremely doubtful whether she had ever for one moment considered him as actually her husband, until he declared the marriage of 1788. Burns did no more than justice as well as honour demanded ; but the act was one which no human tribunal could have compelled him to perform.(94)

 

(93) Paul's Life of Burns, p. 45.

(94) I am bound to say that, from some criticisms on the first edition of this narrative, published in Scotland, and evidently by Scotch lawyers, it appears that the case, " Armour versus Burns," had there ever been such a lawsuit, might have been more difficult of decision than I had previously supposed. One thing, however, is quite clear: Burns himself had no notion that, in acknowledging Jean as his wife, he was but yielding what legal measures could have extorted from him. Let any one consider, for example, the language of the letter in which he announces his marriage and establishment at Elliesland, to Mr. Burness of Montrose:

 

"Elliesland, 9th Feb., 1789.—Why I did not write you long ago is what, even on the rack, I could not answer. —If you can in your mind form an idea of indolence, dissipation, hurry, cares, change of country, entering on untried scenes of life—all combined—you will save me the trouble of a blushing apology.—After I parted from you, for many months my life was one continued scene of dissipation.—Here, at last, I am become stationary, and have taken a farm, and—a wife! —The farm lies beautifully situated on the banks of the Nith ; but how it may turn out is just a guess, as it is yet to improve and enclose.— My wife is my Jean, with whose story you are partly acquainted. I found I had a much-loved fellow-creature's happiness or misery among my hands. I durst not trifle with so sacred a deposit. And, indeed, I have not any reason to repent the step I have taken, as I have attached myself to a very good wife, and shaken myself loose of a very bad failing."

To return to our story. Burns complains sadly of his solitary condition when living in the only hovel that he found extant on his farm. " I am," says he (September 9th), " busy with my harvest ; but for all that most pleasurable part of life called social intercourse, I am here at the very elbow of existence. The only things that are to be found in this country in any degree of perfection are stupidity and canting. Prose they only know in graces, etc., and the value of these they estimate as they do their plaiding webs, by the ell. As for the Muses, they have as much idea of a rhinoceros as of a poet." (95) And in another letter (September 16th) he says, "This hovel that I shelter in while occasionally here is pervious to every blast that blows and every shower that falls, and I am only preserved from being chilled to death by being suffocated by smoke. You will be pleased to hear that I have laid aside idle eclat, and bind every day after my reapers."(96)

 

(95) Reliques, p. 75.

(96) Ibid., p. 79.

 

His house, however, did not take much time in building, nor had he reason to complain of want of society long ; nor, it must be added, did Burns bind every day after his reapers.

He brought his wife home to Elliesland about the end of November ; and few housekeepers start with a larger provision of young mouths to feed than did this couple. Mrs. Burns had lain in this autumn, for the second time, of twins ; and I suppose " sonsy, smirking, dear-bought Bess"(97) accompanied her younger brothers and sisters from Mossgiel. From that quarter also Burns brought a whole establishment of servants, who, as was then the custom amongst the small farmers, both of the west and the south of Scotland, partook, at the same table, of the same fare with their master and mistress.

 

(97) Poetical Inventory to Mr. Aiken, February, 1786.

 

Elliesland is beautifully situated on the banks of the Nith, about six miles above Dumfries, exactly opposite to the house of Dalswinton, and those noble woods and gardens amidst which Burns's landlord, the ingenious Mr. Patrick Miller, found relaxation from the scientific studies and researches in which he so greatly excelled. On the Dalswinton side, the river washes lawns and groves ; but over against these the bank rises into a red scaur, of considerable height, along the verge of which, where the bare shingle of the precipice all but overhangs the stream, Burns had his favourite walk, and might now be seen striding alone, early and late, especially when the winds were loud and the waters below him swollen and turbulent. For he was one of those that enjoy Nature most in the more severe of her aspects ; and throughout his poetry, for one allusion to the liveliness of spring or the splendour of summer, it would be easy to point out twenty in which he records the solemn delight with which he contemplated the melancholy grandeur of autumn or the savage gloom of winter. Indeed, I cannot but think that the result of an exact inquiry into the composition of Burns's poems would be that " his vein," like that of Milton, flowed most happily " from the autumnal equinox to the vernal." Of Lord Byron we know that his vein flowed best at midnight ; and Burns has himself told us that it was his custom " to take a gloamin' shot at the Muses."

The poet was accustomed to say that the most happy period of his life was the first winter he spent at Elliesland, for the first time under a roof of his own, with his wife and children about him, and, in spite of occasional lapses into the melancholy which had haunted his youth, looking forward to a life of well-regulated, and not ill-rewarded, industry. It is known that he welcomed his wife to her roof-tree at Elliesland in the song :

'I hae a wife o' my ain, I'll partake wi' naebody;

I'll tak cuckold frae nane, I'll gie cuckold to naebody;

I hae a penny to spend—there, thanks to naebody ;

I hae naething to lend—I'll borrow frae naebody."

In commenting on this "little lively lucky song," as he well calls it, Mr. Allan Cunningham says, "Barns had built his house,—he had committed his seed-corn to the ground,— he was in the prime, nay, the morning of life,—health and strength and agricultural skill (?) were on his side,—his genius had been acknowledged by his country, and rewarded by a subscription more extensive than any Scottish poet ever received before ; no wonder, therefore, that he broke out into voluntary song, expressive of his sense of importance and independence." (98) Another song was composed in honour of Mrs. Burns during the happy weeks that followed her arrival at Elliesland :

"O, were I on Parnassus hill

Or had of Helicon my fill,

That I might catch poetic skill,

To sing how dear I love thee!

 

But Nith maun be my muse's well,
My muse maun be thy bonny sell,

On Corsincon I glower and spell,

And write how dear I love thee I"

in the next stanza the poet rather transgresses the limits of connubial decorum ; but, on the whole, these tributes to domestic affection are among the last of his performances that one would wish to lose.

 

(98) Cunningham's Scottish Songs, vol. iv., p. 86.

 

Burns, in his letters of the year 1789, makes many apologies for doing but little in his poetical vocation; his farm, without doubt, occupied much of his attention, but the want of social intercourse, of which he complained on his first arrival in Niths-dale, had by this time totally disappeared. On the contrary, his company was courted eagerly, not only by his brother-farmers, but by the neighbouring gentry of all classes; and now, too, for the first time, he began to be visited continually in his own house by curious travellers of all sorts, who did not consider, any more than the generous poet himself, that an extensive practice of hospitality must cost more time than he ought to have had, and far more money than he ever had, at his disposal. Meantime, he was not wholly regardless of the Muses; for, in addition to some pieces which we have already had occasion to notice, he contributed to this year's Museum, The Thames flows proudly to the Sea; The lazy Mist hangs, etc,; The Day returns, my Bosom burns; Tam Glen (one of the best of his humorous songs) ; the splendid lyrics Go fetch to me a Pint of Wine, and My Heart's in the Hielands (in both of which, however, he adopted some lines of ancient songs to the same tunes); John Anderson, in part also a rifacciamento; the best of all his Bacchanalian pieces, Willie brewed a Peck o' Maut, written in celebration of a festive meeting at the country residence, in Dumfriesshire, of his friend William Nicoll; and, lastly, that noblest of all his ballads, To Mary in Heaven.

This celebrated poem was, it is on all hands admitted, composed by Burns in September, 1789, on the anniversary of the day on which he heard of the death of his early love, Mary Campbell. But Mr. Cromek has thought fit to dress up the story with circumstances which did not occur. Mrs. Burns, the only person who could appeal to personal recollection on this occasion, and whose recollections of all circumstances connected with the history of her husband's poems are represented as being remarkably distinct and vivid, gives what may at first appear a more prosaic edition of the history.(99) According to her, Burns spent that day, though labouring under a cold, in the usual work of his harvest, and apparently in excellent spirits. But as the twilight deepened, he appeared to grow " very sad about something," and at length wandered out into the barn-yard, to which his wife, in her anxiety for his health, followed him, entreating him in vain to observe that frost had set in, and to return to the fireside. On being again and again requested to do so, he always promised compliance—but still remained where he was, striding up and down slowly, and contemplating the sky, which was singularly clear and starry. At last Mrs. Burns found him stretched on a mass of straw, with his eyes fixed on a beautiful planet, " that shone like another moon; " and prevailed on him to come in. He immediately, on entering the house, called for his desk, and wrote, exactly as they now stand, with all the ease of one copying from memory, the sublime and pathetic verses :

"Thou lingering star, with lessening ray
That lovest to greet the early morn,
Again thou usherest in the day
My Mary from my soul was torn.

O Mary ! dear departed shade,
Where is thy place of blissful rest?
See'st thou thy lover lowly laid,
Hear'st thou the groans that rend his breast?" etc.

The Mothers Lament for her Son and Inscription in an Hermitage in Nithsdale were also written this year.

 

(99) I owe these particulars to Mr. M'Diarmid, the able editor of The Dumfries Courier.

 

From the time when Burns settled himself in Dumfriesshire, he appears to have conducted with much care the extensive correspondence in which his celebrity had engaged him; it is, however, very necessary, in judging of the letters, and drawing inferences from their language as to the real sentiments and opinions of the writer, to take into consideration the rank and character of the persons to whom they are severally addressed, and the measure of intimacy which really subsisted between them and the poet. In his letters, as in his conversation, Burns, in spite of his pride, did something to accommodate himself to his company: and he who did write the series of letters addressed to Mrs. Dunlop, Dr. Moore, Mr. Dugald Stewart, Miss Chalmers, and others, eminently distinguished as these are by purity and nobleness of feeling and perfect propriety of language, presents himself, in other effusions of the same class, in colours which it would be rash to call his own. In a word, whatever of grossness of thought, or rant, extravagance, and fustian in expression, may be found in his correspondence, ought, I cannot doubt, to be mainly ascribed to his desire of accommodating himself for the moment to the habits and taste of certain buckish tradesmen of Edinburgh, and other such-like persons, whom, from circumstances already sufficiently noticed, he numbered among his associates and friends. That lie should have condescended to any such compliances must be regretted; but, in most cases, it would probably be quite unjust to push our censure further than this.

The letters that passed between him and his brother Gilbert are among the most precious of the collection; for there, there could be no disguise. That the brothers had entire knowledge of, and confidence in, each other, no one can doubt; and the plain, manly, affectionate language in which they both write is truly honourable to them and to the parents who reared them.

" DEAR BROTHER," writes Gilbert (January 1st, 1789), "I have just finished my New-year's day breakfast in the usual form, which naturally makes me call to mind the days of former years, and the society in which we used to begin them; and when I look at our family vicissitudes, ' through the dark postern of time long elapsed,' I cannot help remarking to you, my dear brother, how good the God of seasons is to us; and that, however some clouds may seem to lour over the portion of time before us, we have great reason to hope that all will turn out well."

It was on the same New-year's day that Burns himself addressed to Mrs. Dunlop a letter, part of which is here transcribed—it certainly cannot be read too often.

"This, dear madam, is a morning of wishes, and would to God that I came under the apostle James's description—the prayer of a righteous man availeth much. In that case, madam, you should welcome in a year full of blessings; everything that obstructs or disturbs tranquillity and self-enjoyment should be removed, and every pleasure that frail humanity can taste should be yours. I own myself so little a Presbyterian that I approve of set times and seasons of more than ordinary acts of devotion, for breaking in on that habituated routine of life and thought which is so apt to reduce our existence to a kind of instinct, or even sometimes, and with some minds, to a state very little superior to mere machinery.

" This day,—the first Sunday of May,—a breezy, blue-skyed noon sometime about the beginning, and a hoary morning and calm sunny day about the end of autumn; these, time out of mind, have been with me a kind of holyday. I believe I owe this to that glorious paper in The Spectator, ' The Vision of Mirza;' a piece that struck my young fancy before I was capable of fixing an idea to a word of three syllables: 'On the fifth day of the moon, which, according to the custom of my forefathers, I always keep holy, after having washed myself and offered up my morning devotions, I ascended the high hill of Bagdat, in order to pass the rest of the day in meditation and prayer.'

" We know nothing, or next to nothing, of the substance or structure of our souls, so cannot account for those seeming caprices in them that one should be particularly pleased with this thing, or struck with that, which, on minds of a different cast, makes no extraordinary impression. I have some favourite flowers in spring, among which are the mountain-daisy, the harebell, the fox-glove, the wild briar-rose, the budding-birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang over with particular delight. I never heard the loud solitary whistle of the curlew, in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of grey plover, in an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, which, like the Æolian harp, passive, takes the impression of the passing accident? Or do these workings argue something within us above the trodden clod? I own myself partial to such proofs of those awful and important realities—a God that made all things—man's immaterial and immortal nature—and a world of weal or woe beyond death and the grave."

Few, it is to be hoped, can read such things as these without delight; none, surely, that taste the elevated pleasure they are calculated to inspire, can turn from them to the well-known issue of Burns's history without being afflicted. It is difficult to imagine anything more beautiful, more noble, than what such a person as Mrs. Dunlop might at this period be supposed to contemplate as the probable tenor of his future life. What fame can bring of happiness he had already tasted : he had overleaped, by the force of his genius, all the painful barriers of society ; and there was probably not a man in Scotland who would not have thought himself honoured by seeing Burns under his roof. He had it in his power to place his poetical reputation on a level with the very highest names by proceeding in the same course of study and exertion which had originally raised him into public notice. Surrounded by an affectionate family, occupied but not engrossed by the agricultural labours in which his youth and early manhood had delighted, communing with Nature in one of the loveliest districts of his native land, and, from time to time, producing to the world some immortal addition to his verse,—thus advancing in years and in fame, with what respect would not Burns have been thought of! How venerable in the eyes of his contemporaries—how hallowed in those of after generations, would have been the roof of Elliesland, the field on which he " bound every day after his reapers," the solemn river ;by which he delighted to wander ! The plain of Bannockburn would hardly have been holier ground.

The " golden days " of Elliesland, as Dr. Currie justly calls them, were not destined to be many. Burns's farming speculations once more failed ; and he himself seems to have been aware that such was likely to be the case before he had given the business many months' trial ; for, ere the autumn of 1788 was over, he applied to his patron, Mr. Graham, of Fintry, for actual employment as an Exciseman ; and was accordingly appointed to do duty in that capacity in the district where his lands were situated. His income as a revenue officer was at first only £35 ; it by-and-by rose to £50, and sometimes was £70.

These pounds were hardly earned, since the duties of his new calling necessarily withdrew him very often from the farm, which needed his utmost attention, and exposed him, which was still worse, to innumerable temptations of the kind he was least likely to resist.

I have now the satisfaction of presenting the reader with some particulars of this part of Burns's history derived from a source which every lover of Scotland and Scottish poetry must be prepared to hear mentioned with respect. It happened that at the time when our poet went to Nithsdale, the father of Mr. Allan Cunningham was steward on the estate of Dalswinton : he was, as all who have read the writings of his sons will readily believe, a man of remarkable talents and attainments : he was a wise and good man ; a fervid admirer of Burns's genius, and one of those sober neighbours who in vain strove, by advice and warning, to arrest the poet in the downhill path towards which a thousand seductions were perpetually drawing him. Allan Cunningham was, of course, almost a child when he first saw Burns ; but he was no common child; and, besides, in what he has to say on this subject we may be sure we are hearing the substance of his benevolent and sagacious father's observations and reflections. His own boyish recollections of the poet's personal appearance and demeanour will, however, be read with interest.

" I was very young," says Mr. Cunningham, " when I first saw Burns. He came to see my father ; and their conversation turned partly on farming, partly on poetry, in both of which my father had taste and skill. Burns had just come to Nithsdale ; and I think he appeared a shade more swarthy than he does in Nasmyth's picture, and at least ten years older than he really was at the time. His face was deeply marked by thought, and the habitual expression intensely melancholy. His frame was very muscular and well proportioned, though he had a short neck and something of a ploughman's stoop : he was strong and proud of his strength. I saw him one evening match himself with a number of masons ; and out of five-and-twenty practised hands, the most vigorous young men in the parish, there was only one that could lift the same weight as Burns.

" He had a very manly face and a very melancholy look ; but on the coming of those he esteemed, his looks brightened up, and his whole face beamed with affection and genius. His voice was very musical. I once heard him read Tarn o' Shanter, —I think I hear him now. His fine manly voice followed all the undulations of the sense, and expressed, as well as his genius had done, the pathos and humour, the horrible and the awful, of that wonderful performance. As a man feels, so will he write ; and in proportion as he sympathises with his author, so will he read him with grace and effect.

" I said that Burns and my father conversed about poetry and farming. The poet had newly taken possession of his farm of Elliesland,—the masons were busy building his house,—the applause of the world was with him, and a little of its money in his pocket,—in short, he had found a resting-place at last. He spoke with great delight about the excellence of his farm, and particularly about the beauty of its situation. ' Yes,' my father said, ' the walks on the river banks are fine, and you will see from your windows some miles on the Nith ; but you will also see several farms of fine rich holm,(100) any one of which you might have had. You have made a poet's choice rather than a farmer's.'

(100) Holm is flat, rich meadow-land intervening between a stream and the general elevation of the adjoining country.

" If Burns had much of a farmer's skill, he had little of a farmer's prudence and economy. I once inquired of James Corrie, a sagacious old farmer, whose ground marched with Elliesland, the cause of the poet's failure. ' Faith,' said he, 'how could he miss but fail, when his servants ate the bread as fast as it was baked ? I don't mean figuratively, I mean literally. Consider a little. At that time close economy was necessary to have enabled a man to clear twenty pounds a year by Elliesland. Now, Burns's own handiwork was out of the question ; he neither ploughed, nor sowed, nor reaped, at least like a hardworking farmer ; and then he had a bevy of servants from Ayrshire. The lasses did nothing but bake bread, and the lads sat by the fireside, and ate it warm, with ale. Waste of time and consumption of food would soon reach to twenty pounds a year.'"

"The truth of the case is," says Mr. Cunningham in another letter with which he has favoured me, " that if Robert Burns liked his farm, it was more for the beauty of its situation than for the labours which it demanded. He was too wayward to attend to the stated duties of a husbandman, and too impatient to wait till the ground returned in gain the cultivation he bestowed upon it.

"The condition of a farmer, a Nithsdale one I mean, was then very humble. His one-storey house had a covering of straw and a clay floor ; the furniture was from the hands of a country carpenter ; and between the roof and floor there seldom intervened a smoother ceiling than of rough rods and grassy turf—while a huge lang-settle of black oak for himself, and a carved arm-chair for his wife, were the only matters out of keeping with the homely looks of his residence. He took all his meals in his own kitchen, and presided regularly among his children and domestics. He performed family worship every evening—except during the hurry of harvest, when that duty was perhaps limited to Saturday night. A few religious books, two or three favourite poets, the history of his country, and his Bible, aided him in forming the minds and manners of the family. To domestic education, Scotland owes as much as to the care of her clergy, and the excellence of her parish schools.

" The picture out of doors was less interesting. The ground from which the farmer sought support was generally in a very moderate state of cultivation. The implements with which he tilled his land were primitive and clumsy, and his own knowledge of the management of crops exceedingly limited. He plodded on in the regular slothful routine of his ancestors ; he rooted out no bushes ; he dug up no stones ; he drained not, neither did he enclose ; and weeds obtained their full share of the dung and the lime, which he bestowed more like a medicine than a meal on his soil. His plough was the rude old Scotch one ; his harrows had as often teeth of wood as of iron ; his carts were heavy and low-wheeled, or were, more properly speaking, tumbler-cars, so called to distinguish them from trail-cars, both of which were in common use. On these rude carriages his manure was taken to the field, and his crop brought home. The farmer himself corresponded in all respects with his imperfect instruments. His poverty secured him from risking costly experiments ; and his hatred of innovation made him intrench himself behind a breastwork of old maxims and rustic saws, which he interpreted as oracles delivered against improvement. With ground in such condition, with tools so unfit, and with knowledge so imperfect, he sometimes succeeded in wringing a few hundred pounds Scots from the farm he occupied. Such was generally the state of agriculture when Burns came to Nithsdale. I know not how far his own skill was equal to the task of improvement—his trial was short and unfortunate. An important change soon took place by which he was not fated to profit ; he had not the foresight to see its approach, nor, probably, the fortitude to await its coming.

"In the year 1790 much of the ground in Nithsdale was leased at seven and ten and fifteen shillings per acre ; and the farmer, in his person and his house, differed little from the peasants and mechanics around him. He would have thought his daughter wedded in her degree had she married a joiner or a mason ; and at kirk or market all men beneath the rank of a ' portioner' of the soil mingled together, equals in appearance and importance. But the war which soon commenced gave a decided impulse to agriculture ; the army and navy consumed largely ; corn rose in demand ; the price augmented ; more land was called into cultivation ; and as leases expired the proprietors improved the grounds, built better houses, enlarged the rents; and the farmer was soon borne on the wings of sudden wealth above his original condition. His house obtained a slated roof, sash-windows, carpeted floors, plastered walls, and even began to exchange the hanks of yarn with which it was formerly hung for paintings and pianofortes. He laid aside his coat of home-made cloth ; he retired from his seat among his servants ; he—I am grieved to mention it—gave up family worship as a thing unfashionable, and became a kind of rustic gentleman, who rode a blood-horse, and galloped home on market-nights at the peril of his own neck, and to the terror of every modest pedestrian.(101) His daughters, too, no longer prided themselves in well-bleached linen and home-made webs ; they changed their linsey-wolsey gowns for silk ; and so ungracefully did their new state sit upon them that I have seen their lovers coming in iron-shod clogs to their carpeted floors, and two of the proudest young women in the parish skating dung to their father's potato-field in silk stockings.—When a change like this took place, and a farmer could, with a dozen years" industry, be able to purchase the land he rented—which many were, and many did—the same, or a still more profitable change might have happened with respect to Elliesland ; and Burns, had he stuck by his lease and his plough, would, in all human possibility, have found the independence which he sought, and sought in vain, from the coldness and parsimony of mankind."

(101) Mr. Cunningham's description accords with the lines of Crabbe:

"Who rides his hunter, who his house adorns,

Who drinks his wine, and his disbursement scorns,

Who freely lives and loves to show he can—

This is the farmer made the gentleman.'

Mr. Cunningham sums up his reminiscences of Burns at Elliesland in these terms : " During the prosperity of his farm my father often said that Burns conducted himself wisely, and like one anxious for his name as a man and his fame as a poet. He went to Dunscore Kirk on Sunday, though he expressed oftener than once his dislike to the stern Calvinism of that strict old divine Mr. Kirkpatrick ;—he assisted in forming a reading club j and at weddings, and house-heatings, and kirns,(102) and other scenes of festivity, he was a welcome guest, universally liked by the young and the old. But the failure of his farming projects, and the limited income with which he was compelled to support an increasing family and an expensive station in life, preyed upon his spirits ; and, during these fits of despair, he was willing too often to become the companion of the thoughtless and the gross. I am grieved to say, that besides leaving the book too much for the bowl, and grave and wise friends for lewd and reckless companions, he was also in the occasional practice of composing songs in which he surpassed the licentiousness, as well as the wit and humour, of the old Scottish muse. These have unfortunately found their way to the press, and I am afraid they cannot be recalled.

(102) Kirns—The harvest-home dances are so called in Scotland. Such entertainments were universally given by the landlords in those days ; but this good old fashion is fast wearing out in too many districts. It belonged to a more prudent, as well as humane style of manners, than now finds favour.

" In conclusion, I may say, that few men have had so much of the poet about them, and few poets so much of the man ; the man was probably less pure than he ought to have been, but the poet was pure and bright to the last."

The reader must be sufficiently prepared to hear, that from the time when he entered on his Excise duties, the poet more and more neglected the concerns of his farm. Occasionally, he might be seen holding the plough, an exercise in which he excelled, and was proud of excelling, or stalking down his furrows with the white sheet of grain wrapped about him, a " tenty seedsman ;" but he was more commonly occupied in far different pursuits. " I am now," says he, in one of his letters, " a poor rascally gauger, condemned to gallop two hundred miles every week to inspect dirty bonds, and yeasty barrels."

Both in verse and in prose he has recorded the feelings with which he first followed his new vocation. His jests on the subject are uniformly bitter. "I have the same consolation," he tells Mr. Ainslie, " which I once heard a recruiting sergeant give to his audience in the streets of Kilmarnock : ' Gentlemen, for your farther encouragement, I can assure you that ours is the most blackguard corps under the Crown, and consequently with us an honest fellow has the surest chance of preferment.' " He winds up almost all his statements of his feelings on this matter in the same strain :

" I hae a wife and twa wee laddies,

They maun hae brose and brats o' duddies.

Ye ken yoursell, my heart right proud is,
                                 I needna vaunt;
But I'll sned besoms—thraw saugh-woodies.
                                 Before they want."

On one occasion, however, he takes a higher tone. "There is a certain stigma," says he to Bishop Geddes, "in the name of Exciseman ; but I do not intend to borrow honour from any profession " :—which may perhaps remind the reader of Gibbon's lofty language, on finally quitting the learned and polished circles of London and Paris for his Swiss retirement : " I am too modest, or too proud, to rate my value by that of my associates."

Burns, in his perpetual perambulations over the moors of Dumfriesshire, had every temptation to encounter, which bodily fatigue, the blandishments of hosts and hostesses, and the habitual manners of those who acted along with him in the duties of the Excise, could present. He was, moreover, wherever he went, exposed to perils of his own by the reputation which he had earned, and by his extraordinary powers of entertainment in conversation j and he pleased himself with
thinking, in the words of one of his letters to the Lady Harriet Don, that " one advantage he had in this new business was the knowledge it gave him of the various shades of character in man—consequently assisting him in his trade as a poet." (103) From the castle to the cottage every door flew open at his approach ; and the old system of hospitality then flourishing rendered it difficult for the most soberly inclined guest to rise from any man's board in the same trim that he sat down to it. The farmer, if Burns was seen passing, left his reapers, and trotted by the side of Jenny Geddes until he could persuade the bard that the day was hot enough to demand an extra libation. If he entered an inn at midnight, after all the inmates were in bed, the news of his arrival circulated from the cellar to the garret ; and ere ten minutes had elapsed, the landlord and all his guests were assembled round the ingle, the largest punch-bowl was produced, and

 

"Be ours this night—who knows what comes to-morrow?"

 

was the language of every eye in the circle that welcomed him.(104) The highest gentry of the county, whenever they had especial merriment in view, called in the wit and eloquence of Burns to enliven their carousals. The famous song of The Whistle of Worth commemorates a scene of this kind, more picturesque in some of its circumstances than every day occurred, yet strictly in character with the usual tenor of life among this jovial squirearchy. Three gentlemen of ancient descent had met to determine, by a solemn drinking-match, who should possess the Whistle, which a common ancestor of them all had earned ages before, in a Bacchanalian contest of the same sort with a noble toper from Denmark ; and the poet was summoned to watch over and celebrate the issue of the debate.

 

"Then up rose the bard like a prophet in drink,
Craigdarroch shall soar when creation shall sink ;
But if thou wouldst flourish immortal in rhyme,
Come, one bottle more, and have at the sublime."

 


Nor, as has already been hinted, was he safe from temptations of this kind even when he was at home, and most disposed to enjoy in quiet the society of his wife and children. Lion-gazers from all quarters beset him ; they ate and drank at his cost, and often went away to criticise him and his fare, as if they had done Burns and his black bowl(105) great honour in condescending to be entertained for a single evening with such company and such liquor.

(103) Letter (unpublished), dated Elliesland, December 23rd, 1789.

(104) These particulars are from a letter of David Macculloch, Esq.. who being at this period a very young gentleman, a passionate admirer of Burns, and a capital singer of many of his serious songs, used often, in his enthusiasm, to accompany the poet on his professional excursions.

(105) Burns's famous black punch-bowl, of Inverary marble, was the nuptial gift of his father-in-law, Mr. Armour, who himself fashioned it. After passing through many hands, it is now in excellent keeping, that of Archibald Hastie, Esq., of London.

We have on record various glimpses of him as he appeared while he was half-farmer, half-exciseman ; and some of these present him in attitudes and aspects on which it would be pleasing to dwell.(105)

(105) A writer in The Edinburgh Literary Journal, vol. i., p. 82, has just furnished (1829} the following little anecdote : " It may be readily guessed with what interest I heard, one Thornhill fair-day, that Burns was to visit the market. Boy as I then was, an interest was awakened in me respecting this extraordinary man which was sufficient, in addition to the ordinary attraction of a village fair, to command my presence in the market. Burns actually entered the fair about twelve ; and man, wife, and lass were all on the outlook for a peep of the Ayrshire ploughman. I carefully dogged him from stand to stand and from door to door. An information had been lodged against a poor widow woman of the name of Kate Watson, who had ventured to serve a few of her old country friends with a draught of unlicensed ale, and a lacing of whiskey, on this village jubilee. I saw him enter her door, and anticipated nothing short of an immediate seizure of a certain grey-beard and barrel, which, to my personal knowledge, contained the contraband commodities our bard was in quest of. A nod, accompanied by a significant movement of the forefinger, brought Kate to the doorway or trance, and I was near enough to hear the follow ng words distinctly uttered: ' Kate, are ye mad ? D'ye no ken th at the supervisor and me will be in upon you in the course of forty minutes? Guid-by t'ye at present.1 Burns was in the street, and in the midst of the crowd, in an instant, and I had access to know that his friendly hint was not neglected. It saved a poor widow woman from a fine of several pounds."

For example, the circumstances under which the verses on The Wounded Hare were written are mentioned generally by the poet himself. James Thomson, son of the occupier of a farm adjoining Elliesland, told Allan Cunningham that it was he who wounded the animal. " Burns," said this person, " was in the custom, when at home, of strolling by himself in the twilight every evening, along the Nith, and by the march between his land and ours. The hares often came and nibbled our wheat-braird; and once, in the gloaming, it was in April, I got a shot at one, and wounded her : she ran bleeding by Burns, who was pacing up and down by himself, not far from me. He started, and with a bitter curse ordered me out of his sight, or he would throw me instantly into the Nith ; and had I stayed I'll warrant he would have been as good as his word, though I was both young and strong."

Among other curious travellers who found their way about this time to Elliesland was Captain Grose, the celebrated antiquary, whom Burns briefly describes as

" A fine fat fodgel wight— Of stature
short, but genius bright; "

and who has given us his own portrait, both by pen and pencil, at full length, in his Olio. This gentleman's taste and pursuits are ludicrously set forth in the copy of verses :

" Hear, Land o' Cakes and brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to John o' Groats, A
chield's amang ye takin' notes," etc.

and, inter alia, his first love of port is not forgotten. Grose and Burns had too much in common not to become great friends. The poet's accurate knowledge of Scottish phraseology and customs was of much use to the researches of the antiquarian humorist ; and, above all, it is to their acquaintance that we owe Tarn o'Shanter. Burns told the story as he had heard it in Ayrshire, in a letter to the Captain, and was easily persuaded to versify it. The poem was the work of one day; and Mrs. Burns well remembers the circumstances. He spent most of the morning on his favourite walk by the river, where, in the afternoon, she joined him with some of her children. " He was," says Cromek, " busily engaged crooning to himsell; and Mrs. Burns, perceiving that her presence was an interruption, loitered behind with her little ones among the broom. Her attention was presently attracted by the strange and wild gesticulations of the bard, who now, at some distance, was agonised with an ungovernable access of joy. He was reciting very loud, and with
the tears rolling down his cheeks, those animated verses which he had just conceived :

" Now, Tam ! O Tam! had thae been queans
A' plump and strappin in their teens ;

Their sarks, instead of creeshie flannen,

Been snaw-white seventeen -hunder(106) linen,—

Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,

That ance were plush, o' good blue hair,

I wad hae given them off my hurdies.

For ae blink o' the bonnie burdies."(107)

(106) The manufacturer's term for fine linen woven on a reed of seventeen hundred divisions.—Cromek.

(107) The above is quoted from a MS. journal of Cromek. Mr. M'Diarmid confirms the statement, and adds that the poet, having committed the verses to writing on the top of his sod-dyke over the water, came into the house, and read them immediately in high triumph at the fireside.

To the last, Burns was of opinion that Tam o'Shanter was the best of his productions ; and although it does not often happen that poet and public come to the same conclusion on such points, I believe the decision in question has been all but unanimously approved of.

The admirable execution of the piece, so far as it goes, leaves nothing to wish for ; the only criticism has been, that the catastrophe appears unworthy of the preparation. Burns might have avoided this error—if error it be—had he followed, not the Ayrshire, but the Galloway edition of the legend. According to that tradition, the Cutty-Sark who attracted the special notice of the bold intruder on the Satanic ceremonial was no other than the pretty wife of a farmer residing in the same village with himself, and of whose unholy propensities no suspicion had ever been whispered. The Galloway Tam being thoroughly sobered by terror, crept to his bed the moment he reached home after his escape, and said nothing of what had happened to any of his family. He was awakened in the morning with the astounding intelligence that his horse had been found dead in the stable, and a woman's hand, clotted with blood, adhering to the tail. Presently it was reported that Cutty-Sark had burnt her hand grievously overnight, and was ill in bed, but obstinately refused to let her wound be examined by the village leech. Hereupon Tam, disentangling the bloody hand from the hair of his defunct favourite's tail, proceeded to the residence of the fair witch, and, forcibly pulling her stump to view, showed his trophy, and narrated the whole circumstances of the adventure. The poor victim of the black art was constrained to confess her guilty practices in presence of the priest and the laird, and was forthwith burned alive under their joint auspices, within watermark, on the Solway Frith.

Such, Mr. Cunningham informs me, is the version of this story current in Galloway and Dumfriesshire: but it may be doubted whether, even if Burns was acquainted with it, he did not choose wisely in adhering to the Ayrshire legend, as he had heard it in his youth. It is seldom that tales of popular superstition are effective in proportion to their completeness of solution and catastrophe. On the contrary, they, like the creed to which they belong, suffer little in a picturesque point of view by exhibiting a maimed and fragmentary character, that in nowise satisfies strict taste, either critical or moral. Dreams based in darkness may fitly terminate in a blank: the cloud opens and the cloud closes. The absence of definite scope and purpose appears to be of the essence of the mythological grotesque.

Burns lays the scene of this remarkable performance almost on the spot where he was born ; and all the terrific circumstances by which he has marked the progress of Tam's midnight journey are drawn from local tradition.

" By this time he was cross the ford

Whare in the snaw the chapman smoor'd,

And past the birks and meikle stane,

Whare drucken Charlie brak's neck-bane;

And through the whins, and by the cairn,

Whare hunters fand the murder'd bairn;

And near the thorn, aboon the well,

Whare Mungo's mither hang'd hersell."

None of these tragic memoranda were derived from imagination. Nor was Tam o' Shanter himself an imaginary character. Shanter is a farm close to Kirkoswald, that smuggling village in which Burns, when nineteen years old, studied mensuration, and "first became acquainted with scenes of swaggering riot." The then occupier of Shanter, by name Douglas Grahame, was, by all accounts, equally what the Tam of the poet appears —a jolly, careless rustic, who took much more interest in the contraband traffic of the coast than the rotation of crops. Burns knew the man well; and to his dying day he, nothing loth, passed among his rural compeers by the name of Tam o' Shanter.(108)

 

(108) The above information is derived from Mr. R. Chambers.

 

A few words will bring us to the close of Burns's career at Elliesland. Mr. Ramsay, of Ochtertyre, happening to pass through Nithsdale in 1790, met Burns riding rapidly near Closeburn. The poet was obliged to pursue his professional journey, but sent on Mr. Ramsay and his fellow-traveller to Elliesland, where he joined them as soon as his duty permitted him, saying as he entered, "I come, to use the words of Shakespeare, stewed in haste!' Mr. Ramsay was " much pleased with his uxor Sabina qualis, and his modest mansion, so unlike the habitation of ordinary rustics." He told his guests he was preparing to write a drama, which he was to call "Rob McQuecharis Elshin, from a popular story of King Robert the Bruce being defeated on the Carron, when the heel of his boot having loosened in the flight, he applied to one Robert M'Quechan to fix it on, who, to make sure, ran his awl nine inches up the king's heel." The evening was spent delightfully. A gentleman of dry temperament, who looked in accidentally, soon partook the contagion, and sat listening to Burns, with the tears running over his cheeks. " Poor Burns !" says Mr. Ramsay, " from that time I met him no more."

The summer after, some English travellers, calling at Elliesland, were told that the poet was walking by the river. They proceeded in search of him, and presently, " on a rock that projected into the stream, they saw a man employed in angling, of a singular appearance. He had a cap made of a fox's skin on his head ; a loose great-coat fastened round him by a belt, from which depended an enormous Highland broadsword." (Was he still dreaming of the Bruce ?) " It was Burns. He received them with great cordiality, and asked them to share his humble dinner." These travellers also classed the evening they spent at Elliesland with the brightest of their lives.

Whether Burns ever made any progress in the actual composition of a drama on Rob McQueckan's Elsbin, we know not. He had certainly turned his ambition seriously to the theatre almost immediately after his first establishment in Dumfriesshire. In a letter (unpublished) to Lady H. Don, dated December 23rd, 1789, he thus expresses himself : " No man knows what Nature has fitted him for till he try ; and if, after a preparatory course of some years' study of men and books, I should find myself unequal to the task, there is no great harm done. Virtue and study are their own reward. I have got Shakespeare, and begun with him ; and I shall stretch a point, and make myself master of all the dramatic authors of any repute in both English and French—the only languages which I know." And in another letter to the same person he recurs to the subject in these terms : " Though the rough material of fine writing is undoubtedly the gift of genius, the workmanship is as certainly the united effort of labour, attention, and pains. Nature has qualified few, if any, to shine in every walk of the muses. I shall put it to the test of repeated trials whether she has found me capable of distinguishing myself in any one."

Towards the close of 1791, the poet, finally despairing of his farm, determined to give up the lease, which the kindness of his landlord rendered easy of arrangement ; and, procuring an appointment to the Dumfries division, which raised his salary from the revenue to £70 per annum, removed his family to the county town in which he terminated his days. His conduct as an excise officer had hitherto met with uniform approbation, and he nourished warm hopes of being promoted when he had thus avowedly devoted himself altogether to the service.

He left Elliesland, however, with a heavy heart. The affection of his neighbours was rekindled in all its early fervour by the thoughts of parting with him; and the roup of his farming-stock and other effects was, in spite of whiskey, a very melancholy scene. The competition for his chattels, says Allan Cunningham, was eager, each being anxious to secure a memorandum of Burns's residence among them.

It is pleasing to know that among other " titles manifold " to their respect and gratitude, Burns, at the suggestion of Mr. Riddel, of Friar's Carse, had superintended the formation of a subscription-library in the parish. His letters to the booksellers on this subject do him much honour, his choice of authors (which business was naturally left to his discretion) being in the highest degree judicious. Such institutions are now common— almost universal indeed—in the rural districts of southern Scotland ; but it should never be forgotten that Burns was among the first, if not the very first, to set the example. " He was so good," says Mr. Riddel, "as to take the whole management of this concern : he was treasurer, librarian, and censor to our little society, who will long have a grateful sense of his public spirit and exertions for their improvement and information."(109)

(109) Letter to Sir John Sinclair, Bart., in The Statistical Account of Scotland—Parish of Dunscore.

Once, and only once, did Burns quit his residence at Elliesland to revisit Edinburgh. His object was to close accounts with Creech ; that business accomplished, he returned immediately, and he never again saw the capital. He thus writes to Mrs. Dunlop : " To a man who has a home, however humble and remote, if that home is, like mine, the scene of domestic comfort, the bustle of Edinburgh will soon be a business of sickening disgust :

 

' Vain pomp and glory of the world, I hate you.'

 

When I must skulk into a corner, lest the rattling equipage of some gaping blockhead should mangle me in the mire, I am tempted to exclaim—What merits had he had, or what demerits have I had, in some state of pre-existence, that he is ushered into this state of being with the sceptre of rule and the key of riches in his puny fist, and I kicked into the world, the sport of folly or the victim of pride ? Often, as I have glided with humble stealth through the pomp of Prince's Street, it has suggested itself to me as an improvement on the present human figure that a man, in proportion to his own conceit of his consequence in the world, could have pushed out the longitude of his common size as a snail pushes out his horns or as we draw out a perspective." There is bitterness in this badinage.

It may naturally excite some surprise that of the convivial conversation of so distinguished a convivialist, so few specimens have been preserved in the Memoirs of his life. The truth seems to be, that those of his companions who chose to have the best memory for such things, happened also to have the keenest relish for his wit and his humour when exhibited in their coarser phases. Among a heap of MS. memoranda with which I have been favoured, I find but little that one could venture to present in print ; and the following specimens of that little must, for the present, suffice.

A gentleman who had recently returned from the East Indies, where he had made a large fortune, which he showed no great alacrity about spending, was of opinion, it seems, one day, that his company had had enough of wine, rather sooner than they came to that conclusion : he offered another bottle in feeble and hesitating terms, and remained dallying with the corkscrew as if in hopes that some one would interfere and prevent further effusion of Bourdeaux. " Sir," said Burns, losing temper, and betraying in his mood something of the old rusticity—" Sir, you have been in Asia, and, for aught I know, on the Mount of Moriah, and you seem to hang over your tappit-hen as remorsefully as Abraham did over his son Isaac. Come, sir, to the sacrifice !"

At another party, the society had suffered considerably from the prosing of a certain well-known provincial bore of the first magnitude, and Burns as much as any of them, although, overawed, as it would seem, by the rank of the nuisance, he had not only submitted, but condescended to applaud. The grandee being suddenly summoned to another company in the same tavern, Burns immediately addressed himself to the chair, and demanded a bumper. The president thought he was about to dedicate his toast to the distinguished absentee : " I give," said the bard, " I give you the health, gentlemen all—of the waiter that called my Lord out of the room."

He often made extempore rhymes the vehicle of his sarcasm : thus, for example, having heard a person of no very elevated rank talk loud and long of some aristocratic festivities in which he had the honour to mingle, Burns, when he was called upon for his song, chanted some verses, of which one has been preserved :

" Of lordly acquaintance you boast,
   And the dukes that you dined wi' yestreen,

Yet an insect's an insect at most,

   Tho' it crawl on the curl of a queen."

I believe I have already alluded to Burns's custom of carrying a diamond pencil with him in all his wanderings, and constantly embellishing inn-windows and so forth with his epigrams. On one occasion, being storm-stayed at Lamington, in Clydesdale, he went to church ; and the indignant beadle, after the congregation dispersed, invited the attention of the clergyman to this stanza on the window by which the noticeable stranger had been sitting :

"As cauld a wind as ever blew;

A cauld kirk, and in't but few;

As cauld a minister's ever spak;

Ye'se a' be het or I come back."

Sir Walter Scott possesses a tumbler on which are the following verses, written by Burns on the arrival of a friend, Mr. W. Stewart, factor to a gentleman of Nithsdale. The landlady being very wroth at what she considered the disfigurement of her glass, a gentleman present appeased her by paying down a shilling, and carried off the relic.

"You're welcome, Willie Stewart,

You're welcome, Willie Stewart;

There's ne'er a flower that blooms in May,

That's half sae welcome 's thou art.


Come, bumpers high, express your joy,
   The bowl we maun renew it;
The tappit-hen gae bring her ben
   To welcome Willie Stewart.


May foes be strang, and friends be slack,
   Ilk action may he rue it
May woman on him turn her back,
   That wrangs thee, Willie Stewart.

Since we are among such small matters, perhaps some readers will smile to hear that Burns very often wrote his name on his books thus, "Robert Burns, poet," and that Allan Cunningham remembers a favourite collie at Elliesland having the same inscription on his collar.

 

 

  


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