The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart

 

CHAPTER VIII

"The King's most humble servant,

I Can scarcely spare a minute ;

But I am yours at dinner-time.

Or else the devil's in it." (110)

(110) " The above answer to an invitation was written extempore on a leaf torn from his pocket-book."—Cromek's MSS.

THE four principal biographers of our poet, Heron, Currie, Walker, and Irving, concur in the general statement that his moral course, from the time when he settled in Dumfries, was downwards. Heron knew more of the matter personally than any of the others, and his words are these : " In Dumfries his dissipation became still more deeply habitual. He was here exposed, more than in the country, to be solicited 13 share the riot of the dissolute and the idle. Foolish young men, such as writers' apprentices, young surgeons, merchants' clerks, and his brother excisemen flocked eagerly about him, and from time to time pressed him to drink with them, that they might enjoy his wicked wit. The Caledonian Club, too, and the Dumfries and Galloway Hunt had occasional meetings at Dumfries after Burns came to reside there, and the poet was of course invited to share their hospitality, and hesitated not to accept the invitation. The morals of the town were, in consequence of its becoming so much the scene of public amusement, not a little corrupted, and, though a husband and a father, Burns did not escape suffering by the general contamination in a manner which I forbear to describe. In the intervals between his different fits of intemperance he suffered the keenest anguish of remorse and horrible afflictive foresight. His Jean behaved with a degree of maternal and conjugal tenderness and prudence which made him feel more bitterly the evils of his misconduct, though they could not reclaim him."

This picture, dark as it is, wants some distressing shades that mingle in the parallel one by Dr. Currie ; it wants nothing, however, of which truth demands the insertion. That Burns, dissipated enough long ere he went to Dumfries, became still more dissipated in a town than he had been in the country, is certain. It may also be true that his wife had her own particular causes, sometimes, for dissatisfaction. But that Burns ever sunk into a toper—that he ever was addicted to solitary drinking—that his bottle ever interfered with his discharge of his duties as an exciseman—or that, in spite of some transitory follies, he ever ceased to be a most affectionate husband—all these charges have been insinuated—and they are all false. His intemperance was, as Heron says, in fits"; his aberrations of all kinds were occasional, not systematic ; they were all to himself the sources of exquisite misery in the retrospect ; they were the aberrations of a man whose moral sense was never deadened—of one who encountered more temptations, from without and from within, than the immense majority of mankind, far from having to contend against, are even able to imagine ;—of one, finally, who prayed for pardon where alone effectual pardon could be found, and who died ere he had reached that term of life up to which the passions of many who, their mortal career being regarded as a whole, are honoured as among the most virtuous of mankind, have proved too strong for the control of reason. We have already seen that the poet was careful of decorum in all things during the brief space of his prosperity at Elliesland, and that he became less so on many points, as the prospects of his farming speculation darkened around him. It seems to be equally certain . that he entertained high hopes of promotion in the Excise at the period of his removal to Dumfries, and that the comparative recklessness of his latter conduct there was consequent on a certain overclouding of these professional expectations. The case is broadly stated so by Walker and Paul ; and there are hints to the same effect in the narrative of Currie.

The statement has no doubt been exaggerated, but it has its foundation in truth ; and by the kindness of Mr. Joseph Train, supervisor at Castle Douglas, in Galloway, I shall presently be enabled to give some details which may throw light on this business.

Burns was much patronised when in Edinburgh by the Honourable Henry Erskine, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and other leading Whigs of the place ; much more so, to their honour be it said, than by any of the influential adherents of the then administration. His landlord (Mr. Miller, of Dalswinton), Mr. Riddel, of Friar's Carse, and most of the other gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Elliesland, who showed him special attention, belonged to the Opposition party; and, on his removal to Dumfries, it so happened that some of his immediate superiors in the revenue service of the district, and other persons of standing and authority into whose society he was thrown, entertained sentiments of the same description.

The poet, whenever in his letters he talks seriously of political matters, uniformly describes his early Jacobitism as mere " matter of fancy." It may, however, be easily believed that a fancy like his, long indulged in dreams of that sort, was well prepared to pass into certain other dreams, which had, as calm men now view the matter, but little in common with them, except that both alike involved some feeling of dissatisfaction with " the existing order of things." Many of the old elements of political disaffection in Scotland put on a new shape at the outbreaking of the French Revolution ; and Jacobites became half-Jacobins ere they were at all aware in what the doctrines of Jacobinism were to end. The Whigs naturally regarded the first dawn of freedom in France with feelings of sympathy, delight, exultation ; in truth, few good men of any party regarded it with more of fear than of hope. The general, the all but universal tone of feeling was favourable to the first assailants of the Bourbon despotism ; and there were few who more ardently participated in the general sentiment of the day than Burns.

The revulsion of feeling that took place in this country at large, when wanton atrocities began to stain the course of the French Revolution, and Burke lifted up his powerful voice to denounce its leaders, as, under pretence of love for freedom, the enemies of all social order, morality, and religion, was violent in proportion to the strength and ardour of the hopes in which good men have been eager to indulge, and cruelly disappointed. The great body of the Whigs, however, were slow to abandon the cause which they had espoused ; and although their chiefs were wise enough to draw back when they at length perceived that serious plans for overturning the political institutions of our own country had been hatched and fostered, under the pretext of admiring and conforting the destroyers of a foreign tyranny, many of their provincial retainers, having uttered their sentiments all along with provincial vehemence and openness, found it no easy matter to retreat gracefully along with them. Scenes more painful at the time, and more so even now in the retrospect, than had for generations afflicted Scotland were the consequences of the rancour into which party feelings on both sides now rose and fermented. Old and dear ties of friendship were torn in sunder ; society was for a time shaken to its centre. In the most extravagant dreams of the Jacobites there had always been much to command respect—high, chivalrous devotion, reverence for old affections, ancestral loyalty, and the generosity of romance. In the new species of hostility everything seemed mean as well as perilous ; it was scorned even more than hated. The very name stained whatever it came near ; and men that had known and loved each other from boyhood stood aloof if this influence interfered, as if it had been some loathsome pestilence.

There was a great deal of stately Toryism at this time in the town of Dumfries, which was the favourite winter retreat of many of the best gentlemen's families of the south of Scotland. Feelings that worked more violently in Edinburgh than in London acquired additional energy still in this provincial capital. All men's eyes were upon Burns. He was the standing marvel of the place ; his toasts, his jokes, his epigrams, his songs were the daily food of conversation and scandal; and he, open and careless, and thinking he did no great harm in saying and singing what many of his superiors had not the least objection to hear and applaud, soon began to be considered among the local admirers and disciples of the good king and his great minister, as the most dangerous of all the apostles of sedition— and to be shunned accordingly.

Mr. David Macculloch—a son of the Laird of Ardwell, already mentioned—has told me that he was seldom more grieved than when, riding into Dumfries one fine summer's evening to attend a county ball, he saw Burns walking alone, on the shady side of the principal street of the town, while the opposite part was gay with successive groups of gentlemen and ladies, all drawn together for the festivities of the night, not one of whom appeared willing to recognise him. The horseman dismounted and joined Burns, who, on his proposing to him to cross the street, said, " Nay, nay, my young friend—that's all over now;" and quoted, after a pause, some verses of Lady Grizzel Baillie's pathetic ballad:

" His bonnet stood ance fu' fair on his brow,

His auld ane look'd better than mony ane's new;

But now he lets 't wear ony way it will hing,

And casts himsell dowie upon the corn-bing.


O were we young, as we ance hae been,
We suld hae been galloping doun on yon green,
And linking it ower the lily-white lea,—
And werena my heart light I wad die."

It was little in Burns's character to let his feelings on certain subjects escape in this fashion. He immediately, after citing these verses, assumed the sprightliness of his most pleasing manner; and taking his young friend home with him, entertained him very agreeably until the hour of the ball arrived with a bowl of his usual potation, and Bonnie Jean's singing of some verses which he had recently composed. But this incident belongs, probably, to a somewhat later period of our poet's residence in Dumfries.

The records of the Excise Office are silent concerning the suspicions which the Commissioners of the time certainly took up in regard to Burns as a political offender—according to the phraseology of the tempestuous period a democrat. In that department, as then conducted, I am assured that nothing could have been more unlike the usual course of things than that a syllable should have been set down in writing on such a subject, unless the case had been one of extremities. That an inquiry was instituted we know from Burns's own letters; and what the exact termination of the inquiry was can no longer, it is probable, be ascertained.

According to the tradition of the neighbourhood, Burns, inter alia, gave great offence by demurring in a large mixed company to the proposed toast, " The health of William Pitt," and left the room in indignation because the society rejected what he wished to substitute—namely, "The health of a greater and a better man, George Washington." I suppose the warmest admirer of Mr. Pitt's talents and politics would hardly venture nowadays to dissent substantially from Burns's estimate of the comparative merits of these two great men. The name of Washington, at all events, when contemporary passions shall have finally sunk into the peace of the grave, will unquestionably have its place in the first rank of heroic virtue—a station which demands the exhibition of victory, pure and unstained, over temptations and trials extraordinary in kind as well as strength. But at the time when Burns, being a servant of Mr. Pitt's government, was guilty of this indiscretion, it is obvious that a great deal " more was meant than reached the ear."

In the poet's own correspondence, we have traces of another occurrence of the same sort. Burns thus writes to a gentleman at whose table he had dined the day before : " I was, I know, drunk last night, but I am sober this morning. From the expressions Captain made use of to me, had I had nobody's welfare to care for but my own, we should certainly have come, according to the manner of the world, to the necessity of murdering one another about the business. The words were such as generally, I believe, end in a brace of pistols; but I am still pleased to think that I did not ruin the peace and welfare of a wife and children in a drunken squabble. Farther, you know that the report of certain political opinions being mine, has already once before brought me to the brink of destruction. I dread lest last night's business may be interpreted in the same way. You, I beg, will take care to prevent it. I tax your wish for Mrs. Burns's welfare with the task of waiting on every gentleman who was present to state this to him; and, as you please, show this letter. What, after all, was the obnoxious toast ? May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause—a toast that the most outrageous frenzy of loyalty cannot object to."

Burns has been commended, sincerely by some and ironically by others, for putting up with the treatment which he received on this occasion, without calling Captain to account the next morning ; and one critic (the last, I am sure, that would have wished to say anything unkindly about the poet)(111) has excited indignation in the breast of Mr. Peterkin by suggesting that Burns really had not, at any period of his life, those delicate feelings on certain matters which, it must be admitted, no person in Burns's original rank and station is ever expected to act upon. The question may be safely intrusted to the good sense of all who can look to the case without passion or personal irritation. No human being will ever dream that Robert Burns was a coward : as for the poet's toast about the success of the war, there can be no doubt that only one meaning was given to it by all who heard it uttered ; and as little that a gentleman bearing the king's commission in the army, if he was entitled to resent the sentiment at all, lost no part of his right to do so, because it was announced in a quibble.

(111) See Sir Walter Scott's article on Cromek's Reliques in the first number of The Quarterly Review, or Miscellaneous Prose Works, vol. xvii., p. 252.

Burns, no question, was guilty of unpoliteness as well as indiscretion, in offering any such toasts as these in mixed company ; but that such toasts should have been considered as attaching any grave suspicion to his character as a loyal subject is a circumstance which can only be accounted for by reference to the exaggerated state of political feelings on all matters and among all descriptions of men at that melancholy period of disaffection, distrust, and disunion. Who, at any other than that lamentable time, would ever have dreamed of erecting the drinking, or declining to drink, the health of a particular minister, or the approving, or disapproving, of a particular measure of government, into the test of a man's loyalty to his king ? The poet Crabbe has, in one of his masterly sketches, given us, perhaps, a more vivid delineation of the jarrings and collisions which were at this period the perpetual curse of society, than the reader may be able to find elsewhere. He has painted the sturdy Tory mingling accidentally in a company of those who would not, like Burns, drink "the health of William Pitt," and suffering sternly and sulkily under the infliction of their, to him, horrible doctrines :

" Now, dinner past, no longer he supprest

His strong dislike to be a silent guest;

Subjects and words were now at his command ;

When disappointment frown'd on all he plann'd.

For, hark ! he heard, amazed, on every side,

His church insulted, and her priests belied,

The laws reviled, the ruling powers abused,

The land derided, and her foes excused.

He heard and ponder'd. What to men so vile

Should be his language? For his threatening style

They were too many. If his speech were meek,

They would despise such poor attempts to speak.

—There were reformers of each different sort,

Foes to the laws, the priesthood, and the court :

Some on their favourite plans alone intent,

Some purely angry and malevolent ;

The rash were proud to blame their country's laws,

The vain to seem supporters of a cause;

One call'd for change that he would dread to see,

Another sigh'd for Gallic liberty ;

And, numbers joining with the forward crew,

For no one reason, but that many do—

How, said the Justice, can this trouble rise—

This shame and pain, from creatures I despise ?"—

And he has also presented the champion of loyalty as surrounded with kindred spirits, and amazed with the audacity of an intrusive democrat, with whom he has now no more cause to keep terms than such gentlemen as Captain were wont to do with Robert Burns.

" Is it not known, agreed, confirm'd, confest,

That of all peoples we are govern'd best ?

—And live there those in such all-glorious state,

Traitors protected in the land they hate,

Rebels still warring with the laws that give

To them subsistence ?—Yes, such wretches live !

The laws that nursed them they blaspheme; the laws—

Their Sovereign's glory—and their country's cause;—

And who their mouth, their master fiend? and who

Rebellion's oracle?—You, caitiff, you!

—O could our country from her coasts expel

Such foes, and nourish those that wish her well!

This her mild laws forbid, but we may still

From us eject them by our sovereign will—

This let us do ...

He spoke, and, seated with his former air.

Look'd his full self, and fill'd his ample chair;
Took one full bumper to each favourite cause,
And dwelt all night on politics and laws,
With high applaudling voice which gained him high applause."

Burns, eager of temper, loud of tone, and with declamation and sarcasm equally at command, was, we may easily believe, the most hated of human beings, because the most dreaded, among the provincial champions of the administration of which he thought fit to disapprove. But that he ever, in his most ardent moods, upheld the principles of the miscreants, or madmen, whose applause of the French Revolution was but the mask of revolutionary designs at home, after such principles had been really developed by those who maintained them, and understood by him, it may be safely denied. There is not assuredly in all his correspondence (and I have seen much of it that never has been, nor ought to be, printed) one syllable to give countenance to such a charge.

His indiscretion, however, did not always confine itself to words ; and though an accident now about to be recorded belongs to the year 1792, before the French war broke out, there is reason to believe that it formed the main subject of the inquiry which the Excise Commissioners thought themselves called upon to institute touching the politics of our poet.

At that period a great deal of contraband traffic, chiefly from the Isle of Man, was going on along the coasts of Galloway and Ayrshire, and the whole of the revenue-officers from Gretna Green to Dumfries were placed under the orders of a superintendent residing in Annan, who exerted himself zealously in intercepting the descent of the smuggling vessels. On February 27th a suspicious-looking brig was discovered in the Solway Frith, and Burns was one of the party whom the superintendent conducted to watch her motions. She got into shallow water the day afterwards, and the officers were enabled to discover that her crew were numerous, armed, and not likely to yield without a struggle. Lewars, a brother exciseman, an intimate friend of our poet, was accordingly sent to Dumfries for a guard of dragoons ; the superintendent, Mr. Crawford, proceeded himself on a similar errand to Ecclefechan, and Burns was left with some men under his orders to watch the brig, and prevent landing or escape. From the private journal of one of the excisemen (now in my hands), it appears that Burns manifested considerable impatience while thus occupied, being left for many hours in a wet salt-marsh, with a force which he knew to be inadequate for the purpose it was meant to fulfil. One of his comrades hearing him abuse his friend Lewars in particular for being slow about his journey, the man answered that he also wished the devil had him for his pains, and that Burns, in the meantime, would do well to indite a song upon the sluggard. Burns said nothing ; but after taking a few strides by himself among the reeds and shingle, rejoined his party, and chanted to them the well-known ditty, The Deil's run awa' wi' the Exciseman(112) Lewars arrived shortly afterwards with his dragoons ; and Burns, putting himself at their head, waded, sword in hand, to the brig, and was the first to board her. The crew lost heart, and submitted, though their numbers were greater than those of the assailing force. The vessel was condemned, and, with all her arms and stores, sold by auction next day at Dumfries, upon which occasion, Burns, whose behaviour had been highly commended, thought fit to purchase four carronades by way of trophy. But his glee went a step farther ;—he sent the guns, with a letter, to the French Convention, requesting that body to accept of them as a mark of his admiration and respect. The present, and its accompaniment, were intercepted at the Custom-House at Dover ; and here, there appears to be little room to doubt, was the principal circumstance that drew on Burns the notice of his jealous superiors.

(112) The account in The Reliques of this song being composed for "a festive meeting of all the Excise officers in Scotland," is therefore incorrect. Mr. Train, moreover, assures me that there never was any such meeting.

We were not, it is true, at war with France, but every one knew and felt that we were to be so ere long ; and nobody can pretend that Burns was not guilty, on this occasion, of a most absurd and presumptuous breach of decorum.

When he learned the impression that had been created by his conduct, and its probable consequences, he wrote to his patron, Mr. Graham of Fintry, the following letter :

 

" December, 1792.      

" SIR, I have been surprised, confounded, and distracted, by Mr. Mitchell, the collector, telling me that he has received an order from your board to inquire into my political conduct, and blaming me as a person disaffected to Government. Sir, you are a husband and a father. You know what you would feel to see the much-loved wife of your bosom, and your helpless, prattling little ones, turned adrift into the world ; degraded and disgraced from a situation in which they had been respectable and respected, and left almost without the necessary support of a miserable existence. Alas, sir ! must I think that such soon must be my lot ? and from the damned dark insinuations of hellish, groundless envy, too ? I believe, sir, I may aver it, and in the sight of Omniscience, that I would not tell a deliberate falsehood, no, not though even worse horrors, if worse can be, than those I have mentioned, hung over my head. And I say that the allegation, whatever villain has made it, is a lie. To the British Constitution, on revolution principles, next, after my God, I am most devoutly attached. You, sir, have been much and generously my friend. Heaven knows how warmly I have felt the obligation, and how gratefully I have thanked you ! Fortune, sir, has made you powerful and me impotent ; has given you patronage, and me dependence. I would not, for my single self, call on your humanity : were such my insular, unconnected situation, I would disperse the tear that now swells in my eye ; I could brave misfortune ; I could face ruin ; at the worst, ' death's thousand doors stand open.' But, good God ! the tender concerns that I have mentioned, the claims and ties that I see at this moment, and feel around me, how they unnerve courage and wither resolution ! To your patronage, as a man of some genius, you have allowed me a claim ; and your esteem, as an honest man, I know is my due. To these, sir, permit me to appeal. By these may I adjure you to save me from that misery which threatens to overwhelm me ; and which, with my latest breath, I will say I have not deserved ? "

On 2nd January, 1793 (a week or two afterwards), we find him writing to Mrs. Dunlop in these terms (the good lady had been offering him some interest with the Excise-Board, in the view of promotion): " Mr. C. can be of little service to me at present; at least, I should be shy of applying. I cannot probably be settled as a supervisor for several years. I must wait the rotation of lists, etc. Besides, some envious, malicious devil has raised a little demur on my political principles, and I wish to let that matter settle before I offer myself too much in the eye of my superiors. I have set henceforth a seal on my lips as to these unlucky politics ; but to you I must breathe my sentiments. In this, as in everything else, I shall show the undisguised emotions of my soul. War, I deprecate : misery and ruin to thousands are in the blast that announces the destructive demon. But - "

" The remainder of this letter," says Cromek, " has been torn away by some barbarous hand." I can have no doubt that it was torn away by one of the kindest hands in the world—that of Mrs. Dunlop herself.

The exact result of the Excise Board's investigation is hidden, as has been said above, in obscurity, nor is it at all likely that the cloud will be withdrawn hereafter. A general impression, however, appears to have gone forth that the affair terminated in something which Burns himself considered as tantamount to the destruction of all hope of future promotion in his profession ; and it has been insinuated by almost every one of his biographers that the crushing of these hopes operated unhappily, even fatally, on the tone of his mind, and, in consequence, on the habits of his life. In a word, the early death of Burns has been (by implication at least) ascribed mainly to the circumstances in question. Even Sir Walter Scott has distinctly intimated his acquiescence in this prevalent notion. " The political predilections," says he, "for they could hardly be termed principles, of Burns, were entirely determined by his feelings. At his first appearance he felt, or affected, a propensity to Jacobitism. Indeed, a youth of his warm imagination in Scotland, thirty years ago,(113) could hardly escape this bias. The side of Charles Edward was that, not surely of sound sense and sober reason, but of romantic gallantry and high achievement. The inadequacy of the means by which that prince attempted to regain the crown forfeited by his fathers —the strange and almost poetical adventures which he underwent—the Scottish martial character, honoured in his victories and degraded and crushed in his defeat—the tales of the veterans who had followed his adventurous standard—were all calculated to impress upon the mind of a poet a warm interest in the cause of the House of Stuart. Yet the impression was not of a very serious cast; for Burns himself acknowledges in one of his letters (Reliques, p. 240) that ' to tell the matter of fact, except when my passions were heated by some accidental cause, my Jabobitism was merely by way of vive la bagatelle.' The same enthusiastic ardour of disposition swayed Burns in his choice of political tenets when the country was agitated by revolutionary principles. That the poet should have chosen the side on which high talents were most likely to procure celebrity ; that he to whom the fastidious distinctions of society were always odious, should have listened with complacence to the voice of French philosophy, which denounced them as usurpations on the rights of man, was precisely the thing to be expected. Yet we cannot but think that if his superiors in the Excise department had tried the experiment of soothing rather than irritating his feelings, they might have spared themselves the disgrace of rendering desperate the possessor of such uncommon talents. For it is but too certain that from the moment his hopes of promotion were utterly blasted, his tendency to dissipation hurried him precipitately into those excesses which shortened his life. We doubt not, that in that awful period of national discord, he had done and said enough to deter, in ordinary cases, the servants of Government from countenancing an avowed partisan of faction —but this partisan was Burns ! Surely the experiment of lenity might have been tried, and perhaps successfully. The conduct of Mr. Graham, of Fintry, our poet's only shield against actual dismission and consequent ruin, reflects the highest credit on that gentleman."

 

(113) Quarterly Review for February, 1809.

 

In" the general strain of sentiment in this passage who can refuse to concur i But I am bound to say, that after a careful examination of all the documents printed, and MSS., to which I have had access, I have great doubts as to some of the principal facts assumed in the eloquent statement. I have before me, for example, a letter of Mr. Findlater, formerly collector at Glasgow, who was, at the period in question, Burns's immediate superior in the Dumfries district, in which that very respectable person distinctly says : " I may venture to assert that when Burns was accused of a leaning to democracy, and an inquiry into his conduct took place, he was subjected, in consequence thereof, to no more than perhaps a verbal or private caution to be more circumspect in future. Neither do I believe his promotion was thereby affected, as has been stated. That, had he lived, would, I have every reason to think, have gone on in the usual routine. His good and steady friend, Mr. Graham, would have attended to this. What cause, therefore, was there for depression of spirits on this account ? or how should he have been hurried thereby to a premature grave ? I never saw his spirit fail till he was borne down by the pressure of disease and bodily weakness ; and even then it would occasionally revive, and, like an expiring lamp, emit bright flashes to the last." (114)

 

(114) Letter to Donald Home, Esq., W.S., Edinburgh.

 

When the war had fairly broken out, a battalion of volunteers was formed in Dumfries, and Burns was an original member of the corps. It is very true that his accession was objected to (115) by some of his neighbours ; but these were overruled by the gentlemen who took the lead in the business, and the poet soon became, as might have been expected, the greatest; possible favourite .with his brothers in arms. His commanding officer, Colonel De Peyster, attests his zealous discharge of his duties as a member of the corps ; and their attachment to him was on the increase to the last. He was their laureate, and in that capacity did more good service to the Government of the country, at a crisis of the darkest alarm and danger, than perhaps any one person of his rank and station, with the exception of Dibdin, had the power or the inclination to render. "Burns," says Allan Cunningham, " was a zealous lover of his country, and has stamped his patriotic feelings in many a lasting verse. His Poor and honest Sodger laid hold at once on the public feeling, and it was everywhere sung with an enthusiasm which only began to abate when Campbell's Exile of Erin and Wounded Hussar were published. Dumfries, which sent so many of her sons to the wars, rung with it from port to port ; and the poet, wherever he went, heard it echoing from house and hall. I wish this exquisite and useful song, with Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled, The Song of Death, and Does haughty Gaul Invasion threat ?—all lyrics which enforce a love of country, and a martial enthusiasm into men's breasts,—had obtained some reward for the poet. His perishable conversation was remembered by the rich to his prejudice—his imperishable lyrics were rewarded only by the admiration and tears of his fellow-peasants."

 (115) One of these objectors some time afterwards thought fit to affect particular civility to Burns, and inter alia seduced him one day into his house, where a bottle of champagne was produced and a small collection of arms submitted to the bard's inspection. Burns well knew the gentleman's recent hostility, and appreciated the motives of his courtesy. " Do tell me, Mr. Burns," said he, " what do you think of this pair of pistols ! "—" Why," said Burns, after considering them with all the gravity of a half-tipsy connoisseur, " I think I may safely say for your pistols what nobody would say for the great majority of mankind—they're a credit to their maker."

Lastly, whatever the rebuke of the Excise Board amounted to (Mr. James Gray, at that time schoolmaster in Dumfries, and seeing much of Burns both as the teacher of his children and as a personal friend and associate of literary taste and talent, is the only person who gives anything like an exact statement— and, according to him, Burns was admonished " that it was his business to act, not to think"), in whatever language the censure was clothed, the Excise Board did nothing from which Burns had any cause to suppose that his hope of ultimate promotion was extinguished. Nay, if he had taken up such a notion, rightly or erroneously, Mr. Findlater, who had him constantly under his eye, and who enjoyed all his confidence, and who enjoyed then, as he still enjoys, the utmost confidence of the Board, must have known the fact to be so. Such, I cannot help thinking, is the fair view of the case : at all events, we know that Burns, the year before he died, was permitted to act as a supervisor—a thing not likely to have occurred had there been any resolution against promoting him in his proper order to a permanent situation of that superior rank.

On the whole, then, I am of opinion that the Excise Board have been dealt with harshly, when men of eminence have talked of their conduct to Burns as affixing disgrace to them. It appears that Burns, being guilty unquestionably of great indiscretion and indecorum both of word and deed, was admonished in a private manner; that, at such a period of national distraction, it behoved a public officer, gifted with talents and necessarily with influence like his, very carefully to abstain from conduct which, now that passions have had time to cool, no sane man will say became his situation; that Burns's subsequent conduct effaced the unfavourable impression created in the minds of his superiors; and that he had begun to taste the fruits of their recovered approbation and confidence ere his career was closed by illness and death. These Commissioners of Excise were themselves subordinate officers of the Government, and strictly responsible for those under them. That they did try the experiment of lenity to a certain extent, appears to be made out; that they could have been justified in trying it to a farther extent is at the least doubtful. But with regard to the Government of the country itself, I must say I think it is much more difficult to defend them. Mr. Pitt's ministry gave Dibdin a pension of £200 a year for writing his Sea Songs ; (116) and one cannot help remembering that when Burns did begin to excite the ardour and patriotism of his countrymen by such songs as Mr. Cunningham has been alluding to, there were persons who had every opportunity of representing to the Premier the claims of a greater than Dibdin. Lenity, indulgence, to whatever length carried in such quarters as these, would have been at once safe and graceful. What the minor politicians of the day f thought of Burns's poetry, I know not; but Mr. Pitt himself appreciated it as highly as any man. It could not be said of him:

"Vaces oportet, Eutyche, à negotiis,

Ut liber animus sentiat vim carminis."

" I can think of no verse," said the great minister, when Burns was no more,—" I can think of no verse since Shakespeare's, that has so much the appearance of coming sweetly from Nature." (117)

(116) By the way, Mr. Fox's ministry gained no credit by diminishing Dibdin's pension during their brief sway by one-half. + Since the first edition of this Life was published, I have found that repeated applications in Burns's behalf were made by Mr. Addington, now Viscount Sidmouth. I hope this fact will not be omitted in any future narrative of Burns's history.

(117) I am assured that Mr. Pitt used these words at the table of the late Lord Liverpool soon after Burns's death. How that event might come to be a natural topic at that table will be seen in the sequel.

Had Burns put forth some newspaper squibs upon Lepaux or Carnot, or a smart pamphlet On the State of the Country, he might have been more attended to in his lifetime. It is common to say, " What is everybody's business is nobody's business," but one may be pardoned for thinking that in such cases as this, that which the general voice of the country does admit to be everybody's business comes, in fact, to be the business of those whom the nation entrusts with national concerns.

To return to Sir Walter Scott's revival, it seems that he has somewhat overstated the political indiscretions of which Burns was actually guilty. Let us hear the counter-statement of Mr. Gray, who, as has already been mentioned, enjoyed Burns's intimacy and confidence during his residence at Dumfries. No one , who knows anything of that excellent man, will for a moment suspect him of giving any other than what he believes to be true.

" Burns," says he, " was enthusiastically fond of liberty, and a lover of the popular part of our Constitution; but he saw and admired the just and delicate proportions of the political fabric, and nothing could be farther from his aim than to level with the dust the venerable pile reared by the labours and the wisdom of ages. That provision of the Constitution, however, by which it is made to contain a self-correcting principle, obtained no inconsiderable share of his admiration : he was, therefore, a zealous advocate of constitutional reform. The necessity of this he often supported in conversation with all the energy of an irresistible eloquence ; but there is no evidence that he ever went farther. He was a member of no political club. At the time when, in certain societies, the mad cry of revolution was raised from one end of the kingdom to the other, his voice was never heard in their debates, nor did he ever support their opinions in writing or correspond with them in any form whatever. Though limited to an income which any other man would have considered poverty, he refused fifty pounds a year offered to him for a weekly article by the proprietors of an Opposition paper; and two reasons, equally honourable to him, induced him to reject this proposal. His independent spirit spurned the idea of becoming the hireling of a party; and whatever may have been his opinion of the men and measures that then prevailed, he did not think it right to fetter the operations of that Government by which he was employed."

In strong confirmation of the first part of this statement by Mr. Gray,(118) we have the following extract from the poet's own private diary, never, in all human probability, designed to meet the public eye : " Whatever might be my sentiments of republics, ancient or modern, I ever abjured the idea of such changes here. A Constitution which, in its original principles, experience has proved to be every way fitted for our happiness, it would be insanity to abandon for an untried visionary theory." This surely is not the language of one of those who then said and sung broadly and boldly :

 

" Of old things all are over old;
Of good things none are good enough:

We'll show that we can help to frame

A world of other stuff."(119)

 

As to the delicate and intricate question of Parliamentary Reform, it is to be remembered that Mr. Pitt advocated that measure at the outset of his career, and never abandoned the principle, although the events of his time were too well fitted to convince him of the inexpediency of making any farther attempts at carrying it into practice ; and it is also to be considered that Burns, in his humble and remote situation, was much more likely to seize right principles than to judge of the safety or expediency of carrying them into effect.

(118) Mr. Gray removed from the school of Dumfries to the High School of Edinburgh, in which eminent seminary he for many years laboured with distinguished success. He then became Professor of Latin in the institution at Belfast, and is now in holy orders and a chaplain of the East India Company in the Presidency of Bombay, 1828.—This good man is now dead, 1837.

(119) Wordsworth's Rot Roy.

The statement about the newspaper refers to Mr. Perry, of The Morning Chronicle, who, at the suggestion of Mr. Miller, of Dalswinton, made the proposal referred to, and received for answer a letter which may be seen in The General Correspondence of our poet, and the tenor of which is in accordance with what Mr. Gray has said. Mr. Perry afterwards pressed Burns to settle in London as a regular writer for his paper ; and the poet declined to do so, alleging that, however small, his Excise appointment was a certainty, which, in justice to his family, he could not think of abandoning.(120)

 

(120) This is stated on the authority of Major Miller.

 

In conclusion, Burns's abstinence from the political clubs and affiliated societies of that disastrous period is a circumstance the importance of which will be appreciated by all who know anything of the machinery by which the real revolutionists of the era designed and endeavoured to carry their purposes into execution.

Burns, after the Excise inquiry, took care, no doubt, to avoid similar scrapes ; but he had no reluctance to meddle largely and zealously in the squabbles of county politics and contested elections ; and thus, by merely espousing, on all occasions, the cause of the Whig candidates, kept up very effectually the spleen which the Tories had originally conceived on tolerably legitimate grounds. Of his political verses, written at Dumfries, hardly any specimens have as yet appeared in print ; it would be easy to give many of them, but perhaps some of the persons lashed and ridiculed are still alive—their children certainly are so.

One of the most celebrated of these effusions, and one of the most quotable, was written on a desperately contested election for the Dumfries district of boroughs, between Sir James Johnstone, of Westerhall, and Mr. Miller, the younger, of Dalswinton ; Burns, of course, maintained the cause of his patron's family. There is much humour in—


"THE FIVE CARLINES.

' There were five Carlines in the south, they fell upon a scheme,

To send a lad to Lunnun town to bring them tidings hame;

Nor only bring them tidings hame, but do their errands there,

And aiblins gowd and honour baith might be that laddie's share.


There was Maggy by the banks o' Nith,(121) a dame wi' pride eneugh ;

And Marjory o' the Monylochs.(122) a carline auld and teugh ;

And blinkin' Bess o' Annandale.(123) that dwelt near Solway side ;

And whisky Jean that took her gill in Gallcway sae wide (124) ;

And black Joan frae Crichton Peel,(125) o' gipsy kith and kin.

Five wightier carlines war na foun' the south countrie within.


To send a lad to Lunnun town, they met upon a day,
And mony a knight and mony a laird their errand fain wad gae,
But nae ane could their fancy please ; O ne'er a ane but tway.


The first he was a belted knight,(126) bred o' a Border clan,

And he wad gae to Lunnun town, might nae man him withstan',

And he wad do their errands weel, and meikle he wad say,

And ilka ane at Lunnun court would bid to him gude day.


The next came in a sodger youth,(127) and spak wi' modest grace.

And he wad gae to Lunnun toun if sae their pleasure was ;

He wadna hecht them courtly gifts, nor meikle speech pretend,

But he wad hecht an honest heart, wad ne'er desert a friend.


Now, wham to choose and wham refuse, at strife thir carlines fell,

For some had gentle folks to please, and some wad please themsell.


Then out spak mim-mou'd Meg of Nith, and she spak up wi' pride,

And she wad send the sodger youth, whatever might betide ;

For the auld guidman o' Lunnun f f court she didna care a pin ;

But she would send the sodger youth to greet his eldest son.(128)


Then up sprang Bess of Annandale, and a deadly aith she's taen,

That she wad vote the Border knight, though she would vote her lane;
For far-aff fowls hae feathers fair, and fools o' change are fain ;

But I hae tried the Border knight, and I'll try him yet again.


Says black Joan frae Crichton Peel, a carline sour and grim,
The auld guidman, and the young guidman, for me may sink or swim :

For fools will freat o' right or wrang, while knaves laugh them to scorn ;

But the sodger's friends hae blawn the best, so he shall bear the horn.

 

Then whisky Jean spak ower her drink, Ye weel ken, kimmers a',

The auld guidman o' Lunnun court, his back's been at the wa';

And mony a friend that kiss'd his cup, is now a fremit wight,

But it's ne'er be said o' whisky Jean—I'll send the Border knight.

 

Then slow raise Marjory o' the Lochs, and wrinkled was her brow,

Her ancient weed was russet gray, her auld Scots bluid was true;

There's some great folks set light by me, I set as light by them ;

But I will sen' to Lunnun toun wham I like best at hame.


Sae how this weighty plea may end, nae mortal wight can tell,

God grant the King and ilka man may look weel to himsell!

 

 

(121) Dumfries. (122) Lochmaben.  (123) Annan.
(124) Kirkcudbright. (125) Sanquhar. (126) Sir J. Johnstone.
(127) Mr. Miller. (128) George III. (129) The Prince of Wales.

 

The above is far the best-humoured of these productions. The election to which it refers was carried in Mr. Miller's favour, but after a severe contest and at a very heavy expense.

These political conflicts were not to be mingled in with impunity by the chosen laureate, wit, and orator of the district. He himself, in an unpublished piece, speaks of the terror excited by

" Burns's venom, when
He dips in gall unmix'd his eager pen,
And pours his vengeance in the burning line;"

and represents his victims, on one of these electioneering occasions, as leading a choral shout that

" He for his heresies in Church and State,
Might richly merit Muir's and Palmer's fate."

But what rendered him more and more the object of aversion to one set of people was sure to connect him more and more strongly with the passions,(130) and, unfortunately for himself and for us, with the pleasures of the other ; and we have, among many confessions to the same purpose, the following, which I quote as the shortest, in one of the poet's letters from Dumfries to Mrs. Dunlop : " I am better, but not quite free of my complaint." [He refers to the palpitation of heart.] " You must not think, as you seem to insinuate, that in my way of life I want exercise. Of that I have enough ; but occasional hard drinking is the devil to me." He knew well what he was doing whenever he mingled in such debaucheries : he had, long ere this, described himself as parting "with a slice of his constitution " every time he was guilty of such excess.

(130) " Lord Frederick heard of all his youthful zeal,
And felt as lords upon a canvass feel;
He read the satire, and he saw the use,
That such cool insult and such keen abuse
Might on the wavering minds of voting men produce.
' I much rejoice,' he cried, ' such worth to find;
To this the world must be no longer blind.
His glory will descend from sire to son,
The Burns of English race, the happier Chatterton.' "
                                    CRABBE, in " The Patron."

This brings us back to a subject on which it can give no one pleasure to expatiate. As has been already sufficiently intimated, the statements of Heron and Currie on this head, still more those of Mr. Walker and Dr. Irving, are not to be received without considerable deduction. No one of these biographers appears to have had any considerable intercourse with Burns during the latter years of his life, which they have represented in such dark colours every way; and the two survivors of their number are, I doubt not, among those who must have heard, with the highest satisfaction, the counter-statements which their narratives were the means of calling forth from men as well qualified as themselves in point of character and attainment, and much more so in point of circumstances and opportunity, to ascertain and estimate the real facts of a case, which is, at the best, a sufficiently melancholy one.

" Dr. Currie," says Gilbert Burns,(131) " knowing the events of the latter years of my brother's life, only from the reports which had been propagated, and thinking it necessary, lest the candour of his work should be called in question, to state the substance of these reports, has given a very exaggerated view of the failings of my brother's life at that period, which is certainly to be regretted."

 

(131) Letter to Mr. Peterkin (Peterkin's preface, p. 82).

 

" I love Dr. Currie," says the Reverend James Gray, already more than once referred to, " but I love the memory of Bums more, and no consideration shall deter me from a bold declaration of the truth. The poet of The Cottar's Saturday Night, who felt all the charms of the humble piety and virtue which he sang, is charged (in Dr. Currie's narrative) with vices which would reduce him to a level with the most degraded of his species. As I knew him during that period of his life, emphatically called his evil days, I am enabled to speak from my own observation, It is not my intention to extenuate his errors because they were combined with genius ; on that account, they were only the more dangerous, because the more seductive, and deserve the more severe reprehension ; but I shall likewise claim that nothing may be said in malice even against him. ... It came under my own view professionally, that he superintended the education of his children with a degree of care that I have never seen surpassed by any parent in any rank of life whatever. In the bosom of his family, he spent many a delightful hour in directing the studies of his eldest son, a boy of uncommon talents. I have frequently found him explaining to this youth, then not more than nine years of age, the English poets, from Shakespeare to Gray, or storing his mind with examples of heroic virtue, as they live in the pages of our most celebrated English historians. I would ask any person of common candour, if employments like these are consistent with habitual drunkenness ? It is not denied that he sometimes mingled with society unworthy of him. He was of a social and convivial nature. He was courted by all classes of men for the fascinating powers of his conversation, but over his social scene uncontrolled passion never presided. Over the social bowl, his wit flashed for hours together, penetrating whatever it struck, like the fire from heaven ; but even in the hour of thoughtless gaiety and merriment I never knew it tainted by indecency. It was playful or caustic by turns, following an illusion through all its windings j astonishing by its rapidity, or amusing by its wild originality and grotesque yet natural combinations, but never, within my observation, disgusting by its grossness. In his morning hours, I never saw him like one suffering from the effects of last night's intemperance. He appeared then clear and unclouded. He was the eloquent advocate of humanity, justice, and political freedom. From his paintings, virtue appeared more lovely, and piety assumed a more celestial mien. While his keen eye was pregnant with fancy and feeling, and his voice attuned to the very passion which he wished to communicate, it would hardly have been possible to conceive any being more interesting and delightful. I may likewise add, that, to the very end of his life, reading was his favourite amusement. I have never known any man so intimately acquainted with the elegant English authors. He seemed to have the poets by heart. The prose authors he could quote either in their own words, or clothe their ideas in language more beautiful than their own. Nor was there ever any decay in any of the powers of his mind. To the last day of his life his judgment, his memory, his imagination, were fresh and vigorous, as when he composed The Cottar's Saturday Night. The truth is, that Burns was seldom intoxicated. The drunkard soon becomes besotted, and is shunned even by the convivial. Had he been so, he could not long have continued the idol of every party. It will be freely confessed, that the hour of enjoyment was often prolonged beyond the limit marked by prudence; but what man will venture to affirm, that in situations where he was conscious of giving so much pleasure, he could at all times have listened to her voice ?

" The men with whom he generally associated were not of the lowest order. He numbered among his intimate friends, many of the most respectable inhabitants of Dumfries and the vicinity. Several of those were attached to him by ties that the hand of calumny, busy as it was, could never snap asunder. They admired the poet for his genius, and loved the man for the candour, generosity, and kindness of his nature. His early friends clung to him through good and bad report, with a zeal and fidelity that prove their disbelief of the malicious stories circulated to his disadvantage. Among them were some of the most distinguished characters in this country, and not a few females, eminent for delicacy, taste, and genius. They were proud of his friendship, and cherished him to the last moment of his existence. He was endeared to them even by his misfortunes, and they still retain for his memory that affectionate veneration which virtue alone inspires." (132)

Part of Mr. Gray's letter is omitted, only because it touches on subjects, as to which Mr. Findlater's statement must be considered as of not merely sufficient, but the very highest authority. " My connexion with Robert Burns," says that most respectable man,(133) " commenced immediately after his admission into the Excise, and continued to the hour of his death.(134) In all that time, the superintendence of his behaviour, as an officer of the revenue, was a branch of my especial province, and it may be supposed I would not be an inattentive observer of the general conduct of a man and a poet, so celebrated by his countrymen. In the former capacity, he was exemplary in his attention, and was even jealous of the least imputation on his vigilance: as a proof of which, it may not be foreign to the subject to quote a part of a letter from him to myself, in a case of only seeming inattention.—'I know, sir, and regret deeply, that this business glances with a malign aspect on my character as an officer; but, as I am really innocent in the affair, and as the gentleman is known to be an illicit dealer, and particularly as this is the single instance of the least shadow of carelessness or impropriety in my conduct as an officer, I shall be peculiarly unfortunate if my character shall fall a sacrifice to the dark manoeuvres of a smuggler.'—This of itself affords more than a presumption of his attention to business, as it cannot be supposed he would have written in such a style to me, but from the impulse of a conscious rectitude in this department of his duty. Indeed, it was not till near the latter end of his days that there was any falling off in this respect; and this was amply accounted for in the pressure of disease and accumulating infirmities. I will further avow, that I never saw him, which was very frequently while he lived at Elliesland, and still more so, almost every day, after he removed to Dumfries, but in hours of business he was quite himself, and capable of discharging the duties of his office : nor was he ever known to drink by himself, or seen to indulge in the use of liquor in a forenoon. ... I have seen Burns in all his various phases, in his convivial moments, in his sober moods, and in the bosom of his family; indeed, I believe I saw more of him than any other individual had occasion to see, after he became an Excise officer, and I never beheld anything like the gross enormities with which he is now charged. That when set down in an evening with a few friends whom he liked, he was apt to prolong the social hour beyond the bounds which prudence would dictate, is unquestionable; but in his family, I will venture to say, he was never seen otherwise than as attentive and affectionate to a high degree."

 

(132) Letter, in Mr. Peterkin's preface, pp. 93-5.

(133) Ibid., pp. 93-6.

(134) Mr. Findlater watched by Burns the night before he died.

 

These statements are entitled to every consideration : they come from men altogether incapable, for any purpose, of wilfully stating that which they know to be untrue. Yet we are not, on the other hand, to throw out of view altogether the feelings of partial friendship, irritated by exaggerations such as called forth these testimonies. It is scarcely to be doubted that Dr. Currie and Professor Walker took care, ere they penned their painful pages, to converse and correspond with other persons than the enemies of the deceased poet. Here, then, as in most other cases of similar controversy, the fair and equitable conclusion would seem to be " truth lies between."

A statement of an isolated character, in The Quarterly Review (No. I.), has been noticed at much length, and in very intemperate language, by Mr. Peterkin, in the preface from which the preceding letters of Messrs. Gray and Findlater are extracted. I am sure that nothing could have been farther from the writer's wishes than to represent anything to Burns's disadvantage ; but the reader shall judge for himself. The passage in the critique alluded to is as follows : " Bred a peasant, and preferred to the degrading situation of a common exciseman, neither the influence of the low-minded crew around him, nor the gratification of selfish indulgence, nor that contempt of futurity which has characterised so many of his poetical brethren, ever led him to incur or endure the burden of pecuniary obligation. A very intimate friend of the poet, from whom he used occasionally to borrow a small sum for a week or two, once ventured to hint that the punctuality with which the loan was always replaced at the appointed time was unnecessary and unkind. The consequence of this hint was, the interruption of their friendship for some weeks, the bard disdaining the very thought of being indebted to a human being one farthing beyond what he could discharge with the most rigid punctuality. It was a less pleasing consequence of this high spirit, that Burns was inaccessible to all friendly advice. To lay before him his errors, or to point out their consequences, was to touch a string that jarred every feeling within him. On such occasions, his, like Churchill's, was

 

' The mind which starting heaves the heartfelt groan,

And hates the form she knows to be her own.'

 

" It is a dreadful truth, that when racked and tortured by the well-meant and warm expostulations of an intimate friend, he started up in a paroxysm of frenzy, and drawing a sword-cane which he usually wore, made an attempt to plunge it into the body of his adviser—the next instant he was with difficulty with held from suicide."—Quarterly Review, No. I., p. 28.

In reply to this paragraph, Mr. Peterkin says : " The friend here referred to, Mr. John Syme, in a written statement now before us, gives an account of this murderous-looking story, which we shall transcribe verbatim, that the nature of this attempt may be precisely known. ' In my parlour at Ryedale, one afternoon, Burns and I were very gracious and confidential. I did advise him to be temperate in all things. I might have spoken daggers, but I did not mean them. He shook to the inmost fibre of his frame, and drew the sword-cane, when I exclaimed, " What! wilt thou thus, and in my own house ?" The poor fellow was so stung with remorse, that he dashed himself down on the floor.' And this is gravely laid before the world at second-hand, as an attempt by Burns to murder a friend, and to commit suicide, from which he was with difficulty withheld ! So much for the manner of telling a story. The whole amount oi it, by Mr. Syme's account, and none else can be correct, seems to be, that being ' gracious' one afternoon (perhaps a little ' glorious' too, according to Tam 0' Shanter) he, in his own house, thought fit to give Burns a lecture on temperance in all things; in the course of which he acknowledges, that he 'might have spoken daggers'—and that Burns, in a moment of irritation, perhaps of justly offended pride, merely drew the sword (which, like every other Excise-officer, he wore at all times professionally in a staff), in order, as a soldier would touch his sword, to repel indignity. But by Mr. Syme's own testimony, Burns only drew the sword from the cane : nothing is said of an attempt to stab; but, on the contrary, Mr. Syme declares expressly that a mock-solemn exclamation, pretty characteristic, we suspect, of the whole affair, wound up the catastrophe of this tragical scene. Really it is a foolish piece of business to magnify such an incident into a ' dreadful truth,' illustrative of the ' untamed and plebeian' spirit of Burns. We cannot help regretting that Mr. Syme should unguardedly have communicated such an anecdote to any of his friends, considering that this ebullition of momentary irritation was followed, as he himself states, by a friendship more ardent than ever betwixt him and Burns. He skould have been aware, that the story, when told again and again by others, would be twisted and tortured into the scandalous form which it at last assumed in The Quarterly Review. The antics of a good man in the delirium of a fever, might with equal propriety be narrated in blank verse, as a proof that he was a bad man when in perfect health. A momentary gust of passion, excited by acknowledged provocation, and followed by nothing but drawing or brandishing a weapon accidentally in his hand, and an immediate and strong conviction that even this was a great error, cannot, without the most outrageous violence of construction, be tortured into an attempt to commit murder and suicide. All the artifice of language, too, is used to give a horrible impression of Burns. The sword-cane is spoken of without explanation, as a thing ' which he usually wore,'—as ii he had habitually carried the concealed stiletto of an assassin The reviewer should have been much more on his guard."— Peterkin's Preface, p. 65.

The reader may probably be of opinion, upon candidly con sidering and comparing the statements of the reviewer and the re-reviewer;—first, That the facts of the case are, in the two stories, substantially the same ; secondly, That when the reviewer spoke of Burns's sword-cane as a weapon which he usually wore, he did mean " which he wore in his capacity of Exciseman; " thirdly, That Mr. Syme ought never to have told the story, nor the reviewer to have published it, nor the re-reviewer to have given it additional importance by his attempt to explain into nothing what in reality amounted to little. Burns was, according to Mr. Peterkin's story, " glorious " at the time when the incident occurred ; and if there was no harm at all in what he did in that moment of unfortunate excitement and irritation, what means Mr. Syme's own language about " the poor fellow being stung with remorse " ?

To whatever Burns's excesses amounted, they were, it is obvious, and that frequently, the subject of rebuke and remonstrance even from his own dearest friends—even from men who had no sort of objection to potations deep enough in all conscience. That such reprimands, giving shape and form to the thoughts that tortured his own bosom, should have been received at times with a strange mixture of remorse and indignation, none that have considered the nervous susceptibility and haughtiness of Burns's character, can hear with surprise. But this was only when the good advice was oral. No one knew better than he how to answer the written homilies of such persons as were most likely to take the freedom of admonishing him on points of such delicacy ; nor is there anything in all his correspondence more amusing than his reply to a certain solemn lecture of William Nicoll, the same exemplary schoolmaster who " brewed the peck o' maut which

Rob and Allan came to pree."

". . . O thou wisest among the wise, meridian blaze of prudence; full moon of discretion, and chief of many counsellors ! how infinitely is thy puddle-headed, rattle-headed, wrong headed, round-headed, slave indebted to thy super-eminent good ness, that from the luminous path of thy own right-lined rectitude, thou lookest benignly down on an erring wretch, of whom the zig-zag wanderings defy all the powers of calculation, from the simple copulation of units, up to the hidden mysteries of fluxions ! May one feeble ray of that light of wisdom which darts from thy sensorium, straight as the arrow of heaven, and bright as the meteor of inspiration, may it be my portion, so that I may be less unworthy of the face and favour of that father of proverbs and master of maxims, that antipode of folly, and magnet among the sages, the wise and witty Willy Nicoll ! Amen ! amen ! Yea, so be it ! For me ! I am a beast, a reptile, and know nothing ! "

To how many that have moralised over the life and death of Burns, might not such a Tu quoque be addressed !

The strongest argument in favour of those who denounce the statements of Heron, Currie, and their fellow-biographers, concerning the habits of the poet, during the latter years of his career, as culpably and egregiously exaggerated, still remains to be considered. On the whole, Burns gave satisfaction by his manner of executing the duties of his station in the revenue service ; he, moreover, as Mr. Gray tells us (and upon this ground Mr. Gray could not possibly be mistaken), took a lively interest in the education of his children, and spent more hours in their private tuition than fathers who have more leisure than his excisemanship left him, are often in the custom of so bestowing ; (135) and, lastly, although he to all men's regret executed, after his removal to Dumfriesshire, no more than one poetical piece of considerable length (Tarn o' Shanter), his epistolary correspondence, and his songs contributed to Johnson's Museum, and to the great collection of Mr. George Thomson, furnish undeniable proof that, in whatever fits of dissipation he unhappily indulged, he never could possibly have sunk into anything like that habitual grossness of manners and sottish degradation of mind, which the writers in question have not hesitated to hold up to the deepest commiseration, if not more than this, of mankind.

(135) " He was a kind and attentive father, and took great delight in spending his evenings in the cultivation of the minds of his children. Their education was the grand object of his life, and he did not, like most parents, think it sufficient to send them to public schools ; he was their private instructor, and even at that early age, bestowed great pains in training their minds to habits of thought and reflection, and in keeping them pure from every form of vice. This he considered as a sacred duty, and never, to the period of his last illness, relaxed in his diligence. With his eldest son, a boy of not more than nine years of age, he had read many of the favourite poets, and some of the best historians in our language ; and, what is more remarkable, gave him considerable aid in the study of Latin. This boy attended the Grammar School of Dumfries, and soon attracted my notice by the strength of his talent and the ardour of his ambition. Before he had been a year at school, I thought it right to advance him a form, and he began to read Caesar, and gave me translations of that author of such beauty as I confess surprised me. On inquiry, I found that his father made him turn over his dictionary, till he was able to translate to him the passage in such a way that he could gather the author's meaning, and that it was to him he owed that polished and forcible English with which I was so greatly struck. I have mentioned this incident merely to show what minute attention he paid to this important branch of parental duty."— Letter from the Rev. James Gray to Mr. Gilbert Burns. See his edition, vol. i., Appendix, No. v.

Of his letters written at Elliesland and Dumfries, nearly three octavo volumes have been already printed by Currie and Cromek ; and it would be easy to swell the collection to double this extent. Enough, however, has been published to enable every reader to judge for himself of the character of Burns's style of epistolary composition. The severest criticism bestowed on it, has been that it is too elaborate—that, however natural the feelings, the expression is frequently more studied and artificial than belongs to that species of composition.(136) Be this remark altogether just in point of taste, or otherwise, the fact on which it is founded, furnishes strength to our present position. The poet produced in these years a great body of elaborate prose-writing.

(136) One of the reviewers of this memoir says, " Burns never con¬sidered letter-writing as a species of composition at all," and attributes the excellence of his epistolary style to its "utter carelessness and rapidity." I am reminded by this criticism of a fact, which I should have noticed before; namely, that Burns often gave the same paragraph in different letters addressed to different persons. I have seen some MS. letters of the poet to Lady Harriet Don, in which several of the finest and best-known passages of his printed letters to Mrs. Dunlop appear verbatim. Such was his "utter rapidity and carelessness."

We have already had occasion to notice some of his contributions to Johnson's Museum. He continued to the last month of his life to take a lively interest in that work ; and besides writing for it some dozens of excellent original songs, his diligence in collecting ancient pieces hitherto unpublished, and his taste and skill in eking out fragments, were largely and most happily exerted all along for its benefit. Mr. Cromek saw, among Johnson's papers, no fewer than one hundred and eighty-four of the pieces which enter into the collection, in Burns's handwriting.(137)

 

(137) Reliques, p. 185.

 

His connexion with the more important work of Mr. Thomson commenced in September, 1792 ; and Mr. Gray justly says, that whoever considers his correspondence with the editor, and the collection itself, must be satisfied, that from that time till the commencement of his last illness, not many days ever passed over his head without the production of some new stanzas for its pages. Besides old materials, for the most part embellished with lines, if not verses of his own, and a whole body of hints, suggestions, and criticisms, Burns gave Mr. Thomson about sixty original songs. It is, however, but justice to poor Heron to add, that comparatively few of this number had been made public at the time when he drew up that rash and sweeping statement, which Dr. Currie adhered to in some particulars without sufficient inquiry.

The songs in this collection are, by many eminent critics, placed decidedly at the head of all our poet's performances : it is by none disputed that very many of them are worthy of his most felicitous inspiration. He bestowed much more care on them than on his contributions to the Museum ; and the taste and feeling of the editor secured the work against any intrusions of that over-warm element which was too apt to mingle in his amatory effusions. Burns knew that he was now engaged on a book destined for the eye and ear of refinement; he laboured throughout, under the salutary feeling, " virginibus puerisque canto ;" and the consequences have been happy indeed for his own fame—for the literary taste, and the national music of Scotland; and, what is of far higher importance, the moral and national feelings of his countrymen.

In almost all these productions—certainly in all that deserve to be placed in the first rank of his compositions—Burns made use of his native dialect. He did so, too, in opposition to the advice of almost all the lettered correspondents he had—more especially of Dr. Moore, who, in his own novels, never ventured on more than a few casual specimens of Scottish colloquy following therein the example of his illustrious predecessor Smollett: and not foreseeing that a triumph over English prejudice which Smollett might have achieved, had he pleased to make the effort, was destined to be the prize of Burns's perseverance in obeying the dictates of native taste and judgment. Our poet received such suggestions for the most part in silence —not choosing to argue with others on a matter which concerned only his own feelings; but in writing to Mr Thomson, he had no occasion either to conceal or disguise his sentiments " These English songs," says he, " gravel me to death. I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue;"(138) and again, "so much for namby-pamby. I may, after all, try my hand at it in Scots verse: there I am always most at home."(139) He, besides, would have considered it as a sort of national crime to do anything that might tend to divorce the music of his native land from her peculiar idiom. The " genius loci" was never worshipped more fervently than by Burns. " I am such an enthusiast," says he, " that in the course of my several peregrinations through Scotland, I made a pilgrimage to the individual spot from which every song took its rise, Lochaber and the Braes of Ballenden excepted. So far as the locality, either from the title of the air or the tenor of the song, could be ascertained, I have paid my devotions at the particular shrine of every Scottish muse." With such feelings he was not likely to touch with an irreverent hand the old fabric of our national song, or to meditate a lyrical revolution for the pleasure of strangers. " There is," says he, (140) " a naïveté, a pastoral simplicity in a slight intermixture of Scots words and phraseology which is more in unison (at least to my taste, and I will add to every genuine Caledonian taste), with the simple pathos or rustic sprightliness of our native music than any English verses whatever. One hint more let me give you.—Whatever Mr. Pleyel does, let him not alter one iota of the original airs; I mean in the song department, but let our Scottish national music preserve its native features. They are, I own, frequently wild and irreducible to the more modern rules; but on that very eccentricity, perhaps, depends a great part of their effect."

 

(138) Correspondence with. Mr. Thomson, p. 111.

(139) Ibid., p. 80.

(140) Ibid., p. 38.

 

Of the delight with which Burns laboured for Mr. Thomson's collection, his letters contain some lively descriptions. " You cannot imagine," says he, April 7th, 1793, "how much this business has added to my enjoyments. What with my early attachment to ballads, your book and ballad-making are now as completely my hobbyhorse as ever fortification was Uncle Toby's ; so I'll e'en canter it away till I come to the limit of my race (God grant I may take the right side of the winning-post), and then cheerfully looking back on the honest folks with whom I have been happy, I shall say or sing, ' Sae merry as we a' hae been,' and raising my last looks to the whole human race, the last words of the voice of Coila shall be, ' Good night, and joy be wi' you a' !'" (141)

" Until I am complete master of a tune in my own singing, such as it is, I can never," says Burns, " compose for it. My way is this. I consider the poetic sentiment correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then choose my theme-compose one stanza. When that is composed, which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out—sit down now and then—look out for objects in Nature round me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy, and workings of my bosom—humming every now and then the air, with the verses I have framed. When I feel my muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper; swinging at intervals on the hind legs of my elbow-chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes. Seriously, this at home is almost invariably my way. What cursed egotism !" (142)

(141) Correspondence with Mr. Thomson, p. 57.
(142) Ibid., p. 119.

In this correspondence with Mr. Thomson, and in Cromek's later publication, the reader will find a world of interesting details about the particular circumstances under which these immortal songs were severally written. They are all, or almost all, in fact, part and parcel of the poet's personal history. No man ever made his muse more completely the companion of his own individual life. A new flood of light has just been poured on the same subject, in Mr. Allan Cunningham's Collection of Scottish Songs; unless, therefore, I were to transcribe volumes, and all popular volumes too, it is impossible to go into the details of this part of the poet's history. The reader must be contented with a few general memoranda; e.g.

" Do you think that the sober gin-horse routine of existence could inspire a man with life, and love, and joy—could fire him with enthusiasm, or melt him with pathos, equal to the genius of your book ? No, no. Whenever I want to be more than ordinary in song—to be in some degree equal to your divine airs —do you imagine I fast and pray for the celestial emanation ? Tout au contraire. I have a glorious recipe, the very one that for his own use was invented by the divinity of healing and poetry, when erst he piped to the flocks of Admetus—I put myself on a regimen of admiring a fine woman."(143)

 

(143) Correspondence with Mr. Thomson, p. 174.

 

" I can assure you I was never more in earnest. Conjugal love is a passion which I deeply feel, and highly venerate ; but, somehow, it does not make such a figure in poesy as that other species of the passion,

'Where love is liberty, and nature law."

Musically speaking, the first is an instrument, of which the gamut is scanty and confined, but the tones inexpressibly sweet; while the last has powers equal to all the intellectual modulations of the human soul. Still I am a very poet in my enthusiasm of the passion. The welfare and happiness of the beloved object is the first and inviolate sentiment that pervades my soul ; and— whatever pleasures I might wish for, or whatever raptures they might give me—yet, if they interfere with that first principle, it is having these pleasures at a dishonest price; and justice forbids, and generosity disdains the purchase." (144)—So says Burns in introducing to Mr. Thomson's notice one of his many songs in celebration of the Lassie wi' the lint-white locks. " The beauty of Chloris," says, nevertheless, Allan Cunningham, " has added many charms to Scottish song ; but that which has increased the reputation of the poet, has lessened that of the man. Chloris was one of those who believe in the dispensing power of beauty, and thought that love should be under no demure restraint. Burns sometimes thought in the same way himself; and it is not wonderful, therefore, that the poet should celebrate the charms of a liberal beauty, who was willing to reward his strains, and who gave him many opportunities of catching inspiration from her presence." And in a note on the ballad which terminates with the delicious stanza—

" Let others love the city, and gaudy show at summer noon,

Give me the lonely valley, the dewy eve, and rising moon,

Fair beaming and streaming her silver light the boughs amang;

While falling, recalling, the amorous thrush concludes her sang ;

There, dearest Chloris, wilt thou rove, by wimpling burn and leafy shaw,
And hear my vows o" truth and love, and say thou lo'es me best of a',"—

the same commentator adds—"such is the glowing picture which the poet gives of youth, and health, and voluptuous beauty. But let no lady envy the poetic elevation of poor Chloris; her situation in poetry is splendid—her situation in life merits our pity—perhaps our charity."

 

(144) Ibid,, p. 191.

Of all Burns's love songs, the best, in his own opinion, was that which begins—

" Yestreen I had a pint o' wine, A place where body saw na'."

Allan Cunningham says, " if the poet thought so, I am sorry for it ;" while Mr. Hamilton Paul fully concurs in the author's own estimate of the performance. "I believe, however," says Cunningham, " Anna wi' the golden locks was no imaginary person. Like the dame in the old song, She brew'd gude ale for gentlemen; and while she served the bard with a pint of wine, allowed her customer leisure to admire her, ' as hostler wives should do.'"

There is in the same collection a love-song, which unites the suffrages, and ever will do so, of all men. It has furnished Byron with a motto, and Scott has said that that motto is "worth a thousand romances."

" Had we never loved sae kindly,

Had we never loved sae blindly,

Never met,—or never parted,

We had ne'er been broken-hearted."

The "Nancy" of this moving strain was, according to Cunningham, another fair and somewhat frail dame of Dumfriesshire.(145)

 

(145) Cunningham's Scottish Songs, vol. iv., p. 178.

 

I envy no one the task of inquiring minutely in how far these traditions, for such unquestionably they are, and faithfully conveyed by Allan Cunningham, rest on the foundation of truth. They refer at worst to occasional errors. " Many insinuations," says Mr. Gray, "have been made against the poet's character as a husband, but without the slightest proof; and I might pass from the charge with that neglect which it merits ; but I am happy to say that I have in exculpation the direct evidence of Mrs. Burns herself, who, among many amiable and respectable qualities, ranks a veneration for the memory of her departed husband, whom she never names but in terms of the profoundest respect and the deepest regret, to lament his misfortunes, or to extol his kindness to herself, not as the momentary overflowings of the heart in a season of penitence for offences generously forgiven, but an habitual tenderness, which ended only with his life. I place this evidence, which I am proud to bring forward on her own authority, against a thousand anonymous calumnies."(146)

 

(146) Letter in Gilbert Burns's edition, vol. i., App. v., p. 437.

 

Among the effusions, not amatory, which Burns contributed to Mr. Thomson's collection, the famous song of Bannockburn holds the first place. We have already seen in how lively a manner Burns's feelings were kindled when he visited that glorious field. According to tradition, the tune played when Bruce led his troops to the charge, was Hey tuttie tattie; and it was humming this old air as he rode by himself through Glenkens in Galloway, during a terrific storm of wind and rain, that the poet composed his immortal lyric in its first and noblest form.(147) This is one more instance of his delight in the sterner aspects of nature :

"Come, winter, with thine angry howl,

And raging bend the naked tree "

" There is hardly," says he in one of his letters, " any earthly object gives me more—I do not know if I should call it pleasure—but something which exalts me, something which enraptures me—than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood in a cloudy winter day, and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees, and raving over the plain. It is my best season for devotion : my mind is wrapt up in a kind of enthusiasm to Him, who, in the pompous language of the Hebrew Bard, ' walks on the wings of the wind.' " When Burns entered a Druidical circle of stones on a dreary moor, he has already told us that his first movement was " to say his prayers." His best poetry was to the last produced amidst scenes of solemn desolation.

(147) The last line of each stanza was subsequently lengthened and weakened, in order to suit the tune of Lewie Gordon, which Mr. Thomson preferred to Hey tuttie tattie. However, almost immediately after having prevailed on the poet to make this alteration, Mr. Thomson saw his error, and discarded both the change, and the air which it was made to suit.

I may mention here, that during the later years of his life, his favourite book, the usual companion of his solitary rambles, was Cowper's Task. It is pleasing to know that these illustrious contemporaries, in spite of the widely different circumstances under which their talents were developed, and the at first sight opposite sets of opinions which their works express, did justice to each other. No English writer of the time eulogised Burns more generously than Cowper. And in truth they had much in common :

" The stamp and clear impression of good sense; "

the love of simplicity ; the love of nature ; sympathy with the poor ; humour ; pathos ; satire ; warm and manly hearts ; the pride, the independence, and the melancholy of genius.

Some readers may be surprised to find two such names placed together otherwise than by way of contrast. Let it not be forgotten, that Cowper had done little more than building bird-cages and rabbit hutches, at the age when the grave closed on Burns.

 

  


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