The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart

 

CHAPTER IX

" I dread thee, Fate, relentless and severe, With all a poet's, husband's, father's fear."

WE are drawing near the close of this great poet's mortal career; and I would fain hope the details of the last chapter may have prepared the humane reader to contemplate it with sentiments of sorrow, pure comparatively, and undebased with any considerable intetmixture of less genial feelings.

For some years before Burns was lost to his country, it is sufficiently plain that he had been, on political grounds, an object of suspicion and distrust to a large portion of the population that had most opportunity of observing him. The mean subalterns of party had, it is very easy to suppose, delighted in decrying him—on pretexts, good, bad, and indifferent, equally—to their superiors ; and hence,—who will not willingly believe it ? —the temporary and local prevalence of those extravagantly injurious reports, the essence of which Dr. Currie, no doubt, thought it his duty, as a biographer, to extract and circulate.

The untimely death of one who, had he lived to anything like the usual term of human existence, might have done so much to increase his fame as a poet, and to purify and dignify his character as a man, was, it is too probable, hastened by his own intemperances and imprudences ; but it seems to be extremely improbable, that even if his manhood had been a course of saint-like virtue in all respects, the irritable and nervous bodily constitution which he inherited from his father, shaken as it was by the toils and miseries of his ill-starred youth, could have sustained to anything like the Psalmist's " allotted span," the exhausting excitements of an intensely poetical temperament. Since the first pages of this narrative were sent to the press, I have heard from an old acquaintance of the bard, who often shared his bed with him at Mossgiel, that even at that early period, when intemperance assuredly had had nothing to do with the matter, those ominous symptoms of radical disorder in the digestive system, the " palpitation and suffocation " of which Gilbert speaks, were so regularly his nocturnal visitants, that it was his custom to have a great tub of cold water by his bedside, into which he usually plunged more than once in the course of the night, thereby procuring instant, though but short-lived relief. On a frame thus originally constructed, and thus early tried with most severe afflictions, external and internal, what must not have been, under any subsequent course of circumstances, the effect of that exquisite sensibility of mind, but for which the world would never have heard anything either of the sins, or the sorrows, or the poetry of Burns !

" The fates and characters of the rhyming tribe," thus writes the poet himself to Miss Chalmers in 1793, "often employ my thoughts when I am disposed to be melancholy. There is not, among all the martyrologies that ever were penned, so rueful a narrative as the lives of the poets. In the comparative view of wretches, the criterion is not what they are doomed to suffer, but how they are formed to bear. Take a being of our kind, give him a stronger imagination and a more delicate sensibility, which between them will ever engender a more ungovernable set of passions, than are the usual lot of man ; implant in him an irresistible impulse to some idle vagary—such as arranging wild flowers in fantastic nosegays, tracing the grasshopper to his haunt by his chirping song, watching the frisks of the little minnows in the sunny pool, or hunting after the intrigues of butterflies—in short, send him adrift after some pursuit which shall eternally mislead him from the paths of lucre, and yet curse him with a keener relish than any man living for the pleasures that lucre can purchase ; lastly, fill up the measure of his woes by bestowing on him a spurning sense of his own dignity, and you have created a wight nearly as miserable as a poet." In these few short sentences, as it appears to me, Burns has traced his own character far better than any one else has done it since. But with this lot what pleasures were not mingled ? " To you, Madam," he proceeds, " I need not recount the fairy pleasures the muse bestows to counterbalance this catalogue of evils. Bewitching poetry is like bewitching woman ; she has in all ages been accused of misleading mankind from the counsels of wisdom and the paths of prudence, involving them in difficulties, baiting them with poverty, branding them with infamy, and plunging them in the whirling vortex of ruin; yet, where is the man but must own that all our happiness on earth is not worthy the name—that even the holy hermit's solitary prospect of paradisiacal bliss is but the glitter of a northern sun rising over a frozen region, compared with the many pleasures, the nameless raptures, that we owe to the lovely Queen of the heart of man! "

" What is a poet ?" asks one well qualified to answer his own question:—" He is a man endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater
knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. To these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected, more than other men, by absent things, as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions which are far indeed from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events than anything which from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves."(148) So says one of the rare beings who have been able to sustain and enjoy, through a long term of human years, the tear and wear of sensibilities, thus quickened and refined beyond what falls to the lot of the ordinary brothers of their race; feeling more than others can dream of feeling, the joys and the sorrows that come to them as individuals; and filling up all those blanks which so largely interrupt the agitations of common bosoms, with the almost equally agitating sympathies of an imagination to which repose would be death. It is common to say of those who overindulge themselves in material stimulants that they live fast; what wonder that the career of the poet's thick-coming fancies should, in the immense majority of cases, be rapid too?

 

(148) Preface to the second edition of Wordsworth's Poems.

 

That Burns lived fast, in both senses of the phrase, we have abundant evidence from himself; and that the more earthly motion was somewhat accelerated as it approached the close we may believe without finding it at all necessary to mingle anger with our sorrow. '"Even in his earliest poems," as Mr. Wordsworth says in a beautiful passage of his letter to Mr. Gray, " through the veil of assumed habits and pretended -qualities, enough of the real man appears to show that he was conscious of sufficient cause to dread his own passions, and to bewail his errors! We have rejected as false sometimes in the letter, and of necessity as false in the spirit, many of the testimonies that others have borne against him;—but by his own hand—in words the import of which cannot be mistaken—it has been recorded that the order of his life but faintly corresponded with the clearness of his views. It is probable that he would have proved a still greater poet, if, by strength of reason, he could have controlled the propensities which his sensibility engendered ; but he would have been a poet of a different class : and certain it is, had that desirable restraint been early established, many peculiar beauties which enrich his verses could never have existed, and many accessory influences, which contribute greatly to their effect, would have been wanting. For instance, the momentous truth of the passage—

'One point must still be greatly dark, etc.,—(149)

Could not possibly have been conveyed with such pathetic force by any poet that ever lived, speaking in his own voice, unless it were felt that, like Burns, he was a man who preached from the text of his own errors ; and whose wisdom, beautiful as a flower, that might have risen from seed sown from above, was, in fact, a scion from the root of personal suffering. Whom did the poet intend should be thought of as occupying that grave over which, after modestly setting forth the moral discernment and warm affections of its ' poor inhabitant,' it is supposed to be inscribed, that—

 

'. . . Thoughtless follies laid him low,

       And stain'd his name'?

 

who but himself—himself anticipating the too probable termination of his own course ? Here is a sincere and solemn avowal— a public declaration from his own will—a confession at once evout, poetical, and human—a history in the shape of a prophecy ! What more was required of the biographer than to put his seal to the writing, testifying that the foreboding had been realised, and that the record was authentic ? "

(149) "Then gently scan your brother man,

Still gentlier sister woman—

Tho' they may gang a kennin' wrang;
To step aside is human.

One point must still be greatly dark.
The moving why they do it;

And just as lamely can ye mark
How far perhaps they rue it."

In how far the " thoughtless follies " of the poet did actually hasten his end, it is needless to conjecture. They had their share, unquestionably, along with other influences which it would be inhuman to characterise as mere follies ;—such, for example, as that general depression of spirits, which haunted him from his youth ;—or even a casual expression of discouraging tendency from the persons on whose good-will all hopes of substantial advancement in the scale of worldly promotion depended—which, in all likelihood, sat more heavily on such a being as Burns, than a man of plain common sense might guess ;—or that partial exclusion from the species of society our poet had been accustomed to adorn and delight, which, from however inadequate causes, certainly did occur during some of the latter years of his life. All such sorrows as these must have acted with two-fold harmfulness upon Burns ; harassing, in the first place, one of the most sensitive minds that ever filled a human bosom, and, alas ! by consequence, tempting to additional excesses ;—impelling one who, under other circumstances, might have sought and found far other consolation, to seek too often for it in what Crabbe so sagaciously and sadly sums up :

"In fleeting mirth, that o'er the bottle lives;

In the false joy its inspiration gives;.

And in associates pleased to find a friend

With powers to lead them, gladden, and defend;

In all those scenes where transient ease is found
For minds whom sins oppress, and sorrows wound." (150)

The same philosophical poet tells us that

"... Wine is like anger, for it makes us strong.

Blind, and impatient,—and it leads us wrong;

The strength is quickly lost; we feel the error long:"

but a short period was destined for the sorrows and the errors equally of Burns.

 

(150) See Edward Shore, a tale in which Crabbe has obviously had Burns in his view.

 

How he struggled against the tide of his misery, let the following letter speak.—It was written February 25th, 1794, and addressed to Mr. Alexander Cunningham, an eccentric being, but generous and faithful in his friendship to Burns, and, when Burns was no more, to his family.

" Canst thou minister," says the poet, " to a mind diseased ? Canst thou speak peace and rest to a soul tost on a sea of troubles, without one friendly star to guide her course, and dreading that the next surge may overwhelm her ? Canst thou give to a frame, tremblingly alive to the tortures of suspense, the stability and hardihood of the rock that braves the blast ? If thou canst not do the least of these, why wouldst thou disturb me in my miseries, with thy inquiries after me ?

"For these two months I have not been able to lift a pen. My constitution and frame were, aborigine, blasted with a deep incurable taint of hypochondria, which poisons my existence. Of late, a number of domestic vexations, and some pecuniary share in the ruin of these ***** times—losses, which, though trifling, were yet what I could ill bear, have so irritated me, that my feelings at times could only be envied by a reprobate spirit listening to the sentence that dooms it to perdition.

"Are you deep in the language of consolation ? I have exhausted in reflection every topic of comfort. A heart at ease would have been charmed with my sentiments and reasonings 5 but as to myself, I was like Judas Iscariot preaching the gospel ; he might melt and mould the hearts of those around him, but his own kept its native incorrigibility.—Still, there are two great pillars that bear us up amid the wreck of misfortune and misery. The ONE is composed of the different modifications of a certain noble, stubborn something in man, known by the names of courage, fortitude, magnanimity. The OTHER is made up of those feelings and sentiments, which, however the sceptic may deny, or the enthusiast disfigure them, are yet, I am convinced, original and component parts of the human soul ; those senses of the mind, if I may be allowed the expression, which connect us with, and link us to, those awful obscure realities—an all-powerful and equally beneficent God— and a world to come, beyond death and the grave. The first gives the nerve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on the field ; the last pours the balm of comfort into the wounds which time can never cure.

" I do not remember, my dear Cunningham, that you and I ever talked on the subject of religion at all. I know some who laugh at it, as the trick of the crafty FEW, to lead the undiscerning MANY; or at most as an uncertain obscurity, which mankind can never know anything of, and with which they are fools if they give themselves much to do. Nor would I quarrel with a man for his irreligion, any more than I would for his want of a musical ear. I would regret that he was shut out from what, to me and to others, were such superlative sources of enjoyment. It is in this point of view, and for this reason, that I will deeply imbue the mind of every child of mine with religion. If my son should happen to be a man of feeling, sentiment, and taste, I shall thus add largely to his enjoyments. Let me flatter myself that this sweet little fellow, who is just now running about my desk, will be a man of a melting, ardent, glowing heart; and an imagination, delighted with the painter, and rapt with the poet. Let me figure him wandering out in a sweet evening, to inhale the balmy gales, and enjoy the growing luxuriance of the spring; himself, the while, in the blooming youth of life. He looks abroad on all Nature, and, through Nature, up to Nature's God. His soul, by swift delighted degrees, is rapt above this sublunary sphere, until he can be silent no longer, and bursts out into the glorious enthusiasm of Thomson :

'These, as they change, Almighty Father, these

Are but the varied God,—The rolling year

Is full of Thee;'

and so on, in all the spirit and ardour of that charming hymn. —These are no ideal pleasures ; they are real delights; and I ask what of the delights among the sons of men are superior, not to say, equal to them f And they have this precious, vast addition, that conscious Virtue stamps them for her own; and lays hold on them to bring herself into the presence of a witnessing, judging, and approving God."

They who have been told that Burns was ever a degraded being—who have permitted themselves to believe that his only consolations were those of " the opiate guilt applies to grief," will do well to pause over this noble letter, and judge for themselves. The enemy under which he was destined to sink, had already beaten in the outworks of his constitution, when these lines were penned.

The reader has already had occasion to observe, that Burns had in these closing years of his life to struggle almost continually with pecuniary difficulties,—than which nothing could have been more likely to pour bitterness intolerable into the cup of his existence. His lively imagination exaggerated to itself every real evil; and this among, and perhaps above, all the rest. At least, in many of his letters we find him alluding to the probability of his being arrested for debts, which we now know to have been of very trivial amount at the worst; which we also know he himself lived to discharge to the utmost farthing; and in regard to which it is impossible to doubt that his personal friends in Dumfries would have at all times been ready to prevent the law taking its ultimate course. This last consideration, however, was one which would have given slender relief to Burns. How he shrank with horror and loathing from the sense of pecuniary obligation, no matter to whom, we have perhaps had abundant indications already. If not, the following extract from one of his letters to Mr. Macmurdo, dated December, 1793, will speak for itself :

"SIR, it is said that we take the greatest liberties with our greatest friends, and I pay myself a very high compliment in the manner in which I am going to apply the remark. I have owed you money longer than ever I owed it to any man. Here is Ker's account, and here are six guineas ; and now, I don't owe a shilling to man, or woman either. But for these damned dirty, dog's-eared little pages [Scotch bank-notes], I had done myself the honour to have waited on you long ago. Independent of the obligations your hospitality has laid me under, the consciousness of your superiority in the rank of man and gentleman, of itself was fully as much as I could ever make head against ; but to owe you money too was more than I could face."

The question naturally arises : Burns was all this while pouring out his beautiful songs for the Museum of Johnson and the greater work of Thomson ; how did he happen to derive no pecuniary advantages from this continual exertion of his genius in a form of composition so eminently calculated for popularity ? Nor, indeed, is it an easy matter to answer this very obvious question. The poet himself, in a letter to Mr. Carfrae, dated 1789, speaks thus: "The profits of the labours of a man of genius are, I hope, as honourable as any profits whatever ; and Mr. Mylne's relations are most justly entitled to that honest harvest which fate has denied himself to reap." And yet, so far from looking to Mr. Johnson for any pecuniary remuneration for the very laborious part he took in his work, it appears from a passage in Cromek's Reliques, that the poet asked a single copy of the Museum to give to a fair friend, by way of a great favour to himself—and that this copy and his own were really all he ever received at the hands of the publisher.

Of the secret history of Johnson and his book I know nothing -, but the correspondence of Burns with Mr. George Thomson contains curious enough details concerning his connexion with that gentleman's more important undertaking. At the outset, September, 1792, we find Thomson saying, " We will esteem your poetical assistance a particular favour, besides paying any reasonable price you shall please to demand for it. Profit is quite a secondary consideration with us, and we are resolved to save neither pains nor expense on the publication." To which Burns replies immediately, " As to any remuneration —you may think my songs either above or below price ; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other. In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, etc., would be downright prostitution of soul. A proof of each of the songs that I compose or amend I shall receive as a favour. In the rustic phrase of the season, Gude speed the wark." The next time we meet with any hint as to money matters in the correspondence is in a letter of Mr. Thomson, July 1st, 1793, where he says, "I cannot express how much I am obliged to you for the exquisite new songs you are sending me ; but thanks, my friend, are a poor return for what you have done: as I shall be benefited by the publication, you must suffer me to enclose a small mark of my gratitude, and to repeat it afterwards when I find it convenient. Do not return it, for, by Heaven, if you do, our correspondence is at an end." To which letter (it enclosed a note for £5) Burns thus replies: "I assure you, my dear sir, that you truly hurt me with your pecuniary parcel. It degrades me in my own eyes. However, to return it would savour of affectation ; but as to any more traffic of that debtor and creditor kind, I swear by that honour which crowns the upright statue of Robert Burns's integrity—on the least motion of it, I will indignantly spurn the by-past transaction, and from that moment commence entire stranger to you. Burns's character for generosity of sentiment and independence of mind will, I trust, long outlive any of his wants which the cold unfeeling ore can supply : at least, I will take care that such a character he shall deserve."—In November, 1794, we find Mr. Thomson writing to Burns, " Do not, I beseech you, return any books."—In May, 1795, " You really make me blush when you tell me you have not merited the drawing from me " (this was a drawing of The Cottar s Saturday Night, by Allan) ;—" I do not think I can ever repay you, or sufficiently esteem and respect you for the liberal and kind manner in which you have entered into the spirit of my undertaking, which could not have been perfected without you. So I beg you would not make a fool of me again by speaking of obligation." In February, 1796, we have Burns acknowledging a " handsome elegant present to Mrs. Burns :"—which was a worsted shawl. Lastly, on July 12th of the same year (that is little more than a week before Burns died), he writes to Mr. Thomson in these terms: " After all my boasted independence, cursed necessity compels me to implore you for five pounds. A cruel * * * of a haberdasher, to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process, and will infallibly put me into jail. Do, for God's sake, send me that sum, and that by return of post. Forgive me this earnestness ; but the horrors of a jail have put me half distracted. I do not ask this gratuitously for, upon returning health, I hereby promise and engage to furnish you with five pounds' worth of the neatest song genius you have seen." To which Mr. Thomson replies : "Ever since I received your melancholy letter by Mrs. Hyslop, I have been ruminating in what manner I could endeavour to alleviate your sufferings. Again and again I thought of a pecuniary offer ; but the recollection of one of your letters on this subject, and the fear of offending your independent spirit, checked my resolution. I thank you heartily, therefore, for the frankness of your letter of the 12th, and with great pleasure inclose a draft for the very sum I proposed sending. Would I were Chancellor of the Exchequer but one day for your sake !—Pray, my good sir, is it not possible for you to muster a volume of poetry ? Do not shun this method of obtaining the value of your labour ; remember, Pope published The Iliad by subscription. Think of this, my dear Burns, and do not think me intrusive with my advice."

Such are the details of this matter, as recorded in the correspondence of the two individuals concerned. Some time after Burns's death, Mr. Thomson was attacked on account of his behaviour to the poet, in an anonymous novel, which I have never seen, called Nubilia. In Professor Walker's Memoirs, which appeared in 1816, Mr. Thomson took the opportunity of defending himself; (151) and the professor, who enjoyed the personal friendship of Burns, and 'who also appears to have had the honour of Mr. Thomson's intimate acquaintance, has delivered an opinion on the whole merits of the case, which must necessarily be far more satisfactory to the reader than anything which I could presume to offer in its room. " Burns," says this writer, " had all the unmanageable pride of Samuel Johnson ; and if the latter threw away with indignation the new shoes which had been placed at his chamber door, secretly and collectively by his companions—the former would have been still more ready to resent any pecuniary donation with which a single individual, after his peremptory prohibition, should avowedly have dared to insult him. He would instantly have construed such conduct into a virtual assertion that his prohibition was insincere, and his independence affected ; and the more artfully the transaction had been disguised, the more rage it would have excited, as implying the same assertion, with the additional charge, that if secretly made it would not be denied. . . . The statement of Mr. Thomson supersedes the necessity of any additional remarks. When the public is satisfied ; when the relations of Burns are grateful; and, above all, when the delicate mind of Mr. Thomson is at peace with itself in contemplating his conduct, there can be no necessity for a nameless novelist to contradict them."(151)

(150) " Were I the sordid man that the anonymous author calls me, I had a most inviting opportunity to profit much more than I did by the lyrics of our great bard. He had written above fifty songs expressly for my work; they were in my possession unpublished at his death; I had the right and power of retaining them till I should be ready to publish them; but when I was informed that an edition of the poet's works was projected for the benefit of his family, I put them in immediate possession of the whole of his songs, as well as letters, and thus enabled Dr. Currie to complete the four volumes which were sold for the family's behoof to Messrs. Cadell and Davies. And I have the satisfaction of knowing, that the most zealous friends of the family, Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Syme, and Dr. Currie, and the poet's own brother, considered my sacrifice of the prior right of publishing the songs as no ungrateful return for the disinterested and liberal conduct of the poet. Accordingly, Mr. Gilbert Burns, in a letter to me, which alone might suffice for an answer to all the novelist's abuse, thus expresses himself: ' If ever I come to Edinburgh, I will certainly call on a person whose handsome conduct to my brother's family has secured my esteem, and confirmed me in the opinion, that musical taste and talents have a close connexion with the harmony of the moral feelings.' Nothing is farther from my thoughts than to claim any merit for what I did. I never would have said a word on the subject, but for the harsh and groundless accusation which has been brought forward, either by ignorance or animosity, and which I have long suffered to remain unnoticed, from my great dislike to any public appearance" (1828).To these passages I now add part of a letter addressed to myself by Mr. Thomson, since this Memoir was first published. "After the manner in which Burns received my first remittance, I dared not, in defiance of his interdict, repeat the experiment upon a man so peculiarly sensitive and sturdily independent. It would have been presumption, I thought, to make him a second pecuniary offer in the face of his declaration, that if I did, ' he would spurn the past transaction, and commence an entire stranger to me.' But, independently of those circumstances, there is an important fact of which you are probably ignorant, that I did not publish above a tenth part of my collection till after the lamented death of our bard; and that while he was alive, I had not derived any benefit worth mentioning from his liberal supply of admirable songs, having only brought out half a volume of my work. It was not ti'l some years posterior to his death, and till after Dr. Currie had published all the manuscript songs which I put into his hands for the benefit of the widow and family, that I brought out the songs along with the music, harmonised by the greatest composers in Europe " (1829).

(151) Life prefixed to Morrison's Burns, pp. cviii., cxii.

So far Mr. Walker.—Why Burns, who was of opinion, when he wrote his letter to Mr. Carfrae, that " no profits are more honourable than those of the labours of a man of genius," and whose own notions of independence had sustained no shock in the receipt of hundreds of pounds from Creech, should have spurned the suggestion of pecuniary recompence from Mr. Thomson, it is no easy matter to explain ; nor do I profess to understand why Mr. Thomson took so little pains to argue the matter in limine with the poet, and convince him that the time which he himself considered as fairly entitled to be paid for by a common bookseller, ought of right to be valued and acknowledged on similar terms by the editor and proprietor of a book containing both songs and music.

They order these things differently now : a living lyric poet, whom none will place in a higher rank than Burns, has long, it is understood, been in the habit of receiving about as much money annually for an annual handful of songs, as was ever paid to our bard for the whole body of his writings.

Of the increasing irritability of Burns's temperament, amidst the various troubles which preceded his last illness, his letters furnish proofs, to dwell on which could only inflict unnecessary pain. Let one example suffice. " Sunday closes a period of our curst revenue business, and may probably keep me employed with my pen until noon. Fine employment for a poet's pen ! Here I sit, altogether Novemberish, a d------- mélange of fretfulness and melancholy ; not enough of the one to rouse me to passion, nor of the other to repose me in torpor ; my soul flouncing and fluttering round her tenement, like a wild finch caught amid the horrors of winter, and newly thrust into a cage. Well, I am persuaded that it was of me the Hebrew sage prophesied, when he foretold—'And behold, on whatsoever this man doth set his heart, it shall not prosper' ! Pray that wisdom and bliss may be more frequent visitors of R. B."

Towards the close of 1795 Burns was, as has been previously mentioned, employed as an acting Supervisor of Excise. This was apparently a step to a permanent situation of that higher and more lucrative class j and from thence, there was every reason to believe, the kind patronage of Mr. Graham might elevate him yet farther. These hopes, however, were mingled and darkened with sorrow. For four months of that year his youngest child lingered through an illness of which every week promised to be the last ; and she was finally cut off when the poet, who had watched her with anxious tenderness, was from home on professional business. This was a severe blow, and his own nerves, though as yet he had not taken a-ny serious alarm about his ailments, were ill fitted to withstand it.

"There had need," he writes Mrs. Dunlop (December 15th, 1795)—"there had much need be many pleasures annexed to the states of husband and father, for, God knows, they have many peculiar cares. I cannot describe to you the anxious, sleepless hours these ties frequently give me. I see a train of helpless little folks ; me and my exertions all their stay ; and on what a brittle thread does the life of man hang ! If I am nipt off at the command of fate—even in all the vigour of manhood as I am, such things happen every day—gracious God ! what would become of my little flock ! 'Tis here that I envy your people of fortune. A father on his death-bed, taking an everlasting leave of his children, has indeed woe enough : but the man of competent fortune leaves his sons and daughters independency and friends ; while I—but I shall run distracted if I think any longer on the subject."

To the same lady, on the 29th of the month, he, after mentioning his supervisorship, and saying that at last his political sins seemed to be forgiven him—goes on in this ominous tone—" What a transient business is life ! Very lately I was a boy ; but t'other day a young man ; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of old age coming fast over my frame." We may trace the melancholy sequel in a few extracts from his letters.

January 31st, 1796.—" I have lately drunk deep of the cup of affliction. The autumn robbed me of my only daughter and darling child, and that at a distance too, and so rapidly, as to put it out of my power to pay the last duties to her. I had scarcely begun to recover from that shock, when I became myself the victim of a most severe rheumatic fever, and long the die spun doubtful ; until, after many weeks of a sick-bed, it seems to have turned up my life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room, and once indeed have been before my own door in the street.—

'When pleasure fascinates the mental sight,
   Affliction purifies the visual ray ;

Religion hails the drear, the untried night,

   That shuts—for ever shuts—life's doubtful day.' "

But a few days after this, Burns was so exceedingly imprudent as to join a festive circle at a tavern dinner, where he remained till about three in the morning. The weather was severe, and he, being much intoxicated, took no precaution in thus exposing his debilitated frame to its influence. It has been said that he fell asleep upon the snow on his way home. It is certain that next morning he was sensible of an icy numbness through all his joints—that his rheumatism returned with tenfold force upon him—and that from that unhappy hour, his mind brooded ominously on the fatal issue. The course of medicine to which he submitted was violent; confinement, accustomed as he had been to much bodily exercise, preyed miserably on all his powers ; he drooped visibly, and all the hopes of his friends, that health would return with summer, were destined to disappointment.

June 4th, 1796.(153) —"I am in such miserable health as to be utterly incapable of showing my loyalty in any way. Rackt as I am with rheumatisms, I meet every face with a greeting like that of Balak to Balaam,—' Come, curse me, Jacob ; and come, defy me, Israel.' "

July 7th.—" I fear the voice of the bard will soon be heard among you no more. For these eight or ten months I have been ailing, sometimes bedfast and sometimes not ; but these last three months I have been tortured with an excruciating rheumatism, which has reduced me to nearly the last stage. You actually would not know me if you saw me—pale, emaciated, and so feeble as occasionally to need help from my chair. My spirits fled ! fled ! But I can no more on the subject."

 

(153) The birthday of George III

 

This last letter was addressed to Mr. Cunningham of Edinburgh, from the small village of Brow on the Solway Firth, about ten miles from Dumfries, to which the poet removed about the end of June ; " the medical folks," as he says, " having told him that his last and only chance was bathing, country quarters, and riding." In separating himself by their advice from his family for these purposes, he carried with him a heavy burden of care. "The deuce of the matter," he writes, "is this ; when an exciseman is off duty, his salary is reduced. What way, in the name of thrift, shall I maintain myself and keep a horse in country quarters on £35 ?" He implored his friends in Edinburgh, to make interest with the Board to grant him his full salary ; "if they do not, I must lay my account with an exit truly en poëte—if I die not of disease, I must perish with hunger." The application was, I believe, successful 5 but Burns lived not to profit by the indulgence, or the justice, of his superiors.

Mrs. Riddel of Glenriddel, a beautiful and very accomplished woman, to whom many of Burns's most interesting letters, in the latter years of his life, were addressed, happened to be in the neighbourhood of Brow when Burns reached his bathing quarters, and exerted herself to make him as comfortable as circumstances permitted. Having sent her carriage for his conveyance, the poet visited her on July 5th ; and she has, in a letter published by Dr. Currie, thus described his appearance and conversation on that occasion :

"I was struck with his appearance on entering the room. The stamp of death was impressed on his features. He seemed already touching the brink of eternity. His first salutation was, ' Well, madam, have you any commands for the other world ?' I replied that it seemed a doubtful case which of us should be there soonest, and that I hoped he would yet live to write my epitaph. (I was then in a poor state of health.) He looked in my face with an air of great kindness, and expressed his concern at seeing me look so ill, with his accustomed sensibility. At table he ate little or nothing, and he complained of having entirely lost the tone of his stomach. We had a long and serious conversation about his present situation, and the approaching termination of all his earthly prospects. He spoke of his death without any of the ostentation of philosophy, but with firmness as well as feeling—as an event likely to happen very soon, and which gave him concern chiefly from leaving his four children so young and unprotected, and his wife in so interesting a situation—in hourly expectation of lying-in of a fifth. He mentioned, with seeming pride and satisfaction, the promising genius of his eldest son, and the flattering marks of approbation he had received from his teachers, and dwelt particularly on his hopes of that boy's future conduct and merit. His anxiety for his family seemed to hang heavy upon him, and the more perhaps from the reflection that he had not done them all the justice he was so well qualified to do. Passing from this subject, he showed great concern about the care of his literary fame, and particularly the publication of his posthumous works. He said he was well aware that his death would occasion some noise, and that every scrap of his writing would be revived against him to the injury of his future reputation : that letters and verses written with unguarded and improper freedom, and which he earnestly wished to have buried in oblivion, would be handed about by idle vanity or malevolence, when no dread of his resentment would restrain them, or prevent the censures of shrill-tongued malice, or the insidious sarcasms of envy, from pouring forth all their venom to blast his fame. He lamented that he had written many epigrams on persons against whom he entertained no enmity, and whose characters he should be sorry to wound ; and many indifferent poetical pieces, which he feared would now, with all their imperfections on their head, be thrust upon the world. On this account he deeply regretted having deferred to put his papers into a state of arrangement, as he was now quite incapable of that exertion.—The conversation was kept up with great evenness and animation on his side. I have seldom seen his mind greater or more collected. There was frequently a considerable degree of vivacity in his sallies, and they would probably have had a greater share, had not the concern and dejection I could not disguise, damped the spirit of pleasantry he seemed not unwilling to indulge.—We parted about sunset on the evening of that day (the 5th of July, 1796) : the next day I saw him again, and we parted to meet no more !" I do not know the exact date of the following :

To Mrs. Burns.—"Brow, Thursday.—-My dearest Love, I delayed writing until I could tell you what effect sea-bathing was likely to produce. It would be injustice to deny that it has eased my pains, and I think has strengthened me ; but my appetite is still extremely bad. No flesh nor fish can I swallow : porridge and milk are the only things I can taste. I am very happy to hear, by Miss Jess Lewars, that you are all well. My very best and kindest compliments to her and to all the children. I will see you on Sunday. Your affectionate husband, R. B."

There is a very affecting letter to Gilbert, dated the 7th, in which the poet says, "I am dangerously ill, and not likely to get better. God keep my wife and children." On the 12th, he wrote the letter to Mr. George Thomson, above quoted, requesting £5 ; and addressed another, still more painful, to his affectionate relative at Montrose, by whose favour it is now before the reader.

 

" To Mr. James Burnes, Montrose.

'' Brow, July 12, 1796.

"MY DEAREST COUSIN,

" WHEN you offered me money assistance, little did I think I should want it so soon. A rascal of a haberdasher, to whom I owe a considerable bill, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process against me, and will infallibly put my emaciated body, into jail. Will you be so good as to accommodate me, and that by return of post, with ten pounds ? O, James ! did you know the pride of my heart, you would feel doubly for me ! Alas ! I am not used to beg ! The worst of it is, my health was coming about finely, You know, and my physician assures me, that melancholy and low spirits are half my disease ; guess, then, my horrors since this business began. If I had it settled, I would be, I think, quite well in a manner. How shall I use this language to you ? O, do not disappoint me ! but strong necessity's curst command !

" Forgive me for once more mentioning by return of post. Save me from the horrors of a jail !

"My compliments to my friend James, and to all the rest. I do not know what I have written. The subject is so horrible, I dare not look it over again. Farewell. R. B."

 

The same date appears also on a letter to his friend Mrs. Dunlop. Of these three productions of July 12th, who would not willingly believe that the following was the last ?—

"Madam, I have written you so often, without receiving any answer, that I would not trouble you again, but for the circumstances in which I am. An illness which has long hung about me, in all probability will speedily send me beyond that bourne 'whence no traveller returns. Your friendship, with which for many years you honoured me, was the friendship dearest to my soul. Your conversation, and especially your correspondence, were at once highly entertaining and instructive. With what pleasure did I use to break up the seal ! The remembrance yet adds one pulse more to my poor palpitating heart—Farewell !
"R. B."

 

I give the following anecdote in the words of Mr. McDiarmid (154) :—" Rousseau, we all know, when dying, wished to be carried into the open air, that he might obtain a parting look of the glorious orb of day. A night or two before Burns left Brow, he drank tea with Mrs. Craig, widow of the minister of Ruthwell. His altered appearance excited much silent sympathy ; and the evening being beautiful, and the sun shining brightly through the casement, Miss Craig (now Mrs. Henry Duncan) was afraid the light might be too much for him, and rose with the view of letting down the window blinds. Burns immediately guessed what she meant ; and, regarding the young lady with a look of great benignity, said, ' Thank you, my dear, for your kind attention ; but, oh, let him shine ! he will not shine long for me.'"

(154) I take the opportunity of once more acknowledging my great obligations to this gentleman, who, I now understand, is not, as stated in former editions, connected by marriage with the family of the poet (1829).

On the 18th, despairing of any benefit from the sea, our poet came back to Dumfries. Mr. Allan Cunningham, who saw him arrive, " visibly changed in his looks, being with difficulty able to stand upright, and reach his own door," has given a striking picture, in one of his essays, of the state of popular feeling in the town during the short space which intervened between his return and his death.—" Dumfries was like a besieged place. It was known he was dying, and the anxiety, not of the rich and the learned only, but of the mechanics and peasants, exceeded all belief. Wherever two or three people stood together, their talk was of Burns, and of him alone. They spoke of his history—of his person—of his works—of his family—of his fame—and of his untimely and approaching fate, with a warmth and an enthusiasm which will ever endear Dumfries to my remembrance. All that he said or was saying —the opinions of the physicians (and Maxwell was a kind and a skilful one), were eagerly caught up and reported from street to street, and from house to house."

" His good humour," Cunningham adds, " was unruffled, and his wit never forsook him. He looked to one of his fellow-volunteers with a smile, as he stood by the bedside with his eyes wet, and said, 'John, don't let the awkward squad fire over me.' He repressed with a smile the hopes of his friends, and told them he had lived long enough. As his life drew near a close, the eager, yet decorous solicitude of his fellow-townsmen, increased. It is the practice of the young men of Dumfries to meet in the streets during the hours of remission from labour, and by these means I had an opportunity of witnessing the general solicitude of all ranks and of all ages. His differences with them on some important points were forgotten and forgiven ; they thought only of his genius—of the delight his compositions had diffused—and they talked of him with the same awe as of some departing spirit, whose voice was to gladden them no more." (155)

(155) See in the London Magazine, 1824, an article, entitled by Mr. Allen Cunningham, " Robert Burns and Lord Byron."

"A tremor now pervaded his frame," says Dr. Currie, on the authority of the physician who attended him ; " his tongue was parched, and his mind sank into delirium, when not roused by conversation. On the second and third day the fever increased and his strength diminished." On the fourth, July 21st, 1796, Robert Burns died.

" I went to see him laid out for the grave," says Mr. Allan Cunningham ; " several elder people were with me. He lay in a plain unadorned coffin, with a linen sheet drawn over his face ; and on the bed, and around the body, herbs and flowers were thickly strewn, according to the usage of the country. He was wasted somewhat by long illness ; but death had not increased the swarthy hue of his face, which was uncommonly dark and deeply marked—his broad and open brow was pale and serene, and around it his sable hair lay in masses, slightly touched with grey. The room where he lay was plain and neat, and the simplicity of the poet's humble dwelling pressed the presence of death more closely on the heart, than if his bier had been embellished by vanity, and covered with the blazonry of high ancestry and rank. We stood and gazed on him in silence for the space of several minutes—we went, and others succeeded us—not a whisper was heard. This was several days after his death." (156)

(156) Ibid.

On July 25th, the remains of the poet were removed to the Trades'-hall, where they lay in state until next morning. The volunteers of Dumfries were determined to inter their illustrious comrade (as indeed he had anticipated) with military honours. The chief persons of the town and neighbourhood were anxious to make part of the procession ; and not a few travelled from great distances to witness the solemnity. The streets were lined by the fencible infantry of Angusshire, and the cavalry of the Cinque Ports, then quartered at Dumfries, whose commander, Lord Hawkesbury (now Earl of Liverpool),(157) although he had always declined a personal introduction to the poet,(158) officiated as one of the chief mourners. " The multitude who accompanied Burns to the grave might amount," says Cunningham, " to ten or twelve thousand. Not a word was heard. ... It was an impressive and mournful sight to see men of all ranks and persuasions and opinions mingling as brothers, and stepping side by side down the streets of Dumfries, with the remains of him who had sung of their loves and joys and domestic endearments, with a truth and a tenderness which none perhaps have since equalled. I could, indeed, have wished the military part of the procession away. The scarlet and gold—the banners displayed—the measured step, and the military array—with the sounds of martial instruments of music, had no share in increasing the solemnity of the burial scene, and had no connexion with the poet. I looked on it then, and I consider it now, as an idle ostentation, a piece of superfluous state, which might have been spared, more especially as his neglected, and traduced, and insulted spirit had experienced no kindness in the body from those lofty people who are now proud of being numbered as his coevals and countrymen. ... I found myself at the brink of the poet's grave, into which he was about to descend for ever. There was a pause among the mourners, as if loth to part with his remains ; and when he was at last lowered, and the first shovelful of earth sounded on his coffin-lid, I looked up and saw tears on many cheeks where tears were not usual. The volunteers justified the fears of their comrade, by three ragged and straggling volleys. The earth was heaped up, the green sod laid over him, and the multitude stood gazing on the grave for some minutes' space, and then melted silently away. The day was a fine one, the sun was almost without a cloud, and not a drop of rain fell from dawn to twilight. I notice this, not from any concurrence in the common superstition, that ' happy is the corpse which the rain rains on,' but to confute the pious fraud of a religious magazine, which made heaven express its wrath, at the interment of a profane poet, in thunder, in lightning, and in rain."

(157) The second earl of the family, deceased since this memoir was first published (1829).

(158) So Mr. Syme has informed Mr. McDiarmid.

During the funeral solemnity, Mrs. Burns was seized with the pains of labour, and gave birth to a male infant, who quickly followed his father to the grave. Mr. Cunningham describes the appearance of the family, when they at last emerged from their home of sorrow :—" A weeping widow and four helpless sons ; they came into the streets in their mournings, and public sympathy was awakened afresh. I shall never forget the looks of his boys, and the compassion which they excited. The poet's life had not been without errors, and such errors too as a wife is slow in forgiving ; but he was honoured then, and is honoured now, by the unalienable affection of his wife ; and the world repays her prudence and her love by its regard and esteem."

There was much talk at the time of a subscription for a monument ; but Mrs. Burns beginning, ere long, to suspect that the business was to end in talk, covered the grave at her own expense with a plain tombstone, inscribed simply with the name and age of the poet. In 1813, however, a public meeting was held at Dumfries, General Dunlop, son to Burns's friend and patroness, being in the chair ; a subscription was opened, and contributions flowing in rapidly from all quarters, a costly mausoleum was at length erected on the most elevated site which the churchyard presented. Thither the remains of the poet were solemnly transferred(159) on June 5th, 1815 ; and the spot continues to be visited every year by many hundreds of travellers. The structure, which is perhaps more gaudy than might have been wished, bears this inscription :

(159) The original tombstone of Burns was sunk under the pavement of the mausoleum; and the grave which first received his remains is now occupied, according to her own dying request, by a daughter of Mrs. Dunlop.

IN AETERNUM HONOREM


ROBERTI BURNS


POETARUM CALEDONIAE SUI AEVI LONGE PRINCIPIS
CUJUS CARMINA EXIMIA PATRIO SERMONE SCRIPTA
AN1MI MAGIS ARDENTIS VIQUE INGENII
QUAM ARTE VEL CULTU CONSPICUA
FACETIIS JUCUNDITATE LEPORE AFFLUENTIA
OMNIBUS LITTERARUM CULTORIBUS SATIS NOTA
CIVES SUI NECNON PLERIQUE OMNES

MUSARUM AMANTISSIMI MEMORIAMQUE VIRI

ARTE POETICA TAM PRAECLARI FOVENTES


HOC MAUSOLEUM

 

SUPER RELIQUIAS POETAE MORTALES
EXTRUENDUM CORAVERE

PRIMUM HUJUS AEDIFICII LAPIDEM
GULIELMUS MILLER ARMIGER
REIPUBLICAE ARCHITECTONICAE APUD SCOTOS

IN REGIONE AUSTRALI CURIO MAXIMUS PROVINCIALIS
GEORGIO TERTIO REGNANTE
GEORGIO WALLIARUM PRINCIPE
SUMMAM IMPERII PRO PATRE TENENTE
JOSEPHO GASS ARMIGERO DUMFRISIAE PRAEFECTO
THOMA F. HUNT LONDINENSI ARCHITECTO
POSUIT
NONIS JUNII ANNO LUCIS VMDCCCXV

SALUTIS HUMANAE MDCCCXV.

 

Immediately after the poet's death, a subscription was opened for the benefit of his family ; Mr. Miller "of Dalswinton, Dr. Maxwell, Mr. Syme, Mr. Cunningham, and Mr. McMurdo becoming trustees for the application of the money. Many names from other parts of Scotland appeared in the lists, and not a few from England, especially London and Liverpool. Seven hundred pounds were in this way collected ; an additional sum was forwarded from India; and the profits of Dr. Currie's Life and Edition of Burns were also considerable. The result has been, that the sons of the poet received an excellent education, and that Mrs. Burns has continued to reside, enjoying a decent independence, in the house where the poet died, situated in what is now, by the authority of the Dumfries magistracy, called Burns's Street.

" Of the four surviving sons of the poet," says their uncle Gilbert, in 1820, "Robert, the eldest, is placed as a clerk in the Stamp-Office, London [Mr. Burns still remains in that establishment] ; Francis Wallace, the second, died in 1803 ; William Nicol, the third, went to Madras in 1811 ; and James Glencairn, the youngest, to Bengal in 1812, both as cadets in the Honourable Company's Service." These young gentlemen have all, it is believed, conducted themselves through life in a manner highly honourable to themselves, and to the name which they bear. One of them (James), as soon as his circumstances permitted, settled a liberal annuity on his estimable mother, which, as we have seen, she still survives to enjoy.(160)

(160) Mrs. Burns has died since this narrative was last printed. Her son Captain James Glencairn Burns visited her in 1831, and is now again—I hope a prosperous gentleman—in India (1838).

Gilbert, the admirable brother of the poet, survived till April 27th, 1827. He removed from Mossgiel, shortly after the death of Burns, to a farm in Dumfriesshire, carrying with him his aged mother, who died under his roof. At a later period he became factor to the noble family of Blantyre, on their estates in East Lothian. The pecuniary succours which the poet afforded Gilbert Burns, and still more the interest excited in his behalf by the account of his personal character contained in Currie's Memoir, proved of high advantage to him. He trained up a large family, six sons and five daughters, and bestowed on all his boys what is called a classical education. The untimely death of one of these, a young man of very promising talents, when on the eve of being admitted to holy orders, is supposed to have hastened the departure of the venerable parent. It should not be omitted that, on the publication of his edition of his brother's works, in 1819, Gilbert repaid, with interest, the sum which the poet advanced to him in 1788. Through life, and in death, he maintained and justified the promise of his virtuous youth, and seems in all respects to have resembled his father, of whom Murdoch, long after he was no more, wrote in language honourable to his own heart : " O for a world of men of such dispositions 1 I have often wished, for the good of mankind, that it were as customary to honour and perpetuate the memory of those who excel in moral rectitude, as it is to extol what are called heroic actions ; then would the mausoleum of the friend of my youth overtop and surpass most of those we see in Westminster Abbey ! " (161)

(161) These particulars are taken from an article which appeared, soon after Gilbert's death, in The Dumfries Courier.

It is pleasing to trace, in all these details, the happy influence which our poet's genius has exerted over the destinies of his connexions. " In the fortunes of his family," says Mr. McDiarmid,(162) " there are few who do not feel the liveliest interest ; and were a register kept of the names, and numbers, and characters of those who from time to time visit the humble but decent abode in which Burns breathed his last, amid the deepest despondency for the fate of those who were dearer to him than life, and in which his widow is spending tranquilly the evening of her days in the enjoyment of a competency, not derived from the bounty of the public, but from the honourable exertions of her own offspring, the detail, though dry, would be pleasing to many, and would weaken, though it could not altogether efface, one of the greatest stains on the character of our country. Even as it is, his name has proved a source of patronage to those he left behind him, such as the high and the noble cannot always command. Wherever his sons wander, at home or abroad, they are regarded as the scions of a noble stock, and receive the cordial greetings of hundreds who never saw their faces before, but who account it a happiness to grasp in friendly pressure the proffered hand in which circulates the blood of Burns."(163)

(162) Article in The Dumfries Magazine, August, 1825.

(163) Mr. McDiarmid, in the article above quoted, gives a touching account of the illness and death of one of the daughters of Mr. James Glencairn Burns, on her voyage homewards from India. "At the funeral of this poor child there was witnessed," says he, "a most affecting scene. Officers, passengers, and men were drawn up in regular order on deck ; some wore crape round the right arm, others were dressed in the deepest mourning ; every head was uncovered ; and as the lashing of the waves on the sides of the coffin proclaimed that the melancholy ceremony had closed, every countenance seemed saddened with grief—every eye moistened with tears. Not a few of the sailors wept outright, natives of Scotland, who, even when far away, had revived their recollections of home and youth, by listening to, or repeating, the poetry of Burns."

Sic vos non vobis. The great poet himself, whose name is enough to ennoble his children's children, was, to the eternal disgrace of his country, suffered to live and die in penury, and, as far as such a creature could be degraded by any external circumstances, in degradation. Who can open the page of Burns, and remember, without a blush, that the author of such verses, the human being whose breast glowed with such feelings, was doomed to earn mere bread for his children by casting up the stock of publicans' cellars, and riding over moors and mosses in quest of smuggling stills ? The subscription for his poems was, for the time, large and liberal, and perhaps i absolves a certain number of the gentry of Scotland as individuals ; but that some strong movement of indignation did not spread over the whole kingdom, when it was known that Robert Burns, after being caressed and flattered by the noblest and most learned of his countrymen, was about to be established as a common gauger among the wilds of Nithsdale—and that, after he was so established, no interference from a higher quarter arrested that unworthy career ;—these are circumstances which must continue to bear heavily on the memory of that generation, and especially of those who then administered the public patronage of Scotland.

In defence, or at least in palliation of this national crime, two false arguments, the one resting on facts grossly exaggerated, the other having no foundation whatever, either on knowledge or on wisdom, have been rashly set up and arrogantly as well as ignorantly maintained. To the one, namely, that public patronage would have been wrongfully bestowed on the poet, because the exciseman was a political partisan, it is hoped the details embodied in this narrative have supplied a sufficient answer ; had the matter been as bad as the boldest critics have ever ventured to insinuate, Sir Walter Scott's answer would still have remained—"This partisan was BURNS." The other argument is a still more heartless, as well as absurd one ; to wit, that from the moral character and habits of the man, no patronage, however liberal, could have influenced and controlled his conduct, so as to work lasting and effective improvement, and lengthen his life by raising it more nearly to the elevation of his genius. This is indeed a candid and a generous method of judging. Are imprudence and intemperance, then, found to increase usually in proportion as the worldly circumstances of men are easy ? Is not the very opposite of this doctrine acknowledged by almost all that have ever tried the reverses of Fortune's wheel themselves—by all that have contemplated from an elevation not too high for sympathy, the usual course of manners, when their fellow-creatures either encounter or live in constant apprehension of

" The thousand ills that rise where money fails,

Debts, threats, and duns, bills, bailiffs, writs, and jails"?

To such mean miseries the latter years of Burns's life were exposed, not less than his early youth, and after what natural buoyancy of animal spirits he ever possessed had sunk under the influence of time, which, surely bringing experience, fails seldom to bring care also and sorrow, to spirits more mercurial than his ; and in what bitterness of spirit he submitted to his fate, let his own burning words once more tell us. " Take," says he, writing to Mr. Hill, an Edinburgh bookseller, who never ceased to be his friend—" take these two guineas, and place them over against that account of yours, which has gagged my mouth these five or six months ! I can as little write good things, as apologies, to the man I owe money to. O the supreme curse of making three guineas do the business of five ! Poverty ! thou half-sister of death, thou cousin german of hell ! Oppressed by thee, the man of sentiment, whose heart glows with independence, and melts with sensibility, inly pines under the neglect, or writhes, in bitterness of soul, under the contumely of arrogant, unfeeling wealth. Oppressed by thee, the son of genius, whose ill-starred ambition plants him at the tables of the fashionable and polite, must see, in suffering silence, his remark neglected, and his person despised, while shallow greatness, in his idiot attempts at wit, shall meet with countenance and applause. Nor is it only the family of worth that have reason to complain of thee; the children of folly and vice, though in common with thee, the offspring of evil, smart equally under thy rod. The man of unfortunate disposition and neglected education is condemned as a fool for his dissipation, despised and shunned as a needy wretch, when his follies, as usual, bring him to want ; and when his necessities drive him to dishonest practices, he is abhorred as a miscreant, and perishes by the justice of his country. But far otherwise is the lot of the man of family and fortune. His early follies and extravagance are spirit and fire ; his consequent wants are the embarrassment of an honest fellow ; and when, to remedy the matter, he has gained a legal commission to plunder distant provinces, or massacre peaceful nations, he returns, perhaps, laden with the spoils of rapine and murder ; lives wicked and respected, and dies a and a lord.—Nay, worst of all, alas for helpless woman ! the needy prostitute, who has shivered at the corner of the street, is left neglected and insulted, ridden down by the chariot-wheels of the coroneted RIP, hurrying on to the guilty assignation ; she, who, without the same necessities to plead, riots nightly in the same guilty trade.—Well ! Divines may say of it what they please, but execration is to the mind, what phlebotomy is to the body ; the vital sluices of both are wonderfully relieved by their respective evacuations."

In such evacuations of indignant spleen the proud heart of many an unfortunate genius, besides this, has found, or sought relief: and to other more dangerous indulgences, the affliction of such sensitive spirits had often ere his time condescended. The list is a long and a painful one ; and it includes some names that can claim but a scanty share in the apology of Burns. Addison himself, the elegant, the philosophical, the religious Addison, must be numbered with these offenders :—Jonson, Cotton, Prior, Parnell, Otway, Savage, all sinned in the same sort; and the transgressions of them all have been leniently dealt with, in comparison with those of one whose genius was probably greater than any of theirs; his appetites more fervid, his temptations more abundant, his repentance more severe. The beautiful genius of Collins sunk under similar contaminations ; and those who have, from dulness of head, or sourness of heart, joined in the too general clamour against Burns, may learn a lesson of candour, of mercy, and of justice, from the language in which one of the best of men, and loftiest of moralists, has commented on frailties that hurried a kindred spirit to a like untimely grave.

" In a long continuance of poverty, and long habits of dissipation," says Dr. Johnson, "it cannot be expected that any character should be exactly uniform. That this man, wise and virtuous as he was, passed always unentangled through the snares of life, it would be prejudice and temerity to affirm : but it may be said that he at least preserved the source of action unpolluted, that his principles were never shaken, that his distinctions of right and wrong were never confounded, and that his faults had nothing of malignity or design, but proceeded from some unexpected pressure or casual temptation. Such was the fate of Collins, with whom I once delighted to converse, and whom I yet remember with tenderness."

Burns was an honest man : after all his struggles, he owed no man a shilling when he died. His heart was always warm and his hand open. " His charities," says Mr. Gray, " were great beyond his means ;" and I have to thank Mr. Allan Cunningham for the following anecdote, for which I am sure every reader will thank him too. Mr. Maxwell of Teraughty, an old, austere, sarcastic gentleman, who cared nothing about poetry, used to say when the Excise books of the district were produced at the meetings of the justices—" Bring me Burns's journal : it always does me good to see it, for it shows that an honest officer may carry a kind heart about with him."

Of his religious principles, we are bound to judge by what he has told us himself in his more serious moments. He sometimes doubted with the sorrow, what in the main, and above all, in the end, he believed with the fervour of a poet. " It occasionally haunts me," says he in one of his letters,— " the dark suspicion, that immortality may be only too good news to be true ;" and here, as on many points besides, how much did his method of thinking (I fear I must add of acting)
resemble that of a noble poet more recently lost to us! "I am no bigot to infidelity," said Lord Byron, " and did not expect that, because I doubted the immortality of man, I should be charged with denying the existence of a God. It was the comparative insignificance of our selves and our world, when placed in comparison with the mighty whole of which it is an atom, that first led me to imagine that our pretensions to immortality might be overrated." I dare not pretend to quote the sequel from memory ; but the effect was, that Byron, like Burns, complained of ". the early discipline of Scotch Calvinism," and the natural gloom of a melancholy heart, as having between them engendered " a hypochondriacal disease," which occasionally visited and depressed him through life.(164) In the opposite scale we are, in justice to Burns, to place many pages which breathe the ardour, nay, the exultation of faith, and the humble sincerity of Christian hope ; and as the poet himself has warned us, it well befits us "at the balance1 to be mute." Let us avoid, in the name of Religion herself, the fatal error of those who would rashly swell the catalogue of the enemies of religion. " A sally of levity," says once more Dr. Johnson, " an indecent jest, an unreasonable objection, are sufficient, in the opinion of some men, to efface a name from the lists of Christianity, to exclude a soul from everlasting life. Such men are so watchful to censure, that they have seldom much care to look for favourable interpretations of ambiguities, or to know how soon any step of inadvertency has been expiated by sorrow and retractation, but let fly their fulminations without mercy or prudence against slight offences or casual temerities, against crimes never committed or immediately repented. The zealot should recollect that he is labouring, by this frequency of excommunication, against his own cause, and voluntarily adding strength to the enemies of truth. It must always be the condition of a great part of mankind, to reject and embrace tenets upon the authority of those whom they think wiser than themselves, and therefore the addition of every name to infidelity in some degree invalidates that argument upon which the religion of multitudes is necessarily founded." (165) In conclusion, let me adopt the sentiment of that illustrious moral poet of our own time, whose generous defence of Burns will be remembered while the language lasts :

" Let no mean hope your souls enslave—

Be independent, generous, brave ;

Your Poet such example gave,
And such revere;

But be admonish'd by his grave,
And think and fear." (166)

(164) Probably the passage of Byron's diary here alluded to has now been published.

(165) Life of Sir Thomas Browne.

(166) Wordsworth's Address to the Sons of Burns, on visiting his grave in 1803.

It is possible—perhaps for some it may be easy—to imagine a character of a much higher cast than that of Burns, developed, too, under circumstances in many respects not unlike those of his history—the character of a man of lowly birth, and powerful genius, elevated by that philosophy which is alone pure and divine, far above all those annoyances of terrestrial spleen and passion, which mixed from the beginning with the workings of his inspiration, and in the end were able to eat deep into the great heart which they had long tormented. Such a being would have received, no question, a species of devout reverence, I mean when the grave had closed on him, to which the warmest admirers of our poet can advance no pretensions for their unfortunate favourite : but could such a being have delighted his species—could he even have instructed them like Burns ? Ought we not to be thankful for every new variety of form and circumstance, in and under which the ennobling energies of true and lofty genius are found addressing themselves to the common brethren of the race ? Would we have none but Miltons and Cowpers in poetry—but Brownes and Southeys in prose ? Alas ! if it were so, to how large a portion of the species would all the gifts of all the muses remain for ever a fountain shut up and a book sealed ? Were the doctrine of intellectual excommunication to be thus expounded and enforced, how small the library that would remain to kindle the fancy, to draw out and refine the feelings, to enlighten the head by expanding the heart of man ! From Aristophanes to Byron, how broad the sweep, how woful the desolation !

In the absence of that vehement sympathy with humanity as it is, its sorrows and its joys as they are, we might have had a great man, perhaps a great poet; but we could have had no Burns. It is very noble to despise the accidents of fortune ; but what moral homily concerning these could have equalled that which Burns's poetry, considered in connexion with Burns's history, and the history of his fame presents ? It is very noble to be above the allurements of pleasure; but who preaches so effectually against them, as he who sets forth in immortal verse his own intense sympathy with those that yield, and in verse and in prose, in action and in passion, in life and in death, the dangers and the miseries of yielding ?

It requires a graver audacity of hypocrisy than falls to the hare of most men, to declaim against Burns's sensibility to the tangible cares and toils of his earthly condition ; there are more who venture on broad denunciations of his sympathy with the joys of sense and passion. To these, the great moral spoet already quoted speaks in the following noble passage— and must he speak in vain ? " Permit me," says Mr. Wordsworth, " to remind you that it is the privilege of poetic genius to catch, under certain restrictions, of which perhaps at the time of its being exerted it is but dimly conscious, a spirit of pleasure wherever it can be found,—in the walks of nature and in the business of men. The poet, trusting to primary instincts, luxuriates among the felicities of love and wine, and is enraptured while he describes the fairer aspects of war ; nor does he shrink from the company of the passion of love, though immoderate—from convivial pleasure, though intemperate—nor from the presence of war, though savage, and recognised as the handmaid of desolation. Frequently and admirably has Burns given way to these impulses of nature, both with reference to himself, and in describing the condition of others. Who, but some impenetrable dunce or narrow-minded Puritan in works of art, ever read without delight the picture which he has drawn of the convivial exaltation of the rustic adventurer, Tam o' Shanter ? The poet fears not to tell the reader in the outset, that his hero was a desperate and scottish drunkard, whose excesses were frequent as his opportunities. This reprobate sits down to his cups, while the storm is roaring, and heaven and earth are in confusion ;—the night is driven on by song and tumultuous noise—laughter and jest thicken as the beverage improves upon the palate—conjugal fidelity archly bends to the service of general benevolence—selfishness is not absent, but wearing the mask of social cordiality—and, while these various elements of humanity are blended into one proud and happy composition of elated spirits, the anger of the tempest without doors only heightens and sets off the enjoyment within. I pity him who cannot perceive that, in all this, though there was no moral purpose, there is a moral effect.

'Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,

O'er a' the ills of life victorious.'

" What a lesson do these words convey of charitable indulgence for the vicious habits of the principal actor in this scene, and of those who resemble him !—men who to the rigidly virtuous are objects almost of loathing, and whom therefore they cannot serve ! The poet, penetrating the unsightly and disgusting surfaces of things, has unveiled with exquisite skill the finer ties of imagination and feeling, that often bind these beings to practices productive of much unhappiness to themselves, and to those whom it is their duty to cherish ;—and, as far as he puts the reader into possession of this intelligent sympathy, he qualifies him for exercising a salutary influence over the minds of those who are thus deplorably deceived." (167)

 

(167) Letter to Gray, p. 24.

 

That some men in every age will comfort themselves in the practice of certain vices, by reference to particular passages both in the history and in the poetry of Burns, there is all reason to fear ; but surely the general influence of both is calculated, and has been found, to produce far different effects. The universal popularity which his writings have all along enjoyed among one of the most virtuous of nations, is, of itself, surely, a decisive circumstance. Search Scotland over, from the Pentland to the Solway, and there is not a cottage-hut so poor and wretched as to be without its Bible ; and hardly one that, on the same shelf, and next to it, does not treasure a Burns. Have the people degenerated since their adoption of this new manual ? Has their attachment to the Book of Books declined? Are their hearts less firmly bound than were their fathers', to the old faith and the old virtues ? I believe, he that knows the most of the country will be the readiest to answer all these questions, as every lover of genius and virtue would desire to hear them answered.

On one point there can be no controversy; the poetry of Burns has had most powerful influence in reviving and strengthening the national feelings of his countrymen. Amidst penury and labour, his youth fed on the old minstrelsy and traditional glories of his nation, and his genius divined, that what he felt so deeply must belong to a spirit that might lie smothered around him, but could not be extinguished. The political circumstances of Scotland were, and had been, such as to starve the flame of patriotism ; the popular literature had striven, and not in vain, to make itself English ; and, above all, a new and a cold system of speculative philosophy had begun to spread widely among us. A peasant appeared, and set himself to check the creeping pestilence of this indifference. Whatever genius has since then been devoted to the illustration of the national manners, and sustaining thereby of the national feelings of the people, there can be no doubt that Burns will ever be remembered as the founder, and, alas ! in his own person as the martyr, of this reformation.

That what is now-a-days called by solitary eminence the wealth of the nation, had been on the increase ever since our incorporation with a greater and wealthier State—nay, that the laws had been improving, and, above all, the administration of the laws—it would be mere bigotry to dispute. It may also be conceded easily, that the national mind had been rapidly clearing itself of many injurious prejudices—that the people, as a people, had been gradually and surely advancing in knowledge and wisdom, as well as in wealth and security. But all this good had not been accomplished without rude work. If the improvement were valuable, it had been purchased dearly. "The spring fire," Allan Cunningham says beautifully somewhere, " which destroys the furze, makes an end also of the nests of a thousand song-birds ; and he who goes a-trouting with lime, leaves little of life in the stream." We were getting fast ashamed of many precious and beautiful things, only for that they were old and our own.

It has already been remarked, how even Smollett, who began with a national tragedy, and one of the noblest of national lyrics, never dared to make use of the dialect of his own country ; and how Moore, another most enthusiastic Scotsman, followed in this respect, as in others, the example of Smollett, and over and over again counselled Burns to do the like. But a still more striking sign of the times is to be found in the style adopted by both of these novelists, especially the great master of the art, in their representations of the manners and characters of their own countrymen. In Humphrey Clinker, the last and best of Smollett's tales, there are some traits of a better kind— but, taking his work as a whole, the impression it conveys is certainly a painful, a disgusting one. The Scotchmen of these authors are the Jockies and Archies of farce—

"Time out of mind the Southrons' mirthmakers "—

the best of them grotesque combinations of simplicity and hypocrisy, pride and meanness. When such men, high-spirited Scottish gentlemen, possessed of learning and talents, and one of them at least of splendid genius, felt or fancied the necessity of making such submissions to the prejudices of the dominant nation, and did so without exciting a murmur among their own countrymen, we may form some notion of the boldness of Burns's experiment ; and, on contrasting the state of things then with what is before us now, it will cost no effort to appreciate the nature and consequences of the victory in which our poet led the way, by achievements never in their kind to be surpassed.(168) "Burns," says Mr. Campbell, " has given the elixir vita to his dialect." (169) He gave it to more than his dialect.

 

(168) "He was," says Professor Wilson, " in many respects born at a happy time ; happy for a man of genius like him, but fatal and hopeless to the more common mind. A whole world of life lay before Burns, whose inmost recesses, and darkest nooks, and sunniest eminences, he had familiarly trodden from his childhood. All that world he felt could be made his own. No conqueror had overrun its fertile provinces, and it was for him to be crowned supreme over all the
 

' Lyric singers of that high-soul'd land.'

 

The crown that he has won can never be removed from his head. Much is yet left for other poets, even among that life where his spirit delighted to work ; but he has built monuments on all the high places, and they who follow can only hope to leave behind them some far humbler memorials." —Blackwood's Magazine, February, 1817.

(169) Specimens of the British Poets, vol. vii., p. 240.

The moral influence of his genius has not been confined to his own countrymen. " The range of the pastoral," said Johnson, " is narrow. Poetry cannot dwell upon the minuter distinctions by which one species differs from another, without departing from that simplicity of grandeur which fills the imagination; nor dissect the latent qualities of things, without losing its general power of gratifying every mind by recalling its own conceptions. Not only the images of rural life, but the occasions on which they can be properly applied, are few and general. The state of a man confined to the employments and pleasures of the country is so little diversified, and exposed to so few of those accidents which produce perplexities, terrors, and surprises, in more complicated transactions, that he can be shown but seldom in such circumstances as attract curiosity. His ambition is without policy, and his love without intrigue. He has no complaints to make of his rival, but that he is richer than himself; nor any disasters to lament, but a cruel mistress or a bad harvest." (170) Such were the notions of the great arbiter of taste, whose dicta formed the creed of the British world, at the time when Burns made his appearance to overturn all such dogmata at a single blow; to convince the loftiest of the noble, and the daintiest of the learned, that wherever human nature is at work, the eye of a poet may discover rich elements of his art—that over Christian Europe, at all events, the purity of sentiment, and the fervour of passion, may be found combined with sagacity of intellect, wit, shrewdness, humour, whatever elevates and whatever delights the mind, not more easily amidst the most " complicated transactions " of the most polished societies, than

 

" In huts where poor men lie."

 

Burns did not place himself only within the estimation and admiration of those whom the world called his superiors—a solitary tree emerging into light and air, and leaving the parent underwood as low and as dark as before. He, as well as any man,

 

" Knew his own worth, and reverenced the lyre;"

 

but he ever announced himself as a peasant, the representative of his class, the painter of their manners, inspired by the same influences which ruled their bosoms; and whosoever sympathised with the verse of Burns had his soul opened for the moment to the whole family of man. If, in too many instances, the matter has stopped there, the blame is not with the poet, but with the mad and unconquerable pride and coldness of the worldly heart—" man's inhumanity to man." If, in spite of Burns, and all his successors, the boundary lines of society are observed with increasing strictness among us if the various orders of men still, day by day, feel the chord of sympathy relaxing, let us lament over symptoms of a disease in the body politic, which, if it goes on, must find, sooner or later, a fatal ending; but let us not undervalue the antidote which has all along been checking this strong poison. Who can doubt that at this moment thousands of " the first-born of Egypt" look upon the smoke of a cottager's chimney with feelings which would never have been developed within their being had there been no Burns ?

 

 (170) Rambler, No. 36.

 

Such, it can hardly be disputed, has been and is the general influence of this poet's genius; and the effect has been accomplished not in spite of, but by means of, the most exact contradiction of every one of the principles laid down by Dr. Johnson in a passage already cited, and, indeed, assumed throughout the whole body of that great author's critical disquisitions. Whatever Burns has done he has done by his exquisite power of entering into the characters and feelings of individuals ; as Heron has well expressed it, "by the effusion of particular, not general sentiments, and in the picturing out of particular imagery."

Currie says that "if fiction be the soul of poetry, as some assert, Burns can have small pretensions to the name of poet." The success of Burns, the influence of his verse, would alone be enough to overturn all the systems of a thousand definers ; but the doctor has obviously taken fiction in far too limited a sense. There are, indeed, but few of Burns's pieces in which he is found creating beings and circumstances, both alike alien from his own person and experience, and then, by the power of imagination, divining and expressing what forms life and passion would assume with and under these ;—but there are some : there is quite enough to satisfy every reader of Hallowe'en, The Jolly Beggars, and Tarn o' Shunter (to say nothing of various particular songs, such as Brace's Address, Macpherson's Lament, etc.), that Burns, if he pleased, might have been as largely and as successfully an inventor in this way as he is in another walk, perhaps not so inferior to this as many people may have accustomed themselves to believe ; in the art, namely, of re-combining and new-combining, varying, embellishing, and fixing and transmitting, the elements of most picturesque experience, and most vivid feelings.

Lord Byron, in his letter on Pope, treats with high and just contempt the laborious trifling which has been expended on distinguishing, by air-drawn lines and technical slang-words, the elements and materials of poetical exertion ; and, among other things, expresses his scorn of the attempts that have been made to class Burns among minor poets, merely because he has put forth few large pieces, and still fewer of what is called the purely imaginative character. Fight who will about words and forms, " Burns's rank," says he, " is in the first class of his art ;" and, I believe, the world at large are now-a-days well prepared to prefer a line from such a pen as Byron's on any such subject as this, to the most luculent dissertation that ever perplexed the brains of writer and of reader. Sentio, ergo sum, says the metaphysician : the critic may safely parody the saying, and assert that that is poetry of the highest order which exerts influence of the most powerful order on the hearts and minds of mankind.

Burns has been appreciated duly, and he has had the fortune to be praised eloquently, by almost every poet who has come after him. To accumulate all that has been said of him, even by men like himself of the first order, would fill a volume—and a noble monument, no question, that volume would be—the noblest, except what he has left us in his own immortal verses, which,
were some dross removed, and the rest arranged in a chronological order, would, I believe, form, to the intelligent, a more perfect and vivid history of his life than will ever be composed out of all the materials in the world besides.

" The impression of his genius," says Campbell, " is deep and universal ; and, viewing him merely as a poet, there is scarcely another regret connected with his name, than that his productions, with all their merit, fall short of the talents which he possessed. That he never attempted any great work of fiction may be partly traced to the cast of his genius, and partly to his circumstances and defective education. His poetical temperament was that of fitful transports rather than steady inspiration. Whatever he might have written was likely to have been fraught with passion. There is always enough of interest in life to cherish the feelings of genius ; but it requires knowledge to enlarge and enrich the imagination. Of that knowledge which unrolls the diversities of human manners, adventures, and characters, to a poet's study, he could have no great share ; although he stamped the little treasure which he possessed in the mintage of sovereign genius."(171)

 

(171) Specimens, vol. vii., p. 241.

 

" Notwithstanding," says Sir Walter Scott, " the spirit of many of his lyrics, and the exquisite sweetness and simplicity of others, we cannot but deeply regret that so much of his time and talents was frittered away in compiling and composing for musical collections. There is sufficient evidence that even the genius of Burns could not support him in the monotonous task of writing love-verses on heaving bosoms and sparkling eyes, and twisting them into such rhythmical forms as might suit the capricious evolutions of Scotch reels and strathspeys. Besides, this constant waste of his power and fancy in small and insignificant compositions, must necessarily have had no little effect in deterring him from undertaking any grave or important task. Let no one suppose that we undervalue the songs of Burns. When his soul was intent on suiting a favourite air to words humorous or tender, as the subject demanded, no poet of our tongue ever displayed higher skill in marrying melody to immortal verse. But the writing of a series of songs for large musical collections degenerated into a slavish labour which no talents could support, led to negligence, and, above all, diverted the poet from his grand plan of dramatic composition. To produce a work of this kind, neither, perhaps, a regular tragedy nor comedy, but something partaking of the nature of both, seems to have been long the cherished wish of Burns. He had even fixed on the subject, which was an adventure in low life, said to have happened to Robert Bruce, while wandering in danger and disguise, after being defeated by the English. The Scottish dialect would have rendered such a piece totally unfit for the stage ; but those who recollect the masculine and lofty tone of martial spirit which glows in the poem of Bannockburn will sigh to think what the character of the gallant Bruce might have proved under the hand of Burns. It would, undoubtedly, have wanted that tinge of chivalrous feeling which the manners of the age, no less than the disposition of the monarch, demanded ; but this deficiency would have been more than supplied by a bard who could have drawn from his own perceptions the unbending energy of a hero sustaining the desertion of friends, the persecution of enemies, and the utmost malice of disastrous fortune. The scene, too, being partly laid in humble life, admitted that display of broad humour, and exquisite pathos, with which he could, interchangeably and at pleasure, adorn his cottage views. Nor was the assemblage of familiar sentiments incompatible in Burns with those of the most exalted dignity. In the inimitable tale of Tarn o' Shanter he has left us sufficient evidence of his abilities to combine the ludicrous with the awful, and even the horrible. No poet, with the exception of Shakspeare, ever possessed the power of exciting the most varied and discordant emotions with such rapid transitions. His humorous description of death, in the poem on Dr. Hornbook, borders on the terrific ; and the witches' dance in the Kirk of Alloway is at once ludicrous and horrible. Deeply must we then regret those avocations which diverted a fancy so varied and so vigorous, joined with language and expressions suited to all its changes, from leaving a more substantial monument to his own fame, and to the honour of his country." (172)

 

(172) Quarterly Review, No. I., p. 33.

 

The cantata of The Jolly Beggars, which was not printed at all until some time after the poet's death, and has not been included in the editions of his works until within these few years, cannot be considered as it deserves, without strongly heightening our regret that Burns never lived to execute his meditated drama. That extraordinary sketch, coupled with his later lyrics in a higher vein, is enough to show that in him we had a master, capable of placing the musical drama on a level with the loftiest of our classical forms. Beggar's Bush and Beggar's Opera sink into tameness in the comparison ; and, indeed, without profanity to the name of Shakspeare, it may be said that, out of such materials, even his genius could hardly have constructed a piece, in which imagination could have more splendidly predominated over the outward shows of things— in which the sympathy-awakening power of poetry could have 1 been displayed more triumphantly, under circumstances of I the greatest difficulty. That remarkable performance, by the way, was an early production of the Mauchline period; (173) I know nothing but The Tarn 0' Shanter that is calculated to convey so high an impression of what Burns might have done.

(173) So John Richmond, of Mauchline, informed Chambers. See that very interesting work The Picture of Scotland, article Mauchline, for some entertaining particulars of the scene that suggested the poem.

As to Burns's want of education and knowledge, Mr. Campbell may not have considered, but he must admit that whatever Burns's opportunities had been at the time when he produced his first poems, such a man as he was not likely to be a hard reader (which he certainly was), and a constant observer of men and manners, in a much wider circle of society than almost any other great poet has ever moved in, from three-and-twenty to eight-and-thirty, without having thoroughly removed any pretext for auguring unfavourably on that score of what he might have been expected to produce in the more elaborate departments of his art, had his life been spared to the usual limits of humanity. In another way, however, I cannot help suspecting that Burns's enlarged knowledge, both of men and books, produced an unfavourable effect, rather than otherwise, on the exertions, such as they were, of his later years. His generous spirit was open to the impression of every kind of excellence : his lively imagination, lending its own vigour to whatever it touched, made him admire even what other men try in vain to read ; and after travelling as he did over the general surface of our literature, he appears to have been some-what startled at the consideration of what he himself had, in comparative ignorance, adventured—and to have been more intimidated than encouraged by the retrospect. In most of the new departments in which he made some trial of his strength (such, for example, as the moral epistle, in Pope's vein, the heroic satire, etc.), he appears to have soon lost heart, and paused. There is, indeed, one magnificent exception in Tam o' Shanter— a piece which no one can understand without believing that, had Burns pursued that walk, and poured out his stores of traditionary lore, embellished with his extraordinary: powers of description of all kinds, we might have had from his hand a series of national tales, uniting the quaint simplicity, sly humour, and irresistible pathos of another Chaucer with the strong and graceful versification, and masculine wit and sense, of another Dryden.

This was a sort of teeling that must have in time subsided. But let us not waste words in regretting what might have been, where so much is. Burns, short and painful as were his years, has left behind him a volume in which there is inspiration for every fancy, and music for every mood ; which lives, and will live, in strength and vigour, " to soothe," as a generous lover of genius (174) has said, " the sorrows of how many a lover, to inflame the patriotism of how many a soldier, to fan the fires of how many a genius, to disperse the gloom of solitude, appease the agonies of pain, encourage virtue, and show vice its ugliness;"—a volume in which, centuries hence, as now, wherever a Scotsman may wander, he will find the dearest consolation of his exile. Already, in the language of Childe Harold, has

            "Glory without end
Scattered the clouds away ; and on that name attend

The tears and praises of all time."

(174) See The Censura Literaria of Sir Egerton Brydges, vol. ii., p. 53.
 

 

  


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