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That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Anson's tear:
And tears by bards or heroes shed
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.
THE thirty-seven and a half years that intervened between January 25, 1759, the date of Burns's birth,and July 21, 1796, the date of the poet's death, a period full of individual strife and passion. His was a nature ill-fitted to compose and arrange properly the practical affairs of life to an easy and comfortable tenor. The passions which beat tumultuously in his blood likewise beat inconstantly, and were therefore all the time tending to complicate his affairs and swerve his course into turbid
These facts are all the more significant because the environment into which he was born, and for the most part lived, was quiet and peaceful. His father's clay-built cottage, familiarized for all of us by photographs and souvenir postal-cards, is set in the quiet parish of Ayr in the southwestern part of Scotland.
The lad at the age of six was sent to the neighboring school at Alloway Mill. To one of his teachers here John Murdock we are largely indebted; for it was his influence which aided the development of Robert Burns's finer and more spiritual nature. The boy's interest in poetry was likewise stimulated in these early years by an old woman, Betty Davidson, who lived in the household and was fond of telling ghost stories and reciting songs and ballads.
After Murdock left Ayrshire the Burns children were taught by their father, William Burnes; and to this stalwart farmer and honest toiler we are all likewise indebted; and his personality will remain forever enshrined in The Cotter's Saturday Night.
We sometimes make the mistake of imagining that age as a bookless age. While nature and environment were all this while doing valiant service in educating our Scottish poet, we must not forget the influence of books. He was
all this while reading texts on geography, astronomy, theology. He was learning the important facts from English and Scottish histories and biographies, and was spending many interested hours reading Addison's Spectator, Pope's Homer, the poems of Ramsay and Fergusson, and the plays of Shakespeare.
When Burns was seventeen, he spent one summer trying to learn mensuration and surveying. He at first made good progress, but when he met a country lass named Peggy Thompson, she seems to have "overset his trigonometry and set him off at a tangent from the sphere of his studies."
From this time on, until his marriage with Jean Armour - and indeed later - Burns was intermittently seized with some new love passion, which alternately gladdened and saddened his life. His nature was impulsive and inconstant, and he found it impossible to hold strong emotions in continent leash.
His business ventures varied — except in consistent illluck. He entered in 1782 into a partnership with a flaxdresser, but his partner, in the words of Burns, was a scoundrel of the first water, who made money by the mystery of thieving, and to finish the whole, while we were giving a welcoming carousal to the New Year, our shop, by the drunken carelessness of my partner's wife, took fire, and was burned to ashes; and left me, like a true poet, not worth a sixpense." His other adventures were in farming, at Ayr, at Lochlea, at Mossgiel, and at Ellisland - all neighboring parishes. All these attempts were dismal failures. Finally, in 1789, at the age of thirty, he received an appointment to the Excise at a salary of 50%. a year, and this position he filled until his death in 1796.
Burns's literary ambitions developed early. In his nineteenth year he planned a tragedy, but it was never finished. By his twenty-second year he had written Winter, a Dirge, Death of Poor Mailie, John Barleycorn, and several songs. Other poems were written in rapid succession, and he had won local celebrity as a poet. As he was in sore financial difficulty and as his love-affairs with Jean Armour had turned out unhappily, he decided in 1786 that he would go to Jamaica, where he had promise of a posi
tion as book-keeper. To secure passage money he published in August of that year an edition of 600 copies of his Poems, which were most enthusiastically welcomed. Now, with his profits of 207., he could go to the West Indies, and he accordingly engaged passage on the first ship that was to sail.
Just on the eve of departure, he received a letter from Dr. Blacklock, an Edinburgh critic, who spoke most warmly of the poems, encouraged a second edition, and urged Burns to visit Edinburgh. This invitation Burns accepted, and there he spent the winter of 1786-87 months that were the crowning event in his social and literary career. His second edition netted him 500l., and he was entertained by the most famous men of the city, who gladly acknowledged his worth and his genius, and found much pleasurable interest in his society.
But his intercourse with these men came to an end in the following spring, and Burns returned, after a few weeks of travel, to his Ayrshire home. Later he was married to Jean Armour, moved to Ellisland, and in 1791 to Dumfries, where he lived until his death.
The world has long since passed judgment upon the man and the poet. It has forgiven the man; it reveres the poet. Perhaps to no one of the poets who are dead do we deal out the same full measure of personal affection. Through those eyes which the painter Nasmyth has immortalized for us, there gleams the kindly look that wins our hearts. We catch, too, from each succeeding generation of readers
Scotch and non-Scotch-the reverberating shouts of praise and devotion. We go to his poetry and allow his words to phrase our emotions of courage, of sympathy, of patriotism, and of love. And we know that he who wrote so sincerely and so beautifully of a personal and transient passion has won an affection that is both so universal and so constant that his songs will go reverberating through the long vista of the coming years.
LYRICS BY BURNS
LAMENT FOR CULLODEN
THE lovely lass o' Inverness,
A waefu' day it was to me!
For there I lost my father dear,
The boat rocks at the pier o' Leith,
Fu' loud the wind blaws frae the ferry,