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LIFE OF ROBERT BURNS.
"I had been for some days skulking from covert to covert, under all the terrors of a jail; as some ill-advised people had uncoupled the merciless pack of the law at my heels. I had taken the last farewell of my few friends; my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Caladonia, "The gloomy night is gathering fast:" when a letter from Dr. Blacklock, to a friend of mine, overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics, for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction. The baneful star, that had so long shed its blasting influence in my zenith, for once made a revolution to the nadir; and a kind Providence placed me under the patronage of one of the noblest of men, the Earl of Glencairn. Oublie mor, Grand Dieu, si jamais je l'oublie.
"I need relate no further. At Edinburgh 1 was in a new world: I mingled among many classes of men, but all of them new to me, and I was all attention to catch the characters and the manners living as they rise. Whether I have profited time will show.
At the period of our poet's death, his brother Gilbert Burns, warignorant that he had himself written the foregoing narrative of his life while in Ayrshire; and having been applied to by Mrs. Dunlop for some memoirs of his brother, he complied with her request in a letter, from which the following narrative is chiefly extracted. When Gilbert Burns afterwards saw the letter of our poet to Dr. Moore, he made some annotations upon it, which shall be noticed as we proceed.
Robert Burns was born on the 29th day of January, 1759, in a small house about two miles from the town of Ayr, and within a few hundred yards of Alloway Church, which his poem of Tam o' Shanter" has rendered immortal. The name which the poet and his brother modernized into Burns, was originally Burnes or Burness. Their father, William Burnes, was the son of a farmer in Kincardineshire, and had received the education common in Scotland to persons in his condition of life: he could read and write, and had some knowledge of arithmetic. His family having fallen into reduced circumstances, he was compelled to leave his home in his nineteenth year, and turned his steps towards the south in quest of a livelihood. The same necessity attended his elder brother Robert. "I have often heard my father," says, Gilbert Burns, in his letter to Mrs. Dunlop, "describe the anguish of mind he felt when they parted on the top of the hill on the confines of their native place, each going off his several way in search of new advenfures, and scarcely knowing whither he went. My father undertook to act as gardener, and shaped his course to Edinburgh, where he wrought hard when he could get work, passing through a variety of difficulties. Still, however, he endeavoured to spare something for the support of his aged parent; and I recollect hearing him mention his having sent a bank-note for this purpose when money of that kind was so scarce in Kincardineshire, that they scarcely knew how to employ it when it arrived." From Edinburgh William Burnes past westward into the county of Ayr, where he engaged himself as gardener to the laird of Fairley, with whom he lived two years; then changing his service for that of Crawford of Doonside. At length, being desirous of settling in life, he took a perpetual lease of seven acres of land from Dr. Campbell,
physician in Ayr, with the view of commencing nurseryman and public gardener; and having built a house upon it with his own hands, married in December, 1757, Agnes Brown, the mother of our poet, who still survives. The first fruit of this marriage was Robert, the subject of these memoirs, born on the 29th of January, 1759, as has already been mentioned. Before William Burnes had made much progress in preparing his nursery, he was withdrawn from that undertaking by Mr. Ferguson, who purchased the estate of Doonside, in the immediate neighbourhood, and engaged him as his gardener and overseer; and this was his situation when our poet was born. Though in the service of Mr. Ferguson, he lived in his own house, his wife managing her family and little dairy, which consisted sometimes of two, sometimes of three milch cows; and this state of un-ambitious content continued till the year 1766. His son Robert was sent by him, in his sixth year, to a school at Alloway Miln, about a mile distant, taught by a person of the name of Campbell; but this teacher being in a few months appointed master of the workhouse at Ayr, William Burnes, in conjunction with some other heads of families, engaged John Murdoch in his stead. The education of our poet, and of his brother Gilbert, was in common; and of their proficiency under Mr. Murdoch we have the following account: "With him we learnt to read English tolerably well, and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar. I was too young to profit much from his lessons in grammar, but Robert made some proficiency in it-a circumstance of considerable weight in the upholding of his genius and character; as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in. his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader, when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him 'The Life of Hannibal,' which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had the opportunity of reading while he was at school; The Life of Wallace, which he classes with it in one of his letters to you, he did not see for some years afterwards, when he borrowed it from a blacksmith who shod our horses."
It appears that William Burnes improved him-. self greatly in the service of Mr. Ferguson, by his intelligence, industry, and integrity. In consequence of this, with a view of promoting his interest, Mr. Ferguson leased him a farm, of which we have the following account:
"The farm was upwards of seventy acres (between eighty and ninety, English statute measure), the rent of which was to be forty pounds annually for the first six years, and afterwards forty-five pounds. My father endeavoured to sell his leasehold property for the purpose of stocking this farm, but at that time was unable, and Mr. Fergusson lent him a hundred pounds for that purpose. He removed to his new situation at Whitsuntide, 1766. It was, I think, not above two years after this, that Murdoch, our tutor and friend, left this part of the country; and there being no school near us, and our little services being useful on the farm, my father undertook to teach us arithmetic in the winter evenings, by candle-light; and in this way my two elder sisters got all the education they received. I remember a circumstance that happened at this time, which, though trifling in itself, is fresh in my memory, and may serve to illustrate the early character of my brother. Murdoch came to spend a night with us, and to take his leave, when he was about to go into Carrick. He brought us a present and memorial of him, a small compendium of English Grammar, and the tragedy of Titus Andronicus;' and by
way of passing the evening, he began to read the play aloud. We were all attention for some time, till presently the whole party were dissolved in tears. A female in the play (I have but a confused remembrance of it) had her hands chopped off, and her tongue cut out, and then was insultingly desired to call for water to wash her hands. At this, in an agony of distress, we with one voice desired he would read no more. My father observed, that if we would not hear it out, it would be needless to leave the play with us. Robert replied, that if it was left he would burn it. My father was going to chide him for this ungrateful return to his tutor's kindness; but Murdoch interfered, declaring that he liked to see so much sensibility; and he left The School for Love, and a comedy (translated, I think, from the French), in its place."
"Nothing," continues Gilbert Burns, "could be more retired than our general manner of living, at Mount Elephant; we rarely saw anybody but the members of our own family. There were no boys of our own age, or near it, in the neighbourhood. Indeed the greatest part of the land in the vicinity was at that time possessed by shopkeepers, and people of that stamp, who had retired from business, or who kept their farm in the country, at the same time that they followed business in town. My father was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us, as if we had been men; and was at great pains, while we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge, or confirm us in virtuous habits. He borrowed Salmon's Geographical Grammar' for us, and endeavoured to make us acquainted with the situation and history of the different countries in the world; while from a book society in Ayr, he procured for us the reading of Derham's Physico and Astro-Theology,' and 'Ray's Wisdom of God in the Creation,' to give us some idea of astronomy and natural history. Robert read all these books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a subscriber to Stackhouse's History of the Bible,' then lately published by James Meuros in Kilmarnock; from this Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history; for no book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so antiquated as to damp his researches. A brother of my mother, who had lived with us for some time, and had learnt some arithmetic by our winter evening's candle, went to a bookseller's shop in Ayr, to purchase 'The Ready Reckoner,' or 'Tradesman's Guide', and a book to teach him to write letters. Luckily, in place of The Complete Letter-Writer,' he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers, with a few sensible directions for attaining an easy epistolary style. The book was to Robert of the greatest importance. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language.
"My brother was about thirteen or fourteen, when my father, regretting that we wrote so ill, sent us, week about, during a summer quarter, to the parish school of Dalrymple, which, though between two or three miles distant, was the naarest to us, that we might have an opportunity of remedying this defect. About this time a bookish acquaintance of my father's procured us a reading of two volumes of Richardson's 'Pamela,' which was the first novel we read, and the only part of Richardson's works my brother was acquainted with till towards the period of his commencing author. Till that time too he remained unacquainted with Fielding, with Smollet, (two volumes of Ferdinand Count Fathom,' and two volumes of Preregrine Pickle,' excepted,) with Hume and Robertson, and almost
all our authors of eminence of the later times. I recollect indeed my father borrowed a volume of English history from Mr. Hamilton of Bourtreehill's gardener. It treated of the reign of James the First, and his unfortunate son, Charles, but I do not know who was the author; all that I remember of it is something of Charles's conversation with his children. About this time, Murdoch, our former teacher, after having been in different places in the country, and having taught a school some time in Dumfries, came to be the established teacher of the English language in Ayr, a circumstance of considerable consequence to us. The remembrance of my father's former friendship, and his attachment to my brother, made him do everything in his power for our improvement. He sent us Pope's works, and some other poetry, the first that we had an opportunity of reading excepting what is contained in The English Collection,' and in the volume of The Edinburgh Magazine' for 1772; excepting also those excellent new songs that are hawked about the country in baskets or exposed on stalls in the streets.
The summer after we had been at Dalrymple school, my father sent Robert to Ayr, to revise his English grammar, with his former teacher. He had been there only one week, when he was obliged to return to assist at the harvest. When the harvest was over, he went back to school, where he remained two weeks; and this completes the account of his school education, excepting one summer quarter some time afterwards, that he attended the parish school of Kirk Oswald (where he lived with a brother of my mother's) to learn surveying.
During the two last weeks that he was with Murdoch, he himself was engaged in learning French, and he communicated the instructions he received to my brother, who, when he returned, brought with him a French dictionary and grammar, and the Adventures of Telemachus in the original. In a little while, by the assistance of these books, he acquired such a knowledge of the language, as to read and understand any French author in prose. This was considered as a sort of prodigy, and, through the medium of Murdoch, procured him the acquaintance of several lads in Ayr, who were at time gabbling French, and the notice of some families, particularly that of Dr. Malcolm, where a knowledge of French was a recommendation. "Observing the facility with which he had acquired the French language, Mr. Robinson, the established writing-master in Ayr, and Mr. Murdoch's particular friend, having himself acquired a considerable knowledge of the Latin language by his own industry, without ever having learned it at school, advised Robert to make the same attempt, promising him every assistance in his power. Agreeably to this advice, he purchased The Rudiments of the Latin Tongue, but finding this study dry and uninteresting, it was quickly laid aside. He frequently returned to his Rudiments' on any little chagrin or disappointment, particularly in his love-affairs; but the Latin seldom predominated more than a day or two at a time, or a week at most. Observing himself the ridicule that would attach to this sort of conduct if it were known, he made two or three humorous stanzas on the subject, which I cannot now recollect, but they all ended,
"So I'll to my Latin again.'
"Thus you see Mr. Murdoch was a principal means of my brother's improvement. Worthy man! though foreign to my present purpose, 1 cannot take leave of him without tracing his future history. He continued for some years a respected and useful teacher at Ayr, till one evening that he had been overtaken in liquor, he happened to speak somewhat disrespectfully of
LIFE OF ROBERT BURNS
Dr. Dalrymple, the parish minister, who had not paid him that attention to which he thought himself entitled. In Ayr he might as well have spoken blasphemy. He found it proper to give up his appointment. He went to London, where he still lives, a private teacher of French. He has been a considerable time married, and keeps a shop of stationary wares.
"The father of Dr. Paterson, now physician at Ayr, was, I believe, a native of Aberdeenshire, and was one of the established teachers in Ayr when my father settled in the neighbourhood. He eagerly recognised my father as a fellownative of the north of Scotland, and a certain degree of intimacy subsisted between them during Mr. Paterson's life. After his death, his widow, who is a very genteel woman, and of great worth, delighted in doing what she thought her husband would have done, and assiduously kept up her attentions to all his acquaintance. She kept alive the intimacy with our family, by frequently inviting my father and mother to her house on Sundays, when she met them at church.
No writing had ever been made out of the conditions of the lease; a misunderstanding took place respecting them; the subjects in dispute were submitted to arbitration, and the decision involved my father's affairs in ruin. He lived to know of this decision, but not to see any execution in consequence of it. He died on the 13th of February, 1784.
The seven years we lived in Tarbolton parish (extending from the seventeenth to the twentyfourth of my brother's age) were not marked by much literary improvement; but during this time the foundation was laid of certain habits in my brother's character, which afterwards became but too prominent, and which malice and envy have taken delight to enlarge on. Though, when young, he was bashful and awkward in his intercourse with women, yet, when he approached manhood, his attachment to their society became very strong, and he was constantly the victim of some fair enslaver. The symptoms of his passions were often such as nearly to equal those of the celebrated Sappho. I never indeed knew that he fainted, sunk, and "When she came to know my brother's passion died away, but the agitations of his mind and for books, she kindly offered us the use of her body exceeded anything of the kind I ever knew husband's library, and from her we got the in real life. He had always a particular jealousy 'Spectator,' Pope's Translation of Homer,' of people who were richer than himself, or who and several other books that were of use to us. had more consequence in life. His love, thereMount Oliphant, the farm my father possessed fore, rarely settled on persons of this descripin the parish of Ayr, is almost the very poorest tion. When he selected any one, out of the soil I know of in a state of cultivation. A sovereignty of his good pleasure, to whom he stronger proof of this, I cannot give, than that, should pay his particular attention, she was innotwithstanding the extraordinary rise in the stantly invested with a sufficient stock of charms. value of lands in Scotland, it was, after a con- out of the plentiful stores of his own imagination: siderable sum laid out in improving it by the and there was often a great dissimilitude beproprietor, let, a few years ago, five pounds per tween his fair captivator, as she appeared to annum lower than the rent paid for it by my others, and as she seemed when invested with father thirty years ago. My father, in conse- the attributes he gave her. One generally quence of this, soon came into difficulties, which reigned paramount in his affections: but as were increased by the loss of several of his cattle Yorick's affections flowed out toward Madame by accidents and disease.-To the buffetings of de L at the remise door, while the eternal misfortune, we could only oppose hard labour vows of Eliza were upon him, so Robert was and the most rigid economy. We lived very frequently encountering other attractions, which sparingly. For several years butcher's meat formed so many under plots in the drama of his was a stranger in the house, while all the mem- love. As these connexions were governed by bers of the family exerted themselves to the ut- the strictest rules of virtue and modesty (from most of their strength, and rather beyond it, in which he never deviated till he reached his the labours of the farm. My brother, at the age twenty-third year), he became anxious to be in of thirteen, assisted in threshing the crop of a situation to marry. This was not likely to be corn, and at fifteen was the principal labourer soon the case while he remained a farmer, as on the farm, for we had no híred servant, male the stocking of a farm required a sum of money or female. The anguish of mind we felt at our he had no probability of being master of for a tender years, under these straits and difficulties, great while. He began, therefore, to think of was very great. To think of our father growing trying some other line of life. He and I had for old (for he was now above fifty), broken down several years taken land of my father for the with the long-continued fatigues of his life, with purpose of raising flax on our own account. In a wife and five other children, and in a declining the course of selling it, Robert began to think of state of circumstances,-these reflections pro- turning flax-dresser, both as being suitable to duced in my brother's mind and mine sensations his grand view of settling in life, and as subserof the deepest distress. I doubt not but the hard vient to the flax raising. He accordingly wrought labour and sorrow of this period of his life was at the business of a flax-dresser in Irvine for six in a great measure the cause of that depression months, but abandoned it at that period, as of spirits with which Robert was so often afflic- neither agreeing with his health nor inclination. ted through his whole life afterwards. At this In Irvine he had contracted some acquaintance time he was almost constantly afflicted in the of a freer manner of thinking and living than he evenings with a dull headache, which, at a had been used to, whose society prepared him future period of his life, was exchanged for a for overleaping the bounds of rigid virtue which palpitation of the heart, and a threatening of had hitherto restrained him. Towards the end fainting and suffocation in his bed, in the night- of the period under review (in his twenty-fourth time. year), and soon after his father's death he was furnished the subject of his epistle to John Rankin. During this period, also, he became a freemason, which was his first introduction to the life of a boon companion. Yet, notwithstanding these circumstances, and the praise he has bestowed on Scotch drink (which seems to have misled his historians), I do not recollect, during these seven years, nor till towards the end of his commencing author (when his growing celebrity occasioned his being often in company), to have ever seen him intoxicated; nor was he at all given to drinking. A stronger proof of the
By a stipulation in my father's lease, he had a right to throw it up, if he thought proper, at the end of every sixth year. He attempted to fix himself in a better farm at the end of the first six years, but failing in that attempt, he continued where he was for six years more. He then took the farm of Lochlea, of 130 acres, at the rent of twenty shillings an acre, in the parish of Tarbolton, of Mr. merchant in Ayr, and now (1797) a merchant in Liverpool. He removed to this farm at WhitSunday, 1777, and possessed it only seven years.