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OF ROBERT BURNS.
ROBERT BURNS was, as is well known, the son of a farmer in Ayrshire, and afterwards himself a farmer there; but, having been unsuccessful, he was about to emigrate to Jamaica. He had previously, however, attracted some notice by his poetical talents in the vicinity where he lived; and having published a small volume of his poems at Kilmarnock, this drew upon him more general attention. In consequence of the encouragement he received, he repaired to Edinburgh, and there published, by subscription, an improved and enlarged edition of his poems, which met with extraordinary success. By the profits arising from the sale of this edition, he was enabled to enter on a farm in Dumfriesshire; and having married a person to whom he had been long attached, he retired to devote the remainder of his life to agriculture. He was again, however, unsuccessful; and, abandoning his farm, he removed again into the town of Dumfries, where he filled an inferior office in the excise, and where he terminated his life in July, 1796, in his thirty-eighth year.
The strength and originality of his genius procured him the notice of many persons distinguished in the republic of letters, and, among others, that of Dr. Moore, well known for his "Views of Society and Manners on the Continent of Europe," for his "Zeluco," and various other works. To this gentleman our poet addressed a letter, after his first visit to Edinburgh, giving a history of his life, up to the period of his writing. In a composition never intended to see the light, elegance or perfect correctness of composition will not be expected. These, however. will be compensated by the opportunity of seeing our poet, as he gives the incidents of his life, unfold the peculiarities of his character with all the careless vigour and open sincerity of his
Mauchline, 2nd August, 1787.
"For some months past I have been rambling over the country; but I am now confined with some lingering complaints, originating, as I take it, in the stomach. To divert my spirits a little in this miserable fog of ennui, I have taken a whim to give you a history of myself. My name has made some little noise in this country; you have done me the honour to interest yourself very warmly in my behalf; and I think a faithful account of what character of a man I am, and how I came by that character, may perhaps amuse you in an idle moment, I will give you an
honest narrative; though I know it will be often at my own expense; for I assure you, sir, I have, like Solomon, whose character, except in the trifling affair of wisdom, I sometimes think 1 resemble,-I have, I say, like him, turned my eyes to behold madness and folly, and like him, too, frequently shaken hands with their intoxicating friendship. * * * After you have persued these pages, should you think them trifling and impertinent, I only beg leave to tell you, that the poor author wrote them under some twitching qualms of conscience, arising from a suspicion that he was doing what he ought not to do: a predicament he has more than once been in before.
I have not the most distant pretensions to assume that character which the pye-coated guardians of escutcheons call a Gentleman. When at Edinburgh last winter, I got acquainted in the Herald's Office; and, looking through that granary of honours, I found there almost every name in the kingdom; but for me, "My ancient but ignoble blood Has crept through scoundrels ever since the flood."
Gules, purpure, argent, &c., quite disowned me. "My father was of the north of Scotland, the son of a farmer, and was thrown by early misfortunes on the world at large; where after picked up a pretty large quantity of observation many years wanderings and sojournings, he of my little pretensions to wisdom.-I have met and experience, to which I am indebted for most with few who understood men, their manners, and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn, ungainly integrity, and headlong, ungovernable irascibility, are disqualifying circumstances; consequently I was born a very poor man's son. For the first six or seven years of my life, my father was a gardener to a worthy gentleman of small estate in the neighbourhood of Ayr. Had he continued in that station, I must have marched off to be one of the little underlings about a farm-house; but it was his dearest wish and prayer to have it in his power to keep his children under his own eye till they could discern between good and evil; so, with the assistance of his generous master, my father ventured on a small farm on his estate. At those years I was by no means a favourite with anybody. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say idiot
tune, we fell into the hands of a factor, who sat
piety, because I was then but a child. Though
"For though on dreadful whirls we hung,
I met with these pieces in Mason's English Col-
"Polemical divinity about this time was putting the country half mad; and I, ambitious of shining in conversation parties on Sundays, between sermons, at funerals, &c., used, a few years afterwards, to puzzle Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion, that I raised a hue and cry of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour.
"My vicinity to Ayr was of some advantage to me. My social disposition, when not checked by some modifications of spiritual pride, was, like our catechism-definition of infinitude, without bounds or limits. I formed several connections with other younkers who possessed superior advantages, the youngling actors, who were busy in the rehearsal of parts in which they were shortly to appear on the stage of life, where, alas! I was destined to drudge behind the scenes. It is not commonly at this green age that our young gentry have a just sense of the immense distance between them and their ragged play-fellows. It takes a few dashes into the world, to give the young great man that proper, decent, unnoticing disregard for the poor insignificant stupid devils, the mechanics and peasantry around him, who were perhaps born in the same village. My young superiors never insulted the clouterly appearance of my plough-boy carcase, the two extremes of which were often exposed to all the inclemencies of the seasons. They would give me stray volumes of books; among them, even then, I could pick up some observations; and one, whose heart I am sure not even the Munny Begum scenes have tainted, helped me to a little French. Parting with these my young friends and benefactors, as they occasionally went off for the East or West Indies, was often to me a sore affliction. But I was soon called to more serious evils. My father's generous master died; the farm proved a ruinen bereain; and, to clench the misfor
the labours of harvest. In my fifteenth summer
Thus with me began love and poetry, which
It is during the time that we lived on this farm, that my little story is most eventful. I was, at the beginning of this period, perhaps the
most ungainly, awkward boy in the parish-no solitaire was less acquainted with the ways of the world. What I knew of ancient story was gathered from Salmon's and Guthrie's geographical grammars; and the ideas I had formed of modern manner, of literature, and criticism, I got from the Spectator. These, with Pope's Works, some plays of Shakspere, Tull and Dickson on Agriculture,' The Pantheon,' Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding,' Stackhouse's History of the Bible,' Justice's 'British Gardener's Directory, Bayle's Lectures, Allan Ramsay's Works, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin,' a Select Collection of English Songs, and Hervey's Meditations,' had formed the whole of my reading. The collection of songs was my vade-mecum. I pored over them driving my cart, or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noting the true tender, or sublime, from affectation and fustian. I am convinced I owe to this practice much of my critic craft, such as it is.
in Europe. The very goose-feather in my hand seems to know instinctively the well-worn path of my imagination, the favourite theme of my song; and it is with difficulty restrained from giving you a couple of paragraphs on the loveadventures of my compeers, the humble inmates of the farm-house and cottage; but the grave sons of science, ambition, or avarice, baptise these things by the name of follies. To the sons and daughters of labour and poverty, they are matters of the most serious nature; to them, the ardent hope, the stolen interview, the tender farewell, are the greatest and most delicious parts of my enjoyments.
"Another circumstance in my life which made some alteration in my mind and manners, was that I spent my nineteenth summer on a smugging coast, a good distance from home, at a noted school, to learn mensuration, surveying, dialling, &c, in which I made a pretty great progress. But I made a greater progress in the knowledge of mankind. The contraband trade was at the time very successful, and it sometimes happened to me to fall in with those who carried it on. Scenes of swaggering riot and roaring dissipation were till this time new to me; but I was no enemy to social life. Here, though I learnt to fill my glass, and to mix with-. out fear in a drunken squabble, yet I went on with a high hand with my geometry, till the sun entered Virgo, a month which is always a carnival in my bosom, when a charming filette who next door to the school, overset my trigonometry, and set me off at a tangent from the sphere of my studies. I, however, struggled on with my sines and co-sines, for a few days more! but stepping into the garden one charming noon to take the sun's altitude, there I met my angel,
"Like Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself as fairer flower.'
It was in vain to think of doing any more good at school. The remaining week I staid, I did nothing but craze the faculties of my soul about her, or steal out to meet her; and the last two nights of my stay in the country, had sleep been a mortal sin, the image of this modest and innocent girl had kept me guiltless.
"In my seventeenth year, to give my manners a brush, I went to a country dancing-school. My father had an unaccountable antipathy against these meetings; and my going was, what to this moment I repent, in opposition to his wishes. My father, as I said before, was subject to strong passions; from that instance of disobedience in me, he took a sort of dislike to me, which I believe was one cause of the dissipation which marked my succeeding years. I say dissipation, in comparison with the strict-lived ness, and sobriety, and regularity of Presbyterian country life: for though the Will-o'-Wisp meteors of thoughtless whim were almost the sole lights of my path, yet early ingrained piety and virtue kept me for several years after within the line of innocence. The great misfortune of my life was to want an aim. I had early felt some stirrings of ambition, but they were the blind gropings of Homer's Cyclops round the walls of his cave. I saw my father's situation entailed on me perpetual labour. The only two openings by which I could enter the temple of Fortune, was the gate of niggardly economy, or the path of little chicaning bargain-making. The first is so contracted an aperture, I never could squeeze myself into it;-the last I always hated there was contamination in the very entrance! Thus abandoned of aim or view in life, with a strong appetite for sociability, as well from active hilarity, as from a pride of observation and remark; a constitutional melancholy of hypochondriasm that made me fly solitude; add to these incentives to social life, my reputation for bookish knowledge, a certain wild logical talent, and a strength of thought, something like the rudiments of good sense; and it will not seem surprising that I was generally a welcome guest where I visited, or any great wonder that, always where two or three met together, there was I among them. But far beyond all other impulses of my heart, was un penchant a l'adorable moitie du genre humain. My heart was completely tinder, and was eternally lighted up by some goddess or other; and as in every other warfare in this world my fortune was various, sometimes I was received with favour, and sometimes I was mortified with a repulse. At the plough, scythe, or reap-hook, I feared no competitor, and thus I set absolute want at defiance; and as I never cared further for my labours than while I was in actual exercise, I spent the evenings in a way after my own heart. A country lad seldom carries on a love-adventure without an assisting confidant. I possessed a curiosity, zeal, and intrepid dexterity, that recommended me as a proper second on these occasions; and I dare say, I felt as much. pleasure in being in the secret of half the loves of the parish of Tarbolton, as ever did statesmen in knowing the intrigues of half the courts
"I returned home very considerably improved. My reading was enlarged with the very important addition of Thomson's and Shenstone's works; I had seen human nature in a new phasis and I engaged several of my schoolfellows to keep up a literary correspondence with me. This improved me in composition. I had met with a collection of letters of the wits of Queen Anne's reign, and I poured over them most devoutly: I kept copies of any of my own letters that pleased me, and a comparison between them and the composition of most of my correspondents flattered my vanity. I carried this whim so far, that though I had not three farthings' worth of business in the world, yet almost every post brought me as many letters as if I had been a broad plodding son of day-book and ledger.
"My life flowed on much in the same course till my twenty-third year. Vive l'amour, et vive la bagatelle, were my sole principles of action. The addition of two more authors to my library gave me great pleasure; 'Sterne' and 'M'Kenzie' Tristram Shandy' and The Man of Feeling" were my bosom favourites. Poesy was still a darling walk for my mind; but it was only indulged in according to the humour of the hour. I had usually half a dozen or more pieces on hand; I took up one or other, as it suited the momentary tone of the mind, and dismissed the work as it bordered on fatigue. My passion, when once lighted up, raged like so many devils, till they got vent in rhyme; and then the conning over my verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet.
None of the rhymes of those days are in print, except Winter, a Dirge,' the eldest of my printed pieces; Death of Poor Mailie,' John Barleycorn,' and The Songs,' first, second, and third. Song second was the ebullition of that passion which ended the forementioned school business. "My twenty-third year was to me an important era. Partly through whim, and partly that I wished to set about doing something in life, I joined a flax-dresser in a neighbouring town (Irvine) to learn his trade. This was an unlucky affair. My- -; and, to finish the whole, as we were giving a welcome carousal to the new year, the shop took fire and burnt to ashes; and 1 was left like a true poet, not worth 4 sixpence.
"I was obliged to give up this scheme: the clouds of misfortune were gathering thick round my father's head; and what was worst of all, he was visibly far gone in a consumption; and to crown my distresses, a belle fille whom I adored, and who had pledged her soul to me in the field of matrimony, jilted me, with peculiar circumstances of mortification. The finishing evil that brought up the rear of this infernal file, was, my constitutional melancholy being increased to such a degree, that for three months I was in a state of mind scarcely to be envied by the hopeless wretches who have got their mittimus-Depart from me, ye accursed!
"From this adventure, I learned something of a town life; but the principal thing which gave my mind a turn, was a friendship I formed with a young fellow, a very noble character, but a hapless son of misfortune. He was the son of a simple mechanic; but a great man in the neighbourhood taking him under his patronage gave him a genteel education, with a view of bettering his situation in life. The patron dying just as he was ready to launch out into the world, the poor little fellow in despair went to sea; where after a variety of good and ill fortune, a little before I was acquainted with him, he had been set ashore by an American privateer, on the wild coast of Connaught, stripped of everything. I cannot quit this poor fellow's story, without adding, that he is at this time master of a large West Indiaman belonging to
"His mind was fraught with independence, magnanimity, and every manly virtue. I loved and admired him to a degree of enthusiasm, and of course tried to imitate him. In some measure, I succeeded; I had pride before, but he taught it to flow in proper channels. His knowledge of the world was vastly superior to mine, and I was all attention to learn. He was the only man I ever saw, who was a greater fool than myself, where woman was the presiding star; but he spoke of illicit love with the levity of a sailor, which hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a mischief; and the consequence was that soon after 1 resumed the plough, I wrote the 'Poet's Welcome.' My reading only increased, while in this town, by two stray volumes of 'Pamela' and one of "Ferdinand Count Fathom," which gave me some idea of novels. Rhyme, except some religious pieces that are in print, I had given up but meeting with Ferguson's Scottish Poems,' I strung anew my wildly-sounding lyre with emulating vigour. When my father died, his all went among the hell-hounds that growl in the kennel of justice; but we made a shift to collect a little money in the family amongst us, with which, to keep us together, my brother and I took a neighbouring farm. My brother wanted my hair-brained imagination, as well as my social and amorous madness: but in good sense, and every sober qualification, he was far my superior.
I entered on this farm with a full resolution, Come, go to, I will be wise!' I read farming
"I now began to be known in the neighbourhood as a maker of rhymes. The first of my poetic offspring that saw the light, was a burlesque lamentation on a quarrel between two reverend Calvinists, both of them dramatis personce in my Holy Fair.' I had a notion myself, that the piece had some merit; but to prevent the worst, I gave a copy of it to a friend who was very fond of such things, and told him that I could not guess who was the author of it, but that I thought it pretty clever. With a certain description of the clergy, as well as laity, it met with a roar of applause. "Holy Willie's Prayer" next made its appearance, and alarmed the kirk session so much, that they held several meetings to look over their spiritual artillery, if haply any of it might be pointed against profane rhymers. Unluckily for me, my wanderings led me on another side, within point-blank shot of their heaviest metal. This is the unfortunate story that gave rise to my printed poem, "The Lament." This was a most melancholy affair, which I cannot yet bear to reflect on, and had very nearly given me one or two of the principal qualifications for a place among those who have lost the chart, and mistaken the reckoning of rationality.* I gave up my part of the farm to my brother; in truth it was only nominally mine; and made what little preparation was in my power for Jamaica. But, before leaving my native country for ever, I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my productions as impartially as was in my power: I thought they had merit; and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears-a poor negrodriver,-or perhaps a victim of that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits! I can truly say, that pauvre inconnu as I then was, I had pretty nearly as high an idea of myself and of my works as I have at this moment when the public has decided in their favour. It ever was my opinion, that the mistakes and blunders, both in a rational and religious point of view, of which we see thousands daily guilty, are owing to their ignorance of themselves.-To know myself, had been all along my constant study. I weighed myself alone; I balanced myself with others: I watched every means of information, to see how much ground I occupied as a man and as a poet; I studied assiduously nature's design in my formation-where the lights and shades in my character were intended. I was pretty confident my poems would meet with some applause; but, at the worst, the roar of the Atlantic would deafen the voice of censure, and the novelty of West Indian scenes make me forget neglect. I threw off six hundred copies, of which I had got subscriptions for about three hundred and fifty.-My vanity was highly gratified by the reception I had met with from the public; and besides I pocketed, all expenses deducted, nearly twenty pounds. This sum came very seasonably, as I was thinking of indenting myself, for want of money to procure my passage. As soon as I was master of nine guineas, the price of wafting me to the torrid zone, I took a steerage passage in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde; for