Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Robert Burns (1759–1796)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Henry Stoddard (1825–1903)
THERE have been, there are, and there always will be, poets concerning whose lives it is not necessary that the world should know anything in order to understand their poetry; and there have been, there are, and there always will be, other poets concerning whose lives it is necessary that the world should know all there is to be known, before it can begin to understand their poetry. The difference between these two classes of poets is the difference between a company of accomplished actors, who by virtue of their training and practice are able to project themselves into imaginary characters on the public stage, and the originals of these characters in private personal life; or to put it in other words, the difference between art and nature. It is the privilege of art to dispense with explanations and extenuations; for if it be true to itself it is sufficient in itself, and anything added to it or taken from it is an impertinence or a deformity. When we read ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Lear,’ or ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ we do not ask ourselves what Shakespeare meant by them,—why some scenes were written in verse and other scenes in prose,—for it is not of Shakespeare that we are thinking as we read, but of his characters, for whom we feel that he is no more responsible than we are, since they move, live, and have their being in a world of their own, above the smoke and stir of this dim spot which men call Earth,—the world of pure, perfect, poetic art. If Shakespeare was conscious of himself when he wrote, he succeeded in concealing himself so thoroughly that it is impossible to discover him in his writing,—as impossible as it is not to discover other poets in their writings; for whatever is absent from the choir of British song, the note of personality is always present there. A low laugh in the gracious mouth of Chaucer, a harsh rebuke on the stern lips of Milton, a modish sneer in the smile of Pope,—it was now a stifled complaint, now an amorous ditty, and now a riotous shout with Burns, who was as much a poet through his personality as through his genius. He put his life into his song; and not to know what his life was, is not to know what his song is,—why it was a consolation to him while he lived, and why after his death it made his—
  “One of the few, the immortal names,
That were not born to die.”
  Early in the last half of the eighteenth century a staid and worthy man, named William Burness (as the name Burns was then spelled), a native of Kincardineshire, emigrated to Ayrshire in pursuit of a livelihood. He hired himself as a gardener to the laird of Fairlie, and later to a Mr. Crawford of Doonside, and at length took a lease of seven acres of land on his own account at Alloway on the banks of the Doon. He built a clay cottage there with his own hands, and to this little cottage, in December 1757, he brought a wife, the eldest daughter of a farmer of Carrick. There was a disparity in their ages, for he was about thirty-six and she some eight or nine years younger; and a disparity in their education, for he was an intelligent reader and lover of books, while she, though she had been taught as a child to read the Bible and to repeat the Psalms, was not able to write her name. She had a great respect for her husband, whose occupation was now that of a nurseryman. A little more than a year after their marriage, on the 25th of January, 1759, she bore him a son who was christened Robert, who was followed, as time went on, by brothers and sisters; and before many years were over, what with the guidman, the guidwife, and the bonny bairns, there was not much spare room in the little clay biggin at Alloway.  2
  Poor as they were, the social condition of this Scottish family was superior to the social condition of most English families in the same walk of rustic life; this superiority resulting from certain virtues inherent in the national character,—the virtues of simple appetites and frugal habits, of patience and courage in adversity, and best of all, in affectionate hearts, reverential minds, and a thirst for knowledge which only books could supply. William Burness inherited respect for education from his father, who in his young manhood was instrumental in building a schoolhouse on his farm at Clockenhill. Accordingly, when his son Robert was in his sixth year he sent him to a little school at Alloway Mill, about a mile from his cottage; and not long after he took the lead in hiring a young teacher named Murdoch to instruct him and his younger brother Gilbert at some place near at hand. Their school-books consisted of the Shorter Catechism, the Bible, the spelling-book, and Fisher’s ‘English Grammar.’ Robert was a better scholar than Gilbert, especially in grammar, in which he acquired some proficiency. The only book which he is known to have read outside of his primitive curriculum was a ‘Life of Hannibal,’ which was loaned him by his teacher. When he was seven the family removed to a small upland farm called Mount Oliphant, about two miles from Alloway, to and from which the boys plodded daily in pursuit of learning. At the end of two years the teacher obtained a better situation in Carrick; the school was broken up, and from that time onward William Burness took upon himself the education of his lads and lassies, whom he treated as if they were men and women, conversing with them on serious topics as they accompanied him in his labors on the farm, and borrowing for their edification, from a Book Society in Ayr, solid works like Derham’s ‘Physico- and Astro-Theology’ and Ray’s ‘Wisdom of God in the Creation.’ This course of heavy reading was lightened by the ‘History of Sir William Wallace,’ which was loaned to Robert by a blacksmith named Kilpatrick, and which forced a hot flood of Scottish feeling through his boyish veins. His next literary benefactor was a brother of his mother, who while living for a time with the family had learned some arithmetic by their winter evening’s candle. He went one day into a bookseller’s shop in Ayr to purchase a Ready Reckoner and a Complete Letter-Writer, but procured by mistake in place of the latter a small collection of ‘Letters by Eminent Wits,’ which proved of more advantage (or disadvantage) to his nephew than to himself, for it inspired the lad with a desire to excel in epistolary writing. Not long after this Robert’s early tutor Murdoch returned to Ayr, and lent him Pope’s Works; a bookish friend of his father’s obtained for him the reading of two volumes of Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ and another friendly soul the reading of Smollett’s ‘Ferdinand Count Fathom,’ and ‘Peregrine Pickle.’ The book which most delighted him, however, was a collection of English songs called ‘The Lark.’  3
  Mount Oliphant taxed the industry and endurance of William Burness to the utmost; and what with the sterility of the soil, which was the poorest in the parish, and the loss of cattle by accidents and disease, it was with great difficulty that he managed to support his family. They lived so sparingly that butcher’s meat was for years a stranger in the house, and they labored, children and all, from morning to night. Robert, at the age of thirteen, assisted in threshing the crop of corn, and at fifteen he was the principal laborer on the farm, for they could not afford a hired hand. That he was constantly afflicted with a dull headache in the evenings was not to be wondered at; nor that the sight and thought of his gray-haired father, who was turned fifty, should depress his spirits and impart a tinge of gloom to his musings. It was under circumstances like these that he composed his first song, the inspiration of which was a daughter of the blacksmith who had loaned him the ‘History of Sir William Wallace.’ It was the custom of the country to couple a man and woman together in the labors of harvest; and on this occasion his partner was Nelly Kilpatrick, with whom, boy-like,—for he was in his seventeenth year and she a year younger,—he liked to lurk behind the rest of the hands when they returned from their labors in the evening, and who made his pulse beat furiously when he fingered over her little hand to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. She sang sweetly, and among her songs there was one which was said to be composed by a small laird’s son about one of his father’s maids, with whom he was in love; and Robert saw no reason why he should not rhyme as well as he, for the author had no more school-craft than himself. Writing of this song a few years later, he called it puerile and silly; and his verdict as a poetical one was correct. Still, considered as a song, this artless effusion possessed one merit of which he himself was probably not conscious: it was inspired by his feeling and not by his reading, by the warmth and purity of his love of Nelly Kilpatrick, and not by his admiration of any amorous ditty in his collection of English songs. It was a poor thing, but it was certainly his own, and nowhere more so than in its recognition of the womanly personality of its heroine:—
  “And then there’s something in her gait
      Gars ony dress look weel.”
This touch of nature, which no modish artist would have attempted, marked the hand of one who painted from the life.
  William Burness struggled along for twelve years at Mount Oliphant, and then removed to Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. Here he rented a larger farm, the soil of which promised a surer maintenance for himself and the hostages he had given to Fortune. And there these loving hostages began to put away childish things, and to become men and women. They were cheerful, in spite of the frugality which their poverty imposed upon them; and were merry in their simple homely way, singing and dancing among themselves and among their friendly neighbors. Their hearts expanded in the healthy air about them, particularly the heart of Robert, which turned to thoughts of love,—not lightly, as in his boyish fancy for Nelly Kilpatrick, but seriously, as beseemed a man; for he was now in his nineteenth year, and as conscious of what he was to woman as of what woman was to him. A born lover, and a born poet, he discovered himself and his song at Tarbolton. The custom of the country and the time sanctioned a freedom of manners, and a frequency of meeting on the part of rustic amorists, of which he was not slow to avail himself. The love affairs of the Scottish peasantry are thus described by one of his biographers:—“The young farmer or plowman, after his day of exhausting toil, would proceed to the home of his mistress, one, two, three, or more miles distant, there signal her to the door, and then the pair would seat themselves in the barn for an hour or two’s conversation.” Burns practiced this mode of courtship, which was the only one open to him, and among the only women whom he knew at Tarbolton. “He made no distinction between the farmer’s own daughters and those who acted as his servants, the fact after all being that the servants were often themselves the daughters of farmers, and only sent to be the hirelings of others because their services were not needed at home.” We should remember this habit of the Scottish peasantry if we wish to understand the early songs of Burns; for they were suggested by it, and vitalized by it, as much as by his impassioned genius. He painted what he saw; he sang what he felt. We have a glimpse of him in one of his winter courtships in ‘My Nanie, O’; another and warmer glimpse of him in one of his summer courtships in ‘The Rigs o’ Barley’; and another and livelier glimpse of him in one of his mocking moods in ‘Tibbie, I hae seen the day.’ But he was more than the lover which these songs revealed: he was a man of sound understanding and fine, active intelligence, gifted with ready humor and a keen sense of wit. If he had been other than he was, he might and probably would have been elated by his poetic powers, of which he must have been aware; but being what he was, he was content to enjoy them and to exercise them modestly, and at such scanty intervals as his daily duties afforded. He composed his songs as he went about his work, plowing, sowing, reaping; crooning them as he strode along the fields, and correcting them in his head as the hours dragged on, until night came, and he could write them down in his little room by the light of his solitary candle. He had no illusions about himself: he was the son of a poor farmer, who, do what he might, was never prosperous; and poverty was his portion. His apprehension, which was justified by the misfortunes of the family at Mount Oliphant, was confirmed by their dark continuance at Tarbolton, where he saw his honored father, bowed with years of toil, grow older and feebler day by day, dying of consumption before his eyes. The end came on February 13th, 1784; and a day or two afterwards the humble coffin of William Burness, arranged between two leading horses placed after each other, and followed by relations and neighbors on horseback, was borne to Alloway and buried in the old kirkyard.  5
  The funeral over, the family removed to Mossgiel, in the parish of Mauchline, where, at Martinmas, Robert and Gilbert had rented another farm. Having no means of their own, they and their sisters were obliged to rank as creditors of their dead father for the arrears of wages due them as laborers at Lochlea; and it was with these arrears, which they succeeded in wresting from their old landlord or his factor, that they stocked the new farm. The change was a beneficial one for all the family, who were now for the first time in their lives provided with a comfortable dwelling; and everything considered, especially so for their head,—which Robert, who was now in his twenty-sixth year, virtually became. He realized the gravity of the responsibility which rested upon him, and rightly judging that industry alone would not enable him to support it, resolved to work with the brains of others as well as his own hard hands. He read farming books, he calculated crops, he attended markets, but all to no purpose; for like his father before him, however much he may have deserved success, he could not command it. What he could and did command however was the admiration of his fellows, who were quick to perceive and ready to acknowledge his superiority. There was that about him which impressed them,—something in his temperament or talent, in his personality or character, which removed him from the roll of common men. What seemed to distinguish him most was the charm of his conversation, which, remarkable as it was for fluency and force, for originality and brilliancy, was quite as remarkable for good sense and good feeling. Grave or gay, as the occasion suggested and the spirit moved him, he spoke as with authority and was listened to with rapt attention. His company was sought, and go where he would he was everywhere welcomed as a good fellow. He had the art of making friends; and though they were not always of the kind that his well-wishers could have desired, they were the best of their kind in and about Mauchline. What he saw in some of them, other than the pleasure they felt in his society, it is hard to say; but whatever it was, he liked it and the conviviality to which it led,—which, occasionally coarsened by stories that set the table in a roar, was ever and anon refined by songs that filled his eyes with tears. His life was a hard one,—a succession of dull, monotonous, laborious days, haunted by anxiety and harassed by petty, irritating cares,—but he faced it cheerfully, manfully, and wrestled with it triumphantly, for he compelled it to forge the weapons with which he conquered it. He sang like a boy at Lochlea; he wrote like a man at Mossgiel. The first poetical note that he struck there was a personal one, and commemorative of his regard for two rustic rhymers, David Sillar and John Lapraik, to whom he addressed several Epistles,—a form of composition which he found in Ferguson and Ramsay, and of which he was enamored. That he thoroughly enjoyed the impulse which suggested and dictated these Epistles was evident from the spirit with which they were written. In the first of the two, which he addressed to Sillar, he discovered and disclosed for the first time the distinctive individuality of his genius. It was a charming and touching piece of writing; charming as a delineation of his character, and touching as a confession of his creed,—the patient philosophy of the poor. As his social horizon was enlarged, his mental vision was sharpened; and before long, other interests than those which concerned himself and his poetical friends excited his sympathies and stimulated his powers. It was a period of theological squabbles, and he plunged into them at once, partly no doubt because there was a theological strain in his blood, but largely because they furnished opportunities for the riotous exercise of his wit. He paid his disrespects to the fomenters of this holy brawl in ‘The Twa Herds,’ and he pilloried an old person who was obnoxious to him, in that savage satire on sanctimonious hypocrisy, ‘Holy Willy’s Prayer.’ Always a poet, he was more, much more than a poet. He was a student of man,—of all sorts of men; caring much, as a student, for the baser sort which reveled in Poosie Nansie’s dram-shop, and which he celebrated in ‘The Jolly Beggars’; but caring more, as a man, for the better sort which languished in huts where poor men lodged, and of which he was the voice of lamentation in ‘Man was Made to Mourn.’ He was a student of manners, which he painted with a sure hand, his masterpiece being that reverential reproduction of the family life at Lochlea,—‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night.’ He was a student of nature,—his love of which was conspicuous in his poetry, flushing his words with picturesque phrases and flooding his lines with the feeling of outdoor life. He was a student of animal life,—a lover of horses and dogs, observant of their habits and careful of their comfort. He felt for the little mouse which his plowshare turned out of its nest, and he pitied the poor hare which the unskillful fowler could only wound. The commoners of earth and air were dear to him; and the flower beside his path, the gowan wet with dew, was precious in his eyes. His heart was large, his mind was comprehensive, and his temper singularly sweet and sunny.  6
  Such was Robert Burns at Mossgiel, and a very likable person he was. But all the while there was another Robert Burns at Mossgiel, and he was not quite so likable. He had a strange fascination for women, and a strange disregard of the consequences of this fascination. This curious combination of contradictory traits was an unfortunate one, as a young woman of Mauchline was destined to learn. She was the daughter of a mason, and her name was Jean Armour. He met her on a race day at a house of entertainment which must have been popular, since it contained a dancing-hall, admission to which was free, any man being privileged to invite to it any woman whom he fancied and for whose diversion he was willing to disburse a penny to the fiddler. He was accompanied on this occasion by his dog, who insisted on following him into the hall and persisted in keeping at his heels while he danced,—a proof of its fidelity which created considerable amusement, and which its master turned to his personal account by saying he wished he could get any of the lasses to like him as well as his dog. Jean heard his remark, and not long afterwards, as he was passing through the washing-green where she was bleaching clothes (from which she begged him to call off his troublesome follower), she reminded him of it by asking him if he had yet got any of the lasses to like him as well as did his dog? He got one there and then; for from that hour Jean was attached to him and he to Jean. He was reticent about his conquest, concealing it from his closest friends, and even from his dearest foe, the Muse; but however reticent, his conquest was not to be concealed, for Jean one day discovered that she was with child. What he felt when this calamity was made known to him we know not, for he kept his own counsel. What he wished his friends to feel, if they could and would, we may divine from a poem which he wrote about this time,—an address to the rigidly righteous, into whose minds he sought to instill the charity of which he and Jean were sorely in need:—

  “Then gently scan your brother man,
  Still gentler sister woman;
Though 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.”
  He wrote a paper which he gave Jean, in the belief that it constituted a marriage between them,—a belief which was perhaps justifiable in the existing condition of Scottish laws of marriage. But he counted without his host; for instead of accepting it as a manly endeavor to shield the reputation of his daughter and divert scandal from his family, the hot-headed father of Jean denounced it and demanded its destruction,—a foolish proceeding to which his foolish daughter consented. Whether its destruction could destroy his obligation need not be curiously considered; it is enough to know that he believed that it did, and that it was a proof of perfidy on the part of Jean. But they should see! She had forsaken him, and he would forsake her. So, the old love being off, he was straightway on with a new one. Of this new love little is known, except that she was, or had been, a servant in the family of one of his friends,—a nurserymaid or something of the sort,—and that she was of Highland parentage. Her name was Mary Campbell. He transferred his affections from Jean to Mary, and his fascination was so strong that she promised to become his wife. They met one Sunday in a sequestered spot on the banks of the Ayr, where, standing on each side of a little brook, they laved their hands in its limpid waters, plighted their troth, and exchanged Bibles,—she giving him her copy, which was a small one, he giving her his copy, which was a large one in two volumes, on the blank leaves of which he had written his name and two quotations from the sacred text, one being the solemn injunction to fidelity in Leviticus:—“And ye shall not swear by my name falsely. I am the Lord.” They parted. She returned to her relatives, among whom she died a few months afterward of a malignant fever; he returned to his troubles at Mossgiel. They were not all of his own making. It was not his fault that the farm was an unproductive one; he could not impart fertility to barren acres nor compel the sun to ripen scanty crops. In the hope of bettering his fortunes he resolved to expatriate himself, and entered into negotiations with a man who had an estate in the West Indies, and who agreed to employ him as his factor. He had no money and no means of getting any, except by the publication of his poems, none of which had yet appeared in print. He issued a prospectus for their publication by subscription; and such was the reputation they had made for him through their circulation in manuscript, and the activity of his friends, that the necessary number of subscribers was soon obtained. They were published at Kilmarnock in the summer of 1786, and were read by all classes,—by the plowman as eagerly as by the laird, by the milkmaid in the dairy as eagerly as by her mistress in the parlor,—and wherever they were read they were admired. No poet was ever so quickly recognized as Burns, who captivated his readers by his human quality as well as his genius. They understood him at once. He sung of things which concerned them,—of emotions which they felt, the joys and sorrows of their homely lives, and, singing from his heart, his songs went to their hearts. His fame as a poet spread along the country and came to the knowledge of Dr. Blacklock, a blind poet in Edinburgh, who after hearing Burns’s poetry was so impressed by it that he wrote or dictated a letter about it, which he addressed to a correspondent in Kilmarnock, by whom it was placed in the hands of Burns. He was still at Mossgiel, and in a perturbed condition of mind, not knowing whether he could remain there, or whether he would have to go to Jamaica. He resolved at last to do neither, but to go to Edinburgh, which he accordingly did, proceeding thither on a pony borrowed from a friend.  8
  The visit of Burns to Edinburgh was a hazardous experiment from which he might well have shrunk. He was ignorant of the manners of its citizens,—the things which differentiated them as a class from the only class he knew,—but his ignorance did not embarrass him. He was self-possessed; manly in his bearing; modest, but not humble; courteous, but independent. He had no letters of introduction, and needed none, for his poetry had prepared the way for him. It was soon known among the best people in Edinburgh that he was there, and they hastened to make his acquaintance; one of the first to do so being a man of rank, Lord Glencairn. To know him was to know other men of rank, and to be admitted to the brilliant circles in which they moved. Burns’s society was sought by the nobility and gentry and by the literary lords of the period, professors, historians, men of letters. They dined him and wined him and listened to him,—listened to him eagerly, for here as elsewhere he distinguished himself by his conversation, the charm of which was so potent that the Duchess of Gordon declared that she was taken off her feet by it. He increased his celebrity in Edinburgh by the publication of a new and enlarged edition of his Poems, which he dedicated to the noblemen and gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt in a page of manly prose, the proud modesty and the worldly tact of which must have delighted them. “The poetic genius of my country found me,” he wrote, “as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha, and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native soil in my native tongue. I tuned my wild, artless notes as she inspired. She whispered me to come to this ancient metropolis of Caledonia and lay my songs under your honored protection. I now obey her dictates.” His mind was not active at this time, for beyond a few trivial verses he wrote nothing worthy of him except a short but characteristic ‘Epistle to the Guidwife of Wauchope House.’ He spent the winter of 1786 and the spring of 1787 in Edinburgh; and summer being close at hand, he resolved to return for a time to Mossgiel. There were strong reasons for his return, some of which pertained to his impoverished family, whom he was now in a condition to assist, for the new edition of his Poems had proved profitable to himself, and others—for before his departure for Edinburgh, Jean had borne twins, a boy and a girl; and the girl was being cared for at Mossgiel. He returned therefore to his family and his child, and whether he purposed to do so or not, to the mother of his child. It was not a wise thing to do, perhaps, but it was a human thing, and very characteristic of the man, who, whatever else he was not, was very human. And the Armours were very human also, for old Armour received him into his house, and Jean received him into her arms. She was not a prudent young woman, but she was a fond and forgiving one.  9
  The life of Burns during the next twelve months may be briefly described. He returned to Edinburgh, where in his most serious moods he held sessions of thought. It may have been a silent one, but it was not a sweet one; for while he summoned up remembrance of things past, he summoned up apprehensions of things to come. That he had won distinction as a poet was certain; what was not certain was the duration of this distinction. He was famous to-day; he might be forgotten to-morrow. But famous or forgotten, he and those dependent on him must have bread; and since he saw no reasonable prospect of earning it with his head, he must earn it with his hands. They were strong and willing. So he leased a farm at Ellisland in Dumfriesshire, and obtained an appointment from the Board of Excise: then, poet, farmer, and exciseman, he went back to Mauchline and was married to Jean. Leaving her and her child he repaired to Ellisland, where he was obliged to build a cottage for himself. He dug the foundations, collected stone and sand, carted lime, and generally assisted the masons and carpenters. Nor was this all, for he directed at the same time whatever labor the careful cultivation of a farm demanded from its tenant. He was happy at Ellisland,—happier than he had been at Mount Oliphant, where his family had been so sorely pinched by poverty, and much happier than he had been at Mossgiel, where he had wrought so much trouble for himself and others. A good son and a good brother, he was a good husband and a good father. It was in no idle moment that he wrote this stanza, which his conduct now illustrated:—
  “To make a happy fireside chime
      To weans and wife,
That’s the true pathos and sublime
      Of human life.”
His life was orderly; his wants were few and easily supplied; his mind was active, and his poetical vein more productive than it had been at Edinburgh. The best lyric that he wrote at Ellisland was the one in praise of his wife (‘Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw—’); the most important poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter.’ Farmer and exciseman, he was very busy,—busier, perhaps, as the last than the first, for while his farming labors might be performed by others, his excise labors could only be performed by himself; the district under his charge covering ten parishes, the inspection of which required his riding about two hundred miles a week. The nature of his duties, and the spirit with which he went through them, may be inferred from a bit of his doggerel:—
  “Searching auld wives’ barrels,
          Och, hone, the day!
That clarty barm should stain my laurels:
          But—what’ll ye say—
These movin’ things ca’d wives and weans
Wad move the very hearts o’ stanes!”
A model exciseman, he was neither a model nor a prosperous farmer, for here as elsewhere, mother earth was an unkind stepmother to him. He struggled on, hoping against hope, from June 1788 to December 1791; then, beaten, worn out, exhausted, he gave up his farm and removed to Dumfries, exchanging his cozy cottage with its outlook of woods and waters for a mean little house in the Wee Vennel, with its inlook of narrow dirty streets and alleys. His life in Dumfries was not what one could wish it might have been for his sake; for though it was not without its hours of happiness, its unhappy days were many, and of a darker kind than he had hitherto encountered. They were monotonous, they were wearisome, they were humiliating. They could not be other than humiliating to a man of his proud, impulsive spirit, who, schooling himself to prudence on account of his wife and children, was not always prudent in his speech. Who indeed could be, unless he were a mean, cowardly creature, in the storm and stress of the great Revolution with which France was then convulsed? His utterances, whatever they may have been, were magnified to his official and social disadvantage, and he was greatly troubled. He felt his disfavor with the people of Dumfries,—as he could not help showing to one of his friends, who, riding into the town on a fine summer evening to attend a county ball, saw him walking alone on the shady side of the principal street, while the other side was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who seemed unwilling to recognize him. This friend dismounted, and joining him, proposed that they should cross the street. “Nay, nay, my young friend,” said the poet, “that’s all over now.” Then, after a pause, he quoted two stanzas from a pathetic ballad by Lady Grizel Bailie:—

  “His bonnet stood then fu’ fair on his brow,
His auld are looked better than mony ane’s new;
But now he lets ’t wear ony way it will hing,
And casts himself doure upon the corn bing.
“O were we young now as we ance hae been,
We should hae been galloping down on yon green,
And linking it owre the lily-white lea—
And werena my heart light I wad die.”
  The light heart of Burns failed him at last,—failed him because, enfeebled by disease and incapacitated from performing his excise duties, his salary, which had never exceeded seventy pounds a year, was reduced to half that beggarly sum; because he was so distressed for money that he was obliged to solicit a loan of a one-pound note from a friend: failed him, poor heart, because it was broken! He took to his bed for the last time on July 21st, 1796, and two days later, surrounded by his little family, he passed away in the thirty-eighth year of his age.  11
  Such was the life of Robert Burns,—the hard, struggling, erring, suffering, manly life, of which his poetry is the imperishable record. He was what his birth, his temperament, his circumstances, his genius made him. He owed but little to books, and the books to which he owed anything were written in his mother tongue. His English reading, which was not extensive, harmed him rather than helped him. No English author taught or could teach him anything. He was not English, but Scottish,—Scottish in his nature and genius, Scottish to his heart’s core,—the singer of the Scottish people, their greatest poet, and the greatest poet of his time.  12

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.