Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, was born on the 25th of January, 1759, in a clay-built cottage about two miles south of the town of Ayr. He was the eldest son of William Burnes, or Burness, who, at the period of Robert’s birth, was gardener and overseer to a gentleman of small estate; but resided on a few acres of land which he had on lease from another person. The father was a man of strict religious principles, and also distinguished for that penetration and knowledge of mankind which was afterwards so conspicuous in his son. The mother of the poet was likewise a very sagacious woman, and possessed an inexhaustible store of ballads and legendary tales, with which she nourished the infant imagination of him whose own productions were destined to excel them all.
These worthy individuals labored diligently for the support of an increasing family; nor, in the midst of harassing struggles did they neglect the mental improvement of their offspring; a characteristic of Scottish parents, even under the most depressing circumstances. In his sixth year, Robert was put under the tuition of one Campbell, and subsequently under Mr. John Murdoch, a very faithful and pains-taking teacher. With this individual he remained for a few years, and was accurately instructed in the first principles of composition. The poet and his brother Gilbert were the aptest pupils in the school, and were generally at the head of the class. Mr. Murdoch, in afterwards recording the impressions which the two brothers made on him, says: “Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of the wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church music. Here they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave, and expressive of a serious, contemplative, and thoughtful mind. Gilbert’s face said, Mirth, with thee I mean to live; and certainly, if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was the most likely to court the muses, he would never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.”
Besides the tuition of Mr. Murdoch, Burns received instructions from his father in writing and arithmetic. Under their joint care, he made rapid progress, and was remarkable for the ease with which he committed devotional poetry to memory. The following extract from his letter to Dr. Moore, in 1787, is interesting, from the light which it throws upon his progress as a scholar, and on the formation of his character as a poet:—“At those years,” says he, “I was by no means a favorite 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 piety, because I was then but a child. Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles. In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country, of tales and songs, concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry; but had so strong an effect upon my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more skeptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors. The earliest composition that I recollect taking pleasure in, was, The Vision of Mirza, and a hymn of Addison’s, beginning, “How are thy servants blest, O Lord!” I particularly remember one-half stanza, which was music to my boyish ear:
“For though on dreadful whirls we hung
High on the broken wave.”
I met with these pieces in Mason’s English Collection, one of my school-books. The first two books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were, The Life of Hannibal, and The History of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn, that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a tide of Scottish prejudice into my veins, which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.”
Mr. Murdoch’s removal from Mount Oliphant deprived Burns of his instructions; but they were still continued by the father of the bard. About the age of fourteen, he was sent to school every alternate week for the improvement of his writing. In the mean while, he was busily employed upon the operations of the farm; and, at the age of fifteen, was considered as the principal laborer upon it. About a year after this he gained three weeks of respite, which he spent with his old tutor, Murdoch, at Ayr, in revising the English grammar, and in studying the French language, in which he made uncommon progress. Ere his sixteenth year elapsed, he had considerably extended his reading. The vicinity of Mount Oliphant to Ayr afforded him facilities for gratifying what had now become a passion. Among the books which he had perused were some plays of Shakspeare, Pope, the works of Allan Ramsay, and a collection of songs, which constituted his vade mecum. “I pored over them,” says he, “driving my cart or walking to labor, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noticing the true, tender or sublime, from affectation and fustian.” So early did he evince his attachment to the lyric muse, in which he was destined to surpass all who have gone before or succeeded him.
At this period the family removed to Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. Some time before, however, he had made his first attempt in poetry. It was a song addressed to a rural beauty, about his own age, and though possessing no great merit as a whole, it contains some lines and ideas which would have done honor to him at any age. After the removal to Lochlea, his literary zeal slackened, for he was thus cut off from those acquaintances whose conversation stimulated his powers, and whose kindness supplied him with books. For about three years after this period, he was busily employed upon the farm, but at intervals he paid his addresses to the poetic muse, and with no common success. The summer of his nineteenth year was spent in the study of mensuration, surveying, etc., at a small sea-port town, a good distance from home. He returned to his father’s considerably improved. “My reading,” says he, “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 school-fellows to keep up a literary correspondence with me. This improved me in composition. I had met with a collection of letters by the wits of Queen Anne’s reign, and I pored 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.”
His mind, peculiarly susceptible of tender impressions, was continually the slave of some rustic charmer. In the “heat and whirlwind of his love,” he generally found relief in poetry, by which, as by a safety-valve, his turbulent passions were allowed to have vent. He formed the resolution of entering the matrimonial state; but his circumscribed means of subsistence as a farmer preventing his taking that step, he resolved on becoming a flax-dresser, for which purpose he removed to the town of Irvine, in 1781. The speculation turned out unsuccessful; for the shop, catching fire, was burnt, and the poet returned to his father without a sixpence. During his stay at Irvine he had met with Ferguson’s poems. This circumstance was of some importance to Burns, for it roused his poetic powers from the torpor into which they had fallen, and in a great measure finally determined the Scottish character of his poetry. He here also contracted some friendships, which he himself says did him mischief; and, by his brother Gilbert’s account, from this date there was a serious change in his conduct. The venerable and excellent parent of the poet died soon after his son’s return. The support of the family now devolving upon Burns, in conjunction with his brother he took a sub-lease of the farm of Mossgiel, in the parish of Mauchline. The four years which he resided upon this farm were the most important of his life. It was here he felt that nature had designed him for a poet; and here, accordingly, his genius began to develop its energies in those strains which will make his name familiar to all future times, the admiration of every civilized country, and the glory and boast of his own.
The vigor of Burns’s understanding, and the keenness of his wit, as displayed more particularly at masonic meetings and debating clubs, of which he formed one at Mauchline, began to spread his fame as a man of uncommon endowments. He now could number as his acquaintance several clergymen, and also some gentlemen of substance; amongst whom was Mr. Gavin Hamilton, writer in Mauchline, one of his earliest patrons. One circumstance more than any other contributed to increase his notoriety. “Polemical divinity,” says he to Dr. Moore in 1787, “about this time was putting the country half mad; and I, ambitious of shining in conversation-parties on Sundays, at funerals, etc., used 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.” The farm which he possessed belonged to the Earl of Loudon, but the brothers held it in sub-lease from Mr. Hamilton. This gentleman was at open feud with one of the ministers of Mauchline, who was a rigid Calvinist. Mr. Hamilton maintained opposite tenets; and it is not matter of surprise that the young farmer should have espoused his cause, and brought all the resources of his genius to bear upon it. The result was The Holy Fair, The Ordination, Holy Willie’s Prayer, and other satires, as much distinguished for their coarse severity and bitterness, as for their genius.
The applause which greeted these pieces emboldened the poet, and encouraged him to proceed. In his life, by his brother Gilbert, a very interesting account is given of the occasions which gave rise to the poems, and the chronological order in which they were produced. The exquisite pathos and humor, the strong manly sense, the masterly command of felicitous language, the graphic power of delineating scenery, manners, and incidents, which appear so conspicuously in his various poems, could not fail to call forth the admiration of those who were favored with a perusal of them. But the clouds of misfortune were gathering darkly above the head of him who was thus giving delight to a large and widening circle of friends. The farm of Mossgiel proved a losing concern; and an amour with Miss Jane Armour, afterwards Mrs. Burns, had assumed so serious an aspect, that he at first resolved to fly from the scene of his disgrace and misery. One trait of his character, however, must be mentioned. Before taking any steps for his departure, he met Miss Armour by appointment, and gave into her hands a written acknowledgment of marriage, which, when produced by a person in her situation, is, according to the Scots’ law, to be accepted as legal evidence of an irregular marriage having really taken place. This the lady burned, at the persuasion of her father, who was adverse to a marriage; and Burns, thus wounded in the two most powerful feelings of his mind, his love and pride, was driven almost to insanity. Jamaica was his destination; but as he did not possess the money necessary to defray the expense of his passage out, he resolved to publish some of his best poems, in order to raise the requisite sum. These views were warmly promoted by some of his more opulent friends; and a sufficiency of subscribers having been procured, one of the finest volumes of poetry that ever appeared in the world issued from the provincial press of Kilmarnock.
It is hardly possible to imagine with what eager admiration and delight they were every where received. They possessed in an eminent degree all those qualities which invariably contribute to render any literary work quickly and permanently popular. They were written in a phraseology of which all the powers were universally felt, and which being at once antique, familiar, and now rarely written, was therefore fitted to serve all the dignified and picturesque uses of poetry, without making it unintelligible. The imagery and the sentiments were at once natural, impressive, and interesting. Those topics of satire and scandal in which the rustic delights; that humorous imitation of character, and that witty association of ideas, familiar and striking, yet not naturally allied to one another, which has force to shake his sides with laughter; those fancies of superstition, at which one still wonders and trembles; those affecting sentiments and images of true religion, which are at once dear and awful to the heart; were all represented by Burns with the magical power of true poetry. Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned and ignorant, all were alike surprised and transported.
In the mean time, a few copies of these fascinating poems found their way to Edinburgh, and having been read to Dr. Blacklock, obtained his warmest approbation; and he advised the author to repair to Edinburgh. Burns lost no time in complying with this request; and accordingly, towards the end of the year 1786, he set out for the capitol, where he was received by Dr. Blacklock with the most flattering kindness, and introduced to every person of taste among that excellent man’s friends. Multitudes now vied with each other in patronizing the rustic poet. Those who possessed at once true taste and ardent philanthropy were soon united in his praise; those who were disposed to favor any good thing belonging to Scotland, purely because it was Scottish, gladly joined the cry; while those who had hearts and understandings to be charmed without knowing why, when they saw their native customs, manners, and language, made the subjects and the materials of poesy, could not suppress that impulse of feeling which struggled to declare itself in favor of Burns.
Thus did Burns, ere he had been many weeks in Edinburgh, find himself the object of universal curiosity, favor, admiration, and fondness. He was sought after, courted with attentions the most respectful and assiduous, feasted, flattered, caressed, and treated by all ranks as the great boast of his country, whom it was scarcely possible to honor and reward in a degree equal to his merits.
A new edition of his poems was called for; and the public mind was directed to the subject by Henry Mackenzie, who dedicated a paper in the Lounger to a commendatory notice of the poet. This circumstance will ever be remembered to the honor of that polished writer, not only for the warmth of the eulogy he bestowed, but because it was the first printed acknowledgment which had been made to the genius of Burns. The copyright was sold to Creech for £100; but the friends of the poet advised him to forward a subscription. The patronage of the Caledonian Hunt, a very influential body, was obtained. The list of subscribers rapidly rose to 1500, many gentlemen paying a great deal more than the price of the volume; and it was supposed that the poet derived from the subscription and the sale of his copyright a clear profit of at least £700.
The conversation of Burns, according to the testimony of all the eminent men who heard him, was even more wonderful than his poetry. He affected no soft air nor graceful motions of politeness, which might have ill accorded with the rustic plainness of his native manners. Conscious superiority of mind taught him to associate with the great, the learned, and the gay, without being overawed into any such bashfulness as might have rendered him confused in thought, or hesitating in elocution. He possessed withal an extraordinary share of plain common sense, or mother-wit, which prevented him from obtruding upon persons, of whatever rank, with whom he was admitted to converse, any of those effusions of vanity, envy, or self-conceit, in which authors who have lived remote from the general practice of life, and whose minds have been almost exclusively confined to contemplate their own studies and their own works, are but too prone to indulge. In conversation, he displayed a sort of intuitive quickness and rectitude of judgment, upon every subject that arose. The sensibility of his heart, and the vivacity of his fancy, gave a rich coloring to whatever opinions he was disposed to advance; and his language was thus not less happy in conversation than in his writings. Hence those who had met and conversed with him once, were pleased to meet and to converse with him again and again.
For some time he associated only with the virtuous, the learned, and the wise, and the purity of his morals remained uncontaminated. But unfortunately he fell, as others have fallen in similar circumstances. He suffered himself to be surrounded by persons who were proud to tell that they had been in company with Burns, and had seen Burns as loose and as foolish as themselves. He now also began to contract something of arrogance in conversation. Accustomed to be among his associates what is vulgarly but expressively called “the cock of the company,” he could scarcely refrain from indulging in a similar freedom and dictatorial decision of talk, even in the presence of persons who could less patiently endure presumption.
After remaining some months in the Scottish metropolis, basking in the noontide sun of a popularity which, as Dugald Stewart well remarks, would have turned any head but his own, he formed a resolution of returning to the shades whence he had emerged, but not before he had perambulated the southern border. On the 6th of May, 1787, he set out on his journey, and, visiting all that appeared interesting on the north of the Tweed, proceeded to Newcastle and other places on the English side. He returned in about two months to his family at Mauchline; but in a short period he again set out on an excursion to the north, where he was most flatteringly received by all the great families. On his return to Mossgiel he completed his marriage with Miss Armour. He then concluded a bargain with Mr. Miller of Dalswinton, for a lease of the farm of Elliesland, on advantageous terms.
Burns entered on possession of this farm at Whit-Sunday, 1788. He had formerly applied with success for an excise commission, and during six weeks of this year, he had to attend to the business of that profession at Ayr. His life for some time was thus wandering and unsettled; and Dr. Currie mentions this as one of his chief misfortunes. Mrs. Burns came home to him towards the end of the year, and the poet was accustomed to say that the happiest period of his life was the first winter spent in Elliesland. The neighboring farmers and gentlemen, pleased to obtain for a neighbor the poet by whose works they had been delighted, kindly sought his company, and invited him to their houses. Burns, however, found an inexpressible charm in sitting down beside his wife, at his own fireside; in wandering over his own grounds; in once more putting his hand to the spade and the plough; in farming his enclosures, and managing his cattle. For some months he felt almost all that felicity which fancy had taught him to expect in his new situation. He had been for a time idle; but his muscles were not yet unbraced for rural toil. He now seemed to find a joy in being the husband of the mistress of his affections, and in seeing himself the father of children such as promised to attach him for ever to that modest, humble, and domestic life, in which alone he could hope to be permanently happy. Even his engagements in the service of excise did not, at first, threaten either to contaminate the poet or to ruin the farmer.
From various causes, the farming speculation did not succeed. Indeed, from the time he obtained a situation under government, he gradually began to sink the farmer in the exciseman. Occasionally he assisted in the rustic occupations of Elliesland, but for the most part he was engaged in very different pursuits. In his professional perambulations over the moors of Dumfries-shire he had to encounter temptations which a mind and temperament like his found it difficult to resist. His immortal works had made him universally known and enthusiastically admired; and accordingly he was a welcome guest at every house, from the most princely mansion to the lowest country inn. In the latter he was too frequently to be found as the presiding genius, and master of the orgies. However, he still continued at intervals to cultivate the muse; and, besides a variety of other pieces, he produced at this period the inimitable poem of Tam O’Shanter. Johnson’s Miscellany was also indebted to him for the finest of its lyrics. One pleasing trait of his character must not be overlooked. He superintended the formation of a subscription library in the parish, and took the whole management of it upon himself. These institutions, though common now, were not so short at the period of which we write; and it should never be forgotten that Burns was amongst the first, if not the very first, of their founders in the rural districts of southern Scotland.
Towards the close of 1791 he finally abandoned his farm; and obtaining an appointment to the Dumfries division of excise, he repaired to that town on a salary of £70 per annum. All his principal biographers concur in stating that after settling in Dumfries his moral career was downwards. Heron, who had some acquaintance with the matter, says, “His dissipation became still more deeply habitual; he was here more exposed than in the country to be solicited to share the revels of the dissolute and the idle; foolish young men flocked eagerly about him, and from time to time pressed him to drink with them, that they might enjoy his wit. The Caledonia Club, too, and the Dumfries-shire and Galloway Hunt, had occasional meetings in Dumfries after Burns went to reside there: and the poet was of course invited to share their conviviality, and hesitated not to accept the invitation. In the intervals between his different fits of intemperance, he suffered the keenest anguish of remorse, and horribly afflictive foresight. His Jane behaved with a degree of conjugal and maternal tenderness and prudence, which made him feel more bitterly the evil of his misconduct, although they could not reclaim him.”
This is a dark picture—perhaps too dark. The Rev. Mr. Gray, who, as the teacher of his son, was intimately acquainted with Burns, and had frequent opportunities of judging of his general character and deportment, gives a more amiable portrait of the bard. Being an eye-witness, the testimony of this gentleman must be allowed to have some weight. “The truth is,” says he, “Burns was seldom intoxicated. The drunkard soon becomes besotted, and is shunned even by the convivial. Had he been so, he could not have long continued the idol of every party.” This is strong reasoning; and he goes on to mention other circumstances which seem to confirm the truth of his position. In balancing these two statements, a juster estimate of the moral deportment of Burns may be formed.
In the year 1792 party politics ran to a great height in Scotland, and the liberal and independent spirit of Burns did certainly betray him into some indiscretions. A general opinion prevails, that he so far lost the good graces of his superiors by his conduct, as to consider all prospects of future promotion as hopeless. But this appears not to have been the case; and the fact that he acted as supervisor before his death is a strong proof to the contrary. Of his political verses, few have as yet been published. But in these he warmly espoused the cause of the Whigs, which kept up the spleen of the other party, already sufficiently provoked; and this may in some measure account for the bitterness with which his own character was attacked.
Whatever opinion may be formed of the extent of his dissipation in Dumfries, one fact is unquestionable, that his powers remained unimpaired to the last; it was there he produced his finest lyrics, and they are the finest, as well as the purest, that ever delighted mankind. Besides Johnson’s Museum, in which he took an interest to the last, and to which he contributed most extensively, he formed a connection with Mr. George Thomson, of Edinburgh. This gentleman had conceived the laudable design of collecting the national melodies of Scotland, with accompaniments by the most eminent composers, and poetry by the best writers, in addition to those words which were originally attached to them. From the multitude of songs which Burns wrote, from the year 1792 till the commencement of his illness, it is evident that few days could have passed without his producing some stanzas for the work. The following passage from his correspondence, which was also most extensive, proves that his songs were not hurriedly got up, but composed with the utmost care and attention. “Until I am complete master of a tune in my own singing, such as it is,” says he, “I can never compose for it. My way is this: I consider the poetic sentiment correspondent to my idea of the musical expression—then choose my theme—compose one stanza. When that is composed, which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out—sit down now and then—look out for objects in nature round me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy, and workings of my bosom—humming every now and then the air, with the verses I have framed. When I feel my muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper; swinging at intervals on the hind legs of my elbow-chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes. Seriously, this, at home, is almost invariably my way.” This is not only interesting for the light which it throws upon his method of composition, but it proves that conviviality had not as yet greater charms for him than the muse.
From his youth Burns had exhibited ominous symptoms of a radical disorder in his constitution. A palpitation of the heart, and a derangement of the digestive organs, were conspicuous. These were, doubtless, increased by his indulgences, which became more frequent as he drew towards the close of his career. In the autumn of 1795 he lost an only daughter, which was a severe blow to him. Soon afterwards he was seized with a rheumatic fever; and “long the die spun doubtful,” says he, in a letter to his faithful friend Mrs. Dunlap, “until, after many weeks of a sick bed, it seems to have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room.” The cloud behind which his sun was destined to be eclipsed at noon had begun to darken above him. Before he had completely recovered, he had the imprudence to join a festive circle; and, on his return from it, he caught a cold, which brought back his trouble upon him with redoubled severity. Sea-bathing was had recourse to, but with no ultimate success. He lingered until the 21st of July, 1796, when he expired. The interest which the death of Burns excited was intense. All differences were forgotten; his genius only was thought of. On the 26th of the same month he was conveyed to the grave, followed by about ten thousand individuals of all ranks, many of whom had come from distant parts of the country to witness the solemnity. He was interred with military honors by the Dumfries volunteers, to which body he had belonged.
Thus, at the age of thirty-seven, an age when the mental powers of man have scarcely reached their climax, died Robert Burns, one of the greatest poets whom his country has produced. It is unnecessary to enter into any lengthened analysis of his poetry or character. His works are universally known and admired, and criticism has been drawn to the dregs upon the subject; and that, too, by the greatest masters who have appeared since his death,—no mean test of the great merits of his writings. He excels equally in touching the heart by the exquisiteness of his pathos, and exciting the risible faculties by the breadth of his humor. His lyre had many strings, and he had equal command over them all; striking each, and frequently in chords, with the skill and power of a master. That his satire sometimes degenerates into coarse invective, can not be denied; but where personality is not permitted to interfere, his poems of this description may take their place beside any thing of the kind which has ever been produced, without being disgraced by the comparison. It is unnecessary to re-echo the praises of his best pieces, as there is no epithet of admiration which has not been bestowed upon them. Those who had best opportunities of judging, are of opinion that his works, stamped as they are with the impress of sovereign genius, fall short of the powers he possessed. It is therefore to be lamented that he undertook no great work of fiction or invention. Had circumstances permitted, he would probably have done so; but his excise duties, and without doubt his own follies, prevented him. His passions were strong, and his capacity of enjoyment corresponded with them. These continually precipitated him into the variety of pleasure, where alone they could be gratified; and the reaction consequent upon such indulgences (for he possessed the finest discrimination between right and wrong) threw him into low spirits, to which he was also constitutionally liable. His mind, being thus never for any length of time in an equable tone, could scarcely pursue with steady regularity a work of any length. His moral aberrations, as detailed by some of his biographers, have been exaggerated, as already noticed. This has been proved by the testimony of many witnesses, from whose authority there can be no appeal; for they had the best opportunities of judging. In fine, it may be doubted whether he has not, by his writings, exercised a greater power over the minds of men, and the general system of life, than has been exercised by any other modern poet. A complete edition of his works, in four vols. 8vo., with a life, was published by Dr. Currie of Liverpool, for the benefit of his family, to whom it realized a handsome sum. Editions have been since multiplied beyond number; and several excellent biographies of the poet have been published, particularly that by Mr. Lockhart.