Historical Children's Literature Collection

An interesting history of Robert Burns; the Ayrshire Bard [between 1840 and 1857?]

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 AH
INTERESTING HISTORY
OF
ROBERT BURNS
THE
A¥BUIIH1 BARE
9
GLASGOW?
PHJTO5D FOR THE BOOKSILLIBf
(ft
 MPS «**• ROBERT BURN*.
Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January*
1759, in a cottage about two miles south from
Ayr, not far from the Kirk of Alio way and the
« Auld Brig of Doon." His father, William
Burns or Burness, married Agnes Brown in December, 1757, and the poet was their first born.
William Burns was a man of great integrity,
and of strictly religious principles, and is beautifully painted by the poet " As the saint, the father, and the husband," in the Cottar's Saturday
Night. Agnes Brown, the wife of this good
man, was a woman of great prudence and sagacity, and is said to have had a considerable resemblance in features to her celebrated son. She
possessed a great store of ballads and traditionary tales, which no doubt nourished me
imagination of the young poet. With all the
economy and hard labour of this worthy pair,
things did not turn out well and William Burns
removed to the Farm of Mount Oliphant, in t4he
parish of Ayr, on Whitsunday 1776, when Robert
was about seven years old. Here from the soil
being of the worst description, and other causes,
he was glad to give up the bargain at the end of
six years. He then removed to a better farm, that
of Lochlea, in the parish of Tarboiton, where an-
 dispute about the lease, which had been refcrro^
to arbitration, resulted in his ruin.    He lived to
know of the decision, but death saved him from
witnessing its consequences. He died of consumption on the 13th of February, 1784.   In the midst
of these struggles, William Burns used the utmost
exertions to educate his children,—a duty which
is seldom neglected by Scottish parents, however
scanty their means.    Robert,   and Gilbert his
next brother, attended school   together.    Their
teacher, speaking* of them, says, " Robert, and
Gilbert were generally at the upper end of the
flass, even when ranged with boys by far their
seniors.    Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more
of the wit than Robert.    1 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."
" The two first books,'5 says the poet himself, in
1787, " I ever read in private, and which gave
me more pleasure than any two books I ever read
since,  were The Life of   Hannibal, the His«
tory of Sir  William   Wallace.    Hannibal gave
my young ideas such $ turn, that I used to strut
\n raptures up and down after the recruiting dram
5
and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be
a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a tids
of Scottish prejudice into my veins, which will
boil there till the floodgates of life shut in eternal rest."
When they had been about two years at Mount
Oliphant,  their school-master left the country.
".There being no school near us," says Gilbert
Burns, " And our little services being already
useful on the farm, my father undertook to teach
us arithmetic in the winter evenings by  candlelight,—and in this way my two elder sisters got
all the education they  ever received."    When
Burns was about thirteen or fourteen years old,
he was sent,  with his brother Gilbert,   week a-
bout, during a summer quarter,   to the parish
school of Dalrymple,  two miles distant,  their
lather being unable to pay two fees, or they could
not  be both spared at once from the labours of
the farm.    " We lived very poorly,"  says tfaa
poet;  "  I was a dexterous ploughman for my
age: and the next eldest to me was brother Gilbert, who could drive the plough very well, ami;
help me to   thrash  the  corn.    A  novel-writer
might  perhaps have viewed these scenes vfltk
some satisfaction, but so did not I.    My indig*
nation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel factor's insolent letters, wliicn used to set m
all  in tears."    " To the bufferings of misibr*
 ae," says Gilbert, " We could only oppose
hard labour, and the most rigid economy. We
lived very sparingly. I doubt not but the hard
labour and sorrow of this period of life, was in a
great measure the cause of that depression of
spirits, with which Robert was so often afflicted
through his whole life afterwards.
About a year after this period, their old schoolmaster, Mr Murdoch having established himself
in the town of Ayr, Robert for some time attended him there, and learned a little of English grammar, Latin, and French, In the meantime, he
read with great avidity every book chance threw
in his way. The removal of the family to Loch-
lea took place when Burns was in his sixteenth
year; a little before which period, according to
his own account, he " First committed the sin of
rhyme."    In one of his epistles he says :—
" I mind it weel, in early date,
When I was beardless, young,  and blate—
E'er then a wish, I mind its power,
A wish that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast:
That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake,
Some useful plan or book could make.
While at Lochlea, Robert and his brother were
employed by their father and received £7 each a-
pit    Robert was remarkable for his personal
strength, and worked very hard at all the tashs
of the farm.    " In my seventeenth year," he says,
" To give my manners a brush, I wenttoacou
try dancing-school;" and afterwards,  " At the
plough, scythe,  or reap-hook,   I feared no competitor,  and thus I set want at defiance ;  and as
I never cared farther for my labour than while I
was in actual exercise,   I spent my evenings in
the 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 in the parish of Tarbolton, as
ever did statesman in knowing the intrigues ©f
half the courts of Europe.    While thus occupied, a number of his pieces were composed, chiefly
those which relate to love, a passion of which
Burns was extremely susceptible.    A part of his
nineteenth year was spent at Kirkoswald, whither
he had gone to learn mensuration,   geometry,
&c.    Kirkoswald, which lies on the sea coast, was
at that time a great resort of smugglers* and
Burns did not escape some contamination from
the society he met with there.    His brother Gilbert says, he observed from that period a change
in his habits.
" About this time," says Gilbert, " he and 1
 had for some years taken land of our father, fo?
the purpose of raising flax on our own account;
and in the course of selling it Robert began to
think of turning flax-dresser, both as being suitable to his grand view of settling in life, and as
subservient to the flax-dressing."     Burns, accordingly, in pursuance of this resolution, went
to a relation of his mother's, a flax-dresser in Irvine, with the view of learning this trade, and for
a time applied himself with great diligence.    But
on a new year's morning the shop caught fire,
and was totally  consumed, and he was left, in
his own words,  " like a true poet, not worth a
sixpence."    Three days before this unfortunate
fire took place, he addressed a letter to his father,
which contained much good sense and pious reflection.    Among other things, he says, " I am
more pleased with the 15th, 16th, and 17th verses of the seventh chapter of Revelations, than
with any ten times as many verses in the whole
Bible, and would not exchange the noble enthusiasm with which they inspire me for all that
this world has to offer."
But some time, Burns had to undergo the penance then awarded by the discipline of the Church
of Scotland for the birth of an illegitimate child.
His conduct on this occasion was marked by a le*
vity which cannot be justified., and is only to be
accounted for on the supposition of his wishing to
brave out his shame in the eyes of his jovial asso*
dates—for the tenderness and manliness of Burns's
general feeling will not permit us to think that
such deportment was the deliberate expression of
his mind.
About three months before the death of William
Burns,  Robert and Gilbert, who had for sometime foreseen the storm that was thickening round
their father's dwelling, came to the resolution of
taking the farm of Mossgiel, in the neighbouring
parish of Mauchline, with the view of providing
the family with a shelter.    It was stocked with
their joint property and savings, but notwithstanding all their exertions they could make little out of it.    It was  during their residence at
Mossgiel, which continued four years, that Burns
composed some of his most celebrated pieces.    A-
mong these  were  The  Holy Tuilzie, or Twa
Herds,   Holy   Willie's  Prayer,  the  Epistle  to
Davie, Death and Doctor Hornbook, the verses
to the Mouse and Mountain Daisy, the Cottar's
Saturday Night, &c.    Among these are some of
those pieces so remarkable for the poignancy of
their satire and the breadth of their humour.    To
explain the causes which gave rise to such of
these productions as glance upon  religion, or
rather upon certain teachers of religion, occasioned by misunderstandings betwixt several of the
leading clergy and the heritors,—among the tefc*
 ter of whom was Burns' landlord.     As to these
pieces various opinions have been   held—some
heaping upon Burns the charge of irreligion, &c,
while others have praised him for so meritorious
a task as the exposure of what they are pleased
to call hypocrisy and fanaticism.    To the presen
generation it is not easy to convey an adequate
notion of the height to which parties ran in the
West Country at this period, nor of the acrimony
that was ingrafted on the polemical controversies
then raging.    These considerations should go far
in the eyes of even the most austere to exculpate
Burns from the charges alluded to, and incline
them rather to impute to the fiery vehemence of
his temperament those sallies which overleap the
bounds of decorum—for that Burns, in spite of
the levity of certain passages to be found in his
works, was embued, and deeply embued, with the
solemn and contemplative thoughts which belong
to religious feeling, and in the longrun generally
issue in strict religious principle, cannot fairly be
denied.    But no one had, on the other hand, a
keener perception of the ludicrous, and such peculiarities in his opponents as offered a tempting
mark for the shafts of the satirist were sure to be
taken advantage of; at all events, the humour of
these pieces is confessedly unrivalled.    Halloween, a descriptive poem, perhaps more exquisitely
wrought than the   Holy Fair,   and containing
nothing that could offend the feelings of any body,
was produced about the same period.
After residing some time at Mossgiel, he seems
to have perceived that the farm would at best
furnish no more than the bare means of subsistence to so large a family, and came at last to the
resolution of trying his fortune in the West Indies.
Jamaica was now his mark; and, through iU&
influence of a friend in Irvine, he procured a situation as assistant overseer on a plantation in that
colony.    To defray his outfit, and other expenses,
it now occurred to him, for the first time, to publish his poems, though of their yielding him any
thing he was extremely doubtful.    They were
at length printed at Kilmarnock, the edition consisting of 600 copies; and our poet, after paying
all expenses, cleared about £20.    In the meantime, his fame began to take a start, and copies
of his volume having fallen into the hands of
people of taste and judgment, a general inquiry
about him began to prevail, and it became an
object of desire with some of his friends to detain
him in his native country.    With this view, as
appointment in the Excise, or some other public
office, was suggested; and Burns, it would appear, was not averse to fall in with their wishes.
Having been introduced about the same time als*ji
\ to the tables and acquaintance of several distinguished families, the originality and vigour of
 his genius, which was displayed in his con versa*
tioii no less than his poetry,  began to be much
Miked of.    Among the first to appreciate his
powers may be named the celebrated  Professor
Dugald Stewart, Dr Hugh Blair, and above all,
Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop, a lady of high birth and
ample fortune, who was enthusiastically attached
to every thing which concerned the honour and
interest of her native country.    The friendship
of this lady continued unabated to the day of the
poet's death, and to her a large part of his letters were addressed.
In the meantime, the appointment in the Excise,  which he had reason to hope for, being as
he thought rather slow in reaching him,  Burns
began once more to resume the idea of pushing
his fortune in the West Indies, and made several preparations for that purpose.    He even took
fare-well  of some of his  friends, and proceeded,
as he himself informs us, to convoy his trunk so
far on the road to Greenock, where he was to
embark in a few days for America.    On this occasion he composed the farewell dirge to his na*
tive land, and which ends thus :—
" The bursting tears my heart declare,
Farewell, the bonny banks of Ayr."
At this critical juncture of his life and fortunes,
he was presented with a letter, addressed to a
friend of his in the West, from the celebrated D?
Blacklock of Edinburgh, himself a poet and man
of fine genius, the subject of which was a most
flattering descant on the merits and genius of
Burns: and strongly advising that a second and
more perfect edition of his poems should be immediately printed, and staking his reputation on
their triumphant success. Under this encouragement Burns instantly came to the resolution of
repairing to the capital, which at that time was
the residence, as it is now, of many of the most
distinguished names that adorn the annals of
Scottish literature. He was immediately introduced by the kind Dr Blacklock, who received
him with all the warmth of paternal affection, to
the notice and acquaintance of the most eminent
literati. It was arranged that his second edition
should come out under the auspices of Mr Creech,
then the first of the metropolitan booksellers; and
the merits of the work were previously made
known in a criticism from the pen of the celebrated Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of
Feeling, which appeared in The Lounger, a celebrated periodical of the day. The Earl of
Glencairn, a nobleman of great affability and
benevolence, whose kindness Burns acknowledges
with grateful reverence, also made interest with
the Caledonian Hunt, (an association of most of
the Scottish nobility,) to accept the dedication
 of the forthcoming edition, and to subscribe individually for copies.
On the 6th May 1787, after spending about
six months in the capital, Burns departed from
Edinburgh, in company with a friend, on a country excursion before he should return to Ayrshire
His route was southward, and he visited in the
course of his tour several distinguished families.
He returned to Mauchline on the 8th July, where
he remained but a few days, and undertook another tour through the north. In this excursion
he was received with much courtesy at the houses
of many eminent persons—among these were the
noble family of Argyle. On these occasions he
composed some of his most admired lyrics. After
another visit to his family at Mossgiel he repaired,
in March 1788, to Dalswinton, in Dumfries-shire,
the residence of Mr Miller, with whom he was in
treaty for the lease of a farm on his estate. During part of the intervening months he had been
occasionally in Edinburgh, as he says, to adjust
matters with his bookseller, although it is pretty
clear that a visit to some of his old jovial companions was the true cause. After a good deal of
time lost between the arranging of his lease at
Dalswinton and settling with his bookseller, a
period which from different causes he seems to
have spent rather wearily, his affairs came at
last to assume something like a definite shape.
The settlement of accounts with the bookseller
put him in possession of £500 or £600, and the
terms of agreement at Dalswinton being finally
arranged, he left Edinburgh for his new possession, having also in his pocket an excise commission as a further resource should he come to need
it, which he had procured through the friendship
of Mr Graham of Fintry, one of the Commissioners.
At Whitsunday 1788, Burns entered upon his
new farm, and in the following November brought
home Jean Armour, now Mrs Burns, whom he
had married some time previously, and for a time
matters went on pretty smoothly. In several of
his letters he speaks with much affection of his
wife, and of her admirable qualities. Many of
his best pieces were composed here: and, on the
whole, the poet seemed in a fair way of obtaining competence and such reasonable share of happiness as man may look for. But the burning
vehemence of his temperament, the keenness of
his sensibility, and a constitutional melancholy
to which he had through ail his life been subject,
were often to him the source of uneasiness and
disquiet: This exhibiting to us how little to be
coveted is the possession of lofty talents and high
genius even with all the fame and distinction they
confer, when accompanied with such painful
drawbacks; and affording a lesson of contentment
#
I
 to those who are denied, and may feel disposed
to envy, such dangerous gifts. " The fate and
characters of the rhyming tribe," thus writes the
poet himself in 1793, " often employ my thoughts
when I am disposed to be melancholy. There
is not among all the martyrologies that ever
were penned so rueful a narrative as the lives of
the poets. In the comparative view of wretches, the criterion is not what they are doomed
to suffer, but how they are formed to bear.
Take a being of our kind, give him a stronger
imagination and a more delicate sensibility, which
between them will ever engender a more ungovernable set of passions than are the usual lot of
man; implant in him an irresistible impulse to
some idle vagary, such as arranging wild-flowers
in fantastic nosegays, tracing the grasshopper to
his haunt by his chirping song, watching the
frisks of the little minnows in the sunny pool, or
hunting after the intrigues of butterflies—in
short, send him adrift after some pursuit which
shall eternally mislead him from the paths of
lucre, and yet curse him with a keener relish than
any man living for the pleasures that lucre can
purchase; lastly, fill up the measure of his woes
by bestowing on him a spurning sense of his own
dignity, and you have created a wight nearly as
miserable as a poet/'    In these short sentences
Burns has traced his own character far better than
any one else has done it since.
The affairs of the farm did not long thrive,
and, perceiving them going backwards,  Burns
resolved to enter upon the duties of the Excise.
He was accordingly appointed to dU duty in that
capacity in the district where his own farm was
situated.    His income was at first only £35, but
he still retained Elliesland.    During the prosperity of his farm Burns conducted himself wisely,
and like one anxious for his name as a man, and
his fame as a poet.    He went to Dunscore kirk
on   Sunday, and assisted in forming a reading
club.    He also paid particular attention to  the
education of his children, and assisted them greatly himself.    Afterwards, however, on the failure
of his farming projects, the gloom which preyed
on his spirits made him too often not unwilling
to become the companion of the thoughtless and
the dissipated.    Yet,  in spite of these follies,
Burns was never deserted by that deep feeling of
honour and independence of spirit which led him
always to detest whatever was mean or base;
and none could condemn more   severely,  or feel
deeper compunction and repentance for his errors,
than he did himself.
It was unfortunate for Burns that he about this
time got embroiled with the Excise, who haa
been informed of some rash expressions, and it is
 IB
believed rash actions, of which he was guilty it)
relation to political matters. The French Revolution was then beginning to break out, and
the fascinating glare with which it was at firs*
surrounded, misled, as every one knows, the
minds of many men of virtue and understanding,
and none more so, perhaps, than such as, like
our poet, were embued with the largest portion
of philanthropy. The sickening horrors of that
sanguinary drama, as it came to unfold itself, of
course soon dispelled the illusion ; but at the early
period we speak of, the Revolution came recommended to the wishes and sympathies of many.
The interest of his friends at the head of the Excise saved Burns, but his indiscretions were remembered for a rime, and were the cause of much
uneasiness to him. He was also in the habit o
indulging in jests on his new profession without
much circumspection, but these were comparatively harmless. On one occasion, for instance,
while glancing at what he considered the discreditable nature of his employ, he said, " I have
the same consolation, however, which I once
heard a recruting sergeant give to his auditors
on one of the streets of Kilmarnock—" Gentlemen," said he, " I can assure you, for your further encouragement, that ours is the most blackguard corps under the crown, consequently
honest man has the better chance of promo
But, in point of fact, Burns had too much discrimination and good sense to cherish deeply the
absurd notions of equality and other trumpery,
follies then prevalent, and he in many passages
of his correspondence distinctly avows that his
jacobinism, like the jacobitism of the present day,
was more a thing of whim and fancy than anything else : It chimed in more with the romance
of the poet than the judgment of the man.
The concluding and most mournful part of our
sketch must necessarily be brief. After continu
ing to hold the farm for some time after entering
on his new duties, he came to the resolution of
abandoning Elliesland, and betaking himself altogether to the revenue. His salary was advanced to £70; and although, as we have seen, his
company was a good deal broken in upon, it is
well known Burns discharged his duties with
faithfulness and accuracy. Towards the close of
1790 he was employed as acting supervisor. During part of that year his youngest child lingered
through an illness, of which every week promised to be the last, and when she was in the end
cut off, the nerves of the poet, who had unceasingly watched her with the fondest solicitude,
were shattered to an unusual degree. A cold
which he subsequently caught completed the
measure of his ill health, and from this period
may be elated the commencement of that gradual
 20 ■
deeay which terminated in his death.    Of thii
approaching event he was perfectly sensible, anrf
many of bis letters at this time breathe the ten*]
derest strains of resignation and piety.    One oft
these is as follows :—
" Are you deep in the language of consolation ?j
I have exhausted in reflection every topic of comfort.    A heart at ease would have been charmed
with my sentiments and reasonings; but as to
myself,  I was like Judas Iscariot preaching the
gospel; he might melt and mould the hearts of
those around him, but his own kept its native incorrigibility.—Still there are   two great pillars
that bear us up, amid the wreck of misfortune
and misery.    The one is composed of the different modifications of a certain noble,   stubborn
something in man, known by the names of courage,   fortitude, magnanimity.    The  other is
made up of those feelings and sentiments, which,
however the sceptic may deny, or the enthusiast
disfigure them, are yet, I am convinced, original and component parts of the human soul; those
senses of the mind, if I may be allowed the. expression, which connect us with, and link us to
those awful obscure realities—an all powerful and
equally beneficent God—and a world to come,
beyond death and the grave.    The first gives the
perve of combat, while a ray of hope beams on
21
the field;—the last pours the balm of comfort into the wounds which time can never cure.
" I do not remember, my dear Cunningham,
that you and I ever talked on the subject of re~
ligion at all. I know some who laugh at it, as
the trick of the crafty few, to lead the undis*
cerningMANY; or at most as an uncertain obscurity, which mankind can never know anything
of, and with which they are fools if they give
themselves much to do. Nor would I quarrel
with a man for his irreiigion, any more than I
would for his want of a musical ear, I would
regret that he was shut out from what, to me
and to others, were such superlative sources of
enjoyment. It is in this point of view, and for
this reason, that I will deeply imbue the mind of
every child of mine with religion. If my son
should happen to be a man of feeling, sentiment,
and taste, I shall thus add largely to his enjoyments. Let me flatter myself that this sweet
little fellow who is just now running about my
desk, will be a man of a melting, ardent, glowing heart: and an imagination, delighted with
the painter, and rapt with the poet. Let me
j figure him, wandering out in a sweet evening,
| to inhale the balmy gales, and enjoy the growing
luxuriance of the spring; himself the while in
the blooming youth of life. He looks abroad on
ail nature, and through nature up to nature's
 22
God.    His soul, by swif    delighted degrees, is
rapt above this sublunary sphere, until he can be
silent no longer, and bursts out into the glorious
enthusiasm of Thomson,
<These, as the change, Almighty Father, these
Are but the varied God.—The rolling year
Is full of thee;'
and so on, in all the spirit and ardour of that
charming hymn.—These are no ideal pleasures;
they are real delights; and I ask what of the delights among the sons of men are superior, not to
say, equal to them ? And they have this precious,
vast addition, that conscious virtue stamps them
for her own; and lays hold on them to bring herself into the presence of a witnessing, judging,
and approving God."
Alluding one day to his expected dissolution,
he said, he was well aware that his death would
occasion some noise, and that every scrap of his
writing would be revived against him to the injury of his future reputation; that letters and
verses written with unguarded,  and  improper
freedom, and which he earnestly wished to have
buried in oblivion, would be handed about by idle
vanity or malevolence, when no dread of his resentment would restrain them, or prevent the censures of shrili-tongued. malice, or the insidious
sarcasms of envy frott*  pouring forth all their
venom to Wast his fsFXu
23
From a village on the eoait, when h® had
gone for the benefit of sea-bathing, he returned
to Dumfries, the place of his residence, on the
18th of July 1796, with his constitution fast wearing out. In the words of an eye-witness, " Dumfries was like a besieged place. It was known
he was dying, and the anxiety, not of the rich
and the learned only, but of the mechanics and
peasants, exceeded all belief. Wherever two oi
three people stood together, their talk was of
Burns, and of him alone. They spoke of his
history—of his person—of his works—of his family—of his fame—and of his untimely and approaching fate, with a warmth and an enthusiasm
which will ever endear Dumfries to my remembrance."
When approaching his last nour, says one of
his biographers, on the authority of the physician
who attended hirn, " a tremour pervaded his frame,
his tongue was parched, and his mind sunk into
delirium when not roused by conversation. On
the second and third day the fever increased, and
his strength diminished.' On the fourth day,
July 21st 1796, Robert Bums died.
On the 25th, the remains of the poet were removed  to  the Trades' Hall,  where they lay in
state till morning,  and   next day were interred
with military honours, attended by a processio
of the chief persons in the town and
 24
hood, and many from great distances. The
multitude," says an eye-witness who accompanied
Burns to the grave, " went step by step with the
chief mourners. They might amount to ten or
twelve thousand. Not a word was heard, It was
an impressive and mournful sight to see men of
all ranks, and persuasions, and opinions, mingling as brothers, and stepping side by side down
the streets of Dumfries with the remains of him
who had sung of their loves and joys, and domestic endearments, with a truth and a tenderness
which none perhaps have since equalled.—I found
myself at the brink of the poet's grave. The
earth was heaped up, the green sod laid over him,
and the multitude stood gazing on the grave for
some minutes' space, and then melted silently
away."
A costly mausoleum has since been erected to
the memory of the poet, on the highest point of
ground in the church yard, and thither the remains
of Burns were solemnly transferred on the 5th^
June 1815.

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