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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 6


It’s hardly in a body’s pow’r
To keep at times frae being sour,
To see how things are shar’d—
How best o’ chields are whiles in want,
While coofs on countless thousands rant,
And kenna how to wair’t
.—Epistle to Dane.

I visited my friend, a few days after my arrival in Irvine at the farm-house of Mossgiel, to which, on the death of his father, he had removed, with his brother Gilbert and his mother. I could not avoid observing that his manners were considerably changed: my welcome seemed less kind and hearty than I could have anticipated from the warm-hearted peasant of five years ago, and there was a stern and supercilious elevation in his bearing, which at first pained and offended me. I had met with him as he was returning from the fields after the labours of the day: the dusk of the twilight had fallen; and, though I had calculated on passing the evening with him at the farm-house of Mossgiel, so displeased was I, that, after our first greeting, I had more than half changed my mind. The recollection of his former kindness to me, however, suspended the feeling, and I resolved on throwing myself on his hospitality for the night, however cold the welcome.

"I have come all the way from Irvine to see you, Mr Burns," I said. "For the last five years, I have thought more of my mother and you than of any other two persons in the country. May I not calculate, as of old, on my supper and a bed?"

There was an instantaneous change in his expression.

"Pardon me, my friend," he said, grasping my hand, "I have, unwittingly, been doing you wrong; one may surely be the master of an Indiaman, and in possession of a heart too honest to be spoiled by prosperity."

The remark served to explain the haughty coldness of his manner which had so displeased me, and which was but the unwittingly assumed armour of a defensive pride.

"There, brother," he said, throwing down some plough irons which he carried, "send wee Davoc with those to the smithy, and bid him tell Rankin I won’t be there to-night. The moon is rising, Mr Lindsay—shall we not have a stroll together through the coppice?"

"That of all things," I replied; and, parting from Gilbert, we struck into the wood.

The evening, considering the lateness of the season, for winter had set in, was mild and pleasant. The moon at full was rising over the Cumnock Hills, and casting its faint light on the trees that rose around us, in their winding-sheets of brown and yellow, like so many spectres, or that, in the more exposed glades and openings of the wood, stretched their long naked arms to the sky. A light breeze went rustling through the withered grass; and I could see the faint twinkling of the falling leaves, as they came showering down on every side of us.

"We meet in the midst of death and desolation," said my companion—"we parted when all around us was fresh and beautiful. My father was with me then, and—and Mary Campbell—and now"—

"Mary! your Mary!" I exclaimed—"the young—the beautiful—alas! is she also gone?"

"She has left me," he said—"left me. Mary is in her grave!"

I felt my heart swell, as the image of that loveliest of creatures came rising to my view in all her beauty, as I had seen her by the river side; and I knew not what to reply.

"Yes," continued my friend, "she is in her grave;—we parted for a few days, to re-unite, as we hoped, for ever; and, ere those few days had passed, she was in her grave. But I was unworthy of her—unworthy even then; and now— But she is in her grave!"

I grasped his hand. "It is difficult," I said, "to bid the heart submit to these dispensations, and, oh, how utterly impossible to bring it to listen! But life—your life, my friend—must not be passed in useless sorrow. I am convinced, and often have I thought of it since our last meeting, that yours is no vulgar destiny—though I know not to what it tends."

"Downwards!" he exclaimed—"it tends downwards;—I see, I feel it;—the anchor of my affection is gone, and I drift shoreward on the rocks."

"‘Twere ruin," I exclaimed, "to think so!"

"Not half an hour ere my father died," he continued, "he expressed a wish to rise and sit once more in his chair; and we indulged him. But, alas! the same feeling of uneasiness which had prompted the wish, remained with him still, and he sought to return again to his bed. ‘It is not by quitting the bed or the chair,’ he said, ‘that I need seek for ease: it is by quitting the body.’ I am oppressed, Mr Lindsay, by a somewhat similar feeling of uneasiness, and, at times, would fain cast the blame on the circumstances in which I am placed. But I may be as far mistaken as my poor father. I would fain live at peace with all mankind—nay, more, I would fain love and do good to them all; but the villain and the oppressor come to set their feet on my very neck, and crush me into the mire—and must I not resist? And when, in some luckless hour, I yield to my passions—to those fearful passions that must one day overwhelm me--when I yield, and my whole mind is darkened by remorse, and I groan under the discipline of conscience, then comes the odious, abominable hypocrite—the devourer of widows’ houses and the substance of the orphan—and demands that my repentance be as public as his own hollow detestable prayers. And can I do other than resist and expose him? My heart tells me it was formed to bestow--why else does every misery that I cannot relieve, render me wretched? It tells me, too, it was formed not to receive--why else does the proffered assistance of even a friend fill my whole soul with indignation? But ill do my circumstances agree with my feelings. I feel as if I were totally misplaced, in some frolic of Nature, and wander onwards in gloom and unhappiness, for my proper sphere. But, alas! these efforts of uneasy misery are but the blind gropings of Homer’s Cyclops round the walls of his cave."

I again began to experience, as on a former occasion, the o’ermastering power of a mind larger beyond comparison than my own; but I felt it my duty to resist the influence. "Yes, you are misplaced, my friend," I said—"perhaps more decidedly so than any other man I ever knew; but is not this characteristic, in some measure, of the whole species? We are all misplaced; and it seems a part of the scheme of Deity, that we should work ourselves up to our proper sphere. In what other respect does man so differ from the inferior animals as in these aspirations which lead him through all the progressions of improvement, from the lowest to the highest level of his nature?"

"That may be philosophy, my friend," he replied, "but a heart ill at ease finds little of comfort in it. You knew my father: need I say he was one of the excellent of the earth— a man who held directly from God Almighty the patent of his honours? I saw that father sink broken-hearted into the grave, the victim of legalized oppression—yes, saw him overborne in the long contest which his high spirit and his indomitable love of the right had incited him to maintain— overborne by a mean, despicable scoundrel—one of the creeping things of the earth. Heaven knows I did my utmost to assist in the struggle. In my fifteenth year, Mr Lindsay, when a thin, loose-jointed boy, I did the work of a man, and strained my unknit and overtoiled sinews as if life and death depended on the issue, till oft, in the middle of the night, I have had to fling myself from my bed to avoid instant suffocation—an effect of exertion so prolonged and so premature. Nor has the man exerted himself less heartily than the boy—in the roughest, severest labours of the field, I have never yet met a competitor. But my labours have been all in vain—I have seen the evil bewailed by Solomon—the righteous man falling down before the wicked." I could answer only with a sigh. "You are in the right," he continued, after a pause, and in a more subdued tone: "man is certainly misplaced—the present scene of things is below the dignity of both his moral and intellectual nature. Look round you"—(we had reached the summit of a grassy eminence which rose over the wood, and commanded a pretty extensive view of the surrounding country)—"see yonder scattered cottages, that, in the faint light, rise dim and black amid the stubble fields—my heart warms as I look on them, for I know how much of honest worth, and sound, generous feeling shelters under these roof trees. But why so much of moral excellence united to a mere machinery for ministering to the ease and luxury of a few of perhaps the least worthy of our species—creatures so spoiled by prosperity that the claim of a common nature has no force to move them, and who seem as miserably misplaced as the myriads whom they oppress?"

"If I’m designed yen lordling’s slave—
By nature’s law designed—
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not,why am I subject to
His cruelty and scorn?
Or why has man the will and power
To make his fellow mourn?"

"I would hardly know what to say in return, my friend," I rejoined, "did not you, yourself, furnish me with the reply. You are groping on in darkness, and it may be unhappiness, for your proper sphere; but it is in obedience to a great though occult law of our nature—a law general, as it affects the species, in its course of onward progression—particular, and infinitely more irresistible, as it operates on every truly superior intellect. There are men born to wield the destinies of nations—nay, more, to stamp the impression of their thoughts and feelings on the mind of the whole civilized world. And by what means do we often find them roused to accomplish their appointed work? At times hounded on by sorrow and suffering, and thus in the design of Providence, that there may be less of sorrow and suffering in the world ever after—at times roused by cruel and maddening oppression, that the oppressor may perish in his guilt, and a whole country enjoy the blessings of freedom. If Wallace had not suffered from tyranny, Scotland would not have been free."

"But how apply the remark?" said my companion.

"Robert Burns," I replied, again grasping his hand, "Yours, I am convinced, is no vulgar destiny. Your griefs, your sufferings, your errors even, the oppressions you have seen and felt, the thoughts which have arisen in your mind, the feelings and sentiments of which it has been the subject—are, I am convinced, of infinitely more importance in their relation to your country than to yourself. You are, wisely and benevolently, placed far below your mind, that thousands and ten thousands of your countrymen may be the better enabled to attain to theirs. Assert the dignity of manhood and of genius, and there will be less of wrong and oppression in the world ever after."

I spent the remainder of the evening in the farm-house of Mossgiel, and took the coach next morning for Liverpool.


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