HIS volutne was published by John Wilson, Kilmarnock, and
went immediately to the heart of that country-side; old and young read it with equal
avidity and unmingled delight. Plough-boys and maid-servants gladly gave their
"sair-won penny fee" to get possession of the poems of Burns. Many wept blessed
tears over the "Cottar’s Saturday Night;" many laughed day and night over
the "Address to the Deil" and the "Holy Fair;" all were enchanted with
the ease, the power, the nature, and the truthfulness of the pictures of Scotland—
its life, scenery, and manners. His early friends and patrons felt pride as well as
pleasure in their hearts. Some, indeed, might not be able to believe for very gladness
that these "old familiar faces" were so beautiful and so striking after all was
this really the "Vision" they had heard Bob Aiken read? Others took the credit,
perhaps, of predictions they never made, and criticisms in his favour they never uttered.
The inhabitants of Mossgiel alone, we are told, no copy of their friend’s
immortalities reached, although there, too the echo of his fame was heard with surprise,
pride, and pleasure. "Had our father only been living to see this day I" some of
them would exclaim. The edition of six hundred speedily disappeared; another of one
thousand was projected, and Burns became for the first time in his life the master of £20
! The success of a first work is felt by all authors to be exhilarating. But never perhaps
in the history of literature was there such a sudden bound as in the case of Burns from
misery, contempt, poverty, and semi-madness, to present popularity and the prospect of
future fame and competence. Were, not a reprieve, but a royal crown given to a criminal at
the gallows, it would be only a type of the suddenness of the transition and the
thoroughness of the triumph!
John Wilson was a
bookseller in Kilmarnock, who afterwards throve in the world; and removing to Ayr, started
the first Ayrshire newspaper — the Ayrshire Advertiser — which became a good
property. Burns, while watching the publication and correcting the proofs, was a great
deal in Kilmarnock. The first edition did not contain some of the best pieces—"
Death and Dr. Hornbook," "A Prayer in prospect of Death,"
&c.—which were all then composed, and a number of others which he wrote
afterwards—such as his "Address to Edinburgh,’ the "Brigs of
Ayr," and the " Address to a Haggis." Jamaica was still in his view. He had
made an engagement with Charles Douglas, of Port Antonio, to act as book-keeper on his
estate, for three years, at £30 a year. He had even been afraid be would have to indent
himself —i.e., become a bound apprentice—that Mr. Douglas might pay his passage.
And as soon as he possessed nine guineas, he took a steerage passage in a vessel which was
to sail from Greenock in September.
Burns’ spirits seem to have, as might have been
expected, continued good for a time after the success of his book. He went from town to
town collecting his moneys, and meeting with old and new friends, cracking jokes,
attending social meetings, and making such rhymes as these (he was mounted on a sorry
hack, like that of Andrew Fairservice, yelped "Souple Sam," lucus a non
"Here comes Burns
She ‘s d— poor
But he ‘s d—canty."
He had returned to Mossgiel, and was living quietly there,
when one evening (September 3) a brother of Jean’s came in to tell him that she had
born him twins—a boy and a girl. The Mossgiel family took the boy and the Armours the
girl, who soon, however, died. Jean had visited Paisley in March, had lived with her
uncle, Andrew Purdie ; and reports of her borrowing money and flirting with a young weaver
there, called Robert Wilson, originally from Mauchmhine, had reached Burns, and made him
very miserable. He had a lurking liking for her still, and. perhaps she became yet dearer
to him after her accouchment. He says, "A very fine boy and girl have awakened
thoughts and feelings that thrill now with tender pressure, and now with foreboding
anguish, through my ul." A number of the gentry of the county began to show Burns
flattering attention ; and perhaps if he had remained and taken root in Ayrshire, it had
in the long-run been better for him, alike commercially and morally.’ One was MacAdam
of Craigengillan, to whom he addressed.. a copy of verses; another was Sir William
Cunningham of Robertland; a third was Mrs. Stewart of Stair, of whom we heard farther
back. He sent her a collection of his own published songs, including the "Lass of
Ballochmyle," in a highly complimentary but sincere-seeming letter. There was another
and, in a social position, a humbler friend, who turned out of greater service to the
poet. This was the Rev. George Lawrie of London, a parish in the neighbourhood of
Mossgiel. Lawrie was an accomplished man himself, and the friend of men that were more so
still. He had been the means of introducing MacPherson’s Ossianic fragments to Dr.
Blair, and was intimate with him, with Blacklock, Robertson, and others. He had read
Burns’ poems, and had sent a copy to good Dr. Blacklock for his opinion. Burns spent
a night in his house, which was the abode of refined yet hearty hospitality—the ideal
of a Moderate minister’s dwelling. There were his host, his pleasant lady, a young
son, a daughter, beautiful and accomplished, who could play on the spinet—an
instrument new to Burns—another daughter in her teens, and some children. There was
in the manse (tell it not to "Daddie Auld" whisper it not to "Holy
Willie!") after supper a dance, in which the poet ploughman danced with Miss
Lawrie—keeping time admirably, as she afterwards said. How commonplace all this looks
to us now, but what a rare treat to him. Heart full, he retired to bed but being somewhat
late in rising the next morning, the son went to inquire for him; and meeting him on the
stairs, asked him how he had slept. "Not well," replied Burns; "I have been
praying all night. If you go up to my room, you will find my prayers on the table."
These were his "Lines Written at a Friend’s House." Miss Lawrie had also a
scrap of verse from Burns’ pen, beginning—
"The night was still, and o’er the
He seems to have remained with this
delightful family till the afternoon, and left them, carrying away and leaving regret. Mr.
Lawrie, no doubt, would lament that such a noble being was quitting his native land so
soon, and for ever. As usually happens, in proportion to the exquisite delight of the
previous day, in such contrast to Bums’ ruder revelries and coarse society, was the
deep rut of the reaction. He became very, very sad. It was a lowering evening in autumn,
with the clouds driving over the sky, the wind whistling through the rushes and long spear
grass, and cold pelting showers striking ever and anon upon the face of the solitary
traveller. It was altogether such another night, mutatis mutandis, as fell dark over poor
Shelley, our truest poet and sincerest man since Burns, in Italy when he sung—
"0 wild west wind, thou breath of
He found a solace in his noble ode to the
"West Wind," which he wishes to become the trumpet of a prophecy, and to—
"Drive his dead thoughts over the
and asks the question "—
"If Winter comes, can Spring be far
Burns’ mood, if more hopeless, was more subdued, as he
composed, striding along, "the last song he was ever to measure in Caledonia"-
The gloomy night is gathering fast,
Loud roars the wild inconstant blast;
You murky cloud is foul with rain,
I see it driving o’er the plain.
Farewell, old Coila’s hills and dales,
Her heathy moors and winding vales;
The scenes where wretched fancy roves,
Pursuing past, unhappy loves.
Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those.
‘l’he bursting tears my heart declare—
Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!"
We cannot exactly fix the date of the evening
Burns composed this song; it was in autumn, 1786, probably in the close of August. On the
3rd September he heard, we saw, of the birth of his twins; and a day or two after came
tidings to Mossgiel which entirely altered the course of his destiny. The history of
Thomas Blacklock is well known. He was born in Annan; when six months old he became blind
through small-pox, but was carefully tended and taught by his father, and afterwards,
being a great favourite from his gentle temper, he was never without some companion to
help him in his studies. At the age of twelve he wrote verses. At twenty he came to
Edinburgh, where he was instructed in Latin, French, and other languages, acquiring French
chiefly in conversation with a French lady, the wife of Provost Alexander. He published in
1754 an edition of his poems, and soon after a quarto edition by subscription, which
brought in a considerable sum of money. He now devoted himself to the study of theology,
and was presented to the parish of Kirkcudbright; but being opposed by the parishioners on
account of his blindness, ultimately withdrew on a moderate annuity. He married the
daughter of a Dumfries surrgeon, named Johnstone, who was a great blessing to him. He
resided finally in Edinburgh, and supported himself by keeping boarders. He was a most
amiable and excellent man, and after attaining a respectable place among the literate of
Scotland, and issuing a number of books, he at last died in 1791, aged seventy. He was the
means of drawing out of obscurity a number of young men, and helping them forward in life.
And now he performed the best deed of all in befriending Burns. We can conceive the joy
wherewith Burns, heavy laden under the burden of many cares, read the letter which Mr.
Lawrie kindly forwarded him from Dr. Blacklock, praising his poetry, and urging him to
issue a second edition. Assuredly, if this letter found the poet in the harvest field, he
would work no more that day! He did not, however, (though he seems to say so himself in
his letter to Dr. Moore), hurry instantly to Edinburgh, but remained at Mossgiel for two
months. During this period he wrote the "Brigs of Ayr," inscribing it to the
architect of the new brig, Mr. Ballantyne, a special friend, he began to cherish the idea
of becoming an exciseman. One day as Mrs. Begg was working at her big wheel, the harvest
being over, and Robert and Gilbert being in the apartment, a letter was handed in to the
former. He snatched it eagerly, went to the window, opened, read it, and she saw a look of
the intensest anguish crossing his face as he went out without uttering a word. It was the
news of Mary Campbells death! Dugald Stewart, who resided at Catrine, a few miles off, had
heard of Burns and his wonderful poems from Mr. Mackenzie, a clever surgeon in Mauchline.
He invited him, along with Mr. Mackenzie, to dine at his house, and there happened to have
called there by accident Lord Daer, the son of the Earl of Selkirk, who had been one of
Dugald Stewart’s pupils. Burns has recorded his impressions of the young lord in his
well-known verses, and Stewart in his equally well-known letter. He wrote about this time
a "canty" rhyming letter to one William Logan, a retired major, who lived at
Park, near Ayr. He now, too, began his intimacy with Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. This lady, a
daughter of Thomas Wallace of Craigie, and reputed a descendant of the great Sir William,
had been afflicted by a long severe illness, preying with peculiar heaviness upon her
spirits, when a copy of Bums’ poems was laid by a friend on her table. She opened it
at the "Cottar’s Saturday Night," and like Gilbert when he heard it
recited, was absolutely electrified. It acted like a charm; and she instantly sent off a
messenger sixteen miles to Mossgiel, with a letter to Burns, desiring half a dozen copies
of his poems, and requesting him to call at Dunlop House. This was the beginning of a
correspondence which continued during the poets life. He again visited Mr. Lawrie’s
manse, and had a kind of tift with Mrs. Lawrie about the case of Peggy K—---—,
mentioned before; Mrs. Lawrie blaming him for undue severity on "sister woman,"
not a common fault with him, and he replying in lines which may be found among his poems.
The Edinburgh Magazine for October, edited by James Sibbalds, a literary bookseller,
published a most favourable criticism on his volume. He now definitely abandoned all
intentions of going to Jamaica, and fixed to start for Edinburgh on the 27th or 28th of
November. Mr. Ballantyne, of Ayr, hearing that Bums was prevented from printing another
edition of his poems by want of money to pay the printer, generously offered him £27 for
the purpose; but advised him to go to Edinburgh as the best place for publishing. Not long
before, he started there was a Gaudeamus, probably on the 10th of November, in the St.
James Lodge of Masons, of which Burns was a depute-master, and which met in a small inn
kept by one Manson. John Lees, who survived "Brother Burns," spoke of it as an
"awfu’ nicht." Burns came to it in a pair of buckskins, out of which he
would pull the other shilling for the other bowl till it was five in the morning!
At last, on the 27th of November, 1786, he
set off for Edinburgh, a distance of sixty miles. It used to be currently said that he
walked on foot, although, as we shall immediately see, Gilbert Burns asserts that he rode
upon a borrowed pony. But, at all events, whether on foot or horseback, he travelled
"crooning" to himself his favourite lines—
"As I cam o’er by Glenap,
I met an aged woman,
Who bade me keep up my heart,
For the best o’ my days were coming."