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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns in Ascension


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 Iucendo):-

"Here comes Burns
On Rosinante;
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 hill."

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 autumn’s being."

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 universe,"

and asks the question "—

"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind ?"

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."


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