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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns the Boy


THE title here proposed, while in one sense ideally appropriate, is in another as certainly a misnomer —the Life of Robert Burns. In one sense, Burns was the most intensely living man modern times have produced—had a perpetually active and seething brain; a heart beating in big and almost audible throbs; a "pulse’s maddening play;" the most living and eloquent lips that ever spoke in Scotland; a hand that if you touched it threatened to burn your’s from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head he was a Man, and forms, thus, one of the best themes for biography. But, in another view, his life was so short, so fragmentary, so contradictory to itself that the words, the Life of Robert Burns, sound like cruel irony—sad, shadowed, and incoherent as it was; and tbe feeling is not lessened, but increased, and the disturbance of the whole rendered more painful and mysterious, by the Arabesque border of wild happiness and lofty inspiration, too, by which it was begirt, but never either penetrated or pervaded. Besides the difficulties connected with such a strange, exceptional existence as was his, there meets us also on the threshold of our enterprise the fact that the tale of his life, with its union or disunion of elements, has been so often told, that it seems hopeless to seek to give it any new interest, or to draw from it any stronger moral than has been drawn. Nevertheless, we have decided to attempt it, and to do our best. Burns’ life, said an accomplished gentleman to us the other day, must be written with the heart, and this qualification for writing it we unhesitatingly claim. We add, it should be written with determined honesty, and to that too we lay fearless claim.

Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January, 1759. His father was William Burns or Burness, a native of Kincardineshire, usually called the Mearns, westward from Glenbervie, which was the cradle of the Burness family. The country is called the howe or Hollow of the Mcarns, a fertile region lying low between two ridges of hills—the ridge of Garvock on the south side, and those of Strathfenella or Strathfindlay and Auchcairnie on the north. Laurencekirk, the birthplace of James Beattie, and connected with the memory of Lord Gardenstone and the still more famous Lord Monboddo, stands the centre or capital of this beautiful district. Eastward the ground rises, while it gets more bleak, and swells gradually into heights, partly amble and partly moorish; and among these heights is Glenbervie, from which farther on there is a deep and rapid descent toward Stonehaven and the sea. Burness, Burnes, and Burns, as the name is variously spelled, is derived from the Anglo Saxon Beorn, "a chief with the affix nes for possession. The name De Burnes is found early in English records. The name of Brunhouse of Kair, in the county of Kincardine, appears as early as the reign of Robert the Bruce. In 1547 we find persons named Burnes renting the lands of Inchbreck, in the parish of Glenbervie. One of these, named William, took in Glenbervie a farm called Bogjorgan, where he died in 1715. Before his death he gave up the farm to his sons, William and James. After holding it some time at a joint lease James removed to Inches, a farm in the same county, while William remained in Bogjorgan. Robert Chambers gives a copy of the inventory of the homesteading at Bogjorgan at the time of the separation—a document remarkable among other things for spelling the name Burnasse. William Burness had a son (or, Dr. Rogers says, a brother), who settled in the farm of Brawlinmuir, Glenbervie. On one occasion he outwitted some caterans who were hovering in the neighbourhood, and who ultimately entered his house to rob it, by concealing his money in the nave of an old wheel, which lay in the jaw-hole before the door as a kind of stepping-stone. One of his sons, Robert Burnes, rented the lands of Clochanhill, six miles west from Stonehaven, on the estate of Dunottar, which belonged to the Earl of MarischaL He had three sons, James, Robert, and William—lst, James, who went to Montrose, and became the father of the Writer there, who corresponded with the poet, and the great-grandfather of the famous Sir Alexander Burness of Bokhara and Cabul memory; 2nd, Robert, who left his father’s house, as we will see immediately, at the same time with his brother, William, for England, remained there for a number of years, and died at Ellisland in 1789; and 3rd, William, the father of the Scottish Bard.

Robert Burns himself fostered the belief (in which there is also some traditionary credence)—the wish being with him father to the thought—that some of his ancestors were "out" in the Rebellion. The author of the "Chevalier’s Lament" and "Drummossie Muir" had a strong Jacobitical prejudice, mingling in his bosom with that patriot passion of which he speaks to Dr. Moore, and "which was to boil on in his bosom till the flood-gates of life were to shut in eternal rest;" and we might wish that it had been yet stronger, since in this case it might have inspired a hundred Jacobite melodies as good as those we now possess—better they could hardly be. Some of his remoter relations may have shared in the Rebellion of 1715—16; but his father was not born then, and procured ere he left his home a certificate that he had no part in the late "wicked rebellion."

William Burness and his elder brother, Robert, left Clochanhill together — driven southward by the same stress of poverty. Gilbert Burns tells us that they parted on the summit of a hill on the confines of their native place—very probably on the top of Garvock, with its wide view northward of the Howe of the Mearns, its fields of billowy grain, edged by a margin of blue hills soaring upwards to the loftier heights of Wirren, Caterthun, and Clochnaben; and southward of the ocean, with "ships dim-discovered dropping from the clouds" in the distance, and the coast from Bervie to Montrose and the Red Head stretching below. From this the coast road strikes away to Montrose, and thence to Edinburgh, via Dundee; while, on the other side, a road goes right through the Howe of the Mearns, by Brechin, to Perth, and thence to England. At this point the brothers had to part—the one going to Edinburgh, the other to England. And there would be here the elements of a tragedy, for both the men were of the blood of Burns; and with tears in their eyes, and anguish like despair in their hearts, they would tear themselves asunder—Robert, we suppose, remaining last on the hill, and watching his brother William slowly descending toward Den Fenella and St. Cyrus, and often turning back to the summit to take a last look—it is the last—of his younger brother. They never met again. William hied him to Edinburgh, and there, or in its immediate neighbourhood, procured some employment as a gardener, working and faring hard, and always contriving to save and send a little money home to Clochanhill to gladden the hearts of his aged parents. Once a bank note of some value arrived. They stared at it with astonishment. They had perhaps seen such a thing before only in the hands of haughty lairds or cruel factors, at an unapproachable distance. But now that it was theirs, as the schoolboy feels to his first shilling, they hardly know how to use it. Had the poet been there, he who wrote verses about a bank note and often on bank notes, might have inscribed a sonnet or a song on the "First Bank Note (and the Last) in Clochanhill."

From Edinburgh William Burness found his way to the West; but found it not, alas! more genial or hospitable than the East had been. He got a situation first under the Iaird of Fairlie, and then under Crawford of Doonside. He afterwards leased seven acres near the Bridge of Doon as nursery ground. Here he built the "auld clay biggin’" with his own hands, and on 15th December, 1757, brought home to it Agnes Brown, his young bride. The poet’s mother was a comely person, with red hair, bordering on yellow, and with ‘fine dark eyes, which she left, along with a poetic temperament, as a legacy to her son. She had been taught to read, but not to write. Her memory was stored with old ballads and songs, which she sang uncommonly well. She was of exceedingly active habits, of a cheerful disposition—a helpmeet to her husband and a kind mother to her children. Having been early left "a mitherless bairn "—sent out from her home to the care of a maternal grandmother, and afterwards mistrysted, as they say in Scotland, with a love affair—’ her career was to some extent prophetic of her son 5. The low deal chair in which she nursed all her children is still preserved in Closeburn Hall, in Dumfriesshire, the seat of Sir James Menteith. William Burness was thirty-one years of age, and Agnes Brown twenty-six, when they were married. No epithalamium was sung at their nuptials, no marriage presents of value given to the young couple, although there would be the usual reels and rejoicings of a Scottish wedding; but here was a more memorable conjunction than Astronomy has ever recorded—rustic loveliness, sense, and sensibility in Agnes Brown, united to strong intellect, high moral principle, and indomitable perseverance in William Burness, recalling the fine words of Gerald Massey—

"See Strength and Beauty, hand in hand,
Step forth into the golden land."

Alas! in this case, however, it was no golden land, only a humble house with a but and a ben, a hut, in which the boy Burns was to appear thirteen months afterwards; and beyond a piece of garden ground bordering on the sea, with the old road from Ayr to the south on its edge, a spot altogether consecrated to the genius of poverty and toiL But the "golden land" lay in their mutual love, and that was soon to be sealed by the birth of the most extraordinary man in native power and genius Scotland ever produced.

Thirteen months passed away in love and labour, the love sweetening the labour, the labour strengthening the love, till at last the consummation arrived. But Burns, who was not in the roll of common men, could not be like common men in the circumstances of his birth. No Owen Glendower prodigies, indeed, were to attend his arrival amongst us. It was fit that the handsel of Nature’s great Scottish poet should be given by one of the genuine blasts of his own stormy sky. Not, indeed, on the 25th January, 1759, but some days afterwards (Gilbert Burns says, on the 3rd or 4th of February) came a loud tempest with lashing rains—

"That day, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand."

But if his purpose was to destroy or drown his future bard and murderer (who, as Dr. Waddell intimates, scoffed him out of belief, if not of being), his purpose was foiled. True, the two jambs of the "auld clay biggin"’ threw the gable off its centre, and it falling down got so shattered that it was thought necessary to carry the squalling poet through the storm to a neighbour’s house, where he remained a week. The horoscope of the hapless Duke of Buckingham was thus read by Davy Ramsay ("Fortunes of Nigel")

"Full moon and high sea,
Great man shalt thou be;
Red dawning, stormy sky,
Bloody death shalt thou die."

That of Burns, to a poetic augur vaticinating on the ground of this storm, might seem to portend wild tumult and skiey wrath, ending in safety, the poet triumphing over the tempest which sought his life, the storm of calumny, opposition, and passion subdued into peace. But, alas, No!

Many years ago (in June, 1846) we visited the "auld clay biggin’," at that time (and we believe still) ahostelrie for dispensing Burns’ beloved beverage, and other good things of this life. We remember one rather odd circumstance: when looking at the concealed bed in which the poet was born, our companion (the gifted Rev. Dr. W. B. Robertson of Irvine, the orator and poet of the West) exclaimed, "Here‘s a laddie, here‘s wee Bobbie Burns". A cry from the bed confirmed the words, and drawing near we tried to complete the glamourie of the scene by imagining that this boy who lifted up his arms and smiled was the inspired child to whose birthplace, in that humble cottage, the civilized world has flocked for well-nigh one hundred years. From the cottage we pursued the road along which Tam 0’ Shanter led his weird and tipsy gallop to Alloway Kirk (which seemed too small a stage for such a phantasmagoria as was transacted there, as though "Macbeth" were enacted in a barn-loft), but found metal more attractive in the grave-stone erected by the poet to the memory of his parents, which, although not to weeping given, touched us to tears by the simple pathos of the story it tells of them, and the feeling it discovered in him. After this the elaborate monument on the Doon seemed an impertinence; but the haunted bridge restored and intensified the spirit of the spot, receiving and shedding down the magic light of the Past upon the stream, which combined music and legendary mystery in the murmur of its immemorial waters. How thankful we were from all we had heard of it, that we had not been present, as we once intended to have been, at the Burns’ Festival in 1844. To-day there had been a partial disenchantment, then it had been total; and how terrible always is the fall of a long-cherished ideal to a young enthusiast!

Of the infant years of the poet we know little. The first glimpse we get of him is sitting at his father’s fireside, listening to the ballads and stories of an old woman, one Betty Davidson a relation of the-family; and, as Wandering Willy says in "Redgauntlet," she had "some fearsome anes, that mak the auld canines shake in the settle, and the bits o’ weans skin on their minnies out frae their beds." Her stories roused in Burns the sleeping elements of wonder and poetry, and probably fascination would sometimes overpower fear, and he would cry out in spirit with Outis in the "Odyssey," "More, give me more, it is divine!" He owns to the feeling continuing in after life; and if so, how strong it would be in early days! William Burness sent Robert in his sixth year to a little school at Alloway Mill, taught by one Campbell, who. however, soon migrated to a better place in Ayr, and William Burness united with some neighbours in employing a young man, named John Murdoch, as teacher to the children of several families. This worthy man taught Robert and his younger brother, Gilbert, English and English grammar, besides writing, and was much gratified by their proficiency. Murdoch lent him the "Life of Hannibal," and two years after he got from a blacksmith who shod their horses the "Life of Sir William Wallace," which he read with the utmost avidity and with important results, for it poured into his veins that tide of Scottish prejudice of which he predicates, as we have seen, the life-long endurance.

In 1766 his father left his cottage at Alloway, and took the small farm of Mount Oliphant, two miles off. Robert, however, and Gilbert continued to attend Murdoch’s school, till at the end of two years he removed to Carrick. It was on a parting visit of the excellent Dominie to the cottage that there occurred the famous scene at the reading of "Titus Andronicus," where the whole party were so much moved at some of the melodramatic horrors of the play that they were all dissolved in tears, and Robert threatened, if it were left in the house, to burn it. Dr. Currie it is, we think, who asks why this silly play is still bound up with the writings of Shakspeare. But although it is certainly far inferior to his usual mark, there are passages in it (witness Aaron’s address to his black illegitimate child by the queen) which bear the stamp of Shakspeare. Schlegel remarks that Shakspeare alone was capable of producing either its beauties or faults, although Hazhitt thinks Marlowe, who was only a little lower than the Myriad-minded, might have written it. Perhaps Shakspeare added the better passages to the play, just as Burns himself often made an old, stupid, and scandalous ballad his own by inserting some stroke of consummate wit or genius. It is curious that Murdoch preferred Gilbert to Robert, and thought, because the former was the merrier of the two, that he was more likely to turn out a poet. Little did he see what a deep current of enthusiasm was running below, or knew what dark stern cogitations were saddening the brow of the wondrous boy, who already knew that he was a "poor man’s son," and was already noted for a sturdy stubborn something in his disposition, for an "enthusiastic idiot piety," and whose mirth at all seasons of his life was only the silver lining on the cloud of the thickest melancholy!

From the date of Murdoch’s departure William Burness undertook himself the charge of his children’s education, and whiled away the heavy labours of the farm by conversing familiarly with them on useful subjects. He borrowed Salmon’s Dictionary for them—made it their text-book in Geography; and instructed them in Natural History and Astronomy out of Derham’s "Physico and Astro Theology" and Ray’s "Wisdom of God in the Creation," a book once very popular, till supplanted by Paley’s works, as these in their turn have been supplanted by the "Bridgewater Treatises "—very different fare from Thomas Boston’s Fourfold State," so strongly recommended (see the "Life of Thomas Davidson, the Scottish Probationer"), and with what slender results and left-handed gratitude to the gifted author of "Ariadne in Naxos." Burns, however, had read, and refers more than once to, honest Thomas’ book; and whatever he might think of its religious theories, he no doubt did ample justice (as Carlyle also does) to Boston’s excellent motives and thorough simplicity of character. Burns became acquainted, too, with Stackhouse’s "History of the Bible" (afterwards edited by the venerable Bishop Gleig, of Stirling, father to the author of the "Subaltern" and the "Life of Warren Hastings") and with a collection of letters by eminent writers, which became his standard and model for epistolary composition. When about thirteen or fourteen years of age, he and Gilbert were sent to the parish school of Dalrymple, three miles from their home, for a summer quarter, to improve their handwriting; and about this time Robert got hold of some of Richardson’s, Fielding’s, Smollett’s, Hume’s, and Robertson’s works. Shortly after, his old master, Murdoch, was appointed English teacher in Ayr; and resuming his acquaintance with the Mount Oliphant family, he lent Robert Pope’s works, and took him, at his father’s desire, to Ayr to assist him in revising his grammar and learning a little French. Burns was advised to begin Latin, too; but proceeded only a short way in that study—not farther, he used to say waggishly, than to understand the words, Amor vincit omnia, although he resumed it occasionally afterwards; and whenever any reverse of fortune or disappointment befell him, he was wont to hum, "But I’ll to my Latin again," as he snatched up Ruddiman. Some of his biographers have regretted that, along with the Bible and the ballads of Scotland, Burns had so much intercourse at this time with "shallow, sharp, and polished writers, like Pope, Addison, Swift, and Steele, with their stilted stops and methodical periods." In this slump judgment we do not agree. These writers alone might have been bad models; but united to others of a loftier mood, they materially assisted the education of his taste, and aided him in acquiring such a comparatively correct prose style as his letters exemplify. They gave him the form; his own genius supplied the fire. They helped him, as ruled paper helps a beginner in the art of writing. Nor can we coincide with this estimate of the authors referred to. Surely Addison is one of the sweetest and most natural writers in the language. We knew a very clever and scholarly man who used to say that he would rather have written the "Vision of Mirza" than all Byron’s poetry; and Burns himself speaks of his early delight in perusing that exquisite allegory. Pope, according to Sir Walter Scott, was a "Deacon in his trade "—the finest of artists, and not the least gifted of poets, although too often, as his defender Lewes has it –

"Malice, Pope, denies thy page
Its own celestial fire;
While critics and while bards in rage,
Admiring, won’t admire."

And to call Swift—the masculine, the ingenious, the sensible, the master of strong, simple, sinewy English, the greatest satirist of his age, the wittiest man in the wittiest nation of the world, and if you will, the ablest libeller of human nature that ever lived—" shallow," is to betray a narrowness of judgment and a want of appreciation of one of the giants of British literature as strong an(l as unique, in his own style, as Shakspeare or Milton. Apart from what Burns derived from the wits of Queen Anne (we will show by and by it was not unmixed good) and the poets of the Elizabethan period (the latter very imperfectly known to him), he must have reaped a great deal of advantage from such master novelists as Richardson, Fielding and Smollett; and such historians as Hume and Robertson. The one class tended to educate his feelings and develop his dramatic power, a power he possessed in a great measure, and often used, though he never wrote a play; and the second, to enlarge his views and to strengthen his understanding. Burns read, Gilbert tells us, two volumes of "Pamela," a novel which, from its subject and its heart-rending pathos, must have been peculiarly suggestive to him at this period of his life.

At Ayr Burns continued three weeks in Murdoch’s house, diligently employed in learning French. Murdoch in a long letter gives an interesting account of this visit, which was terminated by the coming on of harvest, at ‘which Burns, who at fifteen did the full work of a man, could not be spared. The most notable thing in this letter is its panegyric on William Burness, who seems to have been one of Nature’s uncrowned nobility—a man almost perfect—not of that kind of virtue either which must be taken for granted, but which was tested by every kind of severe suffering, except that of remorse for gifts misused, opportunities neglected, and errors committed. That was the lot of his son; but ere we place him hopelessly beneath his father, let us remember that no meteor rays streamed before the parent’s eyes, no passions hot as those of a hundred hearts beat in his bosom. Robert Burns did, at all events, to his father what no Murdoch or Gilbert Burns could have done for him, he repaid the gift of life with immortality. It was of his father he said—

"Then kneeling down to Heaven’s Eternal King,
The priest, the father, and the husband prays."

Before closing this chapter we may merely pursue for a moment the fate of John Murdoch, the excellent preceptor of the poet. After Burns left for the harvest rigg Murdoch often visited him at his father’s house, and helped him with his learning. He continued for some years a respected citizen and teacher in Ayr, till a quarrel in his cups ‘with Dr. Dalrymple, the all-powerful parish minister there, forced him to migrate to London, where he became a private teacher of French, and wrote some books on the French language—such as, "A Radical Vocabulary of the French Language," "On the Pronunciation and Orthography of the French Language," a "Dictionary of Distinctions.’ He also rendered valuable assistance to Walker when preparing his excellent "English Dictionary.’ He heard in the midst of the mighty London of the fame of his pupil, and could scarcely for a while believe that this prodigy of genius had ever walked by his side along the whitening ridges of Mount Oliphant, or lain in bed with him conjugating French verbs! He soon warmly welcomed his rise, but never seems to have thought of comparing him for a moment with his father. Murdoch’s connection, however, with Burns was of service to him in his declining years. Although he had taught English to many distinguished persons in .London, such as Talleyrand, he fell into poverty and ill-health. An appeal was made on his behalf to the friends and admirers of Burns, who raised some money to relieve his wants. He died in 1824, aged seventy-seven, having survived for twenty-eight years his excitable and ill-starred scholar.


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