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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns - Ellisland


ELLISLAND was in the full flush of summer when, on the 13th of June, 1788, Burns took possession. It needed all the music, and flowers, and foliage of the leafy month, to cheer up to his eye the circumstances amidst which he came to it. There was an old steading to be taken down; there was a new house to be built; Jean, with her sole surviving child, was far off in Ayrshire, and was not expected in a hurry. All was annoyingly and disappointingly new. He was alone. His Muse at first was shy, and his prose journal and his correspondence became his only safety valves. He speaks of the "foggy atmosphere of his soul," as if his years were now "all winters," to use that gasp of poor Byron’s. He praises Jean to Mrs. Dunlop, determined to make the best of his bargain. He gives a great many reasons for his marriage, besides "rooted attachment," which itself might have been sufficient— reasons, however, which the reader, remembering his quite recent flirtations with Clarinda, is not very much disposed as a whole to believe. He has now reached the poet’s dream—" Love in a Cottage ;" but, alas! the cottage is smoky—

"The red peat gleams a fiery kernel,
Encireled by a fog infernal,"

and he is far from his Love. Her absence, however, made his heart grow fonder, and he poured out the exquisite song, "Of a’ the Airts the Wind can Blaw," showing how, while prose could only lamely argue out his case in the matter of the marriage, poetry could create passion where it was not, or stir up the last fading embers into a youthful blaze. One might imagine in reading "Of a’ the Airts," and "Were I on Parnassus’ Hill," that they were the effusions of a boy lover. It casts a curious light on song writing, as the outcome of the sincerity or depth of love, to know that the best verses in "Of a’ the Airts" (Oh! blaw, ye westland winds, blaw saft, &c.), are not by Burns at all, but by one John Hamilton, a music-seller in Edinburgh. But these songs of Burns show that he was trying to recall the old love of his espousals, and to reconcile at once himself and his wife to their inevitable lot.

While thus musing and rhyming in solitude, he sometimes employed his leisure in wandering through the grounds of Friars’ Carse—an estate lying northward from Ellisland, belonging to Captain Riddell of Glenriddell, a man of antiquarian and literary taste, and of a social turn. His mansion was once a monastic establishment, and stands on a rocky promontory overlooking the Nith, with a long strip of alluvial soil [carse] stretching eastward through shrubberies—hence the compound word Friars’ Carse. Here Burns, furnished with a key, often wandered, not, however, as Robert Chambers describes him, with "hope green in his bosom," but with pensive and melancholy thoughts, which he expresses without disguise in his journal, but which, toned down, took the form of his "Verses written in Friars’ Carse Hermitage," a rural cot Riddell had constructed near the house. These bear the date of 28th June, but were altered and a little expanded afterwards.

Burns was now, if we believe Allan Cunningham, a "busy and a happy man;" presiding over the building of his new house and steading. That he was busy is unquestionable; but as the business and other circumstances were not congenial, we doubt the happiness. He worked on, however, energetically, "digging foundations, collecting stones, seeking sand, carting lime, and even laying on the stones of the house." The result was, as we can vouch, a pleasant humble cottage near the red scaur he loved; with a sitting room on the east, looking down on the stream and valley; a west room called the Spence, where guests of distintiction, like Sir Egerton Brydges, would dine with Burns; a kitchen and a bedroom lying between, and a garret. A well was in a bank below; and a barn, stackyard, byre, and stable were behind.

At Communions of old time, and not indeed very long since, there was a general washing and clearing of reputations, like the Whitsuntide cleanings; and on the Monday after the town or village looked, to use Andrew Fairservice’s language (in "Rob Roy "), as "crouse as a cat when all the flaes are kamed aff her;" and the streets presented a kind of jaunty, jail-delivery aspect, partly because the old sins were condoned, and partly because new ones might now be contracted with impunity till the next year! One of these annual atonement days now reached the village of Mauchline on the 5th of August, 1788; and Robert Burns and Jean Armour compeared before the Session for the last time, were rebuked for their past irregularity, their marriage formally acknowledged, the parties solemnly exhorted to adhere faithfully to each other as man and wife, and the amount of the fee usual on such occasions for the poor left to the generosity of "Mr. Burns." "Mr. Burns," it is added, gave a guinea note on behalf of the poor. Thus under difficulties was the complete consummation of the marriage between this immortal pair attained at last, and Burns might and did exclaim—

"I hae a wife o’ my ain"

Extremely miserable at Ellisland, as some of his letters prove him, Burns was rather often repairing to Ayrshire to meet his Jean, and to string again his lyre, which had become somewhat " becobwebbed" in the hut on his farm. One of these productions was a "Fête Champetre," written on the occasion of a gay supper or ball given by Mr. Cunningham of Enterkin, who, it was said, meant it for an electioneering feast, as he intended to canvass Ayrshire, an intention he afterwards relinquished. It was the first specimen of a style which Burns often practised afterwards, and in which, as in most styles, he excelled, but which was hardly worthy of his genius, it being thoroughly artificial—its inspiration, party spirit; and its result, clever personality; and on its point, as on a bright prong, many insipid and worthless characters are suspended and immortalized. Soon after this he was advised to try English instead of Scotch verse, and produced the first of three Epistles to Mr. Graham of Fintry, which are certainly not the most felicitous of his writings, but forced and powerless. When a Highland woman got excited in conversation she began to talk good English instead of Gaelic, and then it was said, "Ye have gotten to your English." So Burns sometimes, as in his "Vision" and the close of his "Cottars Saturday Night," got to his English, and was never better, or so good. But in these "Epistles to Graham," and some other productions, he began with his English, and conspicuously failed. Yet the following are manly lines:-

"Ere my poor soul such deep damnation stain,
My horny fist assume the plough again,
The piebald jacket let me patch once more:
On eighteen pence a week I’ve lived before."

Still wearying for his wife, he writes a letter to Miss Chalmers in her praise. He says, "I have not got modish manners, polite tattle, and fashionable dress." One might think of the fox and the grapes; but he adds, "I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kindest heart in the country." This cluster of superlatives seems a little overdone, and, as formerly, distance is lending enchantment to the view.

Yet he did undoubtedly like Jean better after she was made "an honest woman," and when, like many Scotch women of humble life, who were erratic before, she was likely to prove, and did prove, an excellent and devoted wife. At last, after Burns had been compelled to enter his new house before it was plastered, and to suffer all that damp and disarray could add to his previous discomfort, came bleak December with its horrors and its memories, and in stept Jean, like a winter sun-glint, to minister a little light and comfort. The new house was not fit for her as yet, and she had to go to a neighbouring farm, which stood on what is called the Isle—a piece of ground once encircled by the Nith, in the immediate proximity of the old churchyard of Dunscore, which contained the tomb of Grierson of Lagg, the noted persecutor; and as it was thought at that time haunted, it was at present without a tenant. In this "ruined grange," as Shakspeare has it, Jean Armour, now Mrs. Burns, was installed mistress. It was rather a gloomy and ominous place she had reached, but it was her home — the first she could really call her own. Burns was with her, and her flitting had come safely the week before, including a fine four-posted bed, presented her by Mrs. Dunlop. A west-country servant, Elizabeth Smith, daughter of an exemplary parent, who had charged Burns to look after her morals, and

"On the Questions tairge her tichtly"

(and she used to say that he did so faithfully), had arrived. Not a mile up the stream the new house of Ellisland wae getting ready for his wife’s reception; and we have no doubt that, composed if not gleeful, she accepted the circumstances of her situation, and had no prophetic glimpse of the haggard destiny which here and elsewhere lay before her lord and herself.

Her coming seemed to rouse the old soul of song within him. He had written previously one on Captain Riddell’s marriage—" The day returns, my bosom burns "—and an elegy on the death of a promising son of Fergusson of Craigdarroch. But these, though good, bore no proportion to the two charming songs, both dated Ellisland, the 17th of December—" Auld Langsyne" and "Bonny Mary"

"Go fetch to me a pint of wine"

both pretending to be old, but both stamped in the fresh burning mint of his own genius. It was, for the nonce, a happy and half-inspired man who, on one day (the 1st January, 1789) wrote that letter to Gilbert Burns, so honourable to his heart and filial piety, and that other letter to Mrs. Dunlop, so characteristic of his sensibility, native taste, and imaginative power. Surely, we say, habitual happiness would have made this man always good and true to himself; or surely, at least, elements could have been mingled in his cup which might have made it a sweeter and a holier one. What might not fuller recognition, better society, a more congenial employment, a little more money, along with this new domestic comfort, have done for him, to save him from temptation and to minister to him peace! Such thoughts will pass through our minds, useless as they may be deemed ; he was so worth saving, not so much as a poet, in which he has in spite of everything gained the highest honours, but as a man.

A month previously, on occasion of an attack being made on the memory of the Stuarts by the Rev. Mr. Kirkpatrick of Dunscore, he wrote an indignant and eloquent letter to the London Star, a paper conducted by John Mayne (author of "The Siller Gun ‘), a native of Dumfriesshire. It seemed the last expression of Burns’ Jacobite loyalty. We meet with that very seldom, if ever afterwards, either in his prose or verse.

He began very soon to have doubts as to the success of his farm, and this made him exert every influence to get an Excise appointment in the district where it was situated. His acerbity seems in a short time to have returned, as we judge from a letter to Dugald Stewart, in which he speaks of a projected work, entitled "The Poet’s Progress," and gives as a specimen a character of Creech, whom he regarded at that time with great bitterness and aversion. It is a mercy for Burns that this poem was never carried further, since, in the first place, it would have been another effort in that style of laboured and heavy satire which he had begun in his Letter to Graham of Fintry, and which, when compared to his earlier effusions, resembles the sluggish flight and blunted blow of a heron beside the rapid swoop and sharp decisive stroke of an eagle; and because, secondly, to Creech would have been, on the whole, unfair. All his fellows in trade maintained that Creech was incapable of wilful injustice, though not incapable of remissness, craft, and negligence. But the fact is that Burns, whenever unhappy in himself or in his environment, threw out and partially relieved his misery by fierce and unprovoked attacks on others, and this he was most apt to do when unduly excited. He was, besides, haunted by an ambition to be a great satirist, one of the most wretched of literary callings; and for which, if his wit and humour fitted him, his naturally kind disposition and his solid judgment were as certainly disqualifications. His misery more than his will consented to write bitter things, and his irregularities coincided. But whenever he was comparatively happy, and this was not infrequent, and when his intellect was in its average state of manly clearness, he deplored what he had written; and such is very nearly the way in which we account for his obscene verses. In heated passion he wrote; in hours of calm reflection he regretted them. In Byron it was not quite the same. He had not such warm and generous feelings as Burns—was more permanently and less reasonably soured—did not, however, commit himself so much as the Scottish poet either in severity or in smut, but went to the unhappy work with more coolness and deliberation. We can never conceive Burns thrusting his character of Creech under the Bibliopole’s chair, as Byron did, under Rogers’, his Satanic philippie on that poet. Burns’ "Creechiad, or Progress of a Poet," was never comp’eted. The letters to the bookseller—some of them intemperate enough—were submitted to the eye of Miss Chalmers, who got them destroyed, and long before the Poet’s death the two were reconciled. Dr. Currie speaks somewhat doubtfully of the rides Burns took while still Jean was in the West, as exposing him to danger; and Professor Wilson has most unmercifully ridiculed the idea of there being no safety for Burns in Sanquhar, and of it being impossible for him to pass the door of a public-house in Thornhill ; and says that if this were the case, he should have been shut up in a lunatic asylum. And here Wilson is substantially right. Burns, though far too social, and though he might have what is proverbially called a "spark in his throat," a complaint very common in his day, was by no means in danger of becoming a victim or habitual debauchee. To say he never drank alone is not true, since in his letters he speaks several times of doing so, even to intoxication (see letter from Ecclefechan); but that he often debauched himself by himself or in his own house is not proven, and is not very likely. Like Falstafl "villanous company" was his undoing, and often company not very select; an honest Boniface, a "pursy" old landlord, "waddling upstairs" with his huge "jeroboam"in his shaky hand; a bagman from the south or a pedlar from the north; a hedge schoolmaster or a landlady like that accommodating she of "Tam o’ Shanter "—any of these were good enough "to drink with," and he extracted from them humour and character, and various poetical material. Now and then, no doubt, in his rides to Ayrshire he found reunions collected for him, and receptions given, which implied a late sitting and a late rising, with a dreadful headache and, as he confesses to his brother William, with an addled brain. But nothing that would then be considered very serious happened ; and for such excesses as he committed and confessed to Jean, she would give him a gentle shrift. Once or twice he met with strange adventures, one of which will be found described by himself in reference to the funeral retinue of Mrs. Oswald of Auchencruive driving him out from a snug room, fire, and smoking bowl, through moors, mosses, and snow drifts, to New Cumnock. The defunct lady, we believe, was as much to blame for his exclusion from the inn as for the other charges brought against her in the portentous ode beginning—

"Dwel!er in yon dungeon dark."

In February he visited Edinburgh to receive £50 which Creech was owing him for sales effected since the final settlement, and with which Burns seems to have been satisfied. His younger brother, William, had at this time called at the Isle, and been kindly received. Burns addressed to him some very brotherly and sensible letters (to be found fully in CORRESPONDENCE). He was a saddler first in Newcastle and afterwards in London, and died in the latter place in July, 1790. He lies in Paul’s Churchyard. He seems to have been a quiet, steady, commonplace, un-Burnsian, but worthy kind of man.

Burns did not call on "Clarinda" when in Edinburgh. That she expected and wished for him we gather from the fact that she tells Ainslie that she was determined to avoid her windows when he was in town, lest she should catch even a glimpse of him from them She wrote him soon after in upbraiding terms about his marriage; and he replied in a tone half savage, half soft, vindicating himself vigorously, reproaching her gently, throwing out hints about his severe struggles, and pointing back to the "mirk night of December,"

"When sparkling was the rosy wine, and private was the chamber,"

with a finger which seemed to tremble at the recollection, rather with joy and glad reminiscence than with regret. He began at this time to bear the penalties of successful authorship, partly by having books or MSS. submitted to his opinion or revision, and partly by finding himself patronized by men who were his inferiors in everything but popularity and a better account at their booksellers than his. Yet Dr. Moore’s letters, while a little too consciously condescending in their tone, are both friendly and discriminating. Still, in advising him to give up the Scottish language in his compositions, he shows that he had no conception that Burns was a national poet—the national poet of his country. Burns was not only the greatest British poet living, but Scotland was his special province, and her language on his lips was royal.

In poetry he was doing little, and that little of no great importance or sufficiently characteristic—a few trifles, such as his rhymed sketch of Charles James Fox; "Delia," which, though doubted to be his, he unquestionably sent to the London Star; his clever octosyllabics "To James Tennant of Glenconnar," an old and tried friend of the poet’s and his family, whom we have seen helping him in his choice of Ellisland; his lines on a "Wounded Hare," which are more creditable to his humanity than to his poetic powers, although, if the lout was cruel to the hare when shooting her with young, Dr. Gregory was equally so in his savage hypercriticism on the poem—a critique done with true professional animus, as if to show he had seldom such a fine subject for his scalpel; and his "Address to the Toothache," worthy of the days of the "Louse" and the "Haggis," and which we know has been read for consolation by the martyrs of the malady, and has given to sad despair

"A gloomy smile."

Some of these he despatched to Creech, who talked of publishing a new edition of the poet’s works, but paid him nothing for these additional pieces in the meantime.

A few miles from Ellisland, to the north-west, lies a fine undulating country, stretching toward the little village of Dunscore; on the south are the hills of Irongray, a bold and rugged range; in the valley at their feet, in the centre of a wood, stands the monument erected by Sir Walter Scott to Helen Walker, the prototype of Jeanie Deans, where we have been and in the midst of them lies Craigenputtock, the property and once the dwelling-place of Thomas Carlyle—a gloomy place, we are told, with its dark firs around and melancholy moors behind, reminding visitors, who are also readers, of the pine-shadowed and rnoated castle where Maturin describes his dark Knight of the Forest keeping his state, and conversing at the portals with those doomed ones who came to consult him and inhale all hell through his half-shut visor, as

"Rolls the rich thunder of his awful voice"
in that
"Infernal colloquy sublime,"

and who remained his vassals and victims forever more! It was of Dunscore auld kirk that Carlyle said to Emerson, when the latter was sounding him on religious subjects, "Christ died on the Cross, and that built Dunscore kirk in the valley down there, and brought you and me together." They were standing on a hill behind Monyaive. In that kirk, in Burns’ day, there haboured a Mr. Kirkpatrick, a Calvinistic clergyman of the old school, whose public teaching was in inverse ratio and dismal antithesis to his private benevolence. He was a blameless and good man; but his doctrine made Burns, not unaccustomed to the habit, to "blaspheme an octave higher," and to cry out "From such conceptions of my Creator good Lord deliver me." He seems to have had a wicked pleasure, while Mr. Kirkpatrick was preaching, in silently tearing asunder the webs of argument the preacher had been laboriously weaving, and would come home often on the tiptoe of triumph at his success. One remembers Theodore Parker listening for years to Lyman Beecher! There is a story about the minister having rather maltreated the poet. Burns, highly to his credit, had got up a library in the parish. Sir John Sinclair had begun to prepare his great statistical work on Scotland, and had applied to Mr. Kirkpatrick, as he did to hundreds of parish ministers, for information. In his reply, we have been told that Kirkpatrick deliberately suppressed the fact of Burns having instituted a library at Dunscore; and that Burns, in indignation, wrote Sir John on the subject. We find no such letter among his Correspondence, although in Mr. MacDowell’s interesting notices of Burns’ closing days there is a reference to a letter from Captain Riddell to Sinclair on the matter. If Kirkpatrick did omit to mention it out of spite to Burns, it was mean; but then we must remember that he was not only a Calvinist, but a heresyhunter! and this should cover a multitude of sins.

At this time occurred the famous case of Dr. William MacGill of Ayr, who was tried for Socinian error, and in defence of whom Burns wrote the "Kirk’s Alarm," a piece of very considerable point; although he was only half-hearted in his satirical poems—showed rather the power than the will to sting, and wanted something of the savage gusto of a Swift or a Byron. MacGill was a very respectable but odd man; he escaped by making sundry concessions to his adversaries, and died reputed a saint, if not an orthodox divine, at the age of seventy-six. Late on in summer Burns took possession at last of Ellisland. He did so in a peculiar and poetic fashion. He told his servant, little Elizabeth Smith, to take the family Bible with a bowl of salt, placing the one above the other, and walk on from the Isle to the new house, and take care to enter before any other person. This was the old freit to secure good luck. He and his wife followed—a peculiar couple—he strong, swarthy, somewhat stooped, striding manfully along; his wife, tall, fair, and though not remarkably beautiful, rather handsome; with little Betty, the Bible, and the salt: the whole procession advancing picturesquely, perhaps with involuntary laughter on his part and a look of puzzled pleasure on Jean’s, along the brushwood banks of the Nith to their common home. Did the salt spill as the party were entering, and did he read in this the disturbance of the freit, and an omen of the dark future! Burns, superstitious from his constitution, habits, and education, was fond of visits to the Witch of Endor Cavern, to inquire as to the to come; although, to his knocking at the door of Destiny, there was but the old reply—the echo of the sound he himself had made, or a voice like that of hollow laughter, shivering and dying away in the distance!

Burns had now some critical correspondence with Miss Helen Maria Williams (see Boswell’s Johnson) anent a poem of her’s, long since forgotten, on the Slave Trade; and with the brothers Stuart, three remarkable Scotch-men connected with the London Press, one of whom enjoyed the applause and friendship of Coleridge and inherited the hatred and rampant abuse of William Cobbett. On the 18th of August his wife bore the poet another son, whom he called Francis Wallace, in honour of Mrs. Dunlop. He now saw, more forcibly than ever, the necessity of having two strings to his bow, and applied to Mr. Graham to be appointed excise-officer of the country district where he lived. He meant to make his farm principally a dairy farm, with which branch his sisters were most conversant, so that, while they and his wife might manage time cows and milk, he might attend to his excise duties. One of the Stuarts had known Robert Fergusson, and his allusions to him called forth some plaintive letters from Burns anent his case, with a kind of prophetic murmur in them, as if the fate of the admired might be soon that of the admirer. Indeed, his too intense sympathy with him was itself an unconscious prediction of this.

Yet now let all gloom for a season be dismissed! From o'er the hills and far away let two kindred spirits arrive (like spate-swollen tributaries, the Cairn and the Scaur, to you the Nith) to mingle with the Burns river, relieving its monotony, and making it resound with the joy of waves! Let William Nicol, Allan Masterton, and Robert Burns compear together, and let Moffat be the meeting place of the three friends, determined for one night to be as happy as the dreams of avarice or the realities of royalty! There are some perplexities about the date and place. Allan Cunningham says it was the heating of the house of Laggan, a small estate which Nicol had purchased in the parish of Glencairn. But the inexorable evidence of documents seems to prove that Nicol had not entered on his estate till 1790, a year after this jovial meeting. Burns speaks of Moffat as the scene; but if so, how came Nicol to brew a "peck o’ maut" there? a process which would have been natural enough at the farm town of Laggan. At all events the orgy took place; and however strange it may seem now in the eyes of Good Templarism or of sober sense, there can be no doubt it was a joyous one; not a coarse Bacchanalian carousal but "the feast of reason and the flow of soul" They were all superior men, and their talk that night, be sure, was not "of bullocks." It was quite a Noctes Ambrosianoe, and since all three, the Laird of Laggan’s many hills, the fine-hearted teacher of English in the Edinburgh High School, and the Poet of all time, are dead, and such symposia are past, we presume for ever, let its not be too severe on its memory. Let us charitably believe that all went to bed sober; and though it was sung—

"Wha last beside his chair shall fa’
He is the king amang us three,"

that the feast ended ar it began, in a republic, not a monarchy. Now it seems, through the vista of eighty-nine years, a feast of Valhalla — the "maut" and the symposiasts are alike shadows, and it is the ghost of a moon which sheds her evasive light and lifts her hollow horn over the ghastly revellers. The "ae nicht" was not followed by a second till some years afterwards, when we find the three in Dumfries together for a week and more at the old work.

This autumn, too, occurred the contest of the "Whistle." Burns’ account of the tradition from which it sprang will be found along with the poem. Charles Sharpe exposes some errors in it; but the whole story is evidently mythical, remotely founded on fact. The contest this year was to be between Captain Riddell of Glencarse, Mr. Fergusson of Craigdarroch, and Sir Robert Lawrie of Maxwelltown, then M.P. for Dumfriesshire. Fergusson gained the day. Burns was present, being invited to attend the party to see that the gentlemen drank fair, and to write a poem on the subject. An eye-witness, William Hunter, told Chambers he remembered the whole transaction, being then a servant at Friars’ Carse. Burns took no part in the proceedings, sat by himself drinking only a little brandy, was quite sober, and left on his own feet after they were carried to bed. He wrote at a side table the verses, and read them over and over to the gentlemen to their great amusement. So far well. But think of Burns being present as a kind of funkey or waiter at such a scene, and compelled to draw inspiration from it! His position at "Willie brewed a peck o’ maut" rises to judicial sobriety and dignity compared to this. The ebony whistle remained with Mr. Fergusson of Craigdarroch, son of the victor, M.P. for the county of Kirkcudbright. Will it be believed that the author of these pages, along with another clergyman from the neighbourhood of Dumfries, called in June, 1865, on an English family which had taken Friars’ Carse for the season—people genteel in appearance, in respectable circumstances, and exceedingly polite, tradespeople hailing from London; and when we asked to see the room where, according to Robert Burns, the "Whistle" contest took place, we found they had never heard of it, and had never heard of Robert Burns! Such are—

"The glory and the nothing of a name."

This autumn Burns composed his "Mary in Heaven," or rather, like many of his poems, it came upon him in remarkable circumstances, observed by his wife, and afterwards recorded by Lockhart and his other biographers. How forcibly they were recalled to us when, after our visit to Friars’ Carse and our unique adventure there, we strolled in the fine sunset to the barn-yard behind Ellisland, and the whole scene and a portion of the agony, too, were reproduced as we repeated the lines—

"0, Mary, dear departed shade.
Where is thy place of blissful rest?
See’st thou thy lovcr lowly laid?
Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast?"

In such hours as those, which so rarely occur in life, when the heart is forced back by intense realization of the woes of others on perished passages of its own past, it knoweth its own bitterness, and feels it partly relieved and partly increased, and that such a mingled feeling is far more precious and far more dear than the most exquisite enjoyments. Bruise down joy sufficiently, and it yields sorrow; and bruise down misery sufficiently, and it yields deep, though pensive and peculiar joy; and whatever be the case with the joy which ends in sorrow, with that which arises from it no stranger can intermeddle. It is beyond the name of pleasure; it is too deep for tears.

Burns was labouring under a cold, but still in fair spirits, and busy at his harvest work. As the evening drew on he appeared to get very sad about something, and instead of entering the house went to the barn-yard, and continued there in spite of his wife’s reminding him that it was frost; wandering up and down, throwing himself on a mass of straw and fixing his eyes on the starry firmament, especially on one bright planet which shone like another moon. At length he came in, called for his desk, and wrote "To Mary in Heaven." Chambers is at great pains to show that this took place on the 20th of October, 1789, that being a late season, and that this supplies the date of Mary’s death. He proves what is more remarkable, that Venus was not then a morning, but an evening star, and not the "star that ushers in the morn." Perhaps Burns took a poetical license. Chambers wonders how Burns can, after he had met with Charlotte Hamilton, Margaret Chalmers, and Clarinda, revert so fondly to this simple country girl. But he forgets they were still living, Mary was dead. They were brilliant figures which crossed his stage; she was his betrothed wife, dear to him as the ruddy drops that visited his sad heart, and torn by a malignant fever, as by the hand of a demon, from his very arms. He loved to observe anniversaries, and here was seemingly the third one of his great loss; and in the transfiguring mood of his imagination, stirred by the unspeakable charm of autumn eve, he must shrine his loved one in heaven. It might be, too, that a tinge of remorse was in his bosom, else why should he talk, three years after her death, of his anguished bosom and heavy groans! In quite a different vein he wrote the next day to kind old Blacklock, and soon after we find him much in the society of a man who did a great deal to get Burns to forget his poverty and remember his misery no more—the redoubtable Captain Grose. Francis Grose, an Englishman, had seen better days, but had been compelled to live by his wits, and had—

" Ta’en the antiquarian trade,"
I think they call it."

He was a wit, scholar, humorist, and bon vivant, in person fat and little, had come to Friars’ Carse to collect antiquities, and was a great favourite with Captain Riddell and his circle. He was getting up a work on Scottish antiquities, to which Burns, as we shall see, made a most important poetic contribution. At table Grose was fully a match for Burns in fun and anecdote; but Burns in his poems, and sometimes in talk, too, possessing the power of imagination, which Grose had not, could and did, by a single flash, at once illuminate and eclipse him. See his verses on Grose’s peregrinations in Scotland in his oldest and best satirical vein. It was much the same with Patrick Robertson and Christopher North. Both were witty, one only a man of genius. Both were stout men; but Robertson was coarse and flabby. "You are getting enormously fat, Professor Wilson." "Yes," was his reply, "but not like many fat people, loathsome."

Meanwhile, our Poet had become, as he says, "a mighty exciseman before the Lord," doing his drudgery and scrub work with immense energy. John Newton said once, that if the angel Gabriel were appointed a shoe-black on earth he would be the best shoe-black in the parish; and so Burns, reduced to stoop and slave, must stoop with dignity and slave with diligence. He had the charge of ten parishes, and rode often two hundred miles a week. He was severe in general on the smuggler; but he knew how to temper justice with mercy. Professor Gillespie saw him once entering the house of a poor widow who sold whisky, to give her the hint to put her barrels out of the way, as the supervisor was coming. On another occasion he stept into a house where the wife was shrewdly suspected of selling a contraband dram, and sought for a gill and some bread and cheese; and after discussing them, he asked her, "Well, Jean, what’s to pay for the whisky!" to which she archly replied, "Oh, naething ava for the whisky, hut there’s saxpence for bread and cheese." "Sin on, and fear not," was his laughing rejoinder as he left the house.

Once, according to the late esteemed Mr. Rodgerson, United Presbyterian minister of Thornhill, he was fairly done by a smuggler. A cart came to the inn at Thornhill with a number of barrels, on which Burns instantly pounced. The smuggler came up, and with tears in his eyes told a distressing story of a poor starving family, and so forth. Burns was quite melted, let the man off and even gave him a pound. He had no sooner left than the barrels were examined, and lo! were filled with water. He found his continual riding over hill and dale rather laborious, although conducive to health and to that wayward and excursive tone of mind which a poet loves. Nor was this mode of life without its pleasant relaxations. There were respectable people here and there to whom his approach was an advent, who appreciated his genius, and admired his social qualities and conversational powers. One of these was the Rev. Mr. Jeffrey, minister of Lochmaben. He had a lively blue-eyed daughter. She had received him one night at the manse after a long ride very kindly; had given him a dish of tea or whatever might best contribute to his comfort. He brought down the next morning to breakfast one of the sweetest of his smaller lyrics—

"I gaed a waefu’ gate yestreen,"

which we may be excused for saying we heard sung by an uncle of our own and namefather—the late Mr. George Barlas, of Glasgow, a non-professional—in tones of melting sweetness and manly pathos, which no stage ever excelled, and which delicious tears praised more eloquently and sincerely than could a thousand plaudits!

This blue-eyed lassie married a Mr. Renwick in New York, and afterwards gave a Scotchman a charming picture of Burns coming in to her father’s house on cold rainy nights after long riding among the moors—of his manly and luminous talk, his easy and affable manners, and added, she "never could fancy that Burns followed the occupation of the plough, because everything he said or did had a gracefulness and charm that were in an extraordinary degree engaging." It is well when people are thankful for the gift of earthly immortality, and prove this by speaking with respect as well as gratitude of the donor.

And now 1790 had arrived and brought with it various verses, a Sketch, addressed to Mrs. Dunlop, and a Prologue, spoken at the Dumfries theatre on New-year’s evening, communicated by him to Mr. Sutherland, a friend of David Campbell, of Ayr. But it brought also carking cares connected with business, bad prospects for his farm, and a gloomy state of mind. He had, he says, a bad tract of health most of the winter. Consequently, the first letters of the year are darkened by the heaviest hypochondria. It is sad to think that when a life is to be so short it should be so miserable; Burns did not attain even to a short life and a merry one. The gloom was still on him when in February he wrote a reply to a letter from Clarinda, in which he speaks of incessant headache, depressing spirits, a deranged nervous system, hints at grievous error and imprudence on his own part, and ends with a song—" Lovely Nancy!" He came in now and then to Dumfries to attend the theatre. And we soon find him in Johnson’s "Museum" pouring out some of his most exquisite ditties — " Tam Glen," "Bonnie Ann" (addressed to Annie Masterton, a daughter of his friend Allan Masterton), and "My Heart‘s in the Highlands." The third volume of this Miscellany was now published with a characteristic preface by Burns.

A heresy-hunt was instituted by some nameless bigots of the day against a man, Heron of Kirkgunzeon, equally unknown till he signalized himself by binding down a man that was to be ordained to the Confession of Faith, "so far as it was agreeable to reason and the word of God." This raised Burns’ wrath, who calls it a farce got up by the clergy; but he did not think it worth while to express his feelings about it in rhyme. He wrote instead such trifles as Elegy "On the Death of Peg Nicholson," a mare— called after the attempted assassin of George III.—which Willie Nicol had given Burns; and some clever verses addressed to a gentleman who had presented him with a newspaper, and offered to continue it free of expense, in which occur glimpses of rare sagacity and felicitous expression, such as—

"And how the collieshangie works
Between the Russians and the Turks;"
If Denmark, ony body spak o’t;"
"If sleekit Chatham Will was leevin,
Or glaikit Chancy got his nieve in;
How Daddie Burke the plea was cookin’;
If Warren Hastings’ neck be yeukin’."

What admirable discrimination in these words—" Sleekit Chatham Will," more rogue than fool; "Glaikit Chancy," careless, rollicking Charles James Fox; "Daddie Burke," prudent, profound, fatherly, as well as all-learned and all-brilliant, Edmund Burke. Burns saw men at a glance, and the glance was followed up like lightning by the single, searching, thunder word. This made him potentially as great a critic as a poet —a Hazlitt as well as a Byron. This insight he carried into his estimate of his species, of character, and of life. "Mankind," he says, "are by nature benevolent creatures, except in a few scoundrelly cases. I do not know that avarice of the good things we chance to have is born with us; but we are placed here amid such nakedness, hunger, and poverty and want, that we are under a cursed necessity of studying selfishness in order that we may exist. Still there are in every age a few souls that all the wants and woes of life cannot debase to selfishness, or even to the necessary alloy of caution and prudence. If I ever am in danger of vanity, it is when I contemplate myself on this side of my disposition and character. God knows I am no saint. I have a whole host of sins and follies to answer for; but if I could—and I believe I do it as far as I can—I would wipe away all tears from all eyes. Even the knaves whe have injured me, I would oblige them; though, to tell the truth, it would be more out of vengeance, and to show that I was independent of and above them, than out of the overflowings of my benevolence."

Passing over some electioneering ballad writing, a thing Burns always does well, although it is seldom worth doing, we meet with a piece of real poetry, written about a man of whom hardly anything is known except that he was a jolly companion—one who loved his friend and his bottle -Matthew Henderson, Esq. On his unknown grave and obscure name Burns lavishes roses and immortelles in a very shower, one would say, of wasted feeling and beauty, were not the beauty so rich, and the feeling, though a little exaggerated in expression, so sincere. It might have been an elegy for Fox or Mirabeau, the idol of a nation, instead of for Matthew Henderson, the idol of Fortune’s tavern. how powerful the genius which could almost match Lycidas in commemoration of a kindly bon vivant, to whom Burns bore probably the relation of "Tam o’ Shanter"to "Souter Johnny!"-

"Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither."

We get from various quarters accounts how matters were going on in Ellisland this year (1790). They are somewhat contradictory, and it is difficult to strike an average. Some find nothing but extravagance on the part of the servants, and carelessness on that of the masters— " the lasses constantly employed in baking scones, and the lads eating them warm with ale." Others speak of Mrs. Burns as a prudent manager. One, William Clarke, who was a ploughman to Burns for six months, gives his master a good character on the whole—as hasty, but kindly; often from home, but attending pretty well to his farm when at home; never once intoxicated to Clarke’s knowledge, or unable to attend to business; once terribly angry when he saw a servant woman nearly choking one of the cows by not cutting the potatoes small enough; not flush of liquor to servants, as other masters Clarke had known, though he sometimes gave them a dram for extra work; and the following, at least, was pretty certainly correct:- Usually dressed in a broad blue bonnet, a drab or blue long-tailed coat, corduroy breeches, dark blue stockings and cuitikins (short leggins), and with a "maud" on his shoulders when it was cold—just the Scottish farmer of the period, cap-à-pie.

We quote the descriptions of visits paid to him by Ramsay of Ochtertyre and Sir Egerton Brydges, the last of which especially is full of true, fresh enthusiasm:-

"Seeing him pass quickly near Closeburn, I said to my companion, ‘That is Burns.’ On coming to the inn, the ostler told us he would be back in a few minutes to grant permits; that where he met with anything seizable, he was no better than any other gauger; in everything else that he was perfectly a gentleman. After leaving a note to be delivered to him on his return, I proceeded to his house, being curious to see his Jean, &c. I was much pleased with his uxor Sabina qualis, and the poet’s modest mansion, so unlike the habitation of ordinary rustics. In the evening he suddenly bounced in upon us, and said, as he entered, ‘I come, to use the words of Shakspeare, "stewed in haste." ‘ In fact, he had ridden incredibly fast after receiving my note. We fell into conversation directly, and soon got into the mare magnum of poetry. He told me that he had now gotten a story for a drama, which he was to call ‘Rob Macquechan’s Elshon,’ from a popular story of Robert Bruce being defeated on the Water of Cairn, when the heel, of his boot having loosened in his flight, he applied to Robert Macquechan to fit it, who, to make sure, ran his awl nine inches up the king’s heel. We were now going on at a great rate, when Mr. S[tewart] popped in his head, which put a stop to our discourse, which had become very interesting. Yet in a little while it was resumed; and such was the force and versatility of the bard’s genius, that he made the tears run down Mr. S[tewart]’s cheeks, albeit unused to the poetic strain. . . . From that time we met no more, and I was grieved at the reports of him afterwards. Poor Burns we shall hardly ever see his like again. He was, in truth, a sort of comet in literature, irregular in its motions, which did not do good proportioned to the blaze of light it displayed."

Thus speaks Sir E. Brydges :—" I had always been a great admirer of his genius and of many traits in his character; and I was aware that he was a person moody and somewhat difficult to deal with. I was resolved to keep in full consideration the irritability of his position in society. About a mile from his residence, on a bench under a tree, I passed a figure, which from the engraved portraits of him I did not doubt was the poet; but I did not venture to address him. On arriving at his humble cottage, Mrs. Burns opened the door; she was the plain sort of humble woman she has been described. She ushered me into a neat apartment, and said that she would send for Burns, who was gone for a walk. In about half an hour he came, and my conjecture proved right—he was the person I had seen on the bench by the road-side. At first I was not entirely pleased with his countenance. I thought it had a sort of capricious jealousy, as if he was half inclined to treat me as an intruder. I resolved to bear it, and try if I could humour him. I let him choose his turn of conversation, and said a few words about the friend whose letter I had brought to him. It was now about four in the afternoon of an autumn day. While we were talking, Mrs. Burns, as if accustomed to entertain visitors in this way, brought in a bottle of Scotch whisky, and set the table. I accepted this hospitality. I could not help observing the curious glance with which he watched me at the entrance of this signal of homely entertainment. He was satisfied. He filled our glasses ‘Here’s a health to auld Caledonia!’ The fire sparlded in his eye, and mine sympathetically met his. He shook my hand with warmth, and we were friends at once. Then he drank ‘Erin for ever!’ and the tear of delight burst from his eye. The fountain of his mind and his heart now opened at once, and flowed with abundant force almost till midnight.

"He had amazing acuteness of intellect as well as glow of sentiment. I do not deny that he said some absurd things, and many coarse ones, and that his knowledge was very irregular, and sometimes too presumptuous, and that he did not endure contradiction with sufficient patience. His pride, and perhaps his vanity, was even morbid. I carefully avoided topics in which he could not take an active part. Of literary gossip he knew nothing, and therefore I kept aloof from it; in the technical parts of literature his opinions were crude and uninformed; but whenever he spoke of a great writer whom he had read, his taste was generally sound. To a few minor writers he gave more credit than they deserved. His great beauty was his manly strength, and his energy and elevation of thought and feeling. He had always a full mind, and all flowed from a genuine spring. I never conversed with a man who appeared to be more warmly impressed with the beauties of nature; and visions of female beauty and tenderness seemed to transport him. He did not merely appear to be a poet at casual intervals; but at every moment a poetical enthusiasm seemed to beat in his veins, and he lived all his days the inward if not the outward life of a poet. I thought I perceived in Burns’ cheek the symptoms of an energy which had been pushed too far, and he had this feeling himself. Every now and then he spoke of the grave as soon about to close over him. His dark eye had at first a character of sternness; but as he became warmed, though this did not entirely melt away, it was mingled with changes of extreme softness."

He began to be now flattered by Mr. Graham with the hope of a supervisorship. This would have brought him in £200 a-year (a sum about equal to £400 now), although attended by great drudgery; and in this case we should have heard less of the ruin and poverty of Burns. But even this beggarly promise of a Boreal morn never came to day. Dr. James Anderson (not to be confounded with Dr. Robert Anderson, editor of the "British Poets," and an early friend of Thomas Campbell), editor of a periodical called " The Bee," asked Burns through Blacklock to contribute to it. Blacklock did this in a rhymed epistle, and Burns hurled back his No in a torrent of honest execration, not at Blacklock, but at his own business, "the friction of holding the noses of the publicans to the grindstone of the Excise."

At this time his brother William died in London, and Robert paid the expenses of his illness and funeral. Robert Ainslie visited him on the 15th of October, and found the kirn of the year going on; and found, besides Burns and his wife, a sister of Burns, and a sister of Mrs. Burns, three male and female cousins, and some neighbours who had been harvesting. Ainslie describes it as a humble enough affair, although he enjoyed in the evening, more suo, dancing and kissing the lasses at the end of each dance. He thought Burns happy in a situation which yet he was preparing to leave, and of which he gave Ainslie some rather disagreeable particulars. He wrote this for the benefit of Clarinda, who eagerly swallowed all she heard of her lover, although the hope of his ever being hers did not now, we presume, visit her wildest dreams.

Having talked with Grose about Alloway Kirk, the poet had told him to make a drawing of it, because it was the burying-ground of his father, and was believed to be haunted by ghosts and witches; and Grose had promised to print a weird story for him in his book if he would write it. And hence came the immortal tale of "Tam o’ Shanter." The circumstances are familiar to everybody— the poet spending a day in autumn (always his inspired season, even, as Thomson says, "inspiring autumn comes!") by the banks of the Nith; approached at evening by his wife and her two weans; her stopping back, however, as she sees he is crooning to himself in one of his poetic moods, and cowering along with her two little boys in the broom while waiting for him; his reappearance in a state of half-frenzied excitement, in what Burke would call an "agony of glory,’’ with the big tears falling over his cheeks, and reciting to himself

"Now, Tam! ah, Tam! had thae been queans,"

and so on. We can never reconcile this ravished hour of triumphant genius with the picture MacDiarmid adds of the poet writing down his verses on a sod - dyke, although we have little doubt that the second part of the statement is true, that he repeated them at his fireside with great glee; but we fancy they were transcribed in the house, probably after recitation. Not a few such rapid improvisations of first-rate poetry or prose are found in literary history. There are many passages which appear to heave and hurry on with a celerity and totality of motion that suggest the idea of inspiration or abandonment—seem as if they were copied out from some fiery scroll unfolded suddenly before the Man of Genius by an invisible hand ere it has vanished away. Such passages we find in Milton, notably in the "Areopagitica;" in many of Jeremy Taylor’s glowing and gushing similitudes ("So have I seen"); in some of the grand swells of Burke’s "Regicide Peace," and "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly;" in Curran and Grattan passim; not unfrequently even in Charles Phillips; in some of the high-wrought climaxes of Chalmers and Irving, where the effort indeed rather overwhelms the ease, and the power is born in pain and labour; in the splendid peroration of Hall’s "Sermon on the Present Crisis ;" in many parts of Wilson’s "Tales" and "Noctes;" in a few of Carlyle’s and Ruskin’s descriptions; and in De Quincey’s "Suspiria de Profundis," especially his transcendent "Ladies of Sorrow." These are all in prose; but there are many in verse, too, such as the close of Milton’s sixth book of "Paradise Lost ;" much of "Lear,"" Macbeth," and "Timon of Athens;" Christopher Smart’s marvellous "David;" a poem or two of Crashaw’s; Coleridge’s "Ode to France ;" Shelley’s "Cloud," and the first canto of the "Revolt of Islam;" Wordsworth’s "Ode to Sound" (a little too elaborate); Wilson’s "Address to a Wild Deer;" Byrons fourth canto of "Childe Harold" throughout, and some portions of "Don Juan;" Campbell’s "O’Connor’s Child ;" Smith’s "Barbara" and "Garden and Child;" Keats’ "Nightingale" and "Hyperion ;" Mrs. Browning’s "Lady Geraldine’s Courtship ;" the close of Aird’s "Devil’s Dream;" Dobell’s "Chamouni," and some parts of his "Roman;" Bailey’s description of himself as a student in "Festus," and many others. Here all differ from Tam o’ Shanter, and differ from each other in many points, but agree in the wonderful manner in which they are all not sought, sent for, or sweltered out, or pumped up, or forced down, but come spontaneously in and from the poetic soul—as if brought at one time on the pen of the lightning writing on a black sky, and compelling the poet to write as fast and furiously below, and as if breathed at another from the silent and holy midnight more calmly and slowly into the lowly and listening ear, in which way it was that the soul of Wordsworth received the serenest and deepest of his inspirations! Campbell, in his "O’Connor’s Child," describes his high-wrought heroine, in accounting for the frenzy which made her utter the malison of heaven against her cruel brothers’ rage, that she durst not

"Have spoke
The curse which severed Nature’s yoke,
But that a Spirit o’er her stood."

It were difficult to settle to what order the Spirit which inspired "Tam o’ Shanter" belonged. "Puck" might have given the light raillery of the opening part ; "Arid," though of a loftier mood, was hardly competent to the deep and terrible imagination found in the elements on the " haly table." The Spirit assuredly was a "Proteus," by whatever other names it might be known in heaven, earth, or hell; and was like "Puck" in this respect, that as he

"Put a girdle round about the globe
In forty nsinutes,

so the Genius of the Hour in "Tam o’ Shanter" ranges with incredible speed and ease, in the very twinkling of an eye, "from gay to grave, from lively to severe"; and in some two hundred and thirty lines includes every species nearly of literary excellence—the humorous, the picturesque, the sententious, the grotesque, the sublime, the playful, the horrible and awful, all expressed in the most terse and felicitous language—every word a thing, every line a picture; and while the unity of the whole might be the despair of Art, it is felt to be the mere unconscious result of Nature. Shakspearean, it has been called; but we question if Shakspeare has any where so much that is Shakspearean lying in the same compass: it is Shakspeare in shorthand. The "haly table," though the most powerful, is not the most perfect part of the poem; but in it here and there you feel as if the wild wing of the inspiration flagged.

Grose printed "Tam o’ Shanter" in April, 1791, calling it "pretty tale!" but died in Dublin almost immediately after its publication. Moore praised it languidly; Tytler gives it a far more generous encomium. Burns felt, as poets often do correctly, that he had produced his masterpiece. The Ayrshire people found time, after having their long laugh out, to identify the characters—" Tam" with Douglas Graham of Shanter farm, between Turnberry and Colzean; "Kate" with his wife, Helen MacTaggart, much given to superstition; and "Souter Johnny" with a crony called John Davidson, a tanner, who believed there was nothing like leather except whisky.

After a long symposium in the town of Ayr on a tempestuous night, Graham, riding home, lost his bonnet near the Brigg of Doon, which contained all the money he had made at the market. Afraid of a scold, he invented and told Helen some cock-and-bull story about being frightened by witches near Alloway Kirk; but nevertheless returned to the place in search of his bonnet, which he found, along with his money, in a plantation. Burns knew this couple when at Kirkoswald, in the churchyard of which the reader may see an inscription recording the memory of "Tam" as a very religious man, who was not, after all, "drooned in Doon" or caught by demons, but died in the odour of sanctity, if not with the reputation of eminent sobriety. In March of this year a posthumous child was born to Mrs. Henri, a daughter of Mrs. Dunlop, married to a Frenchman, who had died; and this event delighted our poet, and awakened his muse. "This pledge o’ meikle love" removed while very young to France. Mrs. Henri died, and the paternal grandfather had to flee from the French Revolution to Switzerland, where the boy was brought up by a Mademoiselle Susette, a domestic, who was the means of preserving for him the family estates.

In due course came 1794; and we find Burns writing a stern Hymn to Poverty, still his close companion and cold mistress, in the shape of a letter to Peter Hill, inclosing a part payment of an account for books. Chambers gives a list of the books, and says, "It thus appears that Burns loved Smollett, Fielding, the English dramatists, and books of liberal divinity." One is amused to find amongst these liberal books the "Marrow of Modern Divinity," Cole on "God’s Sovereignty," Newton’s "Letters," and the "Confession of Faith "—books of the very hghest Calvinistic type, and which might have filled very creditably a shelf in the library of "Daddie Auld" or Mr. Kirkpatrick. We wonder if Burns left any notes or queries upon their margins. In John Newton he would have found some sentimental matter, transfiguring his own amorous feelings—John Newton being a converted Burns. But old Elisha Cole must have been a chokepear; and the statements of the "Confession" as to elect infants and reprobation would find a feeble echo in the warm and all-embracing charity of Burns’ heart.

Poor Miss Burnet, his Edinburgh idol—an idol he had seen for a long time now at a distance, and dared not approach—died; and Burns, as he truly says, "hammered at" a poor poem about her. His real poem was the sentence already quoted when he first saw her; and he did not, nor perhaps could, write on her what Coleridge did not very long afterwards on a kindred spirit called prematurely home:-

"They surely have no need of you
In the place where you are going;
Earth bath its angels all too few,
While heaven is overflowing."

Some people write best on Nature in winter—memory and absence bringing out its beauties then more forcibly, along with a certain pathetic feeling, like the sweet, soft tone which a slight illness gives to the heart, not felt in robust health. Perhaps it is on this principle that Burns’ letter to Dr. Alison on Association and his "Lament of Mary Queen of Scots "—both written in February—are so exquisitely beautiful. But it would be difficult to conceive Burns writing poorly on Mary or on Beauty. Still this was, after all, a fictitious woe ; but the death of Lord Glencairn, Burns’ kindest and truest patron, was real sorrow. That admirable nobleman died at Falmouth on his way home from Lisbon, where he had gone in a vain search for health. Burns was deeply grieved, named in a year or so a son after him, and wrote the touching lament—

"Ill remember thee, Gleneairn,
And a’ that thou hast done for me."

He even meant to cross the country, had he known the day of the funeral, to drop a tear at his benefactor’s grave. Few poets have ever had such a patron, and certainly no patron in Scotland had ever such a poet—not merely in genius, but in gratitude. It seemed a year of misfortune. Soon after Lord Glencairn’s death Burns fell and broke his right arm; and may it not be ranked as a third calamity that Janet Little, a poetical milkmaid, came to visit him? Such humble contemporaries, however, he seems to have treated in a kind and considerate manner. This was in March. In April Mrs. Burns presented him with a son, and he, probably in accordance with an old promise, gave the name to his irascible, but hearty and learned friend, Willie Nicol. He soon after, though his broken arm was healed, bruised his leg, and to crown all, he determined to leave Ellisland. And it was amidst this complication of disagreeables that he wrote his third Epistle to Mr. Graham of Fintry, a clever copy of verses, sententious, laborious, querulous, but neither plaintive nor powerful.

A letter he wrote to his friend Cunningham of Edinburgh in defence of a schoolmaster at Moffat, one Clarke, (of whom afterwards), who was accused of inhumanity to his boys, is savagely strong in its expressions, and points, according to Chambers, to a begun exacerbation in his tone of feeling. But we find many similar outbursts in his letters before he came to Dumfriesshire at all. Still there runs through all his Ellisland correspondence a certain current of bitterness and disappointment which it is not difficult to understand. He was not keeping his farm, and hence his farm was not keeping him. He was not the better, but the worse, of having two strings to his bow. The exciseman and the farmer were perpetually jostling. There is no evidence that his irregularities were getting habitually worse; but he was greatly exposed to company, and was professionally and otherwise often in inns. He seems, too, as his friend Ainslie noticed, to be now often among the great, and that not on equal or anything like equal terms; but was sometimes at theur feasts, brought in to amuse them, and his noble genius was degraded into a menial at their tables. This, on reflection, must have made his proud spirit very miserable. It could not be pleasant to awaken at once with a burning head and a sense of degradation, equally ardent. His best patron, Glencairn, was dead. His poems were going into new editions, for which he was rewarded by a few extra copies by the sly, stingy Creech. Chambers speaks of a system of severe criticism being directed to his writings, which he could not brook. This is a common case with authors at a certain stage of their progress. If the first book of a writer has been a great success, the second is usually thought a failure. It appears amid a greater glare of notice and expectation. It is uniformly, if unreasonably, expected to be a vast stride ahead of its predecessor ; and if not, the disappointment is commensurate. If, on the other hand, the author is for a long time silent, it is said that his vein is exhausted—" We have got all that‘s in him." Then whatever faults are known to exist in the man, are made makeweights against the merits of the poet or author. We know that at one time of Byron’s life he was so disgusted by this kind of treatment that he threatened to quit the arena altogether, to burn all his works and write no more, and was with difficulty dissuaded by his friends. Burns for a year or two had written little, and that not his best, and his enemies exclaimed, "He is a waning star, we thought him too bright to last;" and the common, though then exaggerated, rumour of his habits strengthened this spirit of depreciation. No doubt "Tam o’ Shanter" came as a blow in the face of such judges, exhibiting, as it did, all his powers as bright as ever, and blended into one glorious focus—incomparably the best of his productions, in point both of art and of genius. But that masterpiece was for a good while little known; and even it did not escape the down-taking process of Dr. Moore, and perhaps of others, of whom Burns was aware, though we are not. At all events, how eagerly he grasps at the praise of Tytler and other generous critics on his favourite "Tam!", We believe he was inclined, like Byron, to give up writing, and would have done so, all but his songs; but they came from his heart, and that could not be shut. It produced an irresistible outflow. He could as well cease to breathe as to pour forth the passions of his bosom and the sentiments of his soul in song. We sometimes think that either now or a year afterwards Burns, as he was urged to do, should have issued a second volume of poems, with "Tam o’ Shanter" in the van. If smaller than his first, it would still have been of great merit, would have become very popular, shown the public that he was still Burns, the unequalled poet of Scotland, and its success would have cheered, perhaps bettered him.

He had resolved now to leave Ellisland in December. The place was getting gradually hateful to him. It was sown with the salt of lost time and money. It was haunted by not a few saddening and humiliating memories. The Nith had not the music in his ear it had three years before, and every murmur of its waters seemed to say, "Let us go hence." But ere he left the farm for ever, some little adventures relieved the monotony of his life, if they did not increase its happiness. Two English gentlemen—" Pilgrims of his Genius "—came to see him; found him angling in the river with a huge foxskin cap on his head, a greatcoat fastened round him by a belt, from which depended an enormous broadsword; made a night of it with him; went away maudlin; and left him miserable. This story Carlyle doubts, but it is very like Burns in one of his vagaries and reckless moods. There was now and then a dash of affected oddity about him. He had got the notion (as Thomas Aird always insisted, and Jeffrey hints at it, too, in his Review) from the lives of the English dramatists and poets of Charles II. and of Queen Anne, that oddity and wildness were essential to a wit. In the same spirit he inscribed on the collar of his dog, "Robert Burns, Poet." But this spice of absurdity bore no more proportion to his wisdom and genius than Falstaff’s bread did to his sack; and would to God, he had had no greater sins for which to answer! The Earl of Buchan invited him to perpetrate a greater folly still, by walking across the country in harvest time and down the Tweed to assist at the crowning of the bust of Thomson at his native Ednam. Burns, however, refused, and sent a copy of middling verses instead. A bright, transient ray now shone on him in the shape of a lively young Englishwoman—the first English lady that seems ever to have made any impression on his susceptible bosom, so slender had hitherto been his opportunities of making the acquaintance of England’s graceful daughters—one Deborah Davies, who was on a visit to the Riddells. She was of small stature, but very handsome. Her lot was unfortunate—to be jilted by a Captain Delany, and afterwards to droop and die.

He now, too, made acquaintance with Mr. Charles Sharpe of Hoddam, an exquisite musician and player on the violin; and a correspondence took place between them, which has been lost. At the roup of his last crop a scene of debauchery took place, which we leave Burns to describe himself in his letters. Roups and sales in Scotland at this time, as Sir Walter notices in his "Guy Mannering," were often very riotous scenes, owing to the free circulation of whisky. To Mr. Maxwell of Teriauglity, a leading man in Dumfriesshire, he wrote some verses. Maxwell was descended in the fifth degree from Lord Herries, Queen Mary’s friend, honourably mentioned in "The Abbot," and died so late as 1814. Is it not rather curious that Burns’ last song composed at Ellisland was his "Song of Death!" a powerful, but surely a most gloomy production; no shout from the wounded and the dying in a patriotic and triumphant army—" 0, Death, where is thy victory!"—but a mock-heroic challenge, sinking into a hollow groan of empty defiance. It is death without the faintest gleam of prospect beyond.

He left Ellisland without much regret, for it had long been a losing concern, and but for his Excise income would have ruined him. He got no supervisorship; but it was arranged that he would perform duty at Dumfries as a common exciseman for £70 a year, an increase on his salary of £20. And as he kept now no horse, and still expected to rise in his profession, it was thought a change for the better. Miller at the time when Burns parted from Ellisland sold it to a Mr. Morine, and some time in November Burns and his family removed to Dumfries.

We saw Ellisland in December, 1877, for the third time, we think, on a fine morning, on our way from Dunscore to Dumfries, with the beautiful winter light, so spiritual in its clearness, shining on the distant hills to the west while the sky was crossed by a rainbow, broken and invisible in the centre, but with its two arms exceedingly brilliant—one of them resting on the barn-yard where Burns passed his hour of love agony. It seemed very significant of his tearful, bright, and fragmentary existence. Farther down we got a glimpse of Dalswinton, with its skeleton woods, and of the Isle, Friars’ Carse, and the miserable erection which has now taken the place of the Hermitage we had left behind. It was market day, and a multitude of peasants were trudging into Dumfries, much as it probably was in 1791. But one was wanting—the bright-eyed, swarthy poet, walking beside the cart containing his furniture, on which are exalted his wife and children, who seems, as he now fixes his dark gaze on the approaching town, and anon reverts it to the receding farm, with all its sere woods and dismal recollections, to mutter to himself not as of yore—

"As I gaed up by Glenap,
I met an aged woman,
Who bade me keep up my heart,
For the best o’ my days were coming;"

but,

"Och, I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear;
And forward, though I canna see,
I guess and fear."

Visit Ellis Farm the home of Robert Burns


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