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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns and Clarinda - Last Days in Edinburgh - Marriage


AGNES Craig, the heroine of this part of Burns’ life, was no ordinary person, was of no common origin, and had no ordinary antecedents. She was the grandniece of Cohn MacLaurin, the celebrated mathematician; and he was brother of MacLaurin the divine, whose sermon, "Glorying in the Cross of Christ," has been called the most eloquent in the English language. She was the full cousin of Lord Craig, who wrote the pathetic paper on Michael Bruce in the Mirror, and the daughter of a respectable Glasgow physician. She was herself a lady of considerable accomplishments—wit, poetical warm temperament, and a feeling and a style beauty approaching the voluptuous. Her history had been singular. Her husband, James MacLehose, had gained her, it was rumoured, in a peculiar way. Falling in love with her, he determined to woo her in a fashion of his own. Ascertaining that on a certain day she was to travel to Glasgow from Edinburgh by stage coach, he took all the other seats in the coach, and had her to himself for forty miles; and played his game so effectually that by the time they reached Glasgow they were engaged. Such, at least, was the on dit, according to Mrs. Johnstone. Married in 1776, she being only seventeen, they were not happy, and MacLehose went out to the West Indies; and occupied in business and pleasure, took little thought of his wife and children. She came to reside in a kind of semi-widowhood, an unprotected female, in Edinburgh. Mrs. MacLehose had expressed to Miss Nimmo, an elderly lady, an acquaintance of Miss Chalmers, an ardent wish to meet with Burns; and at her house accordingly they met on the 11th of December, 1787, and probably he felt this when he wrote afterwards—

"0 May, thy morn was ne’er so sweet
As the mirk right of December"

Their attachment, such as it was, seems to have begun on both sides, and at once. It is very difficult to settle its exact nature. It was neither love nor lust. It was in both strongly dashed with vanity, and from first to last there was need of danger signals and red lights. Yet they escaped, it would seem, as by a hair’s breadth; or, as Mrs. Jameson says, "were saved so as by fire."

The Correspondence will tell the tale, and on this point, and this chiefly, is valuable. And although there are some very fine passages, the letters, as a whole, are as ridiculous rubbish as two intelligent persons, who were at the same time perfectly sane, ever addressed to each other Foolish, wicked James MaeLehose never, we believe, in the first heyday of his courtship addressed such trumpery to Agnes Craig as "Sylvander "—i.e., the greatest poet, and potentially one of the greatest men of his age— did here to "Clarinda." "Thank God," says Matthew Lewis, "even our passions pass away," however much, while they last, they may do to stunt intellectual stature, and to give the animal or the fiend the ascendency over the man. Sometimes indeed, on the other hand, passion, aye when it approaches the brink of insanity, gives a lurid grandeur to the character and an unnatural life to the intellect. So it did to Schiller and to Hazlitt. But of the infatuation of passion there was none in Burns feeling for "Clarinda." Compare, in order to prove this, Hazlitt’s "Liber Amoris" with "Sylvander’s ‘letters. In the one you have the utmost misery, abandonment, and defiance of a desperate affection, and you hear in every page the eloquence of a broken, bursting heart; in the other you have every variety of falsetto and fudge—the happiness that of a drunken night’s dream: the misery, on his side at any rate, more imaginative than real. Yet strange that when Burns passes from prose to poetry his right hand regains its cunning; and one or two of his songs—" My Nannie ‘s Awa" and "Ae fond kiss and then we sever "—if not sincere, show a power of simulating sincerity almost miraculous. Scott finds the essence of a hundred love tales in the following stanza:-

"Had we never loved so kindly,
Had we never loved so blindly,
Never met or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken—hearted."

In reference to the letters given in the Correspondence, we may make a few observations, filling up gaps in the history they tell.

1. Clarinda lived in a house on the western pavement of Potterrow, a street now taken down in the march of improvement. We visited it in 1876. We are told that Burns used to pace along the cast pavement and look up to the window, where, in what was called the General’s Entry (from General Monk), Clarinda lived. We could not gaze without deep interest on the spot where the brawny poet, still in the pride of his popularity, clad in buckskins, with his riding whip in his hand, stalked along and turned up his glowing looks to his cynosure, if haply he might catch a glance from her eye or a smile from her lips; and entering in we could not look without emotion at the little old-fashioned room, where, as with Mary Campbell, though in less romantic circumstances and scenery, he spent one day of parting love ere they were separated for ever, and by a yet ghastlier gulf than that of death.

2. NotIcing is known about the cause of the accident which befell Burns but what he tells us—that his carriage was overturned by a drunken coachman, and his knee terribly bruised. This prevented him fulfilling an engagement with Clariada, and gave him time for serious reflection and female correspondence. He did not confine on this any more than on other occasions his attentions to one lady, for we find him writing to Miss Chalmers too, expressing a wish that she and Charlotte Hamilton were with him to soothe his tedium and sorrows. He took, he tells us, tooth and nail to the Bible, and pronounces it a glorious book. He indited, at the suggestion of Charles Hay, advocate, a poetical elegy on the death of Dundas, the president of the Court of Session, of no great merit. He writes a funny letter to Francis Howden, jeweller, along with a silhouette portrait, in which he tells a familiar story ill—" Everybody has heard the auld wife’s obsetvation when she saw a poor dog going to be hanged. ‘God help us, that’s the gait we have a’ to gang.’" This has no point. The real story is, that an ancient maiden, when she heard of a young lady being married, exclaimed, "That’s the gait we maun a’ gang." Howden used, to tell a story about Burns and Dr. Gregory. "Well, Burns, what sort of man was your father—a tall man?" "Yes rather." "A dark-complexioned man? ‘ "Yes." "And your mother?" "My mother was not a man at all." This, poor as it was, extinguished Gregory for the nonce by turning the laugh against him. He had his revenge when he wrote his critique on Burns’ poem "On a Wounded Hare," and Burns cried out, " Gregory crucifies me!" Gregory attended Burns while ill with his accident, assisted by Alexander Wood, "Lang Sandy Wood" (see him admirably hit off by James Hogg in "Geordie Dobson’s Expedition to Hell "), and gave him a present of Cicero’s select Orations done into English, which he highly appreciated.

3. It is hardly worth while following all the ups and downs of this eccentric flirtation between Burns and Clarinda—their capping verses together; Burns alluding to this, and to Clarinda, in a letter to his old friend Richard Brown, calling her a young widow, and speaking of suicide (in terms which showed that nothing was farther from his thoughts); her trying to turn the affair into a religious courtship, and to elicit from him his theological opinions (whence comes in one letter Burns’ Creed, a very interesting document, if not very orthodox); her allusion to a noted divine of the day, a Mr. Kemp, whom site wishes Burns to meet, and who, according to Mrs. Johnstone, got latterly into grief by the report that he extended his affections from the souls to the persons of his female devotees—a report the truth of which she leaves uncertain ; time clandestine visits Burns at her request paid her; the dangers he repeatedly evaded of the moth approaching too near the candle, their interviews becoming more fascinating and perilous as his departure drew near; and, in fine, his leaving her for a season to meet again in 1791 and then to part for ever. We think every true admirer of Burns will be glad when this strange interlude in his history is over, and may sometimes regret that it has been brought out so much in detail before the public eye. In 1791, as we will hear again, Clarinda’s husband, quite unexpectedly, invited her to Jamaica; she went, but was soon glad, from her experience of him and of the climate, to come back again. She was jealous of Burns, of his attentions to Peggy Chalmers, and very angry at his marriage with Jean. She died on the Calton Hill in 1841. Poor lady! she remembered Burns long and warmly. Thus she writes in her journal forty years after: 6th December, 1831—" This day I never can forget, parted with Burns in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world; Oh, may we meet in heaven !" She was of the same age with Burns, and survived him forty-five years. Chambers says, " I have heard Clarinda at seventy-five express the same hope to meet in another sphere the one heart she had ever found herself able entirely to sympathize with, but which had been divided from her on earth by such pitiless obstacles." This was in her very beautiful and natural, but leads to some odd thoughts and perplexed questions. Dr. William Anderson used to speak of the lover, Burns, meeting his "Mary" in Heaven; and the title of Burns’ famous song, and an expression in one of his letters, would suggest that Burns. expected this too. But Jean, his long tried and devoted wife, might be named as having also a claim to

"A blest and a blythe meeting there"

in the "Land of the Leal." The "Fairest Maid on Devon Banks" was in his mind’s eye when he was about to leave the earth. Some enthusiasts might say that in that world of purity and peace, where they, being disembodied spirits, neither marry nor are given in marriage, all these angels might be with him and minister to him; but we shall say nothing on the subject.

During all this time he was not forgetting his friend Johnson, whose second volume appeared in February, 1788, containing some of Burns’ finest songs, such as "MacPherson’s Lament," and a few sentences in the Preface are from his pen. He had inserted in the "Museum" Clarinda’s verses, "Talk not of Love," and a "Canzonet on a Blackbird," the production of the united hands of the two lovers. He had been feeling his way, too, toward a situation in the Excise, and his name had been enrolled in the list of expectant officers. He had been helped in this by Lang Sandy Wood, a kindred spirit, who notably resembled Burns in his liking for animals, and was seldom seen in Edinburgh on his professional visits without a pet sheep following him. It would be thought strange if the amiable "Rab" were seen with such a friend on his journeys of mercy through the Modern Athens now-a-days! Wood strongly backed the poet in his humble ambition to "gauge ale firkins!" Burns left Edinburgh on Monday the 18th of February, 1788. He went first to Glasgow to meet his old friend Richard Brown, and perhaps enjoy with him some exceptionable talk, as Lord Jeffrey would say; thence to Paisley; thence to Dunlop House, where he stayed two days; thence to Kilmarnock, writing to Clarinda at every stage, vowing eternal friendship, and so forth. On Monday the 25th he seems to have gone to Dumfriesshire along with Mr. James Tennant of Glenconnar to view and judge Miller’s farms, with one of which he was greatly pleased, and it he afterwards took. We next find him at Mossgiel, where he found matters with Jean in a very strange way. It must be remembered that the marriage between him and Jean Armour might be considered cancelled by her conduct and that of her parents. When Burns returned triumphant the Armours fawned on him, and, as Burns tells us, made him very welcome to visit his girl, no doubt expecting that the renewed intimacy might lead to marriage after all. At this point, we imagine, Burns should have planted his foot, and never entered her house again. With a man of his temperament and former habits of familiarity visiting Jean was equivalent to falling into a scrape. This he felt when too late; and there can be little doubt that the disgust he expresses at her friends’ obsequiousness was aggravated by his yielding to a seduction which he despised. Their conduct was that of the spider.

"Wilt thou walk into my parlour, said the spider to the fly."

And he walked in accordingly. What might have been expected followed—Jean became enceinte, and still no word of marriage. Nay, Burns was, and they certainly knew he was, in full cry after other ladies. This provoked the Armours excessively, and they cast out their, daughter in the depth of winter; and she might have been miserably ill off had it not been for Mrs. Muir, wife of the owner of "Willie’s Mill," who took her in, and treated her with great kindness before and after her accouchement, in this acting pro Burns.

Let us try to judge fairly while summing up the particulars of this strange matter :—1. The conduct of the Armours deserved all the condemnation of Burns. They had exposed their daughter to danger from mercenary motives, and had afterwards treated her very harshly— Mrs. Armour, indeed, so far relenting as to wait on Jean during her confinement. 2. Jean is more to be pitied than blamed. There was indeed a strong temptation to renew her intercourse with such a lover as Burns, but she should have resisted it. It would, we believe, have been far better for her had she never seen Burns again. 3. Burns, for his part, should be both pitied and blamed. If he still loved Jean with that wild, animal affection he had for her, it was wrong in him to seek her company. At all events, he saw very well where the danger lay, and "surely in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird." His duty had been to have avoided the house entirely, unless he had had a distinct purpose of marriage. But notice, 4. how the case was now complicated on his return from Edinburgh. he found Jean cast out to the naked elements, in a condition calling for all his manly sympathy. This pointed to marriage as the only remedy. In opposition to this there were certain considerations:- 1st. He had learned, and it was not his fault that he had done so, to appreciate a higher style of woman, and could not but contrast Jean with Miss Hamilton, Miss Chalmers, and others he had met and admired. 2nd. Jean must have lowered herself to a certain degree in his estimation by her recent conduct, and he must have shrunk from the thought of connecting himself with a family which had used him so ill. And then, 3rd, there was "Clarinda" entertaining the hope that she might yet win and keep him. Such was the many-forked dilemma in which Burns was placed; and it says a great deal for him that he determined to give to poor Jean the benefit of whatever doubts he might have as to the propriety of his conduct. It was mainly, we think, compassion which caused him make what was, in many points, a sacrifice. If so, it was virtue rewarded, for she turned out in many things an excellent helpmeet for him ; and much of the real sunshine of his later life, besides that which broke on him fitfully from the smile of the Muse, came from the face of his faithful, industrious, and loving wife. He found for her a lodging in Mauchline, where she remained till he acknowledged her to be his wife—not formally at first, but according to Scotch fashion, by calling her "Mrs. Burns" publicly, in company and in correspondence. A friend of ours remembers well seeing in Mauchhine the room and the bed where Burns and Jean first slept after their marriage was acknowledged.

Burns left Mauchline for Edinburgh on the 10th of March. A few days after he writes Miss Chalmers that he had taken Ellisland. Patrick Miller, brother of the Lord Justice Clerk, had lately become possessor of an estate which had once belonged to the family of Comyn, whose chief, the Red Comyn, had been stabbed by Bruce at Dumfries. On this estate of Dalswinton there were several farms, two of which were rich haugh ground bearing wheat, and the third, Ellisland, not nearly so rich. Burns, as Allan Cunningham’s father told him, made a poet’s choice, not a farmer’s. Now it seems most beautifully situated, the river Nith flowing with measured majesty through bold banks and red scaurs, which are surmounted by the richest woodland; arable and pasture fields behind; Dalswinton and its deep groves on the other side of the stream; Friars Carse a little way to the north-west; the house clean and plain — quite a model farm - house now as well as then—standing over the river, and before the barnyard where Burns produced his "Mary in Heaven;" altogether the sweetest, most romantic, and congenial piece of scenery which has any permanent connection with the history of Burns. Lochlea and Mossgiel have both features of interest, and around both, as well as around the cottage of his birth, are entwined more peculiar associations; but none of them can for a moment be compared for beauty with Ellisland. Could a poet fail to he happy here is a question which at once suggests itself at the first sight of the place. Assuredly there are other things necessary to happiness besides a beautiful locality; but it constitutes one element in a a poet's life, which is by no means to be despised, and which it took a good deal in Burns’ environment otherwise to counteract. We remember a man of great powers of mind, warm political feelings, and poetical temperament, unfavourably situated in a northern town, where he had a great deal of factious opposition to encounter which embittered and shortened his career, exclaiming, "Were it not for that glorious river (one of the finest of Highland streams) how wretched I should have been here!" And miserable as Burns often was at Ellisland, we believe he would have been more so had he not had the red scaur on which to stride, and the river to contemplate, now with calm emotion when it was calm, and now with a "stern delight and strange" when its waters were swollen and stormy, and his spirit required not so much solace as sympathy.

His landlord is said to have been kind to Burns in his bargain, giving him a lease of seventy-six years at an annual rent of 50 for the first three years, and 70 for the remainder, with other promised advantages. Miller was himself a remarkable man, of a mechanical genius, and was at this time employed in trying to propel vessels by means of paddles. He even built a vessel with paddles and a small steam-engine, and tried it on a lake near Dalswinton. The attempt was successful, but Miller did not persevere although it was his boat when lying neglected at Port Dundas that suggested to both Fulton and Henry Bell their better considered mechanisms, by which the Hudson and the Clyde were to be peopled by those grand imperious vessels, which do not supplicate but force their way through the waves, and which, when traversed and opposed, wrestle like demons of kindred power and greater mastery with the angry billows. We remember seeing a mythical story of this Dalswinton voyage and its crew, said to consist, among others, of Burns and of Brougham, then a boy student out from Edinburgh; and it had been a capital subject for a Savage Landor to describe their forgathering, their talk during the day, and above all their symposium at night, and would remind one in some points of the scene described by Scott in his "Fair Maid of Perth "—the boy Crawford, the Tiger Earl, out-talking amid out-drinking such an auld-used hand as Sir John Ramorny! But the story is; we suspect, a mere fable.

On the 13th March Burns concluded his arrangement with Miller, and on the 20th of the same month he completed his reckoning with the much-revolving and slow-rendering William Creech. There are here some puzzling contradictions in statements of facts. On the one hand, Burns himself says to Dr. Moore, "I believe I shall clear about 400, some little odds; but even part of this depends on what the gentleman (Creech) has yet to settle with me." Currie, again, declares at the close of his memoir, that Burns received a clear profit of 900. William Nicol wrote to Mr. Lewars, after the poet’s death, that Burns told him that he received 600 for the Edinburgh edition, and 100 after for the copyright. Heron, again, says that the whole sum paid to the poet for the copyright, and for the subscription copies of this book, amounted to nearly 1100. Out of this the expenses of printing the edition for the subscribers must be deducted. The probability is that Burns only realized 400. For whatever the round sum he got, there would be deducted from it not only the printing expenses, but certain debts which we are told the poet had contracted in Edinburgh, and thus there would he left only 400, and a little odds, as he admits there was. During this process of arrangement Burns describes himself as nearly crazed, and actually fevered. No wonder.

On the 24th March, 1788, he left Edinburgh permanently, doubtless with mingled emotions of gratitude, grief, and perplexity, with life absolutely to begin again at the age of twenty-nine. He went first to Glasgow, and thence by a rapid movement to Dumfriesshire. While in Edinburgh he must have heard that Jean had born him twins, both of whom soon died. On the 30th of March we find him riding across a track of melancholy moors between Glasgow and Ayrshire on a Sabbath day, and composing some stanzas, which he afterwards interwove into the "Chevalier’s Lament," and which bear a strong testimony to the dreary state of his mind. It might have been called Burns’ Lament, not alas! his last one: for the rest of the life of this most blithesome (at times) of the sons of men, and who sometimes drank out larger draughts of intellectual, social, animal, and moral pleasure, than any other man—to whom, indeed, the word enjoyment meant something else than to most of his kind— meant rapture or ecstasy—was to be one long lamentation seldom briefly and irregularly interrupted by what ought to have been in happier circumstances the normal tenor of his existence. He went next to Ayrshire to receive instructions for an exciseman; and Mr. James Findlay, Tarbolton, had a charge from the worshipful Excise Corninissioners "to instruct the bearer, Robert Burns, in the art of gauging casks, and fitting him for surveying victuallers, rectifiers, chandlers, tanners, tawers, &c.; and after Robert Burns has been six weeks thus engaged, certifying that he hath cleared his quarters both for lodgings and diet, and that he has actually paid each of you for his instructions and examination, and that he hath sufficient at the time to purchase a horse for the business." A more humiliating document our country does not possess amidst all her records, from the Ragman’s roll downwards! The brightest, and not by many, many degrees the worst man in Scotland, doomed to such drudgery as preliminary to drudgery of a similar sort ranging over his whole future life! And how few felt the appalling anti-climax of the author of the "Cottar’s Saturday Night" studying gauging for six weeks at Tarbolton under the eye of a supervisor, James Findlay by name. Nay,we question if he felt it fully himself; had he done so, we would not have answered for the consequences. Nevertheless he had some real happiness even then, as all men may reach at any time by virtuous action. He had before refused to Gavin Hamilton to be security for his brother, but had truly said that the language of refusal was to him the most difficult of all language. It was his misfortune, not his fault surely, that his lips could not easily fold around the monosyllable "No." Now, however, he gave his brother Gilbert, who was in difficulties and had the support of poor old Mrs. Burns on his shoulders, 180, about the half he had himself. It was strictly more a gift to his mother than to his brother, and given at interest. The rest of the sum he put into his farm, with as little result ultimately as if he had thrown it into the Nith.

Jean was with him while he was receiving his instructions in the Excise mysteries. Chambers says she preferred another to Burns, and we hardly wonder at it. She was, we think, incapable of appreciating him fully in himself, or of seeing him except in the reflex light of the admiration of others. And she knew his faults so thoroughly. Indeed, our astonishment is that, all things considered, the marriage turned out so well. As there was little love to begin with, the wonder was that, like Slender’s, it did not decrease on better acquaintance. With a little money, however, a little experience, Jean less "glaikit" than she had been, and Burns a sadder and thinking himself a wiser man, " they," as one in "Caleb Williams" has it, "turned in together, and thought they would rub on main well with one another." And so in a manner they did, and the longer the better.

Chambers closes his account of what may be called the Edinburgh section of Burns’ life with some remarks breathing a good spirit, but hardly germane to the matter. His talk of Burns as being a prophet, a Prometheus, and sustaining such a character in Edinburgh, is more suited to the high-wrought, self-reflecting nature of a Carlyle than to his own sober and sensible style of thought. We think Burns far greater, though not better, in Dumfries, writing his songs or cherishing his solitary ideals, rejected by the select society of the place, walking out lowering and lonely to Lincluden Abbey, or taking the shady side of the street, than when he was the pet of the Edinburgh public. All we can say of him then is that in Edinburgh his head was not turned nor his self-possession lost. It may be said that it was the Sun, and not the Wind, which made the traveller loosen his cloak. But what were the soft airs and warm glances of his Edinburgh experience, as a trial of manhood, compared with the forces of the Sun of Sahara and the Simoom, which united latterly against his naked head? Yet them he withstood. He died, indeed, but died not yielding to them, but yielding to his own passions and appetites ; for, like Byron’s wounded eagle,

"He nursed the pinion that propelled the steel."

None but himself was able to destroy himself. He had undoubtedly a contempt for pensions, but it does not seem to us a wise contempt. Did a pension necessarily compromise independence? Were all pensions bribes? He thought a pension a "collar;" but was it not sometimes a becoming badge, such as he had given to his own "Caesar?"

"His lockit, lettered braw, brass collar,
Showed him the gentleman and scholar."

In his wild spirit of independence Burns would have spurned even "fairy gold," had it fallen at his door. There was but one man living then in Britain Burns’ superior—namely, Edmund Burke, his equal in genius, and incomparably his superior in acquirements. He accepted a pension, and the most eloquent and powerful of his writings—his "Letter to a Noble Lord" and his "Letters on a Regicide Peace"—arose to the tune of Government ingots. He felt he had a title to what he received, and that gave him a proud honesty in using it; and within his pension, as within a bank, the noble stream of his genius flowed on with equal dignity and with. greater power than before.


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