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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns at Mossgiel


WE might perhaps rather have entitled this chapter, "Burns, Farmer and Poet;" for now for the first time he possessed, out of Parnassus, acres which he could call his own.

At Martinmas, 1783, Robert and Gilbert Burns took the farm of Mossgiel, a few miles from Lochlea, but situated in the parish of Mauchline, and within one mile of the village of that name. We visited some years ago the snug steading which still bears the name of Mossgiel, saw near it the field where Burns, as Wordsworth has it, "ploughed up the daisy," and enjoyed a glimpse of the fine undulating country beyond Mauchline and toward Kilmarnock in all the green glory of June. It was pleasing while walking along the road, which slopes gently from Mauchline to Mossgiel, and is begirt by trees, to remember that it was by this the poet must often have returned homewards from his engagements at the village—from kirk, market, Poosie Nancy’s, and visits to some of his famous Mauchline belles. Mossgiel consisted of one hundred and eighteen acres of cold, clayey soil, on a bare upland to the east of Mauchline.

The Burns family, by ranking themselves creditors to their father for arrears of wages due them for their labours on his estate, had rescued from his creditors and the lawyers some portion of the stock of the farm to enable them to begin on their own account. Gilbert says, "Robert and I took the farm of Mossgiel, consisting of one hundred and eighteen acres, at the rent of 9, from Mr. Gavin Hamilton, as an asylum for the family in case of the worst. It was stocked by the property and individual savings of the whole family, and was a joint concern between us. Every member of the family was allowed ordinary wages for the labour he performed at the farm. My brother’s allowance and mine was 7 per annum cash; and during the whole time this family concern lasted, which was four years, as well as during the previous period at Lochlea, his expenses never in any one year exceeded his slender income. His temperance and frugality were everything that could be wished.’

Dr. Currie and Gilbert Burns both coincide in denying Robert much skill as a farmer. Nobody held the plough better; nobody had a more elegant cast of the hand while sowing than he; but his knowledge of markets, rotation of crops, and other mysteries of husbandry, was slender; and he would often, in following his whim or indulging his social propensities, neglect his farming duties. It would be much with him as it was with James Hogg at Altrive, of whom his successor on the farm, "Old Scottie," a venerable worthy of ninety-four, recounted to us in 1859 the following anecdote :—His wife came once to Hogg and told him that a fine and favourite mare was dangerously ill, and a farrier should be sent for. The reply was—" I canna attend to her joost now, for I’m going up the hill to shoot a ‘mawkin’ for oor dinner." He went up the hill accordingly, shot the "mawkin," and when he came down found the mare dead. Burns always referred those who came to him on business matters to his brother—" Oh, talk to my brother about that." -Yet it has been said by good authorities that Gilbert, too, knew more about the theory of farming than its practice. Both, however, brought industry, good intentions, and honesty, if little capital and experience, to the firm. Robert in the summer of 1784 was far from well. His disease seems to have been irregular action of the heart —a distemper which, in another form, perplexed and annoyed him all his life. At this time, as well as before, he kept a tub of water by his bedside, and by plunging in got temporary relief. Some may say that the wet-sheet or water-cure, applied internally as well as externally, would have saved him from the ruin that followed. Much good they might have done him ; but, alas he had passions raging within him with which water or whisky either had at that time little to do.

Along with this irregular action a worse calamity befell him; a serving girl, Elizabeth Paton by name, in his family bore him a child, and this, although he tried to set it at defiance, and laugh it over, glorying in his shame, undoubtedly gave him the keenest anguish; and, perhaps, his chief consolation under it was the fact that his father was now "where the wicked cease from troubling," and where the thought of human aberrations, even those of a dear son, cannot disturb eternal peace. In this dark season he applied at moments, too, to celestial aid, sought comfort in God, although it may be (as Pollok has it), "he sought reluctantly and therefore was not heard." His prayer, or rather prayers, for there are two of them-—" A Prayer in the Prospect of Death," and stanzas on the same occasion—have been preserved, and are on the whole noble strains of devotion and contrition. Perhaps it is rather daring in him to point to the passions of his nature, and to trace them upwards to God as their author—

"Thou knowest that thou host formed me
With passions wild and strong,
And list’ning to their witching voice,
Has often led me wrong."

But it is the daring of high reverence, and of one who cannot even in penitence be unjust to himself, or, like David, take what may seem to some the one-sided view—

"Gainst Thee, Thee oitiy, have I sinned.’

Robert Chambers says, with great truth and good feeling, "It is strange that we so often hear of the faults of Burns, and of the defences advanced by his friends, and that so little notice has been taken of what at once attests the reality of these faults, and most powerfully pleads their pardon—the deep unostentatious penitence of the Bard himself."

It is somewhat difficult to reconcile the sincere contrition of these verses, and the spirit in which he describes the same incident in his history in his epistle to that facetious gentleman, John Rankine. Burns "before and after dinner" will not solve the mystery, for the poet at that time was a very sober man, as a rule, and his after-dinner hours were spent at the plough. Two considerations will in part explain it: first, the great exuberance of his animal spirits, which after deep depression rose to a higher pitch, for as he says himself, he had "aye a heart aboon a’" his calamities; and, secondly, there was a great deal of the chameleon about him; he took his colour from his acquaintances, even when far inferior to himself, and was equally at home with John Rankine and Dugald Stewart, with "Racer Jess" and Charlotte Hamilton, with Dr. William Robertson and Willy Nichol. And this, if it was his weakness as a man, was his power as a poet and essential dramatist, the Shakspeare of Scotland. He became all things by turns, and was seldom himself, because he was everybody else. The grand blunder of many in reference to Burns is first admitting his exceptional character, and then expecting him to be altogether unexceptionable. First, they take him at his own word, "I am Spunkie;" and then they look in a "Will o’ the Wisp" for the regularity of a planet and the fixity of a star.

Rankine was hardly worthy to be a confidant or companion to Robert Burns. He was famous for his practical jokes; he had on one occasion, by putting in whisky instead of hot water in a kettle, overcome the sobriety of an "auld-licht" elder, and had extemporized a dream which made all the countryside ring with laughter. It is thus recounted by Allan Cunningham :—" Lord K—--—, it is said, was in the habit of calling his familiar acquaintances brutes— ‘Well, ye brute, how are you the day", was his usual mode of salutation. Once, in company, his lordship having indulged in this rudeness more than usual, turned to Rankine and said, ‘Brute, are ye dumb l hae ye nae queer story to tell us’ ‘I hae nae story,’ quoth Rankine; ‘but yestrcen I had an odd dream.’ ‘Out with it by all means,’ said another. ‘Well,’ said Rankine, ‘I dreamed I was dead, and that for keeping other than good company on earth, I was sent down stairs. When I knocked at the low door, who should open it but the Deil. He was in a rough humour; and he said, ‘Who may ye be, and what’s your name?' ‘My name,’ quoth I, ‘is Rankine, and my dwelling-place was Adamhill.’ ‘Gae wa' xvi’ ye,’ quoth Satan, ‘ye canna be here; you’re ane o’ Lord K’s brutes; hell’s fu’ o’ them already.’ This sharp rebuke, it is said, polished for the future Lord K.’s speech."

Burns had been in Lochlea a freemason, and soon rose to be depute-master to the Fraternity. It is hard to say what effect this had upon his morals. Chambers represents him as entirely indifferent to the indulgences connected then with Freemason Lodges; but this is surely refining ridiculously. Burns enjoyed these from his first to his last, from Irvine to Dumfries, as the whole tenor of his life and writings shows; but it was long crc they to any degree overpowered his will, and probably of all Mason Masters he was at first the most exemplary, just as the Excise Books (see Ghambcrs’ Journal and our Appendix) have recently proved that he, of all the gaugers of Scotland, was among the most regular in his habits, although a little allowance was made for him as a "Poet." (" He is a poet, and does pretty well," are, we think, the words). He continued his "Commonplace Book," and inserted in it from time to time scraps of prose and short poems, such as "No Churchman am I for to rail or to write;" and one of his most characteristic copies of verses, entitled "Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin,"

" There was a lad, was born in Kyle."

In one of the letters of this date he gives rather a plain than pleasant aecoust of the famous Lucky Buchan, the Joanna Southcote of Scotland—an account containing a hit here and there worthy of the author of the "Holy Fair." Burns was always, in reference to every form of fanaticism, a clear seer and a bold speaker, denouncing it as an offence to the intellect, an outrage to comma" sense, and a scandal to religion. One of his verses of this time seems to point to the Coming Woman1 to Jean, whose acquaintance he was making—

"Though cruel fate should bid us part
As far ‘s the Pole and Lino,
her dear idea round my heart
Should tenderly entwine.
Though mountains frown and deserts howl,
Aiid oceans roar between,
Yet dearer than my deathless soul
I still would love my Jean."

He had not been long in Mossgiel till he met with Jean. She was the daughter of a master mason, named James Armour, in Mauchhine village. He met her first, it is said, at a penny ball which took place at the close of a race in the village, which usually occurred in the end of April. The poet and Jean were in the same dance, but not as partners. Burns had a dog, which followed him into the room, and created some confusion and fun by tracking his master wherever he went; and he laughingly said to his partner (whoever she was) that he wished he could get any of the lasses to love him as well as his dog did. One day after, he was passing through Mauchline Green where Jean was bleaching clothes; she cried on Burns, whose dog was running among them, to call him off. This led to a conversation, in which Jean, who had overheard his remark at the ball, asked him playfully if he had got any of the lasses yet to love him as well as his dog. This was the prelude of an intimacy, and Jean speedily became the Ruling Star of his heart—we might rather say, the Moon in his sky, not altogether unattended by sister planets—peerless, but seldom quite alone.

Our readers will at this point do well to turn up Burns’ famous lines on the Mauchline belles. None of them, however, seemed ever to have any chance with Jean, attractive as they appeared to others. There might have been betwixt Burns and Jean a mutual fascination—that meeting of eyes and souls at once and for ever, that love at first sight, in one or both, which is said frequently to precede and prophesy marriage. And although there were, as we have hinted and will afterwards see, others for whom Burns felt a strong and pure tenderness amounting to love, lie never ceased to regard Jean (except perhaps for a short period after her burning the marriage lines) with a degree of respect as well as affection. To reconcile these apparently jarring facts we do not attempt and know not how it can be done, nor do we mean to assoilzie Burns from blame in the matter; but he was, as we have said, an altogether exceptional being—a burning man—susceptible, passionate, and imaginative beyond the measure of a score of ordinary men; and we must just judge of him as he was and take him as he is, for better for worse, and on the whole be thankful for him. His own words were true—

"He‘ll be a credit to us a’,
We'll a be proud o’ Robin."

And now from the root of a fixed love there burnt out a most extraordinary efflorescence of poetry. Robert Chaimbers remarks that "the mass of poetry which gave Burns his principal fame came from him in a period not exceeding fifteen months. After that it became, comparatively speaking, exhausted." No doubt his poetry seemed exhausted by or shortly after that time ; but it was the marvel of this most marvellous man that after one vein shut, another and a more copious and a sweeter one opened, and the cessation of his Poems was only the commencement of his Songs—songs written, like the last novels of Scott, amidst misery, bodily disease, and ruin. We add an element which did not belong to Scott, which did belong to Burns, and which adds mightily to the wonder— Remorse. We know only one parallel to this, and it is obviously not complete—the case of Byron’s later works, which, considering the circumstances in which they were written—expatriation, contumely, dissipation, a broken heart and constitution, and a fevered brain—are now generally judged superior to his earlier ones. How different from some other poets of the period, who have outlived their genius and its true works for a quarter of a century, and who, if they still continue to write, it is in a style of helpless self-imitation or stilted exaggeration, which is more lamentable than would be utter silence I "Superfluous lags the veteran on the stage" is bad enough, but "Superfluous struts the veteran on the stage" were far worse!

Thus Burns sings shortly after seeing Jean Armour:-

"When first I cams to Stuart Kyle,
My mind it was na steady;
Where’er I gacd, whcre’er I rads,
A mistress still I had aye;
But when I cam’ roan by Mauchhine toun,
Not dreading any body;
My heart was caught before I thought,
And by a Mauchline lady."

And this fixity in his affections seems to have had a centralizing influence on his genius. Previous to this, he had a vague ambition, he tells us—

" For poor auld Scotland’s sake,
Some usefu’ plan or book to make,
Or sing a sang at least."

Now his "Commonplace Book," dated August, 1784, shows that this wish, after beating wildly about, had found an opening, since in it he expresses a desire to be the Ayrshire bard, and to make "the fertile banks of Irvine, the romantic woodlands and sequestered scenes in Ayr, and the heathy mountainous source and wThding sweep of Doon emulate Tay, Ettrick, Tweed." Few young poets but have felt a similar ambition in reference to their natal streams and valleys. But Burns got his wish and more, and became not only Ayrshire’s, but Scotland’s bard. All these extracts from the "Commonplace Book" of this year are peculiarly interesting; they are the flutterings of the wings of the caged bird against his bars, and portend the long, strong, exulting flight that was before him.

One thing remarkable about this wonderful series of verses is their occasional character. Young poets, like Kirke White, Shelley, Keats, and Pollok, seize eagerly on some big sounding theme, such as "Time," "The Cloud," "Hyperion," "The Course of Time;" Burns takes up familiar matter of to-day—

Some natural sorrow, grief, or pain,
Which has been and may be again."

And hence almost every one of his Mossgiel poems bears specially on his own history, and they become as a whole an unintentional autobiography. One of his first is his "Epistle to Davy, a Brother Poet, Lover, Ploughman, and Fiddler." In it he produced a thought he had long rolled in his mind, like a "pebble in the ocean," that in the last extremity of his fortunes to beg was still a dernier ressort— ‘

"The last o’t, the warst o’t,
is only but to beg!"

He introduces, too, a panegyric, too flowing and eloquent to be insincere, on his Jean, coupling it with a word for Margaret, David Sillar’s beloved, who was not fated to become his wife. Margaret Orr, by the way, was servant to Mrs. Stewart of Stair. Burns had lent Margaret some of his songs, which she showed her mistress, who, being a woman of taste and sensibility, was very much delighted with them, and requested the author to come up to the drawing-room; and for the first time his clouted shoon and (in his own words) "clouterly carcase" came in contact with a Turkey carpet, and he, no doubt with a little trepidation, found himself in the presence of a fashionable lady. he never feared the face of man, but he did fear the terrors of a beautiful and accomplished woman. Mrs. Stewart, however, seems to have become his warm friend.

In a different vein he wrote "Death and Dr. Hornbook." One John Wilson, the well-known story assures us, a schoolmaster in Tarbolton, added to his ill-paid occupation that of a grocer, and ultimately a druggist—was, in plain English, a quack. In this complexity of calling be rather prospered; and Burns would not have disturbed him in any of them had he not encountered Wilson at a Mason-lodge meeting, where, we presume, the "clachan yill’ had made both a little "canty," and where the apothecary made a needless display of his medical knowledge. Burns contradicted him; and still fired with the dispute that followed, composed on his way home this admirable satire, and repeated it to Gilbert the next morning as he was holding the plough, and Robert was letting water off the field. beside it. It, along with a dispute with the heritors, had the effect of blowing the unlucky Dominie out of Tarbolton. Yet after some years in the Gorbals, Glasgow, settled as a teacher and session clerk, Wilson became a much respected though pedantic little man; and used, it -is said, in his cups (for, like Bailie Jarvie’s "feyther afore him," "he took a glass at an orra time") he used to drink the memory of Burns, and thank him for the good office he had done him in cutting short his AEsculapian career. He died at a great age in 1839.

"Death and Dr. Hornbook" shows a daring genius, apart from its satirical vein; and his description of the grim skeleton has never, we think, been equalled in poetry, unless by the late Thomas Davidson (" Scottish Probationer ") in one of his poems—’--the "Hobgobliniad"—and which pushes the grotesque still farther, and abates not an atom of the grisly grandeur.

There was on Fastern’s E’en (Shrovetide) a "rocking" at Mossgiel—a social meeting, borrowing its name from the old custom of country women spinning on a rock or distaff. At this meeting, among other songs, one was sung purporting to be by an elderly man residing in Muirkirk called John Lapraik (a name presumed to be a contraction of Leprevick, the name of a distinguished early printer in Scotland). The song is supposed to be addressed by a fond husband to his wife, and is very tender and simple, although we believe it is not by Lapraik at all, but borrowed from an older source. To Burns it was quite new; and with all the frank enthusiasm of his nature, he determined instantly to write to the old poet. The result was the excellent poetical epistles to John Lapraik. Lapraik sent a poetical reply to Burns’ first letter by the hand of his son, who found the poet in the field sowing. When he gave him the letter, Burns said, "I am not sure if I know the hand;" but when he opened it, he became so engrossed that he let go the sheet holding the grain, and it was half emptied ere he perceived his loss. Lapraik was encouraged by Burns’ approbation to publish a volume of verses; but like David Sillars, and those of a hundred other imitators of Burns in that period, it had no success. We have seen, however, the verses Burns admired so much quoted in collections of poetry of this century.

We will speak afterwards of Burns’ religion, he was about this time plunged into the thickest polemical strife. Two theological parties were then engaged in war to the knife in the west of Scotland. One consisted of the Old Whigs, who held to the unmitigated Calvinism of the Confession of Faith; the other of a Broad Church School, come prematurely on the stage, who professed a more latitudinarian creed, bordering with some on Arianism, with others of a decidedly Arminian type, and with Burns verging at one time, he tells us, on "the daring path Spinona trode," although this apparently he had forsaken some time before. Whatever might be his settled speculative opinions, his heart sympathies and his floating talk were all with the "New Light.’ In this he followed the example of his father, who had written a little manual of belief for the use of his children, in which semi-Arminian views were very sedulously inculcated. In this, too, he obeyed the impulses of his own bold and unfettered intellect, and gratified his love of wild and witty talk. He tells us he used on Sabbath intervals to puzzle Calvinism with great heat and indiscretion. Nor did he confine himself to conversation, but lifted up his mighty pen on the liberal side. First came his poetical epistle to John Gowdie of Kilmarnock, a well-known eccentric of the day—a worthy man, but a sad heretic—who had published a volume of essays, containing what were thought very heterodox sentiments, and called in irony, "Gowdie’s Bible." This, along with John Taylor of Norwich’s "Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin," was the Vade aoecum of the "New Lights." Then followed his more celebrated " Twa Herds, or the Holy Tuilzie.’ One of these was the Rev. John Russell, then of Kilmarnock, subsequently of Stirling. In Professor Wilson’s essay, prefixed to Blackie’s edition of Burns, will be found a picturesque description of this gentleman’s preaching, which seems to have frightened even Christopher North. He was called Black Russell from his dark complexion— was a big, brawny man, had a stern look, a voice like a bull’s, and tremendous energy of address. We remember his son, who was minister of Muthil, Perthshire, and was a smaller edition of his father—a vehement, earnest, excellent man, of the highest Calvinistic views, whose preaching was so popular that little parties often used to walk from parishes seven or nine miles off every Sabbath to hear him. They were called " Muthilites ;" and we were wont to watch them returning on the Sabbath evenings of summer from a journey of at least sixteen miles, back and forward, to their homes in Comrie, Perth-shire. We heard Mr. Russell preaching once at the Old Church tent of Crieff on a Sacramental Sabbath evening, and the echoes of his very powerful voice linger in our ears still. Burns would have called it, not speaking, but "rowting!’ He had not his father’s full physical energy; after his usual Sunday’s work, would lie vomiting bile all the evening; and died in middle life. A volume of his sermons was published, to which Dr. Chalmers supplied a preface.

Black Jock had had a quarrel with Alexander Moodie of Riccarton, another zealous advocate of the Auld Licht. Some say, according to Chambers, that they were riding home one evening when Moodie, in a sportive frame, tickled the rear of his neighbour’s horse. The animal performed certain antics along the road, much to the amusement of the passers-by, but greatly to the discomfiture of Black Jock, who afterwards learning the author of the trick, never forgave Moodie for it. There were other grounds of quarrel; and in a dispute about parochial boundaries, which came to the Presbytery, "The Twa Herds" lost their temper, and abused each other at a terrible rate, to the great scandal of their party, and the intense amusement of Burns, who was present, and soon after recorded their unseemly dispute in lines of imperishable fun. "The Twa Herds" was the first of Burns’ poems to see the light, and became very popular. Many of the clergy, as well as laity, received it "with a roar of applause." A copy found its way to Ochiltree, where one William Simpson, himself a rhymer and a choice spirit, was parish schoolmaster. He addressed a rhyming epistle to Burns, warmly commending his poem and his genius generally. Burns replied in one of the noblest of his poetical effusions, the "Epistle to William Simpson," adding as a postscript an allegorical account of the New Light controversy, which, though clever, is certainly a falling off from the previous letter. Burns did not always, like ladies, put the pith into the postscript. We notice here how a little genuine praise never failed to rouse our poet to his full mettle—acting like that barley of the gods of which Homer speaks, on the coursers of Achilles. Usually the strong man is excited, the weak man enervated, by the "voice of praise." Dr. Johnson, indeed, was thankful for the praise of every human being; but Burns weighed and analyzed before he swallowed what came to his share. Two stanzas in this epistle to Simpson should be written in gold—one is that on Wallace—

"At Wallace’ name what Scottish blocd," &c.

What a raw and bloody glory shines out of the line—

"Still pressing onwards red wet shod!"

It is, indeed, as Carlyle says, too "frightfully accurate for Art." The second was a great favourite with Coleridge—

"The Muse, has poet ever fand her,
Till by himsel’ he learned to wander
Adoun some trottin’ burn’s meander,
An’ no think lang,
While he can stray and pensive ponder
His heartfelt sang."

Thus it often was with Burns himself; his genius supplied the matter, the river the melody of the strain.

The success of the "Twa Herds" brought to Burns a new lot of acquaintances, chiefly among the New-light clergy, who, in a church so Calvinistic as the Scotch, were so far in a false position (and this always reacts in some way, either on comfort or character), but had nevertheless many virtues, and a liberality of spirit quite after Burns’ own heart. Such were the Shaws, MacGill, and young MacMath of Tarbolton, afterwards a victim. Burns had long known Gavin Hamilton, writer in Mauchline; indeed, he was his landlord as well as his boon companion. Hamilton was a careless clever fellow, generous and goodhearted, but by no means rigidly righteous; given to lift his potatoes on Sabbath days, and to other peccadilloes. This brought him in contact with the kirk session. These courts were once all-powerful in Scotland. Infinitesimally small were the cases and crimes which they intermeddled with. How their members spent their Sabbath evenings, how they feed or fed their servants, how they paid their butter accounts—such were some of the thousand and one questions on which these inquisitors insisted, and for defalcation or omission in which they summoned high and low to their tribunals. After the Secession began new subjects of investigation were started, as to what was called occasional hearing; and those who attended any church but their own, even when there was no preaching there, were sisted and severely dealt with. We have heard of a waggish elderly man who was summoned to appear at a Seceder session to answer for going one day to attend service in the Established Church, when there was none in his own. He said in defence, "Maister Moderautor, I aye thocht Hecven was a great muckle place; I never kent till noo that it was built to haud only a wheen (few) Seceders!" The naivete of the reply saved him from censure. Gavin Hamilton was not of the submissive kind, any more than honest old Tam Brough; he wrote the session a plain-spoken letter he set Daddy Auld, the minister, a very good but narrow man, and his ruling elder, William Fisher (Holy Willie), at defiance, and carried the case from session to Presbytery, and Presbytery to Synod; got, in fine, a certificate of being free from all church censure, and thus gained the victory. He was greatly aided in this by Robert Aiken, writer in Ayr, who was a natural orator, to whom Burns afterwards inscribed his "Cottar’s Saturday Night," and who pled his cause with great ability. And to gratify him Burns "loused his tinkler jaw" on his enemies, in the most freespoken and fearless of all his satires, "Holy Willie’s Prayer." Holy ‘Willie—

"That leein’, cheatin’, prayin’ billie,"

was found guilty afterwards of embezzling the church funds, and ultimately died in a ditch. Altogether, including Burns’ blasting touch, Willie’s punishment was greater than he could bear. He was hardly worth such fiery powder and shot from such a marksman.

Meanwhile Mossgiel was not thriving as a farm; and ‘what with bad seed one year, and a wet season another (1785), had become a losing concern. This no doubt threw Burns back more determinedly on his intellectual resources and poetical pursuits. Hitherto he had only been a local celebrity, and had he died at this time, would have scarcely been remembered out of Ayrshire. But he now took a flight which must, in any circumstances, sooner or later have brought him into the sight of all Scotland, and of the world—he wrote the "Cottar’s Satuyday Night." Everybody remembers the feelings of his brother Gilbert, when he heard Robert repeating it to him on a Sabbath day. To Gilbert it must have come more refreshingly, as he and their family had been annoyed at the recent desecration, as they thought, of his genius, in inditing "Holy Willie’s Prayer" and so forth. What a bound up from this "Devil’s kitchen work," as the Germans talk of, to such a divine close as that of the "Cottar’s Saturday Night," which approximates, in simple yet rounded majesty, the climaxes of Isaiah or the glowing perorations of Paul. Some suppose that the approbation which his brother, known by Robert to be an excellent judge of literary matters, gave this masterpiece, as much by the tremulous and tearful enthusiasm of his face and bearing as by his words, encouraged him to think of publishing a volume of poems, and that this accounts for the extreme rapidity with which poetry flowed from him all this winter and spring. It is, indeed, certain that he composed in this short period such poems as the "Mouse," "Hallowe’en," "Man was Made to Mourn," "Address to the Deil," "The Jolly Beggars," the "Vision," the "Epistle to James Smith," the "Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer," the "Twa Dogs," the "Ordination," and "Scotch Drink." But some of these pieces were surely prompted by a higher motive than the mere prospect of seeing them in print. They are pure, gushing inspiration. Was he thinking of "gude black prent" when he sent his poetical Hail, fellow, well met," after the mousie scampering from his plough? Was he thinking of’ Johnnie Wilson and his Kilmarnock press when, in the "auld clay biggin’,"

"Ben in the spence, right pensively,
He gaed to rest,"

and was kept sleepless by the most glorious "Vision" that ever visited poet in his youth, since Shakspeare dreamed the "Midsummer Night’s Dream?" Was there any anticipation of coming fame, or of time title of Satan’s laureate, in the tumultuous glee which flashed in his eye when he indited the words—

O Thou! whatever title suit thee,
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie?"

Was aught in his veins but the most Shakspearean riot that ever revelled therein, when he peeped through the bole of Poosie Nancy’s, and saw the devilry of dissipation, the Bacchanalian abandonment, the wild orgies, as of a Scotch Walpurgis Night, which were being celebrated in it? No doubt, when he wrote "The Twa Dogs" he was thinking of publication; but it, with all its admirable sense and satire, and one or two inimitable touches of nature, is of a much less inspired mood than the others, and has more method than magic in its web.

Some of these pieces were composed at the plough, when neither had his eye waxed dim nor had his natural strength abated. There, of course, he sang the "Mouse." And there, turning his sad eye across the melancholy November landscape, over which the weary winter sun was going down, he breathed out the monody—matching with that "Prayer of Moses, the man of God," the Ninetieth Psalm—one thought in which De Quincey, slow to praise the Scottish poet, recognizes the hand of a master—

"See yonder poor o’erlaboured wight,
So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil."

Often he composed, and still oftener he transcribed, in the little garret above the but and the ben of the farm-house of Mossgiel. In this garret there was a little window in the roof; through which he might see the stars. A small curtainless bed stood in the room where time two brothers slept. Under the window was a little deal table with a drawer; on the table the poet wrote, stooping as he did so, and in the drawer he deposited his verses. Scarcely has he left for the fields again, to his afternoon labour, till we see his young sister, afterwards Mrs. Begg, silently stealing up stairs into the Sanctum to peruse the poems her brother had left’ there. Conceive her, as she reads the "Mouse" or the "Vision," enjoying one of the purest pleasures possible on earth—a relative and young enthusiast reading the finest poetry of the age, and whispering every now and then to herself. Can these actually be the compositions of my brother? Let us trust that she sometimes stole them from the desk for an hour or twain, and showed the better of them to his and her mother.

Burns when he composed the "Mousie" was not alone. A youth, called John Blanc, who was guiding the four horses which were then required for the plough, remembered the incident, and his running after the "wee beastie" to destroy it, but was checked by Bums, who immediately after became abstracted and thoughtful. Blane, who became a stage-coachman, told afterwards a stranger he met on the coach that Burns came into the stable in the evening and read him the poem, and asked, "What he thought of the Mousie now?" He added that the poet, while he was with him, though he did sometimes indulge too freely, was a kind master, and regularly made family ‘worship night and morning.

Even before his father’s death Robert had taken a part in this exercise, reading the chapter, and giving out the psalm. Afterwards, as the head of the house, he took on himself the whole of the service. Some of his family remembered distinctly Robert’s practice, and Mrs. Begg used to say that she never in her life heard such prayers as her brother’s; and we can easily conceive from specimenn of his prayers which have been preserved in rhyme, that his family devotions would be distinguished by great fervour, eloquence, and pathos, and not less by simplicity and sincerity—the two main elements of true prayer.

The Mauchline of this period must have been quite a caravansera of queer characters. Besides its famous belles, were several females of more questionable notoriety: Nanse Tinnoeh, with her hostelry, where Burns pretended to he a nightly visitor, although the "Lucky" herself said that she scarce knew time colour of his coin, and that his half mutchkins were mostly myths—" Poosie Nancy," with her rough, roaring public, crowded with strollers of every kind, and floating with Kilbagie," the "blue ruin of Ayrshire (although distilled at Clackmannan), where Disrespectability lifted up her unabashed head and held "leets and lawdays" under the astonished midnight; and "Racer Jess," her daughter, a sort of unbreeched Goose Gibbie (see "Old Mortality "), who ran races for wagers, and unmatched for swiftness of foot, carried messages through the country. An Iris unballasted either by chastity or laziness. Then there were sundry male curiosities: wee James Smith, the "sleest, pawkiest thief" in all Burns’ acquaintance—a dark-complexioned, clever, little man, who talked wondrously well, and yet had the sense to yield the pas to the Mossgiel ploughman; some noble specimens of the old Covenanting characte:—stern livers, high thinkers—men who read Calvin in translations and Dr. Owen in English, amid criticized sermons severely, amid prayed long, and mourned over modern degeneracy, and were themselves entitled to do so, being firm to their principles as Arran or Ailsa Craig (James Humphrey was a very fair specimen of this class)—not to be confounded with a class, who were also there, of "yill-caup commentators," who discussed religion in change-houses, and hiccupped most undeniable orthodoxy as the wee short hour was about to strike on time dull, cold ear of Night; of this latter class "Holy Willie" being the facile princeps.

Such a fertile field even Mauchline opened to Burns genius ; and he made the most of it, especially in his "Holy Fair" and "Jolly Beggars." Dr. Walter Smith said not long ago, with more point than felicity, that "the reading of this latter brochure leaves a bad taste in the mouth." This perhaps depends a little on the state of the mouth that tastes it. At all events, it is not what James Hogg would have called a "wersh" taste which it leaves, but one of tingling gusto; and no one but must admire the marvellous variety of badness in its characters—all bad, none odious; time excessive spirit of its writing, especially its songs, and the wild harmony produced from the heterogeneous materials, so that a naked dance of Satyrs assumes almost an ideal aspect; and the movement is graceful, as if it took place to some such music as Ariel played to Stephano, Trinculo, and the other bewildered and tipsy ones of the "Tempest "—ending in a storm chorus which gives an apotheosis to Blackguardism. Burns drew it from the life; but while John Richmond and James Smith, who had accompanied him to the sight, applauded it to the echo, his brother and mother deplored it, and at her request the good-natured bard laid the poem aside, and for years forgot its existence.

The "Holy Fair" seems to have been a rather late production, but one that breathes the same spirit which was indeed the spirit of a year or two of his life—the spirit of reckless satire and of dare-devil revelry—a spirit which was to appear afterwards in short and desperate snatches toward the close of his career. There is a freedom of touch and of motion in this poem which he never surpassed. The whole (as is true also of "Tam o’ Shanter ") runs out as from a mould, and reads like a single sentence. There is all the French elasticity without the French persiflage or heartlessness, although there may be a smack of the pleasure of the stolen waters and the bread eaten in secret. A man eating pork with great relish once paused and said, "I wish I were a Jew." "Why?" was the answer; "for in that case you would not enjoy your favourite food." "Yes; I would then have the pleasure of eating it, along with the gust of sinning." Burns must have felt this gust while composing the semi-scandalous but excessively clever poem, "The Holy Fair." It is entirely original, with the exception of its best and worst word, damnation. Tidings of salvation it had been; but at Dr. Blair’s suggestion was changed to what it is, and Burns was but too ready to acknowledge the obligation.

About the same time Burns came forward as the Laureate of Scotch whisky, of which, says one of his biographers, he was no lover, and yet speaks very like one. That article was then severely taxed, not so much for moral motives as because the English distillers had a jealousy of the Scotch. When the obnoxious impost was taken off, Burns expressed his gratitude in some well known verses. He had previously commended the spirit with a gusto and an eloquence which showed more than a theoretical appreciation thereof. Perhaps further on in his history he might, like Esop with his dish of tongues, have given the per contra of his warm and rather one-sided panegyric. Yet there is one stanza of genuine poetry—

" Nae cauld, faint—hearted doubtings teaze him;
Death comes, with fearless eye he sees him
Wi’ bluidy hand a welcome gi’es him;
And when he f’as,
His latest draught of breathing lea’es him
In faint huzzae."

This, with all deference to poor Burns, is rather the spirit of the bard than of the barley. Unquestionably Burns wrote many of his poems and songs in an overexcited state, but as certainly the very best of them flowed from him when he was in his normal condition;. although even in that normal state, when in the eye of Nature, he might say with Coleridge that he was—

"Inspired beyond the guess of folly,
By each rude shape and wild unconquerable sound!"

His fault was that in later life, as his spirits fell low and his hypochondria deepened, his genius sometimes condescended, like the Britons with the Saxons, to call in auxiliaries, which ultimately led that haughty power in chains. John Gowdie, author of "Gowdie’s Bible," is said to have visited Burns, who behind a stook read him some verses which greatly pleased him, and he invited him to visit Kilmarnock, where at Gowdie’s table he met such local notorieties as Major Parker Paterson, town clerk, Dr. William More, and Mr. Robert Muir, merchant, afterwards a great friend and correspondent of the poet.

Kilmarnock has produced or harboured men of no little eminence, such as an eccentric but very clever United Secession clergyman, Robertson by name; his successor in ability and eccentricity, Dr. John Ritchie, afterwards "Voluntary John of Potterrow," Edinburgh; Dr. James Morison, the learned and able founder of the Morisonian sect in Scotland; and, besides many others, our recent friend Alexander Smith of the "Life Drama." Burns might have known the first mentioned of these, Robertson, although we have no evidence that he did. When he first visited "Auld Kihhie" he found it in a state of great excitement about a minister. For forty years Moderatism—under, first, one Lindsay, who was shrewdly suspected to have owed his appointment to his wife, Margaret Lauder, who had been housekeeper to the Earl of Eglinton (verb. sat sap.), and hence Burns’ lines—

"Curst common—sense, that impp o’ Hell,
Cam in wi’ Maggie Lauder;"

and, secondly, under a Mr. Mutrie—had walked the course. But now both ministers were dead, and a young and zealous highflier, James Mackinlay by name, was appointed, and the Moderates in wrath prevailed on Burns, their willing organ, to vent their chagrin and his own in rhyme. Hence tile "Ordination," written in a style of fierce, personal, and polemical satire, which Burns practised rather often at this time, and which, although excessively poignant and clever, never even approached the higher reaches either of his wit or his genius. It, however, like the rest of such pieces, created a roar of applause—a roar which has got fainter and fainter as time has elapsed, and as the event and the characters which suggested it have sunk into oblivion. We think that Mackinlay, the hero of the poem, became less popular afterwards with his partizans, owing to a marriage with his servant, he was a man of good elocutionary gift, but of ordinary intellect.

Burns takes more general ground in his next poem. This, which forms a kind of spur upon a chain of vigorous pasquinades, is his "Address to the Unco Guid," and the Last verses, so well known—

"Then gently scan your fellow—man,
Still gentler, sister woman,"

constitute a living moral and truly Christian inference from such miserable hurley-burleys as "Holy Fairs" and "Ordinations." They stamp Burns a great moralist—a title he deserves none the less but all the more from his occasional aberrations, and corroborate Curran’s statement about the "sweet morality of a Burns," which some have thought paradoxical. He could—

"Others teach their course to steer,
But run himself life’s mad career
Wild as the wave."

Besides other productions of a wildish tone and temper, such as the "Louse" and "The Inventory," belonging to this prolific period of his history, we may close by mentioning his deliciously natural and pathetic poem, "The Auld Farmer’s New Year’s Salutation to his Auld Mare Maggie.’ On animals of every variety, and especially on those within the reach of the cruelty or caprice of man, Burns always shone, because he always sincerely sympathized with them. And if some hypercritics call him, therefore, the "Bard of the Brutes," nay, a sublimer brute himself, we care not. It was as a friend, an advocate, a mediator between them and man, that he spake; and that mission was not only a high one in itself, but qualified him to discharge his loftier and later one, the proclamation of universal charity and brotherhood—the publication of peace on earth and good will to men, in the immortal words—

"When man to man the world o’er
Shall brithers be and a’ that."


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