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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns in the Nadir


NADIR, most people know, is the point diametrically opposite to the zenith, the lowest pole in the horizon. Burns uses the word with a different bearing when he says, in his letter to Dr. Moore, "The baleful star which had so long shed its blasting influence on my zenith for once made a revolution to the Nadir." The darkest hour usually precedes the dawning. And assuredly this was the case with Burns. The presentiment or prophecy which crossed his soul at the sight of the "Mouse ——

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

was now about to be fulfilled. Evil deeds are often punished long ere they occur by misery which appears causeless in the offender at the time, who is in this way "paid in advance" after a terrible fashion. Burns might have read a rehearsal of his own fate in that of Peggy K——, the daughter of a landed proprietor in Carrick, whom he met, admired as one of the first accomplished young ladies of the upper classes he had ever seen, and on whom he wrote the song "Young Peggy." Her fate was wretched, although it is only indicated, not fully stated in any biography we have read. At seventeen, engaged to an eligible lover in her own rank of life, she was hanging already over the precipice, and doomed to lose first her good name, and afterwards her young life. We might conceive her referred to in the lines on the "Daisy"—

"Such is the fate of artless maid,
By love’s simplicity betrayed,
And guileless trust."

And if so, this is but a pendant to the stanza which follows:-

"Such is the fate of simple bard,
On Life’s rough ocean luckless starred,
Till billows rage and gales blow hard,
And whelm him o’er."

Charles I. had, it is said, a look of dim, settled sadness on his face, which was thought to prognosticate a violent death. And amid all the fun and riot of Burns’ poetry, there peers out ever and anon a look in which one may read strange matters and woeful prophecies, even as on his face, above the blaze of his bright black eye and the mirth that lurked about his mouth and chin, there lay a dark, unmoved cloud of profound and melancholy feeling—not merely of reflection, not at all of fear : it was a face confronting and defying the scowl of Destiny!

We linger as long as we can ere we venture to narrate the lamentable events which now occurred in the poet’s history, and may first record for praise one man in Ayr who was of material service to Burns’ success as a poet. This was Robert Aiken, to whom, as we saw, his "Cottar’s Saturday Night" was inscribed as—

"My loved, my honoured, much respected friend."

Aiken was a writer and tax collector. He was a man of great natural eloquence, as we have seen from his successful defence of Gavin Hamilton; and above all, he was a warm admirer and powerful reader of poetry. He was said by Burns to have read him into fame. Wherever two or three were gathered together, the enthusiastic Aiken was sure to introduce the name and read the poetry of Burns. He had two criteria of good poetry: it was good if, first, it brought tears to his eyes; and secondly, if it made the buttons of his waistcoat "skelp." Once, when reading a poem on the death of Burns by some admirer or other, the latter catastrophe was produced: his vest had burst open, while his eyes were streaming. It reminds us of a late eccentric, clever, but very nervous clergyman in Newcastle, who was always imagining himself at the point of death with one imaginary disease or other. One day walking in the country with a friend, he suddenly got pale as a corpse, and exclaimed, "It’s all over now; did you not hear that dreadful sound? Some vital part of my interior has burst, and I have only a few minutes to live." On investigation it was found that he had broken his waistband! This, the crack of doom to him, was the signal of loud and inextinguishable laughter to his cornpanion and to everybody else. On one occasion Aiken, who was a nephew of Dr. Dalrymple, Ayr, made a speech at a private party about his venerable uncle, which melted the whole assembly into tears. An Irish officer, blubbering like a child, looked round on the company, and exclaimed, Can you tell me the maning of this?" One is reminded of Dandie Dinmont—" Deil‘s in the man; he has made me do that I have not done since my auld mither deed!" To use a vulgar expression, Burns and Aiken "jumped at each other," and became fast friends. Nor did the relation of patron and patronized produce its usual unhealthy effects. The choice of Aiken to head the "Cottar’s Saturday Night" was enough to stamp him as a worthy and noble man, whatever might be his faults and failings; and Aiken reciprocated and in some measure repaid the honour.

It was in the spring of 1786 that Burns’ sorrows came upon him, as usual in a complex form. His farm was becoming every year a more ruinous concern. How much this was the effect of misfortune, and how much of Burns’ engrossment with society and literary matters, cannot now be ascertained. Both probably contributed. Burns often acknowledges that he was not a good man of business or farmer, and few of his kindred are—

"The enthusiast Fancy was a truant ever."

But let us remember that the very greatest of England’s tuneful tribe have been regular and laborious men— Shakspeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. But Burns, with perhaps as bold and broad a sail as these men, wanted their ballast ; and ere he had time to take it in, he died. But while his farm was going wrong, other circumstances were clouding his horizon. He had now for nearly a year known and loved Jean Armour. She was rather more than an average specimen of a Scottish maiden of the middle rank of life, although, we have heard, counted a little "glaikit" by the matronage and female critics of her neighbourhood. She was tall and well built, rather than particularly good-looking. But she had fine dark eyes, a complexion slightly olive, and a bewitching smile. She sung and danced well. In her latter years, and after the poet’s death, she seems to have been all that was sensible, respectable, and motherly. Burns’ love for her was not romantic, like that he felt for Mary Morrison and Mary Campbell ; nor ideal, like that he felt for Charlotte Hamilton; nor a compound of desire, vanity, and literary sympathy, like that he felt for Clarinda: it was a fresh, warm, and hearty outcome of his physical and passionate nature—a young man’s love for one he did not look at from afar with chivalric and awestruck affection, but whom he knew familiarly, met often, and clasped to his bosom when he did so, sans phrase or form. It may be that the prejudice felt by the Armours at "Rab Mossgiel" kept him out of the house, and led to private assignations and the train of dangerous consequences flowing therefrom. Jean, at all events, became as " ladies’ hove to be," &c., and the effect of the eclaircissement was disastrous to our poet. Jean urged Burns to give her a written acknowledgment of her as his wife, an act equivalent in Scottish law to a marriage. At first Burns refused to consent to this arrangement ; but an interview with her melted his resolution, and he gave her what she desired. Jean’s object was to conciliate her parents, but in this she failed. Old Armour, who had no great idea of Burns from the beginning, and who overrated the value of his daughter, knew well, too, that Mossgiel was not thriving. Had this event occurred a year afterwards, it had been different; but the daughter of a stone-mason was thought too good a match for the bankrupt and unfortunate poet. Armour sought to anul the marriage, and prevailed on Jean to surrender to him the paper, which he put into the hands of Mr. Aiken, Ayr. In vain did Burns offer to go to Jamaica to better his condition, promising to come back in some years and claim Jean as his wife; in vain did he offer, if this plan failed, to become a common labourer, to support his wife and her expected family. Armour was inexorable, and Jean, too, at last yielded to the strength of his persuasions and threats ; and as she had previously given up the paper, she now surrendered the poet. We neither deeply blame nor greatly wonder at her conduct. Like Lucy Ashton, she was sore beset by the influence of father, mother, family, public opinion, and had nothing to support her but her love to a man who was standing at the lowest point of depression, with no fortune, little fame, and a damaged moral reputation. She was too melancholy and utterly depressed to sing, as Burns represented his former sweetheart singing—-

"The rantin’ dog the daddie o’t"

She became the most miserable of women, and her misery only wanted one element to make it despair, and that, too, seemed at this time very near—the madness or suicide of her poet-lover. And now came the darkest point in Burns’ history, unless his rejection at Dumfries at a later date was a yet deeper deep, because succeeding a great triumph. Hugely indignant at Jean, yet loving her still, he ran, he tells us, into dissipation of every kind, attending mason-lodges and other merry meetings, vainly seeking "to drown in rant the heartache of the night." He wrote "Laments," odes to "Ruin," and so forth, forcing out thus a brief and imperfect solace to his woes. All, all were found miserable comforters—

"Hungry Ruin’ had him in the wind."

A hundred plans of extrication from his difficulties floated through his mind. At last one of some feasibility presented itself; he would go to the West Indies, and to purchase a passage would publish a volume of poems. Gavin Hamilton advised him to do so, and Burns eagerly consented. Proposals of publication and subscription papers were instantly thrown off.

While pressed down by these woes, and with the cares of publication coming upon him, this extraordinary being was engaged in an under-plot of passion and sorrow, enough itself to have crushed many ordinary men to the dust; we refer, of course, to the history of Mary Campbell, or "Highland Mary." She was of Highland extraction, from Dunoon, and daughter of a sailor in a revenue cutter, whose family resided in Cantyre. She had spent some of her earlier years in the family of the Rev. David Campbell of Loch Ranza, in Arran, a relation of her mother’s. She became a servant in the family of Gavin Hamilton in 1785, acting as nurse-maid to one of his sons. She is said not to have been peculiarly graceful or feminine, but very sweet and artless. The tradition of the village generally attests her purity, although calumny has not spared her connection with Burns. She was sprightly and blue-eyed. She knew Burns some time before their final courtship, although Mrs. Begg remembers no reference to her from her brother’s lips except once, when he told John Blane that Mary had refused to meet him at the Old Castle—a ruined priory near Gavin Hamilton’s house.

Spurned by the Armours, and given up by Jean, Burns reverted to Mary, who was residing as a dairy-maid in Coilsfield House; resumed his acquaintance with her; and, in fine, determined to affiance her to himself for ever. They met, as everybody knows, for this purpose on the banks of the Ayr, diverging probably to the woods of the Fail—a tributary stream which washes the domain of Coilsfield—on the 14th of May, 1786, a Sabbath day. They stood on opposite sides of a small brook, laved their hands in the stream, and exchanged Bibles—Mary giving her lover a plain Bible in one volume, Burns presenting her with a handsome one in two. On a blank leaf of one of the volumes was inscribed in Burns’ hand the words, "And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, saith the Lord (Levit. xix. 1~); and on the second, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths" (Matt. v. 33). On the blank leaf of each was Burns’ name inscribed, along with his mason-mark. We see it reported in a recent number of the Scottish American Journal that Mary’s mother after her death gave the two-volumed Bible to her other daughter, Annie Campbell, along with a lock of Mary’s hair, who in her turn gave each of her two daughters one of the volumes. But they became, it seems, the cause of discord in the two families; and to remove this one William Anderson, a mason, son of one of the families, bought from the two sisters each her copy, carried them out to America when he emigrated there in 1834, and thence they were sent home to Ayr to the trustees of the Burns monument, and are deposited there.

Mary, who seems now to have fixed to be Burns’ wife, and to go with or after him to the West Indies, returned and spent the summer with her parents. She crossed the Clyde to Greenock to visit some relatives, and to have a parting interview, some say, with Burns before he went abroad; but in the house of a relative, Peter MacPherson, a ship-carpenter, she fell ill of a fever, caught while waiting on a sick boy, her brother, Robert Campbell. And in spite of an amulet prepared by her superstitious friends in the Highlands—consisting of seven smooth stones, picked up at a cross burn and boiled with new milk—which she had to swallow, Mary died, it is supposed in October, 1786, and lies now in the West Churchyard, Greenock, in a mean part of the town, but with a tall elegant monument over her. Fortunate, may we not say, she! to have departed so early to the "Land o’ the Leal!" With Burns probably she would not have been happy; and have not his two immortal songs reared such a mausoleum over her dust,

"That kings for such a tomb might wish to die!"

He addressed several songs to her while she lived, such as "My Highland Lassie," "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary!" but he never mentioned either his engagement or her death to any of his relatives. We will see what Mrs. Begg tells about this by-and-by. In the Scottish journal referred to it is said, that after Mary’s death Burns went to her abode and asked some token of her; but her mother, who disliked him, sternly refused. Others, however, maintain that the mother was more friendly to the poet than was the father, and spoke well of him as a "real warm-hearted duel, though she did not think her sweet lassie would have been happy with such a wild and profane genius," and probably she was right.

During the troubled time extending from his disgrace with the Armours, and his appearance on three successive Sabbaths to be rebuked in the church for his incontinence, down to the publication of his poems, Burns’ life was by no means uneventful. There was a certain Elizabeth Black— who ultimately ended as a very respectable hostler wife in Alva, and who was probably known to our late friend, Dr. Eadie, of Glasgow, a native of Alva, and who must have been a youth of eighteen when Mrs. Black died—who boasted that she knew Burns in his early days, and that he wrote on her the song, " From thee, Eliza, I must go." About this time, too, he saw the "Bonnie Lass o’ Ballochmyle," Miss Wilhelmina Alexander, sister-of Claud Alexander, Esq., a gentleman who had enriched himself in India and bought Ballochmyle. We visited the place some years ago, and admired exceedingly its rich-wooded braes and distant prospect of the Ayr and the village of Catrine, and fancied below the trees the vision of beauty still passing, and the musing poet still standing with folded arms and looks of insatiate admiration, like one transfixed by Love’s lightning and rooted to the spot. It was some months afterwards that he sent her the exquisite song, of which Miss Alexander (prepossessed against Burns by some village gossip) took no notice, but which she lived to value very highly, and to say of the original copy, that she would never part with it. Her nephew, Mr. Alexander, erected a bower at the spot, and there a facsimile of the song and the accompanying letter was framed.

Burns’ pen did not lie idle during these anxious and miserable months. He wrote songs, dedications (to Gavin Hamilton), jcux d’esprit, such as "The Calf" composed on the Rev. James Steven, of London and Kilwinning, his famous "Tam Samson," &c. We saw that subscription lists had been thrown off and the announcement of his volume as advenient had created a buzz through Kyle, Carrick, and Cunningham, if not through Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire; for in these shires, and beyond them, many had begun to hear of the fact that there was a great poet rising among them—

At times a warning trumpet blown,
At times a stifled hum,
Told Scotland from his mountain throne
Her King did rushing come."

He had nearly, like Joseph, come out of prison to reign.

He was now called upon to give security for the maintenance of Jean’s expected offspring. This from sheer poverty he was unable to do, and was obliged in consequence to skulk in a farm-house belonging to a relative of his (an aunt), named Allan, in Old Rome Forest, near Kilmarnock, lest he should be clapt into jail. His Nadir was now at its deepest, when there arose in the July sky of 1786 the first streak of his undying fame.


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