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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns the Ploughman-Poet


BEFORE settling down as a farmer, Burns’ fancy was crossed by a new ambition, which promised to alter his entire scheme of life, and which might have led him to fortune and forgetfulness! Feeling that the outlook of a poor plough-boy was but a gloomy one; aware that, as he tells Dr. Moore, the only two openings by which he could enter the Temple of Fortune were the gate of niggardly economy, and the path of little chicaning bargain-making, both of which he detested—the one as narrow, the other as contaminated; and having a desire, besides, to marry (Ellison Begbie is supposed at that time to have been his flame, who afterwards jilted him)—he turned his attention to flax-dressing, in which he had tried some experiments along with Gilbert at Lochlea, and removed to Irvine to set up his trade. Irvine, now a thriving seaport, was then the emporium of the flax-dressing trade, generally in connection with farms on which the material was raised. Here Burns became connected with a man named Peacock, whom the poet, in a passage of his letters which has not been printed, has strongly denounced. He possibly had cheated Burns while teaching him his calling. The cottage where he plied his trade stood on the Smiddy Green, one end being devoted to the work, the other employed by an individual in keeping workhorses. Flax-dressers, or hecklers, as they were often called, have been in Scotland a superior, though peculiar class of men. In the town where we now write (Dundee), they were, we have heard, in the first half of the century, noted for their knowledge, irregular diligence, occasional bouts of dissipation, great interest in politics, and expertness in political discussion. The most powerful speakers who, at the time of George Kinloch’s banishment, stirred the fierce democracy of Dundee, were hecklers. Their manners, however, and their habits, were often coarse. We suspect that Burns in Irvine was thrown among a similar class, and his very superiority led him into snares. He was noted for his powers of conversation. But the inspired heckler found rough and ready logic more popular than poetical talk. Little else, we believe, is remembered of him in Irvine than his melancholy. The uncongenial and unsuccessful trade, the rude society the scoundrel partner, his distance from home, and, it may be, a certain looseness of habits here acquired, reacted violently on his spirits, and made the brightest man in the west of Scotland for a year a gloomy hypochondriac. Yet one precious fruit grew on, and has fallen to us from the baleful tree—we refer to the beautiful letter to his father, dated December 27, 1781. This itself seems to cast doubt on the insinuation Professor Walker throws out on the authority of somebody, who boasted that he had taught Burns looser ideas of religion in Irvine. The expression is of course very vague; but if the opinions taught him were really loose, and not simply somewhat bolder than his former sentiments, they do not seem to have rooted themselves very deeply. The heart, at least, of the author of that noble letter was right, and—

"The heart aye’s the part, aye,
That keeps us richt or wrang.

Yet temptation seems to have attacked him in Irvine from another direction. Here he met with one Richard Brown (afterwards, we have been assured by persons who knew him, a very respectable man and citizen), who had been at sea, and talked of illicit love with the levity of a sailor, although Brown was wont to say that Burns had nothing to learn on that subject when they got acquainted. This must refer to his Irvine experience, since we have Gilbert Bums’ testimony and his own that his life in Lochlea was pure. An account of Brown’s romantic history and his influence on Burns’ mind may be read in the poet’s famous letter to Dr. Moore. We find him writing to Brown afterwards with great affection. Burns seems seldom, if ever, to have lost a friend. He "grappled them to his heart with hooks of steel." He had a high theoretical idea of the value of friendship; and practically his friendships were about as strong as his loves, and considerably less fickle. "The lover and the friend ‘ he invariably classes together. Brown had a taste in other directions than the fair sex. He liked poetry, and Bums alludes in one of his letters to a Sabbath day they passed in Eglinton woods, then, as now, very beautiful and urnbrageous, when Brown urged Burns to send some verses he repeated to a magazine—a hint which flattered Bums’ vanity, although he did not act on it.

Bums, we saw, had written the plaintive letter to his father on the 27th December, 1781. We find him with characteristic volatility welcoming in the New Year on the 1st of January, 1782, in a carousal so prolonged and excessive, that during it his flax shop took fire, was burned to ashes, and himself left, "like a true poet, without a farthing." He did not, however, return to Lochlea till March, as is proved by his sisters statement and by his initials inscribed by himself; with the date (1782), on the chimney-piece of the little garret where he slept.

The gloom which had cast its shadow over Burns’ later days at Irvine came home with him, although it seems gradually to have yielded to various influences—to the summer weather which began, to his resumption with redoubled energy of his labours in the field, to the counsel and company of his father, and to the happy fraternal influence of Gilbert. Whatever might have been his habits in Irvine, and although changed perhaps in tastes, he resumed in Lochlea the same hard-faring and temperate life as before. He engaged, however, as we shall see, in some love affairs, although none of much consequence. He attended, as he had done once before, a dancing school. He began in rivalship with David Sillar (his "Davie ‘), who was a very respectable poetaster and a "prime fiddler," to practise the violin—sometimes on a bad day, when he was unable to work in the fields, and sometimes early in the morning, when he would break up the kitchen gathering coal, and alarm the family by his untimely scrapings. Fiddling is not a very common accomplishment, we think, of poets. Dr. Croly, indeed, according to Barry Cornwall, was a good violinist, although in his later days, when we knew him, he had resigned the practice as unsuitable to his years, if not to his profession. Burns never succeeded in it, nor in the German flute, and his voice was tuneless and rough as a boar’s; yet he could read music, and was keenly susceptible, need we say h to the charms of song. But his chief employment now was the plough, and his chief relaxation and solace was poetry—and lo! the Ploughman Poet! He restrung, he tells us, his lyre with renewed vigour.

Six or seven years before this he had written, as we have seen, his pretty "I dreamed I lay where flower~ were springing." He tells us he had even sketched the plan of a Tragedy, and has retained one speech from it supposed to have been spoken by a great oppressor, by whom he meant the factor who had ground down his father for his arrears at Mount Oliphant. It reads rather like a bit of Young’s "Revenge" than of Shakspeare. Afterwards he is said to have composed a song on every toleraMy looking girl in the parish, and finally, one in which they were all included. Such ditties he usually destroyed. A beautiful one has survived—" My Nannie, 0," and it is certainly one of the sweetest and tenderest of all his strains. The river of the song, beyond which were the Carrick hills, visible from Lochlea, was the Stinchar or Stinsiar, for which he afterwards substituted, as a more euphonious title, the Lugar, a stream which belonged to a different district. At this our friend, the late excellent David Jamieson, U.P. minister in Kilmarnock, was very angry, and has justly abused Burns and Burns’ editors for it in his volume of poems, "Scenes of Youth." Nannie was one Agnes Fleming, in Tarbolton parish, a farmer’s daughter and a servant, of no special attractions, and who knew Burns very slightly—only, indeed, so far that he once told her he had written a "sang" on her. It is interesting to know that his father lived to see and to be much gratified by this song, which is indeed pure as the "opening gowan wat wi’ dew." It was followed by his scornful ditty, "0 Tibby, I hae seen the day," inscribed to a proud minx named Isabella Steven or Stein. There were some other love strains, which may be more appropriately treated when we come to the list of his early loves in the next chapter. His gloomy state of mind at Irvine inspired the copy of verses called "Winter," with the two lines so affecting in their simplicity of bitterness—

"The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine."

also his "Prayer Written under the pressure of Violent Anguish." He had flung off this untimely load crc he struck up the cheerful strain— "My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border," which, though written in a ranting style, is a piece of real genius. Many of his poems were composed at the plough—notably, "Poor Maihie." Burns had bought’ a ewe and two lambs, and the ewe was tethered in a field adjoining the house of Lochlea. He and Gilbert were going out with their team, when Hugh Wilson, a curious, awkward-looking boy, clad in plaiding, came, with much anxiety in his face, to tell that the ewe had entangled herself in the tether, and was lying in the ditch. Robert caught up the humour in Hughoc’s look and the pathos in Mailie’s position at once; and after relieving the ewe, went, with eyes sparkling, to the plough, composed the poem there, and repeated it to his brother in the evening. To those who remember their own boyhood, and what a Scotch boy especially is, the best touch in all this simple and quaint effusion lies in the words—

"Now, honest Hughoc, dinna fail
To tell my master a’ my tale;
And bid him burn his cursed tether,
And for roy sake thous get soy blether."

To the same period (founded partly on a black-letter English ballad) belongs "John Barleycorn," as spirited an Anacreontic as ever flowed from the lyre of the Teian Bard, of Herrick, Tom Moore, Byron, or Lytton Bulwer, whose exquisite song in the "Last Days of Pompeii" has seldom been equalled ;   and the rest of the Bacchanalian brotherhood. Yet Burns, when he wrote it, was habitually a water drinker; when he did drink, it was in great moderation, and his whole expenditure on himself was 7 per annum.

"Ye generous Britons, venerate the plough," cries Thomson; and Burns, since Thomson’s day, has supplied a new reason for obeying the command. Since the plough of Cincinnatus, no plough that ever cut the furrow can be named for interest with the plough of Burns. And what was a Roman patriot, however august and disinterested, to our large-hearted poet, whose bright-blazing meteoric eyes seemed to be piercing into the deep of thought and feeling, while his ploughshare was cutting through the clods a way for the seed, the blade, and the full corn in the ear— the divinity of whose daily toil was proved and complemented in his experience by the inspiration which descended from above, and seemed the witness of the gods to his humble, honourable calling here, and their prophecy of his eternal fame hereafter. To refer to an image Burns used himself afterwards, Elisha was not a prophet till he left the plough; but to Burns the shaft of the plough was his rod of inspiration and command, as his mind moved in the wind of the spring day, and his genius expanded and caught the colours of the April sun. Never was our poet more manly, more simple, often so bald, but always so beautiful, as in those poems and songs which, composed at the plough, h& was to commit to his immortal page, leaning over his table or chest in his little Lochlea garret ere he went to rest!

His labours at the plough were diversified by various excursions on Sabbaths, and walks in the evenings on other days. The story of Wallace, as recounted by Blind Harry

"In the veins of the calyx foams and flows
The blood of the Saniian vine,
But, oh! in the goblet of youth there glows
A Lesbium more divine.
Bright, bright, as the liquid light,
Its waves through tbine eyelids shine.

"Fill up, fill up, to the sparkling brim,
With the juice of the young Lyaeus;
The grape is the key that we owe to him,
From the jail of the world to free us.
Drink, drink, what need to shrink,
When the lamps alone can see us?

"Fill up, fill up, while I quaff from thine eyes
The wine of a softer tree
Give thy smiles to the god of the grape, thy sighs,
Beloved one, give to me.
Turn, turn, my glances burn,
And thirst for a look from thee."

(abridged by Hamilton of Gilbertfield), had made a very deep impression on Burns’ mind, especially the words—

"Syne to the Leglen wood, when it was late,
He made a silent and a safe retreat."

This wood was in his own locality, and tic chose, he tells us, a fine summer day to visit it and explore every den and dingle where he supposed his heroic countryman to have been. No wonder though his heart glowed with a wish to make a song on him in some measure equal to his merits. Bitt two things were yet wanting to the birth of—

"Scots, wha has wi’ Wallace bled"

—the wild moors of Galloway, and a mood caught from the thunder-cloud and the tempest which was beating on the brow of the poet, careering through it—tire Spirit of the Storm! A poem on Wallace, written in the Leglen wood at this time of his life, would have been, we fear, a tamer affair. Surely the sternest Sabbatarian would hesitate crc he condemned in a poor man’s life such precious breathing times (to quote again the words of Gilbert Burns) as this. It did not imply the forsaking of the assembling of’ himself entirely, or habitual religious disloyalty. Burns was generally found by his father’s side in the house of God on the first day of the week. But sometimes his spirit mnoved him to spend the Sabbath in his own way—in shall we say for him a higher, holier fashion? to worship God in the solitary woods, or by the murmuring shores of the sea; there often, too, to seek after, if he might peradventure find, the Ideal of his Art, which appeared glimpsing away, yet beckoning him to follow, like a coy maiden, into the depths of the forest; and there sometimes, as he did to his silent, entranced brother, Gilbert, to repeat the newly composed effusions of his mind; and might not Nature be figured as becoming more deeply still to listen to the inspired numbers of the "Cottar’s Saturday Night," and to scan the glowing features of a poet as he passed "sounding" on his way? There are no such Sabbath-breakers now!

Robert Chambers describes Burns ascending an eminence during the agitations of Nature, striding along a summit while the lightning flashed around him, and amidst the howling of the tempest apostrophizing the Spirit of the Storm. We remember no authentic record elsewhere of any such high-wrought and affected raptures. Here is his own well-known, simple, and truly sublime picture of his actual experience. "There is scarcely any earthly object gives me more (I do not know if I should call it pleasure, but something which exalts me, something which enraptures me), than a walk on the sheltered side of a wood or high plantation on a cloudy winter day. and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees and raving over the plain. It is my best season for devotion; my mind is rapt up in a kind of enthusiasm to Him who, in the language of the Hebrew bard, ‘walketh on the wings of the wind.’"

This is an extract from a Common-place Book Burns began to keep in April, 1789, and which will be found elsewhere. It contains many pithy and many poetical remarks; and coming from so young and inexperienced a man as Burns was then, is more wonderful than even his songs or poems, and ranks, though on a smaller scale, with the Journals kept by Byron, Foster, and Sir Walter Scott, as probally the very best in the literature of our country. We might have mentioned that Burns had, some time previously, established at Tarbolton a debating club, called "The Bachelors," a long history of which, written by the poet, has been preserved.

Thus ran on the life of the bard for two or three years, peacefully, honourably, and on the whole happily, although not without some aberrations unknown to his career ere he saw Irvine, with its bay, and links, and steeple. In those years, as with Rousseau, "Early love his Psyche’s zone unbound," but it could be hardly said that she hallowed it with loveliness. If there was delight there was disenchantment, too, and perhaps he might have exclaimed with his brother Byron—

"The tree of knowledge has been plucked—all ‘s known."

We gather this from expressions in his "Journal," and from the guarded evidence of his friends, as well as from the dying words of his father immediately to be quoted. Meanwhile, that excellent man was fast sinking to the grave. He was not old, only sixty-three; but he was quite broken down by severe labour, anxiety, and misfortune. Burns, in a letter dated 21st June, 1783, gives a very distressing account of the general condition of the small farmers of the period —a state of things which, along with a dispute about his lease, preyed terribly on his father’s constitution, and bowed him to the dust. Indeed, he was only saved from the horrors of a jail by a consumption; and in fine, on the 13th of February, 1784, he breathed his last. There were present only Mrs. Begg and Robert. She was crying bitterly, and her father tried to comfort her, although only able to murmur out a few words, closing with an injunction to walk in virtue’s paths and to shun every sin. He paused, and then said there was one of his family for whose future conduct lie felt some anxiety, and repeated the expression; when Robert stepped up to the bedside and said, "Oh, father, do you mean me ?" The old man replied, "Yes;" and the poet turned round to the window, his eyes shining through tears, and his heart heaving with sobs. What a scene for a painter—a Wilkie, Harvey, or Paton! The good old man on his dying bed; the February sun shining dim and "mottie through the reek," and showing his "lyart haffets" waxing thin and bare; his pale, stern, and composed features, and his frame and aspect—purged, earnest, resolute, and stripped, as of one who was immediately to join a spiritual company; his eye fixed on his erring but beloved son; the daughter dissolved in infantile sorrow; and Robert, with his face, and its expression of anguish, and its large eloquent tears, hid as in that picture of ancient Greece, where the painter employed to paint Agamemnon’s grief at the sacrifice of Iphigenia made himself immortal by not painting it at all, but drew a curtain over the unutterable tragedy; and assuredly Burns’ countenance, with that blended look of sorrow, remorse, and shame, no pencil could adequately depict. Old William Burns was carried to the banks of the Doon, where he had begun his married life. The coffin was placed between two horses ranked before each other in tandem-fashion, and followed by his neighbours and family also, all on horseback, to Alloway kirkyard. There, in that spot, which of all spots bears most emphatic witness to the triumphs of his son’s creative genius—near the "winnock bunker in the east"—lies William Burns. Robert erected a simple tombstone over his remains, having the following stanzas froni his own pen:-

"Oh ye whose cheek the tear of pity stains.
Draw near with pious reverence and attend!
Here lies the loving husband’s dear remains,
The tender father, and the gen’rous friend;
The pitying heart that felt for human woe;
The dauntless heart that feared no human pride,
The friend of man, to vice alone a foe,
For even his failings leaned to virtue’s side.’"

Seldom, as said before, have we felt more than when contemplating this simple stone and inscription. While recording on a page, as immortal as is the "Cottar’s Saturday Night," the virtues of the father, it seemed an unanswerable certification also of the heart, the filial piety, the nobility, and the essential Christianity of the son. It completed in thought, and rendered eternal, the link of reconciliation which seemed broken at the deathbed of the former, and you longed for some vacant space on which to inscribe the words, "They met in Heaven!"

Mrs. Begg has told us much of the excellence of the father. Twice only had she seen him angry—once when returning exhausted and irritated from some interview with factors and writers anent the unfortunate lawsuit, he found a young man, one of his servants, wasting hay; and another time when an old man, to whom he had been very kind, had told a falsehood about him. As he rebuked the foul-mouthed railer Mrs. Burns gave him a reproachful look, on which he sternly cried, "There must be no gloomy looks here." This was, so far as she could say, the first and the last time on which he ever said a harsh thing to his wife. When Mrs. Begg was employed in herding the kye her father would approach and tell her about the grasses and wild flowers, to beguile the tedium of her solitary calling; and as she was afraid of thunder, he, whenever it threatended a storm, would come to her to soothe her terrors. We may as well add here, that Mrs Begg used to say to an esteemed friend of ours, "Oh! Mr. S, my brother Robert was not the vile man they make him out to have been, he was a good, pious, God-fearing man, like his father!".  Valeat quantum valere potest. It was certainly truer than the other version of his character.


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