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For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
The Birth of Burns at Kilmarnock


TO speak of a Burns celebration in the sultry month of July is like the suggestion of Christmas at midsummer —it seems altogether out of season. For is it not the poet’s birth that we celebrate, and are not all our traditions of the subject connected with the rigours of winter, and associated with the festivities of the Daft Days ? Was it not when the infant year was five-and-twenty days begun that a typical January blast blew into the lap of old Scotland one of the best hansels she ever received in the person of Robert Burns? Quite true ! and we have all agreed, and faithfully fulfil our agreement, to keep holyday every 25th of January in perpetual remembrance of the event. But an author has the privilege of two birthdays, and if he is, like Burns, an author of commanding note, the day that introduced him into the world of letters is not less interesting, at least to literary men, than the day that ushered him into existence is of interest to the general public. Burns’s literary birth, it may be remembered, took place some time in the latter end—probably on the very last day—of July, in the year 1786. It was then for the first time he appeared before his fellow-countrymen as a candidate for poetical honours by the publication of a sample book of his poetry. And from that day to this, a completed century’s interval, he has never ceased to be before the public, and the public have never ceased to feel the influence and to talk of his poetry. It was surely fitting that the hundredth anniversary of an event of such importance should be celebrated ; and the good folks of Kilmarnock did well to take the initiative, seeing that it was in their town that Burns’s literary birth took place.

The circumstances in which Burns first appeared as an author are among the most interesting in his chequered life. He was at the time joint-partner with his brother Gilbert in the tenancy of Mossgiel, a cold-bottomed, high-lying, unproductive farm of some hundred and twenty acres. Only two and a half years of the lease had run, but they were sufficient to show that, with the hardest work and the strictest economy, there would be difficulty in keeping the wolf from the door. Almost absolutely true was the description of his condition at Mossgiel given in the opening verses of * The Vision/—he was ‘half-mad, half-fed, half-sarkit.’ He was living on positively not more than seven pounds a year! His father was dead—had happily died just before Mossgiel was leased. His unfortunate liaison with Jean Armour had brought down upon him the censure of the Church, and was threatening him with the terrors of the law. The Armours repelled his advances, and repudiated his offers of reparation—would have nothing friendly to say to him, would have nothing to do with him, but drive him from the country. In short, life in Scotland, such life as he lived, and as he foresaw he was doomed to live, was simply intolerable. The only outlet from despair, the only escape from ruin, was by severing the cords, dear as some of them were, that bound him to his native land : he could then try Fortune where she might be less vindictive— with a cancelled record of the past, and amid the new surroundings of another hemisphere. With this forlorn hope in view, he had arranged with a Dr Douglas, of Port Antonio, in Jamaica, to serve for a term of three years as bookkeeper, or rather overseer of the negro labourers on his plantation in that island, at a salary of thirty pounds a year. He was to make the voyage on board the Nancy (Captain Smith), advertised to sail from the Clyde some time in October. His first intention, which was the dictate of necessity, was to work his passage out; but the unexpected pecuniary success of his book, published, as we have seen, on the 31st of July, gave him the means of purchasing a steerage passage. The whole gain from his poems amounted to twenty pounds ; so that, after paying his fare of nine guineas, he had only ten guineas left. Everybody knows how near Scotland came to losing him. His chest was already on the way to Greenock, and he himself, skulking in the country to escape a legal process which he believed the Armours had raised solely from revenge and covetousness, and which, therefore, he was determined to baffle, was on the point of setting out to join the Nancy, having already taken a final poetical farewell of his native Ayrshire, when an Edinburgh letter was put into his hand just in time to save him from the degradation of slave-driving, and from the obscurity of exile. This was Dr Blacklock’s letter to Burns’s friend Dr Lawrie, the minister of Loudon, and contained the advice that the poet should make an appeal to an Edinburgh audience by means of a new edition of his poems. The vision of fame, influential friends, and a possible independency by the pen, which this historical letter not unreasonably conjured up in the mind of the poet, was too powerfully attractive to be resisted. He was ‘ sheltering in the honoured shade ’ of Edinburgh in the ensuing November, with all thoughts of emigration completely, if only temporarily, swept like a hideous nightmare from his mind.

Burns, as we all know from his poems and letters, was diffident of publishing. When he was * that way bent/ as he tells us—

‘Something cried Hoolie!
I rede ye, honest man, tak tent—
Yid show your folly?

Even when the final resolution was bravely taken, there was at the same time lurking in his mind a mingled diffidence and recklessness very characteristic of the poet. ‘This is just the last foolish action I intend to do/ he wrote, * and then turn a wise man as fast as possible/ He published partly by subscription, issuing in April what he called Proposals, by which he secured at least as many names as ensured him against loss. Of those who gave their names to the subscription list, two may be noticed for very opposite reasons. The one, Mr Aiken, of Ayr, the person to whom the 'Cottar’s Saturday Night’ was dedicated, took as many as one hundred and forty-five copies. Yet it was only after much hesitation on Burns’s part that a copy of the Proposals was sent to him. The hesitation arose from a mistaken idea of Aiken’s opinion of him—‘I would not be beholden to the noblest being ever God created if he imagined me to be a rascal/ There is much revelation of Burns’s character in the words. The other subscriber, dissatisfied with the book, returned it to Wilson, ‘ Wee Johnnie/ the printer of the edition, who not less curtly than pithily entered the fact—the phenomenon, we should say—in his account book, ‘ So-and-so, a blockhead, refused his copy/ The entire edition of close upon six hundred copies was exhausted before the end of the ensuing August. It was an octavo volume of considerably over two hundred pages, and sold for three shillings. The contents, which had chiefly been composed at Mossgiel, included such excellent specimens of his poetical powers as The Vision, The Addresses to the Deil, the Field Mouse, and The Daisy, The Cottar’s Saturday Night, the Dialogue of The Twa Dogs, and some of his best Epistles, especially that to Davie. The bulk of the purchasers were people in the same station of life as Burns himself, small farmers, farm-servants, and tradesmen; but there were critical and no less kindly eyes on the book, too, such as those of Mrs Dunlop, Dr Lawrie, Professor Dugald Stewart, and last but by no means least, Henry Mackenzie, the Man of Feeling. Mackenzie was the first to introduce Burns to the reading public of Edinburgh, and the first to hail him from the arena of letters as a genius of no ordinary rank—if there be any merit in discovering what was patent to even the most casual glance; for there was not a page of the criticised volume which was not sparkling with the unmistakable traces of superior genius.

Mackenzie’s notice appeared in No. 97 of his essay periodical, The Lounger/ and at once drew the attention of the literati of the Scottish capital to the person of the poet who was then in their midst. It is curious to observe that Mackenzie, addressing Scotsmen, makes great lament over the circumstance that Burns’s poetry was expressed in the Scottish dialect. They would have great difficulty, he feared, from their ignorance of Scottish idiom and phraseology, in appreciating at their true worth the many and varied beauties of the new - risen poet. Still he would counsel his readers to make the acquaintance of the book and persevere in its perusal, and for their comfort and ease in reading he would state that no inconsiderable part of the poems, such as whole stanzas in ‘The Vision' would be found in point of language to deviate but slightly from the most approved English poetical models. From this incidental account of the state of the Scottish language in Edinburgh a century ago, we should be justified in inferring that the average modern Athenian knows more (though that be little) of the vernacular than did that ancestor of his who took in ‘The Lounger' a hundred years ago. And how is this? How has it happened that the decay of the Scottish language, which was already far advanced a century ago, is at least no farther, if so far, advanced to-day? The publication of Burns’s poetry will furnish the answer. It arrested that decay, and, living or no longer current, the language in which it has been enshrined can never even in the remotest future be altogether lost and unknown. It contains too much valuable thought and too much priceless feeling to be overtaken by a destiny so disastrous.

Burns’s first published work has been spoken of as a specimen book of his poetical abilities, meaning by the expression not merely that it gave evidence of what he could and was yet to do, but that it offered for examination only a portion of what he had already done. ‘ The Jolly Beggars,’ for instance, which Carlyle, not without some reason, claims as a masterpiece of Burns’s versatile genius, much more indicative of his reach and resource of mind than the popular favourite, ‘Tam o’ Shanter,’ was not included in the volume, and, indeed, did not emerge from the obscurity of manuscript till the last year of the century. Yet there is clear proof that it was one of the Mossgiel compositions, and written at least a year before the Kilmarnock edition left the press of John Wilson. So completely, we may notice in passing, had it left its author’s mind, that in 1793 he had no recollection of it except the general subject and plan, and that it contained a song which he had rather liked, something that went

‘Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.

Burns was to write after the publication of his first book for just ten years more, and much that he composed in the last decade of his life was of the highest merit, but his powers had already reached their full maturity by the year 1786. A wider range of field was to be his, but greater brilliancy of imagination and greater vigour of language it was impossible for him to attain. And he was never to be so active.

Burns’s influence through the century for which it has now been felt has been so great that one runs little risk of exaggerating it It has been great on British literature, and powerful beyond estimate on the national life. The brilliancy and vigour alike of his conceptions and his expression of them, caught and have kept public attention from the first. What he imagined was so strongly imagined, and what he said was said so well, that people could not choose but give him audience. He had the ear of the nation. The advantage was a princely one, and it was not an advantage that Burns abused. His serious doctrines — and there was no mistaking when he was serious —were always manly, not seldom in their tendency indeed divine. They were scornful, in the most scathing degree, of selfishness, hypocrisy, and oppression. They were ineffably tender to innocence, inexperience, and repentance. They ennobled labour, enfranchised thought, glorified life, exalted humanity. To these issues has their influence been working for now three generations. Who can doubt, who dares deny, that with the popularity, nay, the affection, which Burns’s name still freshly commands, this influence is one of the life-pulses of the nation? Let any one imagine what our literature would be with Burns’s songs, poems, and epistles withdrawn and destroyed. It would be a greater loss to our national life —and little short of paralysis—if the influence they exert were suddenly to cease.


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