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rant old woman who plied him as a child with all the local fairy-stories and superstitions which filled her credulous brain. Thus, he says, were “the latent seeds of poetry cultivated. They were further developed by the reading of such books of verse, Scottish and English, as the schoolmaster put into the eager boy's hands. By the time he was twenty-two, he spoke of Poesy, as he might have done long before, as a darling walk for
mind.” Many things had befallen him, however, through his youth. At fifteen he had had his first experience of lovemaking, and to the end of his life he could truly say in the words of his own song:
6. The sweetest hours that e'er I spend
Are spent amang the lasses, O!”
His bitterest hours, too, were often the direct result of these pleasures, for there was more of impulse than of wisdom in his constant dealings with “ the lasses.” One writer has said of him : 6 In almost all the foul weather which Burns encountered, a woman may be discovered flitting through it like a stormy petrel.” In the period of youth, also, he formed his habits of conviviality. Full of wit and glad to escape from a naturally melancholy self, it is no wonder that when, at seventeen, he went to study trigonometry and mensuration at a village on the Ayrshire coast much frequented by smugglers, their free ways appealed to him strongly. Many men before and since Burns have had to pay heavily for the very qualities which have made them attractive to others : the pity of it is that, as in the case of Burns, the tavern too often becomes the theatre of actions which finally subdue the real good in a man to the evil about him.
Except for another absence from home, in a fruitless attempt to learn the trade of a flax-dresser, Burns lived with his own people, earning like his brother Gilbert £7 a year for his work on the farm, until the father died insolvent in 1784, when Robert was twenty-five years old. Thereupon Gilbert and he contrived to enter upon a new farming venture at Mossgiel in the parish of Mauchline. Their enterprise met with very indifferent success, though Robert, with the resolve, “Come, go to, I will be wise,” tried hard to lead a prudent life. Yet the second and third years at Mossgiel were marked by the production of some of his most memorable poems. In 1786 Burns's affairs were so complicated by his relations with a girl of the neighborhood, Jean Armour, that he determined to go as a book-keeper to Jamaica, and begin a new life. In the same year the more beautiful love-passages with Mary Campbell, or “Highland Mary,” occurred. To raise the money for his passage to America Burns published his poems, and soon received £20 for their sale. Their rare merit was quickly recognized, and just as the poet was about to embark on a ship from the Clyde, he received an urgent appeal to try his fortunes in Edinburgh with a second edition of the poems. This jumped with his inmost wishes, and his departure was abandoned.
In Edinburgh he soon found himself the lion of the hour. In the dedication of his poems to the Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt he told the true secret of his glory then and since in saying: “The poetic genius of my country bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue. I tuned my wild, artless notes, as she inspired.” No poet was ever more thoroughly of his own country than Burns. The very fact of his lowly origin and opportunities made him then, as it makes him still, the more conspicuous as a poet born and not made to sing. The second edition was an immediate success, and the Ayrshire ploughman was fêted by all the wise and great, as they were thought, of the Scottish capital. He felt, however, that this new life was not for him, and, having tasted of it, took a lease in the spring of 1788 of the farm of Ellisland on the banks of the Nith. Moreover he made such amends to Jean Armour as he could by taking her as his wife to share his new home.
Farming was again a failure, and but for Burns's appointment as an exciseman with a salary of £50 a year, the very necessities of life would have been most meagrely supplied. As it was, the farm had to be abandoned in 1791, and the family, steadily growing, took lodgings in the town of Dumfries. As from Ellisland Burns had sent song after song to Edinburgh for the Scots Musical Museum, so from Dumfries he kept Mr. George Thomson constantly supplied with beautiful lyrics for his collection of national songs and melodies.
In Dumfries matters did not mend. A growing feeling of resentment against the world made the poet more defiant of society than ever. He quarrelled with some of his best friends, and was generally at odds with his surroundings. The end was not far off, for in 1796, after sleeping one night for several hours in the snow, an illness beset him to which he soon succumbed. His last days were clouded by debts and the threat of prison, yet his friends and faithful wife did all in their power to bring him comfort. On the 21st of July, he died.
The voice of censure is not to be raised too bitterly against such as Burns. It has been written of him: “It is difficult to carry a full cup and not to spill it.” Instead of mourning the results of human passions that lacked an adequate guiding hand, let us be thankful that with them was joined Burns's abundant gift of poetry.
Because he was so human, so full of true feeling, common sense, humor, and susceptibility of every sort, his songs are exactly what they are. The handsome, impulsive fellow, endowed with many a rarer faculty than that “prudent, cautious self-control which he himself honored as “wisdom's root,” put himself without reservation into everything he wrote; and if his life was not a worldly success, perhaps it is something more to live on as the chief glory of a national literature, and as a singer of songs which stand second to none in their true human music and direct inspiration.
THE COTTER'S SATURDAY NIGHT.
INSCRIBED TO ROBERT AIKEN, ESQ.
“Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys and destiny obscure ;
The Cotter's Saturday Night was written in 1785, while Burns and his brother Gilbert were living and working on the farm at Mossgiel. In writing of the Cotter's household devotions, Burns was on familiar ground, for before his father's death he used to take his part by reading “the chapter" and giving out the psalm. Afterwards, as the eldest son, he conducted the prayers himself, with an impressiveness long remembered. Gilbert Burns has left the record : “He had frequently remarked to me that he thought there was something peculiarly venerable in the phrase, • Let us worship God,' used by a sober head of a family introducing family-worship. To this sentiment of the author the world is indebted for The Cotter's Saturday Night. The hint of the plan and title of the poem were taken from Fergusson's Farmer's Ingle. When Robert had not some pleasure in view in which I was not thought fit to participate, we used frequently to walk together, when the weather was favorable, on the Sunday afternoons (those precious breathing times to the laboring part of the community), and enjoyed such Sundays as would make one regret to see their number abridged. It was in one of these walks that I first had the pleasure of hearing the author repeat The Cotter's Saturday Night. I do not recollect to have heard anything by which I was more highly electrified. The fifth and sixth stanzas, and the eighteenth, thrilled with a peculiar ecstasy through my soul.”
My loved, my honored, much-respected friend !
No mercenary bard his homage pays;
My dearest meed, a friend's esteem and praise.
To you I sing, in simple Scottish lays,
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways;
November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh;
The short'ning winter-day is near a close ;
The black’ning trains o' craws to their repose :
The toil-worn cotter frae his labor goes,
Collects his spades, his mattocks, and his hoes,
At length his lonely cot appears in view,
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;
10. blaws, blows ; sugh, a rushing sound. 12. frae, from ; pleugh, plough. 13. craws, crows. 18. hameward, homeward. 21. stacher, stagger. 22. flichterin', fluttering. 23. bonnily, beautifully.