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Employment hazardous and wearisome !
Housing, with God's good help, by choice or chance; 105 And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.
The old man still stood talking by my side;
And the whole body of the man did seem
Or like a man from some far region sent,
My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills
And hope that is unwilling to be fed ; 115 Cold, pain, and labor, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty poets in their misery dead. – Perplexed, and longing to be comforted, My question eagerly did I renew, “How is it that you live, and what is it you do ?”
120 He with a smile did then his words repeat;
And said, that, gathering leeches, far and wide
“ Once I could meet with them on every side ; 125 But they have dwindled long by slow decay ;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.”
While he was talking thus, the lonely place,
In my mind's eye I seemed to see him pace
130 About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.
And soon with this he other matter blended, 135 Cheerfully uttered, with demeanor kind,
But stately in the main ; and when he ended,
“God,” said I, “ be my help and stay secure; 140 I 'll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!” ROBERT BURNS.
“For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis or John Bunyan ; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inserted among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin's and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the Black Monday and the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.” So Burns wrote to a friend in the brief heyday of his prosperity at Edinburgh. When his last illness came upon him, and his life seemed a shipwreck, he told his wife: “Don't be afraid : I'll be more respected a hundred years
after I am dead than I am at present.” Both of these prophecies, the jocose and the serious, have been completely verified, for the 25th of January, 1759, Robert Burns's birthday, is a date to be found in many a list of the world's memorable events; and now that he has been dead a century, his fame lives secure with that of the great poets.
His father, William Burns, at the time of the poet's birth was a gardener and farm-overseer at Alloway in Ayrshire in Scotland, and was always a poor man.
Like many others of his class in Scotland, he prized highly every mental accomplishment, and gave his children, of whom the second son Gilbert was always the most closely identified with his elder brother Robert, every advantage within his limited reach. Through him an excellent teacher was brought to the village. An autobiographical letter from Burns to a friend acknowledges his early debt to this man for sound instructions, and, no less generously, to an ignorant 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 my 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:
“ 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 : “ In almost all the foul weather which Burns encountered, a woman may be discovered fitting 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.
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.