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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.
His clean hearthstane, his thriftie wifie's smile,
The lisping infant prattling on his knee, Does a’ his weary carking cares beguile, And makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.
Belyve, the elder bairns come drapping in,
At service out, amang the farmers roun': Some ca’ the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin
A cannie errand to a neebor town;
Their eldest hope, their Jenny, woman grown, In youthfu' bloom, love sparkling in her e'e,
Comes hame, perhaps to shew a braw new
Or deposit her sair-won penny-fee, To help her parents dear, if they in hardship be.
With joy unfeigned, brothers and sisters meet,
And each for other's weelfare kindly spiers : The social hours, swift-winged, unnoticed fleet;
Each tells the uncos that he sees or hears;
The parents, partial, eye their hopeful years ; Anticipation forward points the view.
The mother, wi' her needle and her shears,
Gars auld claes look amaist as weel's the new 45 The father mixes a' wi' admonition due.
26. a', all. 28. belyve, by and by ; bairns, children ; drapping, dropping. 29. amang, among. 30. ca', drive ; tentie, heedful ; rin, run. 31. cannie, easy ; neebor, neighbor.
33. e'e, eye.
34. braw, handsome.
Their master's and their mistress's command,
The younkers a’ are warned to obey;
And ne'er, though out o' sight, to jauk or play:
“ And oh! be sure to fear the Lord alway! And mind your duty, duly, morn and night!
Lest in temptation's path ye gang astray, Implore His counsel and assisting might: They never sought in vain that sought the Lord
But, hark! a rap comes gently to the door;
Jenny, wha kens the meaning o' the same,
To do some errands, and convoy her hame.
The wily mother sees the conscious flame
name, While Jenny hafflins is afraid to speak; Weel pleased the mother hears it's nae wild, worth
Wi' kindly welcome, Jenny brings him ben;
A strappin' youth ; he taks the mother's eye;
47. younkers, youngsters. 48. eydent, diligent. 49. jauk, dally or trifle. 52. gang, go. 56. wha kens, who knows. 57. cam, came. 62. hafslins, partly. 63. nae, no. 64. ben, in. 65. taks, takes.