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LIFE OF ROBERT BURNS.
ROBERT BURNS, the greatest poet, save Shakspeare, who has yet sprung from the humbler ranks of society, was born on the 25th of January 1759, in a cottage, still shown to innumerable visitors, two miles south of Ayr, and a short distance from Alloway Kirk, which the poet has immortalised in “ Tam o' Shanter.” Nine days after his birth, a violent storm overturned a part of the auld clay biggin” which had been erected by his father, and the infant bard, along with his mother, was conveyed through the tempest to a neighbouring cottage,-an incident in which some will see an omen, and others an emblem of the wild and stormy career which was before him. He was baptised by Dr William Dalrymple, of Ayr, a man he lived to venerate and praise. His father was William Burns or Burness, a native of Kincardineshire, in the north ; who, by family misfortunes, had been compelled to come southward in search of employment as a gardener, and who, after various vicissitudes, took a lease of seven acres of ground for a nursery, near the Bridge of Doon-built a clay cottage with his own hands, and brought home as his bride, Agnes Brown, the daughter of a Carrick farmer. He was a man of vigorous mind, considerablc culture, and, above all, of warm affections, and strong moral principle. From him the poet seems to have derived that keen sagacity so characteristic of the Norland men, and which formed one of the principal elements in his mind. From his mother, who was fond of singing old ballads, and recounting
legendary tales, came perhaps the “hair-brained sentimental trace," and the peculiarly poetic qualities, which distinguished him. His father, too, he resembled in the irritability, and almost savage independence of his temper. Before the poet's birth, William Burns had given up the charge of his nursery, and become gardener and overseer to Mr Fergusson of Doonholm, continuing still to reside in his own cottage, where his wife kept two or three milk-cows. In his sixth year Robert was sent to a small school at Alloway Mill, about a mile from the cottage. This was taught by one Campbell, who soon, however, removed to a superior situation in Ayr, and William Burns united with some neighbours in employing a young man named John Murdoch as teacher to the children of several families. This person, who seems to have been a worthy, but somewhat weak man, taught Robert and his younger brother Gilbert, English, and English grammar, and lent the former the “Life of Hannibal," the first book
, he ever read out of school. The poet seems, however, to have derived a greater impulse to the imaginative part of his mind from an old woman named Betty Davidson, who frequented the family, and who overflowed with tales and songs about ghosts, witches, fairies, and so forth; this, according to Burns “cultivated the latent seeds of poetry.” In 1766, his father left his cottage at Alloway, and took the small farm of Mount Oliphant, two miles distant. Robert and his brother continued, however, to attend Murdoch's school, till, at the end of two years, he removed to Carrick. It is curious that Murdoch preferred Gilbert to Robert, and thought, because the former was the merrier of the two, that he was more likely to have turned out a poet! Little did the worthy teacher know what a deep current of enthusiasm, and what dark stern cogitations were saddening the brow of the wondrous boy, who already knew that he was born a poor man's son," and was already "noted for a stubborn sturdy something in his disposition, and for an enthusiastic idiot-piety," and whose mirth, at all seasons of his life, was only the “ silver lining' on the cloud of thickest melancholy !
From the date of Murdoch’s departure, William Burns
undertook himself the charge of his children's education, and whiled away the heavy labours of the farm by conversing familiarly with them on useful subjects, using as his textbooks Derham's “ Physico and Astro-Theology,” and Ray's " Wisdom of God in the Creation.” Robert himself was an insatiable devourer of books; he procured the “Life of Wallace": from a blacksmith, and read it with the greatest avidity, and with important results,--for it "poured a Scottish prejudice into his veins, which boiled along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest;"—he also made himself acquainted with Stackhouse's “ History of the Bible," and with a collection of letters by eminent writers, which became his standard and model for epistolary composition. When about thirteen or fourteen years of age, he and Gilbert were sent to the parish school of Dalrymple, for a summer quarter, to improve their handwriting; and about this time Robert got hold of some of Richardson's, Fielding's, Smollett's, Hume's, and Robertson's works. Shortly after, his old master, Murdoch, was appointed English teacher in Ayr, and resuming his acquaintance with the Mount Oliphant family, he lent Robert, Pope's works, and took him, at his father's desire, to Ayr, to assist him in revising his grammar, and learning a little French. Burns was advised to begin Latin, too; but proceeded only a very short way in that study, although he resumed it occasionally afterwards.
Meanwhile, the farm of Mount Oliphant had turned out a bad speculation; and the family, although they wrought hard, fared very poorly. Both the sons, as well as the father and the rest of the household, were often plunged into the deepest distress by their circumstances; and to this Gilbert attributes,
5 and, so far, justly, the depression of spirits which often afterwards beclouded Robert's bright mind. After occupying this ungrateful farm for fourteen years, William Burns threw it up, and took that of Lochlea, parish of Tarbolton, in 1777, where he found only a change of difficulties, and where he was only saved from ruin by death.
In his seventeenth year, Burns fell for the first time in love. It was with his harvest partner, Nelly Kilpatrick, daughter of
the blacksmith who had lent him the “Life of Wallace," whom he describes as a bonnie, sweet, sonsy lass,” and on whom he wrote his first copy of verses, sufficiently puerile indeed, entitled, “ Handsome Nell.” Two years after, the family being now rather more comfortably settled in Lochlea, he went for a few months to the neighbourhood of Kirkoswald, in Carrick, to reside with his maternal uncle, Samuel Brown, a respeotable fisher and wool-dealer; and to study mensuration and geometry at the village school, under one Hugh Rodger. Here he became acquainted with some primitive characters, particularly Douglas Graham, a farmer at Shanter, and the prototype of the immortal Tam. Here he learned to fill his glass, and
“ , to mix without fear in a drunken squabble.” And here the sight, from a garden behind the school, of Peggy Thomson, a
charming fillette,” gathering, it is surmised, “a cabbage"! for the family dinner, kindled his susceptible heart into a fierce but transient flame, and “fairly overset his trigonometry.” He returned considerably improved” to Lochlea, resumed the labours of the farm, and spent some years on the whole happily, corresponding with friends, writing occasional pieces of poetry, such as “ Poor Mailie" and“ John Barleycorn,” carrying on divers courtships, all as yet innocent, reading “ Tristram Shandy" and the “ Man of Feeling;” and sometimes in the peat-moss or on his way to the “coals in the morning,” keeping his brother and the rustics around in roars of laughter by his arch and witty conversation, which, according to Gilbert, was then as rich and far more natural and innocent than in the days of his celebrity. It was altogether a remarkable family that of Lochlea. All of them were fond of literature; and when a stranger entered their humble dwelling at meal-time, he found. the father, two brothers, and three sisters, Agnes, Annabella, and Isabella, with a spoon in one hand and a book in the other. The daughters, too, like their mother, were fond of reciting legendary poetry and song-meet atmosphere this altogether for rearing a great peasant-poet !
In 1780 he established a debating club in Tarbolton. He had previously acquired considerable controversial renown, in arguing on Sundays with the“ yill-caup commentators” of the