Page images

bitter waters of indigence and sorrow, of drudgery and neglect, he produced those beautiful idylliums which will ever exist for the delight of the world; and which will never be read without an expansion of the understanding and of the heart.

Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January, 1759, in a cottage near the banks of the Doon, about two miles from Ayr. The chief incidents of his life, are related, by himself, in a letter to Dr. Moore. In this document, and in several passages of his correspondence, he unfolds the vicissitudes of his fortune and the peculiarities of his character with great strength and clearness. Whoever would do justice to his memory, must copy his sentiments and his language.

"For some months past," says he, "I have been rambling over the country; but I am now confined with some lingering complaints, originating, as I take it, in the stomach. To divert my spirits a little in this miserable fog of ennui, I have taken a whim to give you a history of myself. My name has made some little noise in this country; you have done me the honor to interest yourself very warmly in my behalf; and I think a faithful account of what character of a man I am, and how I came by that character, may perhaps amuse you in an idle moment. I will give you an honest narrative; though I know it will be often at my own expense; for I assure you, sir, I have, like Solomon, whose character, excepting in the trifling affair of wisdom, I sometimes think I resemble; I have, I say, like him, turned my eyes to behold madness and folly, and, like him, too, frequently shaken hands with their intoxicating friendship. *** After you have perused these pages, should you think them trifling and impertinent, I only beg eave to tell you, that the poor Author wrote them

r some twitching qualms of conscience, arising

from suspicion that he was doing what he ought not to do a predicament he has more than once been in before.

"I have not the most distant pretensions to assume that character which the pye-coated guardians of escutcheons call a gentleman. When at Edinburgh, last winter, I got acquainted in the Herald's Office; and, looking through that granary of honors, I there found almost every name in the kingdom; but for me,

-My ancient but ignoble blood

Has crept through scoundrels ever since the flood.

Gules, Purpure, Argent, &c. quite disowned me. "My father was of the north of Scotland, the son of a farmer, who rented lands of the noble Keiths of Marischal, and had the honor of sharing their fate. I do not use the word honor with any reference to political principles: loyal and disloyal, I take to be merely relative terms, in that ancient and formidable court, known in this country by the name of Clublaw, where the right is always with the strongest.But those who dare welcome ruin, and shake hands with infamy, for what they sincerely believe to be the cause of their God, or their king, are, as Mark Antony says in Shakspeare of Brutus and Cassius, honorable men. I mention this circumstance, because it threw my father on the world at large.

"After many years' wanderings and sojournings, he picked up a pretty large quantity of observation and experience, to which I am indebted for most of my little pretensions to wisdom. I have met with few who understood men, their manners, and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn, ungainly integrity, and headlong, ungovernable irascibility, are disqualify ing circumstances; consequently, I was born a

poor man's son. For the first six or seven years of my life, my father was gardener to a worthy gentleman of small estate, in the neighborhood of Ayr.Had he continued in that station, I must have marched off to be one of the little underlings about a farm-house but it was his dearest wish and prayer to have it in his power to keep his children under his own eye till they could discern between good and evil: so, with the assistance of his generous master, my father ventured on a small farm on his estate. At those years I was by no means a favorite with any body. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say idiot piety, because I was then but a child. Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles. In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp lookout in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more skeptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors. The earliest composition that I recollect taking pleasure in, was the Vision of Mirza, and a hymn of Addison's, beginning, 'How are thy ser

vants blest, O Lord!' I particularly remember one half stanza, which was music to my boyish ear

For though on dreadful whirls we hung
High on the broken wave.--

I met with these pieces in Mason's English Collection, one of my school books. The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were the Life of Hannibal, and the History of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn, that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins, which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.

"Polemical divinity about this time was putting the country half-mad; and I, ambitious of shining in conversation parties on Sundays, between sermons, at funerals, &c. used, a few years afterwards, to puzzle Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion, that I raised a hue and cry of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour.

"My vicinity to Ayr was of some advantage to me. My social disposition, when not checked by some modifications of spirited pride, was, like our catechism-definition of infinitude, without bounds or limits.' I formed several connexions with other younkers who possessed superior advantages, the youngling actors, who were busy in the rehearsal of parts in which they were shortly to appear on the stage of life, where, alas! I was destined to drudge behind the scenes. It is not commonly at this green age that our gentry have a just sense of the immense distance between them and their ragged play-fel

lows. It takes a few dashes into the world, to give the young great man that proper, decent, unnoticing disregard for the poor, insignificant, stupid devils, the mechanics and peasantry around him, who were perhaps born in the same village. My young superiors never insulted the clouterly appearance of my plough-boy carcass, the two extremes of which were often exposed to all the inclemencies of all the seasons. They would give me stray volumes of books; among them, even then, I could pick up some observations; and one, whose heart I am sure not even the Munny Begum scenes have tainted, helped me to a little French. Parting with these my young friends and benefactors, as they occasionally went off for the East or West Indies, was often to me a sore affliction; but I was soon called to more serious evils. My father's generous master died; the farm proved a ruinous bargain; and, to clench the misfortune, we fell into the hands of a factor, who sat for the picture I have drawn of one in my tale of Twa Dogs. My father was advanced in life, when he married; I'was the eldest of seven children; and he, worn out by early hardships, was unfit for labor. My father's spirit was soon irritated, but not easily broken. There was a freedom in his lease in two years more; and, to weather these two years, we retrenched our expenses. We lived very poorly: I was a dexterous ploughman, for my age; and the next eldest to me was a brother (Gilbert) who could drive the plough very well, and help me to thresh the corn. A novel-writer might perhaps have viewed these scenes with some satisfaction; but so did not I: my indignation yet boils at the recollection of the s factor's insolent, threatening letters, which used to set us all in tears.

"This kind of life-the cheerless gloom of a herwith the unceasing moil of a galley slave,

« PreviousContinue »