Page images
PDF
EPUB

וי

his honour, that I should have the account on Monday; but this is Tuesday, and yet I have not heard a word from him. God have mercy on me! a poor, damned, incautious, duped, unfortunate fool! The sport, the miserable victim of rebellious pride, hypochondriac imagination, agonizing sensibility, and bedlam passions!

profits of his book might amount to better than £200;' whereas, on the day of settling with Mr. Creech, he found himself in possession of £500, if not of £600.”

Burns now set seriously about considering his future prospects. Having settled with Creech, he wrote to Mr. Miller that he would accept his offer with regard to the farm; he lent two hun'I wish that I were dead, but I'm no like to die.' dred pounds to his brother Gilbert, to enable him I have this moment got a hint-I fear I am to mend himself in the world and support his something like undone; but I hope for the best. mother, whom he tenderly loved; and, with five Come stubborn pride and unshrinking resolu- hundred pounds in his pocket, he resolved to tion; accompany me through this, to me, miser-unite himself to Jean Armour, carry her to the able world! You must not desert me! Your banks of the Nith, and follow the plough and What he had seen and endured in friendship I think I can count on, though I the muses. should date my letters from a marching regiment. Early in life, and all my life, I reckoned on a recruiting drum as my forlorn hope. Seriously, though, life at present presents me with but a melancholy path; but my limb will soon be sound, and I shall struggle on."

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Edinburgh, during his second visit, admonished him regarding the reed on which he leant, when he hoped for a place of profit and honour from the aristocracy on account of his genius. On his first appearance the doors of the nobility opened spontaneous, on golden hinges turning," and he ate spiced meats and drank rare wines, interchanging nods and smiles with "high dukes and mighty earls." A colder reception awaited his second coming; the doors of lords and ladies opened with a tardy courtesy; he was received with a cold and measured stateli

These expressions refer to whispers which had reached his ear about the solvency of Creech, and are contained in a letter to Margaret Chalmers: the conduct of his bookseller dwelt long on his mind; we find him, sometime afterwards, thus writing to Dr. Moore." I cannot boast about Creech's ingenuous dealing; he kept ness, was seldom requested to stop, seldomer to me hanging on about Edinburgh from the 7th repeat his visit; and one of his companions used of August, 1787, until the 13th of April, 1788, to relate with what indignant feeling the Poet before he would condescend to give me a state-recounted his fruitless calls and his uncordial ment of affairs; nor had I got it even then, but for an angry letter I wrote him, which irritated his pride. I could not a tale,' but a detail, 'unfold;' but what am I that I should speak against the Lord's anointed bailie of Edinburgh! I give you this information, but I give it to yourself only, for I am still much in the gentleman's mercy. Perhaps I injure the man in the idea I am sometimes tempted to have of him-God forbid I should! A little time will try, for in a month I shall go to town to wind up the business, if possible." That Creech, after long evasion, behaved honourably and liberally to the impatient Poet is well enough known to the world; I record these complaints to vindicate the latter from the charge of having loitered needlessly in Edinburgh, and refrained from putting the ploughshare in the ground which was offered for his acceptance.

"His publisher's accounts," says Lockhart, "when they were at last made out, must have given the impatient author a very agreeable surprise; for, in his letter to Lord Glencairn, we find him expressing his hopes that the gross

100

[* Nicol, the most intimate friend of Burns, writes to Mr. John Sewars, excise-officer of Dumfries, immediately on hearing of the poet's death. "He certainly told me that he received £600 for the first Edinburgh edition, and afterwards for the copyright." Dr. Currie states the gross product of Creech's edition at £500, and Burns himself, in one of his letters, at £400 only. Nicol hints that Burns had contracted debts while in Edinburgh, which he might not wish to avow on all occasions; and if we are to believe

receptions in the good town of Edinburgh. That he had high hopes is well known; there were not wanting friends to whisper that lordly, nay, royal, patronage was certain; nor were such expectations at all unreasonable, - but genius is not the passport to patronage; he was allied to no noble family, and could not come forward under the shelter of a golden wing; he was unconnected with any party which could pretend to political influence, and who had power either to retard or forward a ministerial measure; moreover, he was one of those "whim-inspired" persons of whom he sings in inimitable " Bard's Epitaph:”—

his

"Owre fast for thought, owre hot for rule,

Owre blate to seek, owre proud to snool."

His case was, therefore, next to hopeless; he asked for nothing, and nothing was offered, though men of rank and power were aware that he was unfitted with an aim in life-that poetry alone could not sustain him, and that he must go back to the flail and the furrow. He went to Edinburgh, strong in the belief that

this, which is probable, and that the expense of printing the subscription edition should, moreover, be deducted from the £700 stated by Nicol, the apparent contradictions in these statements may be pretty nearly reconciled. There appears to be reason for thinking that Creech subsequently paid more than £100 for the copyright. If he did not, how came Burns to realise, as Currie states, "nearly nine hundred pounds in all by his poems?" LOCKHART.]

genius such as his would raise him in society; but he came not back without a sourness of spirit and a bitterness of feeling.

The pride of Burns, which was great, would not allow him to complain, and his ambition, which was still greater, hindered him from regarding his condition as yet hopeless. When he complained at all, he did not make his moan to man; his letters to his companions or his friends are sometimes stern, fierce, and full of defiance; he uttered his lament in the ear of woman, and seemed to be soothed with her attention and her sympathy.-"When I must escape into a corner," he says bitterly to Mrs. Dunlop, "lest the rattling equipage of some gaping blockhead should mangle me in the mire, I am tempted to exclaim, What merits has he had, or what demerit have I had, in some state of pre-existence, that he is ushered into this state of being with the sceptre of rule and the key of riches in his puny fist, and I am kicked into the world the sport of folly or the victim of pride? I have read somewhere of a monarch who was so out of humour with the Ptolomean system of astronomy that he said, had he been of the Creator's council, he could have saved him a great deal of labour and absurdity. I will not defend this blasphemous speech; but often, as I have glided with humble stealth through the pomp of Prince's-street, it has suggested itself to me, as an improvement on the present human figure, that a man, in proportion to his own conceit of his consequence in the world, could have pushed out the longitude of his common size, as a snail pushes out his horns, or as we draw out a perspective. This trifling alteration, not to mention the prodigious saving it would be in the tear and wear of the neck and limb-sinews of many of his Majesty's liege subjects, in the way of tossing the head and tip-toe strutting, would evidently turn out a vast advantage in enabling us at once to adjust the ceremonials in making a bow, or making way to a great man, and that, too, within a second of the precise spherical angle of reverence, or an inch of the particular point of respectful distance, which the important creature himself requires; as a measuring glance at his towering altitude would determine the affair like instinct." The condition of the Poet made, we fear, such bitter reflections matters of frequent occurrence. The learned authors and Edinburgh swarmed with them-claimed rank above the inspired clod of the valley; the gentry asserted such superiority, as their natural inheritance; the nobility held their elevation by act of parliament or the grace of majesty; and none of them were prepared to accept the brotherhood of one who held the patent of his honours immediately from nature.

In the course of the winter Burns resolved, since no better might be, to unite the farmer

:

with the poet; some one persuaded him that to both he could join the gauger. So soon as this possessed his fancy, he determined to beg the humble boon from his patrons, and, as no one seemed more likely to be kind than the Earl of Glencairn, he addressed him anxiously :—“ I have weighed long and seriously weighed my situation. I wish to get into the excise: I am told your lordship's interest will easily procure me the grant from the commissioners; and your lordship's patronage and goodness, which have already rescued me from obscurity, wretchedness, and exile, embolden me to ask that interest. You have likewise put it in my power to save the little tie of home that sheltered an aged mother, two brothers, and three sisters from destruction. I am ill qualified to dog the heels of greatness with the impertinence of solicitation, and tremble nearly as much at the thought of the cold promise as the cold denial." What the earl did in this matter is unknown; his conduct seems to have satisfied Burns, for at his death, which soon followed, he poured out a poetic lament full of the most touching sensibility.

The Excise commission came in an unlookedfor way. While Burns was laid up with his crushed limb, he was attended by Alexander Wood, surgeon, a gentleman still affectionately remembered as "kind old Sandy Wood:" to him the Poet had mentioned his desire to obtain a situation in the Excise. Wood went to work, and so bestirred himself that Graham of Fintray put his name on the roll of Excisemen at once. The Poet, who, like the hero of his own inimitable song, was

"Contented wi' little, and cantie wi' mair,"

communicated this stroke of what he called good fortune to Margaret Chalmers in these words:-"I have entered into the Excise. I go to the west for about three weeks, and then return to Edinburgh for six weeks' instructions."

[The following is the letter of instructions given, by the Board of Excise, to the worthy individual under whom Burns was trained for the duties of his new office :—

"Mr. James Findlay, Officer, Tarbolton.

"The Commissioners order, That you instruct the Bearer, Mr. Robert Burns, in the Art of Gauging, and practical Dry gauging Casks and Utensils; and that you fit him for surveying Victuallers, Rectifiers, Chandlers, Tanners, Tawers, Maltsters, &c.; and when he has kept books regularly for Six Weeks at least, and drawn true Vouchers, and Abstracts therefrom, (which Books, Vouchers, and Abstracts must be signed by your Supervisor and yourself, as well as the said Mr. Robert Burns,) and sent to the Commissioners at his expense; and when he is furnished with proper instruments, and well instructed and qualified for an Officer, then (and not before, at your perils) you and your Supervisor are to certify the same to the Board, ex

[blocks in formation]

pressing particularly therein the date of this letter; and that the above Mr. Robert Burns hath cleared his Quarters, both for Lodging and Diet; that he has actually paid each of you for his Instructions and Examination; and that he has sufficient at the Time to purchase a Horse for his Business.

I am, your humble Servant,
"A. PEARSON."

"EXCISE OFFICE, "EDINBURGH, 31ST MARCH, 1788."] "I have chosen this, my dear friend, after mature deliberation. The question is not at what door of fortune's palace shall we enter in, but what doors does she open for us. I was not likely to get anything to do. I got this without hanging-on or mortifying solicitation; it is immediate bread, and, though poor in comparison of the last eighteen months of my existence, 'tis luxury in comparison of all my preceding life." Nor did he withhold the tidings of his appointment from Mrs. Dunlop:-"I thought thirty-five pounds a year no bad dernier resort for a poor poet, if Fortune, in her jade tricks, should kick him down from the little eminence to which she has lately helped him up." Gauger is a word of mean sound, nor is the calling a popular one; yet the situation is neither so humble, nor the emoluments so trifling, as some of the Poet's southern admirers have supposed. A gauger's income in those days, on the banks of Nith; was equal to three hundred a year at present in London; an excise officer is the companion of gentlemen; he is usually a well-informed person, and altogether fifty per cent. above the ordinary excise officers on the banks of the Thames. It is true that Burns sometimes speaks with levity of his situation, but that is no proof of his contempt for it; he loved in verse to hover between jest and earnest; and, if he thought peevishly about it at all, it was in comparison of a place such as his genius merited. Having secured the excise appointment, and, on the 13th of March, 1788, bargained with Mr. Miller of Dalswinton for the farm of Ellisland, in Nithsdale, he resolved to bid Edinburgh farewell.

The Poet, it is said, visited the graves of Ramsay and Fergusson, then took leave of some friends-the Earl of Glencairn was oneby letter, and waited upon others: among the latter were Blair, Stewart, Tytler, Mackenzie, and Blacklock. I have heard that his reception was not so cordial as formerly; it would seem that his free way of speaking and free way of living had touched them somewhat. That Burns wrote joyous letters, uttered unguarded speeches when the wine-cup went round, and was now and then to be found in the company of writers' clerks, country lairds, and west country farmers, is very true, and could not well be otherwise. He was educated in a less courtly school than professors and di

1788.

vines: mechanics and farmers had been his associates from his cradle. The language of a farmer's fire-side is less polished and more natural than that of the college; he spoke the language of a different class of people, and he kept their company because he was one of them. Genius had ranked him with the highest; but it was the pleasure of fortune or his country to keep him at the plough. The man who got his education in the furrowed field-whose eloquence sprung from the barn and the forge,

"When ploughmen gather with their graith," and who wrote not classic verse, but "hamely western jingle," could not by any possibility please, by his conversation or his way of life, the polished, the polite, and the fastidious. That Burns appeared fierce and rude in their eyes is as true as that they seemed to him "white curd of asses' milk,"-learnedly dull and hypocritically courteous.

It was not unknown to the literati, and the lords of Edinburgh, that Burns kept a memorandum-book, in which he not only noted down his Border and his Highland tours, but introduced full length portraits of all the eminent persons whom he chanced to meet or with whom he associated.

"As I have seen a good deal of human life in Edinburgh," he says, "a great many characters which are new to one bred up in the shades of life as I have been, I am determined to take down my remarks on the spot. Gray observes, in a letter to Mr. Palgrave, half a word fixed upon or near the spot is worth a cart-load of recollection.' I don't know how it is with the world in general; but with me, making my remarks is by no means a solitary pleasure: I want some one to laugh with me; some one to be grave with me; some one to please me, and help my discrimination, with his or her own remark, and, at times, no doubt, to admire my acuteness and penetration. The world are so busied with selfish pursuits, ambition, vanity, interest, or pleasure, that very few think it worth their while to make any observation on what passes around them, except where that observation is a sucker or branch of the darling plant they are rearing in their fancy. Nor am I sure, notwithstanding all the sentimental flights of novel writers, and the sage philosophy of moralists, whether we are capable of so intimate and cordial a coalition of friendship as that one man may pour out his bosom, his every thought and floating fancy, his very inmost soul, with unreserved confidence to another, without hazard of losing part of that respect which man deserves from man; or, from the unavoidable imperfections attending human nature, of one day repenting his confidence.

"For these reasons, I am determined to make these pages my confidant. I will sketch every character, that any way strikes me, to the best

of my power, with unshrinking justice. I will insert anecdotes and take down remarks in the old law-phrase, without feud or favour. Where I hit on any thing clever, my own applause will, in some measure, feast my vanity; and, begging Patroclus' and Achates' pardon, think a lock and key a security at least equal to the bosom of any friend whatever. My own private story likewise, my love adventures, my rambles; the frowns and smiles of fortune on my bardship; my poems and fragments, that must never see the light, shall be occasionally inserted."

that the Poet had drawn stern likenesses of his chief friends and benefactors. This book is not now to be found; it was carried away from the Poet's lodgings by one of his visiters, who refused to restore it--enlisted in the artilIlery-sailed for Gibraltar, and died about the year 1800. From what remain, the following characters are extracted; they make us regret the loss of the rest :--

"With Dr. Blair I am more at my ease; I never respect him with humble veneration; but when he kindly interests himself in my welfare -or, still more, when he descends from his pinnacle and meets me on equal ground in conversation, my heart overflows with what is called liking. When he neglects me for the mere carcase of greatness, or when his eye measures the difference of our points of elevation, I say to myself, with scarcely any emotion, what do I care for him or his pomp either? It is not easy forming an exact judgment of any one, but, in my opinion, Dr. Blair is merely an astonishing proof of what industry and application can do. Natural parts, like his, are frequently to be met with; his vanity is proverbially known among his acquaintance; but he is justly at the head of what may be called fine writing; and a critic of the first, the very first, rank, in prose; even in poetry, a bard of nature's making can alone take the pas of him. He has a heart not of the very finest water, but far from being an ordinary one. In short he is truly a worthy and most respectable character."

["How perpetually," says Lockhart, "Burns was alive to the dread of being looked down upon as a man, even by those who most zealously applauded the works of his genius, might perhaps be traced through the whole sequence of his letters. When writing to men of high station, at least, he preserves, in every instance, the attitude of self-defence. But it is only in his own secret tables that we have the fibres of his heart laid bare, and the cancer of this jealousy is seen distinctly at its painful work."] "There are few," continues the Poet, "of the sore evils under the sun give me more uneasiness and chagrin than the comparison how a man of genius, nay, of avowed worth, is received every where, with the reception which a mere ordinary character, decorated with the trappings and futile distinctions of fortune, meets. I imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving honour to whom honour is due; he meets at a great man's table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord, at heart, gives the bard, or whatever he is, a share of his good wishes beyond perhaps any one at table; yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow, whose abilities would scarcely have made an eightpenny tailor, and whose heart is not worth three farthings, meet with attention and notice, that are withheld from the son of genius and poverty? The noble Glencairn has wounded me to the soul here, because I dearly esteem, respect, and love him. He showed so much attention, engrossing attention, one day, to the only blockhead at table (the whole company consisted of his lordship, dunderpate, and my-quent men of his time :self) that I was within half a point of throwing down my gage of contemptuous defiance; but he shook my hand, and looked so benevolently good at parting. God bless him; though I should never see him more, I shall love him until my dying day! I am pleased to think I am so capable of the throes of gratitude, as I am miserably deficient in some other virtues."

Other characters were sketched with still greater freedom. Here is his satiric portrait of a celebrated lawyer :

Burns kept this formidable book so little of a secret that he allowed a visiter sometimes to take a look at his gallery of portraits, and, as he distributed light and shade with equal freedom and force, it was soon bruited abroad

"He clench'd his pamphlets in his fist,
He quoted an' he hinted,
Till in a declamation-mist

His argument he tint [lost] it;
He graped for't, he gaped for't,

He found it was awa', man;
But what his common-sense came short,
He eked it out wi' law, man."

The above portrait of the Lord Advocate is admirable for breadth and character: the following of Harry Erskine is not so happy. He was a wit, a punster, and a poet; and one of the most companionable, intelligent, and elo

"Collected Harry stood a wee,

Then open'd out his arm, man;
His lordship sat, wi' ruefu' e'e,
And ey'd the gathering storm, man:
Like wind-driv'n hail, it did assail,
Or torrents owre a linn, man ;
up
The Bench sae wise, lift their
Half-waken'd wi' the din, man."

eyes,

The literati of Edinburgh were not displeased, it is likely, when he went away; nor were the titled part of the community without their share in this silent rejoicing; his presence was a reproach to them. "The illustrious of his native

land, from whom he looked for patronage," had proved that they had the carcase of greatness, but wanted the soul: they subscribed for his poems, and looked on their generosity as "an alms could keep a god alive." He turned his back on Edinburgh, and from that time forward scarcely counted that man his friend who spoke of titled persons in his presence. Whilst sailing on pleasure's sea in a gilded barge, with perfumed and lordly company, he was, in the midst of his enjoyment, thrown roughly overboard, and had to swim to a barren shore, or sink for ever.

The

found a once much-loved, and still much-loved female, literally and truly cast out to the mercy of the naked elements; but I enabled her to purchase a shelter:-there is no sporting with a fellow-creature's happiness or misery. most placid good-nature and sweetness of disposition; a warm heart, gratefully devoted with all its powers to love me; vigorous health, and sprightly cheerfulness, set off to the best advantage by a more than commonly handsome figure; these, I think, in a woman, may make a good wife, though she should never have read a page but the Scriptures, nor have danced in Burns now turned his steps westward. In a brighter assembly than a penny-pay wedding. one of his desponding moods he had lately said To jealousy or infidelity I am an equal stranger: to a correspondent, "There are just two crea- my preservative from the first is the most tures that I would envy-a horse in his wild thorough consciousness of her sentiments of state traversing the forests of Asia, or an oyster honour, and her attachment to me; my antidote on some of the desert shores of Europe; the against the last is my long and deep-rooted one has not a wish without enjoyment, the affection for her. In housewife matters-in other has neither wish nor fear." In the same aptness to learn and activity to execute, she mingled spirit of despair and pleasure he com- is eminently mistress; and during my absence plains "I lie so miserably open to the inroads in Nithsdale, she is regularly and constantly apand incursions of a mischievous, light-armed, prentice to my mother and sisters in their dairy, well-mounted banditti, under the banners of and other rural business. The Muses must not imagination, whim, caprice and passion; and be offended when I tell them the concerns of the heavy-armed veteran regulars of wisdom, my wife and family will, in my mind, always prudence, and forethought, move so very, very take the pas; but, I assure them, their lady- || slow, that I am almost in a state of perpetual ships will ever come next in place. You are warfare, and, alas! frequent defeat." The right that a bachelor state would have inthoughts of home, of a settled purpose in life, sured me more friends; but, from a cause you gave him a silent gladness of heart, such as he will easily guess, conscious peace in the enjoyhad never before known; and, to use his own ment of my own mind, and unmistrusting conwords, he moved homeward with as much hi-fidence in approaching my God, would seldom larity in his gait and countenance "as a Mayfrog, leaping across the newly harrowed ridge, enjoying the fragrance of the refreshed earth after the long-expected shower." He reached Mauchline towards the close of April: he was not a moment too soon; the intercourse which, in his visits to Ayr-shire, he had renewed with Jcan Armour, exposed her once more to the reproaches of her family; she might say, in the affecting words of one whose company had brought both joy and woe

"My father put me frae his door,

My friends they hae disown'd me a';
But I hae ane will take my part-

The bonnie lad that's far awa."

On his arrival he took her by the hand, and was re-married according to the simple and effectual form of the laws of Scotland :- "Daddie Auld," and his friends of the Old-light, felt every wish to be moderate with one whose powers of derision had been already proved. He next introduced Mrs. Burns to his friends, both in person and by letter. Much of his correspondence of this period bears evidence of the peace of mind and gladness of heart which this two-fold act of love and generosity had brought to him.

To Mrs. Dunlop, he says, "Your surmise, Madam, is just; I am indeed a husband. I

have been of the number."

On the same interesting topic he writes to Margaret Chalmers:-"Shortly after my last return to Ayr-shire, I married my Jean. This was not in consequence of the attachment of romance, perhaps; but I had a long and muchloved fellow-creature's happiness or misery in my determination, and I durst not trifle with so important a deposit; nor have I any cause to repent it. If I have not got polite tattle, modish manners, and fashionable dress, I am not sickened and disgusted with the multiform curse of boarding-school affectation; and I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and kindest heart in the country. Mrs. Burns believes, as firmly as her creed, that I am le plus bel esprit, et le plus honnéte homme in the universe; although she scarcely ever in her life, except the scriptures, and the Psalms of David, in metre, spent five minutes together on either prose, or verse. must except also from this last a certain late publication of Scots poems which she has perused very devoutly; and all the ballads in the country, as she has (Oh! the partial lover, you will cry,) the finest "wood-note wild" I ever heard. I am the more particular in this lady's character as I know she will henceforth have the honour of a share in your best wishes."

I

« PreviousContinue »