« AnteriorContinuar »
Johnson, then in the course of publication. , vicinity, there were never wanting persons These engagements, useful and honourable to share his social pleasures; to lead or in themselves, contributed, no doubt, to the accompany him to the tavern; to partake abstraction of his thoughts from the busi- in the wildest sallies of his wit; to witness ness of agriculture.
the strength and the degradatiou of his The consequences may be easily imagined. I genius. Notwithstanding the uniform prudence and Still, however, he cultivated the society good management of Mrs, Burns, and of persons of taste and of respectability. though his rent was moderate and reason- and in their company could impose on him. able, our poet found it convenient, if not self the restraints of temperance and denecessary, to resign his farm to Mr. Miller, corum. Nor was his muse dormant. In after having occupied it three years and a the four years which he lived in Dumfries, half. His office in the excise had originally he produced many of his beautiful lyrics, produced about fifty pounds per annum. though it does not appear that he attempted Having acquitted himself to the satisfaction any poem of considerable length. During of the board, he had been appointed to a this time he made several excursions into new district, the emoluments of which rose the neighbouring country, of one of which, to about seventy pounds per annum. through Galloway, an account is preserved Hoping to support himself and his family in a letter of Mr. Syme, written soon after; on this humble income till promotion should which, as it gives an animated picture of reach him, he disposed of his stock and of him by a correct and masterly hand, we his crop on Ellisland by public auction, and shall present to the reader. removed to a small house which he had “I got Burns a grey Highland shelty to taken in Dumfries, about the end of the ride on." We dined the first day, 27th year 1791.
July, 1793, at Glendenwynes of Parton! a Hitherto Burns, though addicted to excess beautiful situation on the banks of the Dee. in social parties, had abstained from the In the evening we walked out, and ascended habitual use of strong liquors, and his con- a gentle eminence, from which we had as stitution had not suffered any permanent | tine a view of Alpine scenery as can well be injury from the irregularities of his conduct. I imagined. A delightful soft evening showed In Dumfries, temptations to the sin that so all its wilder as well as its grander graces. easily beset him continually presented them- Immedliately opposite, and within a mile of selves; and his irregularities grew by us, we saw Airds, a charming romantic degrees into habits. These temptations place, where dwelt Low, the author of Mary unhappily occurred during his engagements weep no more for me. (99) This was classical in the business of his office, as well as ground for Burns. He viewed 'the highest during his hours of relaxation; and though hill which rises o'er the source of Dee;' he clearly foresaw the consequences of and would have staid till the passing spirit' yielling to them, his appetites and sensa- had appeared, had we not resolved to reach tions, which could not prevent the dictates i Kennure that night. We arrived as Mr. of his judgment, finally triumphed over the i and Mrs. Gordon (100) were sitting down powers of his will. Yet this victory was to supper. not obtained without many obstinate strug. “Here is a genuine baron's seat. The gles, and at times temperance and virtue castle, an old building, stands on a large seemed to have obtained the mastery. Be- natural moat. In front, the river Ken sides his engagements in the excise, and the winds for several miles through the most society into which they led, many circum- fertile and beautiful holm (101), till it exstances contributed to the melancholy fate pands into a lake twelve miles long, the of Burns. His great celebrity made him banks of which, on the south, present a fine an object of interest and curiosity to 1 and soft landscape of green knolls, natural strangers, and few persons of cultivated wood, and here and there a grey rock. On minds passed through Dumfries without i the north, the aspect is great, wild, and, I attempting to see our poet, and to enjoy I may say, tremendous. In short, I can the pleasure of his conversation. As he į scarcely conceive a scene more terribly rocould not receive them under his own mantic than the castle of Kenmure. Burns humble roof, these interviews passed at the thinks so highly of it, that he meditates a inns of the town, and often terminated in description of it in poetry. Indeed, I bethose excesses which Burns sometimes pro- lieve he has begun the work. We spent voked, and was seldom able to resist. And three days with Mr. Gordon, whose polished Among the inhabitants of Dumfries and its hospitality is of an original and endearing
ST. MARY'S ISLE.
kind. Mrs. Gordon's lap-dog, Echo, was 'When , deceased to the devil went dead. She would have an epitaph for him.
(own crown; Several had been made. Burns was asked
| 'Twas nothing would serve him but Satan's
Thy fool's head, quoth Satan, that crown shall for one. This was setting Hercules to his
please the lady, he would try. Here is what he produced :
“Well, I am to bring you to Kirkcudbright • In wood and wild, ye warbling throng,
along with our poet, without boots. I Your heavy loss deplore!
carried the torn ruins across my saddle in Now half extinct your powers of song, spite of his fulminations, and in contempt Sweet Echo is no more.
of appearances; and what is more, Lord Ye jarring screeching things around, Selkirk (102) carried them in his coach to Scream your discordant joys!
Dumfries. He insisted they were worth Now half your din of tuneless song mending. With Echo silent lies.'
“We reached Kirkcudbright about one “We left Kenmure, and went to Gate o'clock. I had promised that we should house. I took him the moor-road, where dine with one of the first men in our savage and desolate regions extended wide country, J. Dalzell. But Burns was in a around. The sky was sympathetic with the wild and obstreperous humour, wretchedness of the soil; it became lower- / he would not dine where he should be under ing and dark. The hollow winds sighed, the the smallest restraint. We prevailed, therelightnings gleamed, the thunder rolled. The fore, on Mr. Dalzell to dine with us in the poet enjoyed the awful scene; he spoke not inn, and had a very agreeable party. In the a word, but seemed rapt in meditation. In evening we set out for St. Mary's Isle. a little while the rain began to fall; it poured Robert had not absolutely 1 in floods upon us. For three hours did the milkiness of good temper, and it occurred wild elements rumble their belly full upon once or twice to him, as he rode along, that our defenceless heads. Oh! oh! 'twas foul, St. Mary's Isle was the seat of a Lord; yet We got utterly wet; and, to revenge our that Lord was not an aristocrat, at least in selves, Burns insisted at Gatehouse on our his sense of the word. We arrived about getting utterly drunk.
eight o'clock, as the family were at tea and "From Gatehouse, we went next day to coffee. St. Mary's Isle is one of the most Kirkcudbright, through a fine country. But delightful places that can, in my opinion here I must tell you that Burns had got a pair of jemmy boots for the journey, which but not tame object, which constitutes had been thoroughly wet, and which had natural and cultivated beauty. But not to been dried in such manner that it was not dwell on its external graces, let me tell you possible to get them on again. The brawny that we found all the ladies of the family poet tried force, and tore them to shreds. (all beautiful) at home, and some strangers; A whiffling vexation of this sort is more and, among others, who but Urbani ! The trying to the temper than a serious calamity. | Italian sang us many Scottish songs, accomWe were going to Saint Mary's Isle, the panied with instrumental music. The two seat of the Earl of Selkirk, and the forlorn young ladies of Selkirk sang also. We had Burns was discomfited at the thought of his the song of Lord Gregory, which I asked ruined boots. A sick stomach, and a head for, to have an opportunity of calling on ache, lent their aid, and the man of verse | Burns to recite his ballad to that tune. He was quite accablé. I attempted to reason did recite it; and such was the effect, that with him. Mercy on us, how he did fume a dead silence ensued. It was such a silence
uld reinstate him in as a mind of feeling naturally preserves temper. I tried various expedients, and at when it is touched with that enthusiasm last hit on one that succeeded. I showed which banishes every other thought but the him the house of * * * * , across the contemplation and indulgence of the symkay of Wigton. Against * * * * , with pathy produced. Burns's Lord Gregory is, whom he was offended, he expectorated his ! in my opinion, a most beautiful and affectspleen, and regained a most agreeable tem- ing ballad. The fastidious critic may per. per. He was in a most epigrammatic haps say, some of the sentiments and humour indeed! He afterwards fell on imagery are of too elevated a kind for such humbler game. There is one * * * * * a style of composition; for instance, Thou whom he does not love. He had a passing bolt of Heaven that passest by;' and, 'Ye blow at him.
| mustering thunder,' &c.; but this is a cold
1 WUSU Lei you liat burns naa got a 1 ve formed by the assemblave of every
u NY UTIC ASSCI Vie 0 EVEIV SOT.
blooded objection, which will be said rather , from a people who had so lately breathed than felt.
the sentiments of universal peace and “We enjoyed a most happy evening at benignity, or obliterate in his bosom the Lord Selkirk's. We had, in every sense of pictures of hope and of happiness to which the word, a feast, in which our minds and those sentiments had given birth. Under our senses were equally gratified. The poet these impressions, he did not always conwas delighted with his company, and ac- duct himself with the circumspection and quitted himself to admiration. The lion prudence which his dependent situation that had raged so violently in the morning, seemed to demand. He engaged, indeed, was now as mild and gentle as a lamb. in no popular associations, so common at Next day we returned to Dumfries, and so the time of which we speak; but in comends our peregrination. I told you that, in pany he did not conceal his opinions of the midst of the storm, on the wilds of public measures, or of the reforms required Kenmure, Burns was wrapt in meditation. in the practice of our government; and What do you think he was about ? He was sometimes, in his social and unguarded charging the English army, along with moments, he uttered them with a wild and Bruce, at Bannockburn. He was engaged unjustifiable vehemence. Information of in the same manner on our ride home this was given to the Board of Excise, with from St. Mary's Isle, and I did not disturb the exaggerations so general in such cases. him. Next day he produced me the follow A superior officer in that department was ing address of Bruce to his troops, and authorized to inquire into his conduct. gave me a copy for Dalzell :-
Burns defended himself in a letter ad
dressed to one of the board (Mr. Graham *Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled,' &c. (103)"
of Fintry), written with great independence Burns had entertained hopes of promo- of spirit, and with more than his accustomed tion in the Excise; but circumstances oc- eloquence. The officer appointed to inquire curred which retarded their fultilment, and into his conduct gave a favourable rewhich, in his own mind, destroyed all ex- port. (104) His steady friend, Mr. Graham pectation of their being ever fulfilled. The of Fintry, interposed his good offices in his extraordinary events which ushered in the behalf; and the imprudent gauger was revolution of France, interested the feelings, suffered to retain his situation, but given to and excited the hopes of men in every | understand that his promotion was deferred, corner of Europe. Prejudice and tyranny and must depend on his future behaviour. seemed about to disappear from among This circumstanice made a deep impresmen, and the day-star of reason to rise sion on the mind of Burns. Fame exupon a benighted world. In the dawn of aggerated his misconduct, and represented this beautiful morning, the genius of French him as actually dismissed from his office; freedom appeared on our southern horizon and this report induced a gentleman of with the countenance of an angel, but much respectability (Mr. Erskine of Marr] speedily assumed the features of a demon, to propose a subscription in his favour. and vanished in a shower of blood.
The offer was refused by our poet in a Though previously a Jacobite and a letter of great elevation of sentiment, in cavalier, Burns had shared in the original which he gives an account of the whole of hopes entertained of this astonishing this transaction, and defends himself from revolution by ardent and benevolent minds. aputation of disloyal sentiments on The novelty and the hazard of the attempt the one hand, and on the other, from the meditated by the First, or Constituent charge of having made submissions for the Assembly, served rather, it is probable, to sake of his office unworthy of his character. recommend it to his daring temper; and the “The partiality of my countrymen," he unfettered scope proposed to be given to observes,“ has brought me forward as a every kind of talent, was doubtless gratify-man of genius, and has given me a character ing to the feelings of conscious but in to support. In the poet I have avowed dignant genius. Burns foresaw not the manly and independent sentiments, which I mighty ruin that was to be the im- hope have been found in the man. Reasons mediate consequence of an enterprise, which, of no less weight than the support of a wife on its commencement, promised so much and children, have pointed out my present happiness to the human race. And even occupation as the only eligible line of life after the career of guilt and of blood com- within my reach. Still my honest fame is menced, he could not immediately, it may my dearest concern, and a thousand times be presumed, withdraw his partial gaze have I trembled at the idea of the degrading
epithets that malice or misrepresentation the pressing nature of public affairs called, may affix to my name. Often in blasting in 1795, for a general arming of the people, anticipation have I listened to some future Burns appeared in the ranks of the Dumfries hackney scribbler, with the heavy malice of volunteers, and employed his poetical talents savage stupidity, exultingly asserting that in stimulating their patriotism (106); and Burns, notwithstanding the fanfaronade of at this season of alarm, he brought forward independence to be found in his works, and the following hymn, worthy of the Grecian after having been held up to public view, Muse, when Greece was most conspicuous and to public estimation, as a man of some for genius and valour :genius, yet, quite destitute of resources Scene--A field of battle-Time of the day, within himself to support his borrowed evening - The wounded and dying of the dignity, dwindled into a paltry exciseman, victorious army are supposed to join in the
following song: and slunk out the rest of his insignificant
Farewell, thou fair day, thou green earth and existence in the meanest of pursuits, and
ye skies, among the lowest of mankind.
Now gay with the bright setting sun ! “In your illustrious hands, Sir, permit me Farewell loves and friendships, ye dear to lodge my strong disavowal and detiancel tender ties, of such slanderous falsehoods. Burns was
Our race of existence is run! a poor man from his birth, and an exciseman | Thou grim king of terrors, thou life's gloomy by necessity; but I will say it! the
Go, frighten the coward and slave; [know, sterling of his honest worth poverty could | GO
Go, teach them to tremble, fell tyrant! but not debase, and his independent British No terrors hast thou to the brave ! spirit oppression might bend, but could not Thou strik'st the dull peasant, he sinks in the subdue,"
dark, It was one of the last acts of his life to | Nor saves e'en the wreck of a name; copy this letter into his book of manuscripts, | Thou strik'st the young hero-a glorious
mark! accompanied by some additional remarks on
He falls in the blaze of his fame! the saine subject. It is not surprising, that at a season of universal aların for the
In the field of proud honour-our swords in
our hands, safety of the constitution, the indiscreet Our king and our country to save sands. expressions of a man so powerful as Burns | While victory shines on life's last ebbing should have attracted notice. The times Oh! who would not rest with the certainly required extraordinary vigilance in
brave! (107) those entrusted with the administration of Though by nature of an athletic form, the government, and to ensure the safety of Burns had in his constitution the pecuthe constitution was doubtless their first liarities and the delicacies that belong to duty. Yet generous minds will lament | the temperament of genius. He was liable, that their measures of precaution should from a very early period of life, to that have robbed the imagination of our poet interruption in the process of digestion, of the last prop on which his hopes of which arises from deep and anxious thought, independence rested; and by embittering and which is sometimes the effect, aud his peace, have aggravated those excesses sometimes the cause, of depression of which were soon to conduct him to an spirits. Connected with this disorder of the untimely grave. (105)
stomach, there was a disposition to headThough the vehemence of Burns's temper, ache, affecting more especially the temples increased as it often was by stimulating and eye-balls, and frequently accompanied liquors, might lead him into many improper by violent and irregular movements of the and unguarded expressions, there seems no heart. Endowed by nature with great reason to doubt of his attachment to our sensibility of nerves, Burns was, in his cormixed form of government. In his common- | poreal, as well as in his mental system, place book, where he could have no tempta liable to inordinate impressions—to fever tion to disguise, are the following senti- of body as well as of mind. This prements:-"Whatever might be my sentiments disposition to disease, which strict tempeof republics, ancient or nodern, as to rance in diet, regular exercise, and sound Britain, I ever abjured the idea. A con-sleep, might have subdued, habits of a very stitution, which, in its original principles, different nature strengthened and inflamed. experience has proved to be every way fitted | Perpetually stimulated by alcohol in one or for our happiness, it would be insanity to other of its various forms, the inordinate
untried visionary theory." actions of the circulating system became at In conformity to these sentiments, when I length habitual; the process of nutrition was unable to supply the waste, and the parent in any rank of life whatever. In powers of life began to fail. Upwards of a the bosom of his family he spent many a year before his death, there was an evident delightful hour in directing the studies of decline in our poet's personal appearance, his eldest son, a boy of uncommon talents. and though his appetite continued unim I have frequently found him explaining to paired, he was himself sensible that his this youth, then not more than nine years constitution was sinking. In his moments of age, the English poets, from Shakspeare of thought he reflected with the deepest to Gray, or storing his mind with examples regret on his fatal progress, clearly foresee- of heroic virtue, as they live in the pages of ing the goal towards which he was hastening, our most celebrated English historians. I without the strength of mind necessary to would ask any person of common candour, stop, or even to slacken his course. His if employments like these are consistent temper now became more irritable and with habitual drunkenness? It is not denied gloomy; he fled from himself into society, that he sometimes mingled with society often of the lowest kind. And in such unworthy of him. He was of a social and company, that part of the convivial scene in convivial nature. He was courted by all which wine increases sensibility and excites classes of men for the fascinating powers of benevolence, was hurried over, to reach the his conversation, but over his social scene succeeding part, over which uncontrolled uncontrolled passion never presided. Over passion generally presided. He who suffers the social bowl, his wit flashed for hours the pollution of inebriation, how shall he together, penetrating whatever it struck, escape other pollution ? But let us refrain I like the fire from heaven; but even in the from the mention of errors over which hour of thoughtless gaiety and merriment, delicacy and humanity draw the veil.
I never knew it tainted by indecency. It [A similar view of the latter days of was playful or caustic by turns, following an Burns is taken by his biographers, Heron, allusion through all its windings; astonishIrving, Walker, and, in general, by all who ing by its rapidity, or amusing by its wild wrote soon after his death. Mr. Lockhart, originality, and grotesque, yet natural comsupported by attestations from Gilbert binations, but never, within my observation, Burns, James Gray, then rector of the disgusting by its grossness. In his morning grammar-school of Dumfries, and Mr. Find hours, I never saw him like one suffering later, the poet's superior officer, gives a from the effects of last night's intemperance. more favourable representation. The letter He appeared then clear and unclouded. He of Gray presents so interesting a picture of was the eloquent advocate of humanity, Burns in all respects, that we cannot resist justice, and political freedom. From his the temptation to connect it with the text paintings, virtue appeared more lovely, and of Currie:
piety assumed a more celestial mien. While “I love Dr. Currie, but I love the memory his keen eye was pregnant with fancy and of Burns more, and no consideration shall feeling, and his voice attuned to the very deter me from a bold declaration of the passion which he wished to communicate, it truth. The poet of the Cotter's Saturday would hardly have been possible to conceive Night, who felt all the charms of the any being more interesting and delightful. humble piety and virtue which he sang, is I may likewise add, that, to the very end of charged (in Dr. Currie's narrative) with his life, reading was his favourite amusevices which would reduce him to a level ment. I have never known any man so with the most degraded of his species. As intimately acquainted with the elegant I knew him during that period of his life English authors. He seemed to have the emphatically called his evil days, I am poets by heart. The prose authors he could enabled to speak from my own observation. quote either in their own words, or clothe It is not my intention to extenuate his! their ideas in language more beautiful than errors, because they were combined with their own. Nor was there ever any decay genius; on that account, they were only in any of the powers of his mind. To the the more dangerous, because the more last day of his life, his judgment, his seductive, and deserve the more severe re-memory, his imagination, were fresh and prehension ; but I shall likewise claim that vigorous as when he composed the Cotter's nothing may be said in malice even against Saturday Night. The truth is, that Burns him. .... It came under my own view pro-was seldom intoxicated. The drunkard soon fessionally, that he superintended the educa- becomes besotted, and is shunned even by tion of his children with a degree of care the convivial. Had he been 30, he could that I have never seen surpassed by any not long have continued the idol of every