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We are told by Murdoch that the father was the best man he ever knew.
To picture that poverty-stricken household, daily trying to extract a living from the sour and unprofitable soil, as illiterate and stupid, is going far astray. Burns had an intelligent father and an excellent teacher — possessions sometimes denied a child reared in a palace. The home furnished a meager library but there was sturdy food for thought in what it did furnish. In addition to the usual school books, there were The Spectator, some plays of Shakspere, Pope (his translation of Homer included), Locke's The Human Understanding, Boyle's Lectures, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, and Allan Ramsay's works. To this must be added the Bible, whose poetry must have touched the deeps of this impressionable nature, and there was also a collection of songs, of which he writes:
“This was my vade mecum. I pored over them driving my cart, or walking to labor, song by song, verse by verse; carefully noting thę true, tender, or sublime, from affectation and fustian. I am convinced I owe to this practice much of my critic-craft, such as it is !”
First Poem. - It was while living at Mount Oliphant that his first poem was composed. Lyric poetry is the product of the emotions, and the most stimulating and creative of the emotions is love. When this adolescent of fifteen summers fell in love he burst into song. Fortunately we have his own account:
“You know our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labors of the harvest. In my fifteenth summer my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language, but you know the Scottish idiom. She was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she, altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me in that delicious passion which, in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence, and book-worm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys here below! How she caught the contagion I cannot tell. ... Indeed, I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her when returning in the evening from our labors; why the tones of her voice made my heartstrings thrill like an Æolian harp; and especially why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Among her love-inspiring qualities, she sung sweetly; and it was her favorite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme. I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like printed ones, composed by men who read Greek and Latin; but my girl sung a song which was said to be composed by a country laird's son, on one of his father's maids, with whom he was in love; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he; for excepting that he could shear sheep and cast peats, his father living in the moorlands, he had no more scholar-craft than myself. Thus with me began love and poetry.”
The song he composed is called Handsome Nell. Afterwards he called it puerile and silly, but “I am always pleased with it, as it recalls to my mind those happy days when my heart was yet honest, and my tongue was sincere.” Mr. Shairp, however, thinks there is some merit in the poem, and quotes this verse for its directness of feeling and felicity of language
She dresses aye sae clean and neat,
Baith decent and genteel,
Gars ony dress look weel.”
At Lochlea. — From his eighteenth to twenty-fifth year Burns
lived with his family at Lochlea, the farm being located on the north bank of the River Ayr. Here the growing young man entered upon a larger social life. In his sevententh year he went to a country dancing school, “to give his manners a finish.” He was young and fascinating, and soon attracted much attention, especially from the young women of the Tarbolton parish. In a short time Burns was in love, and usually with two or three girls at the same time. His susceptibility to the fair charms of the rustic beauties of his neighborhood may have been a necessary part of his poetic and emotional temperament, for with him love and poetry were inseparable, but his career would have been more honorable and his life far happier had he been less prone to fall in love. “In almost all the foul weather which Burns encountered," writes Alexander Smith, "a woman may be discovered fitting through it like a stormy petrel.”
In his nineteenth year he began the study of mensuration
under a teacher in Kirkoswald, a village of smugglers and adventurers. The study of mensuration was soon discontinued for the more attractive study of the charms of a country girl who lived next door to the school. While at Kirkoswald he was introduced to scenes of “swaggering riot and dissipation.” In his twentysecond year Burns fell seriously in love with Ellison Begbie, whom he wished to marry, but for some reason or other she refused him. The poem Mary Morison belongs to this time and refers to Ellison. One of the three stanzas runs:
“Yestreen, when to the trembling string,
The dance gaed thro' the lighted ha',
I sat, but neither heard nor saw:
And yon the toast of a' the town,
‘Ye are na Mary Morison.'”
In the summer of 1781 he went to Irvine to learn how to dress flax. Depressed by his luckless wooing, he was ripe for dissipation. His brother Gilbert tells us that he made
some acquaintance of a freer manner of thinking and living than he had been used to, whose society prepared him for overleaping the bonds of rigid virtue which had hitherto restrained him."
One of these was a sailor-lad who was, says Robert,
the only man I ever knew who was a greater fool than myself, where woman was the presiding star; but he spoke of lawless love with levity, which hitherto I had regarded with horror. Here his friendship did me a mischief."
At Mossgiel. — The two brothers had leased a small farm, Mossgiel, in 1783. In February of the subsequent year the wornout father died at Lochlea, having expressed his fear that one of the children was destined to lead a troubled life. “O father, is it me you mean?” asked Robert, who was in the room at the time. The question was answered in the affirmative. The widowed mother and her children were removed to the Mossgiel
farm soon after the death of the head of the family. The new place was beautifully located, better adapted to poetry than to farming. Burns was determined to succeed. He says:
"I read farming books, I calculated crops, I attended markets, and, in short, in spite of the devil, the world, and the flesh, I should have been a wise man; but the first year, from unfortunately buying bad seed — the second from a late harvest, we lost half our crops. This overset all my wisdom, and I returned like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that was washed in her wallowing in the mire.” He remained on this farm for four years. “Three things," says Mr. Shairp, “those years and the bare moorland farm witnessed - the wreck of his hopes as a farmer, the revelation of his genius as a poet, and the frailty of his character as a man."
The uncongenial and profitless work of farming was brightened by his devotion to the poetic muse. At the end of the day's work we can imagine the ploughman retiring to his humble room to inscribe what had taken shape in his mind while doing his regular tasks. Chambers has described the room:
“The farmhouse of Mossgiel, which still exists almost unchanged since the days of the poet, is very small, consisting of only two rooms, a but and a ben, as they are called in Scotland. Over these, reached by a trap stair, is a small garret, in which Robert and his brother used to sleep. Thither, when he had returned from his day's work, the poet used to retire, and seat himself at a small deal table, lighted by a narrow skylight in the roof, to transcribe the verses which he had composed in the fields."
From the autumn of 1784 to the spring of 1786, a period of about a year and a half, Burns enjoyed the prolific springtime of his genius. During this time he wrote, Halloween, To a Mouse, The Jolly Beggars, The Cotter's Saturday Night, Address to the Deil, The Vision, The Twa Dogs, The Mountain Daisy, and a number of poetical epistles and satires. Of these The Cotter's Saturday Night is the most celebrated, and justly so; not because it is the perfect expression of the poet's genius, for Burns has written other poems that are greater in the revelation
of his poetic power, having more of the divine afflatus, as well as greater perfection in form, but he has written nothing that so truly reveals his deep reverence for that religious life which plays so large a part in the national life of Scotland. Bacchanalian songs and satires upon religious topics unfortunately play too large a part in the early poetry of Burns; it is well to remember that The Cotter's Saturday Night is a product of the same period. Professor Wilson called it “The noblest poem genius ever dedicated to domestic devotion.” And Hazlitt compared the effect it produces to that made “by a slow and solemn music.” Burns got the idea of the poem from Fergusson's Farmer's Night, the baser metal of which under his transforming touch was transmuted into imperishable gold.
To a Mouse is a perfect gem, expressing both the sympathetic tenderness of the poet and his ability to elevate the humblest subject into the domain of art. A farm-servant of Burns, by name John Blane, still living in 1841, has told the origin of the poem. In 1785, while working with his master in the fields of Mossgiel, he pursued a mouse with a ploughshare scraper. Burns called to him to let the
poor creature alone. “Throughout the rest of the day Burns appeared to him more than usually thoughtful, and after nightfall, Blane recalled to mind his employer rousing him from his slumbers — the two of them sleeping in the same garret chamber - to repeat to him this poem about the mouse:
“But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain!
Gang aft a-gley,
For promised joy.”' The Poems Are Published. - Burns was discouraged; the farm was unproductive; his love affairs had brought disgrace upon him; his satiric poems directed against the strict Calvinism of the Auld Lichts had offended many good people; consequently it is not surprising that the obscure poet should plan a new life in a new land. He decided to go to Jamaica, and upon the