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Burns entered upon his farm life at Ellisland with hopefulness and a greater peace than he had enjoyed for years. His troubled conscience had ceased to sting, for he felt that he had acted honorably. He now hoped to live the quiet and sedate life of the farmer. He became the "gudeman” of the house, for a time gathering his family and the few servants about the family altar of Scripture reading and prayer. He prudently made application for his appointment as Exciseman, an office which paid £50 a year. To this office there was attached some odium, but a wife and children to be supported on a farm whose crops were apt to be failures were strong arguments to lay aside prejudice and disinclination.
A Mr. Clark, a man who worked for Burns during the winter half-year of 1789–90, in his old age gave his recollections of Burns as a farmer at Ellisland. He tells us that Burns kept two men servants and two women servants; that the master was as good a manager as the average neighbor; that the farm was stocked with nine or ten milch cows, some young cattle, four horses, and several pet sheep; that during the six months of his service he never saw Burns intoxicated or incapable of managing his business. Clark also describes Mrs. Burns as a good and efficient housewife.
However, Burns failed as a farmer, and in the last week of August, 1791, an auction was held to dispose of the poet's possessions. "Faith,” said one of the neighbors, "how could he miss but fail? He brought with him a bevy of servants from Ayrshire. The lasses did nothing but bake bread, and the lads sat by the fireside and ate it warm with ale."
Last Days.- From Ellisland he moved to Dumfries, a provincial town, where gossip, idleness, and drinking flourished, and where Burns found congenial society sufficient to help him on his downward path to ruin.
ruin. All his biographers lament that Burns was obliged to leave the peaceful rural scenes of the farm for the temptations of the provincial town. The poet was by this time a famous man; the traveler who tarried at Dumfries was glad to invite the brilliant Exciseman to a friendly bowl of punch, and
Burns was too weak to refuse. His infidelity to his wife, his drunken carousals, his lack of money, his failing health — these are the ingredients that filled his cup of remorse to overflowing.
In June, 1794, he writes to Mrs. Dunlop that his health is failing; in the spring of the next year he told some one that he felt like an old man, but he continued his duties as an Exciseman. But in the fall of that year, it is said by some, that he had to take his bed. In the spring of 1796 he tried sea-bathing at a near-by coast; but all efforts to stay the progress of his malady were unavailing; he died on the 21st of July, 1796.
His Character. — Ten years before his death, Burns wrote the Bard's Epitaph, of which one stanza is,
“The poor inhabitant below
And softer flame,
And stained his name.”
Lines which are, as Wordsworth put it, “A confession at once devout, poetical, and humana history in the shape of a prophecy.” Burns had no illusions about himself; he scorned pretension and hated hypocrisy. Not every one of his critics has been as honest and discriminating as the poet whose charming personality and buoyant genius have sometimes bewitched the judgment. Some of his most enthusiastic admirers refuse to see any evil in the man Burns, or condone it because of his genius, as though genius were not limited by the moral law; others, Robert Louis Stevenson among the number, think this brilliant poet, by the example of his life and the revelry of his bacchanalian songs, has done much to demoralize the people of Scotland. In passing judgment, one dare not forget that Burns lived in the turbulent times of the eighteenth century, an age in which religion had sunk into formalism, and when vulgarity and drunkenness were gentlemanly vices. It must also be placed to his credit that after many of the ballads and songs of the people had passed
through his transforming touch they emerged purified and ennobled.
His life is a wretched tragedy, the tragedy of rare gifts and generous impulses continually thwarted by passion and weakness of will. He knew his power, and lamented his weakness; he never lost his sense of right and wrong; no one more bitterly lamented his lapses. His penitential poems, like those of the inspired singer of Israel, great in their candor and simplicity, show how persistently the “vestal fire of conscience" kept burning upon the altar of his soul.
Characteristics of His Poetry. - 1. Wordsworth thinks the leading characteristic of Burns's poetry is its truthfulness. He has given us an accurate transcript of his own emotions, and a perfect picture of the life of Scotland, with its pathos, humor, drudgery, revelry, piety, and hypocrisy. It has been said that his poetry contains no great characters; this is because he writes of things and men as he knew them, and his environment furnished him no figures of heroic size. His it was to interpret the "short and simple annals of the poor.” “No wonder the peasantry of Scotland have loved Burns as perhaps never people loved a poet," writes Principal Shairp.
"He not only sympathized with the wants, the trials, the joys and sorrows of their obscure lot, but he interpreted these to themselves, and interpreted them to others, and this too in their own language, made musical and glorified by genius. He made the poorest ploughman proud of his station and his toil, since Robbie Burns had shared and had sung them."
2. He restored to Scotchmen the feeling of nationality. In his day the men of ability of Scotland tried to forget that they were natives of Caledonia. The vernacular was despised; to be guilty of a Scotticism was a literary crime. By his original patriotic songs and by his revival of the old songs and ballads, Burns quickened national consciousness.
3. He has broadened our sympathies by preaching the noble doctrine of the brotherhood of man, one might say the brotherhood of man and beasts, for his pity extended to the mouse of
He has produced between two and three hundred
“They appeal to all ranks, they touch all ages, they cheer toil-worn men under every clime. Wherever the English tongue is heard, beneath the suns of India, amid African deserts, on the western prairies of America, among the squatters of Australia, whenever men of British blood would give vent to their deepest, kindliest, most genial feelings, it is to the songs of Burns they spontaneously turn, and find in them at once perfect utterance, and a fresh tie of brotherhood. It is this which forms Burns's most enduring claim on the world's gratitude."
4. He has quickened our appreciation of nature, not through any subtleties, but by the childlike simplicity of his appeal. It must be remembered that Burns is the forerunner of Wordsworth and Tennyson, of Byron and Shelley, of Bryant and Whittier, nature-lovers whose popular poetry has raised “love of nature into almost a religious cult. Burns was born into an age of formalism, of precision, of classic dignity; and while it is true that he is greatly indebted to Ramsay and Fergusson, his Scotch predecessors, yet it is the glory of Burns, as well as a tribute to his sincerity, that in one respect he saw the world as Homer saw it - with the freshness of youth and the simple wonder of a child.
Poetic Diction. — Burns is sometimes regarded as distinctively a Scottish poet, with a dialect whose meanings could be appreciated only by the few who in childhood had learned the vernacular. It is true that there are many poems, especially the humorous and satirical, which are unintelligible to the English reader without the aid of a glossary; on the other hand, about half of his serious work is done in English pure and undefiled. It is also true that many usually considered as distinctively dialect poems have very little of the Ayrshire vernacular in them. In Scots Wha Hae, a poem of twenty-four lines, there are only five words which are not English, and these are easily transformed into English. David Christie Murray has pointed out that in the Lines to a Mountain Daisy there are but eight Ayrshire words in this poem of fifty-four lines. In Mary in Heaven, one of the sweetest and most loved of all his lyrics, we have no intrusion of a hint of Scots.” In the eighty-eight lines of Man Was Made to Mourn there is no dialect, while in the worldfamous Cotter's Saturday Night but fifty lines out of one hundred and eighty contain any dialect.
A critic has lamented that Burns often descended into English; this is a foolish regret, for Burns would have had a limited field of influence had he kept strictly to the Ayrshire dialect. His audience would have been very much restricted and his medium of expression would have been lacking in that variety and copiousness which were furnished by the highly developed English language.
Burns had in reality two languages from which to choose - the one rich in the intimacies of domestic affection and in the expressiveness of rural life; the other ennobled and enriched by the Miltons and Shaksperes of classic English. To attain high distinction in poetry, the maker must have more than the meager vocabulary of an undeveloped dialect.
In rollicking Tam O'Shanter, the work of a day - Alexander Smith enthusiastically calls it the best day's work Scotland has seen since Bannockburn-we have the most puzzling dialect
together with the purest English. As an example of dialect -
“She tauld thee weel thou wast a skellum,
A few lines further on, in purest English, we find the oftquoted
"But pleasures are like poppies spread,