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THE HE object of Constable's Miscellany-that of furnishing the public with good books at a cheap rate is very praiseworthy; and those who love to see human genius bounding over every obstacle, and taking firm hold of immortality, even when the mortal casket, "strong by nature, strengthened more by toil," in which it is contained, is dissolving in the agonies of poverty and neglect, the most illiberal jealousy, and the most black-hearted ingratitude, will be thankful that, of those neat and cheap volumes, one is devoted to the Bard of Coila.
We are inclined to think that Robert Burns is the solitary individual of his genus, with no model going before, and no imitator coming after. That many men should write verses -lines that join in chorus at the end, and in which there is a modulation of music-we do not at all dispute, even though they should not have formally got what is called "an intellectual education ;" because a perception of the modulation of sounds is not the highest, and certainly not the most intellectual of human acquirements. But the singular part of the matter is that, with every disadvantage to struggle with, both from without and from within, Burus was, for practical purposes, the best educated man of his day,-had his mind in the most perfect and constant dis cipline, had not only a much more keen and perfect perception of those subjects that came more immediately within his range, than the professional literati of his time, but could actually, and at once beat them with their own weapons. It was to this, we fear, more than to any thing else, that Burns owed his want of success in life. The literati and leading men of Edinburgh, at no time very much famed for their liberality, and not always for the depth and transparency of their perceptions, invited Burns
to come among them, as a plaything that they could "lift and let be seen;' but finding him too heavy to be lifted, and too dazzling to look at, they neglected him, or rather, shrank away from him as fast as they could.
Whether Burns was the burly boy, shoeless and bonnetless, driving the cattle to the pasture, or studying nature in the woodlands,-whether he was the bold youth, turning the furrow or swinging the flail,-whether he was agonizing as a lover, or making the place of rustic carousal rock to the echoes of his glee,-whether, solitary, amid the desolation of the storm, he mused upon the misery of man, or, turning his keen glance upon the crowd, he made folly and hypocrisy to run howling to their hiding places,-whether, to the booming of the wind and the rush of the water, he poured the whole witchery of song-humorous, gay, gloomy, terrific and sublime-into "Tam o' Shanter," or, laid upon the straw, with his dark eye riveted upon "the bright star of eve," poured out his own soul "to Mary in heaven,". whether, toiling wearily along in the tempestuous night, he concentrated the whole volume of patriotic and noble daring into the wildness of the Bruce, or whether, in gratitude for the wisdom and virtue which his pious parent had implanted in his mind, he made the mortal muse mount up to the very threshold of the "golden gates," and by one angelic touch turned this world into a paradise,
When kneeling down, to Heaven's Eternal King,
The saint, the father, and the husband prays ; in every turn of life, at every touch of time, under every shade of circumstances, the mind of Burns was a machine that never stood still,-no darkness could come from it—no obscurity could hide,-what was seen was known,-what was known was
* The Life of Robert Burns. By J. G. Lockhart, LL.B. Constable's Miscellany, Vol. 23.
33 ATHENEUM, VOL. 9, 2d series.
remembered; and when the hour of inspiration came, the whole was poured forth in song, of which the truth is as powerful as the force is irresistible.
Whatever be the subject which inspires the muse of Burns, one never finds a particle of verbiage, or any one subject introduced, of which his knowledge is not complete. There is no mere noise making,-no heavy passages for the purpose of" sething" the gems, and showing them off to advantage, no gilding or polishing of the surface; the whole is virgin from the rock-unbroken and untarnishable; and yet the circumstances under which he lived were, as ordinary men would think, little calculated to produce a keen observer and a profound thinker, or indeed, any observer or thinker at all.
No doubt, in the years of his infancy, he enjoyed advantages greater than those, who have not felt the effects of similar ones, are aware of. The circumstances and character of his father saved him from those temptations to idleness and infant luxury, by which the talents of so many of the richer classes are nipt in the bud; while the feeling, then universal among the Scottish peasantry, to live upon their own earnings, however small, owe no man any thing, and either stand in their own strength, or fall, imparted that sturdy independence, which made his mind, -and probably tended to mar his fortunes. In the short time that he was at school, too, he seems to have acquired not a little of that very best part of education, the art of getting more for himself; and this was further augmented by the readings and explanations of his father. Many people acquire the form of education without the substance; but Burus had the substance without much of the form the early bias towards inquiry and reflection which this gave, se conded as it was by the absence of temptation, till he had reached rather an advanced period of youth, was, next only to his natural powers, the cause of his greatness-his support,
and also his torture, under those reverses and misfortunes, that so thickly chequered his life.
Burns was not one of those precocious prodigies, which the wondering world is, ever and anon, finding out for itself. We hear of none of his odes at eight, and tales at ten, years of age, which, when they do occur, are merely patchwork out of the thoughts of others. His muse gave not forth one note, till inspired by that passion which calls all the children of nature into song. It was the buxom lass, who shared the labours of the harvest field more immediately with the bard, who first kindled an other fire; and it was the desire of making her warble to the praise of her own charms, that first made him attempt the practice of poetry; and we believe there are very few young rustics, of perfectly pure minds, and with any fancy at all, that do not make similar attempts in "the first young love of gay fifteen."
These first love songs of the bard were, as might be supposed, neither very vigorous in the conception, nor very accurate in the expression; and so far as one may judge from the specimens, (and we remember seeing a good many of them, which have never appeared in print, in the hands of a gentleman in Kilmarnock, only two years after the death of the poet,) so far as one may judge from these, the merit which they had, was the merit of thought and not of fancy, they evinced that the author was a reflective and sensible youth, rather than that he was a poetical one.
Nature had given to Burns both a mind and a body of the most robust description; and adversity had kept hammering them on her anvil, till they had, at a very early period of life, acquired the firmness and the elasticity of beaten steel: and when his passions, which were equally strong, would no longer allow him to rest contented with his humble fare and his hard labour, they burst forth by the only outlet that was pe to them-the song of his native dis trict. Even after the fame of Bras
had "sealed his destruction," he
written promise of marriage, which showed an universal thirst for infor, he had given to her when he was in mation, and busied himself in the the depth of his poverty, and before formation and management of libra- the first publication of his poems. ries; and in his early years he gave But notwithstanding this, which was sufficient proofs that, had his desires a legal absolvement according to the been seconded by means, his aim law of Scotland, and would have would have been to wanton in the been a moral absolvement, even to whole field of knowledge. The suc- those who affect to put on saintly cess with which he studied the ele- looks when the name of Burns is ments of mathematics, at the school mentioned, the poet no sooner heard of Kirkoswald, when in his nine- that the lady herself had been illteenth year-although love distracted used-turned out of doors in factthe doctrines of sines and tangents upon his account, than he started not a little-clearly proves, that, un- from a sick bed, and flew to her aid. der other discipline and circum- And what were the circumstances stances, he might have probably under which this deed of generosity stood as high among the philosophers and justice was done? Was it when of his country, as he now does his fortunes ran low? No such among the poets. thing. It was after he had been introduced to the notice and the admiration of the learned and the titled in the Scottish capital, had made the tour of that end of the island, and was certainly, of all Scotchmen then living, the foremost in fame. Nor was this done as a mere impulse of the moment; for it was a calm, steady, and calculated purpose; and Burns-though the office into which he was degraded forced him to be both from home, and in the ale-house professionally-continued a regular family man, instructing his children and bearing up against extreme poverty, till persecution the most unjust, and neglect the most disgraceful, broke his heart; and, even then, though his family was six persons, and his income never more than seventy pounds a year, and seldom so much, he died without being in debt.
All men of the present day, and Englishmen of almost any day, would wonder why a man who was thus highly talented, and thus resolutely determined to be virtuous, could be "the man cast away," in any country, and especially in a country like Scotland, where the sounds of patriotism, and patronage, and encouragement to literature are so loud. This wonder increases, when one considers, that Burns was exactly the man of whom Scotland, at that time, stood much in need. This part of the case
Severely as he did toil, and expert as he was at all the labours of the farm, his mind was too mighty for being wholly occupied by these duties; and the fields of science and literature, in which other young spirits of the same wing work off their superabundant energies, were to him, to use his own emphatic quotation, a spring shut up and a fountain sealed;" the few books in the "auld clay biggin" were soon exhausted; the world around him became the only book of the ardent and insatiable student; and the keenness of his satire, the accuracy of his description, the warmth of his feeling, and the glorious flow of his pathos and sublimity, show how closely and how well he studied.
That the strong passions of Burns betrayed him into indiscretions, and that oppressed and resourceless as he was, his merry talents-the keen perception, and the powerful expression, which made him so great in company-were in so far snares to him, we do not mean to deny ; but that these or any other causes made Burns permanently, or mentally at all, dissipated, or caused him to neglect his duty either to society, or to those who more immediately had claims on him, is wholly and utterly false.
The relations of the lady whom he married caused her to burn a
is put with so much force and truth by Mr. Lockhart, that we shall quote his words :
"Darkly as the career of Burns was destined to terminate, there can be no doubt that he made his first appearance at a period highly favourable for his reception as a British, and especially as a Scottish poet. Nearly forty years had elapsed since the death of Thomson :-Collins, Gray, Goldsmith, had successively disappeared :-Dr. Johnson had belied the rich promise of his early appearance, and confined himself to prose, and Cowper had hardly begun to be recognised as having any considerable pretensions to fill the long-vacant throne in England. At home-without derogation from the merits either of Douglas or the Minstrel, be it said—men must have gone back at least three centuries to find a Scottish poet at all entitled to be considered as of that high order to which the generous criticism of Mackenzie at once admitted the Ayrshire Ploughman.' Of the form and garb of his composition, much, unquestionably and avowedly, was derived from his more immediate predecessors, Ramsay and Ferguson: but there was a bold mastery of hand in his picturesque descriptions, to produce any thing equal to which it was necessary to recall the days of Christ's Kirk on the Green, and Peebles to the Play: and in more solemn pieces, a depth of inspiration, and a massive energy of language, to which the dialect of his country had been a stranger, at least since Dunbar the Mackar.' The Muses of Scotland had never indeed been silent, and the ancient minstrelsy of the land, of which a slender portion had as yet been committed to the safeguard of the press, was handed from generation to generation, and preserved in many a fragment, faithful images of the peculiar tenderness, and peculiar humour, of the national fancy and character-precious representations, which Burus himself never surpassed in his happiest efforts. But these were fragments; and, with
a scanty handful of exceptions, the best of them, at least of the serious kind, were very ancient. Among the numberless effusions of the Jacobite Muse, valuable as we now consider them for the record of manners and events, it would be difficult to point out half a dozen strains, wor thy, for poetical excellence alone, of a place among the old chivalrous ballads of the Southern, or even of the Highland Border. Generations had pass ed away since any Scottish poet bad appealed to the sympathies of his countrymen in a lofty Scottish strain." "It was reserved for Burns to interpret the inmost soul of the Scottish peasant in all its moods, and in verse exquisitely and intensely Scottish, without degrading either his senti ments or his language with one touch of vulgarity. Such is the delicacy of native taste, and the power of a truly masculine genius."
But though Burns was just the man who was wanting to give a beam of glory to his country, and though he came at the particular time, and found an introduction to those who had, as it were, the keeping of the country's honour, they had the folly, the cold-blooded cruelty, to throw him away; and however they may palter and shuffle, and equivocate about the matter, they threw him away for this little, and truly dirty reason-that he was of nobler mind, and mightier powers than themselves. They may lecture, and they may lie; but the brand is on them, and all the labour even of their viscous tongues will never be able to lick it off.
It is hard that this should be the case; and that we should write it, or read it, or certify its truth, is gall and wormwood; but it stands upon the record, and no pigment will hide it, no tool will scrape it, and no de tergent will bleach it away. They may build monuments to their own vanity; and they may carve upon them what they please; but the words that will, in the judgment of every honest man, branden and blacken over the whole, are, “ Destroyed by an ungrateful country:"
-and they may meet and carouse, and make speeches-and they who battened upon the bard in his misery, may be foremost and loudest, and they may thump the table at his name, roar out his songs, quaff till they reel; but in the midst of all this, "the fingers of a man's hand will come forth, and write upon the wall" words of sorrow and of reproach, which will be eternal as the name and the songs of the bard. Aye, and when years and ages shall have rolled away, when the dust shall have been gathered to the dust, and not a tittle of the Edinburgh literati, during the ten fatal years, from 1786 to 1796, shall be found even in the limbo of waste paper, the memorial and the execration of this act of slow moral poisoning will be as fresh as ever.
Even from Mr. Lockhart's book -from the showing of a man who cannot be presumed to have had any wish to show it-there is an impression of the progress of the evil deed, though that impression be given rather by some lacune that want filling up, than from any thing that is said.
Before Burns went to Edinburgh, he was by no means addicted to drinking; and, indeed, a young man whose average yearly income, over and above his food, was about seven pounds, out of which he had to clothe himself and buy his few books, and of which, after all, he made some savings which helped to stock the farm of Massgiel, could not possibly indulge much in that way. The first three or four months that he was in Edinburgh he was equally abstemious, except in the companies where he was invited to be gazed at; and so careful was he, that he shared the room and the bed of a writer's clerk; and had the "gentry" only had the decency to shut their doors against him in the beginning as they did in the end, Burns would have gone back to the country uncontaminated even in idea. But though they gave him some patronage for his book,a thing, by the way, that he did not need to thank them for-and though
they initiated him in their dissipation, in which, then especially, and even now, Edinburgh outrages every other place in the kingdom,—they gave him no friendship. He spent an entire season in Edinburgh, saw all the "gentry" in it, was universally described as a most sensible man and delightful companion; and yet, at the end of the time, the only persons who had attached themselves to him, or indeed shown any hearty desire of doing so, were, a schoolmaster of irascible temper, vulgar manners, and dissipated habits, and a clerk, who, though free from those offensive qualities, was certainly no
dipus. The one of these was subsequently his "Boswell" in the south of Scotland, and the other in the north; and after "seeing" Edinburgh for two years, Burns, who at that time had powers that would have done honour to any situation, was-made an exciseman, with fifty pounds a year!
This was bad enough; but there was worse to follow. As might have been foreseen-and prevented—the discharge of his duty as an exciseman, which, even on the showing of his enemies, Burns discharged with great fidelity, were incompatible with his proper management of his farm; and thus he was forced to give that up, retire to the little scandal-dealing provincial capital, Dumfries, and depend wholly on his seventy pounds a year, with which his more laborious duties there were rewarded. Excise officers have never been, in Scotland, characters which stand very high, and they have not always deserved it. Thus the very calling of the bard banished him from the society of the small gentry who, unable to spend their winters in Edinburgh, spent them in Dumfries. This must have irritated him on the one hand, and on the other it forced him to associate with his brother officers; an association which was not very likely either to elevate his mind or improve his morals. If the "gentry" of Edinburgh were afraid of being eclipsed by the rustic bard,