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Dumfriesshire. His fame as a poet had reconciled the Armours to the connection, and having now regularly married Jean, he brought her to Ellisland, and once more tried farming for three years. Continued ill-success, however, led him, in 1791, to abandon Ellisland, and he moved to Dumfries, where he had obtained a position in the Excise. But he was now thoroughly discouraged; his work was mere drudgery; his tendency to take his relaxation in debauchery increased the weakness of a constitution early undermined; and he died at Dumfries in his thirty-eighth year.
It is not necessary here to attempt to disentangle or explain away the numerous amours in which he was engaged through the greater part of his life. It is evident that Burns was a man of extremely passionate nature and fond of conviviality; and the misfortunes of his lot combined with his natural tendencies to drive him to frequent excesses of self-indulgence. He was often remorseful, and he strove painfully, if intermittently, after better things. But the story of his life must be admitted to be in its externals a painful and somewhat sordid chronicle. That it contained, however, many moments of joy and exaltation is proved by the poems here printed.
Burns's poetry falls into two main groups: English and Scottish. His English poems are, for the most part, inferior specimens of conventional eighteenth-century verse. But in Scottish poetry he achieved triumphs of a quite extraordinary kind. Since the time of the Reformation and the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, the Scots dialect had largely fallen into disuse as a medium for dignified writing. Shortly before Burns's time, however, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson had been the leading figures in a revival of the vernacular, and Burns received from them a national tradition which he succeeded in carrying to its highest pitch, becoming thereby, to an almost unique degree, the poet of his people.
He first showed complete mastery of verse in the field of satire. In "The Twa Herds," "Holy Willie's Prayer," "Address to the Unco Guid," "The Holy Fair," and others, he manifested sympathy with the protest of the so-called "New Light" party, which had sprung up in opposition to the extreme Calvinism and intolerance of the dominant "Auld Lichts." The fact that Burns had personally suffered from the discipline of the Kirk probably
added fire to his attacks, but the satires show more than personal animus. The force of the invective, the keenness of the wit, and the fervor of the imagination which they displayed, rendered them an important force in the theological liberation of Scotland. The Kilmarnock volume contained, besides satire, a number of poems like "The Twa Dogs" and "The Cotter's Saturday Night,” which are vividly descriptive of the Scots peasant life with which he was most familiar; and a group like "Puir Mailie" and "To a Mouse," which, in the tenderness of their treatment of animals, revealed one of the most attractive sides of Burns's personality. Many of his poems were never printed during his lifetime, the most remarkable of these being "The Jolly Beggars," a piece in which, by the intensity of his imaginative sympathy and the brilliance of his technique, he renders a picture of the lowest dregs of society in such a way as to raise it into the realm of great poetry.
But the real national importance of Burns is due chiefly to his songs. The Puritan austerity of the centuries following the Reformation had discouraged secular music, like other forms of art, in Scotland; and as a result Scottish song had become hopelessly degraded in point both of decency and literary quality. From youth Burns had been interested in collecting the fragments he had heard sung or found printed, and he came to regard the rescuing of this almost lost national inheritance in the light of a vocation. About his song-making, two points are especially noteworthy: first, that the greater number of his lyrics sprang from actual emotional experiences; second, that almost all were composed to old melodies. While in Edinburgh he undertook to supply material for Johnson's “Musical Museum," and as few of the traditional songs could appear in a respectable collection, Burns found it necessary to make them over. Sometimes he kept a stanza or two; sometimes only a line or chorus; sometimes merely the name of the air; the rest was his own. His method, as he has told us himself, was to become familiar with the traditional melody, to catch a suggestion from some fragment of the old song, to fix upon an idea or situation for the new poem; then, humming or whistling the tune as he went about his work, he wrought out the new verses, going into the house to write them down when the inspiration began to flag. In this process is to be found the explanation of much of the peculiar quality of the
songs of Burns. Scarcely any known author has succeeded so brilliantly in combining his work with folk material, or in carrying on with such continuity of spirit the tradition of popular song. For George Thomson's collection of Scottish airs he performed a function similar to that which he had had in the "Museum”; and his poetical activity during the last eight or nine years of his life was chiefly devoted to these two publications. In spite of the fact that he was constantly in severe financial straits, he refused to accept any recompense for this work, preferring to regard it as a patriotic service. And it was, indeed, a patriotic service of no small magnitude. By birth and temperament he was singularly fitted for the task, and this fitness is proved by the unique extent to which his productions were accepted by his countrymen, and have passed into the life and feeling of his race.
POEMS AND SONGS
Tune-"I am a man unmarried."
ONCE I lov'd a bonie lass,
Ay, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell.
As bonie lasses I hae seen,
A bonie lass, I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e'e;
But, without some better qualities,
But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet,
Her reputation is complete,
She dresses aye sae clean and neat,
And then there's something in her gait
1 The first of my performances.-R. B.
A gaudy dress and gentle air
'Tis this in Nelly pleases me,
For absolutely in my breast
SONG O TIBBIE, I HAE SEEN THE DAY
Tune-" Invercauld's Reel, or Strathspey."
Chor.-O Tibbie, I hae seen the day,
For laik o' gear ye lightly me,
Yestreen I met you on the moor,
O Tibbie, I hae seen the day, &c.
When coming hame on Sunday last,
O Tibbie, I hae seen the day, &c.
I doubt na, lass, but ye may think,
O Tibbie, I hae seen the day, &c.
But sorrow tak' him that's sae mean,