Immagini della pagina

He died of consumption

misfortune seems to have broken the spirit of Burnes. on the 13th February, 1784, aged 63, weary enough of his long strife with poverty and ungenial soils, but not before he had learned to take pride in the abilities of his eldest son, and to tremble for his passions.

Burnes was an admirable specimen of the Scottish yeoman, or small farmer, of the last century; for peasant he never was, nor did he come of a race of peasants. In his whole mental build and training he was superior to the people by whom he was surrounded. He had forefathers he could look back to; he had family traditions which he kept sacred. Hard-headed, industrious, religious, somewhat austere, he ruled his household with a despotism, which affection and respect on the part of the ruled made light and easy. To the blood of the Burneses a love of knowledge was native as valour, in the old times, was native to the blood of the Douglasses. The poet's grandfather built a school at Clockenhill in Kincardine, the first known in that part of the country. Burnes was of the same strain, and he resolved that his sons should have every educational advantage his means could allow. To secure this he was willing to rise early and drudge late. Accordingly, Robert, when six years old, was sent to a school at Alloway Mill; and on the removal of the teacher a few months afterwards to another post, Burnes, in conjunction with a few of his neighbours, engaged Mr. John Murdoch, boarding him in their houses by turns, and paying him a small sum of money quarterly. Mr. Murdoch entered upon his duties, and had Robert and Gilbert for pupils. Under him they acquired reading, spelling, and writing; they were drilled in English grammar, taught to turn verse into prose, to substitute synonymous expressions for poetical words, and to supply ellipses. He also attempted to teach them a little Church music, but with no great success. He seems to have taken to the boys, and to have been pleased with their industry and intelligence. Gilbert was his favourite on account of his gay spirits and frolicksome look. Robert was by comparison taciturn-distinctly stupid in the matter of psalmody -and his countenance was swarthy, serious, and grave.

Our information respecting the family circle at Mount Oliphant, more interesting now than that of any other contemporary Scottish family circle, is derived entirely from the reminiscences of the tutor, and of Gilbert and Robert themselves. And however we may value every trivial fact and hint, and attempt to make it a window of insight, these days, as they passed on, seemed dull and matter-of-fact enough to concerned. Mr. Murdoch considered his pupils creditably diligent, but nowise remarkable. To Gilbert, these early years were made interesting when looked back upon in the light of his brother's glory. Of that period, Robert wrote a good deal at various times to various correspondents, when the world had become curious; but as in the case of all such writings, he unconsciously mixes the past with the present-looks back on his ninth year with the eyes of his thirtieth. He tells us that he was by no means a favourite with anybody; that though it cost the

master some thrashings, "I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles." Also we are told that in the family resided a certain old woman-Betty Davidson by name, as research has discovered—who had the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, &c.; and that to the recital of these Robert gave attentive ear, unconsciously laying up material for future Tams-O-Shanter, and Addresses to the Deil. As for books, he had procured the Life of Hannibal, and the History of Sir William Wallace; the first of a classical turn, lent by Mr. Murdoch, the second, purely traditionary, the property of a neighbouring blacksmith, constituting probably his entire secular library; and in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop, he describes how the perusal of the latter moved him,—

"In those boyish days, I remember in particular being struck with that part of Wallace's story where these lines occur:

Syne to the Leglen wood when it was late,
To make a silent and a safe retreat.

I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day my line of life allowed, and walked half a dozen miles to pay my respects to the Leglen wood, with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loretto, and explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic countryman to have lodged."

When Mr. Murdoch left Mount Oliphant, the education of the family fell on the father, who, when the boys came in from labour on the edge of the wintry twilight, lit his candle and taught them arithmetic. He also when engaged in work with his sons, directed the conversation to improving subjects. He got books for them from a book society in Ayr; among which are named Derham's Physico and AstroTheology, and Ray's Wisdom of God. Stackhouse's History of the Bible was in the house, and from it Robert contrived to extract a considerable knowledge of ancient history. Mr. Murdoch sometimes visited the family and brought books with him. On one occasion he read Titus Andronicus aloud at Mount Oliphant, and Robert's pure taste rose in a passionate revolt against its coarse cruelties and unspiritual horrors. When about fourteen years of age, he and his brother Gilbert were sent "week about during a summer quarter" to a parish school two or three miles distant from the farm to improve themselves in penmanship. Next year, about midsummer, Robert spent three weeks with his tutor, Murdoch, who had established himself in Ayr. The first week was given to a careful revision of the English Grammar, the remaining fortnight was devoted to French, and on his return he brought with him the Adventures of Telemachus and a French Dictionary, and with these he used to work alone during his evenings. He also turned his attention to Latin, but does not seem to have made much progress therein, although in after-life he could introduce a sentence or so of the ancient tongue to adorn his correspondence. By the time the family had left Mount Oliphant, he had torn the heart out of a good many books, among which were several theological works,

some of a philosophical nature, a few novels, the Spectator, Shakespere, Pope's Homer, and, above all, the Works of Allan Ramsay. These, with the Bible, a collection of English songs, and a collection of letters, were almost the only books he was acquainted with when he broke out in literature. No great library certainly, but he had a quick eye and ear, and all Ayrshire was an open page to him, filled with strange matter, which he only needed to read off into passionate love-song or blistering satire.

In his sixteenth year the family removed from Mount Oliphant to Lochlea. Here Robert and Gilbert were employed regularly on the farm, and received from their father 77. per annum of wages. Up till now, Burns had led a solitary self-contained life, with no companionship save his own thoughts and what books he could procure, with no acquaintances save his father, his brother, and Mr. Murdoch. This seclusion was now about to cease. In his seventeenth year, “to give his manners a finish” he went to a country dancing school,— ‚—an important step in life for any young fellow, a specially important step for a youth of his years, heart, brain, and passion. In the Tarbolton dancing school the outer world with its fascinations burst upon him. It was like attaining majority and freedom. It was like coming up to London from the provinces. Here he first felt the sweets of society, and could assure himself of the truthfulness of his innate sense of superiority. At the dancing school, he encountered other young rustics laudably ambitious of “brushing up their manners," and, what was of more consequence, he encountered their partners also. This was his first season, and he was as gay as a young man of fortune who had entered on his first London one. His days were spent in hard work, but the evenings were his own, and these he seems to have spent almost entirely in sweethearting on his own account, or on that of others. His brother tells us that he was almost constantly in love. His inamoratas were the freckled beauties who milked cows and hoed potatoes; but his passionate imagination attired them with the most wonderful graces. He was Antony, and he found a Cleopatra-for whom the world were well lost-in every harvest field. For some years onward he did not read much; indeed, his fruitful reading, with the exception of Fergusson's Poems, of which hereafter, was accomplished by the time he was seventeen; his leisure being occupied in making love to rustic maids, where his big black eyes could come into play. Perhaps on the whole, looking to poetic outcome, he could not have employed himself to better purpose.

Tarbolton dancing

He was now rapidly getting perilous cargo on board. school introduced him to unlimited sweethearting, and his nineteenth summer, which he spent in the study of mensuration, at the school at Kirkoswald, made him acquainted with the interior of taverns, and with "scenes of swaggering riot." He also made the acquaintance of certain smugglers who frequented that bare and deeply-coved coast, and seems to have been attracted by their lawless ways and speeches. It is characteristic, that in the midst of his studies, he was upset by the

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

charms of a country girl who lived next door to the school. While taking the sun's altitude, he observed her walking in the adjoining garden, and Love put Trigonometry to flight. During his stay at Kirkoswald, he had read Shenstone and Thomson, and on his return home he maintained a literary correspondence with his schoolfellows, and pleased his vanity with the thought that he could turn a sentence with greater skill and neatness than any one of them.

For some time it had been Burns's habit to take a small portion of land from his father for the purpose of raising flax; and, as he had now some idea of settling in life, it struck him that if he could add to his farmer-craft the accomplishment of flaxdressing, it might not be unprofitable. He accordingly went to live with a relation of his mother's in Irvine-Peacock by name-who followed that business, and with him for some time he worked with diligence and success. But while welcoming the New Year morning after a bacchanalian fashion, the premises took fire, and his schemes were laid waste. Just at this time, too-to complete his discomfiture—he had been jilted by a sweetheart, "who had pledged her soul to meet him in the field of matrimony." In almost all the foul weather which Burns encountered, a woman may be discovered flitting through it like a stormy petrel. His residence at Irvine was a loss, in a worldly point of view, but there he ripened rapidly, both spiritually and poetically. At Irvine, as at Kirkoswald, he made the acquaintance of persons engaged in contraband traffic, and he tells us that a chief friend of his "spoke of illicit love with the levity of a sailor-which, hitherto, I had regarded with horror. There his friendship did me a mischief." About this time, too, John Rankine-to whom he afterwards addressed several of his epistles-introduced him to St. Mary's Lodge, in Tarbolton, and he became an enthusiastic Freemason. Of his mental states and intellectual progress, we are furnished with numerous hints. He was member of a debating club at Tarbolton, and the question for Hallowe'en still exists in his handwriting. It is as follows :-"Suppose a young man, bred a farmer, but without any fortune, has it in his power to marry either of two women, the one a girl of large fortune, but neither handsome in person nor agreeable in conversation, but who can manage the household affairs of a farm well enough; the other of them a girl every way agreeable in person, conversation, and behaviour, but without any fortune; which of them shall he choose?" Not a bad subject for a collection of clever rustics to sharpen their wits upon! We may surmise that Burns found himself as much superior in debate to his companions at the Bachelors' Club as he had previously found himself superior to his Kirkoswald correspondents in letter-writting. The question for the Hallowe'en discussion is interesting mainly in so far as it indicates what kind of discussions were being at that time conducted in his own brain; and also how habitually, then and afterwards, his thinking grew out of his personal condition and surroundings. A question of this kind interested him more than whether, for instance, Cromwell deserved well of his country. Neither now nor afterwards did he trouble himself much about far-removed things. He cared

for no other land than Caledonia. He did not sing of Helen's beauty, but of the beauty of the country girl he loved. His poems were as much the product of his own farm and its immediate neighbourhood, as were the clothes and shoes he wore, the oats and turnips he grew. Another aspect of him may be found in the letter addressed to his father three days before the Irvine flax-shop went on fire. It is infected with a magnificent hypochondriasis. It is written as by a Bolingbroke— by a man who had played for a mighty stake, and who, when defeated, could smile gloomily and turn fortune's slipperiness into parables. And all the while the dark philosophy and the rolling periods flowed from the pen of a country lad, whose lodgings are understood to have cost a shilling per week, and "whose meal was nearly out, but who was going to borrow till he got more." One other circumstance attending his Irvine life deserves notice-his falling in with a copy of Fergusson's Poems. For some time previously he had not written much, but Fergusson stirred him with emulation; and on his removal to Mossgiel, shortly afterwards, he in a single winter poured forth more immortal verse—measured by mere quantity—than almost any poet in the same space of time, either before his day or after.

Three months before the death of the elder Burnes, Robert and Gilbert rented the farm of Mossgiel in the parish of Mauchline. The farm consisted of 119 acres, and its rent was 90l. After the father's death the whole family removed thither. Burns was now twenty-four years of age, and come to his full strength of limb, brain, and passion. As a young farmer on his own account, he mixed more freely than hitherto in the society of the country-side, and in a more independent fashion. He had the black eyes which Sir Walter saw afterwards in Edinburgh and remembered to have "glowed." He had wit, which convulsed the Masonic Meetings, and a rough-and-ready sarcasm with which he flayed his foes. Besides all this, his companionship at Irvine had borne its fruits. He had become the father of an illegitimate child, had been rebuked for his transgression before the congregation, and had, in revenge, written witty and wicked verses on the reprimand and its occasion, to his correspondent Rankine. And when we note here that he came into fierce collision with at least one section of the clergy of his country, all the conditions have been indicated which went to make up Burns the man, and Burns the poet.

Ayrshire was at this period a sort of theological bear-garden. The more important clergymen of the district were divided into New Lights and Auld Lights; they wrangled in Church Courts, they wrote and harangued against each other; and, as the adherents of the one party or the other made up almost the entire population, and as in such disputes Scotchmen take an extraordinary interest, the county was set very prettily by the ears. The Auld Light divines were strict Calvinists, laying great stress on the doctrine of Justification by Faith, and inclined generally to exercise spiritual authority after a somewhat despotic fashion. The New Light divines were less dogmatic, less inclined to religious gloom and acerbity,

[ocr errors]
« IndietroContinua »