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Title: Life of Robert Burns
Author: Carlyle, Thomas, 1795-1881
Language: English
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The readers of the "Household Library" will certainly welcome a Life of
Burns. That his soul was of the real heroic stamp, no one who is familiar
with his imperishable lyric poetry, will deny.

This Life of the great Scottish bard is composed of two parts. The first
part, which is brief, and gives merely his external life, is taken from
the "Encyclopedia Britannica." The principle object of it, in this place,
is to prepare the reader for what follows. The second part is a grand
spiritual portrait of Burns, the like of which the ages have scarcely
produced; the equal of which, in our opinion, does not exist. In fact,
since men began to write and publish their thoughts in this world, no one
has appeared who equals Carlyle as a spiritual-portrait painter; and,
taken all in all, this of his gifted countryman Burns is his master-piece.
I should not dare to say how many times I have perused it, and always with
new wonder and delight. I once read it in the Manfrini Palace, at Venice,
sitting before Titian's portrait of Ariosto. Great is the contrast between
the Songs of Burns and the _Rime_ of the Italian poet, between the fine
spiritual perception of Carlyle's mind and the delicate touch of Titian's
hand, between picturesque expression and an expressive picture; yet this
very antithesis seemed to prepare my mind for the full enjoyment of both
these famous portraits; the sombre majesty of northern genius seemed to
heighten and be heightened by the sunset glow of the genius of the south.

Besides giving the article from the "Encyclopedia Britannica," as a kind
of frame for the portrait of Burns, we will here add, from the "English
Cyclopedia," a sketch of Carlyle's life. A severe taste may find it a
little out of place, yet we must be allowed to consult the wishes of those
for whom these little volumes are designed.

       *       *       *       *       *

Carlyle, (Thomas,) a thinker and writer, confessedly among the most
original and influential that Britain has produced, was born in the parish
of Middlebie, near the village of Ecclefechan, in Dumfries-shire,
Scotland, on the 4th of December, 1795. His father, a man of remarkable
force of character, was a small farmer in comfortable circumstances; his
mother was also no ordinary person. The eldest son of a considerable
family, he received an education the best in its kind that Scotland could
then afford--the education of a pious and industrious home, supplemented
by that of school and college. (Another son of the family, Dr. John A.
Carlyle, a younger brother of Thomas, was educated in a similar manner,
and, after practising for many years as a physician in Germany and Rome,
has recently become known in British literature as the author of the best
prose translation of Dante.) After a few years spent at the ordinary
parish school, Thomas was sent, in his thirteenth or fourteenth year, to
the grammar school of the neighboring town of Annan; and here it was that
he first became acquainted with a man destined, like himself, to a career
of great celebrity. "The first time I saw Edward Irving," writes Mr.
Carlyle in 1835, "was six-and-twenty years ago, in his native town, Annan.
He was fresh from Edinburgh, with college prizes, high character, and
promise: he had come to see our school-master, who had also been his. We
heard of famed professors--of high matters, classical, mathematical--a
whole Wonderland of knowledge; nothing but joy, health, hopefulness
without end, looked out from the blooming young man." Irving was then
sixteen years of age, Carlyle fourteen; and from that time till Irving's
sad and premature death, the two were intimate and constant friends. It
was not long before Carlyle followed Irving to that "Wonderland of
Knowledge," the University of Edinburgh, of which, and its "famed
professors," he had received such tidings. If the description of the
nameless German university, however, in "Sartor Resartus," is to be
supposed as allusive also to Mr. Carlyle's own reminiscences of his
training at Edinburgh, he seems afterwards to have held the more formal or
academic part of that training in no very high respect. "What vain jargon
of controversial metaphysic, etymology, and mechanical manipulation,
falsely named science, was current there," says Teufelsdröckh; "I indeed
learned better perhaps than most." At Edinburgh, the professor of
"controversial metaphysic" in Carlyle's day, was Dr. Thomas Brown, Dugald
Stewart having then just retired; physical science and mathematics, were
represented by Playfair and Sir John Leslie, and classical studies by men
less known to fame. While at college, Carlyle's special bent, so far as
the work of the classes was concerned, seems to have been to mathematics
and natural philosophy. But it is rather by his voluntary studies and
readings, apart from the work of the classes, that Mr. Carlyle, in his
youth, laid the foundation of his vast and varied knowledge. The college
session in Edinburgh extends over about half the year, from November to
April; and during these months, the college library, and other such
libraries as were accessible, were laid under contribution by him to an
extent till then hardly paralleled by any Scottish student. Works on
science and mathematics, works on philosophy, histories of all ages, and
the great classics of British literature, were read by him miscellaneously
or in orderly succession; and it was at this period, also, if we are not
mistaken, he commenced his studies--not very usual then in Scotland--in
the foreign languages of modern Europe. With the same diligence, and in
very much the same way, were the summer vacations employed, during which
he generally returned to his father's house in Dumfries-shire, or rambled
among the hills and moors of that neighborhood.

Mr. Carlyle had begun his studies with a view to entering the Scottish
Church. About the time, however, when these studies were nearly ended, and
when, according to the ordinary routine, he might have become a preacher,
a change of views induced him to abandon the intended profession. This
appears to have been about the year 1819 or 1820, when he was twenty-four
years of age. For some time, he seems to have been uncertain as to his
future course. Along with Irving, he employed himself for a year or two,
as a teacher in Fifeshire; but gradually it became clear to him, that his
true vocation was that of literature. Accordingly, parting from Irving,
about the year 1822, the younger Scot of Annandale, deliberately embraced
the alternative open to him, and became a general man of letters. Probably
few have ever embraced that profession with qualifications so wide, or
with aims so high and severe. Apart altogether from his diligence in
learning, and from the extraordinary amount of acquired knowledge of all
kinds, which was the fruit of it, there had been remarked in him, from the
first, a strong originality of character, a noble earnestness and fervor
in all that he said or did, and a vein of inherent constitutional contempt
for the mean and the frivolous, inclining him, in some degree, to a life
of isolation and solitude. Add to this, that his acquaintance with German
literature, in particular, had familiarized him with ideas, modes of
thinking, and types of literary character, not then generally known in
this country, and yet, in his opinion, more deserving of being known than
much of a corresponding kind that was occupying and ruling British

The first period of Mr. Carlyle's literary life may be said to extend from
1822 to 1827, or from his twenty-sixth to his thirty-second year. It was
during this period that he produced (besides a translation of Legendre's
"Geometry," to which he prefixed an "Essay on Proportion,") his numerous
well-known translations from German writers, and also his "Life of
Schiller." The latter and a considerable proportion of the former, were
written by him during the leisure afforded him by an engagement he had
formed in 1823, as tutor to Charles Buller, whose subsequent brilliant
though brief career in the politics of Britain, gives interest to this
connection. The first part of the "Life of Schiller" appeared originally
in the "London Magazine," of which John Scott was editor, and Hazlitt,
Charles Lamb, Allan Cunningham, De Quincey, and Hood, were the best known
supporters; and the second and third parts, were published in the same
magazine in 1824. In this year appeared also the translation of Göthe's
"Wilhelm Meister," which was published by Messrs. Oliver and Boyd, of
Edinburgh, without the translator's name. This translation, the first real
introduction of Göthe to the reading world of Great Britain, attracted
much notice. "The translator," said a critic in "Blackwood," "is, we
understand, a young gentleman in this city, who now for the first time
appears before the public. We congratulate him on his very promising
debut; and would fain hope to receive a series of really good translations
from his hand. He has evidently a perfect knowledge of German; he already
writes English better than is at all common, even at this time; and we
know of no exercise more likely to produce effects of permanent advantage
upon a young mind of intellectual ambition." The advice here given to Mr.
Carlyle by his critic, was followed by him in so far that, in 1827, he
published in Edinburgh, his "Specimens of German Romance," in four
volumes; one of these containing "Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre," as a
fresh specimen of Göthe; the others containing tales from Jean Paul,
Tieck, Musæus, and Hoffman. Meanwhile, in 1825, Mr. Carlyle had revised
and enlarged his "Life of Schiller," and given it to the world in a
separate form, through the press of Messrs. Taylor and Hessay, the
proprietors of the "London Magazine." In the same year, quitting his
tutorship of Charles Buller, he had married a lady fitted in a pre-eminent
degree to be the wife of such a man. (It is interesting to know that Mrs.
Carlyle, originally Miss Welch, is a lineal descendent of the Scottish
Reformer, Knox.) For some time after the marriage, Mr. Carlyle continued
to reside in Edinburgh; but before 1827 he removed to Craigenputtoch, a
small property in the most solitary part of Dumfries-shire.

The second period of Mr. Carlyle's literary life, extending from 1827 to
1834, or from his thirty-second to his thirty-ninth year, was the period
of the first decided manifestations of his extraordinary originality as a
thinker. Probably the very seclusion in which he lived helped to develope,
in stronger proportions, his native and peculiar tendencies. The following
account of his place and mode of life at this time was sent by him, in
1828, to Göthe, with whom he was then in correspondence, and was
published by the great German in the preface to a German translation of
the "Life of Schiller," executed under his immediate care:--"Dumfries is a
pleasant town, containing about fifteen thousand inhabitants, and to be
considered the centre of the trade and judicial system of a district which
possesses some importance in the sphere of Scottish activity. Our
residence is not in the town itself, but fifteen miles to the northwest of
it, among the granite hills and the black morasses which stretch westward
through Galloway almost to the Irish Sea. In this wilderness of heath and
rock, our estate stands forth a green oasis, a tract of ploughed, partly
inclosed and planted ground, where corn ripens and trees afford a shade,
although surrounded by sea-mews and rough-woolled sheep. Here, with no
small effort, have we built and furnished a neat, substantial dwelling;
here, in the absence of a professional or other office, we live to
cultivate literature according to our strength, and in our own peculiar
way. We wish a joyful growth to the roses and flowers of our garden; we
hope for health and peaceful thoughts to further our aims. The roses,
indeed, are still in part to be planted, but they blossom already in
anticipation. Two ponies which carry us every where, and the mountain air,
are the best medicine for weak nerves. This daily exercise, to which I am
much devoted, is my only recreation; for this nook of ours is the
loneliest in Britain--six miles removed from any one likely to visit me.
Here Rousseau would have been as happy as on his island of Saint-Pierre.
My town friends, indeed, ascribe my sojourn here to a similar disposition,
and forbode me no good result; but I came hither solely with the design to
simplify my way of life, and to secure the independence through which I
could be enabled to remain true to myself. This bit of earth is our own;
here we can live, write, and think, as best pleases ourselves, even though
Zoilus himself were to be crowned the monarch of literature. Nor is the
solitude of such great importance, for a stage-coach takes us speedily to
Edinburgh, which we look upon as our British Weimar; and have I not, too,
at this moment, piled upon the table of my little library, a whole
cart-load of French, German, American, and English journals and
periodicals--whatever may be their worth? Of antiquarian studies, too,
there is no lack."

Before this letter was written, Mr. Carlyle had already begun the
well-known series of his contributions to the "Edinburgh Review." The
first of these was his essay on "Jean Paul," which appeared in 1827; and
was followed by his striking article on "German Literature," and by his
singularly beautiful essay on "Burns" (1828). Other essays in the same
periodical followed, as well as articles in the "Foreign Quarterly
Review," which was established in 1828, and shorter articles of less
importance in Brewster's "Edinburgh Encyclopedia," then in course of
publication. Externally, in short, at this time, Mr. Carlyle was a writer
for reviews and magazines, choosing to live, for the convenience of his
work and the satisfaction of his own tastes, in a retired nook of
Scotland, whence he could correspond with his friends, occasionally visit
the nearest of them, and occasionally also receive visits from them in
turn. Among the friends whom he saw in his occasional visits to Edinburgh,
were Jeffrey, Wilson, and other literary celebrities of that capital (Sir
Walter Scott, we believe, he never met otherwise than casually in the
streets); among the more distant friends who visited him, none was more
welcome than the American Emerson, who, having already been attracted to
him by his writings, made a journey to Dumfries-shire, during his first
visit to England, expressly to see him; and of his foreign correspondents,
the most valued by far was Göthe, whose death in 1832, and that of Scott
in the same year, impressed him deeply, and were finely commemorated by

Meanwhile, though thus ostensibly but an occasional contributor to
periodicals, Mr. Carlyle was silently throwing his whole strength into a
work which was to reveal him in a far other character than that of a mere
literary critic, however able and profound. This was his "Sartor
Resartus;" or, an imaginary History of the Life and Opinions of Herr
Teufelsdröckh, an eccentric German professor and philosopher. Under this
quaint guise (the name "Sartor Resartus" being, it would appear, a
translation into Latin of "The Tailor done over," which is the title of an
old Scottish song), Mr. Carlyle propounded, in a style half-serious and
half-grotesque, and in a manner far more bold and trenchant than the rules
of review-writing permitted, his own philosophy of life and society in
almost all their bearings. The work was truly an anomaly in British
literature, exhibiting a combination of deep, speculative power, poetical
genius, and lofty moral purpose, with wild and riotous humor and shrewd
observation and satire, such as had rarely been seen; and coming into the
midst of the more conventional British literature of the day, it was like
a fresh but barbaric blast from the hills and moorlands amid which it had
been conceived. But the very strangeness and originality of the work
prevented it from finding a publisher; and after the manuscript had been
returned by several London firms to whom it was offered, the author was
glad to cut it into parts and publish it piecemeal in "Frazer's Magazine."
Here it appeared in the course of 1833-34, scandalising most readers by
its Gothic mode of thought and its extraordinary torture, as it was
called, of the English language; but eagerly read by some sympathetic
minds, who discerned in the writer a new power in literature, and wondered
who and what he was.

With the publication of the "Sartor Resartus" papers, the third period of
Mr. Carlyle's literary life may be said to begin. It was during the
negotiations for the publication that he was led to contemplate removing
to London--a step which he finally took, we believe, in 1834. Since that
year--the thirty-ninth of his life--Mr. Carlyle has permanently resided
in London, in a house situated in one of the quiet streets running at
right angles to the River Thames, at Chelsea. The change into the bustle
of London, from the solitude of Craigenputtoch was, externally, a great
one. In reality, however, it was less than it seemed. A man in the prime
of life, when he came to reside in the metropolis, he brought into its
roar and confusion, not the restless spirit of a young adventurer, but the
settled energy of one who had ascertained his strength, and fixed his
methods and his aims.

Among the Maginns and others who contributed to "Frazer," he at once took
his place as a man rather to influence than be influenced; and gradually,
as the circle of his acquaintances widened so as to include such notable
men as John Mill, Sterling, Maurice, Leigh Hunt, Browning, Thackeray, and
others of established or rising fame in all walks of speculation and
literature, the recognition of his rare personal powers of influence
became more general and deep. In particular, in that London circle, in
which John Sterling moved, was his personal influence great, even while as
yet he was but the anonymous author of the "Sartor Resartus" papers, and
of numerous other contributions, also anonymous, to "Frazer's Magazine,"
and the "Edinburgh," "Foreign Quarterly," "British and Foreign," and
"Westminster," Reviews. It was not till 1837, or his forty-second year,
that his name, already so well known to an inner circle of admirers, was
openly associated with a work fully proportional to his powers. This was
his "French Revolution: a History," in three volumes, the extraordinary
merits of which as at once a history and a gorgeous prose-epic, are known
to all. In 1838, the "Sartor Resartus" papers, already re-published in the
United States, were put forth, collectively, with his name; and, in the
same year, his various scattered articles in periodicals, after having
similarly received the honor of re-publication in America, were given to
the world in four volumes, in their chronological series from 1827 to
1837, under the title of "Miscellanies." Mr. Carlyle's next publication
was his little tract on "Chartism," published in 1839, in which, to use
the words of one of his critics, "he first broke ground on the Condition
of England question."

During the time when these successive publications were carrying his name
through the land, Mr. Carlyle appeared in a new capacity, and delivered
four courses of lectures in London to select but crowded audiences,
including many of the aristocracy both of rank and of literature: the
first, a course on "German Literature," delivered at Willis's Rooms in
1837; the second, a course on "The History of Literature, or the
Successive Periods of European Culture," delivered in Edward-street,
Portman-square, in 1838; the third, a course on "the Revolutions of Modern
Europe," delivered in 1839; and the fourth, a course on "Heroes,
Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History," delivered in 1840. This last
course alone was published; and it became more immediately popular than
any of the works which had preceded it. It was followed, in 1843, by "Past
and Present," a work contrasting, in a historico-philosophical spirit,
English society of the middle ages with English society in our own day;
and this again, in 1845, by "Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, with
elucidations and a connecting narrative;" such being the unpretending form
which a work, originally intended to be a history of Cromwell and his
times, ultimately assumed. By the year 1849, this work had reached a third
edition. In 1850, appeared the "Latter-Day Pamphlets," in which, more than
in any previous publication, the author spoke out in the character of a
social and political censor of his own age. From their very nature, as
stern denunciations of what the author considered contemporary fallacies,
wrongs, and hypocrisies, these pamphlets produced a storm of critical
indignation against Mr. Carlyle, which was still raging, when, in 1851,
he gave to the world his "Life of John Sterling." While we write (April,
1856) this, with the exception of some papers in periodicals, is the last
publication that has proceeded from his pen; but at the present the
British public are anxiously expecting a "History of the Life and Times of
Frederick the Great," in which he is known to have been long engaged. A
collection of some of the most striking opinions, sentiments, and
descriptions, contained in all his works hitherto written, has been
published in a single volume, entitled, "Passages selected from the
Writings of Thomas Carlyle," (1855,) from the memoir prefixed to which, by
the editor, Mr. Thomas Ballantyne, we have derived most of the facts for
this notice.

An appreciation of Mr. Carlyle's genius and of his influence on British
thought and literature, is not to be looked for here, and indeed is hardly
possible in the still raging conflict of opinions--one might even say,
passions and parties--respecting him. The following remarks, however, by
one of his critics, seems to us to express what all must admit to be the
literal truth:--"It is nearly half a generation since Mr. Carlyle became
an intellectual power in this country; and certainly rarely, if ever, in
the history of literature, has such a phenomenon been witnessed as that of
his influence. Throughout the whole atmosphere of this island his spirit
has diffused itself, so that there is, probably, not an educated man under
forty years of age, from Caithness to Cornwall, that can honestly say that
he has not been more or less affected by it. Not to speak of his express
imitators, one can hardly take up a book or a periodical, without finding
some expression or some mode of thinking that bears the mint-mark of his
genius." The same critic notices it as a peculiarity in Mr. Carlyle's
literary career, that, whereas most men begin with the vehement and the
controversial, and gradually become calm and acquiescent in things as they
are, he began as an artist in pure literature, a critic of poetry, song,
and the drama, and has ended as a vehement moralist and preacher of social
reforms, disdaining the etiquette and even the name of pure literature,
and more anxious to rouse than to please. With this development of his
views of his own functions as a writer, is connected the development of
his literary style, from the quiet and pleasing, though still solid and
deep beauty of his earlier writings, to that later and more peculiar, and
to many, disagreeable form, which has been nicknamed 'the Carlylese.'

       *       *       *       *       *

As all the world knows, two volumes of Carlyle's Frederick the Great have
recently appeared. We might add, from personal acquaintance, many
anecdotes, but we have learned, during a long residence abroad, to respect
the hospitality that we have enjoyed.


_January, 1859._



Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, was born on the 25th of
January, 1759, in a clay-built cottage about two miles south of the town
of Ayr. He was the eldest son of William Burnes, or Burness, who, at the
period of Robert's birth, was gardener and overseer to a gentleman of
small estate; but resided on a few acres of land which he had on lease
from another person. The father was a man of strict religious principles,
and also distinguished for that penetration and knowledge of mankind
which was afterwards so conspicuous in his son. The mother of the poet
was likewise a very sagacious woman, and possessed an inexhaustible store
of ballads and legendary tales, with which she nourished the infant
imagination of him whose own productions were destined to excel them all.

These worthy individuals labored diligently for the support of an
increasing family; nor, in the midst of harassing struggles did they
neglect the mental improvement of their offspring; a characteristic of
Scottish parents, even under the most depressing circumstances. In his
sixth year, Robert was put under the tuition of one Campbell, and
subsequently under Mr. John Murdoch, a very faithful and pains-taking
teacher. With this individual he remained for a few years, and was
accurately instructed in the first principles of composition. The poet and
his brother Gilbert were the aptest pupils in the school, and were
generally at the head of the class. Mr. Murdoch, in afterwards recording
the impressions which the two brothers made on him, says: "Gilbert always
appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of the
wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church music. Here
they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. Robert's ear, in
particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long
before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert's
countenance was generally grave, and expressive of a serious,
contemplative, and thoughtful mind. Gilbert's face said, _Mirth, with thee
I mean to live_; and certainly, if any person who knew the two boys had
been asked which of them was the most likely to court the muses, he would
never have guessed that _Robert_ had a propensity of that kind."

Besides the tuition of Mr. Murdoch, Burns received instructions from his
father in writing and arithmetic. Under their joint care, he made rapid
progress, and was remarkable for the ease with which he committed
devotional poetry to memory. The following extract from his letter to Dr.
Moore, in 1787, is interesting, from the light which it throws upon his
progress as a scholar, and on the formation of his character as a
poet:--"At those years," says he, "I was by no means a favorite with
anybody. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn,
sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say
idiot piety, because I was then but a child. Though it cost the
schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent scholar; and by the time
I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs,
and particles. In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old
woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity,
and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the
country, of tales and songs, concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies,
witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths,
apparitions, cantrips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other
trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry; but had so strong an
effect upon my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I
sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody
can be more skeptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an
effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors. The earliest
composition that I recollect taking pleasure in, was, _The Vision of
Mirza_, and a hymn of Addison's, beginning, "_How are thy servants blest,
O Lord!_" I particularly remember one-half stanza, which was music to my
boyish ear:

  "For though on dreadful whirls we hung
  High on the broken wave."

I met with these pieces in _Mason's English Collection_, one of my
school-books. The first two books I ever read in private, and which gave
me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were, _The Life of
Hannibal_, and _The History of Sir William Wallace_. Hannibal gave my
young ideas such a turn, that I used to strut in raptures up and down
after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a
soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a tide of Scottish prejudice
into my veins, which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life
shut in eternal rest."

Mr. Murdoch's removal from Mount Oliphant deprived Burns of his
instructions; but they were still continued by the father of the bard.
About the age of fourteen, he was sent to school every alternate week for
the improvement of his writing. In the mean while, he was busily employed
upon the operations of the farm; and, at the age of fifteen, was
considered as the principal laborer upon it. About a year after this he
gained three weeks of respite, which he spent with his old tutor, Murdoch,
at Ayr, in revising the English grammar, and in studying the French
language, in which he made uncommon progress. Ere his sixteenth year
elapsed, he had considerably extended his reading. The vicinity of Mount
Oliphant to Ayr afforded him facilities for gratifying what had now become
a passion. Among the books which he had perused were some plays of
Shakspeare, Pope, the works of Allan Ramsay, and a collection of songs,
which constituted his _vade mecum_. "I pored over them," says he,
"driving my cart or walking to labor, song by song, verse by verse,
carefully noticing the true, tender or sublime, from affectation and
fustian." So early did he evince his attachment to the lyric muse, in
which he was destined to surpass all who have gone before or succeeded

At this period the family removed to Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton.
Some time before, however, he had made his first attempt in poetry. It was
a song addressed to a rural beauty, about his own age, and though
possessing no great merit as a whole, it contains some lines and ideas
which would have done honor to him at any age. After the removal to
Lochlea, his literary zeal slackened, for he was thus cut off from those
acquaintances whose conversation stimulated his powers, and whose kindness
supplied him with books. For about three years after this period, he was
busily employed upon the farm, but at intervals he paid his addresses to
the poetic muse, and with no common success. The summer of his nineteenth
year was spent in the study of mensuration, surveying, etc., at a small
sea-port town, a good distance from home. He returned to his father's
considerably improved. "My reading," says he, "was enlarged with the very
important addition of Thomson's and Shenstone's works. I had seen human
nature in a new phasis; and I engaged several of my school-fellows to keep
up a literary correspondence with me. This improved me in composition. I
had met with a collection of letters by the wits of Queen Anne's reign,
and I pored over them most devoutly; I kept copies of any of my own
letters that pleased me, and a comparison between them and the composition
of most of my correspondents flattered my vanity. I carried this whim so
far, that though I had not three farthings' worth of business in the
world, yet almost every post brought me as many letters as if I had been a
broad, plodding son of day-book and ledger."

His mind, peculiarly susceptible of tender impressions, was continually
the slave of some rustic charmer. In the "heat and whirlwind of his love,"
he generally found relief in poetry, by which, as by a safety-valve, his
turbulent passions were allowed to have vent. He formed the resolution of
entering the matrimonial state; but his circumscribed means of subsistence
as a farmer preventing his taking that step, he resolved on becoming a
flax-dresser, for which purpose he removed to the town of Irvine, in 1781.
The speculation turned out unsuccessful; for the shop, catching fire, was
burnt, and the poet returned to his father without a sixpence. During his
stay at Irvine he had met with Ferguson's poems. This circumstance was of
some importance to Burns, for it roused his poetic powers from the torpor
into which they had fallen, and in a great measure finally determined the
_Scottish_ character of his poetry. He here also contracted some
friendships, which he himself says did him mischief; and, by his brother
Gilbert's account, from this date there was a serious change in his
conduct. The venerable and excellent parent of the poet died soon after
his son's return. The support of the family now devolving upon Burns, in
conjunction with his brother he took a sub-lease of the farm of Mossgiel,
in the parish of Mauchline. The four years which he resided upon this farm
were the most important of his life. It was here he felt that nature had
designed him for a poet; and here, accordingly, his genius began to
develop its energies in those strains which will make his name familiar
to all future times, the admiration of every civilized country, and the
glory and boast of his own.

The vigor of Burns's understanding, and the keenness of his wit, as
displayed more particularly at masonic meetings and debating clubs, of
which he formed one at Mauchline, began to spread his fame as a man of
uncommon endowments. He now could number as his acquaintance several
clergymen, and also some gentlemen of substance; amongst whom was Mr.
Gavin Hamilton, writer in Mauchline, one of his earliest patrons. One
circumstance more than any other contributed to increase his notoriety.
"Polemical divinity," says he to Dr. Moore in 1787, "about this time was
putting the country half mad; and I, ambitious of shining in
conversation-parties on Sundays, at funerals, etc., used to puzzle
Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion, that I raised a hue-and-cry
of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour." The farm which
he possessed belonged to the Earl of Loudon, but the brothers held it in
sub-lease from Mr. Hamilton. This gentleman was at open feud with one of
the ministers of Mauchline, who was a rigid Calvinist. Mr. Hamilton
maintained opposite tenets; and it is not matter of surprise that the
young farmer should have espoused his cause, and brought all the resources
of his genius to bear upon it. The result was _The Holy Fair_, _The
Ordination_, _Holy Willie's Prayer_, and other satires, as much
distinguished for their coarse severity and bitterness, as for their

The applause which greeted these pieces emboldened the poet, and
encouraged him to proceed. In his life, by his brother Gilbert, a very
interesting account is given of the occasions which gave rise to the
poems, and the chronological order in which they were produced. The
exquisite pathos and humor, the strong manly sense, the masterly command
of felicitous language, the graphic power of delineating scenery, manners,
and incidents, which appear so conspicuously in his various poems, could
not fail to call forth the admiration of those who were favored with a
perusal of them. But the clouds of misfortune were gathering darkly above
the head of him who was thus giving delight to a large and widening circle
of friends. The farm of Mossgiel proved a losing concern; and an amour
with Miss Jane Armour, afterwards Mrs. Burns, had assumed so serious an
aspect, that he at first resolved to fly from the scene of his disgrace
and misery. One trait of his character, however, must be mentioned. Before
taking any steps for his departure, he met Miss Armour by appointment,
and gave into her hands a written acknowledgment of marriage, which, when
produced by a person in her situation, is, according to the Scots' law, to
be accepted as legal evidence of an _irregular_ marriage having really
taken place. This the lady burned, at the persuasion of her father, who
was adverse to a marriage; and Burns, thus wounded in the two most
powerful feelings of his mind, his love and pride, was driven almost to
insanity. Jamaica was his destination; but as he did not possess the money
necessary to defray the expense of his passage out, he resolved to publish
some of his best poems, in order to raise the requisite sum. These views
were warmly promoted by some of his more opulent friends; and a
sufficiency of subscribers having been procured, one of the finest volumes
of poetry that ever appeared in the world issued from the provincial
press of Kilmarnock.

It is hardly possible to imagine with what eager admiration and delight
they were every where received. They possessed in an eminent degree all
those qualities which invariably contribute to render any literary work
quickly and permanently popular. They were written in a phraseology of
which all the powers were universally felt, and which being at once
antique, familiar, and now rarely written, was therefore fitted to serve
all the dignified and picturesque uses of poetry, without making it
unintelligible. The imagery and the sentiments were at once natural,
impressive, and interesting. Those topics of satire and scandal in which
the rustic delights; that humorous imitation of character, and that witty
association of ideas, familiar and striking, yet not naturally allied to
one another, which has force to shake his sides with laughter; those
fancies of superstition, at which one still wonders and trembles; those
affecting sentiments and images of true religion, which are at once dear
and awful to the heart; were all represented by Burns with the magical
power of true poetry. Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned
and ignorant, all were alike surprised and transported.

In the mean time, a few copies of these fascinating poems found their way
to Edinburgh, and having been read to Dr. Blacklock, obtained his warmest
approbation; and he advised the author to repair to Edinburgh. Burns lost
no time in complying with this request; and accordingly, towards the end
of the year 1786, he set out for the capitol, where he was received by Dr.
Blacklock with the most flattering kindness, and introduced to every
person of taste among that excellent man's friends. Multitudes now vied
with each other in patronizing the rustic poet. Those who possessed at
once true taste and ardent philanthropy were soon united in his praise;
those who were disposed to favor any good thing belonging to Scotland,
purely because it was Scottish, gladly joined the cry; while those who had
hearts and understandings to be charmed without knowing why, when they saw
their native customs, manners, and language, made the subjects and the
materials of poesy, could not suppress that impulse of feeling which
struggled to declare itself in favor of Burns.

Thus did Burns, ere he had been many weeks in Edinburgh, find himself the
object of universal curiosity, favor, admiration, and fondness. He was
sought after, courted with attentions the most respectful and assiduous,
feasted, flattered, caressed, and treated by all ranks as the great boast
of his country, whom it was scarcely possible to honor and reward in a
degree equal to his merits.

A new edition of his poems was called for; and the public mind was
directed to the subject by Henry Mackenzie, who dedicated a paper in the
_Lounger_ to a commendatory notice of the poet. This circumstance will
ever be remembered to the honor of that polished writer, not only for the
warmth of the eulogy he bestowed, but because it was the first printed
acknowledgment which had been made to the genius of Burns. The copyright
was sold to Creech for £100; but the friends of the poet advised him to
forward a subscription. The patronage of the Caledonian Hunt, a very
influential body, was obtained. The list of subscribers rapidly rose to
1500, many gentlemen paying a great deal more than the price of the
volume; and it was supposed that the poet derived from the subscription
and the sale of his copyright a clear profit of at least £700.

The conversation of Burns, according to the testimony of all the eminent
men who heard him, was even more wonderful than his poetry. He affected no
soft air nor graceful motions of politeness, which might have ill accorded
with the rustic plainness of his native manners. Conscious superiority of
mind taught him to associate with the great, the learned, and the gay,
without being overawed into any such bashfulness as might have rendered
him confused in thought, or hesitating in elocution. He possessed withal
an extraordinary share of plain common sense, or mother-wit, which
prevented him from obtruding upon persons, of whatever rank, with whom he
was admitted to converse, any of those effusions of vanity, envy, or
self-conceit, in which authors who have lived remote from the general
practice of life, and whose minds have been almost exclusively confined to
contemplate their own studies and their own works, are but too prone to
indulge. In conversation, he displayed a sort of intuitive quickness and
rectitude of judgment, upon every subject that arose. The sensibility of
his heart, and the vivacity of his fancy, gave a rich coloring to whatever
opinions he was disposed to advance; and his language was thus not less
happy in conversation than in his writings. Hence those who had met and
conversed with him once, were pleased to meet and to converse with him
again and again.

For some time he associated only with the virtuous, the learned, and the
wise, and the purity of his morals remained uncontaminated. But
unfortunately he fell, as others have fallen in similar circumstances. He
suffered himself to be surrounded by persons who were proud to tell that
they had been in company with Burns, and had seen Burns as loose and as
foolish as themselves. He now also began to contract something of
arrogance in conversation. Accustomed to be among his associates what is
vulgarly but expressively called "the cock of the company," he could
scarcely refrain from indulging in a similar freedom and dictatorial
decision of talk, even in the presence of persons who could less patiently
endure presumption.

After remaining some months in the Scottish metropolis, basking in the
noontide sun of a popularity which, as Dugald Stewart well remarks, would
have turned any head but his own, he formed a resolution of returning to
the shades whence he had emerged, but not before he had perambulated the
southern border. On the 6th of May, 1787, he set out on his journey, and,
visiting all that appeared interesting on the north of the Tweed,
proceeded to Newcastle and other places on the English side. He returned
in about two months to his family at Mauchline; but in a short period he
again set out on an excursion to the north, where he was most flatteringly
received by all the great families. On his return to Mossgiel he completed
his marriage with Miss Armour. He then concluded a bargain with Mr. Miller
of Dalswinton, for a lease of the farm of Elliesland, on advantageous

Burns entered on possession of this farm at Whit-Sunday, 1788. He had
formerly applied with success for an excise commission, and during six
weeks of this year, he had to attend to the business of that profession at
Ayr. His life for some time was thus wandering and unsettled; and Dr.
Currie mentions this as one of his chief misfortunes. Mrs. Burns came
home to him towards the end of the year, and the poet was accustomed to
say that the happiest period of his life was the first winter spent in
Elliesland. The neighboring farmers and gentlemen, pleased to obtain for a
neighbor the poet by whose works they had been delighted, kindly sought
his company, and invited him to their houses. Burns, however, found an
inexpressible charm in sitting down beside his wife, at his own fireside;
in wandering over his own grounds; in once more putting his hand to the
spade and the plough; in farming his enclosures, and managing his cattle.
For some months he felt almost all that felicity which fancy had taught
him to expect in his new situation. He had been for a time idle; but his
muscles were not yet unbraced for rural toil. He now seemed to find a joy
in being the husband of the mistress of his affections, and in seeing
himself the father of children such as promised to attach him for ever to
that modest, humble, and domestic life, in which alone he could hope to be
permanently happy. Even his engagements in the service of excise did not,
at first, threaten either to contaminate the poet or to ruin the farmer.

From various causes, the farming speculation did not succeed. Indeed, from
the time he obtained a situation under government, he gradually began to
sink the farmer in the exciseman. Occasionally he assisted in the rustic
occupations of Elliesland, but for the most part he was engaged in very
different pursuits. In his professional perambulations over the moors of
Dumfries-shire he had to encounter temptations which a mind and
temperament like his found it difficult to resist. His immortal works had
made him universally known and enthusiastically admired; and accordingly
he was a welcome guest at every house, from the most princely mansion to
the lowest country inn. In the latter he was too frequently to be found as
the presiding genius, and master of the orgies. However, he still
continued at intervals to cultivate the muse; and, besides a variety of
other pieces, he produced at this period the inimitable poem of Tam
O'Shanter. Johnson's Miscellany was also indebted to him for the finest of
its lyrics. One pleasing trait of his character must not be overlooked. He
superintended the formation of a subscription library in the parish, and
took the whole management of it upon himself. These institutions, though
common now, were not so short at the period of which we write; and it
should never be forgotten that Burns was amongst the first, if not the
very first, of their founders in the rural districts of southern Scotland.

Towards the close of 1791 he finally abandoned his farm; and obtaining an
appointment to the Dumfries division of excise, he repaired to that town
on a salary of £70 per annum. All his principal biographers concur in
stating that after settling in Dumfries his moral career was downwards.
Heron, who had some acquaintance with the matter, says, "His dissipation
became still more deeply habitual; he was here more exposed than in the
country to be solicited to share the revels of the dissolute and the idle;
foolish young men flocked eagerly about him, and from time to time pressed
him to drink with them, that they might enjoy his wit. The Caledonia Club,
too, and the Dumfries-shire and Galloway Hunt, had occasional meetings in
Dumfries after Burns went to reside there: and the poet was of course
invited to share their conviviality, and hesitated not to accept the
invitation. In the intervals between his different fits of intemperance,
he suffered the keenest anguish of remorse, and horribly afflictive
foresight. His Jane behaved with a degree of conjugal and maternal
tenderness and prudence, which made him feel more bitterly the evil of his
misconduct, although they could not reclaim him."

This is a dark picture--perhaps too dark. The Rev. Mr. Gray, who, as the
teacher of his son, was intimately acquainted with Burns, and had frequent
opportunities of judging of his general character and deportment, gives a
more amiable portrait of the bard. Being an eye-witness, the testimony of
this gentleman must be allowed to have some weight. "The truth is," says
he, "Burns was seldom _intoxicated_. The drunkard soon becomes besotted,
and is shunned even by the convivial. Had he been so, he could not have
long continued the idol of every party." This is strong reasoning; and he
goes on to mention other circumstances which seem to confirm the truth of
his position. In balancing these two statements, a juster estimate of the
moral deportment of Burns may be formed.

In the year 1792 party politics ran to a great height in Scotland, and the
liberal and independent spirit of Burns did certainly betray him into some
indiscretions. A general opinion prevails, that he so far lost the good
graces of his superiors by his conduct, as to consider all prospects of
future promotion as hopeless. But this appears not to have been the case;
and the fact that he acted as supervisor before his death is a strong
proof to the contrary. Of his political verses, few have as yet been
published. But in these he warmly espoused the cause of the Whigs, which
kept up the spleen of the other party, already sufficiently provoked; and
this may in some measure account for the bitterness with which his own
character was attacked.

Whatever opinion may be formed of the extent of his dissipation in
Dumfries, one fact is unquestionable, that his powers remained unimpaired
to the last; it was there he produced his finest lyrics, and they are the
finest, as well as the purest, that ever delighted mankind. Besides
Johnson's _Museum_, in which he took an interest to the last, and to which
he contributed most extensively, he formed a connection with Mr. George
Thomson, of Edinburgh. This gentleman had conceived the laudable design of
collecting the national melodies of Scotland, with accompaniments by the
most eminent composers, and poetry by the best writers, in addition to
those words which were originally attached to them. From the multitude of
songs which Burns wrote, from the year 1792 till the commencement of his
illness, it is evident that few days could have passed without his
producing some stanzas for the work. The following passage from his
correspondence, which was also most extensive, proves that his songs were
not hurriedly got up, but composed with the utmost care and attention.
"Until I am complete master of a tune in my own singing, such as it is,"
says he, "I can never compose for it. My way is this: I consider the
poetic sentiment correspondent to my idea of the musical expression--then
choose my theme--compose one stanza. When that is composed, which is
generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out--sit down
now and then--look out for objects in nature round me that are in unison
or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy, and workings of my
bosom--humming every now and then the air, with the verses I have framed.
When I feel my muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside
of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper; swinging at intervals
on the hind legs of my elbow-chair, by way of calling forth my own
critical strictures, as my pen goes. Seriously, this, at home, is almost
invariably my way." This is not only interesting for the light which it
throws upon his method of composition, but it proves that conviviality had
not as yet greater charms for him than the muse.

From his youth Burns had exhibited ominous symptoms of a radical disorder
in his constitution. A palpitation of the heart, and a derangement of the
digestive organs, were conspicuous. These were, doubtless, increased by
his indulgences, which became more frequent as he drew towards the close
of his career. In the autumn of 1795 he lost an only daughter, which was
a severe blow to him. Soon afterwards he was seized with a rheumatic
fever; and "long the die spun doubtful," says he, in a letter to his
faithful friend Mrs. Dunlap, "until, after many weeks of a sick bed, it
seems to have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room."
The cloud behind which his sun was destined to be eclipsed at noon had
begun to darken above him. Before he had completely recovered, he had the
imprudence to join a festive circle; and, on his return from it, he caught
a cold, which brought back his trouble upon him with redoubled severity.
Sea-bathing was had recourse to, but with no ultimate success. He lingered
until the 21st of July, 1796, when he expired. The interest which the
death of Burns excited was intense. All differences were forgotten; his
genius only was thought of. On the 26th of the same month he was conveyed
to the grave, followed by about ten thousand individuals of all ranks,
many of whom had come from distant parts of the country to witness the
solemnity. He was interred with military honors by the Dumfries
volunteers, to which body he had belonged.

Thus, at the age of thirty-seven, an age when the mental powers of man
have scarcely reached their climax, died Robert Burns, one of the greatest
poets whom his country has produced. It is unnecessary to enter into any
lengthened analysis of his poetry or character. His works are universally
known and admired, and criticism has been drawn to the dregs upon the
subject; and that, too, by the greatest masters who have appeared since
his death,--no mean test of the great merits of his writings. He excels
equally in touching the heart by the exquisiteness of his pathos, and
exciting the risible faculties by the breadth of his humor. His lyre had
many strings, and he had equal command over them all; striking each, and
frequently in chords, with the skill and power of a master. That his
satire sometimes degenerates into coarse invective, can not be denied; but
where personality is not permitted to interfere, his poems of this
description may take their place beside any thing of the kind which has
ever been produced, without being disgraced by the comparison. It is
unnecessary to re-echo the praises of his best pieces, as there is no
epithet of admiration which has not been bestowed upon them. Those who had
best opportunities of judging, are of opinion that his works, stamped as
they are with the impress of sovereign genius, fall short of the powers he
possessed. It is therefore to be lamented that he undertook no great work
of fiction or invention. Had circumstances permitted, he would probably
have done so; but his excise duties, and without doubt his own follies,
prevented him. His passions were strong, and his capacity of enjoyment
corresponded with them. These continually precipitated him into the
variety of pleasure, where alone they could be gratified; and the reaction
consequent upon such indulgences (for he possessed the finest
discrimination between right and wrong) threw him into low spirits, to
which he was also constitutionally liable. His mind, being thus never for
any length of time in an equable tone, could scarcely pursue with steady
regularity a work of any length. His moral aberrations, as detailed by
some of his biographers, have been exaggerated, as already noticed. This
has been proved by the testimony of many witnesses, from whose authority
there can be no appeal; for they had the best opportunities of judging.
In fine, it may be doubted whether he has not, by his writings, exercised
a greater power over the minds of men, and the general system of life,
than has been exercised by any other modern poet. A complete edition of
his works, in four vols. 8vo., with a life, was published by Dr. Currie of
Liverpool, for the benefit of his family, to whom it realized a handsome
sum. Editions have been since multiplied beyond number; and several
excellent biographies of the poet have been published, particularly that
by Mr. Lockhart.



In the modern arrangements of society, it is no uncommon thing that a man
of genius must, like Butler, "ask for bread and receive a stone;" for, in
spite of our grand maxim of supply and demand, it is by no means the
highest excellence that men are most forward to recognize. The inventor of
a spinning-jenny is pretty sure of his reward in his own day; but the
writer of a true poem, like the apostle of a true religion, is nearly as
sure of the contrary. We do not know whether it is not an aggravation of
the injustice, that there is generally a posthumous retribution. Robert
Burns, in the course of nature, might yet have been living; but his short
life was spent in toil and penury; and he died, in the prime of his
manhood, miserable and neglected; and yet already a brave mausoleum shines
over his dust, and more than one splendid monument has been reared in
other places to his fame: the street where he languished in poverty is
called by his name; the highest personages in our literature have been
proud to appear as his commentators and admirers, and here is the _sixth_
narrative of his _Life_, that has been given to the world!

Mr. Lockhart thinks it necessary to apologize for this new attempt on such
a subject: but his readers, we believe, will readily acquit him; or, at
worst, will censure only the performance of his task, not the choice of
it. The character of Burns, indeed, is a theme that cannot easily become
either trite or exhausted; and will probably gain rather than lose in its
dimensions by the distance to which it is removed by Time. No man, it has
been said, is a hero to his valet: and this is probably true; but the
fault is at least as likely to be the valet's as the hero's: For it is
certain, that to the vulgar eye few things are wonderful that are not
distant. It is difficult for men to believe that the man, the mere man
whom they see, nay, perhaps, painfully feel, toiling at their side through
the poor jostlings of existence, can be made of finer clay than
themselves. Suppose that some dining acquaintance of Sir Thomas Lucy's,
and neighbour of John a Combe's, had snatched an hour or two from the
preservation of his game, and written us a Life of Shakspeare! What
dissertations should we not have had,--not on _Hamlet_ and _The Tempest_,
but on the wool-trade and deer-stealing, and the libel and vagrant laws!
and how the Poacher became a Player; and how Sir Thomas and Mr. John had
Christian bowels, and did not push him to extremities! In like manner, we
believe, with respect to Burns, that till the companions of his
pilgrimage, the honourable Excise Commissioners, and the Gentlemen of the
Caledonian Hunt, and the Dumfries Aristocracy, and all the Squires and
Earls, equally with the Ayr Writers, and the New and Old Light Clergy,
whom he had to do with, shall have become invisible in the darkness of the
Past, or visible only by light borrowed from _his_ juxtaposition, it will
be difficult to measure him by any true standard, or to estimate what he
really was and did, in the eighteenth century, for his country and the
world. It will be difficult, we say; but still a fare problem for
literary historians; and repeated attempts will give us repeated

His former biographers have done something, no doubt, but by no means a
great deal, to assist us. Dr. Currie and Mr. Walker, the principal of
these writers, have both, we think, mistaken one essentially important
thing:--Their own and the world's true relation to their author, and the
style in which it became such men to think and to speak of such a man. Dr.
Currie loved the poet truly; more perhaps than he avowed to his readers,
or even to himself; yet he everywhere introduces him with a certain
patronizing, apologetic air; as if the polite public might think it
strange and half unwarrantable that he, a man of science, a scholar, and
gentleman, should do such honour to a rustic. In all this, however, we
readily admit that his fault was not want of love, but weakness of faith;
and regret that the first and kindest of all our poet's biographers should
not have seen farther, or believed more boldly what he saw. Mr. Walker
offends more deeply in the same kind: and both err alike in presenting us
with a detached catalogue of his several supposed attributes, virtues, and
vices, instead of a delineation of the resulting character as a living
unity. This, however, is not painting a portrait; but gauging the length
and breadth of the several features, and jotting down their dimensions in
arithmetical ciphers. Nay, it is not so much as this: for we are yet to
learn by what arts or instruments the mind _could_ be so measured and

Mr. Lockhart, we are happy to say, has avoided both these errors. He
uniformly treats Burns as the high and remarkable man the public voice has
now pronounced him to be: and in delineating him, he has avoided the
method of separate generalities, and rather sought for characteristic
incidents, habits, actions, sayings; in a word, for aspects which exhibit
the whole man, as he looked and lived among his fellows. The book
accordingly, with all its deficiencies, gives more insight, we think, into
the true character of Burns, than any prior biography; though, being
written on the very popular and condensed scheme of an article for
_Constable's Miscellany_, it has less depth than we could have wished and
expected from a writer of such power, and contains rather more, and more
multifarious, quotations, than belong of right to an original production.
Indeed, Mr. Lockhart's own writing is generally so good, so clear, direct,
and nervous, that we seldom wish to see it making place for another man's.
However, the spirit of the work is throughout candid, tolerant, and
anxiously conciliating; compliments and praises are liberally
distributed, on all hands, to great and small; and, as Mr. Morris Birkbeck
observes of the society in the backwoods of America, "the courtesies of
polite life are never lost sight of for a moment." But there are better
things than these in the volume; and we can safely testify, not only that
it is easily and pleasantly read a first time, but may even be without
difficulty read again.

Nevertheless, we are far from thinking that the problem of Burns's
Biography has yet been adequately solved. We do not allude so much to
deficiency of facts or documents,--though of these we are still every day
receiving some fresh accession,--as to the limited and imperfect
application of them to the great end of Biography. Our notions upon this
subject may perhaps appear extravagant; but if an individual is really of
consequence enough to have his life and character recorded for public
remembrance, we have always been of opinion, that the public ought to be
made acquainted with all the inward springs and relations of his
character. How did the world and man's life, from his particular position,
represent themselves to his mind? How did coexisting circumstances modify
him from without? how did he modify these from within? With what endeavors
and what efficacy rule over them? with what resistance and what suffering
sink under them? In one word, what and how produced was the effect of
society on him? what and how produced was his effect on society? He who
should answer these questions, in regard to any individual, would, as we
believe, furnish a model of perfection in biography. Few individuals,
indeed, can deserve such a study; and many _lives_ will be written, and,
for the gratification of innocent curiosity, ought to be written, and
read, and forgotten, which are not in this sense _biographies_. But Burns,
if we mistake not, is one of these few individuals; and such a study, at
least with such a result, he has not yet obtained. Our own contributions
to it, we are aware, can be but scanty and feeble; but we offer them with
goodwill, and trust they may meet with acceptance from those for whom they
are intended.

Burns first came upon the world as a prodigy; and was, in that character,
entertained by it, in the usual fashion, with loud, vague, tumultuous
wonder, speedily subsiding into censure and neglect; till his early and
most mournful death again awakened an enthusiasm for him, which,
especially as there was now nothing to be done, and much to be spoken, has
prolonged itself even to our own time. It is true, the "nine days" have
long since elapsed; and the very continuance of this clamor proves that
Burns was no vulgar wonder. Accordingly, even in sober judgments, where,
as years passed by, he has come to rest more and more exclusively on his
own intrinsic merits, and may now be well nigh shorn of that casual
radiance, he appears not only as a true British poet, but as one of the
most considerable British men of the eighteenth century. Let it not be
objected that he did little: he did much, if we consider where and how. If
the work performed was small, we must remember that he had his very
materials to discover; for the metal he worked in lay hid under the
desert, where no eye but his had guessed its existence; and we may almost
say, that with his own hand he had to construct the tools for fashioning
it. For he found himself in deepest obscurity, without help, without
instruction, without model; or with models only of the meanest sort. An
educated man stands, as it were, in the midst of a boundless arsenal and
magazine, filled with all the weapons and engines which man's skill has
been able to devise from the earliest time; and he works, accordingly,
with a strength borrowed from all past ages. How different is _his_ state
who stands on the outside of that storehouse, and feels that its gates
must be stormed, or remain for ever shut against him? His means are the
commonest and rudest; the mere work done is no measure of his strength. A
dwarf behind his steam engine may remove mountains; but no dwarf will hew
them down with the pick-axe; and he must be a Titan that hurls them abroad
with his arms.

It is in this last shape that Burns presents himself. Born in an age the
most prosaic Britain had yet seen, and in a condition the most
disadvantageous, where his mind, if it accomplished aught, must
accomplish it under the pressure of continual bodily toil, nay, of penury
and desponding apprehension of the worst evils, and with no furtherance
but such knowledge as dwells in a poor man's hut, and the rhymes of a
Ferguson or Ramsay for his standard of beauty, he sinks not under all
these impediments. Through the fogs and darkness of that obscure region,
his eagle eye discerns the true relations of the world and human life; he
grows into intellectual strength, and trains himself into intellectual
expertness. Impelled by the irrepressible movement of his inward spirit,
he struggles forward into the general view, and with haughty modesty lays
down before us, as the fruit of his labor, a gift, which Time has now
pronounced imperishable. Add to all this, that his darksome, drudging
childhood and youth was by far the kindliest era of his whole life; and
that he died in his thirty-seventh year; and then ask if it be strange
that his poems are imperfect, and of small extent, or that his genius
attained no mastery in its art? Alas, his Sun shone as through a tropical
tornado; and the pale Shadow of Death eclipsed it at noon! Shrouded in
such baleful vapors, the genius of Burns was never seen in clear azure
splendor, enlightening the world. But some beams from it did, by fits,
pierce through; and it tinted those clouds with rainbow and orient colors
into a glory and stern grandeur, which men silently gazed on with wonder
and tears!

We are anxious not to exaggerate; for it is exposition rather than
admiration that our readers require of us here; and yet to avoid some
tendency to that side is no easy matter. We love Burns, and we pity him;
and love and pity are prone to magnify. Criticism, it is sometimes
thought, should be a cold business; we are not so sure of this; but, at
all events, our concern with Burns is not exclusively that of critics.
True and genial as his poetry must appear, it is not chiefly as a poet,
but as a man, that he interests and affects us. He was often advised to
write a tragedy: time and means were not lent him for this; but through
life he enacted a tragedy, and one of the deepest. We question whether the
world has since witnessed so utterly sad a scene; whether Napoleon
himself, left to brawl with Sir Hudson Lowe, and perish on his rock, "amid
the melancholy main," presented to the reflecting mind such a "spectacle
of pity and fear," as did this intrinsically nobler, gentler, and perhaps
greater soul, wasting itself away in a hopeless struggle with base
entanglements, which coiled closer and closer round him, till only death
opened him an outlet. Conquerors are a race with whom the world could
well dispense; nor can the hard intellect, the unsympathizing loftiness,
and high but selfish enthusiasm of such persons, inspire us in general
with any affection; at best it may excite amazement; and their fall, like
that of a pyramid, will be beheld with a certain sadness and awe. But a
true Poet, a man in whose heart resides some effluence of Wisdom, some
tone of the "Eternal Melodies," is the most precious gift that can be
bestowed on a generation: we see in him a freer, purer, development of
whatever is noblest in ourselves; his life is a rich lesson to us, and we
mourn his death, as that of a benefactor who loved and taught us.

Such a gift had Nature in her bounty bestowed on us in Robert Burns; but
with queen-like indifference she cast it from her hand, like a thing of no
moment; and it was defaced and torn asunder, as an idle bauble, before we
recognized it. To the ill-starred Burns was given the power of making
man's life more venerable, but that of wisely guiding his own was not
given. Destiny--for so in our ignorance we must speak,--his faults, the
faults of others, proved too hard for him; and that spirit, which might
have soared, could it but have walked, soon sank to the dust, its glorious
faculties trodden under foot in the blossom, and died, we may almost say,
without ever having lived. And so kind and warm a soul; so full of inborn
riches, of love to all living and lifeless things! How his heart flows out
in sympathy over universal nature; and in her bleakest provinces discerns
a beauty and a meaning! The "Daisy" falls not unheeded under his
ploughshare; nor the ruined nest of that "wee, cowering, timorous
beastie," cast forth, after all its provident pains, to "thole the sleety
dribble, and cranreuch cauld." The "hoar visage" of Winter delights him:
he dwells with a sad and oft-returning fondness in these scenes of solemn
desolation; but the voice of the tempest becomes an anthem to his ears; he
loves to walk in the sounding woods, for "it raises his thoughts to _Him
that walketh on the wings of the wind_." A true Poet-soul, for it needs
but to be struck, and the sound it yields will be music! But observe him
chiefly as he mingles with his brother men. What warm, all-comprehending,
fellow-feeling, what trustful, boundless love, what generous exaggeration
of the object loved! His rustic friend, his nut-brown maiden, are no
longer mean and homely, but a hero and a queen, whom he prizes as the
paragons of Earth. The rough scenes of Scottish life, not seen by him in
any Arcadian illusion, but in the rude contradiction, in the smoke and
soil of a too harsh reality, are still lovely to him: Poverty is indeed
his companion, but Love also, and Courage; the simple feelings, the worth,
the nobleness, that dwell under the straw roof, are dear and venerable to
his heart; and thus over the lowest provinces of man's existence he pours
the glory of his own soul; and they rise, in shadow and sunshine, softened
and brightened into a beauty which other eyes discern not in the highest.
He has a just self-consciousness, which too often degenerates into pride;
yet it is a noble pride, for defence, not for offence, no cold, suspicious
feeling, but a frank and social one. The peasant Poet bears himself, we
might say, like a King in exile; he is cast among the low, and feels
himself equal to the highest; yet he claims no rank, that none may be
disputed to him. The forward he can repel, the supercilious he can subdue;
pretensions of wealth or ancestry are of no avail with him; there is a
fire in that dark eye, under which the "insolence of condescension"
cannot thrive. In his abasement, in his extreme need, he forgets not for a
moment the majesty of Poetry and Manhood. And yet, far as he feels himself
above common men, he wanders not apart from them, but mixes warmly in
their interests; nay, throws himself into their arms; and, as it were,
entreats them to love him. It is moving to see how, in his darkest
despondency, this proud being still seeks relief from friendship; unbosoms
himself, often to the unworthy; and, amid tears, strains to his glowing
heart a heart that knows only the name of friendship. And yet he was
"quick to learn;" a man of keen vision, before whom common disguises
afforded no concealment. His understanding saw through the hollowness even
of accomplished deceivers; but there was a generous credulity in his
Heart. And so did our Peasant show himself among us; "a soul like an
Æolian harp, in whose strings the vulgar wind, as it passed through them,
changed itself into articulate melody." And this was he for whom the world
found no fitter business than quarrelling with smugglers and vintners,
computing excise dues upon tallow, and gauging ale-barrels! In such toils
was that mighty Spirit sorrowfully wasted: and a hundred years may pass
on, before another such is given us to waste.

       *       *       *       *       *

All that remains of Burns, the Writings he has left, seem to us, as we
hinted above, no more than a poor mutilated fraction of what was in him;
brief, broken glimpses of a genius that could never show itself complete;
that wanted all things for completeness; culture, leisure, true effort,
nay, even length of life. His poems are, with scarcely any exception, mere
occasional effusions, poured forth with little premeditation, expressing,
by such means as offered, the passion, opinion, or humor of the hour.
Never in one instance was it permitted him to grapple with any subject
with the full collection of his strength, to fuse and mould it in the
concentrated fire of his genius. To try by the strict rules of Art such
imperfect fragments, would be at once unprofitable and unfair.
Nevertheless, there is something in these poems, marred and defective as
they are, which forbids the most fastidious student of poetry to pass them
by. Some sort of enduring quality they must have; for, after fifty years
of the wildest vicissitudes in poetic taste, they still continue to be
read; nay, are read more and more eagerly, more and more extensively; and
this not only by literary virtuosos, and that class upon whom transitory
causes operate most strongly, but by all classes, down to the most hard,
unlettered, and truly natural class, who read little, and especially no
poetry, except because they find pleasure in it. The grounds of so
singular and wide a popularity, which extends, in a literal sense, from
the palace to the hut, and over all regions where the English tongue is
spoken, are well worth inquiring into. After every just deduction, it
seems to imply some rare excellence in these works. What is that

To answer this question will not lead us far. The excellence of Burns is,
indeed, among the rarest, whether in poetry or prose; but, at the same
time, it is plain and easily recognized: his _Sincerity_, his indisputable
air of Truth. Here are no fabulous woes or joys; no hollow fantastic
sentimentalities; no wiredrawn refinings, either in thought or feeling:
the passion that is traced before us has glowed in a living heart; the
opinion he utters has risen in his own understanding, and been a light to
his own steps. He does not write from hearsay, but from sight and
experience; it is the scenes he has lived and labored amidst, that he
describes: those scenes, rude and humble as they are, have kindled
beautiful emotions in his soul, noble thoughts, and definite resolves; and
he speaks forth what is in him, not from any outward call of vanity or
interest, but because his heart is too full to be silent. He speaks it,
too, with such melody and modulation as he can; "in homely rustic jingle;"
but it is his own, and genuine. This is the grand secret for finding
readers and retaining them: let him who would move and convince others, be
first moved and convinced himself. Horace's rule, _Si vis me flere_, is
applicable in a wider sense than the literal one. To every poet, to every
writer, we might say: Be true, if you would be believed. Let a man but
speak forth with genuine earnestness the thought, the emotion, the actual
condition, of his own heart; and other men, so strangely are we all knit
together by the tie of sympathy, must and will give heed to him. In
culture, in extent of view, we may stand above the speaker, or below him;
but in either case, his words, if they are earnest and sincere, will find
some response within us; for in spite of all casual varieties in outward
rank, or inward, as face answers to face, so does the heart of man to man.

This may appear a very simple principle, and one which Burns had little
merit in discovering. True, the discovery is easy enough: but the
practical appliance is not easy; is indeed the fundamental difficulty
which all poets have to strive with, and which scarcely one in the hundred
ever fairly surmounts. A head too dull to discriminate the true from the
false; a heart too dull to love the one at all risks, and to hate the
other in spite of all temptations, are alike fatal to a writer. With
either, or, as more commonly happens, with both, of these deficiencies,
combine a love of distinction, a wish to be original, which is seldom
wanting, and we have Affectation, the bane of literature, as Cant, its
elder brother, is of morals. How often does the one and the other front
us, in poetry, as in life! Great poets themselves are not always free of
this vice; nay, it is precisely on a certain sort and degree of greatness
that it is most commonly ingrafted. A strong effort after excellence will
sometimes solace itself with a mere shadow of success, and he who has much
to unfold, will sometimes unfold it imperfectly. Byron, for instance, was
no common man: yet if we examine his poetry with this view, we shall find
it far enough from faultless. Generally speaking, we should say that it is
not true. He refreshes us, not with the divine fountain, but too often
with vulgar strong waters, stimulating indeed to the taste, but soon
ending in dislike or even nausea. Are his Harolds and Giaours, we would
ask, real men, we mean, poetically consistent and conceivable men? Do not
these characters, does not the character of their author, which more or
less shines through them all, rather appear a thing put on for the
occasion; no natural or possible mode of being, but something intended to
look much grander than nature? Surely, all these stormful agonies, this
volcanic heroism, superhuman contempt, and moody desperation, with so much
scowling, and teeth-gnashing, and other sulphurous humors, is more like
the brawling of a player in some paltry tragedy, which is to last three
hours, than the bearing of a man in the business of life, which is to last
threescore and ten years. To our minds, there is a taint of this sort,
something which we should call theatrical, false and affected, in every
one of these otherwise powerful pieces. Perhaps _Don Juan_, especially the
latter parts of it, is the only thing approaching to a _sincere_ work, he
ever wrote; the only work where he showed himself, in any measure, as he
was; and seemed so intent on his subject, as, for moments, to forget
himself. Yet Byron hated this vice; we believe, heartily detested it: nay,
he had declared formal war against it in words. So difficult is it even
for the strongest to make this primary attainment, which might seem the
simplest of all: _to read its own consciousness without mistakes_, without
errors involuntary or wilful! We recollect no poet of Burns's
susceptibility who comes before us from the first, and abides with us to
the last, with such a total want of affectation. He is an honest man, and
an honest writer. In his successes and his failures, in his greatness and
his littleness, he is ever clear, simple, true, and glitters with no
lustre but his own. We reckon this to be a great virtue; to be, in fact,
the root of most other virtues, literary as well as moral.

It is necessary, however, to mention, that it is to the poetry of Burns
that we now allude; to those writings which he had time to meditate, and
where no special reason existed to warp his critical feeling, or obstruct
his endeavor to fulfil it. Certain of his Letters, and other fractions of
prose composition, by no means deserve this praise. Here, doubtless, there
is not the same natural truth of style; but on the contrary, something not
only stiff, but strained and twisted; a certain high-flown, inflated
tone; the stilting emphasis of which contrasts ill with the firmness and
rugged simplicity of even his poorest verses. Thus no man, it would
appear, is altogether unaffected. Does not Shakspeare himself sometimes
premeditate the sheerest bombast! But even with regard to these Letters of
Burns, it is but fair to state that he had two excuses. The first was his
comparative deficiency in language. Burns, though for most part he writes
with singular force, and even gracefulness, is not master of English
prose, as he is of Scottish verse; not master of it, we mean, in
proportion to the depth and vehemence of his matter. These Letters strike
us as the effort of a man to express something which he has no organ fit
for expressing. But a second and weightier excuse is to be found in the
peculiarity of Burns's social rank. His correspondents are often men whose
relation to him he has never accurately ascertained; whom therefore he is
either forearming himself against, or else unconsciously flattering, by
adopting the style he thinks will please them. At all events, we should
remember that these faults, even in his Letters, are not the rule, but the
exception. Whenever he writes, as one would ever wish to do, to trusted
friends and on real interests, his style becomes simple, vigorous,
expressive, sometimes even beautiful. His Letters to Mrs. Dunlop are
uniformly excellent.

But we return to his poetry. In addition to its sincerity, it has another
peculiar merit, which indeed is but a mode, or perhaps a means, of the
foregoing. It displays itself in his choice of subjects, or rather in his
indifference as to subjects, and the power he has of making all subjects
interesting. The ordinary poet, like the ordinary man, is for ever
seeking, in external circumstances, the help which can be found only in
himself. In what is familiar and near at hand, he discerns no form or
comeliness; home is not poetical but prosaic; it is in some past, distant,
conventional world, that poetry resides for him; were he there and not
here, were he thus and not so, it would be well with him. Hence our
innumerable host of rose-colored novels and iron-mailed epics, with their
locality not on the Earth, but somewhere nearer to the Moon. Hence our
Virgins of the Sun, and our Knights of the Cross, malicious Saracens in
turbans, and copper-colored Chiefs in wampum, and so many other truculent
figures from the heroic times or the heroic climates, who on all hands
swarm in our poetry. Peace be with them! But yet, as a great moralist
proposed preaching to the men of this century, so would we fain preach to
the poets, "a sermon on the duty of staying at home." Let them be sure
that heroic ages and heroic climates can do little for them. That form of
life has attraction for us, less because it is better or nobler than our
own, than simply because it is different; and even this attraction must be
of the most transient sort. For will not our own age, one day, be an
ancient one; and have as quaint a costume as the rest; not contrasted with
the rest, therefore, but ranked along with them, in respect of quaintness?
Does Homer interest us now, because he wrote of what passed out of his
native Greece, and two centuries before he was born; or because he wrote
of what passed in God's world, and in the heart of man, which is the same
after thirty centuries? Let our poets look to this; is their feeling
really finer, truer, and their vision deeper than that of other men, they
have nothing to fear, even from the humblest object; is it not so?--they
have nothing to hope, but an ephemeral favor, even from the highest.

The poet, we cannot but think, can never have far to seek for a subject;
the elements of his art are in him, and around him on every hand; for him
the Ideal world is not remote from the Actual, but under it and within it;
nay, he is a poet, precisely because he can discern it there. Wherever
there is a sky above him, and a world around him, the poet is in his
place; for here too is man's existence, with its infinite longings and
small acquirings; its ever-thwarted, ever-renewed endeavors; its
unspeakable aspirations, its fears and hopes that wander through Eternity:
and all the mystery of brightness and of gloom that it was ever made of,
in any age or climate, since man first began to live. Is there not the
fifth act of a Tragedy, in every death-bed, though it were a peasant's and
a bed of heath? And are wooings and weddings obsolete, that there can be
Comedy no longer? Or are men suddenly grown wise, that Laughter must no
longer shake his sides, but be cheated of his Farce? Man's life and nature
is, as it was, and as it will ever be. But the poet must have an eye to
read these things, and a heart to understand them; or they come and pass
away before him in vain. He is a _vates_, a seer; a gift of vision has
been given him. Has life no meanings for him, which another can not
equally decipher? then he is no poet, and Delphi itself will not make him

In this respect, Burns, though not perhaps absolutely a great poet, better
manifests his capability, better proves the truth of his genius, than if
he had, by his own strength, kept the whole Minerva Press going, to the
end of his literary course. He shows himself at least a poet of Nature's
own making; and Nature, after all, is still the grand agent in making
poets. We often hear of this and the other external condition being
requisite for the existence of a poet. Sometimes it is a certain sort of
training; he must have studied certain things, studied for instance "the
elder dramatists," and so learned a poetic language; as if poetry lay in
the tongue, not in the heart. At other times we are told, he must be bred
in a certain rank, and must be on a confidential footing with the higher
classes; because, above all other things, he must see the world. As to
seeing the world, we apprehend this will cause him little difficulty, if
he have but an eye to see it with. Without eyes, indeed, the task might be
hard. But happily every poet is born _in_ the world, and sees it, with or
against his will, every day and every hour he lives. The mysterious
workmanship of man's heart, the true light and the inscrutable darkness
of man's destiny, reveal themselves not only in capital cities and crowded
saloons, but in every hut and hamlet where men have their abode. Nay, do
not the elements of all human virtues, and all human vices--the passions
at once of a Borgia and of a Luther, lie written, in stronger or fainter
lines, in the consciousness of every individual bosom, that has practised
honest self-examination? Truly, this same world may be seen in Mossgiel
and Tarbolton, if we look well, as clearly as it ever came to light in
Crockford's, or the Tuileries itself.

But sometimes still harder requisitions are laid on the poor aspirant to
poetry; for it is hinted that he should have _been born_ two centuries
ago; inasmuch as poetry, soon after that date, vanished from the earth,
and became no longer attainable by men! Such cobweb speculations have, now
and then, overhung the field of literature; but they obstruct not the
growth of any plant there: the Shakspeare or the Burns, unconsciously, and
merely as he walks onward, silently brushes them away. Is not every genius
an impossibility till he appear? Why do we call him new and original, if
_we_ saw where his marble was lying, and what fabric he could rear from
it? It is not the material but the workman that is wanting. It is not the
dark _place_ that hinders, but the dim _eye_. A Scottish peasant's life
was the meanest and rudest of all lives, till Burns became a poet in it,
and a poet of it; found it a _man's_ life, and therefore significant to
men. A thousand battle-fields remain unsung; but the _Wounded Hare_ has
not perished without its memorial; a balm of mercy yet breathes on us from
its dumb agonies, because a poet was there. Our _Halloween_ had passed and
repassed, in rude awe and laughter, since the era of the Druids; but no
Theocritus, till Burns, discerned in it the materials of a Scottish Idyl:
neither was the _Holy Fair_ any _Council of Trent_, or Roman _Jubilee_;
but nevertheless, _Superstition_ and _Hypocrisy_, and _Fun_ having been
propitious to him, in this man's hand it became a poem, instinct with
satire, and genuine comic life. Let but the true poet be given us, we
repeat it, place him where and how you will, and true poetry will not be

Independently of the essential gift of poetic feeling, as we have now
attempted to describe it, a certain rugged sterling worth pervades
whatever Burns has written: a virtue, as of green fields and mountain
breezes, dwells in his poetry; it is redolent of natural life, and hardy,
natural men. There is a decisive strength in him; and yet a sweet native
gracefulness: he is tender, and he is vehement, yet without constraint or
too visible effort; he melts the heart, or inflames it, with a power which
seems habitual and familiar to him. We see in him the gentleness, the
trembling pity of a woman, with the deep earnestness, the force and
passionate ardor of a hero. Tears lie in him, and consuming fire; as
lightning lurks in the drops of the summer cloud. He has a resonance in
his bosom for every note of human feeling: the high and the low, the sad,
the ludicrous, the joyful, are welcome in their turns to his
"lightly-moved and all-conceiving spirit." And observe with what a prompt
and eager force he grasps his subject, be it what it may! How he fixes, as
it were, the full image of the matter in his eye; full and clear in every
lineament; and catches the real type and essence of it, amid a thousand
accidents and superficial circumstances, no one of which misleads him! Is
it of reason--some truth to be discovered? No sophistry, no vain
surface-logic detains him; quick, resolute, unerring, he pierces through
into the marrow of the question, and speaks his verdict with an emphasis
that can not be forgotten. Is it of description--some visual object to be
represented? No poet of any age or nation is more graphic than Burns: the
characteristic features disclose themselves to him at a glance; three
lines from his hand, and we have a likeness. And, in that rough dialect,
in that rude, often awkward, metre, so clear, and definite a likeness! It
seems a draughtsman working with a burnt stick; and yet the burin of a
Retzsch is not more expressive or exact.

This clearness of sight we may call the foundation of all talent; for in
fact, unless we _see_ our object, how shall we know how to place or prize
it; in our understanding, our imagination, our affections? Yet it is not
in itself perhaps a very high excellence; but capable of being united
indifferently with the strongest, or with ordinary powers. Homer surpasses
all men in this quality: but strangely enough, at no great distance below
him are Richardson and Defoe. It belongs, in truth, to what is called a
lively mind: and gives no sure indication of the higher endowments that
may exist along with it. In all the three cases we have mentioned, it is
combined with great garrulity; their descriptions are detailed, ample, and
lovingly exact; Homer's fire bursts through, from time to time, as if by
accident; but Defoe and Richardson have no fire. Burns, again, is not more
distinguished by the clearness than by the impetuous force of his
conceptions. Of the strength, the piercing emphasis with which he thought,
his emphasis of expression may give an humble but the readiest proof. Who
ever uttered sharper sayings than his; words more memorable, now by their
burning vehemence, now by their cool vigor and laconic pith? A single
phrase depicts a whole subject, a whole scene. Our Scottish forefathers in
the battle-field struggled forward, he says, "_red-wat shod_;" giving, in
this one word, a full vision of horror and carnage, perhaps too
frightfully accurate for Art!

In fact, one of the leading features in the mind of Burns is this vigor of
his strictly intellectual perceptions. A resolute force is ever visible in
his judgments, as in his feelings and volitions. Professor Stewart says of
him, with some surprise: "All the faculties of Burns's mind were, as far
as I could judge, equally vigorous; and his predilection for poetry was
rather the result of his own enthusiastic and impassioned temper, than of
a genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition. From his
conversation I should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in
whatever walk of ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities." But this,
if we mistake not, is at all times the very essence of a truly poetical
endowment. Poetry, except in such cases as that of Keats, where the whole
consists in extreme sensibility, and a certain vague pervading tunefulness
of nature, is no separate faculty, no organ which can be superadded to the
rest or disjoined from them; but rather the result of their general
harmony and completion. The feelings, the gifts, that exist in the Poet,
are those that exist, with more or less development, in every human soul:
the imagination, which shudders at the Hell of Dante, is the same faculty,
weaker in degree, which called that picture into being. How does the poet
speak to all men, with power, but by being still more a man than they?
Shakspeare, it has been well observed, in the planning and completing of
his tragedies, has shown an Understanding, were it nothing more, which
might have governed states, or indited a _Novum Organum_. What Burns's
force of understanding may have been, we have less means of judgment: for
it dwelt among the humblest objects, never saw philosophy, and never rose,
except for short intervals, into the region of great ideas. Nevertheless,
sufficient indication remains for us in his works: we discern the brawny
movement of a gigantic though untutored strength, and can understand how,
in conversation, his quick, sure insight into men and things may, as much
as aught else about him, have amazed the best thinkers of his time and

But, unless we mistake, the intellectual gift of Burns is fine as well as
strong. The more delicate relation of things could not well have escaped
his eye, for they were intimately present to his heart. The logic of the
senate and the forum is indispensable, but not all-sufficient; nay,
perhaps the highest Truth is that which will the most certainly elude it.
For this logic works by words, and "the highest," it has been said,
"cannot be expressed in words." We are not without tokens of an openness
for this higher truth also, of a keen though uncultivated sense for it,
having existed in Burns. Mr. Stewart, it will be remembered, "wonders," in
the passage above quoted, that Burns had formed some distinct conception
of the "doctrine of association." We rather think that far subtiler things
than the doctrine of association had from of old been familiar to him.
Here for instance:

"We know nothing," thus writes he, "or next to nothing, of the structure
of our souls, so we cannot account for those seeming caprices in them,
that one should be particularly pleased with this thing, or struck with
that, which, on minds of a different cast, makes no extraordinary
impression. I have some favorite flowers in spring, among which are the
mountain-daisy, the hare-bell, the fox-glove, the wild-brier rose, the
budding birch, and the hoary hawthorn, that I view and hang over with
particular delight. I never hear the loud solitary whistle of the curlew
in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of gray plover in
an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the
enthusiasm of devotion or poetry. Tell me, my dear friend, to what can
this be owing? Are we a piece of machinery, which, like the Æolian harp,
passive, takes the impression of the passing accident; or do these
workings argue something within us above the trodden clod? I own myself
partial to such proofs of those awful and important realities: a God that
made all things, man's immaterial and immortal nature, and a world of weal
or wo beyond death and the grave."

Force and fineness of understanding are often spoken of as something
different from general force and fineness of nature, as something partly
independent of them. The necessities of language probably require this;
but in truth these qualities are not distinct and independent: except in
special cases, and from special causes, they ever go together. A man of
strong understanding is generally a man of strong character; neither is
delicacy in the one kind often divided from delicacy in the other. No one,
at all events, is ignorant that in the poetry of Burns, keenness of
insight keeps pace with keenness of feeling; that his _light_ is not more
pervading than his _warmth_. He is a man of the most impassioned temper;
with passions not strong only, but noble, and of the sort in which great
virtues and great poems take their rise. It is reverence, it is Love
towards all Nature that inspires him, that opens his eyes to its beauty,
and makes heart and voice eloquent in its praise. There is a true old
saying, that "love furthers knowledge:" but, above all, it is the living
essence of that knowledge which makes poets; the first principle of its
existence, increase, activity. Of Burns's fervid affection, his generous,
all-embracing Love, we have spoken already, as of the grand distinction of
his nature, seen equally in word and deed, in his Life and in his
Writings. It were easy to multiply examples. Not man only, but all that
environs man in the material and moral universe, is lovely in his sight:
"the hoary hawthorn," the "troop of gray plover," the "solitary curlew,"
are all dear to him--all live in this Earth along with him, and to all he
is knit as in mysterious brotherhood. How touching is it, for instance,
that, amidst the gloom of personal misery, brooding over the wintry
desolation without him and within him, he thinks of the "ourie cattle" and
"silly sheep," and their sufferings in the pitiless storm!

  "I thought me on the ourie cattle,
  Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
                O' wintry war;
  Or thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle,
                Beneath a scaur.

  Ilk happing bird, wee helpless thing,
  That in the merry month o' spring
  Delighted me to hear thee sing,
                What comes o' thee?
  Where wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing,
                And close thy ee?"

The tenant of the mean hut, with its "ragged roof and chinky wall," has a
heart to pity even these! This is worth several homilies on Mercy; for it
is the voice of Mercy herself. Burns, indeed, lives in sympathy; his soul
rushes forth into all realms of being; nothing that has existence can be
indifferent to him. The very devil he cannot hate with right orthodoxy!

  "But fare you weel, auld Nickie-ben;
  O wad ye tak a thought and men'!
  Ye aiblins might,--I dinna ken,--
                Still hae a stake;
  I'm wae to think upo' yon den,
                Even for your sake!"

He did not know, probably, that Sterne had been beforehand with him. "'He
is the father of curses and lies,' said Dr. Slop; 'and is cursed and
damned already.'--'I am sorry for it,' quoth my uncle Toby!"--"A poet
without Love, were a physical and metaphysical impossibility."

Why should we speak of _Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled_; since all know
it, from the king to the meanest of his subjects? This dithyrambic was
composed on horseback; in riding in the middle of tempests, over the
wildest Galloway moor, in company with a Mr. Syme, who, observing the
poet's looks, forebore to speak,--judiciously enough,--for a man composing
_Bruce's Address_ might be unsafe to trifle with. Doubtless this stern
hymn was singing itself, as he formed it, through the soul of Burns; but
to the external ear, it should be sung with the throat of the whirlwind.
So long as there is warm blood in the heart of a Scotchman or man, it will
move in fierce thrills under this war-ode, the best, we believe, that was
ever written by any pen.

Another wild, stormful song, that dwells in our ear and mind with a
strange tenacity, is _Macpherson's Farewell_. Perhaps there is something
in the tradition itself that co-operates. For was not this grim Celt, this
shaggy Northland Cacus, that "lived a life of sturt and strife, and died
by treacherie," was not he too one of the Nimrods and Napoleons of the
earth, in the arena of his own remote misty glens, for want of a clearer
and wider one? Nay, was there not a touch of grace given him? A fibre of
love and softness, of poetry itself, must have lived in his savage heart;
for he composed that air the night before his execution; on the wings of
that poor melody, his better soul would soar away above oblivion, pain,
and all the ignominy and despair, which, like an avalanche, was hurling
him to the abyss! Here, also, as at Thebes, and in Pelops' line, was
material Fate matched against man's Free-will; matched in bitterest though
obscure duel; and the ethereal soul sunk not, even in its blindness,
without a cry which has survived it. But who, except Burns, could have
given words to such a soul--words that we never listen to without a
strange half-barbarous, half-poetic fellow-feeling?

  _Sae rantingly, sae wantonly,
    Sae dauntingly gaed he;
  He play'd a spring, and danced it round,
    Below the gallows tree._

Under a lighter and thinner disguise, the same principle of Love, which we
have recognized as the great characteristic of Burns, and of all true
poets, occasionally manifests itself in the shape of Humor. Everywhere,
indeed, in his sunny moods, a full buoyant flood of mirth rolls through
the mind of Burns; he rises to the high, and stoops to the low, and is
brother and playmate to all Nature. We speak not of his bold and often
irresistible faculty of caricature; for this is Drollery rather than
Humor: but a much tenderer sportfulness dwells in him; and comes forth,
here and there, in evanescent and beautiful touches; as in his _Address to
the Mouse_, or the _Farmer's Mare_, or in his _Elegy on Poor Mailie_,
which last may be reckoned his happiest effort of this kind. In these
pieces, there are traits of a Humor as fine as that of Sterne; yet
altogether different, original, peculiar,--the Humor of Burns.

Of the tenderness, the playful pathos, and many other kindred qualities of
Burns's poetry, much more might be said; but now, with these poor outlines
of a sketch, we must prepare to quit this part of our subject. To speak of
his individual writings, adequately, and with any detail, would lead us
far beyond our limits. As already hinted, we can look on but few of these
pieces as, in strict critical language, deserving the name of Poems; they
are rhymed eloquence, rhymed pathos, rhymed sense; yet seldom essentially
melodious, aerial, poetical. _Tam O'Shanter_ itself, which enjoys so high
a favor, does not appear to us, at all decisively, to come under this
last category. It is not so much a poem, as a piece of sparkling rhetoric;
the heart and body of the story still lies hard and dead. He has not gone
back, much less carried us back, into that dark, earnest wondering age,
when the tradition was believed, and when it took its rise; he does not
attempt, by any new modelling of his supernatural ware, to strike anew
that deep mysterious chord of human nature, which once responded to such
things; and which lives in us too, and will forever live, though silent,
or vibrating with far other notes, and to far different issues. Our German
readers will understand us, when we say, that he is not the Tieck but the
Musäus of this tale. Externally it is all green and living; yet look
closer, it is no firm growth, but only ivy on a rock. The piece does not
properly cohere; the strange chasm which yawns in our incredulous
imaginations between the Ayr public-house and the gate of Tophet, is
nowhere bridged over, nay, the idea of such a bridge is laughed at; and
thus the Tragedy of the adventure becomes a mere drunken phantasmagoria,
painted on ale-vapors, and the farce alone has any reality. We do not say
that Burns should have made much more of this tradition; we rather think
that, for strictly poetical purposes, not much _was_ to be made of it.
Neither are we blind to the deep, varied, genial power displayed in what
he has actually accomplished: but we find far more "Shakspearian"
qualities, as these of _Tam O'Shanter_ have been fondly named, in many of
his other pieces; nay, we incline to believe, that this latter might have
been written, all but quite as well, by a man who, in place of genius, had
only possessed talent.

Perhaps we may venture to say, that the most strictly poetical of all his
"poems" is one, which does not appear in Currie's Edition; but has been
often printed before and since, under the humble title of _The Jolly
Beggars_. The subject truly is among the lowest in nature; but it only the
more shows our poet's gift in raising it into the domain of Art. To our
minds, this piece seems thoroughly compacted; melted together, refined;
and poured forth in one flood of true _liquid_ harmony. It is light, airy,
and soft of movement; yet sharp and precise in its details; every face is
a portrait: that _raucle carlin_, that _wee Apollo_, that _Son of Mars_,
are Scottish, yet ideal; the scene is at once a dream, and the very
Rag-castle of "Poosie-Nansie." Farther, it seems in a considerable degree
complete, a real self-supporting Whole, which is the highest merit in a
poem. The blanket of the night is drawn asunder for a moment; in full,
ruddy, and flaming light, these rough tatterdemalions are seen in their
boisterous revel; for the strong pulse of Life vindicates its right to
gladness even here; and when the curtain closes, we prolong the action
without effort; the next day, as the last, our _Caird_ and our
_Balladmonger_ are singing and soldiering; their "brats and callets" are
hawking, begging, cheating; and some other night, in new combinations,
they will ring from Fate another hour of wassail and good cheer. It would
be strange, doubtless, to call this the best of Burns's writings; we mean
to say only, that it seems to us the most perfect of its kind, as a piece
of poetical composition, strictly so called. In the _Beggar's Opera_, in
the _Beggar's Bush_, as other critics have already remarked, there is
nothing which, in real poetic vigor, equals this _Cantata_; nothing, as we
think, which comes within many degrees of it.

But by far the most finished, complete, and truly inspired pieces of Burns
are, without dispute, to be found among his _Songs_. It is here that,
although through a small aperture, his light shines with the least
obstruction; in its highest beauty, and pure sunny clearness. The reason
may be, that Song is a brief and simple species of composition: and
requires nothing so much for its perfection as genuine poetic feeling,
genuine music of heart. The Song has its rules equally with the Tragedy;
rules which in most cases are poorly fulfilled, in many cases are not so
much as felt. We might write a long essay on the Songs of Burns; which we
reckon by far the best that Britain has yet produced; for, indeed, since
the era of Queen Elizabeth, we know not that, by any other hand, aught
truly worth attention has been accomplished in this department. True, we
have songs enough "by persons of quality;" we have tawdry, hollow,
wine-bred, madrigals; many a rhymed "speech" in the flowing and watery
vein of Ossorius the Portugal Bishop, rich in sonorous words, and, for
moral, dashed perhaps with some tint of a sentimental sensuality; all
which many persons cease not from endeavoring to sing: though for most
part, we fear, the music is but from the throat outward, or at best from
some region far enough short of the _Soul_; not in which, but in a certain
inane Limbo of the Fancy, or even in some vaporous debatable land on the
outside of the Nervous System, most of such madrigals and rhymed speeches
seem to have originated. With the Songs of Burns we must not name these
things. Independently of the clear, manly, heartfelt sentiment that ever
pervades _his_ poetry, his Songs are honest in another point of view: in
form as well as in spirit. They do not _affect_ to be set to music; but
they actually and in themselves are music; they have received their life,
and fashioned themselves together, in the medium of Harmony, as Venus rose
from the bosom of the sea. The story, the feeling, is not detailed, but
suggested; not _said_, or spouted, in rhetorical completeness and
coherence; but _sung_, in fitful gushes, in glowing hints, in fantastic
breaks, in _warblings_ not of the voice only, but of the whole mind. We
consider this to be the essence of a song; and that no songs since the
little careless catches, and, as it were, drops of song, which Shakspeare
has here and there sprinkled over his plays, fulfil this condition in
nearly the same degree as most of Burns's do. Such grace and truth of
external movement, too, presupposes in general a corresponding force and
truth of sentiment, and inward meaning. The Songs of Burns are not more
perfect in the former quality than in the latter. With what tenderness he
sings, yet with what vehemence and entireness! There is a piercing wail in
his sorrow, the purest rapture in his joy: he burns with the sternest ire,
or laughs with the loudest or slyest mirth; and yet he is sweet and soft,
"sweet as the smile when fond lovers meet, and soft as their parting
tear!" If we farther take into account the immense variety of his
subjects; how, from the loud flowing revel in _Willie brew'd a peck o'
Maut_, to the still, rapt enthusiasm of sadness for _Mary in Heaven_; from
the glad kind greeting of _Auld Langsyne_, or the comic archness of
_Duncan Gray_, to the fire-eyed fury of _Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled_,
he has found a tone and words for every mood of man's heart,--it will seem
a small praise if we rank him as the first of all our song-writers; for we
know not where to find one worthy of being second to him.

It is on his Songs, as we believe, that Burns's chief influence as an
author will ultimately be found to depend: nor, if our Fletcher's aphorism
is true, shall we account this a small influence. "Let me make the songs
of a people," said he, "and you shall make its laws." Surely, if ever any
Poet might have equalled himself with Legislators, on this ground, it was
Burns. His songs are already part of the mother tongue, not of Scotland
only but of Britain, and of the millions that in all the ends of the earth
speak a British language. In hut and hall, as the heart unfolds itself in
the joy and wo of existence, the name, the voice of that joy and that wo,
is the name and voice which Burns has given them. Strictly speaking,
perhaps, no British man has so deeply affected the thoughts and feelings
of so many men as this solitary and altogether private individual, with
means apparently the humblest.

In another point of view, moreover, we incline to think that Burns's
influence may have been considerable: we mean, as exerted specially on the
Literature of his country, at least on the Literature of Scotland. Among
the great changes which British, particularly Scottish literature, has
undergone since that period, one of the greatest will be found to consist
in its remarkable increase of nationality. Even the English writers, most
popular in Burns's time, were little distinguished for their literary
patriotism, in this its best sense. A certain attenuated cosmopolitanism
had, in good measure, taken place of the old insular home-feeling;
literature was, as it were, without any local environment--was not
nourished by the affections which spring from a native soil. Our Grays
and Glovers seemed to write almost as if _in vacuo_; the thing written
bears no mark of place; it is not written so much for Englishmen, as for
men; or rather, which is the inevitable result of this, for certain
Generalizations which philosophy termed men. Goldsmith is an exception;
not so Johnson; the scene of his _Rambler_ is little more English than
that of his _Rasselas_. But if such was, in some degree, the case with
England, it was, in the highest degree, the case with Scotland. In fact,
our Scottish literature had, at that period, a very singular aspect;
unexampled, so far as we know, except perhaps at Geneva, where the same
state of matters appears still to continue. For a long period after
Scotland became British, we had no literature: at the date when Addison
and Steele were writing their _Spectators_, our good Thomas Boston was
writing, with the noblest intent, but alike in defiance of grammar and
philosophy, his _Fourfold State of Man_. Then came the schisms in our
National Church, and the fiercer schisms in our Body Politic: Theologic
ink, and Jacobite blood, with gaul enough in both cases, seemed to have
blotted out the intellect of the country; however, it was only obscured,
not obliterated. Lord Kames made nearly the first attempt, and a tolerably
clumsy one, at writing English; and, ere long, Hume, Robertson, Smith, and
a whole host of followers, attracted hither the eyes of all Europe. And
yet in this brilliant resuscitation of our "fervid genius," there was
nothing truly Scottish, nothing indigenous; except, perhaps, the natural
impetuosity of intellect, which we sometimes claim, and are sometimes
upbraided with, as a characteristic of our nation. It is curious to remark
that Scotland, so full of writers, had no Scottish culture, nor indeed
any English; our culture was almost exclusively French. It was by studying
Racine and Voltaire, Batteux and Boileau, that Kames had trained himself
to be a critic and philosopher: it was the light of Montesquieu and Mably
that guided Robertson in his political speculations: Quesnay's lamp that
kindled the lamp of Adam Smith. Hume was too rich a man to borrow; and
perhaps he reached on the French more than he was acted on by them: but
neither had he aught to do with Scotland; Edinburgh, equally with La
Flèche, was but the lodging and laboratory, in which he not so much
morally _lived_, as metaphysically _investigated_. Never, perhaps, was
there a class of writers, so clear and well-ordered, yet so totally
destitute, to all appearance, of any patriotic affection, nay, of any
human affection whatever. The French wits of the period were as
unpatriotic; but their general deficiency in moral principle, not to say
their avowed sensuality and unbelief in all virtue, strictly so called,
render this accountable enough. We hope there is a patriotism founded on
something better than prejudice; that our country may be dear to us,
without injury to our philosophy; that in loving and justly prizing all
other lands, we may prize justly, and yet love before all others, our own
stern Motherland, and the venerable structure of social and moral Life,
which Mind has through long ages been building up for us there. Surely
there is nourishment for the better part of man's heart in all this:
surely the roots, that have fixed themselves in the very core of man's
being, may be so cultivated as to grow up not into briers, but into roses,
in the field of his life! Our Scottish sages have no such propensities:
the field of their life shows neither briers nor roses; but only a flat,
continuous thrashing-floor for Logic, whereon all questions, from the
"Doctrine of Rent," to the "Natural History of Religion," are thrashed and
sifted with the same mechanical impartiality!

With Sir Walter Scott at the head of our literature, it cannot be denied
that much of this evil is past, or rapidly passing away: our chief
literary men, whatever other faults they may have, no longer live among us
like a French Colony, or some knot of Propaganda Missionaries; but like
natural-born subjects of the soil, partaking and sympathizing in all our
attachments, humors, and habits. Our literature no longer grows in water,
but in mould, and with the true racy virtues of the soil and climate. How
much of this change may be due to Burns, or to any other individual, it
might be difficult to estimate. Direct literary imitation of Burns was
not to be looked for. But his example, in the fearless adoption of
domestic subjects, could not but operate from afar; and certainly in no
heart did the love of country ever burn with a warmer glow than in that of
Burns: "a tide of Scottish prejudice," as he modestly calls this deep and
generous feeling, "had been poured along his veins; and he felt that it
would boil there till the flood-gates shut in eternal rest." It seemed to
him, as if _he_ could do so little for his country, and yet would so
gladly have done all. One small province stood open for him; that of
Scottish song, and how eagerly he entered on it; how devotedly he labored
there! In his most toilsome journeyings, this object never quits him; it
is the little happy-valley of his careworn heart. In the gloom of his own
affliction, he eagerly searches after some lonely brother of the muse, and
rejoices to snatch one other name from the oblivion that was covering it!
These were early feelings, and they abode with him to the end.

  ----a wish, (I mind its power,)
  A wish, that to my latest hour
  Will strongly heave my breast;
  That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake,
  Some useful plan or book could make,
  Or sing a sang at least.
  The rough bur Thistle spreading wide
    Amang the bearded bear,
  I turn'd my weeding-clips aside,
    And spared the symbol dear.

But to leave the mere literary character of Burns, which has already
detained us too long, we cannot but think that the Life he willed, and was
fated to lead among his fellow-men, is both more interesting and
instructive than any of his written works. These Poems are but like little
rhymed fragments scattered here and there in the grand unrhymed Romance of
his earthly existence; and it is only when intercalated in this at their
proper places, that they attain their full measure of significance. And
this too, alas, was but a fragment! The plan of a mighty edifice had been
sketched; some columns, porticoes, firm masses of building, stand
completed; the rest more or less clearly indicated; with many a
far-stretching tendency, which only studious and friendly eyes can now
trace towards the purposed termination. For the work is broken off in the
middle, almost in the beginning; and rises among us, beautiful and sad, at
once unfinished and a ruin! If charitable judgment was necessary in
estimating his poems, and justice required that the aim and the manifest
power to fulfil it must often be accepted for the fulfilment; much more is
this the case in regard to his life, the sum and result of all his
endeavors, where his difficulties came upon him not in detail only, but in
mass; and so much has been left unaccomplished, nay, was mistaken, and
altogether marred.

Properly speaking, there is but one era in the life of Burns, and that the
earliest. We have not youth and manhood; but only youth: for, to the end,
we discern no decisive change in the complexion of his character; in his
thirty-seventh year, he is still, as it were, in youth. With all that
resoluteness of judgment, that penetrating insight, and singular maturity
of intellectual power, exhibited in his writings, he never attains to any
clearness regarding himself; to the last he never ascertains his peculiar
aim, even with such distinctness as is common among ordinary men; and
therefore never can pursue it with that singleness of will, which insures
success and some contentment to such men. To the last, he wavers between
two purposes: glorying in his talent, like a true poet, he yet cannot
consent to make this his chief and sole glory, and to follow it as the
one thing needful, through poverty or riches, through good or evil report.
Another far meaner ambition still cleaves to him; he must dream and
struggle about a certain "Rock of Independence;" which, natural and even
admirable as it might be, was still but a warring with the world, on the
comparitively insignificant ground of his being more or less completely
supplied with money, than others; of his standing at a higher, or at a
lower altitude in general estimation, than others. For the world still
appears to him, as to the young, in borrowed colors; he expects from it
what it cannot give to any man; seeks for contentment, not within himself,
in action and wise effort, but from without, in the kindness of
circumstances, in love, friendship, honor, pecuniary ease. He would be
happy, not actively and in himself, but passively, and from some ideal
cornucopia of Enjoyments, not earned by his own labor, but showered on
him by the beneficence of Destiny. Thus, like a young man, he cannot
steady himself for any fixed or systematic pursuit, but swerves to and
fro, between passionate hope, and remorseful disappointment: rushing
onwards with a deep tempestuous force, he surmounts or breaks asunder many
a barrier; travels, nay, advances far, but advancing only under uncertain
guidance, is ever and anon turned from his path: and to the last, cannot
reach the only true happiness of a man, that of clear, decided Activity in
the sphere for which by nature and circumstances he has been fitted and

We do not say these things in dispraise of Burns: nay, perhaps, they but
interest us the more in his favor. This blessing is not given soonest to
the best; but rather, it is often the greatest minds that are latest in
obtaining it; for where most is to be developed, most time may be
required to develope it. A complex condition had been assigned him from
without, as complex a condition from within: no "pre-established harmony"
existed between the clay soil of Mossgiel and the empyrean soul of Robert
Burns; it was not wonderful, therefore, that the adjustment between them
should have been long postponed, and his arm long cumbered, and his sight
confused, in so vast and discordant an economy, as he had been appointed
steward over. Byron was, at his death, but a year younger than Burns; and
through life, as it might have appeared, far more simply situated; yet in
him, too, we can trace no such adjustment, no such moral manhood; but at
best, and only a little before his end, the beginning of what seemed such.

By much the most striking incident in Burns's Life is his journey to
Edinburgh; but perhaps a still more important one is his residence at
Irvine, so early as in his twenty-third year. Hitherto his life had been
poor and toilworn; but otherwise not ungenial, and, with all its
distresses, by no means unhappy. In his parentage, deducting outward
circumstances, he had every reason to reckon himself fortunate: his father
was a man of thoughtful, intense, earnest character, as the best of our
peasants are; valuing knowledge, possessing some, and, what is far better
and rarer, open-minded for more; a man with a keen insight, and devout
heart; reverent towards God, friendly therefore at once, and fearless
towards all that God has made; in one word, though but a hard-handed
peasant, a complete and fully unfolded _Man_. Such a father is seldom
found in any rank in society; and was worth descending far in society to
seek. Unfortunately, he was very poor; had he been even a little richer,
almost ever so little, the whole might have issued far otherwise. Mighty
events turn on a straw; the crossing of a brook decides the conquest of
the world. Had this William Burns's small seven acres of nursery ground
anywise prospered, the boy Robert had been sent to school; had struggled
forward, as so many weaker men do, to some university; come forth not as a
rustic wonder, but as a regular well-trained intellectual workman, and
changed the whole course of British Literature,--for it lay in him to have
done this! But the nursery did not prosper; poverty sank his whole family
below the help of even our cheap school-system: Burns remained a
hard-worked plough-boy, and British literature took its own course.
Nevertheless, even in this rugged scene, there is much to nourish him. If
he drudges, it is with his brother, and for his father and mother, whom he
loves, and would fain shield from want. Wisdom is not banished from their
poor hearth, nor the balm of natural feeling: the solemn words, _Let us
Worship God_, are heard there from a "priest-like father;" if threatenings
of unjust men throw mother and children into tears, these are tears not of
grief only, but of holiest affection; every heart in that humble group
feels itself the closer knit to every other; in their hard warfare they
are there together, a "little band of brethren." Neither are such tears,
and the deep beauty that dwells in them, their only portion. Light visits
the hearts as it does the eyes of all living: there is a force, too, in
this youth, that enables him to trample on misfortune; nay, to bind it
under his feet to make him sport. For a bold, warm, buoyant humor of
character has been given him; and so the thick-coming shapes of evil are
welcomed with a gay, friendly irony, and in their closest pressure he
bates no jot of heart or hope. Vague yearnings of ambition fail not, as
he grows up; dreamy fancies hang like cloud-cities around him; the curtain
of Existence is slowly rising, in many-colored splendor and gloom: and the
auroral light of first love is gilding his horizon, and the music of song
is on his path; and so he walks

          "----in glory and in joy,
  Behind his plough, upon the mountain side!"

We know, from the best evidence, that up to this date, Burns was happy;
nay, that he was the gayest, brightest, most fantastic, fascinating being
to be found in the world; more so even than he ever afterwards appeared.
But now at this early age, he quits the paternal roof; goes forth into
looser, louder, more exciting society; and becomes initiated in those
dissipations, those vices, which a certain class of philosophers have
asserted to be a natural preparative for entering on active life; a kind
of mud-bath, in which the youth is, as it were, necessitated to steep,
and, we suppose, cleanse himself, before the real toga of Manhood can be
laid on him. We shall not dispute much with this class of philosophers; we
hope they are mistaken; for Sin and Remorse so easily beset us at all
stages of life, and are always such indifferent company, that it seems
hard we should, at any stage, be forced and fated not only to meet, but to
yield to them; and even serve for a term in their leprous armada. We hope
it is not so. Clear we are, at all events, it cannot be the training one
receives in this service, but only our determining to desert from it, that
fits for true manly Action. We become men, not after we have been
dissipated, and disappointed in the chase of false pleasure; but after we
have ascertained, in any way, what impassable barriers hem us in through
this life; how mad it is to hope for contentment to our infinite soul from
the _gifts_ of this extremely finite world! that a man must be sufficient
for himself; and that "for suffering and enduring there is no remedy but
striving and doing." Manhood begins when we have in any way made truce
with Necessity; begins, at all events, when we have surrendered to
Necessity, as the most part only do; but begins joyfully and hopefully
only when we have reconciled ourselves to Necessity; and thus, in reality,
triumphed over it, and felt that in Necessity we are free. Surely, such
lessons as this last, which, in one shape or other, is the grand lesson
for every mortal man, are better learned from the lips of a devout mother,
in the looks and actions of a devout father, while the heart is yet soft
and pliant, than in collision with the sharp adamant of Fate, attracting
us to shipwreck us, when the heart is grown hard, and may be broken
before it will become contrite! Had Burns continued to learn this, as he
was already learning it, in his father's cottage, he would have learned it
fully, which he never did,--and been saved many a lasting aberration, many
a bitter hour and year of remorseful sorrow.

It seems to us another circumstance of fatal import in Burns's history,
that at this time too he became involved in the religious quarrels of his
district; that he was enlisted and feasted, as the fighting man of the
New-Light Priesthood, in their highly unprofitable warfare. At the tables
of these free-minded clergy, he learned much more than was needful for
him. Such liberal ridicule of fanaticism awakened in his mind scruples
about Religion itself; and a whole world of Doubts, which it required
quite another set of conjurors than these men to exorcise. We do not say
that such an intellect as his could have escaped similar doubts, at some
period of his history; or even that he could, at a later period, have come
through them altogether victorious and unharmed: but it seems peculiarly
unfortunate that this time, above all others, should have been fixed for
the encounter. For now, with principles assailed by evil example from
without, by "passions raging like demons" from within, he had little need
of skeptical misgivings to whisper treason in the heat of the battle, or
to cut off his retreat if he were already defeated. He loses his feeling
of innocence; his mind is at variance with itself; the old divinity no
longer presides there; but wild Desires and wild Repentance alternately
oppress him. Ere long, too, he has committed himself before the world; his
character for sobriety, dear to a Scottish peasant, as few corrupted
worldings can even conceive, is destroyed in the eyes of men; and his
only refuge consists in trying to disbelieve his guiltiness, and is but a
refuge of lies. The blackest desperation now gathers over him, broken only
by the red lightnings of remorse. The whole fabric of his life is blasted
asunder; for now not only his character, but his personal liberty, is to
be lost; men and Fortune are leagued for his hurt; "hungry Ruin has him in
the wind." He sees no escape but the saddest of all: exile from his loved
country, to a country in every sense inhospitable and abhorrent to him.
While the "gloomy night is gathering fast," in mental storm and solitude,
as well as in physical, he sings his wild farewell to Scotland:

  "Farewell, my friends, farewell my foes!
  My peace with these, my love with those:
  The bursting tears my heart declare;
  Adieu, my native banks of Ayr!"

Light breaks suddenly in on him in floods; but still a false transitory
light, and no real sunshine. He is invited to Edinburgh; hastens thither
with anticipating heart; is welcomed as in triumph, and with universal
blandishment and acclamation; whatever is wisest, whatever is greatest, or
loveliest there, gathers round him, to gaze on his face, to show him
honor, sympathy, affection. Burns's appearance among the sages and nobles
of Edinburgh, must be regarded as one of the most singular phenomena in
modern Literature; almost like the appearance of some Napoleon among the
crowned sovereigns of modern Politics. For it is nowise as a "mockery
king," set there by favor, transiently, and for a purpose, that he will
let himself be treated; still less is he a mad Rienzi, whose sudden
elevation turns his too weak head; but he stands there on his own basis;
cool, unastonished, holding his equal rank from Nature herself; putting
forth no claim which there is not strength _in_ him, as well as about him,
to vindicate. Mr. Lockhart has some forcible observations on this point:

"It needs no effort of imagination," says he, "to conceive what the
sensations of an isolated set of scholars (almost all either clergymen or
professors) must have been, in the presence of this big-boned,
black-browed, brawny stranger, with his great flashing eyes, who, having
forced his way among them from the plough-tail, at a single stride,
manifested in the whole strain of his bearing and conversation, a most
thorough conviction, that in the society of the most eminent men of his
nation, he was exactly where he was entitled to be; hardly deigned to
flatter them by exhibiting even an occasional symptom of being flattered
by their notice; by turns calmly measured himself against the most
cultivated understandings of his time in discussion; overpowered the _bon
mots_ of the most celebrated convivialists by broad floods of merriment,
impregnated with all the burning life of genius; astounded bosoms
habitually enveloped in the thrice-piled folds of social reserve, by
compelling them to tremble,--nay, to tremble visibly,--beneath the
fearless touch of natural pathos; and all this without indicating the
smallest willingness to be ranked among those professional ministers of
excitement, who are content to be paid in money and smiles for doing what
the spectators and auditors would be ashamed of doing in their own
persons, even if they had the power of doing it; and last, and probably
worst of all, who was known to be in the habit of enlivening societies
which they would have scorned to approach, still more frequently than
their own, with eloquence no less magnificent; with wit, in all
likelihood still more daring; often enough as the superiors whom he
fronted without alarm might have guessed from the beginning, and had, ere
long, no occasion to guess, with wit pointed at themselves."

The farther we remove from this scene, the more singular will it seem to
us: details of the exterior aspect of it are already full of interest.
Most readers recollect Mr. Walker's personal interviews with Burns as
among the best passages of his Narrative; a time will come when this
reminiscence of Sir Walter Scott's, slight though it is, will also be

"As for Burns," writes Sir Walter, "I may truly say _Vergilium vidi
tantum_. I was a lad of fifteen in 1786-7, when he came first to
Edinburgh, but had sense and feeling enough to be much interested in his
poetry, and would have given the world to know him: but I had very little
acquaintance with any literary people; and still less with the gentry of
the west country, the two sets that he most frequented. Mr. Thomas
Grierson was at that time a clerk of my father's. He knew Burns, and
promised to ask him to his lodgings to dinner, but had no opportunity to
keep his word; otherwise I might have seen more of this distinguished man.
As it was, I saw him one day at the late venerable Professor Ferguson's,
where there were several gentlemen of literary reputation, among whom I
remember the celebrated Mr. Dugald Stewart. Of course, we youngsters sat
silent, looked and listened. The only thing I remember, which was
remarkable in Burns's manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print
of Bunbury's, representing a soldier lying dead on the snow, his dog
sitting in misery on one side,--on the other, his widow, with a child in
her arms. These lines were written beneath:

  "Cold on Canadian hills, or Minden's plain,
  Perhaps that mother wept her soldier slain:
  Bent o'er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew,
  The big drops mingling with the milk he drew
  Gave the sad presage of his future years,
  The child of misery baptized in tears."

"Burns seemed much affected by the print, or rather by the ideas which it
suggested to his mind. He actually shed tears. He asked whose the lines
were, and it chanced that nobody but myself remembered that they occur in
a half-forgotten poem of Langhorne's, called by the unpromising title of
"The Justice of Peace." I whispered my information to a friend present, he
mentioned it to Burns, who rewarded me with a look and a word, which,
though of mere civility, I then received and still recollect with very
great pleasure.

"His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish; a
sort of dignified plainness and simplicity, which received part of its
effect perhaps from one's knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His
features are represented in Mr. Nasmyth's picture: but to me it conveys
the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his
countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. I
should have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very
sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school, _i. e._ none of your
modern agriculturists who keep laborers for their drudgery, but the _douce
gudeman_ who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense
and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated
the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast,
which glowed (I say literally _glowed_) when he spoke with feeling or
interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen
the most distinguished men of my time. His conversation expressed perfect
self-confidence, without the slightest presumption. Among the men who were
the most learned of their time and country, he expressed himself with
perfect firmness, but without the least intrusive forwardness; and when he
differed in opinion, he did not hesitate to express it firmly, yet at the
same time with modesty. I do not remember any part of his conversation
distinctly enough to be quoted; nor did I ever see him again, except in
the street, where he did not recognize me, as I could not expect he
should. He was much caressed in Edinburgh: but (considering what literary
emoluments have been since his day) the efforts made for his relief were
extremely trifling.

"I remember, on this occasion, I mention, I thought Burns's acquaintance
with English poetry was rather limited; and also, that having twenty times
the abilities of Allan Ramsay and of Ferguson, he talked of them with too
much humility as his models: there was doubtless national predilection in
his estimate.

"This is all I can tell you about Burns. I have only to add, that his
dress corresponded with his manner. He was like a farmer dressed in his
best to dine with the laird. I do not speak in _malam partem_, when I say,
I never saw a man in company with his superiors in station or information
more perfectly free from either the reality or the affectation of
embarrassment. I was told, but did not observe it, that his address to
females was extremely deferential, and always with a turn either to the
pathetic or humorous, which engaged their attention particularly. I have
heard the late Duchess of Gordon remark this. I do not know any thing I
can add to these recollections of forty years since."

The conduct of Burns under this dazzling blaze of favor; the calm,
unaffected, manly manner, in which he not only bore it, but estimated its
value, has justly been regarded as the best proof that could be given of
his real vigor and integrity of mind. A little natural vanity, some
touches of hypocritical modesty, some glimmerings of affectation, at least
some fear of being thought affected, we could have pardoned in almost any
man; but no such indication is to be traced here. In his unexampled
situation the young peasant is not a moment perplexed; so many strange
lights do not confuse him, do not lead him astray. Nevertheless, we cannot
but perceive that this winter did him great and lasting injury. A somewhat
clearer knowledge of men's affairs, scarcely of their characters, it did
afford him: but a sharper feeling of Fortune's unequal arrangements in
their social destiny it also left with him. He had seen the gay and
gorgeous arena, in which the powerful are born to play their parts; nay,
had himself stood in the midst of it; and he felt more bitterly than ever,
that here he was but a looker-on, and had no part or lot in that splendid
game. From this time a jealous, indignant fear of social degradation takes
possession of him; and perverts, so far as aught could pervert, his
private contentment, and his feelings towards his richer fellows. It was
clear enough to Burns that he had talent enough to make a fortune, or a
hundred fortunes, could he but have rightly willed this; it was clear also
that he willed something far different, and therefore could not make one.
Unhappy it was that he had not power to choose the one, and reject the
other; but must halt forever between two opinions, two objects; making
hampered advancement towards either. But so is it with many men: we "long
for the merchandise, yet would fain keep the price;" and so stand
chaffering with Fate in vexatious altercation, till the Night come, and
our fair is over!

The Edinburgh learned of that period were in general more noted for
clearness of head than for warmth of heart: with the exception of the good
old Blacklock, whose help was too ineffectual, scarcely one among them
seems to have looked at Burns with any true sympathy, or indeed much
otherwise than as at a highly curious _thing_. By the great, also, he is
treated in the customary fashion; entertained at their tables, and
dismissed: certain modica of pudding and praise are, from time to time,
gladly exchanged for the fascination of his presence; which exchange once
effected, the bargain is finished, and each party goes his several way.
At the end of this strange season, Burns gloomily sums up his gains and
losses, and meditates on the chaotic future. In money he is somewhat
richer; in fame and the show of happiness, infinitely richer; but in the
substance of it, as poor as ever. Nay, poorer, for his heart is now
maddened still more with the fever of mere worldly Ambition: and through
long years the disease will rack him with unprofitable sufferings, and
weaken his strength for all true and nobler aims.

What Burns was next to do or avoid; how a man so circumstanced was now to
guide himself towards his true advantage, might at this point of time have
been a question for the wisest: and it was a question which he was left
altogether to answer for himself: of his learned or rich patrons it had
not struck any individual to turn a thought on this so trivial matter.
Without claiming for Burns the praise of perfect sagacity, we must say,
that his Excise and Farm scheme does not seem to us a very unreasonable
one; and that we should be at a loss, even now, to suggest one decidedly
better. Some of his admirers, indeed, are scandalized at his ever
resolving to _gauge_; and would have had him apparently lie still at the
pool, till the spirit of Patronage should stir the waters, and then heal
with one plunge all his worldly sorrows! We fear such counsellors knew but
little of Burns; and did not consider that happiness might in all cases be
cheaply had by waiting for the fulfilment of golden dreams, were it not
that in the interim the dreamer must die of hunger. It reflects credit on
the manliness and sound sense of Burns, that he felt so early on what
ground he was standing; and preferred self-help, on the humblest scale,
to dependence and inaction, though with hope of far more splendid
possibilities. But even these possibilities were not rejected in his
scheme: he might expect, if it chanced that he _had_ any friend, to rise,
in no long period, into something even like opulence and leisure; while
again, if it chanced that he had no friend, he could still live in
security; and for the rest, he "did not intend to borrow honor from any
profession." We think, then, that his plan was honest and well calculated:
all turned on the execution of it. Doubtless it failed; yet not, we
believe, from any vice inherent in itself. Nay, after all, it was no
failure of external means, but of internal, that overtook Burns. His was
no bankruptcy of the purse, but of the soul; to his last day, he owed no
man any thing.

Meanwhile he begins well; with two good and wise actions. His donation to
his mother, munificent from a man whose income had lately been seven
pounds a year, was worthy of him, and not more than worthy. Generous also,
and worthy of him, was his treatment of the woman whose life's welfare now
depended on his pleasure. A friendly observer might have hoped serene days
for him: his mind is on the true road to peace with itself: what clearness
he still wants will be given as he proceeds; for the best teacher of
duties, that still lie dim to us, is the Practice of those we see, and
have at hand. Had the "patrons of genius," who could give him nothing, but
taken nothing from him, at least nothing more!--the wounds of his heart
would have healed, vulgar ambition would have died away. Toil and
Frugality would have been welcome, since Virtue dwelt with them, and
poetry would have shone through them as of old; and in her clear ethereal
light, which was his own by birth-right, he might have looked down on his
earthly destiny, and all its obstructions, not with patience only, but
with love.

But the patrons of genius would not have it so. Picturesque tourists,[2]
all manner of fashionable danglers after literature, and, far worse, all
manner of convivial Mecænases, hovered round him in his retreat; and his
good as well as his weak qualities secured them influence over him. He
was flattered by their notice; and his warm social nature made it
impossible for him to shake them off, and hold on his way apart from them.
These men, as we believe, were proximately the means of his ruin. Not that
they meant him any ill; they only meant themselves a little good; if he
suffered harm, let _him_ look to it! But they wasted his precious time and
his precious talent; they disturbed his composure, broke down his
returning habits of temperance and assiduous contented exertion. Their
pampering was baneful to him; their cruelty, which soon followed, was
equally baneful. The old grudge against Fortune's inequality awoke with
new bitterness in their neighborhood, and Burns had no retreat but to the
"Rock of Independence," which is but an air-castle, after all, that looks
well at a distance, but will screen no one from real wind and wet.
Flushed with irregular excitement, exasperated alternately by contempt of
others, and contempt of himself, Burns was no longer regaining his peace
of mind, but fast losing it forever. There was a hollowness at the heart
of his life, for his conscience did not now approve what he was doing.

Amid the vapors of unwise enjoyment, of bootless remorse, and angry
discontent with Fate, his true loadstar, a life of Poetry, with Poverty,
nay, with Famine if it must be so, was too often altogether hidden from
his eyes. And yet he sailed a sea, where, without some such guide, there
was no right steering. Meteors of French Politics rise before him, but
these were not _his_ stars. An accident this, which hastened, but did not
originate, his worst distresses. In the mad contentions of that time, he
comes in collision with certain official Superiors; is wounded by them;
cruelly lacerated, we should say, could a dead mechanical implement, in
any case, be called cruel: and shrinks, in indignant pain, into deeper
self-seclusion, into gloomier moodiness than ever. His life has now lost
its unity: it is a life of fragments; led with little aim, beyond the
melancholy one of securing its own continuance--in fits of wild false joy,
when such offered, and of black despondency when they passed away. His
character before the world begins to suffer: calumny is busy with him; for
a miserable man makes more enemies than friends. Some faults he has fallen
into, and a thousand misfortunes; but deep criminality is what he stands
accused of, and they that are _not_ without sin, cast the first stone at
him! For is he not a well-wisher of the French Revolution, a Jacobin, and
therefore in that one act guilty of all? These accusations, political and
moral, it has since appeared, were false enough; but the world hesitated
little to credit them. Nay, his convivial Mecænases themselves were not
the last to do it. There is reason to believe that, in his later years,
the Dumfries Aristocracy had partly withdrawn themselves from Burns, as
from a tainted person, no longer worthy of their acquaintance. That
painful class, stationed, in all provincial cities, behind the outmost
breastwork of Gentility, there to stand siege and do battle against the
intrusion of Grocerdom, and Grazierdom, had actually seen dishonor in the
society of Burns, and branded him with their veto; had, as we vulgarly
say, _cut_ him! We find one passage in this work of Mr. Lockhart's, which
will not out of our thoughts:

"A gentleman of that country, whose name I have already more than once had
occasion to refer to, has often told me that he was seldom more grieved,
than when, riding into Dumfries one fine summer evening about this time to
attend a country ball, he saw Burns walking alone, on the shady side of
the principal street of the town, while the opposite side was gay with
successive groups of gentlemen and ladies, all drawn together for the
festivities of the night, not one of whom appeared willing to recognize
him. The horseman dismounted, and joined Burns, who, on his proposing to
cross the street, said: 'Nay, nay, my young friend, that's all over now;'
and quoted, after a pause, some verses of Lady Grizzel Baillie's pathetic

  'His bonnet stood ance fu' fair on his brow,
  His auld ane looked better than mony ane's new;
  But now he lets 't wear ony way it will hing,
  And casts himsell dowie upon the corn-bing.

  'O were we young, as we ance hae been,
  We sud hae been galloping down on yon green,
  And linking it ower the lily-white lea!
  _And werena my heart light I wad die._'

It was little in Burns's character to let his feelings on certain subjects
escape in this fashion. He, immediately after reciting these verses,
assumed the sprightliness of his most pleasing manner; and, taking his
young friend home with him, entertained him very agreeably till the hour
of the ball arrived."

Alas! when we think that Burns now sleeps "where bitter indignation can no
longer lacerate his heart,"[3] and that most of these fair dames and
frizzled gentlemen already lie at his side, where the breastwork of
gentility is quite thrown down,--who would not sigh over the thin
delusions and foolish toys that divide heart from heart, and make man
unmerciful to his brother!

It was not now to be hoped that the genius of Burns would ever reach
maturity, or accomplish ought worthy of itself. His spirit was jarred in
its melody; not the soft breath of natural feeling, but the rude hand of
Fate, was now sweeping over the strings. And yet what harmony was in him,
what music even in his discords! How the wild tones had a charm for the
simplest and the wisest; and all men felt and knew that here also was one
of the Gifted! "If he entered an inn at midnight, after all the inmates
were in bed, the news of his arrival circulated from the cellar to the
garret; and ere ten minutes had elapsed, the landlord and all his guests
were assembled!" Some brief, pure moments of poetic life were yet
appointed him, in the composition of his Songs. We can understand how he
grasped at this employment; and how, too, he spurned at all other reward
for it but what the labor itself brought him. For the soul of Burns,
though scathed and marred, was yet living in its full moral strength,
though sharply conscious of its errors and abasement: and here, in his
destitution and degradation, was one act of seeming nobleness and
self-devotedness left even for him to perform. He felt, too, that with all
the "thoughtless follies" that had "laid him low," the world was unjust
and cruel to him; and he silently appealed to another and calmer time. Not
as a hired soldier, but as a patriot, would he strive for the glory of his
country; so he cast from him the poor sixpence a-day, and served zealously
as a volunteer. Let us not grudge him this last luxury of his existence;
let him not have appealed to us in vain! The money was not necessary to
him; he struggled through without it; long since, these guineas would have
been gone, and now the high-mindedness of refusing them will plead for
him in all hearts for ever.

We are here arrived at the crisis of Burns's life; for matters had now
taken such a shape with him as could not long continue. If improvement was
not to be looked for, Nature could only for a limited time maintain this
dark and maddening warfare against the world and itself. We are not
medically informed whether any continuance of years was, at this period,
probable for Burns; whether his death is to be looked on as in some sense
an accidental event, or only as the natural consequence of the long series
of events that had preceded. The latter seems to be the likelier opinion;
and yet it is by no means a certain one. At all events, as we have said,
_some_ change could not be very distant. Three gates of deliverance, it
seems to us, were open for Burns: clear poetical activity, madness, or
death. The first, with longer life, was still possible, though not
probable; for physical causes were beginning to be concerned in it: and
yet Burns had an iron resolution; could he but have seen and felt, that
not only his highest glory, but his first duty, and the true medicine for
all his woes, lay here. The second was still less probable; for his mind
was ever among the clearest and firmest. So the milder third gate was
opened for him: and he passed, not softly, yet speedily, into that still
country, where the hail-storms and fire-showers do not reach, and the
heaviest-laden wayfarer at length lays down his load!

Contemplating this sad end of Burns, and how he sank unaided by any real
help, uncheered by any wise sympathy, generous minds have sometimes
figured to themselves, with a reproachful sorrow, that much might have
been done for him; that by counsel, true affection, and friendly
ministrations, he might have been saved to himself and the world. We
question whether there is not more tenderness of heart than soundness of
judgment in these suggestions. It seems dubious to us whether the richest,
wisest, most benevolent individual, could have lent Burns any effectual
help. Counsel, which seldom profits any one, he did not need; in his
understanding, he knew the right from the wrong, as well perhaps as any
man ever did; but the persuasion, which would have availed him, lies not
so much in the head, as in the heart, where no argument or expostulation
could have assisted much to implant it. As to money again, we do not
really believe that this was his essential want; or well see how any
private man could, even presupposing Burns's consent, have bestowed on him
an independent fortune, with much prospect of decisive advantage. It is a
mortifying truth, that two men in any rank of society could hardly be
found virtuous enough to give money, and to take it, as a necessary gift,
without injury to the moral entireness of one or both. But so stands the
fact: friendship, in the old heroic sense of that term, no longer exists;
except in the cases of kindred or other legal affinity; it is in reality
no longer expected, or recognized as a virtue among men. A close observer
of manners has pronounced "Patronage," that is, pecuniary or other
economic furtherance, to be "twice cursed;" cursing him that gives, and
him that takes! And thus, in regard to outward matters also, it has become
the rule, as in regard to inward it always was and must be the rule, that
no one shall look for effectual help to another; but that each shall rest
contented with what help he can afford himself. Such, we say, is the
principle of modern Honor; naturally enough growing out of that sentiment
of Pride, which we inculcate and encourage as the basis of our whole
social morality. Many a poet has been poorer than Burns; but no one was
ever prouder: and we may question, whether, without great precautions,
even a pension from Royalty would not have galled and encumbered, more
than actually assisted him.

Still less, therefore, are we disposed to join with another class of
Burns's admirers, who accuse the higher ranks among us of having ruined
Burns by their selfish neglect of him. We have already stated our doubts
whether direct pecuniary help, had it been offered, would have been
accepted, or could have proved very effectual. We shall readily admit,
however, that much was to be done for Burns; that many a poisoned arrow
might have been warded from his bosom; many an entanglement in his path
cut asunder by the hand of the powerful; and light and heat shed on him
from high places, would have made his humble atmosphere more genial; and
the softest heart then breathing might have lived and died with some fewer
pangs. Nay, we shall grant further, and for Burns it is granting much,
that with all his pride, he would have thanked, even with exaggerated
gratitude, any one who had cordially befriended him: patronage, unless
once cursed, needed not to have been twice so. At all events, the poor
promotion he desired in his calling might have been granted: it was his
own scheme, therefore likelier than any other to be of service. All this
it might have been a luxury, nay, it was a duty, for our nobility to have
done. No part of all this, however, did any of them do; or apparently
attempt, or wish to do; so much is granted against them. But what then is
the amount of their blame? Simply that they were men of the world, and
walked by the principles of such men; that they treated Burns, as other
nobles and other commoners had done other poets; as the English did
Shakspeare; as King Charles and his cavaliers did Butler, as King Philip
and his Grandees did Cervantes. Do men gather grapes of thorns? or shall
we cut down our thorns for yielding only a _fence_, and haws? How, indeed,
could the "nobility and gentry of his native land" hold out any help to
this "Scottish Bard, proud of his name and country?" Were the nobility and
gentry so much as able rightly to help themselves? Had they not their game
to preserve; their borough interests to strengthen; dinners, therefore, of
various kinds to eat and give? Were their means more than adequate to all
this business, or less than adequate? Less than adequate in general: few
of them in reality were richer than Burns; many of them were poorer; for
sometimes they had to wring their supplies, as with thumbscrews, from the
hard hand; and, in their need of guineas, to forget their duty of mercy;
which Burns was never reduced to do. Let us pity and forgive them. The
game they preserved and shot, the dinners they ate and gave, the borough
interests they strengthened, the _little_ Babylons they severally builded
by the glory of their might, are all melted, or melting back into the
primeval Chaos, as man's merely selfish endeavors are fated to do: and
here was an action extending, in virtue of its worldly influence, we may
say, through all time; in virtue of its moral nature, beyond all time,
being immortal as the Spirit of Goodness itself; this action was offered
them to do, and light was not given them to do it. Let us pity and forgive
them. But, better than pity, let us go and _do otherwise_. Human
suffering did not end with the life of Burns; neither was the solemn
mandate, "Love one another, bear one another's burdens," given to the rich
only, but to all men. True, we shall find no Burns to relieve, to assuage
by our aid or our pity: but celestial natures, groaning under the fardels
of a weary life, we shall still find; and that wretchedness which Fate has
rendered _voiceless_ and _tuneless_, is not the least wretched, but the

Still we do not think that the blame of Burns's failure lies chiefly with
the world. The world, it seems to us, treated him with more, rather than
with less kindness, than it usually shows to such men. It has ever, we
fear, shown but small favor to its Teachers; hunger and nakedness, perils
and reviling, the prison, the cross, the poison-chalice, have, in most
times and countries, been the market-place it has offered for Wisdom, the
welcome with which it has greeted those who have come to enlighten and
purify it. Homer and Socrates, and the Christian Apostles belong to old
days; but the world's Martyrology was not completed with these. Roger
Bacon and Galileo languish in priestly dungeons, Tasso pines in the cell
of a madhouse, Camoens dies begging on the streets of Lisbon. So
neglected, so "persecuted they the Prophets," not in Judea only, but in
all places where men have been. We reckon that every poet of Burns's order
is, or should be, a prophet and teacher to his age; that he has no right
therefore to expect great kindness from it, but rather is bound to do it
great kindness; that Burns, in particular, experienced fully the usual
proportion of the world's goodness; and that the blame of his failure, as
we have said, lies not chiefly with the world.

Where then does it lie? We are forced to answer: With himself; it is his
inward, not his outward misfortunes, that bring him to the dust. Seldom,
indeed, is it otherwise; seldom is a life morally wrecked, but the grand
cause lies in some internal mal-arrangement, some want less of good
fortune than of good guidance. Nature fashions no creature without
implanting in it the strength needful for its action and duration; least
of all does she so neglect her masterpiece and darling, the poetic soul.
Neither can we believe that it is in the power of _any_ external
circumstances utterly to ruin the mind of a man; nay, if proper wisdom be
given him, even so much as to affect its essential health and beauty. The
sternest sum-total of all worldly misfortunes is Death; nothing more _can_
lie in the cup of human wo: yet many men, in all ages, have triumphed over
Death, and led it captive; converting its physical victory into a moral
victory for themselves, into a seal and immortal consecration for all that
their past life had achieved. What has been done, may be done again; nay,
it is but the degree and not the kind of such heroism that differs in
different seasons; for without some portion of this spirit, not of
boisterous daring, but of silent fearlessness, of Self-denial, in all its
forms, no good man, in any scene or time, has ever attained to be good.

We have already stated the error of Burns; and mourned over it, rather
than blamed it. It was the want of unity in his purposes, of consistency
in his aims; the hapless attempt to mingle in friendly union the common
spirit of the world with the spirit of poetry, which is of a far different
and altogether irreconcilable nature. Burns was nothing wholly, and Burns
could be nothing; no man formed as he was can be any thing, by halves.
The heart, not of a mere hot-blooded, popular verse-monger, or poetical
_Restaurateur_, but of a true Poet and Singer, worthy of the old religious
heroic times, had been given him: and he fell in an age, not of heroism
and religion, but of skepticism, selfishness, and triviality, when true
Nobleness was little understood, and its place supplied by a hollow,
dissocial, altogether barren and unfruitful principle of Pride. The
influences of that age, his open, kind, susceptible nature, to say nothing
of his highly untoward situation, made it more than usually difficult for
him to repel or resist; the better spirit that was within him ever sternly
demanded its rights, its supremacy; he spent his life in endeavoring to
reconcile these two; and lost it, as he must have lost it, without
reconciling them here.

Burns was born poor; and born also to continue poor, for he would not
endeavor to be otherwise: this it had been well could he have once for all
admitted, and considered as finally settled. He was poor, truly; but
hundreds even of his own class and order of minds have been poorer, yet
have suffered nothing deadly from it: nay, his own father had a far sorer
battle with ungrateful destiny than his was; and he did not yield to it,
but died courageously warring, and to all moral intents prevailing,
against it. True, Burns had little means, had even little time for poetry,
his only real pursuit and vocation; but so much the more precious was what
little he had. In all these external respects his case was hard; but very
far from the hardest. Poverty, incessant drudgery, and much worse evils,
it has often been the lot of poets and wise men to strive with, and their
glory to conquer. Locke was banished as a traitor; and wrote his _Essay
on the Human Understanding_, sheltering himself in a Dutch garret. Was
Milton rich or at his ease, when he composed _Paradise Lost_? Not only
low, but fallen from a height; not only poor, but impoverished; in
darkness and with dangers compassed round, he sang his immortal song, and
found fit audience, though few. Did not Cervantes finish his work, a
maimed soldier, and in prison? Nay, was not the _Araucana_, which Spain
acknowledges as its Epic, written without even the aid of paper; scraps of
leather, as the stout fighter and voyager snatched any moment from that
wild warfare?

And what then had these men, which Burns wanted? Two things; both which,
it seems to us, are indispensable for such men. They had a true, religious
principle of morals; and a single not a double aim in their activity. They
were not self-seekers and self-worshippers; but seekers and worshippers
of something far better than Self. Not personal enjoyment was their
object; but a high, heroic idea of Religion, of Patriotism, of heavenly
Wisdom, in one or the other form, ever hovered before them; in which
cause, they neither shrunk from suffering, nor called on the earth to
witness it as something wonderful; but patiently endured, counting it
blessedness enough so to spend and be spent. Thus the "golden calf of
Self-love," however curiously carved, was not their Deity; but the
Invisible Goodness, which alone is man's reasonable service. This feeling
was as a celestial fountain, whose streams refreshed into gladness and
beauty all the provinces of their otherwise too desolate existence. In a
word, they willed one thing, to which all other things were subordinated,
and made subservient; and therefore they accomplished it. The wedge will
rend rocks; but its edge must be sharp and single: if it be double, the
wedge is bruised in pieces and will rend nothing.

Part of this superiority these men owed to their age; in which heroism and
devotedness were still practised, or at least not yet disbelieved in; but
much of it likewise they owed to themselves. With Burns again it was
different. His morality, in most of its practical points, is that of a
mere worldly man; enjoyment, in a finer or a coarser shape, is the only
thing he longs and strives for. A noble instinct sometimes raises him
above this; but an instinct only, and acting only for moments. He has no
Religion; in the shallow age, where his days were cast, Religion was not
discriminated from the New and Old Light _forms_ of Religion; and was,
with these, becoming obsolete in the minds of men. His heart, indeed, is
alive with a trembling adoration, but there is no temple in his
understanding. He lives in darkness and in the shadow of doubt. His
religion, at best, is an anxious wish; like that of Rabelais, "a great

He loved Poetry warmly, and in his heart; could he but have loved it
purely, and with his whole undivided heart, it had been well. For Poetry,
as Burns could have followed it, is but another form of Wisdom, of
Religion; is itself Wisdom and Religion. But this also was denied him. His
poetry is a stray vagrant gleam, which will not be extinguished within
him, yet rises not to be the true light of his path, but is often a
wildfire that misleads him. It was not necessary for Burns to be rich, to
be, or to seem, "independent;" but _it was_ necessary for him to be at one
with his own heart; to place what was highest in his nature, highest also
in his life; "to seek within himself for that consistency and sequence,
which external events would for ever refuse him." He was born a poet;
poetry was the celestial element of his being, and should have been the
soul of his whole endeavors. Lifted into that serene ether, whither he had
wings given him to mount, he would have needed no other elevation:
Poverty, neglect, and all evil, save the desecration of himself and his
Art, were a small matter to him; the pride and the passions of the world
lay far beneath his feet; and he looked down alike on noble and slave, on
prince and beggar, and all that wore the stamp of man, with clear
recognition, with brotherly affection, with sympathy, with pity. Nay, we
question whether for his culture as a Poet, poverty, and much suffering
for a season, were not absolutely advantageous. Great men, in looking back
over their lives, have testified to that effect. "I would not for much,"
says Jean Paul, "that I had been born richer." And yet Paul's birth was
poor enough; for, in another place, he adds; "The prisoner's allowance is
bread and water; and I had often only the latter." But the gold that is
refined in the hottest furnace comes out the purest; or, as he has himself
expressed it, "the canary-bird sings sweeter the longer it has been
trained in a darkened cage."

A man like Burns might have divided his hours between poetry and virtuous
industry; industry which all true feeling sanctions, nay prescribes, and
which has a beauty, for that cause, beyond the pomp of thrones: but to
divide his hours between poetry and rich men's banquets, was an
ill-starred and inauspicious attempt. How could he be at ease at such
banquets? What had he to do there, mingling his music with the coarse roar
of altogether earthly voices, and brightening the thick smoke of
intoxication with fire lent him from heaven? Was it his aim to _enjoy_
life? To-morrow he must go drudge as an Exciseman! We wonder not that
Burns became moody, indignant, and at times an offender against certain
rules of society; but rather that he did not grow utterly frantic, and run
_a-muck_ against them all. How could a man, so falsely placed, by his own
or others' fault, ever know contentment or peaceable diligence for an
hour? What he did, under such perverse guidance, and what he forbore to
do, alike fill us with astonishment at the natural strength and worth of
his character.

Doubtless there was a remedy for this perverseness: but not in others;
only in himself; least of all in simple increase of wealth and worldly
"respectability." We hope we have now heard enough about the efficacy of
wealth for poetry, and to make poets happy. Nay, have we not seen another
instance of it in these very days? Byron, a man of endowment considerably
less ethereal than that of Burns, is born in the rank not of a Scottish
ploughman, but of an English peer: the highest worldly honors, the fairest
worldly career, are his by inheritance: the richest harvest of fame he
soon reaps, in another province, by his own hand. And what does all this
avail him? Is he happy, is he good, is he true? Alas, he has a poet's
soul, and strives towards the Infinite and the Eternal; and soon feels
that all this is but mounting to the house-top to reach the stars! Like
Burns, he is only a proud man; might like him have "purchased a
pocket-copy of Milton to study the character of Satan;" for Satan also is
Byron's grand exemplar, the hero of his poetry, and the model apparently
of his conduct. As in Burns's case, too, the celestial element will not
mingle with the clay of earth; both poet and man of the world he must not
be; vulgar Ambition will not live kindly with poetic Adoration; he
_cannot_ serve God and Mammon. Byron, like Burns, is not happy; nay, he is
the most wretched of all men. His life is falsely arranged: the fire that
is in him is not a strong, still, central fire, warming into beauty the
products of a world; but it is the mad fire of a volcano; and now,--we
look sadly into the ashes of a crater, which ere long, will fill itself
with snow!

Byron and Burns were sent forth as missionaries to their generation, to
teach it a higher doctrine, a purer truth: they had a message to deliver,
which left them no rest till it was accomplished; in dim throes of pain,
this divine behest lay smouldering within them; for they knew not what it
meant, and felt it only in mysterious anticipation, and they had to die
without articulately uttering it. They are in the camp of the Unconverted.
Yet not as high messengers of rigorous though benignant truth, but as
soft flattering singers, and in pleasant fellowship, will they live there;
they are first adulated, then persecuted; they accomplish little for
others; they find no peace for themselves, but only death and the peace of
the grave. We confess, it is not without a certain mournful awe that we
view the fate of these noble souls, so richly gifted, yet ruined to so
little purpose with all their gifts. It seems to us there is a stern moral
taught in this piece of history,--_twice_ told us in our own time! Surely
to men of like genius, if there be any such, it carries with it a lesson
of deep impressive significance. Surely it would become such a man,
furnished for the highest of all enterprises, that of being the Poet of
his Age, to consider well what it is that he attempts, and in what spirit
he attempts it. For the words of Milton are true in all times, and were
never truer than in this: "He, who would write heroic poems, must make
his whole life a heroic poem." If he cannot first so make his life, then
let him hasten from this arena; for neither its lofty glories, nor its
fearful perils, are for him. Let him dwindle into a modish balladmonger;
let him worship and be-sing the idols of the time, and the time will not
fail to reward him,--if, indeed, he can endure to live in that capacity!
Byron and Burns could not live as idol-priests, but the fire of their own
hearts consumed them; and better it was for them that they could not. For
it is not in the favor of the great, or of the small, but in a life of
truth, and in the inexpugnable citadel of his own soul, that a Byron's or
a Burns's strength must lie. Let the great stand aloof from him, or know
how to reverence him. Beautiful is the union of wealth with favor and
furtherance for literature; like the costliest flower-jar enclosing the
loveliest amaranth. Yet let not the relation be mistaken. A true poet is
not one whom they can hire by money or flattery to be a minister of their
pleasures, their writer of occasional verses, their purveyor of table-wit;
he cannot be their menial, he cannot even be their partisan. At the peril
of both parties, let no such union be attempted! Will a Courser of the Sun
work softly in the harness of a Drayhorse? His hoofs are of fire, and his
path is through the heavens, bringing light to all lands; will he lumber
on mud highways, dragging ale for earthly appetites, from door to door?

But we must stop short in these considerations, which would lead us to
boundless lengths. We had something to say on the public moral character
of Burns; but this also we must forbear. We are far from regarding him as
guilty before the world, as guiltier than the average; nay, from doubting
that he is less guilty than one of ten thousand. Tried at a tribunal far
more rigid than that where the _Plebiscita_ of common civic reputations
are pronounced, he has seemed to us even there less worthy of blame than
of pity and wonder. But the world is habitually unjust in its judgments of
such men; unjust on many grounds, of which this one may be stated as the
substance: it decides, like a court of law, by dead statutes; and not
positively but negatively; less on what is done right, than on what is, or
is not, done wrong. Not the few inches of reflection from the mathematical
orbit, which are so easily measured, but the _ratio_ of these to the whole
diameter, constitutes the real aberration. This orbit may be a planet's,
its diameter the breadth of the solar system; or it may be a city
hippodrome; nay, the circle of a ginhorse, its diameter a score of feet or
paces. But the inches of deflection only are measured; and it is assumed
that the diameter of the ginhorse, and that of the planet, will yield the
same ratio when compared with them. Here lies the root of many a blind,
cruel condemnation of Burnses, Swifts, Rousseaus, which one never listens
to with approval. Granted, the ship comes into harbor with shrouds and
tackle damaged; and the pilot is therefore blameworthy; for he has not
been all-wise and all-powerful; but to know _how_ blameworthy, tell us
first whether his voyage has been round the Globe, or only to Ramsgate and
the Isle of Dogs.

With our readers in general, with men of right feeling anywhere, we are
not required to plead for Burns. In pitying admiration, he lies enshrined
in all our hearts, in a far nobler mausoleum than that one of marble;
neither will his Works, even as they are, pass away from the memory of
man. While the Shakspeares and Miltons roll on like mighty rivers through
the country of Thought, bearing fleets of traffickers and assiduous
pearl-fishers on their waves; this little Valclusa Fountain will also
arrest our eye: for this also is of Nature's own and most cunning
workmanship, bursts from the depths of the earth, with a full gushing
current, into the light of day; and often will the traveller turn aside to
drink of its clear waters, and muse among its rocks and pines!



[1] A review of the Life of Robert Burns. By J. G. Lockhart, LL. B.
Edinburgh, 1828.

[2] There is one little sketch certain "English gentlemen" of this class,
which, though adopted in Currie's Narrative, and since then repeated in
most others, we have all along felt an invincible disposition to regard as
imaginary: "On a rock that projected into the stream they saw a man
employed in angling, of a singular appearance. He had a cap made of
fox-skin on his head, a loose great-coat fixed round him by a belt, from
which depended an enormous Highland broad-sword. It was Burns." Now, we
rather think, it was not Burns. For, to say nothing of the fox-skin cap,
loose and quite Hibernian watch-coat with the belt, what are we to make of
this "enormous Highland broad-sword" depending from him? More especially,
as there is no word of parish constables on the outlook to see whether, as
Dennis phrases it, he had an eye to his own midriff, or that of the
public! Burns, of all men, had the least tendency to seek for distinction,
either in his own eyes, or those of others, by such poor mummeries.

[3] _Ubi sæva indignatio cor ulterius lacerare nequit._--Swift's Epitaph.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's note:

Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).

The following misprints have been corrected:
  "aquaintances" corrected to "acquaintances" (page 34)
  "acqaintance" corrected to "acquaintance" (page 66)
  "Aristrocracy" corrected to "Aristocracy" (page 67)

Other than the corrections listed above, inconsistencies in spelling and
hyphenation have been retained from the original.

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