1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 6:455-56.



The eccentricities of genius, and its aberrations from the paths of prudence have been so frequently remarked, that it is almost unnecessary to quote them. Nor is it less a truism, that the man who deserts the station in which he was originally placed is generally unhappy, and that the admiration excited by superior talents is ill compensated by the envy and the mortifications that accompany them.

Robert Burns was born near the town of Ayr in Scotland, in 1759. He received a common education at the parochial school, and at intervals during its progress, he was employed, as is usual with those who are not intended for learned professions, in rustic labor and the most menial employments. By superior application, however, aided by original powers of mind, he acquired some knowledge of the French language and of mathematics, at the same time that he contracted an acquaintance with some of the best poetical writers, whose works were accessible to him.

But, in proportion as his understanding became enlightened, his habits were less simple and pure; and finding his company courted and his conversation admired, instead of refining and exalting his sentiments, he associated chiefly with his inferiors, in every sense of the word. On the death of his father, he entered on a small farm in partnership with his brother; but poetry end ploughing ill accord; and one false step reading to another, he was so embarrassed, that, struck with his situation, he wished to transport himself to the West Indies. At this period some friends who admired and were able to appreciate his poetical powers, suggested to him the publication of a small volume of poems. He adopted the idea: his success exceeded both his and their most sanguine expectation. Dr Blacklock, in particular, charmed with his genius, invited him to Edinburgh. His reception there was flattering, and a new edition of his poems produced 500. He now commenced farmer again, married the young woman with whom he had previously had an intrigue, and was appointed, by the contemptible patronage of some injudicious person, to the mechanical office of an exciseman. The union of this with farming was still more incompatible than ploughing and poetry, and he became an exciseman only. In this capacity he settled at Dumfries, and spent his time most uncongenially, relieved only by lucid intervals of poetic inspiration. He died in 1796, leaving a widow and four children, for whose benefit the late Dr. Currie published a splendid edition of his works, which cleared 1,000. With the exception of Chatterton, modern times have not produced an unlettered genius of equal excellence and celebrity with Burns, whose fame will remain when his personal faults are forgotten. His poetical beauties are so numerous, it is difficult to make a partial selection.

There is such a characteristic spirit in the first passage of the dedication of his poems to some gentlemen and noblemen of Scotland, that to evince his ability to write good prose as well as verse, I shall here subjoin it.

"A Scottish Bard, proud of the name and whose highest ambition is to sing in his country's service, where shall he so properly look for patronage as to the illustrious names of his native land; those who bear the honors and inherit the virtues of their ancestors; The poetic genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha, at the plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my natal soil, in my native tongue: I tuned my wild artless notes, as she inspired. She whispered me to come to this ancient metropolis of Caledonia, and lay my songs under your honored protection: I now obey her dictates."