1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 640-44.



ROBERT BURNS was born near the town of Ayr, within a few hundred yards of "Alloway's auld haunted kirk," in a clay cottage, which his father, who was a small farmer and gardener, had built with his own hands. A part of this humble edifice gave way when the poet was but a few days old; and his mother and he were carried, at midnight, through the storm, to a neighbor's house, that gave them shelter. After having received some lessons in his childhood, from the schoolmaster of the village of Alloway, he was, at seven years of age, put under a teacher of name of Murdoch, who instructed him in reading and English grammar. This good man, who is still alive, and a teacher of languages in London, boasts, with a very natural triumph, of having accurately instructed Burns in the first principles of composition. At such an age, Burns's study of principles could not be very profound; yet it is due to his early instructor to observe that his prose style is more accurate than we should expect even from the vigour of an untutored mind, and such as would lead us to suppose that he had been early initiated in the rules of grammar. His father's removal to another farm in Ayrshire, at Mount Oliphant, unfortunately deprived him of the benefit of Murdoch as an instructor, after he had been about two years under his care; and for a long time he received no other lessons than those his father gave him in writing and arithmetic, when he instructed his family by the fireside of their cottage in winter evenings. About the age of thirteen he was sent, during a part of the summer, to the parish-school in Dalrymple, in order to improve his hand-writing. In the following year he had an opportunity of passing several weeks with his old friend Murdoch, with whose assistance be began to study French with intense ardour and assiduity. His proficiency in that language, though it was wonderful considering his opportunities, was necessarily slight; yet it was in showing this accomplishment alone, that Burns's weakness ever took the shape of vanity.

One of his friends, who carried him into the company of a French lady, remarked, with surprise, that he attempted to converse with her in her own tongue. Their French, however, was soon found to be almost mutually unintelligible. As far as Burns could make himself understood, he meant to tell her, that she was a charming person, and delightful in conversation; but expressed himself so as to appear to her to mean, that she was fond of speaking; to which the Gallic dame indignantly replied, that it was quite as common for poets to be impertinent, as for women to be loquacious.

At the age of nineteen he received a few month's introduction in land surveying. Such is the scanty history of his education, which is interesting simply because its opportunities were so few and precarious, and such as only a gifted mind could have turned to any account.

Of his early reading, he tells us, that a life of Hannibal, which Murdoch gave him when a boy, raised the first stirrings of his enthusiasm; and, he adds, with his own fervid expression, "that the life of Sir William Wallace poured a tide of Scottish prejudices into his veins, which would boil along there till the floodgates of life were shut in eternal rest." In his sixteenth year he had read some of the plays of Shakespeare, the works of Pope and Addison, and of the Scottish poets Ramsay and Fergusson. From the volumes of Locke, Ray, Derham, and Stackhouse, he also imbibed a smattering of natural history and theology; but his brother assures us, that until the time of his being known as an author, he continued to be but imperfectly acquainted with the most eminent of our English writers. Thanks to the songs and superstition of his native country, his genius had some fostering aliments, which perhaps the study of classical authors might have led him to neglect. His inspiration grew up like the flower, which owes to heaven, in a barren soil, a natural beauty and wildness of fragrance that would be spoiled by artificial culture. He learned an infinite number of old ballads, from hearing his mother sing them at her wheel; and he was instructed in all the venerable heraldry of devils and witches by an ancient woman in the neighbourhood, "the Sybilline nurse of his Muse," who probably first imparted to him the story of Tam o' Shanter. "Song was his favourite and first pursuit." "The Song-book," he says, "was my Vade Mecum: I pored over it constantly, driving my cart, or walking to labour." It would be pleasing to dwell on this era of his youthful sensibility, if his life had been happy; but it was far otherwise. He was the eldest of a family, buffeted by misfortunes, toiling beyond their strength, and living without the support of animal food. At thirteen years of age he used to thresh in his father's barn; and, at fifteen, was the principal labourer on the farm. After the toils of the day, he usually sunk in the evening into dejection of spirits, and was afflicted with dull headaches, the joint result of anxiety, low diet, and fatigue. "This kind of life, (he says) the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year, when love made me a poet." The object of his first attachment was a Highland girl, named Mary Campbell, who was his fellow-reaper in the same harvest-field. She died very young; and when Burns heard of her death, he was thrown into an ecstasy of suffering much beyond what even his keen temperament was accustomed to feel. Nor does he seem ever to have forgotten her. His verses To Mary in Heaven; his invocation to the star that rose on the anniversary of her death; his description of the landscape that was the scene of their day of love and parting vows, where "flowers sprang wanton to be pressed;" the whole luxury exquisite passion of that strain, evince that her image had survived many important changes in himself.

From his seventeenth to his twenty-fourth year he lived, as an assistant to his father, on another farm in Ayrshire, at Lochlea, to which they had removed from Mount Oliphant. During that period his brother Gilbert and he, besides labouring for their father, took a part of the land on their own account, for the purpose of raising flax; and this speculation induced Robert to attempt establishing himself in the business of flax-dressing, in the neighbouring town of Irvine. But the unhealthiness of the business, and the accidental misfortune of his shop taking fire, induced him, at the end of six months, to abandon it. Whilst his father's affairs were growing desperate at Lochlea, the poet and his brother had taken a different farm on their own account, as an asylum for the family in case of the worst; but, from unfavourable seasons and a bad soil, this speculation proved also unfortunate, and was given up. By this time Burns had formed his connection with Jean Armour, who was afterward his wife, a connection which could no longer be concealed, at the moment when the ruinous state of his affairs had determined him to cross the Atlantic, and to seek his fortune in Jamaica. He had even engaged himself as assistant overseer to a plantation. He proposed, however, to legalize the private contract of marriage which he had made with Jean; and, though he anticipated the necessity of leaving her behind him, he trusted to better days for their being reunited. But the parents of Jean were unwilling to dispose her to a husband who was thus to be separated from her, and persuaded her to renounce the informal marriage. Burns also agreed to dissolve the connection, though deeply wounded at the apparent willingness of his mistress to give him up, and overwhelmed with feelings of the most distracting nature. He now [1786] prepared to embark for Jamaica, where his first situation would, in all probability, have been that of a negro-driver, when, before bidding a last adieu to his native country, he happily thought of publishing a collection of his poems. By this publication he gained about 20, which seasonably saved him from indenting himself as a servant, for want of money to procure a passage. With nine guineas out of this sum he had taken a steerage passage in the Clyde for Jamaica; and, to avoid the terrors of a jail, he had been for some time skulking from covert to covert. He had taken a last leave of his friends, and had composed the last song which he thought he should ever measure to Caledonia, when the contents of a letter, from Dr. Blacklock of Edinburgh, to one of his friends, describing the encouragement which an edition of his poems would be likely to receive in the Scottish capital, suddenly lighted up all his prospects, and detained him from embarking. "I immediately posted," he says, "to Edinburgh, without a single acquaintance or letter of introduction. The baneful star, which had so long shed its blasting influence on my zenith, for once made a revolution to the nadir."

Though he speaks of having had no acquaintance in Edinburgh, he had been previously introduced in Ayrshire to Lord Daer, to Dugald Stewart, and to several respectable individuals, by the reputation which the first edition of his poems had acquired. He arrived in Edinburgh in 1786, and his reception there was more like an agreeable change of fortune in a romance, than like an event in ordinary life. His company was every where sought for; and it was soon found that the admiration which his poetry had excited, was but a part of what was due to the general eminence of his mental faculties. His natural eloquence, and his warm and social heart expanding under the influence of prosperity — which, with all the pride of genius, retained a quick and versatile sympathy with every variety of human character — made him equally fascinating in the most refined and convivial societies. For a while he reigned the fashion and idol of his native capital.

The profits of his new edition enabled him in the succeeding year, 1787, to make a tour through a considerable extent both to the south and north of Scotland. The friend who accompanied him in this excursion gives a very interesting description of the impressions which he saw produced in Burns's mind from some of the romantic scenery which they visited. "When we came" (he says) "to a rustic hut on the river Till, where the stream descends in a noble waterfall, and is surrounded by a woody precipice, that commands a beautiful view of its course, he threw himself on a heathy seat, and gave himself up to a tender, abstracted, and voluptuous indulgence of imagination." It may be conceived with what enthusiasm he visited the field of Bannockburn.

After he had been caressed and distinguished so much in Edinburgh, it was natural to anticipate that among the many individuals of public influence and respectability, who had countenanced his genius, some means might have been devised to secure to him a competent livelihood in a proper station of society. It was probably with this hope in his mind that he returned to Edinburgh after his summer excursion; and, unfortunately for his habits, spent the winter of 1788 in accepting a round of convivial invitations. The hospitality of the north was not then what it now is. Refinement had not yet banished to the tavern the custom of bumper-toasts, and of pressing the bottle: and the master of the house was not thought very hospitable unless the majority of his male guests, at a regular party, were at least half intoxicated. Burns was invited and importuned to those scenes of dissipation; and beset, at least as much by the desire of others to enjoy his society when he was exhilarated, as by his own facility to lend it. He probably deluded his own reflections, by imagining, that in every fresh excess he was acquiring a new friend, or attaching one already acquired. But with all the admiration and declarations of personal friendship which were lavished on him, the only appointment that could be obtained for him was that of an officer of excise. In the mean time he had acquired a relish for a new and over-excited state of life. He had been expected to shine in every society; and, to use his own phrase, "had been too often obliged to give his company a slice of his constitution." He had now to go back to the sphere of society from which he had emerged, with every preparatory circumstance to render him discontented with it, that the most ingenious cruelty could have devised.

After his appointment to the office of a gauger, he took a farm at Ellisland, on the banks of the Nith, and settled in conjugal union with his Jean. But here his unhappy distraction between two employments, and his mode of life as an exciseman, which made the public-house his frequent abode, and his fatigues a temptation to excesses, had so bad an influence on his affairs, that at the end of three years and a half he sold his stock and gave up his farm. By promotion in the excise, his income had risen to 70 a year, and with only this income in immediate prospect, he repaired to Dumfries, the new place of duty that was assigned to him by the board of commissioners. Here his intemperate habits became confirmed, and his conduct and conversation grew daily more unguarded. Times of political rancour had also arrived, in which he was too ardent a spirit to preserve neutrality. He took the popular side, and became exposed to charges of disloyalty. He spurned, indeed, at those charges, and wrote a very spirited explanation of his principles. But his political conversations had been reported to the Board of Excise, and it required the interest of a powerful friend to support him in the humble situation which he held. It was at Dumfries that he wrote the finest of his songs for Thompson's Musical Collection, and dated many of the most eloquent of his letters.

In the winter of 1796 his constitution, broken by cares, irregularities, and passions, fell into a rapid decline. The summer returned; but only to shine on his sickness and his grave. In July his mind wandered into delirium; and in the same month, a fever, on the fourth day of its continuance, closed his life and sufferings, in his thirty-eighth year.

Whatever the faults of Burns, he lived unstained by a mean or dishonest action. To have died without debt, after supporting a family on 70 a year, bespeaks, after all, but little of the spendthrift. That income, on account of his incapacity to perform his duty, was even reduced to one-half of its amount, at he period of his dying sickness; and humiliating threats of punishment, for opinions uttered in the confidence of private conversation, were among the last returns which the government of Scotland made to the man, whose genius attaches agreeable associations to the name of his country.

His death seemed to efface the recollection of his faults, and of political differences, still harder to be forgotten. All the respectable inhabitants of Dumfries attended his funeral, while the volunteers of the city, and two regiments of native fencibles, attended with solemn music, and paid military honours at the grave of their illustrious countryman.

Burns has given an elixir of life to his native dialect. The Scottish Tam o' Shanter will be read as long as any English production of the same century. The impression of his genius is deep and universal; and, viewing him merely as a poet, there is scarcely any other regret connected with his name, than that his productions, with all their merit, fall short of the talents which he possessed. That he never attempted any great work of fiction or invention, may be partly traced to the cast of his genius, and partly to his circumstances and defective education. His poetical temperament was that of fitful transports, rather than steady inspiration. Whatever he might have written, was likely to have been fraught with passion. There is always enough of interest in life to cherish the feelings of a man of genius; but it requires knowledge to enlarge and enrich his imagination. Of that knowledge which unrolls the diversities of human manners, adventures, and characters to a poet's study, he could have no great share; although he stamped the little treasure which he possessed in the mintage of sovereign genius. It has been asserted, that he received all the education which is requisite for a poet; he had learned reading, writing and arithmetic; and he had dipped into French and geometry. To a poet, it must be owned, the three last of those acquisitions were quite superfluous. His education, it is also affirmed, was equal to Shakespeare's; but, without intending to make any comparison between the genius of the two bards, it should be recollected that Shakespeare lived in an age overflowing with chivalrous and romantic reading; that he was led by his vocation to have daily recourse to that kind of reading; that he dwelt on a spot which gave him constant access to it; and was in habitual intercourse with men of genius. Burns, after growing up to manhood under toils which exhausted his physical frame, acquired a scanty knowledge of modern books, of books tending for the most part to regulate the judgment more than to exercise the fancy. In the whole tract of his reading, there seems to be little that could cherish his inventive faculties. One material of poetry he certainly possessed, independent of books, in the legendary superstitions of his native country. But with all that he tells us of his early love of those superstitions, they seem to have come home to his mind with so many ludicrous associations of vulgar tradition, that it may be doubted if he could have turned them to account in an elevated work of fiction. Strongly and admirably as he paints the supernatural in Tam o' Shanter, yet there, as every where else, he makes it subservient to comic effect. The fortuitous wildness and sweetness of his strains may, after all, set aside every regret that he did not attempt more superb and regular structures of fancy. He describes, as he says, the sentiments which he saw and felt in himself and his rustic compeers around him. His page is a lively image of the contemporary life and country from which he sprung. He brings back old Scotland to us with all her homefelt endearments, her simple customs, her festivities, her sturdy prejudices, and orthodox zeal, with a power that excites, alternately, the most tender and mirthful sensations. After the full account of his pieces which Dr. Currie has given, the English reader can have nothing new to learn respecting them. On one powerfully comic piece Dr. Currie has not dissertated, namely, The Holy Fair. It is enough, however, to mention the humour of this production, without recommending its subject. Burns, indeed, only laughs at the abuses of a sacred institution; but the theme was of unsafe approach, and he ought to have avoided it.

He meets us, in his compositions, undisguisedly as a peasant. At the same time, his observations go extensively into life, like those of a man who felt the proper dignity of human nature in the character of a peasant. The writer of some of the severest strictures that ever have been passed upon his poetry [Jeffrey], conceives that his beauties are considerably defaced by a portion of false taste and vulgar sentiment, which adhere to him from his low education. That Burns's education, or rather the want of it, excluded him from much knowledge, which might have fostered his inventive ingenuity, seems to be clear; but his circumstances cannot be admitted to have communicated vulgarity to the tone of his sentiments. They have not the sordid taste of low condition. It is objected to him, that he boasts too much of his own independence; but, in reality, this boast is neither frequent nor obtrusive; and it is in itself the expression of a manly and laudable feeling. So far from calling up disagreeable recollections of rusticity, his sentiments triumph, by their natural energy, over those false and fastidious distinctions which the mind is but too apt to form in allotting its sympathies to the sensibilities of the rich and poor. He carries us into the humble scenes of life, not to make us dole out our tribute of charitable compassion to paupers and cottagers, but to make us enter into their passions and interests, and share our hearts with them as brothers and sisters of the human species.

He is taxed, in the same place, with perpetually affecting to deride the virtues of prudence, regularity, and decency; and with being imbued with the sentimentality of German novels. Any thing more remote from German sentiment than Burns's poetry could not easily be mentioned. But is he depraved and licentious in a comprehensive view of the moral character of his pieces? The over-genial freedom of a few assuredly ought not to fix the character upon the whole of them. It is a charge which we should hardly expect to see preferred against the author of The Cotter's Saturday Night. He is the enemy, indeed, of that selfish and niggardly spirit which shelters itself under the name of prudence; but that pharisaical disposition has seldom been a favourite with poets. Nor should his maxims, which inculcate charity and candour in judging of human frailties, be interpreted as a serious defence of them, as when he says,

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman,
Though they may gang a kennin' wrang;
To step aside is human.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias.

It is still more surprising, that a critic, capable of so eloquently developing the traits of Burns's genius, should have found fault with his amatory strains for want of polish, and "of that chivalrous tone of gallantry, which uniformly abases itself in the presence of the object of devotion." Every reader must recall abundance of thoughts in his love songs, to which any attempt to superadd a tone of gallantry would not be

To gild refined gold, to paint the rose,
Or add fresh perfume to the violet;

but to debase the metal, and to take the odour and colour from the flower. It is exactly this superiority to "abasement" and polish which is the charm that distinguished Burns from the herd of erotic songsters, from the days of the troubadours to the present time. He wrote from impulses more sincere than the spirit of chivalry; and even Lord Surrey and Sir Philip Sidney are cold and uninteresting lovers in comparison with the rustic Burns.

The praises of his best pieces I have abstained from re-echoing, as there is no epithet of admiration which they deserve which has not been bestowed upon them. One point must be conceded to the strictures on his poetry, to which I have already alluded, — that his personal satire was fierce and acrimonious. I am not, however, disposed to consider the attacks on Rumble John, and Holly Willie, as destitute of wit; and his poem on the clerick settlements at Kilmarnock blends a good deal of ingenious metaphor with his accustomed humour. Even viewing him as a satirist, the last and humblest light in which he can be regarded as a poet, it may still be said of him,

His style was witty, though it had some gall;
Something he might have mended — so may all.