We come now to the man who is the great representative of a class which is the peculiar glory of Great Britain; that is, to Robert Burns. It is a brilliant feature of English literature, that the people, the mass, the multitude, call them what you will, have contributed to it their share, and that share a glorious one. We may look in vain into the literature of every other nation for the like fact. It is true that there may be found in all countries men who, born in the lowest walks of life, orphans, outcasts, slaves even, men labouring under not only all the weight of social prejudices, but under the curse of personal deformity, have, through some one fortunate circumstance, generally the favour of some one generous and superior person, risen out of their original position, and through the advantages of academical or artistic education have taken their place amongst the learned and illustrious of their race. We need not turn back to the Esops and Terences of antiquity for such characters, they are easy to select from the annals of middle age, and modern art and learning; but there is a class, and this class is found in Great Britain alone, which belonging to the body of the people, has caught, as it were passingly, just the quantum of education which had come within the people's reach, and who on this slender participation of the general intellectual property, have raised for themselves a renown, great, glorious, and enduring as that of the most learned or most socially exalted of mankind. These extraordinary individuals to whom I have alluded as to be found in the literature of all civilized nations, these men who, admitted from the ranks of the people to the college or the studio, have distinguished themselves in almost every walk of science or letters, — these have vindicated the general intellect of the human race from every possible charge of inequality in its endowments. They have shown triumphantly that "God is no respecter of persons." They have thus vindicated not only man's universal capacity for greatness, but the Creator's justice. They have demonstrated that "God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth," and still more, that he has endowed them all with one intellect. Over the whole bosom of the globe its divine Architect has spread fertility; he has diffused beauty adapted to the diversity of climes, and made that beauty present itself in such a variety of forms, that the freshness of its first perception is kept alive by ever occurring novelties of construction, hue, or odour. It is the same in the intellectual as in the physical world. In the universal spirit of man, he has implanted the universal gifts of his divine goodness. Genius, sentiment, feeling, the vast capacity of knowledge and of creative art, are made the common heritage of mankind. But climate and circumstance assert a great and equal influence on the outer and the inner life of the earth. Some nations under the influences of certain causes have advanced beyond others, some individuals under the like causes have advanced beyond the generality of their cotemporaries. But these facts have not proved that those nations, or those individuals, were more highly endowed than the rest; they have rather proved that the soil of human nature is rich beyond all conception; the extent of that wealth, however, becoming only palpable through the operation of peculiar agencies. The causes which developed in Greece, in Rome, in India, in Egypt, such manifestations of grace, spirit, and power at certain periods, as never were developed even there at any other periods, before or since, present a subject of curious inquiry, but they leave the grand fact the same, and this fact is, that the soul of universal man is endowed with every gift and faculty which any possible circumstances can call upon him to exert for his benefit, and the adornment of his life. He is furnished for every good word and work. He is a divine creature that when challenged can prove amply his divinity, though under ordinary circumstances he may be content to walk through this existence in an ordinary guise. Every great social revolution, every great popular excitement of every age, has amply demonstrated this. There never was a national demand for intellect and energy, from the emancipation of the Israelites from the Egyptian yoke, or the destruction of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens, down to the English or the French Revolution, which was not met, to the astonishment of the whole world, with such a supply of orators, poets, warriors, and statesmen, speakers and actors, inventors and constructors, in every shape of art, wisdom, and ability, as most completely to certify that the powers which slumber in the human bosom, are far beyond those which are ever called into activity. The fertility of the soil of the earth is there in winter, but it lies unnoticed. The sun breaks out, and like a giant alarmist thundering at the doors of the world, he awakens a thousand hidden powers. Life, universal as the earth itself, starts forth in its thousand shapes, and all is movement, beauty, sweetness, hurrying on through a charmed being into an exuberant fruit.
Those men, then, who have risen through the medium of a finished education to literary, artistic, or scientific eminence, have, I repeat, vindicated the universality of intellectual endowment; but there is still another class, and that, as I have said, peculiar to these islands, who have shown that a finished or academical education even is not absolutely necessary to the display of the highest order of genius. Circumstances again have been at work here. The circumstances of this country are different to those of any other. We have preserved our liberties more entire. The British people have disdained from age to age to suffer the curb and the bit that have been put upon the neck, and into the mouth, of the more pliant nations of the continent. Whether these circumstances are to be looked for in the peculiar mixture of races, or in this particular mixture coexisting with peculiarities of climate and insular position, might afford scope to much argument; enough, these circumstances have existed, and their results do exist in a race, proud, active, free, and indomitable.
Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,
I see the lords of human kind pass by;
Intent on high designs, a thoughtful band,
By forms unfashioned, fresh from nature's hand,
Fierce in their native hardiness of soul;
True to imagined right, above control;
While e'en the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
And learns to venerate himself as man.
GOLDSMITH, The Traveller.
Thus it is that this free constitution of the British empire; this spirit of general independence; this habit of the peasant and the artizan of venerating themselves as men, has led to an universal awakening of mind in the people. In other countries few think; it is a few who are regularly educated, and arrogate the right to think, and write, and govern. If the poor man become an acknowledged genius, it is only through the passage of the high school. The mass is an inert mass; it is a labouring, or at best a singing and dancing multitude. But in Great Britain, there is not a man who does not feel that he is a member of the great thinking, acting, and governing whole. Without books often he has caught the spark of inspiration from his neighbour. In the field, the workshop, the alehouse, the chartist gathering, he has come to the discussion of his rights, and in that discussion all the powers of his spirit have felt the rousing influence of the sea of mind around, that has boiled and heaved from its lowest depths in billows of fire. Under the operation of this oral and, as it were, forensic education, which has been going on for generations in the British empire, the whole man with all his powers has become wide awake; and it required only the simple powers of writing and reading to enable the peasant or artizan to gather all the knowledge that he needed, and to stand forth a poet, an orator, a scientific inventor, a teacher himself of the nation.
To these circumstances we owe our Burnses, Hoggs, Bloomfields, Clares, Elliotts, Allan Cunninghams, Bamfords, Nicolls; Thoms; our Thomas Millers, and Thomas Coopers. To these circumstances we owe, however, not merely poets, but philosophers, artists, and men of practical science. Such were Drew, Opie, Smeaton, Brindley, Arkwright, Strutt, Crompton, Watt; such men are Joseph Barker, the great religious reformer of the people, and Carlton, the vigorous delineator of Irish actual life. For such men we look in vain abroad; and at home they constitute themselves a constellation of genius, such as more than one country of continental Europe cannot muster from all the gathered lights of all its ages.
It is with pride, and more than pride, that I call the attention of my countrymen to this great and unique section of their country's glorious literature. I look to the future, and see in these men but the forerunners of a numerous race springing from the same soil. They are evidences of the awakened mind of the common people of England. They are pledges that out of that awakened mind there will, as general education advances, spring whole hosts of writers, thinkers, and actors, who shall not so merely represent the working classes of our society, but shall point out the people as the grand future source of the enrichment of our literature. They are luminous proofs, and the forerunners of multitudinous proofs of the same kind, that genius is not entirely dependent upon art; but can, having once the simple machinery of reading and writing, seize on sufficient art to enable it to exhibit all the nobler forms of intellectual life, and to speak from heart to heart the living language of those passions and emotions, which are the elements of all human exertion after the good and the great, which console in distress, harden to necessary endurance, or fire to the generous rage of conquest over difficulties, and over the enemies of their just rights. These men are the starry lights that glitter on the verge of that dawn in which mankind shall emerge to its true position, — the many being the enlightened spirits, and the few the weak exceptions, shrinking like shadows from the noonday of human progress.
At the head of this great class stands, first in stature as in era, Robert Burns. True, before him there had been a Stephen Duck, and a Robert Dodsley, — glow-worms preceding the morning star; wonders, because the day of genuine minds had not yet come; respectable men, but not geniuses of that Titanic stamp which, by its very appearance, puts an end to every question as to its rank or nature in the utter astonishment at its gigantic presence. There have been many small geniuses paraded before the public as curiosities, because they were uneducated; but when Burns came forth from the crowd of his fellow men, it was as the poet of the people; issuing like Moses from the cloud of God's presence, with a face so radiant with divine light, that the greatest prophets of the schools were dazzled at the apparition. He needed no apologies of want of academic discipline; he was a man with all the gifts and powers of a man, fresh and instinctive in their strength, as if direct from the Creator's hand. Burns was the representative of the common man in representative perfection. He was a combination of all the powers and the failings, the strength and the weakness of human nature, he had the great intellect of such a specimen man, awakened to its full consciousness, but not polished to the loss of any of its prominences. He was manly, blunt, daring, independent; full of passion and the thirst of pleasure; yet still, tender as a woman, sensitive as a child, and capable of sinking to the humblest penitent at the suggestions of his conscience, or rising to the dignity of a prophet or the sanctity of an apostle, as the oppressions of man or the sublimity of God aroused or exalted his spirit. He had the thrilling nerves and the changing moods of the poet; quick, versatile, melancholy or humorous, he reflected all the changes of the social sky. His sensations were too acute to obey the sole dictates of mere reason, — they carried him to every extreme. He was now bursting with merriment in the midst of his convivial comrades, singing like the lark or the nightingale in the joy of his heart; now thundering against the outrages of the strong and arbitrary, or weeping in convulsive grief over his follies or his wounded affections. But if his sensations were too acute to obey reason at all times, his moral nature was too noble not to obey the clear voice of a conscience, which he often outraged, but never strove systematically to destroy. There have not wanted numbers who have wondered that David should be called "a man after God's own heart." But to me there is nothing wonderful in such an appellation. God knows that we are weak and imperfect, that in proportion to the strength of our passions are we liable to go wrong, and he does not expect miracles from us. What he expects is, that errors committed in the hurricane of passion shall be abhorred and repented of, as soon as they are fully displayed to our consciences. To endeavour to do right, yet if overtaken with error to abhor our crime, and to repent in the dust and ashes of prostrate remorse, marks a heart frail, yet noble, — and such is human nature at best. The evidence of a corrupt spirit, of a truly criminal nature, is that leaven of malignity, which goes doggedly wrong, substituting the base purposes of its selfishness for the broad commands of God, and finding a satanic pleasure in working evil against its fellow men. Such was not Robert Burns. He was no faultless monster, nor yet a monster with all his faults. His vivid sensibilities, — those sensibilities which gave him the capacity of poetry, those qualities which were the necessary requisites for his vocation, — often led him astray, often stained the purity of his mind; but they never succeeded in debasing his moral nature. That was too generous, too noble, too true to the godlike gift of a great human heart, which was to feel for all mankind, and to become the inspirer of the general mass with truer and higher ideas of themselves, and of their rank in creation. Woefully fell David of old, — the poet taken from the sheepfold and the solitude of the wilderness to sit on the throne of a great people, — and bitterly in the sight of that people did he lie in the dust and deplore his errors. Awfully went Robert Burns astray, — the poet taken from the plough to sit on the throne of the realm of poetry, — and bitterly did he, too, bow down and weep in the ashes of repentance. God gave, in both instances, impressive proofs to the world, that glorious talents given to men leave them but men still; and that they who envy the gift should not forget, that they too would be exposed to the imminent danger of the fall. There is a comfort and a warning, there is a great moral lesson for mankind in the lives of such men; there is a great lesson of humility and charity. Who shall say that with a nature equally igneous and combustible, his delinquencies would not be far greater? Where is the man in ten millions, that with such errors on one side of the account, can place the same talents and virtues on the other? In the words of Burns himself:—
Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord — its various tone,
Each spring — its various bias;
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What' done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.
The errors of Burns were visited upon him severely in his day they stand recorded against him; no man can plead his example, for he condemned himself, and the consequences of his aberrations stand warningly side by side with the deeds themselves: but who is he that, with all the perfections of a monotonous propriety, shall confer the same benefits on his country and on his fellow men? There was in the nature of Burns a manliness, a contempt of every thing selfish and mean, a contempt of all distinctions not based on nature, a hatred of tyranny, a withering scorn of hypocrisy, which, had he not possessed the brilliant genius that he did, would, amongst his cotemporaries, have diffused that tone of honest uprightness and justness of flunking which are the truest safeguards of a country's liberties and honour, and would have stamped him as a remarkable man. But all these qualities were but the accompaniments of a genius the most brilliant, the wonders and delights of which stand written, as it were, in lightning for ever. Besides the irresistible contagion of his merriment, the flashes of his wit, the tenderness of his sentiment, the wild laughter of his satiric scorn of cant and priestcraft and self-righteousness, the ardour of his patriotism, the gaiety of his social songs, there is a tone in his graver writing which breathes over the hearts of his countrymen, and of all the world, the highest and most dignifying feeling that ever hallowed the heart of man.
With Burns, to be a man is the grand distinction. All other distinctions are but the clothes which wrap the figure — the figure itself is the real thing. To be a man, in his eye, was to be the most glorious thing that we have any conception of on this side of heaven; — to be an honest man, was to be "the noblest work of God!" That was the great sentiment which animated him, and made him come forth from between the stilts of his plough, from his barn or his byre, into the presence of wealth and title, with a calm dignity and a proud bearing which astonished the artificial creatures of society. Titles, carriages, gay garments, great houses, what are they? But the things which the man had gathered about him for his pride or his comfort. It was for the man that they were created and gathered together. Without the man they were nothing, had no value, could have no existence. Without that solid and central and sentient monarch, titles are but air, gay clothes but the furniture of a Jew's shop, great houses but empty useless shells, carriages no better than wheelbarrows. From the man they derived all they were or counted for; and Burns felt that he and his poorest brother of the spade, and poorest sister of the spindle, were as entirely and essentially that as the king upon his throne. The king upon his throne! He was set there and arrayed in all his pageantry, and armed with all his power, solely for the man and by the man. In the man and his inner life, the heart, the soul, and the sentiment, — that wondrous mystery which, prisoned in flesh and chained by matter to one corner of the limitless universe, yet is endowed with power to range through eternity — to plunge down amidst innumerable worlds and their swarming life — to soar up and worship at the footstool of the Framer and Upholder of suns and systems, the Father of all being; in him the poet recognised the only Monarch of this nether world. For him, not for lords, or millionaires, or mitred priests, but for him was this august world created. For him were its lands and waters spread abroad; for him the seasons set forward in the harmony of their progress; for him were empires and cities framed, and all the comforts of life, and the precious flowers of love and intellect breathed into the common air, and shed into the common heart. That was the feeling of Robert Burns, which made him tread down all other distinctions as he did the thistles of his own fields. That was the doctrine which he was as surely created and sent forth to preach, as Jesus Christ was to promulgate that glorious Gospel whose especial mission he declared was to the poor. Robert Burns was the apostle of the dignity of man, — man, in his own proper nature, standing calmly and invincibly above every artful distinction which sought to thrust him from his place in God's heritage, and set over him the selfish and the base. When contemplating such delusive distinctions, the winged words "A man's a man for a' that!" burst like a lightning flash from the poet's bosom, and became the eternal watchword of self-respecting humanity.
The king can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an a' that;
The rank is but the guinea stamp,
A man's a man for a' that!
Brave words! glorious truth! The soul of poetry and the whole science of social philosophy compressed into a single stanza, to serve as the stay and comfort of millions of hearts in every moment when most needed.
The preeminent merit of Burns, independent of his beauties as a fine poet, is the vigorous inculcation of these sentiments of a just self-estimation into the people. To teach them to regard themselves as objects of worth from their own human nature and destiny, irrespective of the mere mode by which they live, is to confer on the million the noblest benefaction. It is to give them at once a shield against "the proud man's contumely," and the degradations of vice. It is to set their feet on the firm rock of an eternal truth, and to render them alike invulnerable to envy and despair. The man who breathes the soul of a rational dignity into the multitude is the greatest of possible patriots. He who respects virtue and purity in himself will respect those qualities in others; and a nation permeated with the philosophy of Burns would be the noblest nation that the sun ever yet shone upon.
But it is not merely that Robert Burns teaches his fellow peasants and citizens to fling out of their bosoms the fiends of envy and self-depreciation; taught by those errors for which he has been so severely blamed, he has become, without question, the most efficient, wise, and tender counsellor that they ever had. He knows all their troubles and temptations, for he has experienced them; and he gives them the soundest advice under all circumstances. He weeps with them, he rejoices with them, he worships with them, in such a brotherly, and occasionally such a fatherly sympathy, that his poems have become to the poor of Scotland, as they have told me, a sort of second Bible. How beautifully are blended in these stanzas the indignant sense of those oppressions which never crushed more directly the labouring poor than they do at this day in wealthy England, and the consoling truth of a divine retribution:—
Many and sharp the numerous ills
Inwoven with our frame:
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heaven-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn.
See yonder poor o'erlaboured wight,
So abject, mean and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow worm
The poor petition spurn,
Unmindful, though a weeping wife
And helpless offspring mourn.
If I'm designed yon lordling's slave,
By nature's law designed,
Why was an independent wish
E'er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty and scorn?
Or why has man the will and power
To make his fellow mourn?
Yet let not this too much, my son,
Disturb thy youthful breast;
This partial view of human kind
Is surely not the last!
The poor, oppressed, honest man,
Had never, sure, been born;
Had there not been some recompense
To comfort those that mourn!
Robert Burns ran off the railroad line of morality; but listen to the advice, warned by his own folly, which he gives to a Young Friend:
The sacred lowe o' weel-placed love,
Luxuriantly indulge it;
But never tempt the illicit rove,
Tho' naething should divulge it
I waive the quantum o' the sin,
The hazard of concealing:
But, och! it hardens a' within,
And petrifies the feeling!
To catch dame Fortune's golden smile,
Assiduous wait upon her;
And gather gear by every wile
That's justified by honour:
Not for to hide it in a hedge,
Nor for a train attendant;
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent.
The fear o' hell's a hangman's whip
To hand the wretch in order;
But where ye feel your honour grip,
Let that aye he your border:
Its slightest touches, instant pause—
Debar a' side pretences;
And resolutely keep its laws,
The great Creator to revere
Must sure become the creature;
But still the preaching cant forbear,
And ev'n the rigid feature;
Yet ne'er with wits profane to range,
Be complaisance extended;
An Atheist laugh's a poor exchange
For Deity offended!
When ranting round in pleasure's ring,
Religion may he blinded;
Or if she gie a random sting,
It may be little minded
But when on life we're tempest-driven,
A conscience but a canker—
A correspondence fixed wi' Heaven
Is sure a noble anchor!
These are golden words, worthy to be committed to memory by every young person; they are full of the deepest wisdom. But such wisdom, such golden lines, we might quote from almost every page of Burns. In his Epistle to Davie, how cordially does he enter into all the miseries of the poor, yet how eloquently does he also dwell on those blessings which God has given to all, and which no circumstances can take away!
To lie in kilns and barns at e'en,
When banes are crazed and bluid is thin,
Is doubtless great distress!
Yet there are other seasons when Nature, even to the most abject tramp, pours out royal pleasures.
What though, like commoners of air,
We wander out we know not where,
But either house or hall?
Yet nature's charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,
Are free alike to all.
In days when daisies deck the ground,
And blackbirds whistle clear,
With honest joy our hearts will bound
To see the coming year.
On braes when we please, then,
We'll sit and sowth a tune:
Syne rhyme till 't, we'll time till't,
And sing't when we hae done.
It's no in titles nor in rank;
It's no in wealth like Lon'on bank,
To purchase peace and rest:
It's no in makin muckle mair;
It's no in books; it's no in lear;
To make us truly blest;
If happiness hae not her seat
And centre in the breast,
We may be wise, or rich, or great,
But never can be blest.
Nae treasures, nor pleasures,
Could make us happy lang;
The heart ay's the part ay,
That makes us right or wrang.
So speaks the humble ploughman of Ayrshire, the still humbler exciseman of Dumfries, but the greatest poet of his country, and one of the noblest and wisest men of any country or age, spite of all his practical errors. We must now make our pilgrimage to the spots which were his homes on earth.
The old town of Ayr, so intimately connected with the memory of Burns, by his birth near it, by his poem of the Twa Brigs, by the scene of Tam o' Shanter, by the place of his monument and the festival in his honour, and by other particulars, is a quiet and pleasant old town of some twenty thousand population. It lies on a level, sandy coast, on land which, in fact, appears to have been won from the sea. Though lying close on the sea, it has no good harbour, and therefore little commerce, and no manufacture of any account. These circumstances leave much of the town as it was in Burns's time, though there are also evidences of modern extension and improvement, in new streets and public buildings, especially of a county jail lying between the town and the shore. The moment you step out of the station of the Glasgow railway which terminates here, you come upon the mouth of the river Ayr, and behold the Twa Brigs. That which was the New Brig in Burns's days, is the one over which you pass into the town. This bridge, whose guardian sprite is made to swagger over the Auld Brig, if it has not fulfilled the prophecy of the Auld Brig, and been swept away by a flood, has been in danger of demolition, having grown too narrow for the increase of traffic. It has been saved, however, no doubt by the saving power of Burns's poetry, which has made it sacred, and it was undergoing the process of widening at the time I was there, in July, 1845. The Auld Brig is some hundred yards or so higher up the stream, and seems retained really for little more than its antiquity and poetic classicality. It is now used only as a footpath, and not being considered safe for carriages, has posts set up at the end to prevent every attempt with any carriage to pass it. One is irresistibly reminded, on going upon it, of the haughty query of the New Brig,—
Will your poor narrow footpath of a street,
Where two wheelbarrows tremble when they meet,
Your ruined formless hulk o' stane an' lime,
Compare wi' bonnie brigs o' modern time?
Mr. Chambers says that the Auld Brig is reported to have been built in the reign of Alexander III. by two maiden sisters, whose effigies are still shown in a faded condition on a stone in the eastern parapet, near the south end of the bridge. There certainly is such a stone, and you may rather fancy than distinctly trace two outlines of heads. The whole bridge is, as described by Burns, very old and time-worn.
Auld Brig appeared o' ancient Pictish race,
The very wrinkles Gothic in his face;
He seemed as he wi' Time had warstled lang,
Yet, teughly doure, he baide an unco bang.
There is a peculiar pleasure in standing on this old Brig, so exactly has Burns enabled you to place yourself in the very scene that he contemplated at the moment of conceiving his poem.
A simple bard,
Unknown and poor, simplicity's reward,
Ae night, within the ancient burgh of Ayr,
By whim inspired, or haply pressed wi' care,
He left his bed, and took his wayward route,
And down by Simpson's wheeled the left about;
The drowsy Dungeon clock had numbered two,
And Wallace tower had sworn the fact was true;
The tide-swollen Firth, wi' sullen sounding roar,
Through the still night dashed hoarse along the shore.
All else was hushed as Natures closed e'e;
The silent moon shone high o'er tower and tree;
The chilly frost, beneath the silver beam,
Crept, gently crusting, o'er the glittering stream.
From this scene "the drowsy dungeon clock" is removed, the old jail having been pulled down; but "Simpson's" is still to be seen, a public-house at the end of the bridge on the side most distant from the town; and Wallace tower, I believe, however, almost wholly rebuilt since then, and presenting now a very modernized aspect, rears itself in a distant part of the town. Along the river side the "ancient burgh of Ayr" presents its antiquated houses, roofs and gables, much as they did to the eye of Burns.
Ayr, though it stands on a flat, has still great charm of location, and this you perceive as you set out to visit the birth-place and monument of Burns, which lie about three miles south of Ayr. You may, if you please, take the way along the shore; and here you have the sea with its living billows, displaying at a distance opposite the craggy mountain heights of Arran, and the Mull of Cantire. Northward, Troon, with its new houses, may be seen standing on its naked promontory, and southward, the tower of Dunbere is a bold but sombre object on an elevated knoll on the margin of the ocean, and far out south-west, Ailsa-Craig is descried, towering amid the waters. It is a fine and animated scene. It was Sunday forenoon as I advanced over the very level ground near the shore, towards Alloway. People were walking on the beach enjoying the sunshine, breeze, and shining world of waters; lovers were seated amongst the broomy hillocks, children were gathering flowers amid the crimson glare of the heather; all had an air of beauty and gladness. To my left lay a richly-wooded country, and before me, beyond Alloway and the Doon, stretched the airy range of the Carrick hills. It was the direction which I was pursuing, that Tam o' Shanter took from the town to Alloway, for the old road ran that way; but there is a new and more direct one now from Ayr, and into that, having been shown the cottage where Mrs. Begg, Burns's sister, still lives, I struck. This agreeable road I soon saw diverge into two, and asked a poor man which of the two led to Burns's monument. At the name of Burns, the poor man's face kindled with an instant animation. "I am going part of the way, sir," he said, "and will be proud to show it you." I begged him not to put himself at all out of his way. "Oh," said he, "I am going to look at my potato plot which lies out here." We fell into conversation about Burns; the way again showed a fresh branch, that was the way to his potato field — but the poor fellow gave a hesitating look, he could not find in his heart to give up talking about Burns, and begged that I would do him the honour to allow him to walk on with me. "But your potatoes, my friend?" "Oh they'll tak no harm, sir. The weather's very growing weather — one feels a natural curiosity to see how they thrive, but that will do next Sunday, if you would allow me to go on with you?"
I assured him that nothing would give me greater pleasure. I only feared that I might keep him out too long, for I must see all about Burns's birth-place, Kirk Alloway, the Brig of Doon, the monument, and everything of the kind. It was now about noon, and must be his dinner hour. He said, "No; he never had dinner on a Sunday; for years he had accustomed himself to only two meals on that day, because he earned nothing on it, and had ten children! But he generally took a walk out into the country, and got a good mouthful of fresh air, and that did him a deal of good."
I looked more closely at my new companion. He was, apparently, sixty, and looked like a man accustomed to dine on air. He was of a slight and grasshopper build; his face was thin and pale; his hair grizzled; yet there was an intelligence in his large grey eyes, but it was a sad intelligence, one which had long kept fellowship with patience and suffering. His grey coat, and hat well worn, and his clean but coarse shirt collar turned down over a narrow band of a blue cotton neckerchief; with its long ends dangling over his waistcoat, all denoted a poor, but a careful and superior man. I cannot tell what a feeling of sympathy came over me: how my heart warmed towards the poor fellow. We went on; gay groups of people met us, and seemed to cast looks of wonder at the stranger and his poor associate; but I asked myself whether, if we could know, as God knows, the hearts and merits of every individual of those well dressed and laughing walkers, we should find amongst them one so heroic as to renounce his Sunday dinner, as a perpetual practice, because he "earned nothing on that day, and had ten children." Was there a man or a woman amongst them who, if they knew this heroic man, as I now knew him, would not desire to give him, for that one day at least, a good dinner, and as much pleasure as they could?
"My friend," said I, "I fear you have had more than your share of hardship in this life?
"Nay," he replied, he could not say that. He had had to work hard, but what poor man had not? But he had had many comforts; and the greatest comfort in life had been, that all his children had taken good ways; "if I don't except," and the old man sighed, "one lad, who has gone for a soldier; and I think it a little ungrateful that he has never written to us since he went, three years ago. Yet I hear that he is alive and well, in Jamaica. I cannot but think that rather ungrateful," he added; "but of a' Robin Burns's poems, there's none, to my thinking, that comes up to that one — Man was made to mourn."
I could not help again glancing at the thin, pale figure, which went as softly at my side as if it were a ghost, and could not wonder that Burns was the idol of the poor throughout Scotland, and that the Sunday wanderer of his native place had clung so fondly to the southern visitor of the same sacred spot.
"Can you explain to me," I asked, "what it is that makes Burns such a favourite with you all in Scotland? Other poets you have, and great ones; out of the same class, too, you had Hogg, but I do not perceive the same instant flash, as it were, of an electric feeling, when any name is named but that of Burns."
"I can tell," said he, "why it is. It is because he had the heart of a man in him. He was all heart, and all man; and there's nothing, at least in a poor man's experience, either bitter or sweet, which can happen to him, but a line of Burns springs into his mouth, and gives him courage and comfort if he needs it. It is like a second Bible."
I was struck with the admirable criticism of the poor artisan. What acuteness of genius is like the acuteness of a sharp experience, after all? I found that had I picked the whole county of Ayr I could not have hit on a man more clearly aware of the real genius of Burns, nor a more excellent guide to all that related to him hereabouts. He now stopped me. We were on the very track of Tam o' Shanter.
Kirk Alloway was drawing nigh,
Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry,—
By this time he was cross the ford,
Where in the snaw the chapman smoored;
And past the birks and meikle stane
Where drunken Charley brak's neck-bane.
And through the whins, and by the cairn
Where hunters found the murdered bairn;
And near the thorn aboon the well
Where Mungo's mither hanged hersel.
The whins, the birks were gone: all was now one scene of richest cultivation; but in the midst of a cottager's garden still projected the "meikie stane" from the ground in a potatoe bed. To this, by permission of the cottager, we advanced, and from this spot my guide pointed out the traditionary course of Tam on that awful night when—
Before him Doon pours all his floods;
The doublin' storm roars through the woods,
And lightnings flash from pole to pole.
Some of these scenes lay yet far before us; as the well "Where Mungo's mither hanged hersel;" which is just on the banks of the Doon itself. Anon we reached the cottage in which Burns was born. This stands on the right-hand side of the road, about a quarter of a mile from Kirk Alloway and the Brig o' Doon. It is a genuine Scotch cottage of two rooms on the ground floor, thatched and whitewashed. It is now, and has been long, a little public-house. It stands close up to the road, and over the door is a portrait of Burns, an evident copy from the portrait by Nasmyth, and under it, in large and noticeable letters — "ROBERT BURNS, THE AYRSHIRE POET, WAS BORN UNDER THIS ROOF, THE 25TH JAN. A.D. 1759. DIED A.D. 1796, AGED 37 YEARS."
It is well known to most readers that this house was built by Burns's father, and that about a week after Robert, his first child, was born, the roof fell in during a tempest at midnight, and that mother and child had to be carried forth in a hurry through the storm and darkness, to a cottage, which still remains, not far off, on the opposite side of the road. Robert Burns was born in what is now the kitchen, in one of those recess beds so common in Scotch cottages. This is still shown to visitors by the occupiers of the house. The better room, in which the guests are entertained, that nearest to the town of Ayr, bears abundant marks of the zeal of these visitors. The walls are well written over with names, but not in that extraordinary manner that the walls of Shakspeare's birth-place at Stratford are. The rage here has taken another turn, that of cutting the names into the furniture. There are two plane-tree tables, which are cut and carved in the most singular completeness. There does not seem to be left space, neither on the top, the sides, nor the legs, even for another initial. There were formerly three of these tables, but one of them was sold some years ago. There is a cupboard and chairs all cut over, the chairs having been obliged to be renewed, but the fresh ones are now as much cut as ever. We were informed by Mrs. Goudie, the widow of the old miller, John Goudie, of Doonside mill, who had lived in the house nearly forty years, that the lease of the property had been bought of Burns's father, by the Shoemakers' Company of Ayr, for one hundred and sixty guineas; but that the property now let for £45 a year; and that the said Shoemakers' Company wishing again to raise the rent, the widow was going to quit at Michaelmas last, and that another person had taken the house, and a small piece of ground adjoining, at a rental of £60 a year. Mrs. Goudie said that she had been once bid £15 for one of the tables, but had refused it; that, however, being now about to quit the premises, she had sold the chairs and tables to a broker at Glasgow, who was announcing them as the actual furniture of Burns; though it was well known that when Burns's father left this house for Mount Oliphant, a few miles off, when Robert Burns was not seven years of age, he took all his furniture with him. Conspicuous amongst the carved names in this room was that of an ambitious Peter Jones, of Great Bear Lake, North America.
Burns's father, who was, when he lived here, gardener to Mr. Ferguson, of Doonholm, was a man of an excitable temperament, but of a most upright disposition; and his mother, like the mothers of most remarkable men, was a woman of clear, clever, and superior mind, of a winning address, and full of ballads and traditions. From both sides the son drew the elements of a poet; and we can well imagine him sitting by the humble fireside of this cottage, and receiving into his childish heart, from the piety of the father, and the imaginative tales of the mother, those images of genuine Scottish life which poured themselves firth, as well in Tam o' Shanter, as in the grave and beautiful Cotter's Saturday Night.
Having insisted on my worthy guide getting some refreshment, we again sallied forth to make a more thorough exploration of the youthful haunts of the poet. And now, indeed, we were surrounded by mementos of him and of his fame, on all hands. The cottage stands on a pleasant plain, and about a quarter of a mile onward you see, on the left hand of the road, the monument erected to his memory: a dome, surmounted with a lyre and the significant wine cup, and supported on Corinthian pillars. On the opposite, that is, on the right-hand side of the road, is the old Kirk of Alloway; beyond, away to the right, is heard the sea, while the airy range of the Carrick hills stretches across, closing the landscape before you. At their feet a mass of trees marks the course of the Doon; but before you reach any of these objects, you pass on your left the large open field in which was held the Burns festival, on the 6th of August, 1844. The place where the wall had been broken down to admit the procession was plainly discernible, by its new mortar; and a fine crop of corn was now waving where such thousands had, but a year before, met in honour of the immortal exciseman.
Of this festival copious particulars are to be found in all the newspapers of the day; but in none so complete and accurate as The Full Report, published by Mr. Maxwell Dick, the worthy publisher of the Ayrshire News Letter at Irvine, one of the most enthusiastic admirers of the genius of Burns, and of genius in general. By this report it appears that the procession, forming on the Low Green of Ayr, near the County buildings, met at ten o'clock in the morning, and consisted of the magistrates of the town, public bodies, farmers, numerous freemasons' lodges, societies of gardeners, archers, and odd-fellows, King Crispin in his most imposing style, with Souter Johnny in character, accompanied by attendants with banners floating, and bands playing music of Burns's songs. In this procession were seen gentlemen and noblemen, and literary men of the highest distinction, from all parts of the empire. It reached a mile along the high road, three abreast. The whole number of persons present — that is, in the procession and on the ground — was calculated at eighty thousand. A splendid triumphal arch was erected at the cottage where the poet was born; and, as the procession drew near it, the band played "There was a lad was born in Kyle;" the vast multitude uncovered at once, and the flags were lowered as they passed the humble but much respected spot. Platforms were erected in various places, so that people could get a coup-d'oeil of the procession. As it approached Kirk Alloway, the old bell, which still occupies the belfry, was set a-ringing, and continued so while the procession marched under the triumphal arch along the new bridge. Deploying round towards the old bridge of Doon, the circling line, partially obscured by the houses and trees, had a truly picturesque effect; the waving banners, the music of the bands, mellowed and echoed by "the banks and braes o' bonnie Doon," were deeply impressive. On reaching the Auld Brig, over which was thrown a triumphal arch, the band struck up "Welcome, Royal Charlie," while the procession, uncovering and lowering their flags, passed over in front of the platform, on which stood the three sons of Burns, his sister Mrs. Begg, her son, and two daughters. The procession occupied at least an hour in coming from the new bridge to the field, on entering which the band played "Duncan Gray," followed by "The Birks of Aberfeldy." A large circle was then formed round the platform for the musicians in the field; and the whole company, led by professional vocalists, joined in singing, "Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon," and "Auld lang syne." The bands were then stationed in various parts of the field; the Regimental and Glasgow St. Andrew's bands, in the centre of the field; the Kilwinning and Cumnock bands at the cottage, and the bagpipers played at a distance from the pavilion. There were two enclosures for dancing; one near the head of the field, and the other on the brow overlooking the Doon. Immediately after the procession was over, the crowd were astonished by the sudden appearance of Tam o' Shanter, "well mounted on his grey mare Meg," and a flight of witches in full pursuit of her, till he reached and passed the keystone of the arch of the Auld Brig. At two, the Earl of Eglinton took the chair at the banquet in the pavilion, with Professor Wilson as croupier. To the right of the chairman sate Robert Burns, Esq., the eldest son of the poet; Major Burns, his youngest son; on the left, Colonel Burns, second son of the poet; Mrs. Begg, Burns's sister; and right and left, other members of the family, amid many noble and distinguished persons; as Mrs. Thomson, of Dumfries, the Jessie Lewars of the poet; Sir John M'Neill, late plenipotentiary to the court of Persia; the Lord Justice-General, the Countess of Eglinton, Alison, the historian, Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, Robert Chambers, of Edinburgh, Douglas Jerrold, William Thorn, the poet of Inverury, etc. etc. The chairs of the chairman and croupier were made of oaken rafters from Kirk Alloway, and many mementos of the poet decorated the table. The scene in the pavilion is described as splendid, and like one of fairyland; and the most enthusiastic speeches were made in honour of the poet, especially by the noble chairman and the eloquent John Wilson.
It will be seen by those acquainted with the ground, that the procession had thus taken a course contrived to include every object of interest connected with Burns here. It had passed the cottage of his birth; passed between Kirk Alloway and his monument; crossed by the new bridge over the Doon, to the side of the river, and returned over the old bridge, so as to see all "the banks and braes o' bonnie Doon," and so entered the field of the festival, having entirely encircled the monument. There, in full view of all these objects, the cottage, the old ruins of the kirk, the monument, and the banks of Doon, they celebrated, — eighty thousand persons, — the festival of his honour, amid the music of his own enchanting songs, amongst which were — "A man's a man for a' that;" "This is na my ain house;" Green grow the rashes O;" "My love she's but a lassie yet;" "What ye wha's in yon toun."
This stirring and tumultous expression of a nation's veneration, was gone by; silence had again fallen, as it were, with a musing sense of the poet's glory on the scene; and with my worthy old guide I went over the same ground leisurely, noting all its beauties and characteristics. First, we turned into the grave-yard of Kirk Alloway. Here stood the roofless old kirk, just such a plain, simple ruin as you see in a hundred places in Ireland. One of the first objects that arrests your attention is the bell in the little belfry, with a rope hanging outside, only sufficiently low for the sexton, on any occasion of funeral, to reach it with a hooked pole, and thus to prevent any idle person ringing it at other times. This bell, when the parishes of Alloway and Ayr were joined, was attempted to be carried away by the authorities of Ayr, by no means to their honour, but the crofters of Alloway manfully rose and resisted successfully the removal. There are plenty of open windows, where Tam o' Shanter could take a full view of the unsonsie dancing party; and "the winnock bunker in the east," a small window, "where sat auld Nick in shape of beast" as fiddler, is conspicuous enough. The interior of the kirk is divided by a wall. The west end division is the burial-place of the Cathcarts, which is kept very neat. The other end, and where the witch-dance met Tam's astonished eyes, is now full of briars and nettles, bearing sufficient evidence of no recent displays of the kind. The kirk-yard is crowded with tombs, and the first memorial of the dead which meets your eye, is the headstone of the poet's father, just before you as you enter by the stile, with this inscription:—
"Sacred to the memory of William Burns, farmer in Lochlea, who died Feb. 1784, in the 63d year of his age; and of Agnes Browne, his spouse, who died the 14th of Jan. 1820, in the 88th year of her age. She was interred in Bolton Churchyard, East Lothian.
O ye whose cheek the tear of pity stains,
Draw near with pious reverence, and attend
Here lie the loving husband's dear remains,
The tender father, and the generous friend.
The pitying heart that felt for human woe;
Time dauntless heart that feared no human pride;
Time friend of man, to vice alone a foe
For ev'n his failings leaned to virtue's side."
This epitaph was written expressly for this tomb by Burns; the last line being quoted from Goldsmith.
Advancing now to the new bridge, you stand between two remarkable monuments of the poet. On your right hand, close on the banks of the Doon, and adjoining the bridge, stands a handsome villa, in beautiful grounds which occupy part of "the banks and braes." This is the house of Mr. Auld, the enterprising hairdresser of Ayr, who was the first to recognise the genius of Thom the sculptor, then a poor stonemason of Ayr. Thom, seeing a picture of Tam o' Shanter in Auld's window, requested the loan of it for a few days. Being asked by Auld what he wanted it for, he said he had a notion that he could make a figure from it. It was lent, and in a few days he returned with a model of Tam in clay. Mr. Auld was so struck with the genius displayed in it, that he suggested to Thom to complete the group by adding Souter Johnny. That was soon done; and then, by the assistance of Mr. Auld, the well-known group was cut in stone. The enterprising hairdresser now prepared to set out on an expedition of exhibition of this group, the proceeds of which, I understand, were agreed to be equally divided between Auld, Thom, and the committee for a monument to Burns, near his birth-place. Such was the success of the scheme, that Thom, I am told, received £4,000 as his share of the proceeds, which, however, he soon contrived to lose by taking stone-quarries, and entering on building schemes. Having lost his money, he retired to America. Auld, more careful, quitted the wig-block and lather-brush, and building himself a house, sat down as a country gentleman opposite to the monument, which seems to be in his keeping. It has been said, that the monument committee never received anything like a third of the proceeds of the exhibition, or the monument might now be opened free of cost to the public. That, however, is a point which the committee and Mr. Auld must be best informed about. One thing is certain, that Mr. Auld's present residence is a grand specimen of the effect of the united genius of Burns, Thom, and Auld; an exciseman, a stone mason, and a barber. To the left hand of the road, opposite to this monument, stands, in a pleasant garden, the other monument of Burns, as already described, and which also, it seems, partly owed its existence to the same bold enterprise of this barber of Ayr, who seems actually to have had the art of "cutting blocks with a razor." In this monument is no statue of Burns, but merely a framed copy of that admirable coloured print of Burns, published by Mr. Maxwell Dick, of Irvine, from Nasmyth's picture; and on the table in the centre, the Bible and Testament given by Burns to his Mary at their last parting near Montgomery castle. These are two separate volumes, and are displayed at the beginning of each, where Burns has placed a masonic sign, and written his name, now nearly obliterated; adding the two texts, — Leviticus xix. 12. Matthew v. 33: which are, "Ye shall not swear by my name falsely; I am the Lord;" and "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths." These precious volumes were known to be in the possession of the sister of Burns's "Mary," in America; and a society of young men, ardent admirers of Burns, resolved to regain them if possible for the public. This, after great trouble and expense, they finally effected, and here they are, objects certainly of the deepest interest.
In a separate and small building in the same garden stands the celebrated group by Thom, of Tam and Souter Johnny. This, however, it being Sunday, was by an order of the authorities of Ayr not allowed to be seen, though the monument was. I asked the youth who showed the monument, if he could explain to me why it was a sin to show the group, and not a sin to show the monument on a Sunday; but the lad very properly replied that he did not pretend to a metaphysical sagacity so profound; his business was to show the monument, and not to show, either the group or the reason why; for that he referred me to the superior hair-splitting piety and acumen of the corporate authorities of Ayr.
Quitting this garden, you encounter, at the foot of the new bridge, a new inn called Burns's Inn and Hotel, with a fine painted sign, with a blackbird singing upon a bough, with a crook and a house, and an oak in the centre of a shield laid on branches of olive and oak; and over it the words — "Better a small bush than nae bield." The auld brig is some little distance up the stream; and the view from it is very beautiful. You are surrounded by "the banks and braes o' bonnie Doon," steep, hung with orchards and fine woodland trees. At some little distance still farther up the stream, you descry the old mill of Alloway, half buried in umbrageous trees, and all round rise sweet woodland fields at the feet of the hills. The bridge is well carved over with names; and overgrown with masses of ivy. Standing on this remarkable old grey bridge, my companion exhibited a trait of delicate and genuine feeling, which no man of the most polished education in the school of politeness could have surpassed. Gathering a sprig of ivy, he said, presenting it — "May be ye would like to send this to your leddy in England, it's gathered just frae the keystane." I accepted it with the liveliest pleasure, and it is now carefully preserved where the good man wished it. We now returned to Ayr, talking of Burns, his history, his poetry, and his fine qualities all the way; and after one of the pleasantest rambles I ever made in any company, I bid my old friend good-bye at his door, leaving in his hand a trifle to mend his Sunday supper. "But," said he as I was going away, "might I request the favour of your name, that I may know who it was that I had the honour of a walk with to Burns's monument, when I am thinking of it?" I told him; his face passed from its usual paleness to a deep flush; and he exclaimed — "Eh sir! I ken yer name and that o' yer leddy too, right weel!" Depend upon it the recollection of that walk has been as pleasant to my old friend as to myself.
The next day, with a driver well acquainted with the country, I issued forth in a gig to visit all the various residences of Burns between Ayr and Mauchline. Burns in his life seemed like a bird leaving its nest. He took two or three short flights till he flew quite away to Dumfries. At every move he got farther from Ayr. He was like an emigrant, still going on and on in one direction, and his course was south-east. First, he went, that is with his father, to Mount Oliphant, a farm about four miles from Alloway, where he lived from his sixth to his twelfth year. This farm has nothing particular about it. It lies on a bare ridge of hill, an ordinary little Scotch farmsteading, with bare and treeless fields. Then he went on to another farm-to Lochlea, still farther out on this long, high, and bleak tract of country, near Tarbolton. This farm ruined his father, and there he died. Lochlea is a neat farm-house, lying in a hollow more sheltered than Mount Oliphant, but still possessing no picturesque features. In fact, the family was seeking not the picturesque but a livelihood. At Lochlea, Burns lived till he was twenty-four, and here he attended the masonic lodge at the Cross-keys, at Tarbolton, which still remains. There he became acquainted with Mr. David Sillar, the schoolmaster of Tarbolton, and addressed to him his Epistle to Davie. It was about three miles from Tarbolton, but that was nothing to Burns, full of life and poetry. The Bachelor's Society, that with David Sillar and other young men he formed there, had infinite charms for him. Humble were these companions; in David Sillar's words—
Of birth and blood we do not boast,
No gentry does our club afford,
But ploughmen and mechanics we
In natures simple dress record;
but they were men after Burns's own heart. He judged of men as his father had taught him:—
My father was a farmer upon the Carrick Border,
And carefully he bred me up in decency and order;
He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne'er a farthing,
For without an honest manly heart no man was worth regarding.
It was during his abode here that he wrote John Barleycorn; Cornriggs are bonnie; Winter, a Dirge; the Death of Poor Mailie; Mailie's Elegy, and Now Whistling Winds, etc. But the love affairs he was now continually getting into, and the dissipations that he became acquainted with at Kirkoswald and Irvine, at which places he spent some months, rendered his poetical growth far less than it otherwise might have been there. One incident in his life, and one of his most beautiful poems consequent on it, however, arose out of an attachment, which, though said to be formed at Mauchline, was certainly cultivated here. Just below Tarbolton lies Montgomerie castle, beautifully situated amidst its woods on the banks of the Faile, where he fell in love with Mary Campbell. There near the house it was, according to his own beautiful that he used to meet, and here that he finally took leave of her. She was dairymaid in the house then belonging to Col. Hugh Montgomerie, afterwards Earl of Eglinton, and grandfather of the present earl.
Ye banks and braes and streams around
The castle of Montgomerie,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
Your waters never drumlie.
There summer first unfaulds her robes,
And there they longest tarry,
For there I took my last farewell
Of my sweet highland Mary.
There is a story mentioned in the Lives of Burns, of this parting being on the banks of Ayr, and Cromek repeats it, adding that the "lovers stood on each side of a small purling brook — they laved their hands in the limpid stream, and holding a Bible between them, pronounced their vows to be faithful to each other."
All this may be true, for they took a day to this final solitary enjoyment of each other's society in the woods before parting. They might wander by the Ayr, and so on up to the Faile, and at some small rivulet on the way perform this simple and affecting ceremony. Mary was going to the Western Highlands, to see her friends before she married Robert Burns, but she died on her way back, and they never met again. This Bible, as we have seen, has been recovered, and is deposited in the monument at Alloway. Wherever this ceremony, however, took place, the parting assuredly took place here. Burns says, not only that "there I took my last farewell," but also
How sweetly bloomed the gay green birk,
How rich the hawthorn's blossom,
As, underneath the fragrant shade,
I clasped her to my bosom.
There still stands the thorn, called by all the country, "Highland Mary's Thorn."
The house and park are sold or leased by the Earl of Eglinton to a solicitor in Ayr. My driver appeared afraid of going into the park, saying "the writer," that is, the solicitor, was a queer fellow, and would not let anybody go to the thorn, and certainly a large board at each park gate, warning all persons to avoid those hallowed precincts, appeared to confirm the man's opinion; but, having come so far, I did not mean to pass without a glance at the parting scene of Burns and Highland Mary. I bade him drive down to the house, where I was speedily assured by the servants about that I was quite at liberty to go to the tree. "How shall I know it?" "Oh! a child may know it — it is all hacked and the twigs broken, by people who carry away some of it to keep." By these signs I readily recognised the tree. It is not far from the house, close to the carriage drive, and on the top of the slope that descends to the Faile, which murmurs on beneath its sweet woodland shade.
The last abode of Burns in Ayrshire was at Mossgiel. This is some four miles beyond Tarbolton, and close to Mauchline, which is merely a large village. Mossgiel farm lies, as it were, at the end of that long, high, barren ridge of hills, which extends almost all the way from Ayr thither; and on which Burns's father had sought a poor living, and found ruin. It stands near the line of the slope which descends into Mauchline, and overlooks a large extent of bleak and bare country, and distant bare hills. In the vales of the country, however, lie many scenes of great beauty and classic fame. Such are the banks of the Ayr, which winds on deep between its braes and woods, like the Nith, the Doon, and the higher Clyde. Such are Stair, Logan, Crukerne, Catrine, Dugald Stewart's place, and many others.
The farm of Mossgiel, which consists of about 118 acres, lies, as observed, high, and as Gilbert, the brother of Burns described it, "on a cold, wet bottom." The farms occupied by the Burns family in this part of the country were all of a thankless and ungenial kind; in fact, they lacked the means to command better. The two brothers, Robert and Gilbert, had taken this farm some time before their father's death, in the hope of assisting the family in that poverty which came still after them, spite of the most laborious exertion, like an armed man, and which was weighing their father to the grave. At his death they removed altogether from Lochlea, and with their mother and sisters became here one household. Here Burns made the firmest resolves of steadiness, industry, and thriving; but the seasons were against him, and he soon became mixed up with all the dissipations of Mauchline, where he established a club after the fashion of that at Tarbolton. Very soon, too, he plunged into the midst of church disputes, in which his friend Gavin Hamilton, a lawyer of the place, was personally embroiled. Here he wrote The Holy Tuilzie, Holy Fair, Holy Willie's Prayer, The Ordination, The Kirk's Alarm: — those scalping poems, in which he lays bare to the skull bone, bigotry, hypocrisy, and all sanctimonious bitterness in religion. Here he fell in love with Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason of Mauchline, who, after many troubles, and much opposition on the part of the family, became afterwards his wife. Here he wrote the greater part of his poems, and of his very finest ones, and here he broke forth upon the world like a new-risen sun, his poems, which were first published at Kilmarnock, attracting such extraordinary attention, that he was called to Edinburgh, and a new and more complete edition there published, while he himself was introduced as a sort of miracle to the highest circles of aristocracy and literature. The four years which he lived here, though they were sinking him in a pecuniary point of view into such a slough of despair, that he seriously resolved to emigrate to the West Indies, and only published his poems to raise the means, were, as regarded his fame, glorious and most interesting years. It was here that he might be said, more expressly than anywhere else—
To walk in glory and in joy,
Following his plough along the mountainside;
for, spite of the iron destiny which seemed to pursue him, and in an ungenial soil and the most untoward seasons, to endeavour to crush him with "carking care," he was full of life and vigour, and often rose in the entrancement of his spirit above all sense of earth and its darkness. By the testimony of his cotemporaries, there were few that could vie with him in all the operations of the farm. In mowing, reaping, binding after the reapers, thrashing, or loading, there were few who could compete with him. He stood five feet ten in height, and was of singular strength and activity. He prided himself on the straightness of the furrow that he drew, and the skill with which he threw his corn in sowing. On one occasion a man having succeeded in a hard strife in setting up as many shocks in a given time, said, "There, I am not far behind this time;" to which Burns replied — "In one thing, John, you are still behind, I made a song while I was stooking." Allan Cunningham says that his father, who was steward to Miller of Dalswinton, Burns's landlord, and lived just opposite to him at Ellisland, declared that "he had the handsomest cast of the hand in sowing corn that he ever saw on a furrowed field." It was here, then, at Mossgiel, that young, vigorous, and full of desire to advance in worldly matters, he worked assiduously with his brother Gilbert in the fields, undivided in his attentions by the duties of the Excise. But poetry, spite of all resolves to the contrary, came over him like a flood. As his hand worked, his heart was full of inspiration, and as Gilbert held the plough, Robert would come and walk beside him, and repeat what he had just composed; or as they went with the cart to carry out corn or bring home coals, he would astonish him with some such display. "The verses to the Mouse and the Mountain Daisy," says Gilbert, "were composed on these occasions, and while the author was holding the plough. I could point out the spot where each was composed. Holding the plough was a favourite situation with Robert for poetic composition, and some of his best verses were produced while he was at that exercise." With what interest, then, do we look over the fields at Mossgiel, scarcely an inch of which has not been strode over by Burns, while engaged at once in turning up the soil, sowing or gathering its crops, and in working out in the depth of his mind those compositions which were to remain for all time, the watchwords of liberty and of noble thought. Besides the polemic poems already spoken of, here he wrote Hallowe'en; Address to the Deil; Death and Dr. Hornbook, a satire on the poor schoolmaster and self-appointed apothecary, Wilson of Tarbolton, which drove him from the place, but only to thrive in Glasgow; The Jolly Beggars; Man was made to mourn; The Vision; The Cotter's Saturday Night, which he very appropriately repeated to Gilbert during a Sunday afternoon walk.
The very interesting scene of the creation of these exquisite poems, lies on the left hand of the road proceeding from Tarbolton to Mauchline. The house stands at a field's distance from the road. It is a thatched house with but and ben, just as it was, and the buildings behind it forming two wings exactly as he built his house at Ellisland. To the north-west the house is well sheltered with fine, full-grown trees. A handsome young mother, the farmer's wife, worthy for her comely and intelligent look to have been celebrated by Burns, told me that great numbers of people came to see the place, and that it was very much as Burns left it. There were the barn, the byre, the garden near, in all which the poet had laboured like any other son of earth for his daily bread, and on the yearly allowance — for every one of the family had a specific allowance for clothes and pocket money — of seven pounds, which, says his brother, he never exceeded! Very extravagant he could not have been. You see the ingle where he sate and composed some of his most pathetic and most humorous pieces. It is said to be in the spence, a better room, which has a boarded floor and the recess beds so common in Scotland, that he chiefly wrote. Who can contemplate this humble room, and recall the image of the young poet with a heart of melancholy here inditing, — Man was made to mourn, or his Vision, without the liveliest emotion? There is no feeling of utter sadness more strongly expressed than in the opening of the Vision.
The sun had closed the winter day,
The curlers quat their roaring play,
An' hunger'd mawkin ta'en her way
To kail-yard green,
While faithless snaws ilk step betray
Whare she has been.
The threshers weary flinging tree
The lee-lang day had tired me;
And when the day had closed his e'e
Far i' the west,
Ben i' the spence, right pensively,
I gaed to rest.
There, lanely, by the ingle cheek,
I sate and eyed the spewing reek,
That filled with hoast-provoking smeck,
The auld clay biggin;
And heard the restless rattons squeak
About the riggin.
All in this mottie, misty, clime,
I backward mused on wasted time,
How I had spent my youthful prime
An' done naething
But stringin blethers up in rhyme,
For fools to sing.
Had I to gud advice but harkit,
I might, by this, hae led a markit,
Or strutted in a bank and clarkit
My cash account.
While here, half mad, half fed, half sarket,
Is a' th' amount.
Gilbert, it seems, continued on this farm after Robert left for Ellisland till 1800; and the next tenant had occupied it, till but a year or two ago, when the present young people came in.
Mauchline, at the distance of a few minutes, abounds with recollections of Burns. There is the inn where Burns used to meet his merry club. There is the churchyard where the scene of the holy Fair is laid, though the old church which stood in Burns's time has disappeared and a new one taken its place. Opposite to the churchyard gates runs the street called "The Cowgate," up which he makes Common-Sense escape; just by is the house of "Posie Nansie," where Burns fell in with the "Jolly Beggars;" not far off is the public-house of John Dow, that Burns and his companions frequented at the opening of the Cowgate. Posie Nansie, or Nance Tinnock's was the house mentioned in the Holy Fair, where the public crowded during the intervals of the service, having a back door most convenient into the area.
Now but an' ben, the change-house fills
Wi' yill-caup commentators;
Here's crying out for bakes and gills,
An' there the pint stoup clatters.
Everybody can tell of the haunts and places of Burns and his jolly companions in Mauchline. The women came out of their houses as they saw me going about, and were most generously anxious to point out every noted spot. Many of the older people remembered him. "A fine handsome young fellow, was he not?" I asked of an old woman that would show me where Jean Armour lived. "Oh! just a black-avised chiel," said she, hurrying up a narrow street parallel to the Cowgate; "but here lived Jean Armour's father. Come in, come," added she, unceremoniously opening the door, when an old dame appeared who occupied the house. "I am only going to show the gentleman where Robin Burns's Jean lived. Come along, sir, come along," continued she, hastening as unceremoniously up stairs, "ye maun see where the bairns were born. Ha! ha! ha!" "Ha! ha! ha!" screamed the old dame of the house apparently highly delighted. "Ay, show the gentleman! — show him! he! he! he!" So up went my free-making guide, up went I, and up came the old lady of the house. "There! there!" exclaimed the first old woman, pointing to a recess bed in one of the chambers, — there were three o' Robin Burns's bairns born. It's true, sir, as I live!" "Ay, gude faith is it," re-echoed the old lady of the house, and the two gossips again were very merry. "But ye maun see where Rob an' Jean were married!" so out of the house the lean and nimble woman again hurried, and again at a rapid pace led me down another narrow street just to the back of what they call the castle, Gavin Hamilton's old house. It was in Burns's time Gavin Hamilton's office, and in that office Burns was married. It is now a public-house.
Having taken a survey of all the scenes of Burns's youthful life here, I proceeded to that house where he was always so welcome a guest, the house of Gavin Hamilton itself. Though called the castle, it is, in fact, a mere keep, with an ordinary house attached to it in a retired garden. The garden is surrounded by lofty walls, with a remarkably large tree in the centre. The house, a mere cottage, is huddled down in the far right-hand corner, and opposite to it stands the old keep, a conspicuous object as you descend the hill into the town. It is maintained in good order and used as a laundry. A bare-legged lassie was spreading out her wash on the grass-plot, who informed me that not only was Gavin Hamilton dead, but his son too, and that his son's widow and her children were living there. I was shown the room where Burns, one Sunday on coming in after kirk, wrote the satirical poem of the Calf, on the clergyman. An ordinary little parlour.
In traversing the streets of Mauchline, it was impossible to avoid not only recalling all the witty jollity of Burns here, but his troubles that well-nigh drove him from the land. The opposition of Jean Armour's family; the tearing up of her secret marriage lines by herself in her despair; Burns's distraction, his poverty, his hidings from the myrmidons of the law; and his daily thirteen miles' walk to correct the proofs of his poems at Kilmarnock, to save postage. But now the muse which had made him poor, refused to permit him to quit his native land. Out burst the sun of his glory, and our scene changes with this change to Edinburgh.
To describe all the haunts of Burns in Edinburgh were a long affair. They were the houses of all the great and gay — of the Gordons, the Hamiltons, the Montgomeries, of the learned, and the beautiful. The celebrated Duchess of Gordon, at that time at the zenith of beauty and fashion, was one of his warmest admirers, and had him to her largest parties. The young ploughman of Ayrshire sate hob-nobbing in the temples of splendour and luxury with the most distinguished in every walk of life. Yet his haunts also lay equally amongst the humble and the undistinguished. Burns was true to his own maxim, "a man's a man for a' that," and where there were native sense, wit, and good humour, there he was to be found, were it even in a cellar with only a wooden stool to sit on. At his first arrival in Edinburgh he took up his quarters with a young Ayrshire acquaintance, Richmond, a writer's apprentice, in the house of a Mrs. Carfrae, Baxter's-close, Lawn-market, where he had a share of the youth's room and bed. From the most splendid entertainments of the aristocracy he described himself as groping his way at night through the dingy alleys of the "gude town to his obscure lodgings, with his share of a deal table, a sanded floor, and a chaff bed at eighteen pence a week." This was during the winter and spring of 1786-7, on his first visit to Edinburgh, where he became the great fashionable lion, and while his new edition by Creech was getting out. In the spring, finding his popularity had brought him so much under the public eye, that his obscure lodgings in the Lawn-market were not quite befitting him, he went and lodged with his new acquaintance, William Nicol, one of the masters of the High-school, who lived in the Buccleugh-road. In the winter of 1787, on his second visit to Edinburgh, he had lodgings in a house at the entrance of James's-square on the left hand. As you go up East Register-street, at the end of the Register house, you see the end of a house at the left hand side of the top of the street. There is a perpendicular row of four windows; the top window belongs to the room Burns occupied. Here it was that he was visited by the lady with whom at this time he corresponded under the name of Sylvander, and she with him as Clarinda. His leg had been hurt by an overturn of a carriage by a drunken coachman, and he was laid up some time, and compelled to use crutches. Allan Cunningham tells us that this lady "now and then visited the crippled bard, and diverted him by her wit, and soothed him by her presence." She was the Mrs. Mac. of his toasts. A blithe, handsome, and witty widow, a great passion or flirtation grew up between Burns and her. In one of his letters to his friend Richard Brown, December 30, 1787, he says: "Almighty love still reigns and revels in my bosom, and I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinburgh widow." In a letter of their correspondence which has recently been published, he bids Clarinda look up at his window as she occasionally goes past, and in another complains that she does not look high enough for a bard's lodgings, and so he perceives her only gazing at one of the lower windows. If we are to believe the stanza of hers quoted by Burns, we must suppose Clorinda to have been unhappily married.
Talk not of love, it gives me pain,
For love has been my foe;
He bound me with an iron chain,
And plunged me deep in woe.
If it be true, as Allan Cunningham surmises, that those inimitable verses in the song of "Ae fond kiss and then we sever," which expresses the past of a final parting better than any other words ever did, have reference to Clorinda, then Burns joust have been passionately attached to her indeed.
Who shall say that fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met — or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken hearted.
Of the generous and true-hearted disposition of Clorinda, we shall possess a juster idea when we reflect that Burns was not at this time any longer the lion of the day. The first warm flush of aristocratic flattery was over. The souls of the great and fashionable had subsided into their native icy contempt of peasant merit. "What he had seen and endured in Edinburgh," says honest Allan Cunningham, "during his second visit, admonished him regarding the reed on which he leant, when he hoped for a place of profit and honour from the aristocracy on account of his genius. On his first appearance the doors of the nobility opened spontaneously, 'on golden hinges turning,' and he ate spiced meats, and drank rare wines, interchanging nods and smiles 'with high dukes and mighty earls.' A colder reception awaited his second coming; the doors of lords and ladies opened with a tartly courtesy; he was received with a cold and measured stateliness, was seldom requested to stop, seldom to repeat his visit; and one of his companions used to relate with what indignant feelings the poet recounted his fruitless calls, and his uncordial receptions in the good town of Edinburgh."
It is related, that on one occasion being invited to dine at a nobleman's, he went, and, to his astonishment, found that he was not to dine with the guests, but with the butler! After dinner, he was sent for into the dining-room; and a chair being set for him near the bottom of the table, he was desired to sing a song. Restraining his indignation within the bounds of outward appearance, Burns complied, and he sung,—
Is there, for honest poverty,
Who hangs his head and a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by,
And dare be poor for a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,
A man's a man for a' that!
You see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
(Pointing to the nobleman at the head of the table.)
Who struts and stares and a' that,
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
For a' that, and a' that,
A man's a man for a' that.
As the last word of these stanzas issued from his lips, he rose, and not deigning the company a syllable of adieu, marched out of the room and the house.
Burns himself expressed in some lines to Clorinda all this at this very moment:—
In vain would Prudence, with her decent sneer,
Point to the censoring world and bid me fear:
Above that world on wings of love I rise,
I know its worst, and can that worst despise.
Wronged, slandered, shunned, unpitied, unredressed,
The mocked quotation of the scorners' jest,
Let Prudence direst bodements on me fall—
Clorinda, rich reward o'erpays them all.
But Clorinda could never be Burns's. To say the least of it, his attachment to her was one of the least defensible things of his life. Jean Armour had now the most inviolable claims upon him, and in fact as soon as his leg was well enough, he tore himself from the fascinations of Clorinda's society, went to Mauchline, and married Jean.
But we must not allow ourselves to follow him till we have taken a peep at the house of Clorinda at this time, where Burns used to visit her, and where no doubt he took his melancholy farewell. This house is in Potter's-row; now old and dingy looking, but evidently having been at one time a superior residence. It is a house memorable on more accounts than one, having been occupied by General Monk while his army lay in Edinburgh, and the passage which goes under it to an interior court is still called the General's Entrance. To the street, the house presents four gabled windows in the upper story, on the tops of which stand a rose, thistle, fleur-de-lis, with a second rose or thistle to make out the four. The place is now inhabited by the poorest people; and on a little shop window in front is written up, "Rags and Metals bought"! The flat which was occupied by Clarinda is now divided into two very poor tenements. In the room which used to be Clarinda's sitting-room, a poor woman was at once busy with her work and two or three very little children. My companion told her that her house had been once frequented by a great man; she said, "Oh yes, General Monk." When he, however, added that he was then thinking of Robert Burns, this was news to her, and seemed to give to the wretched abode quite a charm in her eyes.
Clarinda lived to a great age, as a Mrs. Maclehose, and only died a few years ago. Mrs. Howitt and myself were once introduced to her by our kind friend Mr. Robert Chambers, at her house near the Calton Hill; and a very characteristic scene took place. The old lady, evidently charmed with our admiration of Burns, and warmed up by talking of past days, declared that we should drink out of the pair of glasses which Burns had presented to her in the days of their acquaintance. She brought these sacred relics out of the cupboard, and rang for the servant to bring in wine. An aged woman appeared, who, on hearing that we were to drink out of Burns's glasses which stood ready on the table, gave a look as if sacrilege were going to be committed, took up the glasses without a word, replaced them in the cupboard, locking them up, and brought us three ordinary wine glasses to take our wine out of. It was in vain for Mrs. Maclehose to remonstrate, the old and self-willed servant went away without deigning a reply, with the key in her pocket.
Disheartened and chagrined, treated with the utmost contempt by those who once flattered and lionized him beyond bounds, Burns now turned his back of Edinburgh, and went to seek that obscure country life which he saw well enough was his destiny. The man to whom that very city was to raise a splendid monument on the Calton Hill; the man who was to have monuments raised to his honour in various spots of his native land; the man to whose immortal memory jubilees were to be held, to which people of all ranks were to flock by eighty thousands at a time; the man who was to take the highest rank of all the poets of Scotland,—
Whose lines are mottoes of the heart,
Whose truths electrify the sage,
in the eloquent words of Campbell; and whose genius was to be the dearest memory of his countrymen in regions of the earth whither their adventurous spirit leads them, — now, with a sad and wounded heart pursued his way homewards with an exciseman's appointment in his pocket, the highest and only gift of his country. Burns knew and felt that his genius had a just claim to a good and honourable post in his native land, and his remaining letters sufficiently testify that from this hour the arrow of blighted ambition rankled in his heart, which never ceased its irritation till it had pulled down his gallant strength, and sent him to an early grave. He married his Jean, and chose his farm on the banks of the Nith, as Allan Cunningham's father remarked to him at the time, not with a farmer's but a poet's choice. But here, half farmer, half exciseman, poverty came rapidly upon him once more; in three years time only he quitted it, a man ruined in substance and constitution, and went to depend on his excise salary of £70 a year in the town of Dumfries.
I visited this farm in August, 1845. The coach from Dumfries to Glasgow set me down at Ellisland, lying about seven miles from Dumfries. Here I found a road running at right angles from the highway at a field's distance, and saw the grey roof of the farm homestead and its white chimneys peeping over the surrounding trees. The road, without gate or fence, leads you across a piece of watery ground, one of those hollows left undrained for the growth of what they call bog-hay, that is, rushes and coarse grass, which they give to the cows in winter. This was quite gay with cotton-rush, bog-beans, orchises, and other bog flowers, and with its fragrant marginal fringe of meadow sweet. After about a hundred yards, the road becomes a lane, enclosed on one side by a rough stone wall, and on the other by a tall hedge, with a row of flourishing ashes, each fence standing on a bold bank well hung with broom. The barley stood green on the one hand, and the hay in cock in the field on the other, and all had a pleasant summer air and feeling about it.
Advancing up this lane I soon stood on the ascent, and saw the farm-house shining out white from amongst its trees, and half a dozen young men and women busily hoeing turnips in the adjoining fields. The farm, in fact, is a very pleasant farm. It lies somewhat high, and its fields swell and fall in a very agreeable manner, though it is still low compared to the hills that rise around it at a distance, green and cultivated, but bare. It is distinguished from all the farms round it, by being so completely planted with hedge-row trees, particularly ashes and larches. The land is light, yet tolerably fertile, is dry and healthy. Close below the house sweeps along that fine vale of the Nith, with all its rich meadows and woods, its stately old houses, and its river dark and swift, overhung with noble and verdurous trees. This seems the place where Burns might have been happy, had happiness and prosperity been easily secured by a temperament and circumstances such as his. He had a home fit for a poet, though humble. It was a home amid the goodliness and the godliness of nature. It was the home of a brave, a free, and an honest man, of a great man and great poet, whose name and fame were allowed and honoured by the sound hearts and sound minds, if not by the baser and vainer ones of his country. Here he was a man and a farmer; and both man and farmer are gentlemen if they choose to be so. He had no need to doff his bonnet, or to pull it in shame over his brow before any man, so that he cultivated his acres, and the glorious soil of his intellect, with the heart and hand of an enthusiast in his labour. He had built his own bower in the spot chosen by himself, in a spot beautiful and pure, and calm as a poet could desire; and had brought to it the woman of his love, and his children were springing up around him, making the green and woodland banks of the Nith ring with the rapture of their young sports. He had a stalwart frame, and a giant intellect, and a heart true in its feelings to the divinity of human nature, to the divinity within him, to the divinity of those aims, and objects, and truths, for which man exists, and for whose advance and illustration the poet is, beyond all men, born and endowed. Ah! if he could but have guided with a safe hand those passions which are given to feed and kindle the glorious impulses of the glorious nature of the poet, the friend, and prophet, and counsellor of mankind, what a great and what a happy man might he have lived and died here. If he had really — "Followed his plough along the mountain side," instead of the exciseman's horse over the hills and through the hamlets of the country round, to what a venerable age might he have lived amongst his children and his admiring countrymen. But the tact for business and the turn for prudence, how rarely can they exist with the fervid temperament which has to evolve the living meteors of poetry. The volcano will have its crater and its desolations, and not green and peaceful ridges of peace. Particularly in this case, where the poet had been called out of the ranks of the poor, and had had at once to contend against the flatteries of exaltation unprepared by the discipline of education. Burns and Hogg, may therefore be excused, where Byron could not stand; Ebenezer Elliott is almost the only instance of contrary success.
One cannot, however, see this Arcadian scene, this sort of Sabine farm, so well calculated for the "otium cum dignitate" of the poet, without feeling one's heart wrung at the idea that it was a vain gift; a haven of peace only offered to a struggling and doomed swimmer; and that the foul exciseman craft, and the degrading dipstick, and the whisky firkin, were in the rear. The very next neighbours of Burns were Mr. Miller, of Dalswinton, and Mr. Riddell, of Friars-Carse. There he went to meet, and dine, and revel with distinguished guests. Heavens! why should he not have been able to go there as the honest British farmer, and not as the exciseman? Could he feel that he was a poet, and fit society for the wealthy, the refined, and the learned, and that he was not degraded? He was glorious — and an exciseman. Here he wrote Mary in Heaven — and mounted his jaded steed and trotted off to the hell of whisky distilleries and whisky dram shops. He wrote here, in one day, Tam o' Shanter, in a fever of laughter and excitement — and perhaps the next day would repeat the lines to the rude and fuddled rabble of a "public," where he was in the way of his business and his ruin. There is something so anomalous in the genius and the grade, in the magnificent endowments and the bare necessities of Robert Burns, that one cannot now conceive how they could have been permitted to occur by his fellow men, or tolerated by himself. To think of him here, in his own white farmhouse, like a dove's nest, amid its green and overshadowing leaves, and hung over the pure lapsing waters; and then of him in that little dirty house in Dumfries, in that street of tramps and beggars, living degraded, despised, and persecuted, and dying the poorest exciseman and greatest poet of his country! In the hour of his death the soul of his country awoke with one great throb to the consciousness of who and what he was; what a pity that the revelation did not come a little sooner! And this I say not to taunt his country with it. The sense of the national treatment of Robert Burns has been expressed with such manly eloquence by his countrymen, Lockhart, Wilson, and Allan Cunningham, that it needs not us English to cast a single stone, who have the memory of Chatterton amongst us. All great nations have similar sins to answer for. Scotland does not stand alone; but there is something so peculiarly strange in the fate of Burns, and that comes over one as we tread the ground that he had chosen for his home, and the floor of the house that he built, that it has forced me involuntarily to follow my own feelings, instead of my descriptions.
The farm, as I have said, is a very pleasant one. Burns is supposed to have chosen the particular situation of his house not only for its fine situation on the banks of the river, and overlooking the vale and country round, but on account of a beautiful spring which gushes from the slope just below the house. The ground plan of his house is very much like that of most Scotch farms. The buildings form three sides of a quadrangle. The house and buildings are only one story high, white, and altogether a genuine Scotch steading. The house is on the lower side, next to the river. Burns's bed-room has yet two beds in it, of that sort of cupboard fashion, with check curtains, which are so often seen in Scotch farm-houses. The humble rooms are much as they were in his time. Near the house, and running parallel with the river, is a good large garden, which he planted. The side of the farm-yard opposite to the house is pleasantly planted off with trees. The farm is just as it was, about one hundred acres. By places it exhibits that stony soil which made Burns call it "the riddlings of creation," and say that when a ploughed field was rolled it looked like a paved street; but still it carries good crops. Burns had it for £50 a year, or ten shillings an acre. I suppose the present tenant pays three times the sum, and is proud of his bargain. He observed it was an ill wind that blew nobody any profit. "Mr. Burns," said he, "had the farm on lease for ninety years, and had he not thrown it up, I should not have been here now." The farmer seemed a very sensible man, and though he was just mounting his gig to go on business to Dumfries, he stopped, and would go over the farm and house, and point out everything to me. He said what Lockhart and Cunningham say, that Burns had so many servants that they ate and drank all that came off the farm. "The maids baked new bread, and the men ate it hot with ale." But it is said, too, on the spot, that most of these servants were relatives, and that presents of whisky and other good things were sent from far and near to Burns, and that while he was absent on his excise rounds, they sat in the house and drank, and ate to it, instead of being at work. Burns once observed to his neighbour, the next farmer, that he wondered how it was that the farm left no surplus for rent; and the farmer said, "Why, Mr. Burns, it would be a wonder if it did, for your servants cannot eat it and leave it for rent too." It is said, also, that being once invited to dinner at Dalswinton House, and not coming, the guests asked how he was getting on. Mr. Miller said he hoped very well, "for," added he, "I think I have set him up." This being repeated to Burns, is said to have hurt his proud feelings extremely, and to have induced him to remark that he did not like to live on the estate of a man who thought he had set him up. Long he did not live there, more's the pity. The goodwill of his haughty landlord had gone before.
It was here too that the story is told of his being found by two Englishmen fishing in the Nith. "On a rock that projected into the stream, they saw a man angling. He had a cap of foxskin on his head, a loose great-coat fixed round him by a belt, from which hung an enormous Highland broadsword: — it was Burns." The story is likely enough. The banks of the Nith here are steep, and full of wild thickets; and one may very well imagine Burns not being over particular in his toilet while pursuing his amusement in this solitude.
It was one of his delights to range along these steep river banks, and it was along them between the house and the fence at the bottom of the field down the river that he paced to and fro as he composed Tam o' Shanter. Mrs. Burns relates, "that observing Robert walking with long swinging strides and apparently muttering as he went, she let him alone for some time. At length she took the children with her and went forth to meet him. He seemed not to observe her, but continued his walk. On this," said she, "I stept aside with the bairns among the broom, and past us he came, his brow flushed and his eyes shining; he was reciting these lines
Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans
A' plump an' strapping, i' their teens;
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flannen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linnen!
Thir brooks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush, o' gude blue hair,
I wad hae gi'en them aff my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonnie burdies.
I wish ye had but seen him! He was in such ecstasy that the tears were happing down his cheeks." He had taken writing materials with him, and leaning on a turf fence which commanded view down the river, he committed the poem to paper, walked home, and read it in great triumph at the fireside. The remains of this turf fence may be seen to this day in the shape of a green bank, close above the river, under the shade of a narrow plantation of larches which bounds the field. The farmer said that Professor Wilson, when he visited the spot, rolled himself on the bank, saying it was worth while trying to catch any remains of genius and humour that Burns might have left there.
The farmer said, what indeed Allan Cunningham states, that when Burns came the farm was all open, "there were no dykes," — walls and fences. That he introduced the first dairy of Ayrshire cows, all splendid cattle, some of them being presents from such friends as the Dunlops, etc. Presents or no presents, poor Burns laid out on the farm in his first year all the proceeds of his Edinburgh edition of his poems, and never saw them again.
The view from the house is very charming. The river runs clear and fleet below, broad as the Thames at Hampton-court, or the Trent at Nottingham, and its dark trees hang far along it over its waters. Beyond the stream lie the broad rich meadows and house of Dalswinton, a handsome mansion of red freestone aloft amid its woods, and still beyond and higher up the river rise still bolder hills. The very next residence upwards on the same side of the river is Friar's-Carse, the seat of Burns's friend Mr. Riddell, into whose grounds he had a private key, so that he could enjoy all the beauty and solitude of his woods at pleasure, or take the nearest cut to the house. Up the valley, about two miles or so, is the farm-house belonging to his friend Nicol of the Highschool, where
Willie brewed a peck o' malt,
And Rob and Allan cam to see.
Friar's-Carse deserves a few more words, before we shift to the last sad scene, Dumfries. It is a beautiful estate which you enter from the Glasgow road by a neat lodge, and advance a quarter of a mile, perhaps, along a carriage drive, one side of which is planted with shrubs and flowers, and the other consists of the steep wild bank of a fine wood. The way winds on, and here and there you have an old stone grey cross, or old picturesque saint, or such thing, which has a good effect. At last, you emerge in an open meadow surrounded by fine hills and woods, and at the head of which, on a green and graceful esplanade, stands a good, though not very large house. In the meadows, which are of great extent, roves a numerous herd of as fine cattle as ever roamed the meads of Asphodel, and much finer, I suspect, for they are Ayrshire cows of the most splendid description; and some very fine trees rear their heads to beautify the ground. As you approach the house, it is along the foot of a beautiful slope enriched by noble old trees. Behind the house there is a green and airy sort of table-land, on which flower-stands of rustic work filled with roses and geraniums stand, and down which moneywort with all its golden blossoms streams, and then the ground sinks rapidly into a deep dell full of tall trees, and containing a garden of the old pleached walk kind, and which through the latticed gate gives you such a peep at its beauties as enchants you.
In this house used to live Mr. Riddell. Here the Whistle was caroused for, and here the original copy of Burns's poem on the subject is kept still. Pity it was that the lady of the house, a young widow, Mrs. Crichton, was just bowling out at her lodge gates as I walked in, or I would have made bold to call and request the favour of a sight of this paper. But the butler assured me that there it was; and in the pine wood on the side by which you enter, the remains of the hermitage where Burns wrote the well-known lines on the window. The pine wood has grown; there are silver firs that need not shame to claim kindred with those of the Black Forest, but the hermitage is gone down. A single gable, a few scattered stones, and a mass of laurels that have grown high and hidden it, are all that remain of the hermitage, which I only found by dint of long traversing the dusky wood.
But Burns is gone; Miller of Dalswinton is gone; Riddell of Friar's-Carse is gone; their estates are in other families; and it is to be hoped that the exciseman's gauging stick is gone too. I do not see it hung aloft in any hall. I dare say the sons of Burns have not preserved it, as the walking stick of Sir Walter Scott now hangs aloft in the study at Abbotsford. But the memory of the poet and his friends lives all over these walks, and meadows and woods, more livingly than ever. It is the quick spirit of the place. Poetry is not dead here. It is the soul and haunting shadow of these fair and solemn scenes, and a thousand years hence will startle young and beating hearts as the wood-pigeon dashes out through the magic hush of the forest, and the streamlet leaps down the mossy stone, and laughs and glitters in the joyous glance of the sun. The exciseman's stick is turned into the magic wand of nature, and there will be bitter satire, and deep melancholy, and wonder and love, as it waves a thousand times self-multiplied in the bough of the pine-tree, and the bent of the grass, while the heart of man can suffer or enjoy. You see that already in everything. Burns no longer walks on one side of the market-place of Dumfries, solitary and despised, while the great and gay crowd and flutter on the other; but as the daily coach rolls on its way, the coachman pointing with his whip, says softly — "That is the Farm of Ellisland!" And every man and woman, every trade traveller and servant maid says — "Where?" And all rise up, and look, and there is a deep silence.
For that silence, and the thoughts that live in it, who would not have lived, and suffered, and been despised. It is the triumph of genius and the soul of greatness over the freaks of fortune, and even over its own sins and failings. It is something to have walked over the farm of Ellisland: it is still more to have stood on the spot in his farm-yard where the heart of Burns rose up in a flame of hallowed affection to Mary in Heaven — a more glorious shrine than the mausoleum of Dumfries.
The neighbourhood of Dumfries, to which the last scene of our subject leads us, is very charming. The town is just a quiet country town, but the Nith is a fine river, and runs through it, and makes both town and country very agreeable. The scenery is not wild and rocky, but the vale of the Nith is rich, and beautiful in its richness. The river runs in the finest sweeps imaginable; it seems to disdain to go straight, but makes a circle for a mile perhaps at a time, as clean and perfect as if struck with compasses, and then away in another direction; while on its lofty banks alders and oaks hang richly over the water, and fine herds of cattle are grouped in those deep meadows, and salmon fishers spread their nets and are busy mending them on the broad expanse of gravel that covers here and there the bends of the river; while high above the lapsing waters, your eye wanders over a broad extent of fresh, rich, meadow country, with scattered masses of trees, and goodly farms, and far around are high and airy hills cultivated to the top. A more lovely pastoral country, more retired and poetical, you cannot well find. This is the scenery to which Burns, during his abode in Dumfries, loved to resort. "When he lived in Dumfries," says Allan Cunningham, "he had three favourite walks, — on the dock-green by the river side, among the ruins of Lincluden College, and towards the Martingam Ford on the north side of the river. The latter place was secluded; commanded a view of the distant hills and the romantic towers of Lincluden, and afforded soft greensward banks to rest upon, and the sight and sound of the stream. As soon as he was heard to hum to himself his wife saw that he had something in his mind, and was quite prepared to see him snatch up his hat and set off silently for his musing ground."
About three miles up the river we came upon the beautiful ruins of the abbey of Lincluden, standing on an elevated mound overlooking the junction of the Cluden and the Nith, and overlooked by a sort of large tumulus covered with larches, where the monks are said to have sate to contemplate the country, and where the country people still resort to loiter or read on Sundays. A profound tranquillity reigns over all the scene, a charm indescribable, which Burns of all men must have felt. For myself, I knew not where to stop. I advanced up the left bank of the river, opposite to the ruins, now treading the soft turf of the Nith's margin, now pent in a narrow track close on the brink of the stream amongst the alders, now emerging into a lofty fir clump, and now into a solemn grove of beech overhanging the stream. Farther on lay the broad old meadows again, the fisher watching in his wooden hut the ascent of the salmon, the little herdboy tending his black cattle in the solitary field, old woods casting a deep gloom on the hurrying water, grey old halls standing on fine slopes above the Nith, amid trees of magnificent size and altitude. The mood of mind which comes over you here, is that of unwritten poetry.
When one thinks of Burns wandering amid this congenial nature where the young now wander and sing his songs, one is apt to forget that he bore with him a sad heart and a sinking frame. When we see his house in Dumfries, we are reminded pretty forcibly of these things. We have to dive at once into a back street in the lower part of the town, and turn and wind from one such hidden and poor street to another, till, having passed through a sufficient stench of tan-yards, which seem to abound in that neighbourhood, you come to a little street with all the character of the abode of the poor, which is honoured with the name of BURNS STREET. The house is the first you come to on the left hand. There is the old thatched one on the opposite side, and I set it down at once to be the poet's; but no, at a regularly formal poor man's house, of a dingy whitewash, with its stone door and window frames painted of a dingy blue, a bare-legged girl, very dirty, was washing the floors, and went from the bucket and showed me the house. On the right hand of the door was the kitchen, in which the girl informed me that there was nothing left belonging to the Burnses, except two bells which she pointed out, and a gas pipe which Mr. Burns had put in. On the left hand was the sitting-room, furnished very well for a poor man, with a carpet on the floor. The girl said her father was an undertaker, but when I asked where was his shop, she said he was an undertaker of jobs on railroads and embankments. Up stairs there was a good large chamber unfurnished, which she said was the one occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Burns, and where both of them died. Out of the other chamber a little closet was taken, including one front window, and here, she said, Burns wrote, or it was always said so. There were two garrets; — and that was the poet's, or rather the exciseman's house. It was just about suited to the income of an ordinary exciseman, and had no attribute of the poet's home about it. Mr. Robert Chambers, in his Picture of Scotland, calls it a neat little house. Unfortunately, at my visit it was anything but neat or clean, and its situation in this miserable quarter, and amid the odour of tan-yards, must give to any foreigner who visits it an odd idea of the abodes of British poets. I wonder that in some improvement the Dumfriesians don't contrive to pull it down.
From this abode of the living poet, I adjourned to that of the dead one. This is situated in St. Michael's churchyard, not far from the house, but on an eminence, and on the outside of the town. The lane in which the house is, is just one of the worst. It looks as though it were only inhabited by keepers of lodging houses for tramps, and I believe mainly is so. It is a sort of Tinker's-lane. The churchyard, though not more than two hundred yards off, is one of the most respectable, and the poet's house there is the very grandest. One naturally thinks how much easier it is to maintain a dead poet than a living one.
A churchyard in this part of the country has a singular aspect to an English eye. As you approach the Scottish border you see the headstones getting taller and taller, and the altar-tombs more and more massive. At Carlisle, the headstones had attained the height of six or seven feet at least, and were deeply carved with coats of arms, etc. near the top, but here the whole churchyard is a wilderness of huge and ponderous monuments. Pediments and entablatures, Grecian, Gothic, and nondescript pillars and obelisks, some of them at least twenty feet high — I use no exaggeration in this account — stand thick and on all sides. To our eyes, accustomed to such a different size and character of churchyard tombs, they are perfectly astonishing. I imagine there is stone enough in the funeral monuments of this churchyard to build a tolerable street of houses. You would think that all the giants, and indeed all the great people of all sorts that Scotland had ever produced had here chosen their sepulture. Such ambitious and gigantic structures of freestone, some red, some white, for dyers, ironmongers, gardeners, slaters, glaziers and the like, are, I imagine, nowhere else to be seen. There are vintners who have tombs and obelisks fit for genuine Egyptian Pharaohs; and slaters and carpenters, who were accustomed to climb high when alive, have left monuments significant of their soaring character. These tier outvie and overlook those of generals, writers to the signet, esquires, and bailiffs of the city.
Your first view of this churchyard strikes you by the strange aspect of these ponderous monuments. A row of very ancient ones, in fact, stands on the wall next to the street. Two of them most dilapidated, and of deep red stone, have a very singular look. They have Latin inscriptions, which are equally dilapidated. Another one to Francis Irving fairly exhausts the Latin tongue with his host of virtues, and then takes to English, thus:—
King James the First me Balive named;
Dumfries oft since me Provost claimed;
God has for me a crown reserved,
For king and country have I served.
Burns's mausoleum occupies as nearly as possible the centre of the farther end of the churchyard opposite to the entrance, and a broad walk leads up to it. It stands, as it should do, overlooking the pleasant fields in the outskirts of the town, and seems, like the poet himself, to belong half to man and half to nature. It is a sort of little temple, which at a distance catches the eye as you approach that side of the town, and reminds you of that of Garrick at Hampton. It is open on three sides, except for iron gates, the upper border of which consists of alternating Scottish thistles and spear-heads. A couple of Ionic pillars at each corner support a projecting cornice, and above this rises an octagon superstructure with arches, across the bottom of which again run thistle-heads, one over each gateway, and is surmounted by a dome. The basement of the mausoleum is of granite. The building is enclosed by an iron railing, and the little gate in front of the area is left unlocked, so that you may approach and view the monument through the iron gates. The area is planted appropriately with various kinds of evergreens, and on each side of the gate stands conspicuously the Scottish thistle.
In the centre of the mausoleum floor, a large flag with four iron rings in it, marks the entrance to the vault below. At the back stands Turnarelli's monument of the poet. It consists of a figure of Burns, of the size of life, in white marble, at the plough, and Coila, his muse, appearing to him. This is a female figure in alto-relievo on the wall, somewhat above and in front of him. She is in the act of throwing her mantle, embroidered with Scotch thistles, over him, according to his own words — "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." Burns stands with his left hand on one of the plough stilts, and with the other holds his bonnet to his breast, while, with an air of surprise and devotion, he gazes on the muse or genius of his poetry. He appears in a short coat, knee breeches, and short gaiters. The execution is so-so. The likeness of the poet is by no means conformable to the best portraits of him; and Nature, as if resenting the wretched caricature of her favourite son, has already began to deface and corrode it. The left hand on the plough is much decayed, and the right hand holding the bonnet is somewhat so too. At his feet lies what I suppose was the slab of his former tomb, with this inscription: "In memory of Robert Burns, who died the 21st of July, 1796, in the 37th year of his age. And Maxwell Burns, who died the 25th of April, 1799, aged 2 years and 9 months. Francis Wallace Burns, who died the 9th of June, 1808, aged 14 years. His sons. The remains of Burns received into the vault below 19th of September, 1815. And his two sons. Also, the remains of Jean Armour, relict of the Poet, born Feb. 1765, died 26th of March, 1834."
The long Latin inscription mentioned by his biographers, a manifest absurdity on the tomb of a man like Burns, and whose epitaph ought to be intelligible to all his countrymen, is, I suppose, removed, for I did not observe it, and the above English inscription, of the elegance of which however nothing can be said, substituted.
The gates of the mausoleum itself are kept locked, and the monument again enclosed within a plain railing.
Some countrymen were just standing at the gate with their plaids on their shoulders making their observations as I arrived at it. I stood and listened to them.
1st Man. — "Ay, there stands Robin, still holding the plough, but the worst of it is, he has got no horses to it."
2d Man. — "Ay, that is childish. It is just like a boy on a Sunday who sets himself to the plough, and fancies he is ploughing when it never moves. It would have been a deal better if you could but have seen even the horses' tails."
3d Man. — " Ay, or if he had been sitting on his plough, as I have seen him sometimes in a picture."
1st Man. — "But Coila is well drawn, is not she? That arm which she holds up the mantle with, is very well executed."
2d Man. — "It's a pity though that the sculptor did not look at his own coat before he put the only button on that is to be seen."
3d Man. — "Why, where is the button?"
2d Man. — "Just under the bonnet; and it's on the wrong side."
1st Man. — "Oh! it does not signify if it be a double-breasted coat, or perhaps Robin buttoned his coat different to other folks, for he was an unco chiel."
2d Man. — "But it's only single-breasted, and it is quite wrong."
The men unbuttoned and then buttoned their coats up again to satisfy themselves; and they decided that it was a great blunder.
I thought there was much sound sense in their criticism. The allegorical figure of the muse seems too much, and the absence of the horses too little. Burns would have looked quite as well standing at the plough, and looking up inspired by the muse without her being visible.
The plough rests on a rugged piece of marble laid on a polished basement, in the centre of which is inscribed in large letters,—
I had to regret missing at Dumfries the three sons of Burns, and the staunch friend of the family, and of the genius of the poet, Mr. M'Diarmid. Mr. Robert Burns, the poet's eldest son, resides at Dumfries, but was then absent at Belfast, in Ireland, where I afterwards saw him, and was much struck with his intelligence and great information. Colonel and Major Burns had just visited Dumfries, but were gone into the Highlands, with their friend, Mr. M'Diarmid. The feelings with which I quitted Dumfries were those which so often weigh upon you in contemplating the closing scenes of poets' lives. "The life of the poet at Dumfries," says Robert Chambers, "was an unhappy one; his situation was degrading, and his income narrow." Reflecting on this as I proceeded by the mail towards Moffat, the melancholy lines of Wordsworth recurred to me with peculiar effect
My former thoughts returned; the fear that kills
And hope that is unwilling to he fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ill;
And mighty poets in their misery dead.