1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Burns

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 66 (August 1796) 703-04.



21 August. At Dumfries, after a lingering illness, Robert Burns, who excited so much interest by the peculiarity of the circumstances under which he came forward to public notice, and the genius discovered in his poetical compositions. Burns was literally a ploughman, but neither in that state of servile dependence or degrading ignorance which the situation might bespeak in this country. He had the common education of a Scotch peasant, perhaps something more, and that spirit of independence, which in that country is sometimes to be found in a high degree in the humblest classes in Society. He had genius, starting beyond the obstacles of poverty, and which would have distinguished itself in any situation. His early days were occupied in procuring bread by the labour of his own hands, in the honourable task of cultivating the earth; but his nights were devoted to books and the Muse, except when they were wasted in those haunts of village festivity, and the indulgences of the social bowl, to which the poet was but too immoderately attached in every period of his life. He wrote, not with a view to encounter the public eye, or in the hope to procure fame by his productions, but to give vent to the feeling of his own genius — to indulge the impulse of an ardent and poetical mind. Burns, from that restless activity, which is the peculiar characteristic of his countrymen, proposed to emigrate to Jamaica, in order to seek his fortune by the exertion of those talents of which he felt himself possessed. It was upon this occasion that one of his friends suggested to him the idea of publishing his poems, in order to raise a few pounds to defray the expences of his passage. The idea was eagerly embraced. A coarse edition of his poems was first published in Ayr. They were soon noticed by the gentlemen in the neighbourhood. Proofs of such uncommon genius in a situation so humble made the acquaintance of the author eagerly sought after. His poems found their way to Edinburgh; some extracts, and an account of the author were inserted in a periodical paper, The Lounger, which was at that time in the course of publication. The voyage of the author was delayed in the hope that a suitable provision would be made for him by the generosity of the public. A subscription was set on foot for a new edition of his works, and was forwarded by the exertions of some of the first characters in Scotland. The subscription list contains a greater number of respectable names than almost have ever appeared to any similar production; but, as the book was at a low price, the return to the author was inconsiderable. Burns was brought to Edinburgh for a few months, every where invited and caressed; and at last one of his patrons procured him the situation of an Exciseman, and an income of somewhat less than £50 a year. We know not whether any steps were taken to better his humble income. Probably he was not qualified to fill a superior situation to that which was assigned him. We know that his manners refused to partake the polish of genteel society, that his talents were often obscured and finally impaired by excess, and that his private circumstances were embittered by pecuniary distress. Such, we believe, is the candid account of a man, who, in his compositions, has discovered the force of native humour, the warmth and tenderness of passion, the glowing touches of a descriptive pencil — a man who was the pupil of nature, the poet of inspiration, and who possessed in an extraordinary degree the powers and failings of genius. Of the former, his works will remain a lasting monument; of the latter, we are afraid that his conduct and his fate afford but too melancholy proofs. Like his predecessor Ferguson, though he died at an early age, his mind was previously exhausted; and the apprehensions of a distempered imagination concurred with indigence and sickness to embitter the last moments of his life. He has left behind a wife, with five infant children, and in the hourly expectation of a sixth, without any resource but what she may hope from public sympathy, and the regard due to the memory of her husband. Need we say any thing more to awaken the feelings of Benevolence? Burns, who himself erected a monument to the memory of his unfortunate poetical predecessor Ferguson, has left in his distressed and helpless family an opportunity to his admirers and the publick, at once to pay a tribute to the genius of the poet, and to erect a substantial monument of their own beneficence. — Actuated by the regard which is due to the shade of such a genius, his remains were interred on Monday the 25th, with military honours, and every suitable respect. The corpse, having been previously conveyed to the town-hall, remained there till the following ceremony took place: The military at Dumfries, consisting of the Cinque Port cavalry and the Angusshire fencibles, having handsomely tendered their service, lined the streets on both sides to the burial-ground. The royal Dumfries volunteers, of which he was a member, in uniform, with crapes on their left arms, supported the bier. A party of the corps, appointed to perform the military obsequies, moving in slow solemn time to the Dead March in Saul, which was played by the military band, preceded in mournful array with arms reversed. The principal part of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood, with a number of the particular friends of the band from remote parts, followed in procession; the great bells of the churches tolling at intervals. Arrived at the church-yard gate, the funeral party, according to the rules of that exercise, formed two lines, and leaned their heads on their fire locks pointed to the ground. Through this space the corpse was carried, and borne forward to the grave. The party then drew up along side of it, and fired three vollies over the coffin when deposited in the earth. The whole ceremony presented a solemn, grand, and affecting spectacle; and accorded with the general sorrow and regret for the loss of a man whose like we scarce can see again.