Burns was born in a clay cottage near the town of Ayr. He was instructed in reading and English grammar, by a teacher named Murdoch, from the age of seven to nine. For a long time after this period, all that he learned consisted of a few lessons in arithmetic and writing, received during the winter evenings by the cottage fireside, from his father. At the age of thirteen, he was sent to the parish school, during a part of the summer, to learn penmanship. At the age of fourteen, he studied French a few weeks with his old master, and made a wonderful proficiency in that language. At the age of nineteen, he was instructed for a few months in land surveying, and this, with the mention of his very narrow circle of reading, makes up the whole history of his education.
The songs and superstitions of his native land formed the chief aliment of his genius. He learned a multitude of songs, from hearing them sung by his mother at her busy wheel in the cottage; and an old beldame taught him the tales and wonders of Scottish superstition. He declares that the song book was his Vade Mecum, for he pored over it "even when driving his cart or walking to labour."
"He was the eldest of a family, buffeted by misfortunes, toiling beyond their strength, and living without the support of animal food. At thirteen years of age he used to thresh in his father's barn; and at fifteen was the principal labourer on the farm. After the toils of the day, he usually sunk in the evening into dejection of spirits, and was afflicted with dull headachs, the joint result of anxiety, low diet, and fatigue. 'This kind of life,' he says, 'the cheerless gloom of a hermit and the toil of a galley slave, brought me to my sixteenth year, when love made me a poet.' The object of his first attachment was a Highland girl named Mary Campbell, who was his fellow reaper in the same harvest field. She died very young; and when Burns heard of her death, he was thrown into an ecstacy of suffering, much beyond what even his keen temperament was accustomed to feel."
From the age of seventeen to twenty-four, he lived partly with his father, and partly laboured with his brother for the support of the family, which became entirely dependent upon them after their father's death. All his schemes, from unavoidable causes, proved unfortunate, and in 1786 he determined to cross the Atlantic, and "push his fortune" in Jamaica. The want of money to procure his passage compelled him to publish an edition of his poems, by which he gained about twenty pounds, and which proved the means of detaining him in his native land. He had taken leave of his friends, and written that farewell song so strongly expressive of the gloom and intensity of his melancholy feelings, The Gloomy Night is Gathering Fast, and was just upon the point of embarking, when the contents of a letter from Dr. Blacklock to one of his friends, describing the probable success of his poems in Edinburgh, lighted up his prospects, and induced him to proceed immediately to the Scottish capital.
With the exception of a tour through Scotland in 1787, he remained here two years, "the fashion and the idol" of the city, caressed and distinguished in the highest and most refined society, but especially courted by men of conviviality, to whom his natural eloquence and wit, and his warm social feelings rendered him as a companion peculiarly enchanting. Their admiration of his genius was altogether selfish, which he discovered but too cruelly, when he was at length obliged to return to his plough, with no other appointment than the petty office of a guager, or exciseman, and with habits of convivial excess and a taste for the brilliant and excited life he was quitting, peculiarly unfortunate in his future employments.
From this period, 1789, his existence was harrassed with cares, irregularities, and passions, though illumined at times with the most brilliant gleams of poetry and eloquence. In 1795, he fell into a rapid decline, and died early in the summer.
The character of Burns has been pourtrayed with much enthusiasm of genius in the Edinburgh Review. Its virtues have had many eulogists, its vices too many apologists. Neither our admiration of his genius, nor our sympathy with his sufferings, should ever make us forget that the obligations of religion and morality rested upon him as upon all other men, and that he violated them. The rule of his fortune was not, indeed, in his power; but it was in his power to have kept his own moral character and the moral character of his poetry perfectly unsullied. He could not escape the external misery with which he struggled, but he might have risen superior to it, not in the pride of a false independence, but in the strength of virtuous principle, and the consolations of religious feeling. His passions were undoubtedly strong, yet there was no fatality laid upon his soul, either in the ardour of his temperament or the fire of his genius, to hurry him into vicious excess, or debar him from the common refuge for weak, suffering, and tempted man. Above all, there can he no apology for a single instance of degradation in his poetical genius, for the vices of his poetry were not the consequence of sudden temptation, but the productions of deliberate thought.
These remarks are made not without a heartfelt admiration of what is truly excellent in Burns, both personal and poetical, but because it is so customary to excuse the faults of his conduct, to disguise what is most certainly immoral in the spirit of his poetry, and to praise the generous independence of his feelings. "He is the freeman, whom the truth makes free;" and therefore true independence is a noble quality. Yet if we examine that which existed in his character, by the light of the New Testament, we shall be very likely to find it at least, visionary and defective, as proceeding from a wrong estimate of human life, if not absolutely criminal, as having its foundation, notwithstanding its generous appearance, in a contracted, selfish pride. The law of Christianity recognizes no independence, but that which is combined with humility; none which will render us superior in anything but virtue to our fellow-men, or exempt us from the common necessity of mutual assistance.
The pure poetry of Burns is so full of the eloquence of nature, that it commands a just appreciation of its beauties in every heart. For short, hasty effusions of strong feeling, for characteristic humour, for deep pathos, for the forcible description of natural objects and the power of connecting them with moral interest, for the simple expression of natural sentiment, for condensed energy and sublimity in his patriotic odes, for the faithful delineation of native customs, and for the decided national spirit which the patriotism of his own feelings has communicated to all his poetry, he stands perfectly unrivalled.
It cannot be doubted that the moral tendency of many of his pieces is injurious; while comparatively few are elevated, like his Cotter's Saturday Night, to a degree of moral sublimity sufficient to redeem this defect, if anything could do it. A volume might be selected from his works, (and this service ought long since to have been performed, for the cause of virtue, and the reputation of Burns,) which would include all his best poetry, and yet reject every sentiment and every allusion, which the imagination could not safely pursue with pleasure. At present the gleams of sensuality and of an earthly mind are so mingled with the flashes of his better genius, that the most ardent admirer of his poetry dare not put its volumes into the hands of youth.