Page images



directed and impelled by his voice and eye. His numerous ministers of justice were posted behind the line, to urge, to restrain, to punish; and if danger was in the front, shame and inevitable death were in the rear, of the fugitives. The cries of fear and of pain were drowned in the martial music of drums, trumpets, and attaballs; and experience has proved, that the mechanical operation of sounds, by quickening the circulation of the blood and spirits, will act on the human machine more forcibly than the eloquence of reason and honour. From the lines, the galleys, and the bridge, the Ottoman artillery thundered on all sides; and the camp and city, the Greeks and the Turks, were involved in a cloud of smoke, which could only be dispelled by the final deliverance or destruction of the Roman Empire.

[blocks in formation]

ROBERT BURNS was an Ayrshire ploughman. But beneath the "hodden grey" of the peasant's dress there shone poetic fire as pure and bright as the world has ever seen. The faults of the man are forgotten, or at least forgiven, for the sake of a surpassing music, which, sounding first from the smoky interior of a clay-built cabin, has spread its sweetness into every home, not in Britain only, but wherever the English tongue is heard. Yet other and sterner scenes than the domestic circle are even more deeply blessed by this enchanting influence. Soldiers on the dusty march or round the red logs of the bivouac fire-sailors in the long dark nights at sea amid washing waves and creaking cordage trappers and woodmen in the ancient forests of the New World-miners crushing quartz in the golden bed of the Sacramento or the Fraser-shepherds galloping from huge flock to flock over the boundless pastures of Australia-have all had their loneliness cheered, their rugged natures softened, and the crust, which gathers on the human heart through years of sin and hardship, melted into tender tears, by the gentle or spirit-stirring magic of Robert Burns's songs. No lyrist goes home to the heart so straight as he.

Thirty-seven years of sorrow and struggle, chequered with one or two brief flickering gleams of apparent prosperity, made up the poet's span of life. He was born on the 25th of January 1759, in a mud cabin not far from the Bridge of Doon, in the Ayrshire

[blocks in formation]



parish of Alloway. His father, a gardener, who had struggled into a humble business as a nurseryman on his own account, built with his own hands the clay walls within which Robert first saw the light. Going to school at six years of age, the boy battled his way stoutly through the mysteries of English reading, pot-hooks and hangers, the multiplication table, and other sorrows of the young, until at eleven years of age he had acquired a very fair degree of elementary education. It was all his good father could give him; and when it became necessary to employ the young hands in the labour of a farm, Mount Oliphant, to which the family removed in 1767, some occasional evening studies rubbed away the rust that will come, and added a little to the scanty stock of knowledge already gained. "A fortnight's French," which the simple rustic was fond of parading in his letters, and a summer quarter at landsurveying, completed all the instruction the poet ever got, beyond what he was able to pick up from a few books that lay on his humble shelf. The Spectator, Alexander Pope, and Allan Ramsay were there; and by-and-by Thomson, Shenstone, Sterne, and Mackenzie joined the little company of silent friends.

But out on the fields of Mossgiel, amid the birds and wildflowers of à Lowland farm, he learned his finest lessons, and conned them with all his earnest heart, as he held the handles of the plough. A little heap of leaves and stubble, torn to pieces by the ruthless ploughshare, one cold November day, exposes to the frosty wind a poor wee field-mouse, that starts frightened from the ruin. The tender heart of the poet-ploughman swells and bubbles into song. And again, when April is weeping on the field, the crushing of a crimson-tipped daisy beneath the up-turned furrow, draws from the same gentle heart a sweet, compassionate lament, and exquisite comparisons. Poems like those to the Mouse and the Daisy, are true wild-flowers, touched with a fairy grace, and breathing a delicate fragrance, such as the blossoms of no cultured garden can ever boast.

But the ploughing that led to the production of these poems was profitless in other respects. In vain Robert and his brother Gilbert toiled like galley-slaves." In vain their mother looked after the




dairy and the eggs. Things became so bad on the farm that the poet resolved to sail for Jamaica, in the hope of obtaining a stewardship on some sugar-plantation. Desirous both to raise the needful funds and to leave behind some lasting memorial of himself, which might prevent his name from being utterly forgotten in the land of his birth, he had six hundred copies of his poems printed at Kilmarnock, and scattered among the 1786 shops of a few booksellers. The little volume went off rapidly; and nearly twenty guineas chinked in the poet's purse, after paying all expenses of the edition. His passage was taken in the first ship that was to sail from the Clyde; his chest was on the way to Greenock; a farewell to the bonnie banks of Ayr was breathed in his touching song, The gloomy night is gathering fast; when a letter changed the current of his life, and kept the poet in his native land. It was to a friend of Burns from Dr. Blacklock of Edinburgh, himself a poet, giving such praise as the modest rustic had not dared to hope for.

True to his impulsive soul, he turned his back at once on the Clyde, and in November 1786 arrived in Edinburgh with very few shillings, and not a letter of recommendation to win a friend. But his book, which was there before him, unlocked the doors of the first Edinburgh mansions to the peasant who had so sweet a note. Burns became the rage. Earls, grave historians, popular novelists, moral philosophers, listened with applause to his fresh and brilliant talk; asked select friends to meet him at dinner; subscribed for the second edition of his poems, by which he cleared nearly £500; and then, when the gloss had worn off their plaything, and some fresh novelty had sprung up among them, this man, of whom his country is now so proud, in whose honour, a few years ago, every Scottish bell pealed joyously all day long, and every Scottish heart grew kinder all the world over, was looked coldly on, neglected, and forgotten :-but not until the poison of a capricious flattery had sown deadly seeds in the poet's soul.

The rest of his life-story, except for the immortal works his later years produced, is a tale of deep sadness, and had best be briefly told. Having taken the farm of Ellisland, about a hun



dred acres on the Nith not far from Dumfries, he married Jean Armour, to whom he had long been attached, and settled down to a country life once more. This phase of his career opened in June 1788. Some time afterwards, by the interest of a friend, he obtained the office of exciseman for the district in which he lived. The sum he derived from this employment-never above £70 a year-but ill repaid him for the time its duties cost, and the dangers of that unsettled, convivial life, to which his excitable nature was thus exposed. After struggling for more than three years with the stubborn soil of Ellisland, and vainly trying to raise good crops while he looked after the whisky stills, he gave up the farm, and in 1791 went to live at Dumfries, upon his slender income as a gauger.


A third edition of his poems, enriched with the inimitable Tam 'Shanter, which he had written at Ellisland, came out two years later. But there were then not many sands of his life-glass to Sickness, debt, "the proud man's contumely," and the fell gripe or bitter dregs of those dissipated habits to which his ardent, passionate nature was but too prone, cast heavy clouds upon the closing scene of his short, pathetic life. He died at Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796.

It is chiefly for his Songs that the memory of Robert Burns is so dear to his countrymen. But the lines already noticed To a Daisy and a Mouse; the beautiful domestic picture of The Cottar's Saturday Night; the noble Elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson; the mad, low-life revelry of The Jolly Beggars; and, above all, the serio-comic tale of Tam o' Shanter, with its marketday carouse, its ride through the stormy midnight, its horrible witch-dance within the old Kirk of Alloway, and its thrilling escape of the rash farmer and his old grey mare;—these are works which fully display the versatile genius of Robert Burns, and raise him to the highest rank among our British bards. Most of his poems were written in Lowland Scotch; but in a mood more than commonly pathetic, he rises to au English style, so refined and beautiful, that we almost wonder where a Scottish peasant could have learned the pure and lofty strain.

« PreviousContinue »