Page images

of indigence and sorrow, of drudgery and nezlect, he produced those beautiful idylliums which will ever exist for the delight of the world; and which will never be read without an expansion of the understanding and of the heart.

Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January, 1759, in a cottage near the banks of the Doon, about two miles from Ayr. The chief incidents of his life are related, by himself, in a letter to Dr. Moore. In this document, and in several passages of his correspondence, he unfolds the vicissitudes of his fortune and the peouliarities of his character with great strength and clearaess. Whoever would do justice to his memory, nust copy his sentiments and his language.

“For some months past," says he, “I have seen rambling over the country; but I am now wnfined with some lingering complaints, origilating, as I take it, in the stomach. To divert ny spirits a little in this miserable fog of ennui, have taken a whim to give you a history of ayself. My name has made some little noise in bis country; you have done me the honour to aterest yourself very warmly in my behalf; and think a faithful account of what character of a lan I am, and how I came by that character, lay perhaps amuse you in an idle moment. I rill give you an honest narrative; though I know : will be often at my own expense; for I assure ou, sir, I have, like Solomon, whose character, xcepting in the trilling affair of wisdom, I somemes think I resemble; I have, I say, like him, srned my eyes to behold madness and folly, and, ke him, too, frequently shaken hands with their toxicating friendship. After you have bowled these pages, should you think them


trifing and impertinent, I only beg leave to tell you, that the poor author wrote them under some twitching qualms of conscience, arising from suspicion that he was doing what he ought not to do: a predicament he has more than once been in before.

“ I have not the most distant pretensions to assume that character which the pye-coated guardians of escutcheons call a gentleman. When at Edinburgh, last winter, I got acquainted in the Herald's Office, and, looking through that granary of honours, I there found almost every name in the kingdom; but for me,

My ancient but ignoble blood Has crept through scoundrels ever since the flood. Gules, Purpure, Argent, &c. quite disowned

“My father was of the north of Scotland, the son of a farmer, who rented lands of the noble Keiths of Marischal, and had the honour of sharing their fate. I do not use the word honour with any reference to political principles: loyal and disloyal, I take to be merely relative terms, in that ancient and formidable court, known in this country by the name of Club law, where the right is always with the strongest.-But those who dare welcome ruin, and shake lands with infamy, for what they sincerely believe to be the cause of their God, or their king, are, as Mark Antony says in Shakspeare of Brutus and Cassius, honourable men. I mention this circumstance, because it threw my father on the world at large.

“After many years' wanderings and sojourn. ings, he picked up a pretty large quantity of observation and experience, to which I am

indebted for most of my little pretensions to wisdom. I have met with few who understood men, their manners, and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn, ungainly integrity, and headlong, ungovernable irascibility, are disqualifying circumstances; consequently, I was born a very poor man's son. For the first six or seven years of my life, my father was gardener to a worthy gentleman of small estate, in the neighbourhood of Ayr. Had he continued in that station, I must have marched off to be one of the little underlings about a farm house: but it was his dearest wish and prayer to have it in his power to keep his children under his own eye till they could discern between good and evil; so, with the assistance of his generous master, my father ventured on a small farm on his estate. At those years I was by no means a favourite with any body. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say idiot piety, because I was then but a child. Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles. In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country, of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of

poetry; but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more skeptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors. The earliest composition that I recollect taking pleasure in, was the Vision of Mirza, and a hymn of Addison's, beginning, How are thy servants blest, O Lord!' I particularly remember one half stanza, which was music to my boyish ear

For though on dreadful whirls we hung

High on the broken wave. I met with these pieces in Mason's English Col- a lection, one of my school books. The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were the Life of Hannibal, and the His. tory of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn, that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting dirum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins, which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.

“ Polemical divinity about this time was put. ting the country half mad; and I, ambitious of shining in conversation parties on Sundays, be. tween sermons, at funerals, &c. used, a few years afterwards, to puzzle Calvinism with so much heat and indiscretion, that I raised a hue and cry of heresy against me, which has not ceased to this hour.

“My vicinity to Ayr was of some advantage


to me. My social disposition, when not checked by some modifications of spirited pride, was, like our catechism-definition of infinitude, 'without bounds or limits.' I formed several connexions with other younkers who possessed superior advantages, the youngling actors, who were busy in the rehearsal of parts in which they were shortly to appear on the stage of life, where, alas ! I was destined to drudge behind the

It is not commonly at this green age that our gentry have a just sense of the immense distance between them and their ragged playfellows. It takes a few dashes into the world, to give the young great man that proper, decent, unnoticing disregard for the poor, insignificant, stupid devils, the mechanics and peasantry around him, who were perhaps born in the same village. My young superiors never insulted the clouterly appearance of my ploughboy carcass, the two extremes of which were often exposed to all the inclemencies of all the seasons. They would give me stray volumes of books; among them, even then, I could pick up some observations; and one, whose heart I am sure not even the Munny Begum scenes have tainted, helped me to a little French. Parting with these my young friends and benefactors, as they occasionally went off for the East or West Indies, was often to me a sore affliction; but I was soon called to more serious evils. My father's generous master died; the farm proved a ruinous bargain; and, to clench the misfortune, we fell into the hands of a factor, who sat for the picture I have drawn of one in my tale of Twa Dogs. My father was advanced in life, when he married; I was the eldest of seven children; and he, worn

« PreviousContinue »