The Burns Encyclopedia

Robert Burns,
page 3 of 17

bred, being probably induced by an excess of imagination, which dyes the sunshine of life with celestial hues, but plunges its shadows into deeper gloom. But the opinion which he held indicates that the retrospect of his toilsome boyhood was not accompanied with feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. The poets who have pictured Burns, rejoicing in the independence of his lowly sphere, and radiant with heavenly fancies,

“Following his plough upon the mountain side,”

have created an ideal Burns whom we look for in vain in the various biographies that have described his career. Submitting manfully to his lot, he never regarded it as especially benignant. In the various labours of the farm, however, the desire to excel, and the love of duty, diligently fostered by his father, enabled him to attain acknowledged proficiency. At the age of fourteen, when the children of this generation are completing their education at excellent public schools, Burns was holding the plough.

We know that the poet’s educational acquirements were sound and good, so far as they extended. Even at the present day, when the means of instruction have been multiplied a thousand-fold, Burns, by virtue of these attainments alone, would take rank with men of superior culture. How then, working during winter and summer beyond his strength, did he learn the rudiments of knowledge, the correct English which he spoke at will, the fluent style which he wrote with a ready pen? Had he depended alone on the instruction he received in schools, his splendid genius would have struggled in vain to find expression. For a brief period in his early boyhood, he attended a school at Alloway mill, and at a period much later received lessons for a few weeks in Ayr. For all the rest of his early education he was indebted to his father. During the long nights of winter, William Burns assembled his children round the fire and carried on the work of instruction from evening to evening with a regularity, intelligence and skill which were crowned with more success than any labour of his hands. By the time Burns was ten or eleven years of age he was a critic in English grammar. He soon began to study the few books at his command with a devotion which leads us to regret that his intellect had not been fed from richer sources. He tells us of the delight which he experienced in reading Addison’s “Vision of Mirza,” that wise and eloquent dream which, with Johnson’s “Obadiah the Son of Abensina,” redeems that age of artificial allegories from utter insignificance. He records the rapture with which he repeated from Addison’s beautiful hymn the lines:—

”What tho’ on dreadful whirls we hung
High on the broken wave.“

He also read the poetry of Pope, whose works impressed his memory without touching his heart or imagination. Pope, however, seems to have been his classic author, whom he reverently quoted when occasion arose. Two lines from this author may be found in “The Cottar’s Saturday Night,” like cultured hot-house flowers blooming among the wild violets and wood-anemones. One of these exotics,

”An honest man’s the noblest work of God,“

is believed by thousands to belong to Burns. The line previous to this quotation indicates that the poet had also perused Goldsmith—s “Deserted Village,” and the “Fragment on C. J. Fox” bears a resemblance, which can scarcely be accidental, to the same author’s poem, “Retaliation,” published after his death. In his boyhood, however, he knew nothing of the works of this wayward son of the Muses, whom he partially resembled in character and fate. Among the


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