Robert Burns

Hidden Glasgow

Robert Burns,
page 4 of 17

favourites of his youth we find the poet Shenstone, to whom he refers in terms of reverence which now provoke a smile. We have drifted so far from the intellectual position of that era that we can no longer feel the fascination of such tuneful sentimentalists. It was fortunate for the world that Burns was content to pay to them a distant and respectful homage, no trace of Corydon and Phyllis being discoverable among the sturdy swains and blooming lasses who form the subjects of his verse. The poems of Allan Ramsay had a deeper and longer influence in directing the bent of his genius; but Burns entered into regions of passion and thought beyond the ken of the self-styled vicegerent of Apollo. The exquisite skill with which Ramsay employed the Scottish dialect for the purpose of humorous description, his felicitous character sketches, his attractive pictures of rural manners, pointed out to Burns a new field in which he completely eclipsed his master. A volume of English songs, which the poet pored over with unwearied interest, assisted in forming that lyric faculty by which he achieved his greatest triumphs. This modest list, in which neither Milton nor Shakespeare nor Spenser is named, comprises all the means of literary culture within the reach of Burns. It was perhaps better, when the voice of nature had been silent so long, that the bard should borrow his music from the brook, his imagery from the fields, and his love and pathos from what he felt and saw.

The story of the youth of Burns closes with his visit to Kirkoswald in his seventeenth year. Having gone there to acquire a knowledge of land-surveying and mathematics in the village school, he learned to more purpose the rudiments of a science of more fascinating interest — the study of mankind. The village is a quiet old hamlet, secluded in a green dell, close to an interesting and beautiful coast. miles away, a rocky promontory — from which a lighthouse now flashes its welcome warning — is crowned with the crumbling remains of Turnberry Castle, the ancestral home, if not the birthplace, of Robert Bruce. In a sandy creek a little to the north, the king made his memorable landing, celebrated by John Barbour in “The Bruce,” and by Scott in “The Lord of the Isles.” On the verdant slope above stood the farmhouse of Shanter, the tenant of which Burns sometimes encountered in his wanderings. To this Thomas Graham of Shanter he gave afterwards an immortality in the national memory hardly second to his own. The parish at that time had a peculiar interest both on natural and supernatural grounds. Smugglers of a reckless type frequented the adjacent coast; while fairies, brownies, and ghosts haunted every inland glen and lonely ruin. According to his letter to Dr. Moore, this was the school in which began his life-long study of mankind and their ways. At the village inn he met farmers of the type of Tam o’ Shanter and seafaring adventurers who laughed at law. Despite the questionable character of his surroundings, his powers unfolded apace. Indulging his literary and social instincts, his wit began to flash with something of that brilliancy which was afterwards to tempt delighted listeners to linger too long by their wine. Here also he learned that fairy lore which his genius transformed into living magic. This parish was the birthplace of his mother, and the churchyard contained the graves of his maternal ancestors, while living kindred watched him with an affection strangely mingled with alarm. Talents so powerful, united to feelings so fervent, might have excited apprehensions in the minds of shrewder observers. Of his abilities there could be no doubt. He not only made rapid progress in his booklearning, but displayed a perverse


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