The Glasgow Guide

Songs of Robert Burns

Robert Burns,
page 5 of 17

ingenuity in discussing the subtle points of Calvinistic belief, which, as preached then, was all too narrow for a poet’s creed. Love, however, entered upon the scene and cut short his mathematical studies, merry-makings, and rambles. From this time the amorous passion, represented sometimes by present raptures, sometimes by sad remembrance, and not unfrequently by transient fancies vivid and beautiful, held perpetual sway over his heart. He left Kirkoswald after a sojourn of three summer months, during which his character and genius had received a bias which they retained through every subsequent change. To his residence here at a time so impressionable, as much as to his warm and comprehensive humanity, we may ascribe that overflowing sympathy with the pariahs whom society and church have cast out, which made the rafters of Poosie Nancy’s ring with the beggar’s jubilee, and carried to Satan himself compassion and a ray of hope.

The father of Burns had now removed to the farm of Lochlea, to which a new interest has been added by the recent discovery of an ancient crannog buried in the bed of the drained loch. The poet, having now completed his youth and education, took service as ploughman with his father, receiving seven pounds as yearly wages. At Lochlea, if anywhere, Burns resembles the attractive picture, familiar in drawing-rooms, of the inspired peasant musing happily at his plough and making plain living and high thinking poetical and splendid. At this period, in whatever social frolics he shared, he preserved his morals uncorrupted and his name unstained. In every relation of life he bore himself well, while his bright parts and winning manners seemed fair auguries of worldly success. At the age of twenty-three, before his imagination had ranged far, or his emotional nature been deeply stirred, his energies have been directed to practical objects of ambition. But the incompatibility of poetical genius with wealth and common happiness is proverbial, and Burns was already a poet.

The early indications of imaginative minds have already been discerned. His love of solitude as much as his delight in company, his melancholy as much as his mirth, his trembling sensibility to external impressions as well as his rich resources of ardent feeling-all these pointed out his destined path, and he followed that path, not so much with deliberate purpose as with an irresistible instinct compared with which resolution is a broken reed. As he approached to manhood the necessity for musical utterance awoke whenever his heart was moved. After the long day’s labour, when the others talked idly by the peat-fire, it was noticed that Burns sat pensive and silent apart. These moods of rapt abstraction overcame him at the end of a ploughed furrow, on the harvest field, among scenes of boisterous and thoughtless mirth. The sight of a mountain daisy, a field mouse, and above all a lovely face, could transport his fancy into worlds unrealised. The result of these stolen moments of brooding thought soon became known. Before he was far advanced in his teens, captivated by the charms of a rustic beauty, he had written the song,

“Oh, once I loved a bonnie lass;
Ay, and I love her still,“

which, if it is not suffused with the glow of his later lyrics, manifests that the youth had the invaluable gift-then one of the most uncommon-of expressing his feelings in a natural manner. We see that Burns made his first effort in a song. He was, indeed, emphatically a singer, and his poems, splendid productions as they are, stand in secondary relation to his great lyrical masterpieces. In his poems he


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