The Life of Robert Burns

Central Glasgow

Robert Burns,
page 7 of 17

resplendent in results, was not a career on which his father would have smiled. The fate of William Burns himself supplies a valuable illustration of the falsehood of the common estimates of success, as well as of the vanity of human wishes. On every worldly project of his life fate inscribed failure, and we only recognise his triumph in the heroic struggles which invariably ended in defeat.

After the death of the old man, the family, finding their affairs at Lochlea ruinously involved, saved what was possible from the hands of the lawyers, and removed to the farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline. Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert became joint tenants, and commenced their lease with sanguine hopes of brighter times. These hopes were destined to be blasted. In vain the poet read books on agriculture, attended markets, made prudent resolutions; his seed refused to grow, and the sun to ripen his harvests, and his virtuous purposes were written in water. The successful cultivation of the soil under such unfortunate circumstances required a single-minded devotion to a disheartening task, and Burns ill brooked the bondage of necessity. In whatever direction he turned the horizon seemed dark. The path to fame was steep and inaccessible, while the road to prosperity lay through tortuous labyrinths in which he was continually bewildered. Love again came to complicate his troubles. Smitten by the lissome grace of Jean Armour — the bonnie Jean of his song — whom he first saw on a Mauchline bleaching-green, he wooed her and won her heart. The maiden’s father, however, refused to recognise her betrothal to Burns, whom he regarded with suspicion on account of his straitened circumstances and erratic character. The details of the story need not be told here; it is sufficient to say that they do cot reflect credit on Burns. At this time he was cornpelled to undergo censure in the parish church — a humiliation which rankled in the heart of the poet to the last. The troubles which gathered thick round the heart and home of the sensitive Burns developed that gloomy despondency which was the shadow of his genius. Some of his poems written at this period are steeped in the waters of bitterness. Reproach as we may, we cannot marvel that the poet, with his excitable and social nature, sometimes took refuge from public scandal and private perplexity in that tempting resource of the wretched-the village tavern. For some time he had been a member of a masonic lodge, the meetings of which partook of a convivial character, and the neighbourhood abounded with congenial spirits, intelligent enough to appreciate his prolific and sparkling talk. But the dissipation in which he occasionally indulged with choice companions was yet remote from the habit of intemperance. He had not yet reached the resistless current above the cataract.

Blighted in love and embarrassed in fortune, Burns determined to seek a home beyond the sea. Obtaining a situation as book-keeper on a slave estate in Jamaica, he only waited the arrival of the ship which was to carry him from Scotland for ever. Wayward and impulsive, as he ever was, he courted a Highland girl who consented to accompany him to the distant shore. The courtship was brief, romantic, and tragical. After that last meeting, over which Burns has thrown the tenderest hues of love and sorrow, she went home to make preparations for her marriage and died in Greenock. To her, years after, he dedicated “Thou lingering star, with lessening ray.” It was not, however, the death of Mary Campbell, whom he fondly remembered, that detained the poet in the land of his birth. Requiring funds to carry out his purpose, he applied to


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