Lanark a Life In Books

Auld Scottish Sangs

Robert Burns,
page 8 of 17

his landlord, who advised him to publish his poems by subscription. On this hint he immediately acted, and in July, 1786, a volume appeared in Kilmarnock, entitled “Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, by Robert Burns.”

With the exception of his songs, and the incomparable tale of “Tam o’ Shanter,” the first edition, of which a facsimile was recently published by the late Mr. M’Kie of Kilmarnock, contained all the poems on which his great reputation rests. They were nearly all composed after he became tenant of Mossgiel. In little more than two years, Burns had produced enough to enable him to take rank among the great poets of the world. He had, besides, achieved so much under circumstances unparalleled in the annals of poetry. Poets, it is true, in all times have experienced the extremes of misery. Johnson, Goldsmith, and Otway endured penury and hunger to which Burns was a stranger. But these men were trained to think, and lived by thinking; imagination and memory were the spheres in which they daily moved. The Scottish poet belongs to another world. From childhood, until his poetry shone out suddenly a star of the first magnitude, Burns led a life of incessant toil-toil involving so little mental exertion that it is supposed in time to blunt the keenest intelligence. He had thrown off the most brilliant of his poems during three years crowded by cares, indiscretions, and sorrows. No poet ever owed less to his predecessors in the field; for although he borrowed the form of his stanza from Fergusson, he could not possibly have made a more unfortunate choice. Throwing the whole antiquated machinery of fashionable verse far out of his sight, he looked on nature face to face. Admiring Pope, Addison, and Ramsay, he made no effort to seize their artificial graces; far above them or far below them, he followed a path in which the print of no previous footstep marked the ground.

Towards the end of last century originality in department of thought was unknown. The fact that Burns resembled no writer living or dead was itself a relief; but every cavil was silent before the wonderful humour and pathos of the Ayrshire bard. The severest Calvinist — condemn profane poetry as he might — grew indulgent to the author of “The Cottar’s Saturday Night.” Discerning readers observed in the descriptive passages of “The Vision,” glowing as they are with poetical light, an imaginative power second to none which had appeared in Britain for a century. The tenderness and beauty of the addresses to the “Daisy” and “The Mouse” seemed a revelation direct from the heart of nature.

We can scarcely conceive the impression which they made upon the people. “Old and young,” says Heron, “high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at the time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I well remember how even plough-boys and maid-servants would gladly have bestowed the wages they earned the most hardly, and with which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing if they might procure the works of Burns.”

By his first edition Burns cleared twenty pounds, and with this sum he might at once have proceeded on his voyage to the West Indies. But some volumes of his poetry had fallen into the hands of those who discerned that a great original genius was once more vouchsafed to Scotland, and resolved that more should be made of him in his own land. Among these were Professor Dugald Stewart, who had a summer residence at Catrine, and Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop, whose friendship he gained for life by the “Cottar’s Saturday Night.” In this crisis the intelligent clergy were conspicuously


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