Songs of Robert Burns

Scotland Magazine

Robert Burns,
page 12 of 17

addressed “The Petition of Bruar Water,” an exquisite descriptive piece, the rhythm of which falls on the ear like the murmur of a mountain rill. We shall not follow the wanderings of the poet over the Dee and the Spey to the field where the last hope of the Stuarts found its grave. These scenes are scarcely recalled in his poetry or his future history. He travelled back by Perth and Dunfermline to Edinburgh, which he reached in October. Here he lingered long before bidding a final adieu to the capital, where he had found a new attraction in Clarinda. It is well known that her name was Mrs. M’Lehose, a lady who carried her Platonic friendships beyond the boundary of prudence.

The biographers of Burns have probably invested this peculiar association with undue importance. The episode has an air of unreality, unlike the deeds and words of Burns. The relationship of this lady to the peasant bard seems altogether artificial, the two corresponding under the names of Clarinda and Sylvander, exactly as lovers address each other in the sentimental novels of the last century. It cannot be said that Burns shines in the character of Sylvander. The highflown rhetoric of these erotic epistles is infinitely weak compared with the ardent passion which breathes in a hundred of his songs. The world would have been none the poorer if correspondence and story had found the oblivion which they deserved.

Burns left Edinburgh in the spring of 1788, never to return. His manly form had become familiar on the streets, and long after death had consecrated his fame the citizens recalled his ploughman’s stoop, his pensive brow, and his large dark eyes, bright with inspiration. Had he lived for a few years longer and revisited the capital, he might have shaken hands with the young author of “The Pleasures of Hope,” discussed poetry with Jeffrey, and chanted ballads to Walter Scott on Salisbury Crags. He departed from Edinburgh just as the dawn of a new day was beginning to redden the poetical horizon.

The scene now shifts to Ellisland, a farmhouse overlooking the River Nith, and situated a few miles from Dumfries.* In June, 1788, Burns entered on a lease of the farm, and shortly afterwards Bonnie Jean became his wedded wife. After two years of excitement and change he seemed to have found the long desired haven of rest. But content and comfort fled from his approach, as the water baffled the lips of Tantalus. He enjoyed domestic happiness, Jean Armour proving a truly devoted wife; but the farm, highly rented and indifferently managed, prospered no better than Mossgiel or Lochlea. The capital which he had saved from the sale of his poems began rapidly to disappear, and before a year had elapsed he had reason to entertain the gloomiest forebodings. Through the interest of a friend he was appointed an excise officer with a salary of £50 a year. Despite his seasons of despondency, which now recurred more frequently than ever, the hopes of Burns revived with every change of view. This addition of income promised to place him beyond an

* Shortly after his entrance in Ellisland, he was privileged to witness what may be regarded as the first successful experiment in steam navigation. Mr. Miller of Dalswinton, his landlord, Lad engaged Symington, the young engineer, to fit up an engine on his pleasure boat on Dalswinton Loch. It was 24 feet long, and had been prepared with paddles. The experiment was made on the 14th October, 1788 Along with Mr. Miller and Mr. Symington, there were on board Robert Burns and Alexander Naismyth the portrait painter. They were propelled at the rate of five miles an hour. The “Scots Magazine” said, “This will be of the greatest advantage, not only to this island, but to many other nations of the world.” And yet it so little impressed Burns that he never refers to it. Miller himself left the matter to be taken up by others.


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