Guide to Discovering Your Scottish Ancestors

The Life of Robert Burns

Robert Burns,
page 13 of 17

anxious dependence on the uncertain elements which seemed leagued to starve his cattle and blight his crops. The performance of his duties would enable him to gratify the desire for change and motion which the habits of the last two years had created and confirmed. Like every speculation of his life, these pleasing prospects were doomed to dreary disappointment. The office which he had undertaken demanded an amount of exertion sufficient to exhaust his entire energy. He required to ride sometimes two hundred and fifty miles a week in any kind of weather. Engrossed with keeping his excise books and seldom relieved from the saddle, he was compelled to devote every hour of freedom to the direction of agricultural operations from which he had learned to anticipate the most unsatisfactory results. If in his days of strength and untrammelled attention he had laboured in vain to charm prosperity from the soil, the effort was now hopeless. The “crowded hour of glorious life” through which he had passed had left a void in his heart which could not be filled either with the joys of home, the labours of the field, or the rapt enthusiasm of poetical invention. The morbid craving for excitement, for the feeling of a larger existence, and deliverance from the innumerable petty troubles, which abound in every lot, impelled him to excesses which shattered his health and impaired his happiness. At the age of thirty he began to feel the gradual approach of that mysterious malady which follows in the wake of vivid sensations as surely as darkness follows the departing sun. Long periods of profound depression succeeded to the day‘s exhausting toil and exposure, or to more exhausting nights of transient and unhealthy excitement. His frame became an Æolian harp on which the east wind played the most dismal melodies. He already complained of the emptiness of life, and filled his letters with curious speculations on the state of departed spirits.

So far as Burns’ poetical genius went, there was no decay. The poetry which he produced at Ellisland induces regret that his troubled and laborious life allowed him so little leisure for composition. The rare effusions which he poured out in happy moments there are marked by a richer colouring and a greater elevation of thought than he displayed in his earlier poems. Language and rhyme had become more plastic in his hands, and he used both with the boldness and freedom of an artist who commands and conceals his art. Three productions of these Ellisland days are perhaps more widely known to the Anglo-Saxon race than any three poems in the language. From the fragments of a forgotten ballad he created the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” which vibrates with the pathos of friendship and farewell. The beautiful address to “Mary in Heaven” is no less admired. “Tam o‘ Shanter” was also written at Ellisland, and appeared first in Grose‘s Antiquities. It has generally been considered the loftiest effort of his imagination, although Thomas Carlyle, with a perverse originality which cannot be imitated, gives the palm to “The Jolly Beggars.” Composed in three days, the poem has the high temperature and unity of design which mark the conceptions of an intellect excited to vehement and unconscious action. The spell begins to work at the lonely fireside on the Carrick shore; hangs in trembling suspense over the inn where Tam and Souter Johnnie sit in prolonged carousal; holds us entranced with Tam at the witches’ dance in Alloway kirk, and only releases the enchanted interest when the hero clears triumphantly the “keystane o‘ the brig.”

Let us now follow Burns to the last stage of his troubled journey. Having lost his little capital in Ellisland he


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