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The Burns Encyclopedia

Robert Burns,
page 15 of 17

Enough has been said to foreshadow the mournful and premature close of the poet‘s life. He felt himself that his physical powers were giving way. The sadness of vanished hopes, the uncertain future of his family, and the ceaseless misery of shattered nerves plunged his spirits into perpetual gloom. In April, 1796, he wrote: “I fear it will be some time before I tune my lyre again. By Babel’s streams I have sat and wept.” His circumstances had long been straitened; now they became embarrassed. A tradesman threatened him with a prosecution, and his proud spirit, which had ever worshipped independence, chafed bitterly under the menace. His wife, patient and affectionate at all times under wrongs which women find it hard to brook, and now more needful to her husband during these last days, was about to give birth to another child. And still as the summer days went on the poet’s malady assumed a more fatal look. The symptoms point to a broken constitution, the result of long rides on the wet moors, of mental anxiety, and of social excess. His digestion was ruined. Rheumatism racked his joints. A sojourn by the side of the Solway was recommended; but the soft sea breezes failed to bring warmth and vigour to his exhausted frame. One evening, following the setting sun with a sad lingering gaze, he murmured in the hearing of a friend, “It will not shine long on me.” On bidding adieu to an acquaintance he demanded, with tragical humour, ”Have you any commands for the other world?” He returned to his home in Dumfries, where fever laid him prostrate. The poor wife lay ill in the adjacent chamber, but Jessie Lewars, for whom he had twined many a graceful wreath, ministered to the dying poet with a tenderness that endears her memory to every human heart. On the 21st July delirium set in, and the wild words of the unconscious Burns have been chronicled and discussed, as if the manifestations of a disordered brain could disclose the secret of his genius or seal his eternal destiny. As the day wore on his mind wandered more and more. The last moment arriving, he started from the bed as if to meet and grapple with the last foe; then fell heavily back and immediately expired. On the following day the citizens, who had looked coldly enough on the poet’s closing days, awoke to the fact that the greatest man in Scotland lay dead in their midst. A public funeral being unanimously decreed, the body was conveyed from the humble dwelling to the Town Hall, where it lay in state. On the 25th he was borne to the grave, followed by the whole community, by the local volunteers, and by a company of cavalry then stationed in the town. The honours then paid to his dust were but the prelude to the grateful tributes which successive generations of his countrymen have rendered to his memory. Men, who are old enough to remember the celebration of his centennial birthday, which arrested the wheels of labour and filled the dim winter day with festivity and song, can estimate how deeply and enduringly the poetry of Burns impressed the heart of Scotland.

A century has elapsed since these poems appeared, and the world has since fully confirmed the verdict of the peasantry of Kyle. Appealing directly to man, divested of the varying accidents of education and rank, the poet touched the quick instinctive sympathies of mankind, which

* What do you think he was about? He was charging the English army, along with Bruce, at Bannockburn. He was engaged in the same manner on our ride home from St. Mary’s Isle and I did not disturb him. Next day he produced me the following address of Bruce to his troops, and gave me a copy for Dalzell—
“Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled.”
“This ode,” says Professor Wilson, “”the grandest out of the Bible, is sublime!”


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